There was this charming quality to a lot of ambient music in the ’90s — optimistic and melodic, far off from today’s dominating dark drones. It was a different era, and perhaps the sound reflected a rosy view of what awaited in the new millennium. But what we find in the 2010s are the hushed rushes of disconcerting noise and queasy clashing of synth lines, an ambiance of tension and uncertainty befitting our times. It makes sense — the world is an increasingly scary and debilitating place, and sometimes our music sounds like it. But optimism is resistance — it really is — and that’s what makes Jogging House’s latest album Lure so welcome, special, and quietly radical.
Jogging House — whose name is apparently a letter added to ‘jogging hose,’ AKA sweat pants — states the album is “about accepting the things we cannot change and finding comfort in uncertainty.” This philosophy is the pragmatism of the stoic, and it’s also not being paralyzed with helplessness when the world is out of control. Staying in motion and hopeful as an artist and creator rather than blocked and immobile in the face of hourly ‘breaking news’ and topical turmoil. That’s resistance.
I want to connect Jogging House to Brian Eno, but not to compare him to another composer working in the ‘ambient’ realm. Instead, I think Lure‘s songs closely reflect something Eno said in an interview: “One of the reasons one makes music or any kind of art is to create the world that you’d like to be in or the world that you would like to try. You would like to find out what that world is like.” That’s how I feel when I listen to “Tulip,” Lure‘s opening track. It’s transportive — light and playful, melodies as aspiration and reassurance that’s calm and kind. And it’s gorgeous, on the verge of sadness but not quite getting there. This is a world I’d like to try.
The album’s eight tracks share this gentle atmosphere, evoking a separate era. It’s the optimism of the past looking forward, like the mentioned-above ’90s electronic acts but also not too far from those pioneering the form in the ’70s. I’ll give in and sonically connect Eno anyway, as the beautiful “Weavings” wouldn’t be out of place on a Cluster album.
But I emphasize this isn’t merely a throwback — it’s music fit for our times. These sounds are an encouragement to persevere rather than wallow; to foster hope and the imagination of something better for us all. You may ask, how can something so serene inspire action? It can, I respond. It really can.
There’s an effort to make the entire Sun Ra catalog available online, and that’s no easy task. The inimitable jazz artist’s catalog is vast and perplexing, and previously unknown recordings are unearthed on a regular basis. Admittedly some of his work is impenetrable to the uninitiated, creating an impression that Sun Ra is a cacophonous weirdo. That would be a misunderstanding. Irwin Chusid, who is managing the reissue series via Sun Ra LLC, had this to say in an interview with Bandcamp Daily:
He is an institution. He is a cosmic force. He is a genius. He’s one of the great neglected composer-musicians of the 20th century. There’s no question what this man created is singular. There’s no one like Sun Ra. […]
I think 75 percent of Sun Ra’s sprawling catalogue is accessible … Is it slick? No. Is it smooth? No. Is it mainstream? No. But it’s fun. It’s musical. It’s engaging. It’s adventurous. It’s diverse. And a lot of it is jazz.
Diving into the catalog is daunting but rewarding, and it’s not difficult to find starting points. That Bandcamp Daily article suggests many good intro albums. This piece in Vulture has some excellent recommendations, too.
I’ve been going down the Sun Ra rabbit-hole, exploring the extensive catalog available on Bandcamp, and ran across the compilation Sun Ra Exotica. I do love the strange ‘50s genre of ‘exotica,’ exemplified by the likes of Martin Denny, Les Baxter, and Arthur Lyman. The style, in a way, is a precursor to what Jon Hassell coined ‘fourth world music:’ a blending of different traditional styles with Western music to create a previously unimagined sound.
I had never thought of Sun Ra in the context of ‘exotica,’ but it makes sense. He was, after all, an exotic dude. And his oeuvre is so expansive that contextualizing groupings of his compositions under a theme, like ‘exotica,’ reveals something new about Sun Ra’s work.
From the release notes to Sun Ra Exotica:
Was Exotica kitsch? Did it represent “cultural appropriation”? Was it a dilution of indigenous art? Who cares? Music should be enjoyed on its own terms. … Exotica has roots, but those roots are uncopyable. What emerges is something derivative, yet original. Here you have Sun Ra, of African-American extraction, influenced by Les Baxter, a Caucasian from Texas, who was in turn influenced by primitive jungle rites. It’s a cultural feedback loop, best enjoyed by leaving politics out of it.
Sun Ra Exotica is a terrific starting point for those unfamiliar with Sun Ra’s spaceways. It’s also a pleasure for this longtime fan, the 25 tracks fitting together effortlessly in Ra’s cosmic sonic puzzle. It’s the soundtrack for my weekend.
- Readying Monta At Odds‘ Unsuspecting album for release on January 18 on my 8D Industries label. This is a reissue of the Kansas City combo’s first album from 2005, and I’m planning for it to be the first in a reissue series for this prolific band.
- I’m also expanding my consultancy, a big plan for 2019. I just sent a proposal to one prospective client and will be checking on a couple of others next week. There will be a website for my music publishing consultancy, which I’ll be working on in earnest once January 18 passes. I’m also debating another site focusing on my DIY label management consultancy.
- The daily blog practice has been amazing. I’m so happy I relaunched this. So far, I only missed a few days around Christmas and NYE. But I must remind myself it’s not a competition — there’s no pressure.
- After spending a week in the sticks (that is, a remote wooded location), I’m back home in time for some beautiful Florida weather. We’ve paddle-boarded two days in a row and it’s possible we’ll make it three. That might be it for a while as the weather looks to go downhill starting tomorrow.
- Movie: last night we watched Leave No Trace and loved it.
- Music: listening to Ultramarine’s terrific new album, and today’s been a Sun Ra day with the albums Crystal Spears and Sun Ra Exotica (the latter a great starting place for any Sun Ra neophytes).
- Reading: How To Make It Big as a Consultant. At times an amusing read as it’s a little outdated but there’s plenty of useful advice within.
2018 has bolted away like a space probe blazing past Ultima Thule. Cue mass introspection. Sure, dates and years are universally accepted ‘imagined realities’ and, yes, it’s just as fruitful to reevaluate and assess in May as it is on January 1. 1/1/19 ain’t nothing but a number. But, even if we resist, this time of year is still when we think the deepest about our next steps. I believe the general lull of the last two weeks of December is partly to blame: we end up with a lot of time on our hands — time to think for extended periods free of most work distractions — and we’re spending a lot of it in close contact with our families. Reflection and contemplation come naturally.
I’m not any different. My week in the sticks afforded ample time to go over my strategies moving forward, where my goals lie, how I’ve veered off track in 2018, and what else I can do to increase joy in my life. Some of these thoughts are deep — I don’t feel I have a firm grasp on my goals and what they mean to me — and some are tactical. In the latter category, I’ve done another (!) redesign of my daily work routine, a bunch of Omnifocus tweaks (new perspectives and constraints, oh my), and am going to experiment with more incorporation of a calendar in the workflow. I need the discipline that scheduling and time blocking encourages, and I aim to exercise this discipline as if building a skill.
My friend (and fellow altMBA’er) Dean Caravelis has a plan. He publicly listed his 2019 goals for all to see. Dean’s also printing these out and putting the list in a place where he’ll encounter it each day first thing in the morning. I like this.
I’m still thinking about my own goals, but I do know that I’d like to write every single day (and post the result on this blog, but no pressure); I’d like to get at least six new 8D Industries releases in listeners’ hands within a year; I want to read at least two books a month; and I plan on regularly writing and recording new music once again. I know there’s about five more I can come up with and I’m giving this some thought. As I said, it’s that introspective time of year.
Dean has also listed his ‘word of 2019:’ Intentional. The first thing that comes to mind for my 2019 word is ’transitional.’ That might be a cop-out as every year I feel like I’m in transition. But, for some reason, 2019 feels more so — not just for me, but for everyone.
I’m also going to return to my ‘album a day’ practice, which I wrote about here. I’ll do it a little differently — not as strict, and I doubt I’ll regularly post my listening habits on social media — but I think it’s important that I keep my mind fresh with new music daily.
To start, today’s soundtrack is apt: a thoughtful ambient album by Utah’s Grizzly Prospector. Titled dream story, it’s out on the intriguing Japanese label White Paddy Mountain. It’s bright and ringing, recalling vibrating strings, and there are some lovely vocal tracks (nearly a cappella) towards the end. The music gives off an air of future hope, just what the doctor ordered.
Here’s a tip: ‘follow’ your favorite labels and artists on Bandcamp. Then you’ll receive an email when there’s a new release. Create a rule in your email client so that those messages skip your inbox and are automatically archived and grouped into a predesignated folder. Then, when you’re looking for something new and tasty to listen to, open the folder. A list of new releases will be waiting for you. That’s how I ran across Grizzly Prospector.
Cheers to 2019. Let’s make it as good as we can imagine.
I’m fascinated by the album Limpid as the Solitudes, a collaboration of collagist-composer Félicia Atkinson and multi-instrumentalist Jefre Cantu-Ledesma. If there were a record bin nearby, this would probably get filed in the ‘ambient’ row. That would be a mistake. Limpid as the Solitudes is too restless to be background music; it asks for a piece of your attention, sonically waving to remind you of its presence if you happen to consciously drift away.
There are found sounds, environmental sounds, sounds that keep us guessing, all accompanying pensive drones, far-away splashes of guitar, sparkles of piano, and other melodic snatches. I’ve played around with environmental sounds that create an imaginary space, a mental movie that fills the listener’s head. But while my music movies used one long take, Limpid as the Solitudes practices quick edits, jump-cuts, and sudden changes of setting. That may sound jarring or disorienting, but the masterful random-but-its-really-not placement of the sounds unexpectedly soothes. It’s like our thoughts, falling from one memory to another, haphazard but oddly reassuring.
The album’s press release mentions film as an inspiration, naming Chungking Express, Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, and Antonioni ’s The Passenger (by the way, those latter two films each feature a famously long shot as opposed to quick cuts). Brion Gysin and his book The Third Mind (co-written with a William S. Burroughs) are also name-checked. The Third Mind offers that when two people collaborate they create a third presence, a creative partner that didn’t exist before. Its reference is probably not just pointing to the duo of Atkinson and Cantu-Ledesma, but also to what’s summoned by the combination of disparate sounds. The ‘third mind’ is also evoked in the manipulation of communication, including sound, visuals, and the written word. It’s important to note that Gysin saw a hidden truth resulting from these mash-ups in words and art. The occasional addition of Atkinson’s whispered, often unintelligible, voice anchors the
Back to memory, these ‘cut-ups’ (as Gysin called them) might resemble the processes of our brains. One memory leads to another, leading to another, leading to another until we have no idea where it started. There’s an inspirational chain leading us on, with the intersections as blurry barriers hiding how the combinations connect. To me, that’s the sound of this album.
In an interview, Félicia Atkinson says, ”I want to make music that makes people dance, but in their dreams, or in a state of slow moving.” Last night I listened to Limpid as the Solitudes in bed, with headphones, and quickly fell into that slow-moving dream dance. The uninitiated may think this album is too filled with distractions or too experimental in appearance to be ’sleeping music,’ but I found it calm and comforting. It felt like an inventory of someone else’s thoughts while putting my own aside. That’s an acceptable description of a dream if I’ve ever heard one.
How have end-of-the-year album lists changed since the advent of streaming? I think they’re entirely different, both in how the lists are compiled and how we, as music listeners, read them.
‘Best Of’ lists weren’t as freewheeling as they are now. There was pressure for the publication and its critics to have selections in the top slots that were familiar to the reader, even if just casually. And it seemed that lists were limited to a top 10 or 20 — 25 if we’re feeling crazy. After all, these were suggestions of music you should buy. Previewing these releases, if you were so bold, meant taking the list to the record store and asking the person at the counter to play a little bit off each record. You’re out of luck if there aren’t any open in-store play copies.
These lists are no longer meant as suggestions for purchasing — it’s music to check out. Fire up your favorite streaming service and take the top ten for a stroll. Or, if you’re feeling ambitious, sample the entire list. But that can take a while as today’s end-of-the-year album lists can go to 100.
The differences don’t stop there. While the pre-internet year-end music lists in Rolling Stone or The Village Voice included selections that generally spanned all genres, online publications offer specialized options. It’s curation, in a sense — find the site or blog whose taste you trust, and that’s the ‘Best of’ list meant for you. And these specialist sites (and even more general music sites) have no attachment to keeping things safe and familiar — it’s not rare when an album you haven’t heard of occupies the number one slot.
I’d argue that, in most cases, these are no longer ‘Best Of’ lists, but they’re more like playlists. That is, playlists of albums rather than songs (though there are ‘best song’ lists, too), curated by the taste that guides a blog or a site’s editorial staff. A top ten has always been subjective, sure, but now we’re talking about albums that we should sample, not purchase with hard-earned money. In a way, this makes these lists less subjective. “These are the albums that we enjoyed this year and, if you like our site, perhaps you will, too.” The difference is listener investment, and, though there are also some negatives to that (which we may discuss someday), it does inspire risk-taking.
I’m not saying the critic doesn’t believe his or her #1 album is the best of the year. But I do feel the path to making that choice and the other choices that populate the rest of the list are less determined, less rigid. And I’m happy with that.
I’ll be sampling a handful of ‘end-of-the-year’ lists over the next several weeks. It’s a December tradition. I’ve picked my favorite lists, and I’m going through them, giving each album at least a three-songs-chance before I decide “yay” or “nay.” I’ll make a note of the ones I like the most and will go back to them later for repeated listens.
This last part is essential. One significant difference in charts then and now is that if you purchased the #1 album, it had better be good. You lived with it for weeks and got to know the album, sometimes even if you weren’t crazy about it. That’s the attachment of investment that streaming doesn’t offer. As music fans, we now have to be intentional in our listening. Streaming is nothing more than a tool for access, but it encourages a casualness by nature. The majority of music listeners have always listened to music casually, so there’s nothing lost there. But if we’re die-hard music fans, it’s necessary to be aware and vigilant in our habits as streaming users.
OK, here are the ‘end-of-the-year’ lists I’m listening through:
- Quietus Albums Of The Year 2018 — My favorite list. It’s an assorted hodge-podge of all things leftfield.
- Resident Advisor: 2018’s Best Albums — These are mainly electronic selections. I’m always impressed by Resident Advisor’s album review team. You might think it’s all club music, but it’s much more eclectic than that.
- A Closer Listen: 2018 Top 10 Ambient — Here’s an old-fashioned top 10, focused on excellent ambient releases you probably haven’t heard.
- The Vinyl Factory: Our Favorite 50 Albums of 2018 — Another fantastic editorial team. Note that these selections are presented as ‘favorites,’ not the ‘best.’
Once I’ve exhausted those (unlikely, as it’s a lot!) then I may explore what I haven’t listened to in the more general lists, such as Pitchfork’s The 50 Best Albums of 2018 and The Best Electronic Music of 2018, and NPR’s Best Music of 2018.
Happy hunting! I’d be curious to know your go-to end-of-year lists … and your #1 album picks.