Top Albums 2015 Advent Calendar: Day 7
Floating Points - Elaenia
Sam Shepard has been releasing music as Floating Points for a long time now, and has been established as a reliable source for gracefully banging dancefloor fillers since his first singles back in 2009. He has become a headline name in the DJ circuit and released multiple singles and EPs every year since that have embraced his love of dance music while also looking further afield to include inflections of jazz or soul. This was all building up to his long-awaited first official album, which finally dropped in November.
Elaenia is a big statement from the still very young producer. Most of his tracks over the years have been pushing the 10 minute mark, ensuring that Shepard worked out every idea to its fullest before putting the song to rest. It's no surprise then that his first album, although divided into seven tracks, unfolds as one large tapestry-like grand-yet-delicate proclamation. The album certainly steps away from the higher BPMs that we've mostly known him for on his albums, and in fact only 3 of the album's tracks feature any drums. Instead Shepard generally prefers the gentle percolation of his synthesizers to guide the songs through their cosmic journeys. It hews more towards celestial, swooping jazz-inflected synthesizer compositions that glide rather than thump.
The list of synthesizers Shepard used to record on this album is mind boggling and will make any audio junky wince in jealousy - though they would unlikely want to hear them in any more capable hands than these. The songs featuring just Shepard and his machines can go from the absolute just-before-daybreak quietness ("Elaenia") to sunrise-heralding warmth building glory ("Argenté") - but it's those where he's accompanied that really take this album up a notch.
On tracks like the lofty and ceremonious "Silhouettes (I, II, III)" Shepard is joined by 7 other musicians, adding bass, cello, violins, percussion and vocals to the mix. Amongst all these sounds and melodies intertwining as the songs build up to their richly drawn out climaxes, you can imagine Shepard in the middle, behind his synths like a mad captain on the bridge of a rogue spaceship, fully in control of the ever-unravelling situation. Then, at the end, on closing track "Peroration Six" he takes his crew on the most thrilling adventure yet, with twanging guitars wormhole-describing keys and a rich black fug of bass. It all builds up to a resounding conclusion, tangling itself alarmingly to an unwieldy haze of noise that cuts off dramatically into silence. Have Captain Shepard and his crew crash landed? Let's hope not, because we need more music like this in the future.
Have I bought this album?: Yes, and I'm glad I did just to see the mad list of synths. Also to learn about how they came up with the cover art by connecting the synths to fibre optic filaments and three pendulums and played the songs and saw what came out - pretty cool!
Jim O'Rourke - Simple Songs
Jim O'Rourke releases a lot of music, but most of it is in collaboration with other experimental artists and features free-form improvisational compositions. However, this is not all that O'Rourke does, as he proved on his last solo album The Visitor, a single 38-minute instrumental track. Before that even, way back in the 90s and early 2000s he also used to dabble in the singer-songwriter thing too, and on this year's Simple Songs he made a timely return to that school.
As if commenting on this absence of his singing in recent decades, he starts the album with the wonderfully nonchalant line "Nice to see you once again, it's been a long time my friends... since you crossed my mind at all." This slightly cheeky, highly entertaining character is one that O'Rourke maintains throughout the record. Of course, as with his previous releases, sex is a big theme, but this time he seems to be coming at it from a much more confident position. This does not necessarily mean that it's more mature, though. On "End Of The Road" he's literally begging "just one more time before you go," which might at first glance come across unappealing, but is hard to resist when heard while backed by shimmering walls of swelling strings. Then again, on the jovial piano-stroll "All Your Love," his liberation from a former lover has made him happier than ever, and he's taking the opportunity to rub it in her face: "please don't cry, I might enjoy that."
Of course, as an experienced musician in many scenes and styles, O'Rourke does not skimp on instrumentation and original ideas in the songs - they may take a fairly straightforward verse and chorus structure sometimes, but they are far from simple as the album's title suggests. The songs usually start with, and remained centred around, O'Rourke's voice and guitar, but most of the songs then expand and embellish over their 4, 5 or 6 minute run times. Sometimes that's as simple as the gleaming pedal steel and spiritual voices that emphasise the gravity on "These Hands." Then again he might take on full-on band leader mode, as on "Last Year" where his cascading electric guitar drives his band, while flanked by tuba and french horn. This adds a splendid pomposity to a song about the struggles with the creative process, as told through the medium of a dead artist's body left in a forest to the bemusement of passersby.
The cover art and title for this album are a kind of perfect little show of arrogance from O'Rourke. He may have titled them Simple Songs, because they may be that to him, but they are simple neither in structure or substance. Maybe he knows that we the listener will always be one step behind him, looking at the back of his head, wondering what exactly is going on in there. On Simple Songs we get a little glimpse, and we're given plenty to chew upon.
Have I bought this album?: Absolutely, the instrumentation is too lavish not to be heard on wax.