Tuesday, 3 November 2009

The new way to listen #3: Music that's 'different'

This is a two part post: first, some music I recommend; second (later in the week) – how can this music be ‘business’?

Recently I wrote about how my music consumption and listening habits are changing – including spending more time opening my ears to music that’s different. It comes not necessarily from boredom with more ‘popular’ genres, but from an adversity to their over-supply – there’s just too much of what’s essentially the same. I need something that pokes my musical senses in new places.

Just last night, at London’s Koko, was a case in point, with the rather marvelous Portico Quartet in performance. They’ve come a long way these four young men. I first heard their music some six years ago, wandering along the Waterloo south bank, where they regularly busked. My wife heard them first - and we gathered round, listened and came away with the band’s self-made CD for fiver, suitably impressed.

I didn’t play the disc much and thought nothing of it until a couple of years later when the band glimpsed the limelight with their 2008 Mercury Music Prize nomination for first album ‘Knee Deep in the North Sea’. I never got ‘round to that album either, as I was still gorging on records back then, working my way through piles & piles of CDs and streams on Napster & Rhapsody, in a futile effort to find those precious few records that get under your skin and become essential slow-burning, long-lasting fuel. I had a filter (not a very good one) for finding the good stuff but no effective mechanism for discovery of what’s really different.

But, with my new priority system in play and working nicely, a portal opens for bands like Portico. And it’s a blessing because this is genuinely thrilling music. I wouldn’t classify it as Jazz. To me its hybrid music that happens to be created by four musicians playing what they play – which happens to be the Hang (look it up on Wikipedia), Soprano Sax (the curved one that looks more like a toy instrument), Bass and Drums.

So what else is different in my music world right now?

Spiro’s ‘Lightbox’ has occupied pride of place on the 2009 playlist and could well turn out to be my album of the year. Peter Gabriel describes Spiro as “soulful and passionate” and you might find, as I did, that this is pretty much spot on. Seeing them earlier this year on a major stage at WOMAD was a life-affirming experience, as is listening to this record repeatedly.

I also recommend Bill Frisell’s fascinating ‘Disfarmer’. I love an album with a theme, a story – something that immediately sets it apart from just an album. It draws me in. Frisell’s album is homage to dustbowl America as seen through the lens of depression era photographer Michael Disfarmer. It’s on Nonesuch records – a label that’s a specialist in the eclectic like no other – look out for this blog’s forthcoming case study on that Label featuring some great insights from legendary founder Bob Hurwitz.

I’ve also recently been streaming Steve Martin’s ‘banjo record’ The Crow (as it says on the cover “truly wonderful and just as advertised”) and The Unthank’s ‘Here’s The Tender Coming’. When my conscience gets a grip on me, I will invest in both albums on CD - perhaps.

Finally – just delivered on CD from Amazon is Pink Martini’s new album Splendor In The Grass. This record is a musical equivalent of treacle – The Times review summed it up: “Mamboing transvestite district attorneys, a 90-year-old Mexican ranchera singer, a Tchaikovsky piano concerto, Italian pop kitsch, missing heads, Peter Sellers’s sitar, Sesame Street singalongs and a Neapolitan lullaby”. It’s easy listening, yes (nothing wrong with that!) but it is also authentic, beautifully performed and meticulously recorded. It’s lush – a joy to behold.

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