It’s About The Music – What’s New On Qobuz? Pt. 3

By: Gary Alan Barker
March 25th, 2021

The wonderful thing about Qobuz is it is a great way to catch up with old friends. Kayak is one of my favorite bands from the ‘70s. A Dutch progressive rock band, whom was formed in 1972, they produced eight wonderful studio albums (and one live album) before breaking up in 1982. Then in 1999, the band was asked to perform on the TV show  “De Vrienden van Amstel Live”, after which they decided to reform producing another nine albums (the most recent “Seventeen” was released in 2018). Over the years the band lineup has included a whopping 24 artists, in fact of the current lineup, apart from founding member Ton Scherpanzeel whose amazing piano playing has formed the core of the band’s sound (the other founding member Pim Koopman passed away in 2009), three joined in 2017 and the other in 2009. Qobuz let me catch up on several of their post-reformation albums, two of which are operatic profiles of historic figures (“Cleopatra The Crown Of Isis” and “Nostradamus: The Fate Of Man”). But of especial note were two live albums “KAYAK The Anniversary Concert – Live in Paradiso – 2008” and “KAYAKoustic” featuring two of the original singers as well as the post-reform singers (which included a female lead Cindy Oudshoom adding a further dimension to the band’s sound) thus offering a wonderful snapshot of the band’s work both old and new.

The highlights for me from “KAYAK The Anniversary Concert – Live in Paradiso – 2008”  were “Merlin” a song that harkens from both their last album of the same title from their original run (1982) and their 2003 rock-opera “Merlin – Bard of the Unseen” which expands upon the theme with an additional nine songs, a song that embodies the frenetic character of their earlier works combined with the operatic grandeur of their newer efforts. “Niniane”, an epic ballad from the same dualistic heritage, featuring Ton’s beautiful piano work. “Hold Me Forever”, a countryesk ballad sung by Cindy Oudshoom from their 2001 album “Night Vision”. “Irene”, a melodic instrumental from “Starlight Dancer” (1977). And as encore “Ruthless Queen” their most popular song from the album “Phantom of the Night” (which was my first Kayak album). As to “KAYAKoustic”, the alternative versions of many of their classic songs was quite intriguing, though the bright spot was my favorite Kayak song “Daughter Or Son”, which was the song that first brought the band to my attention though it was not on the American release of “Starlight Dancer”.

“sincerely,e” by Elizabeth and the Catapult drew my attention strictly because of the band name, and I was richly rewarded for the dip. The opening song “birds and the bees” brought up images of Regina Spektor (my favorite contemporary artist) with similar piano stylings and vocal intonation. “pop the placebo” did not dispel the illusion even though it was centered around acoustic guitar rather than piano. In fact the influence was clear and obvious throughout the album in the composition and pacing of all the songs. Despite its derivative nature, “sincerely,e” and Elizabeth and the Catapult is a clear win and a golden find thanks to Qobuz, and thanks to Qobuz I can explore her earlier work.

It was the album cover that drew me to Gretchen Parlato’s “Flor” which is just a swatch of flowers. What I found was an epic combination of modern jazz and Astrud Gilberto-like vocals very reminiscent of classic Stan Getz. The album starts on a roll and just builds as it goes reaching a climax at her amazing rendition of Bach’s “Cello Suite No.1 BWV 1007 Minuet I II” which opens with a scat vocal, gradually incorporates bluegrass like acoustic guitar, then gently fades into cello, acoustic guitar, upright bass, and percussion. And to make another abrupt left turn it concludes with an inspired cover of David Bowie’s “No Plan”.

When you are randomly listening to new artists you expect to come across at least one album that is awful, but no luck this venture out. My next selection “When You See Yourself” by the Kings of Leon was a blast of 80’s style New Wave music. While nothing earth-shattering, pleasant to listen to evoking images of The Cure, New Order, Tom Petty, U2, Simple Minds, even Peter Gabriel, and a decade gone by. While lacking the virtuoso performances of the above samplings, they are definitely competent, clean, and tight, and very polished. I was prepared to comment that there were no particularly stand out songs, but in truth “Time in Disguise” offers a complexity of Rhythm and Melody that puts it on a separate plane from the others, while “Echoing” displays a great deal of energy, and the concluding track “Fairytale” is almost Lou Reed level emotion and style.

On a whim, I did a search for my favorite local band Teleskopes and found two singles “Crystal Clear” and “Lazers” both of which exhibit biting world-class musicianship from Fox Fagan, Pelle Hillstrom, and Jesper Kristensen. There sound is hard to classify, but the closest I can come is Indy Space Rock. Pelle is one of the most creative guitarists I have ever seen and Jesper’s complex and metronomic percussion has earned him a spot in Wilson Philips’ touring band as well as The Earth Harp Collective. If you like these tracks, more of their music can be found or purchased on their Bandcamp page https://teleskopes.bandcamp.com/.

So it happened after all, if not actually awful, bland at best. I’m talking about Qobuz’s list of 2021 Grammy Nominees. For one thing, the majority of the songs sounded like they were produced by the same person, starting with a solo instrument (often acoustic guitar) with the bass and drums kicking in after about two or three bars. Beyoncé’s “BLACK PARADE” at least had some interesting kick drum chops, though in all likelihood that was electronic. “Colors” by Black Pumas started out intriguing enough, but settled into mediocrity as soon as it hit its stride. Same can be said for DaBaby’s tune “ROCKSTAR” though I did like the Reggaesk vocal. I guess if you need music to sleep by “Say So” (Doja Cat) would do. I know a lot of people really love Billie Eilish, but “everything i wanted” sounded as if was recorded in somebody’s bedroom and produced by an amateur who wanted it to sound like everybody else, I guess that’s what happens when you get everything you want. Jhené Aiko’s “Triggered” had some pleasant piano work but the lyrics sounded as if they were written by a 15-year-old who just learned to cuss. I actually really like Coldplay but “Champion Of The World” left me cold. “All I Need (with Mahalia & Ty Dolla $ign)” (Jacob Collier) featured some nice jazz bass licks and R&B harmonies, but not much else. After listening to Haim’s “Gasoline”, I felt like pouring gasoline over myself and lighting just to wake up. Not that it was a bad song, just listless and lacking originality.

Full confession point, I sampled about the first 10 songs and went back, writing this as I listened to the songs. At this point, I decided that continuing to snipe each song would get old and repetitive quick, so I decided to just listen to the rest of the list commenting on the highlights. I kinda liked “Circles” by Post Malone though it was a bit uninspired and cyclical in nature. I guess I should not be surprised that Taylor Swift went for a formula pop piece, but I expected more. I was intrigued by the odd vocalization that opened “The Box” by Roddy Ricch unfortunately it was followed up by a rather pedestrian Gangsta Rap performance backed by that single-note bass line shown to be popular in this year’s offerings.

My first real surprise came with Ingrid Andress, “Feeling Things” expressed real emotion and some nice musicianship, not world-ending, but a pleasant break from the above. “Kyoto” from Phoebe Bridgers displayed a bit of energy making for an enjoyable if not engaging experience. Arca’s ambient EDM piece “Time” at least offered enough musicality for me to listen all the way through on what was admittedly my third listening. Like many EDM songs “AETHER” (Baauer) presented a lot of interesting sounds in an abrasive overall package. Michael Kiwanuka had a bit of ‘80s Art Of Noise feel with a smattering of Disco sounds thrown in with a Reggae vocal for “You Ain’t The Problem”, I won’t say I loved it, but I didn’t hate it either.

The award for most disappointing song goes to Beck’s “Hyperspace”, though Fiona Apple gave it a run for its money with “Fetch The Bolt Cutters” despite the John Cage style percussion.

In the several days it took me to write this, the Grammys came and went, and having endured the above tracks I was not surprised to hear that it was the least-watched show in their history. Then things took a change for the better with the Free Nationals and “Shibuya” displaying complex rhythms and excellent musicianship. This held true for “Gone” by Robert Glasper though I could have done without the Gangsta Rap overlay. Thundercat offered their usual amazing musical prowess with “Dragonball Durag” though I have to admit I hated the vocal part of the song.

Brandy Clark sparked a complete change in the proceedings presaging a run of excellent songs starting with her Country Ballad “Pawn Shop”. “It All Comes Out in the Wash” by Miranda Lambert continues in the Country vein, a poppy upbeat tune with a sense of humor. A second Country Ballad “Next To You” was performed by Little Big Town with as much attention paid to the pauses as the crescendos. Ashley McBryde on the other hand went for the Rock Country sound with “Hang In There Girl”.

And then came the Jazz and all of my pain had been richly rewarded with some of the most fantastic music I have heard. Ambrose Akinmusire’s “Yessss” was soulful and thought-provoking and deeply emotional. As was “Waiting Game” by Terri Lyne Carrington whose dulcet vocals were inspiring. The complex atonal and arrhythmic tones of Gerald Clayton’s “Rejuvenation Agenda (Live)” were out of this world brilliant, only to be outdone by what was my favorite track and the clear winner for me Chick Corea’s “How Deep Is The Ocean (Live)’. The great music did not end there though, “Undertow” exhibited a wonderful blending of beautiful piano, horn, upright bass, and percussion. I found I had transcended into musical heaven as the chaotic rhythms and soul-wrenching horns of Arturo O’Farrill’s “Baby Jack” went through their gyrations.

“Bemba Colorá (En Vivo)” by Gonzalo Rubalcaba dredged up images of “Buena Vista Social Club” with its lovely Latin rhythms. Another more traditional Jazz performance was Poncho Sanchez’s “The Feeling Of Jazz”.

Which led into another smattering of pleasant Country Ballads to wit “Guilty” – Courtney Marie Andrews, “Bright Direction (You’re a Dark Star Now)” – Hiss Golden Messinger (proof that there are still male Country singers), “Orange and Blue” – Sarah Jarosz,  broken by Marcus King’s R&B tune “One Day She’s Here” and ending with Lucinda Williams’ “Man Without a Soul”.

Bettye Lavette’s dark rendition of “Strange Fruit” led us into a bevy of dazzling traditional Blues songs: “One of These Days” – Frank Bey, “Your Love is Too Late” – Don Bryant, “Anything You Want” – Robert Cray, “Catfish Blues” – Jimmy “Duck” Holmes (very tasty), concluding with some Back Porch Mississippi Delta Blues Guitar from Bobby Rush performing “Honey Bee, Sail On”. 

The hardest part of writing this article has been ending it. I could have (and probably should have) done an entire article on the Grammy tracks but I wanted to keep things timely. As to Kayak, Elizabeth and the Catapult, Gretchen Parlato, Kings of Leon, and Teleskopes I can only recommend that you give them a listen, I’m pretty sure you won’t be disappointed. As to the Grammy tracks, I suggest scrolling down the page to Brandy Clark and starting there, as everything past that point is enjoyable and worth a listen, I can’t really say that for the tracks above that, though some did start to grow on me with the third or fourth listen.

Until next month, remember it’s about the music.

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