It’s tempting to say that any combo of musicians who first played together 40 years ago has been around for a long time, but it’s probably more accurate to say that Bailterspace operates outside of time. Pauses, sabbaticals and episodes during which band members live 9,000 miles apart are not problems—they’re just the way things are for New Zealanders Alister Parker, John Halvorson and Brent McLachlan.
The trio, which first convened in 1980 as the notoriously loud and sui generis Gordons and adopted this name some years later, has played a few gigs over the last decade in the Land Of The Long White Cloud, but Concret is Bailterspace’s first album in seven years. Its only concession to the times is the mode of delivery; while there’s no telling what the future may bring, right now you can only get it from the trio’s Bandcamp page. Musically, it’s a distillation of things they’ve been doing since the 1990s, when their hot streak of records on Matador rewrote and substantially improved upon the shoegaze playbook.
But Concret makes perfect sense in 2020. Parker’s expertly manipulated guitar tones practically mandate social distancing, lest they turn your mortal frame to jelly, and Halvorson’s heaving bass feels like a natural disaster in progress. But since these sounds get poured into melodic frameworks that are pushed along by McLachlan’s crisp drumming, you’re as likely to hum Concret’s songs as you are to use them as a self-protective force field. Either way, they’ll do the trick.
If you want your art to change the world, you have to think big. Sun Ra proposed extra-terrestrial solutions to the planet’s problems, and he warned the members of his Arkestra to not think of themselves simply as musicians; they were tone scientists. German drummer Christian Lillinger has similarly outsized ambitions. He conceived his Open Forms For Society project as not just a way to keep the sound of jazz moving forward, but to model for society at large a way of working that brings together the top thinkers from disparate disciplines, mix their ideas together and use critical thinking and high-end technical means to synthesize his concepts and their skills into work that resolves contemporary challenges.
The first manifestation of OFFS was an extraordinary, self-titled studio recording from last year. But at the end of the day, this collection of classical, improvising and electronic musicians is still a jazz band, so you have to bring it to the stage. Live shows what happens when you take a program of music that workshopped, recorded and reconfigured in post-production, and give it back to the musicians. The OFFS’s essential sound—an orchestral combination of acoustic and electronic pieces laid over a rhythmic approach that reconciles swinging, broken and looped-in-real-time grooves—is unchanged. But the tension that comes from having to keep this process going for nearly an hour gives the performances an undeniable charge.
The ensemble’s unusual configuration—three string players, three percussionists and five piano and/or synthesizer players—is designed to facilitate the layering of similar tones and complementary patterns. Lillinger’s musicians have a job similar to Ra’s; they must not only play their parts, but also understand how their contributions influence the outcome of a dynamic, collective endeavor. This music resolves its challenges so effectively that by Live‘s end, it sounds like its players really could teach the people appointed with solving climactic, geo-political or epidemiological concerns a thing of two.
No one planned for a year like this. Even the survivalists muffed it; they might’ve stocked up on guns and canned goods, but they forgot to learn how to cut their own hair. Faced with unforeseeable circumstances, Yo La Tengo decided to embrace the zeitgeist. During a season in which it was impossible to play any concerts, the trio convened in its practice studio in late April and commenced jamming. Ordinarily, such activities stay behind closed doors, where Ira, Georgia and James can sift through their extended explorations of hypnotic rhythm, contemplative texture or entropic racket, and find bits they can turn into songs. But since 2020 isn’t an ordinary time, they took the good bits and put them up for sale on Bandcamp, one a day, during the third week of July.
At the end of that week, they announced that the tracks comprise an album, which vinyl devotees will be able to buy this fall. Collectively, the handful of songs confirm something that you might’ve suspected about Yo La Tengo’s music all along: Every good song is built upon a foundation of great, mood-establishing sounds. We Have Amnesia Sometimes isn’t entirely unprecedented, since the band has been contributing instrumentals to film soundtracks for years. But while the music on 2002’s The Sounds Of The Sounds Of Science and 2008’s They Shoot, We Score was cut to fit the onscreen action, each of the five tracks on We Have Amnesia Sometimes conforms to an inner logic that dictates its shape and duration.
Stirrup has always had a thing for addition. The instrumental trio—bassist Nick Macri, drummer Charles Rumback and cello/electronics/tenor-guitar player Fred Lonberg-Holm—got its start backing up singers James Elkington and Janet Beveridge Bean, and has often welcomed other musicians to sit in for a set or two. But the math gets more complicated on The Avondale Addition.
Not only did Stirrup’s size triple by adding six Midwestern improvisers, but the band created a whole new way of working. Stirrup is a compositional collective, and all three members contributed tunes to this live recording. But Lonberg-Holm is also an inveterate improviser who not only plays in free-music ensembles, but sometimes conducts them using a devise called the lightbox. Facing the musicians, he’ll use the box’s row of bulbs and some handheld signs to shape the otherwise spontaneously generated music.
On The Avondale Addition, he used the lightbox to cue soloists and mold arrangements on the fly. Growling brass and fuzztone guitar add grit to the widescreen drama of “Rodney’s Last Ride,” and a sequence of horn and string solos transform “Salt Lines” from a light-stepping waltz into a soulful reverie. The resulting performance adds sonic colors and stylistic variations to Stirrup’s already appealing melodies. More, in this case, means more.
Dan Melchior has been a resident of the United States for 22 years. But before that, he was part of a particular posse of Englishmen: the Medway crew that congregated around Billy Childish. While there’s no mistaking one for the other, Melchior and Childish share a ferocious work ethic. Melchior is always making another record, painting or collage, and if you track him down on the internet, he’d be happy to sell you one direct. His recent musical efforts have encompassed color-bled blues, Radiophonic Workshop electronics and dust-on-the-needle glam rock, but on Embankment To The End Of The Line, he plays a dozen songs all by himself.
It’s tempting to call the album a back-to-basics endeavor, but that’s only half right, because Melchior has never made one quite like this before. So let’s just call it basic. The accompaniment is rudimentary but sufficient. “I’m Never Bored” is a stack of ultra-simple synth, bass and drum-machine licks, and a sequence of tracks on the flip side feature solo acoustic guitar, solo piano or a combination of acoustic guitar and piano. These songs waste no time getting to the point. The title of “I Am The Ghost On Home Depots Roof” doubles as a structural template, as Melchior goes on to claim identification with a series of animals over the distorted grind of an organ; “Who Will They Get To Play Me” doubles as thesis and chorus of a low-down, film-adaptation blues. But in rock ‘n’ roll, a good idea and a grime-encrusted hook are all it takes, right? Right.