Theo Bleckmann Performs Kate Bush (CD Review)

Theo Bleckmann

Hello Earth! The Music of Kate Bush

Winter & Winter CD

Often, we discuss covers – artists interpreting songs written by others – in relation to their original renditions. Hello Earth!, a quintet outing by vocalist Theo Bleckmann and a quartet of musicians with jazz and contemporary classical backgrounds, is devoted to the music of prog pop songwriter Kate Bush. It is a loving homage to Bush’s textured arrangements, and thoughtful, atmospheric, and, at times quirky, catalogue. However, to frame Bleckmann’s recasting of this music as a set of covers is to undervalue the considerable transformation these songs undergo here.

This doesn’t mean wholesale deconstruction. Although it starts out tempo rubato, one’s pulse will still surge by the second verse of Bleckmann’s rendition of “Running Up That Hill.” Both it and the title track inhabit a world of morphing, flexible, and swinging rhythms that are the stuff of modern jazz. But Bleckmann and drummer John Hollenbeck are well aware that, in order for the pop propensities of Bush’s songs to also be respected, this pliability of tempo must be met with corresponding forward momentum. Add to this the experimental touches that appear on the CD, such as prepared harpsichord, toy instruments, and other atmospherics, and the balance that is achieved would be the envy of many tight rope acts.

What the artists avoid doing, and perhaps this is a secret to some of the record’s charm, is seeking to recreate Bush’s well nigh inimitable and often theatrical performance persona. Bleckmann is a singer with a powerful and singular sounding instrument and formidable stage presence of his own; he wisely avoids any whiff of caricature. While the aforementioned affection and awareness for the originals is evident, there is no by the numbers recreation attempted on the instrumental musical front either. Instead, Bleckmann and his estimable cohorts pleasingly avoid literal mindedness when crafting their arrangements. The clearest demonstration of this: in “Saxophone Song” Caleb Burhans’ violin replaces the saxophone solo of the original. On “Violin,” the band moves from the more acoustic-based sound world that prevails on the album to a more rollicking and plugged in aesthetic. Burhans shreds on guitar in tandem with thrumming bass licks from Skúli Sverrisson, Hollenbeck unleashing an uncharacteristically aggressive barrage, and pianist Henry Hey’s Leslie-saturated rock organ work.

Bleckmann also refuses campy choices. “This Woman’s Work” could certainly have been accommodated at pitch in the singer’s attractive falsetto; As Ann Powers pointed out on NPR, this approach once helped to supply a big hit to Maxwell. Instead, Bleckmann allows the lead vocals, and backing vocals overdubs, to span his range from low to high; inhabiting the song’s emotive content rather than consigning it to a gender stereotype. It’s a masterful, and affecting, album closer.

Experimedia’s June 1 Playlist

For out music aficionados, whenever distro/label  Experimedia releases a new playlist on SoundCloud,  it’s a “kid in a candy store” kind of experience. Check out their list of new arrivals, posted today, via the embed below. But be warned: you may be grabbing your wallet and placing an order before you know it!





Maria Minerva: “Gloria” (Soundcloud)

This morning, NPR Music has an article on “Estonian Chillwave” artist Maria Minerva. Although they’re a little late to the party (Tallinn at Dawn came out last year), NPR’s spotlighting of album track “California Scheming” is a welcome playlist addition anytime.

Below is another excellent track by Minerva. Creeping Wave’s post of her track “Gloria” via Soundcloud.

American Mavericks: Cage Songbooks (Review + Video)

At least on paper, one of the more fascinating collaborations of the 2012 installation of American Mavericks brought vocalists Jessye Norman, Meredith Monk, and Joan La Barbara together with Michael Tilson Thomas and members of the San Francisco Symphony for a performance of John Cage’s Song Books. Complete with lighting, sets, stage business, camera work, and sound design, this was an ambitious undertaking. Unfortunately, it raised as many questions about performing Cage as it answered.

In the performance of the work last night at Carnegie Hall, Jessye Norman sang like Jessye Norman. Meredith Monk did Meredith Monk. MTT made a smoothie and tore up newspapers. But Joan La Barbara: now she performed a John Cage piece. Here she is doing the same work in 2011, with Ne(x)tworks at Greenwich Music House.

Hats off to Monk and Norman for reaching outside their comfort zones. But they were placed in a difficult situation. My wife, a director and playwright, described it thus: “It felt like all the things ripped off from Cage by bad experimental theater were donated back for one night only. And it seemed like the design team were having much more fun than the audience.”

It’s great that San Francisco is giving the American Mavericks another airing. And I’m really looking forward to hearing what is, for me, a dream program at Carnegie Hall tonight: Ruggles, Feldman, and Ives orchestrated by Brant!

But their Cage presentation left me with questions about how those interested in interpreting his music are to proceed. The challenge: creating a performance practice for Cage that doesn’t become its own museum piece of cliches. The scores deserve it. There’s plenty of music in them and, indeed lots of ways to present Cage entertainingly, but without so much shtick.

Julia Holter: “In the Same Room” (Video)

On March 6th, Julia Holter is having a release party for her new release Ekstasis (out 3/8 on RVNG Intl.) at Le Poisson Rouge (show info here).

Check out the video for lead off track “In the Same Room” below.

Opening the show is Sequenza 21 friend and modern music pianist extraordinaire Sarah Cahill. Sarah’s performing a solo set entitled “The Mystical Tone,” -’exploring the work of composers who were inspired by Theosophy, Rosicrucianism, astrology, and Transcendentalism, among them Scriabin, Dane Rudhyar, Ruth Crawford, Henry Cowell, and Erik Satie.’ Indeed,that’s good curating:  its mystical tone will be an excellent complement to Julia Holter’s otherworldly out pop.