A Slice of Fried Gold

Slices of Fried Gold - 7/26/09

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Black Feather - Silhouette

Other Electricities, a record label in Portland, has a new release coming out September 15th of this year from artist Black Feather, or the man that comprises Feather - Harald Frøland. I have to admit, before being contacted by OE, I'd never heard of Frøland or the collective of nu-jazz enthusiasts out of Norway he belonged to, titled Jaga Jazzist. However, now that I have, I'm quite interested in pursuing more of Jaga Jazzist music and am eagerly anticipating more music from Frøland.

While Black Feather's debut is nowhere near a perfect one, it is frequently rousing and full of elegant and fully unique instrumental compositions. One of the things that Frøland does so brilliantly is taking influences of his music and not only using them as inspiration for the new music he creates, but occasionally rearranging them to create new music that cues a feeling of familiarity and nostalgia within the listener. This version of compositional sampling is never more evident than at the 2:37 mark during standout track "Ardent Cloud," which features a riff that is extremely familiar but just well arranged enough to make it impossible to pinpoint where it originally came from (download at the bottom to judge for yourself). Speaking of that, Frøland's guitar work frequently touches on virtuoso quality, not only in the regard that its sharp and complex work, but also on the unique spins he takes on the instrument and the command he exhibits.

Another thing that Frøland does that is unique is structuring songs not in a typical verse-bridge-chorus way, but more in a improvisational and seemingly classically influenced structure. It allows his tracks to almost be split into atypical yet effective mini-songs. This disassociation from standard routine gives Frøland the freedom to do what he does best - compose frequently beautiful and haunting insrumental sections, but it habitually removes opportunities for Frøland the vocalist to stand out.

That is one of my biggest complaints about this album right there. Frøland's voice has a very haunting beauty to it, but quite often the production keeps the vocals tracked low enough that vocal melodies never really sink in to the listener. I'm sure this was a choice that Frøland made openly, as he likely looks at his instrumental arrangements as the highlight of his skill set (correctly so), but in terms of the album as a whole it generally misses a balance between vocals and instruments that it sorely needs. On the third track, "Razor Blade", Frøland most accurately tackles this problem, and predictably it is one of the two or three best songs on the album. Without that balance and sweeping vocal moments to match the arrangements, the album verges into the dreaded category of "forgettably solid" perhaps too often.

Yet, within these nine tracks, Frøland exhibits an incredible amount of promise. The instrumental arrangements and song structures imply a stellar musical mind, and one that could do incredibly wonderful things if given the opportunity. With a keener eye on production and perhaps a bit more balance on his vocals, Frøland could release a complete stunner of an album at some point. While this album is filled to the brim with musical talent, it lacks that "grab you by the collar" quality to really become something amazing.

Recommended tracks: "Ardent Cloud" - "Razor Blade" - "The Cut"

Black Feather - Silhouette: B-

Grand Hallway - Promenade

Grand Hallway is a group of musicians that I had seen briefly at Sasquatch 2008 and had taken note as someone to look out for. Generally, as my friend Sheri has pointed out from time to time, bands with many members (upwards of seven) typically make at the very least interesting music. Collectives are a wonderful way to make music, and often make robustly textured songs that feature beautiful harmonies. Grand Hallway, in that regard, are absolutely no different.

While frequently associated with other baroque pop stalwarts such as Sufjan Stevens, they create a sound that is really and truly their own. While Stevens aims for lush instrumentation and a much grander sound, most of Promenade feels personal and occasionally introspective, especially on "Pearrygin (Quite a Quiet)" - a song that is highlighted by frontman Tomo Nakayama's alternately soaring and hushed vocals, occasional cuts from violins, and transcendent interjections from steel guitar. There is a focus on restraint and near-confessional level lyricism on this album that is atypical for the genre and groups of this size quite often on the final two thirds of this album that allows for frequent bouts of melodic beauty and stunning crescendos when the time calls for it.

While quite possibly the most standard track for a group such as this, it's impossible not to target "Raindrops (Matsuri)" as one of the highlights of the album. Its rich textures - layers of piano, acoustic guitar, banjo, drums, and more - and towering harmonic vocals within the chorus make this quite the show stopper, especially for a lead off track. Good luck not "whoa-oh-oh-ohhhhh"ing along with them as this track plays. It's basically impossible, by my estimation. Of course, one of the things that this track and the follow up track "Blessed Be, Honey Bee" (click to download that track) do is establish expectations within the listener that we'll be experiencing rousing vocals right and left and orchestral pop all over the place.

Following it up with the beautiful but far more restrained "Under the Roof" establishes the paradigm shift into the more confessional side is an odd choice, especially with the Beatles by-way-of Elton John with an epic flair nature of the follow up "Elinor With the Golden Hair (Tsukimi)." To me, if you switched the order of those two tracks, you'd hit upon a far more logical album order and a clear place of stylistic shift within the album.

When you really get down to it, this album is really a tale of two sections: the more sunny, orchestral opening third, and the latter section that is heavy with hushed, internalized song structures. Both are highly successful, as the only song that I really do not particularly enjoy is the bizarre and clearly Eastern-influenced "Usagi No Uta", a track which I could easily see as a hit in Tokyo karaoke bars sooner rather than later. Besides that seemingly out of place track, Grand Hallway's second LP Promenade is an album full of high highs and beauteous lows. Look for it September 15th from Other Electricities, and remember to support your Pacific Northwest artists!

Recommended tracks: "Raindrops (Matsuri)" - "Sirens" - "The Passenger (Minuet for Americans)"

Grand Hallway - Promenade: B+


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