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Stories and insights

Noteworthy new or recent releases

Not Now, Bernard and Other Stories by Alexander Armstrong, Orchestra of the Swan: Not Now, Bernard and ­Isabel’s Noisy Tummy are illustrated children’s books by David McKee that add a comic gloss to discomfiting childhood experiences. James Mayhew’s The Knight Who Took All Day adds amusingly quixotic, mildly PC kinks to a damsel-in-distress plot. And “Annabel Lee” is the Poe poem. Then there’s Thread!, a stroll through the Bayeux Tapestry. What these pieces have in common is the nimble narration of Alexander Armstrong and lively performances of orchestral compositions by Bernard Hughes (McKee and Mayhew), John Ireland (Poe), and Judith Weir (Thread!). Liveliest and least programmatic of all: Malcolm Arnold’s eight-­minute Toy Symphony. File under “Ideal Alternatives to Drag Queen Story Hour.”

Folk Music of China, Vol. 4: Folk Songs of Guangxi by various artists: This latest installment in what’s slated to be a 19-volume series is the first to appear since the COVID-19 virus became the Story of the Year. So let it be said that the lung power evinced by these 17 singers (more if you count “Anonymous”) augers well for Guangxi’s continued resilience (only two deaths as of this writing). Vocalist after vocalist launches sustained, upwardly spiraling lines, never breaking for a breath until he or she has speared a final note that seems anything but obvious until it is. Of course, something similar could be said of the singers in the regions represented by Volumes 1-3. So what sets this one apart? A certain droning sound unique to the Mulao people.

The End of the Game 50th Anniversary Remastered & Expanded Edition by Peter Green: In a brief, semi-lucid period between leaving Fleetwood Mac (which he co-founded) and succumbing to schizophrenia (which he exacerbated with LSD), the electric-blues guitar hero Peter Green went into a studio with a four-man rhythm section and jammed away. The results, edited into discrete tracks and long disparaged by critics, have improved with age. Coming as they did at the end of the ’60s, their amorphousness signaled (echoed?) the unraveling of hippiedom’s cosmic pretensions. Coming as they now do at the end of rock ’n’ roll itself, their bursts of primal energy sound like rebukes to today’s over-computerized pop.

Black, Brown & Beige by Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis: “He understood what binds us,” said Wynton Marsalis of Duke Ellington in a recent interview on this landmark jazz symphony. “He had a spiritual insight … a depth of intellectual engagement with music and a virtuosity and an embrace of what a myriad of people could do. So his music is always friendly to all the sections: great trombone, great trumpets, great saxophones, rhythm section. He gives everybody something to play that is significant and meaningful.” You can’t ask for more than that, can you? Yet, if only in terms of a higher audio fidelity than what’s available on Ellington’s own recordings, more is exactly what this thrilling 2018 live performance delivers.

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Tyson Motsenbocker


Sounding effortless

Someday I'll Make It All Up to You is Tyson's Motsenbocker's most polished album to date

According to the mini-biography on his website, the singer-songwriter Tyson Motsenbocker experienced a “renegotiated relationship with God” seven years ago while on a monthlong, 600-mile walk that he undertook to deal with the death of his mother. 

Now, two EPs and two full-length albums later, that renegotiated relationship and a profound sense of loss continue to mark the boundaries within which his cinematically vivid musical vignettes unfold.

“Miles,” a song from his new album, Someday I’ll Make It All Up to You (Tooth & Nail), even contains the word “negotiate.” “Sometimes,” Motsenbocker sings, “we negotiate before we know the whole cost.” The line’s not about God, but given the interconnectedness of the horizontal and the vertical that Motsenbocker takes as a natural condition of life, it’s not exactly not about God either. 

As for loss, it takes different forms—sometimes nostalgia (“I Miss the Old Days Too,” “The Last Summer”), sometimes regret (“Sunday Morning,” “Fentanyl”), sometimes fear. “I don’t wanna be scared no more,” Motsenbocker sings at the end of one song, “Is it such a bad idea being brave?” at the beginning of another.

Then there’s this query from “Fire Escape”: “Do you fear what the night will bring, / or is there just a little disappointment in everything?” 

“I think that [my] being afraid made it a prominent theme, ha, ha,” wrote Motsenbocker via email between shows on his current tour. “I’ve always felt that living an uncomfortable life, pressing oneself for meaning and purpose, [and] embracing friction and difficulty are some of the most important tenets to growth and satisfaction.” 

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Promising signs

Noteworthy new and recent releases

Changes by Justin Bieber: This musically slight, blue-eyed R&B will be of primary interest to those who care about Justin Bieber—his ups, his downs, his marriage, his faith. To this end, the lyrics paint a fairly encouraging picture. Only three of the 16 songs contain anything lewd or crude, and in two of those cases it’s guest rappers doing the offending. Of course, it was Bieber who did the inviting. So say that he still has some changing to do and that the title track’s spoken outro, “People change, circumstances change, / but God always remains the same,” is a promising sign—and that the verdict on which is more annoying, his flaunting of his tattoos or his flaunting of Auto-Tune, is still out. 

All the Pleasures of the World (Deluxe) by Crayon Fields: The melancholy folk-pop of these Aussies might sound like something extracted from a time capsule buried in the ’60s, yet there’s nothing hermetic about it, not with Geoffrey O’Connor’s breathy vocals and Chris Hung’s twinkling glockenspiel mapping out a spaciousness rendered luminous by judiciously administered reverb. All of which is to say that even though this album first came out 11 years ago, it doesn’t sound dated, making it ripe for discovery by the many who missed it the first time around. The few who didn’t miss it get rewarded as well, namely by three non-alternate-version bonus tracks as good as any of the official 10 and by two bonus covers that prove there’s nothing necessarily hermetic about ABBA or Roxette. 

Texas Sun by Khruangbin & Leon Bridges: Here’s a curiosity: a four-song EP in which a guitar-bass-drums trio specializing in sparse, border-town psychedelia and an up-and-coming soul singer specializing in smooth, retro soul explore and test the limits of their compatibility. Even curioser: If you like what they achieve together, you’ll like what they’ve already achieved on their own even more. Not that this mesh never takes. It’s just that about half of it sounds more tentative than a musical marriage made in heaven should. Where it gels the most is the nearly five-minute funky space reincarnation “C-Side.” Where it gels the deepest is the nearly seven-minute “Conversion,” Bridges’ brooding testimony to the power of God’s grace and to the joys of repurposing Isaac Watts’ “At the Cross.” 

Shout About Love by John Swaim: The CD Baby “album notes” in their entirety read as follows: “This is my latest CD release and you should buy one!” And you should! Is Swaim gospel? Texas swing? Country? Comedy? The answer is all of the above—pressed down, shaken together, and running over into songs that illustrate why he calls himself a “musicianary.” The cleverest refrain finds him “hank, hank, hankerin’ for heaven” while recalling the Hanks Williams and Thompson. The wisest verse finds him realizing that he’s his own biggest hurdle in the race he has to run (“Over Me”). He’s quite a storyteller too. His obviously unscripted spoken introduction to “Union Gospel Tabernacle” sounds like an outtake from Ken Burns’ Country Music that should’ve been left in. 

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