We’ve got a little bit of everything this month. “What I’ve Been Digging” features an African virtuoso musician living in Los Angeles, as well as a New York-based composer translating western instrumental music into African theoretical dialects. There’s some conceptual ambient music, sultry soft songwriting and some solid soulful surfing, courtesy of the hottest band in Russia right now. Read on for some of my favorite music released in the last month…
James Murray — “Settle”
(from The Sea in the Sky)
James Murray’s recently released album, The Sea in the Sky is a concept-driven ambient treasure. Although this piece does feature long, droning electronic passages, calling it ambient is in fact a misnomer, since rather than acting as an “ambient backdrop,” Murray’s work prompts a fully immersive listening experience. Here, we are subjected to a picturesque rendering of the landscape of sky as a bustling environment, saturated with electric current, colliding jet streams, bursting cloud structures, and vast densities of moisture. The entire album is currently streaming via VoxxoV Records here, I urge you to stream the whole thing, or buy it like an old-school consumer. I was surprised to find out this is Murray’s seventh album, since I’d only heard of his excellent release Loss a few years back. But that’s England for you, I guess, they never export their best and brightest until we Yankees finally start picking at them!
Soul Surfers — “Straight Up (featuring Smoove and Turrell)”
(from Soul Rock!)
It’s not easy to search for this band, considering it’s also the title of the dramatic film reenactment of professional surfer Bethany Hamilton’s inspiring career after losing an arm in a shark attack. But here we are, The Soul Surfers from Nizhniy Novgorod, Russia, make high energy raw funk and soul in the most retro of flavors. Vintage organs, instruments, and amps help to define their sound, but these guys just have that groovy style oozing off their matching suits. Their debut album is out now on Ubiquity Records, the one stop shop for all things funky in the universe. That’s no surprise. The surprising thing is how the Soul Surfers have been able to amass such a dedicated following of international record-hunters with their limited output, exclusively on 7” 45s until now.
SK Kakraba — “Guun”
(from Songs of Paapieye)
SK Kakraba is from Ghana but lives in Los Angeles. He is a master of the gyil (possible contender for next “What the Heck is a… ?”) — a Ghanian xylophone made of 14 wooden slats strung together across hollowed gourds for resonance. Factoid: that distorted rattling sound comes from the silk of spiders’ egg sacs lining the walls inside the instruments’ gourds, which are called paapieye in the Lobi language. SK lives and breathes the gyil — building, repairing, and selling them, alongside his lifelong practice of the instrument. This album, which has been released by the excellent blog-cum-label Awesome Tapes from Africa, is a collection of SK’s favorite musical passages for solo gyil, some traditional songs, tribal melodies mixed with improvisation and funeral dirges. “Guun” is the last song played at a funeral and serves the function of getting everyone to the dance floor and into a dancing mood, prepping for the ensuing party. Watch him shred in a Steve Reich-ian kinda way, in this video.
Martin Scherzinger — “ Hallucinating Accordion 1”
(from African Math)
Now that we’re on the topic of African music (a topic I can’t seem to ever get off), we can talk about South African composer, Martin Scherzinger’s brilliant new song cycle, African Math (out on New Focus Recordings). Scherzinger teaches at NYU with a research interest in creatively examining and probing the socioeconomic, political, and cultural narratives traversing ethnomusicology. The music on African Math posits that the exchange between western and eastern musics in the past has largely fallen into two categories: western instruments and theory being taught to African musicians, and eastern instruments being “let in” to western orchestras and ensembles in order to orientalize and ethnically flavor the composition.
But what has been left out is the practice of adapting western instruments (in this case, the piano, violin, and cello) to the mathematics and syntax, the rhythmic and tonal patterns, and the performative, dancing practices of African traditional musics. Scherzinger explains it nicely, “piano, violin, and cello are made to imitate the tactile patterns found on a bow from the Kalahari, or the sticking on a Ugandan xylophone, the fractal harmonies of a Shona mbira, and so on.” All that aside, it’s a spellbinding listen. You’ve never heard anything like this.
Chantal Acda — “The Sparkle in Our Flaws”
(from The Sparkle in Our Flaws)
Dutch-born, Belgium-based Chantal Acda came onto everyone’s radar with one of the most precious albums of 2013, Let Your Hands Be My Guide, which featured an incredible cast of musicians including Nils Frahm, Peter Broderick (Efterklang), Gyda Valtysdottir (Múm), and Shahzad Ismaily. It’s hard not to listen to her track “Arms up High” from that album and not start tearing up a bit. Her follow-up album, The Sparkle in Our Flaws is out now via Glitterhouse Records and it’s immediately clear that over the last two years, nothing has been lost in her musical vision. Her songwriting has taken me on journeys where I’ve felt like I was at times flying, at times falling through mid-air, and at times suspended in that very air. The lift at the end of this uplifting song just sweeps you back out into the sky for another dance with the wind.
Did we miss your favorite recent release? Share it in the comments below, and then check out the full “What I’ve Been Digging Lately” series!