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Raising the Bar

A Garden Below (One Mad Son)

The colorful cover of the new CD by alt-country-folksters knotworking drives the point home: Ed Gorch and company have burst into Technicolor. Knotworking’s first two albums were pensive little curiosities adorned with grainy, gray photos and packed with Gorch’s stirringly poetic sentiments and lo-fi production. The group’s charm lay in rough-hewn, brooding (yet pretty) minimalism; this time around, however, the group have shed their hairshirts and left the sober environs of the bedroom behind.

A Garden Below—which is bolstered by warm, full production (courtesy of Saugerties’ Nevessa studios) and the lengthening shadow of Gorch’s songwriting talent—is a leap forward for an already strong unit. The album features outright rockers (“Blossom”), rousing alt-country beauties (“A Time Ago”), and the kind of acoustic rumination Ed rode into town on a few years back (“When We Were Small”). The folk-rocker “Decided to Walk” is already one of my favorite songs of the year. It’s been fun watching knotworking develop by bounds, and A Garden Below clearly marks them as one of the artistic success stories in our area.

Beyond the professional production and fuller arrangements, a good indicator of the sea change is guitarist Mike Hotter: Behind his benign, hobbitish presence lurks a rock god. Hotter’s spare, intelligent playing was a highlight of the group’s previous effort, Notes Left Out, whose title seemed a tribute to his perfect economy. That said, it’s great to hear him knock off a searing, several-bar solo in the middle of “Blossom” and launch a euphoric coda on “Listening.” Meanwhile, on “Long Step,” Hotter bursts forth with the brand of fuzzed-up twang that would do Bakersfield proud.

A wealth of local talent—including John Brodeur, Dan Winchester and Kamikaze Hearts Matthew Loiacano and Bob Buckley—help knotworking out, along with longtime allies Karen Codd (cello) and Megan Prokorym (violin). Gorch, Hotter and co. deserve a big pat on the back; A Garden Below is a great album. Look for an official release in July.

—Erik Hage

Gary Lucas
The Edge of Heaven: Gary Lucas Plays Mid-century Chinese Pop (Indigo)

The rococo, the extraterres-trial, twang and Yangtze Delta blues cohabit on this beautiful album of art pop. A tribute to Chow Hsuan and Bai Kwong, songstresses who worked in Chinese film in the 1940s and 1950s, The Edge of Heaven alternates vocal and instrumental tracks—some tunes surface in both guises—that are exotic, winning and surprisingly accessible. Vocal cuts like the leisurely, courtly “Please Allow Me to Look at You Again” and the austere, dreamy “The Wall” alternate with “Old Dreams” and “If I’m Without You,” instrumentals that showcase Lucas’ openness in both tunings and heart. Chow and Bai are long gone; in their stead are vocalists Celest Chong, a Singaporean, and a German woman, Gisburg. Both are students of Mandarin, the language of the originals. Both, too, like Lucas, are originals: Chong’s is the more birdlike, sing-songy voice, while Gisburg’s is, perhaps, bluesier. In the liner notes to this beautifully packaged French import, Lucas, a New York guitarist to the left of Marc Ribot, says he came across this “mid-century Chinese pop” in the mid-1970s, when he was in Taipei working out a love affair. Best-known for his work in Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band and in his own Gods and Monsters, Lucas is an intrepid musical explorer who has always wanted to capture the magic of this music and transfigure it—with respect. “Edge,” all eloquent and strange, reflects and addresses the necessary stillness at the heart of creativity.

—Carlo Wolff

Lisa Moore
Which Side Are You On? (Cantaloupe Music)

On Which Side Are You On?, pianist Lisa Moore performs the work of Frederic Rzewski. The pianist makes such a tour de force of Rzewski’s “De Profundis” that the rest of this disc—the composer’s “Four North American Ballads”—comes almost as a surprise. Rzewski’s own performance of “De Profundis” sits by itself on a short CD, and I’d suggest you program your CD player to stop after listening to what Moore does with the work. It’s powerful enough that you’ll appreciate having time to let the experience sink in.

Drawing from Oscar Wilde’s moving prison diary, Rzewski weaves together narration and an emotionally charged piano commentary in this 1992 work; the pianist is also called upon to provide an array of grunts and other noises as yet another percussive, haunting commentary.

“People point to Reading Jail,” wrote Wilde, “and say, ‘This is where the artistic life leads a man.’ Well, it might lead to worse places.” The artist always lives a little outside society; that the flamboyant Wilde was jailed added an extra note of persecution. As a composer, Rzewski combines a sense of theater with a keen political awareness: Music is a tool that can lend urgency to a cause, and it has a powerful ability to unite. Not surprisingly, Rzewski’s best-known work is a set of variations on the Chilean folk song “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!”

The “North American Ballads” are similar on a smaller scale. Composed in 1978-’79, they draw upon four songs well-known to any student of labor history: “Dreadful Memories,” “Which Side Are You On?,” “Down by the Riverside” and “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues,” each featuring a setting of the song itself that then spins into an appropriate fantasy (or reversed, in the case of “Which Side,” in which the ending with a dramatic theme statement).

Rzewski’s music relies heavily on interpretive skill. He spent many years as part of an improvisational ensemble, and his works demand personality from the performer. Moore is more than up to the task, and her versions contrast nicely with recent recordings by the composer. Where he takes a percussive, bombastic approach, especially in a persuasive account of “De Profundis,” Moore looks at the drama of the work and paces it accordingly, drawing us through its episodes into a compelling finale.

The more abstract “Ballads” showcase technical as well as interpretive skills, and Moore is a determined, lyrical master of this kind of music, her awareness of the sometimes hard-to-discern structures of these works one of the important components of their success.

These are unsettling but important pieces of music, and they’ve found a worthy champion.

—B.A. Nilsson

The Essex Green
The Long Goodbye (Merge)

The Essex Green are a Brooklyn-based trio, bolstered variously with about a dozen other like-minded players. They share sensibilities (and at times, labels) with such ensembles as Of Montreal, the Beachwood Sparks and Apples in Stereo, all of whom draw from the invitingly deep and mysterious well that holds the glory days of psychedelic pop. Like their pals, they do this without becoming mired in the era—The Long Goodbye sounds like the contemporary release that it is. This is the land where Jimmy Webb goes hiking with Rod Argent, only to run into Roy Wood, who startles them by jumping out from behind a tree, but then makes it all OK by treating them to ice-cream sodas. Granted, there’s a lot of names floating by in those preceding sentences, but the bottom line is that Sasha Bell sings most of these subtly hook-laden songs with an offhand ease and casual beauty that floats over arrangements that would quicken Brian Wilson’s pulse.

—David Greenberger

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