Pink Martini

Pinl Martini-Splendor in the GrassSplendor In The Grass
Pink Martini
Heinz Records

In all ways and in every way, Pink Martini are an anachronism. Their music hearkens to another time- a more simple, more innocent time. Certainly those days were no less musically sophisticated than now. In fact, based on Pink Martini’s music and artistic antecedents, perhaps those times were far more sophisticated than today.

While maintaining their position as Portland’s most high-profile musical ambassadors, the group has toured the nation and the world, associating with well-known orchestras across the country, in a manner that would have made the legendary Stan Kenton envious. How many other Portland bands have repeatedly played the Hollywood Bowl? And while there is no doubt that many (most) Portland musical aggregations would not necessarily find the Hollywood Bowl a venue for which to strive- there is no denying the impressiveness of such a feat. And it is wholly in keeping with the odd trail that has been Pink’s musical journey.

It is well known that Pink Martini is the brainchild of Harvard alum Thomas Lauderdale- whose interest in politics was such that, at one time, he had some aspirations for one day running for mayor. But something stopped him in his politico tracks. His distaste for the ersatz music that was typically performed at political functions, led Lauderdale to assemble his “little orchestra” in 1994 for political and other politically-correct social and civic events.

The music quickly caught on. And why not? As far from rock music as is possible to fly- Pink Martini incorporated elements of soft jazz, world music, Broadway/Hollywood pop, orchestral music (ala Stan Kenton among many others), with a touch of classical thrown in. It is very well-informed music- historically speaking. It was not long after the aggregation’s inception- that Pink Martini began to catch on with the Portland music-loving public at large. And it wasn’t just with yer mom and dad. The kids loved the band too..

In the early days, Lauderdale was occasionally disposed to wearing a dress on stage- fondling his piano- ala Liberace, gazing over his shoulder at the audience with a longing fondness that was as endearing as it was odd. And in those early days, Pepe Raphael (eventually of Pepe and the Bottle Blondes), who was the prominent vocalist for the outfit at that time- also occasionally cross-dressed for some affairs. Pepe was highly-adept at Latin flavored material- but Lauderdale was far more adventurous than just playing “Cuban Pete” in some campy presentation. Thomas Lauderdale was far more ambitious than that.

Lauderdale’s encyclopediac musical influences included, but were in no way limited to, a wide array of musicians and styles: certainly Juan Esquivel (father of “Space Age Bachelor Pad” music), Henry Mancini, Martin Denny (the “Father of Exotica”), Kenton, Bert Kaemfert, Percy Faith, 60’s Bossa Nova stylings and exotic film soundtracks (think Francis Lai’s Bossa Nova score for the 1966 film “A Man And A Woman), as well as countless foreign performers (known and unknown) and musical curios, from across the face of the planet. It seemed to be Thomas’ responsibility to keep that sort of music alive.

Pink Martini recorded their first album, “Symapthique,” beginning in late 1996 and released it a year later. By that time, Raphael was on his way out of the band (he does make vocal appearances on “Sympathique“), while a charming young songwriting singer, China Forbes (she had already released a pop album of her own by then)- whom Lauderdale knew from his Harvard days- took over full time vocal duties. And, thus, a musical marriage was born.

“Sympathique” took the world by storm. That is no exaggeration. Well over a million copies of the album have been sold, worldwide. A million copies. The band quickly (in Martini time) followed with “Hang On Little Tomato” in 2004 and “Hey Eugene,” in 2007 a scant two and a half years later.

And now, only a year and a half after that (the band also released a sparkling DVD last Spring) we have “Splendor In The Grass.” As was suggested in these very pages in the 2007 review of “Hey Eugene,’ the band have also rendered their previous releases to vinyl- a process which, given Lauderdale’s incredibly picky attention to detail, was no easy accomplishment- but highly worth the effort and the wait.

For this outing, as is their wont, the Martinis employ the services of several guest artists- including 90-year-old cancione ranchera singer Chavela Vargas; Dandy Warhols’ leader Courtney Taylor-Taylor (though, as might be expected, he’s a tad hard to find); as well as Emilio Delgado (“Luis” on Sesame Street- alas, no Big Bird, however) and, probably most strangely, Ari Shapiro of NPR fame. This last inclusion could easily be some sort of a payoff for all the attention Pink has received from NPR over the years- it’s hard to explain.

And, as usual, the set is an eclectic mix of four obscure (and not so) cover songs, mixed with nine original numbers crafted by Lauderdale and Forbes. Leading things off is the European flavored lullaby, “Ninna Nanna.” A wordless windy chorus of male backing singers and a lush string arrangement support China’s emotion-soaked vocal evocations, apparently in Italian. Trumpeter Gavin Bondy and trombonist Robert Taylor provide a foggy solo at the end to complete the moody tour-de-force. Very typically Pink Martini fare. The Latin flavored ‘60s-ish instrumental “Ohayoo Ohio” (loosely “Hi Ohio” in Japanese) follows. Bondy is given plenty of room to show off his brass chops- as a familiar sounding “bop-bop-ba” chorus supplies texture. Henry Mancini meets Juan Esquivel at Martin Denny’s house.

“Splendor In The Grass,” another original song, follows. The song’s sentiment may have been lifted from the William Inge screenplay of the same name; the title of which was taken from a poem by William Wordsworth: “Of splendor in the grass/Of glory in the flower/ We will grieve not, rather find/Strength in what remains behind.” The actual song could have been lifted from any number of ‘70s pop radio-hits, including the New Seekers’ 1973 hit “I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing,” with perhaps an intimation of “One Tin Soldier” (performed in 1971 by Coven).

Courtney Taylor-Taylor is in the mix but only in a vaguely sparse sort of way. But probably the biggest surprise comes in the musical interlude in the middle, when the string section freely quotes Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto #1 in B-flat Minor, the pounding chords of which Lauderdale quietly quotes throughout the second verse. An odd touch, that certainly adds to the “splendor” aspect of the song.

“Ou Est Ma Tete” (“where is my head”) begins with a piano filigree reminiscent of Kander and Ebb’s legendary “New York, New York,” and then China takes over on vocal- displaying her intrinsic knack for accent and language, this time French; as conga men Brian Davis and Derek Rieth and drummer Martin Zarzar provide Latin-y percussion beneath Lauderdale’s opulent piano features.

“And Then You’re Gone” and “But Now I’m Back” would seem to be two chapters from the same story (starring Lorenzo and Maria). According to Lauderdale, both songs were loosely derived from Franz Schubert’s “Fantasy For Piano For Four Hands,” to which I say- “OK, if you say so”). Forbes asserts the first scene with “And Then You’re Gone,” a song somehow suggestive of Abba’s “Fernando,” (as if it were performed in the ‘60s by Vicki Carr). Shapiro’s rather pedestrian turn on “But Now I’m Back” gives clear indication that he is no Pepe Raphael. But it’s a cute song (“now he‘s back/cut him slack”)- and probably guaranteed of NPR air-play, given Shapiro’s pedigree.

The roiling Bossa Nova, “Sunday Table,” vaguely calls to mind Astrud Gilberto’s legendary “Girl From Ipanema,” as Forbes sings in the same halting manner as her predecessor- while Thomas’ piano phrasings echo those of guitarist Joao Gilberto on the original hit. The song could be from a third person viewpoint (“The Boy From Ipanema”?)- watching the boy observing the girl who “swings so cool and sways so gentle.”

“Over The Valley” begins as one of Erik Satie’s Gymnopedies, before launching into the sort of ballad Doris Day would have recorded. Very pleasant. “Tuca Tuca” reprises the 1970 hit made famous by Italian game and variety show hostess, Rafaella Carra, but more laid back than the original. Solos by Robert Taylor on trombone and, of all things, a bizarre sitar break from bassist Phil Baker effectively enhance the presentation.

The arrangement of “Sing” is nearly identical to that of the Carpenters’ hit version from 1973, until the key changes and Emilio Delgado enters to sing the song in Spanish (as he did with Bob McGrath in their 1971 version from the television show). Grant High School’s Royal Blues choir, along with Pink Martini office staff and members of mayor Sam Adams’ staff provide the backing chorus.

Celebrated 90-year-old Mexican folk singer Chavela Vargas takes a familiar run around the block with Agustin Lara’s classic torch song “Piensa en mi.” The peripatetic Varga- who didn’t really get her professional singing career rolling (with cancione ranchera legend, band leader Jose Alfredo Jimenez) until she was in her forties, was rumored to have had affairs with half of Mexico, including Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. To hear her sing the song, is to allow into one’s heart the weariness of the 20th century weighing upon her elderly, but still archetypal voice- which could bring anyone to tears. Touching.

Without a doubt, the most hauntingly exotic of all the pieces presented here, the ghostly “New Amsterdam,” written by Viking helmeted, blind, homeless New York city eccentric Moondog, is at the top. With a melody that has been covered many times, by many musicians, Forbes intones the colorfully deep lyrics, which include a brief history of the origins of the city. Sax and clarinet duet a soulful nocturne solo section.

With “Splendor In The Grass,“ Pink Martini don’t so much break new ground as lay further claim to the turf they have already staked out. There is no other musical ensemble in the world like Pink. They are throwbacks to a time that never really existed- in any one place in this world. The high level of musicianship and hipness they purvey is beyond the ken of any band functioning in this current universe. They were made for movie soundtracks and themes for commercials. While Forbes and Lauderdale’s songwriting isn’t particularly great, it is extremely cheeky- layered with witty panache. They wear their influences well, if perhaps a bit shallowly at times. To listen to a Pink Martini album is to take a tour of the world, with a knowledgeably savvy guide- without ever leaving the comfort of the easy chair in the living room.



The Decemberists

the_Decemberists-the Hazards_of_LoveThe Hazards of Love
The Decemberists
Capitol Records

The nation’s most preciously anachronistic songwriter–one who fancies himself as somehow part of the Victorian era, the Decemberists’ Colin Meloy has been occasionally compared to Charles Dickens. But Meloy may have more in common with William Makepeace Thackeray, who is probably best known for his novel “Vanity Fair;” although it could be argued that the characters who populate Meloy’s various songs would seem to have something of latter-day Victorian Stephen Crane in them as well, with perhaps a touch of the Bronte sisters thrown in. Whatever he is, Colin Meloy is not from the here and now.

Meloy thrives on the literary. His songs are chock full of curious words and oblique references that the average Joe would have no idea of their meaning. Meloy lives in his own world. The five albums (and four EPs- one of them, “Always The Bridesmaid” put out over the course of three separate records) that the Decemberists have released in the past six years have established them as one of the most unusual bands of this Pop music era. They have their forebears, certainly, but they stand apart from all other bands- for reasons that have been well spelled out by others in the recent past.

With “The Hazards of Love” Meloy and cohorts have created a “rock opera.” Perhaps to head off immediate criticism, Meloy calls it a “folk opera.” For rock operas (as well as “concept albums”) have a somewhat dotty history all their own. It is acknowledged that the Beatles’ 1967 release “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was the first “concept album,” although it could be said that there was no concept to that album- beyond a few sound effects. After that, the Who are mentioned with “Tommy,” from 1969. That “rock opera” was actually preceded by “SF Sorrow” by The Pretty Things in late 1968. Pink Floyd toyed with several different concept album forms, ultimately culminating with “The Wall” in 1979.

But probably the true antecedents to “Hazards of Love,” besides the work of members of the British traditional folk revival of the ‘60s and ‘70s- such as Anne Briggs (think Sandy Denny of Fairport Convention and Maddy Prior of Steeleye Span), who inspired the title of this opus, as well as Nic Jones of the ‘60s Celt trad band Halliard and the godmother of all Brit trad folksingers, Shirley Collins, are a series of albums by Jethro Tull: “Thick As A Brick,” (1972) “A Passion Play,” (1973) the second half of “Minstrel In The Gallery:” (1975) called “Baker Street Muse” and “Songs From The Wood” (1977). In many ways, Colin Meloy has much in common, with Tull leader, Ian Anderson. Both are extremely literary. Both are somewhat pretentious and unyielding in their approach to songwriting. “Hazards of Love” has much in common with “Thick As A Brick” and “A Passion Play,” sharing some similar instrumental choices as well as a few coincidental interludes.

While not the Decemberists’ first concept album (the 2005 EP “The Tain” was the first attempt and “Crane Wife,” from 2006, was a modest follow up to that mode), it is certainly their most ambitious work and their best realized–while not, perhaps, the most accessible of their albums. Stylistically, the band wanders much farther afield.

The story, somewhat ornate and drawn-out–like an Arthur Rackham illustration–surrounds the adventures of young Margaret, a rustic country girl. She is deeply charmed by William, who lives in a magical forest. He first comes to her in the form of a white wounded fawn. Margaret attempts to heal the fawn, whereby it is transformed into William. So, as these things go, it is not long before the couple fall in love, and Margaret becomes pregnant.

This situation incurs the wrath of William’s mother, the cruel Queen of the wildwood taiga (it would take too long to explain the meaning of that word), who will allow William only one last night with his love. To make certain of this, the Queen enlists the services of the Rake–a terrible fellow, who murdered his infant children after his wife had died a miserable death in childbirth. The Rake kidnaps Margaret. At this point, William sets out and eventually successfully rescues his ladylove. And they live happily ever after as rocks in a river. The plot somewhat resembles any of several Grimms Fairy Tales, as well as a couple of Shakespearian plays–Midsummer Nights Dream and As You Like It come to mind.

Musically, while still folky and loaded with acoustic guitars, the band display a decided prog-rocky bent, where one would find more “experimental” interludes, with Meloy and lead guitarist Chris Funk punctuating with more intense guitar colorations; while Jenny Conlee’s organ work often seems very reminiscent of Jethro Tull’s John Evan on “Thick As A Brick.”

And while Meloy assumes the voice of both William and the Rake–as well as that of a sort of musical narrator–for the first time, other singers play significant roles in the proceedings. Becky Stark of Lavendar Diamond assumes the vocal role of Margaret, while Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond portrays the Queen. Robyn Hitchcock and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James make singularly brief appearances. Rebecca Gates of the Spinanes is rumored to be in the mix somewhere–apparently in the closing chorus with James–but it sounds like name-dropping to me. A string section also appears occasionally.

The album begins with Jenny Conlee‘s “Prelude,” a stately canonical organ piece, which consists of a minute and a half long pedal tone, before moving evocatively in an orchestral direction, buffered by a string quartet. This fades into the first chapter of the title song, which is repeated in various forms throughout the album. The subtitle “The Prettiest Whistles Won’t Wrestle The Thistles Undone,” gives a true indication of Meloy’s preoccupation with words–sometimes to the point of distraction.

But the song sets the scene. William, the transformed wounded fawn, et cetera. A blossoming love between William and Margaret, as “fifteen lithesome maidens lay along in their bower.” A gentle acoustic background consisting of acoustic guitar and what sounds like an autoharp are supplemented by Nate Query’s evocative upright bass and Conlee’s restrained Wurlie electric piano and shadowy, low-end synth figures.

With “A Bower Scene,” it becomes apparent within the story arc that our heroine, Margaret, is with child. Musically, the cut is as electrically metal as the Decemberists have ever been–with Chris Funk’s two-note guitar figure and a positively robust break– which, the second time around, melds into the Tull-ian march of “Won’t Want For Love (Margaret In The Taiga)” and with Funk providing a very nicely articulated alteration of his original two-note guitar theme. Here, the beautiful, winsome voice of Becky Stark enters the vocal picture–her soft phrasing a decided departure from Colin Meloy’s nasally discourses.

“The Hazards Of Love (Wager All) is vaguely reminiscent of “The Crane Wife” in its composition, and is a transitional piece within the story line, indicating the heroically undying love William feels for Margaret. “And we’ll lie ‘til the corncrake crows,” is a line that only Colin Meloy could get away with singing. Like two notched sticks being rubbed together. “Crex, crex.”

Segue into the short instrumental piece, “The Queen’s Approach,” where a sound like a banjo makes its presence briefly known and into “Isn’t It A Lovely Night,” perhaps the most beautiful little song of the set. Over Meloy’s flat-picked acoustic guitar lines and Jenny Conlee’s provincial accordion, Becky Stark positively thrushes as a lulling lovely, lilting nightingale–her voice perfectly matched to the charming little tune. A pedal guitar whispered waltz at the end is a tender and lovingly infused moment.

William confronts his mother the Queen in “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid.,” where she proceeds to guilt trip the bejesus out of the poor love-besotted lad. Finally they come to agreement. William can have one last night of bliss with his damsel fair, but by morning he will have to turn back into a white fawn, or at least succumb to his mother’s maternal demands, deserting Margaret, possibly forever. Kind of a misguided swap in my book, but who am I to judge? This is a fairytale, after all.

Conlee’s roiling harpsichord patch arpeggio modulates into an intensely emotional section, where William bares his soul to his mother (SharaWorden, a vocal dead ringer for Sandy Denny and Maddy Prior). As the song transitions into its second half “Repaid,” the band takes off into another plodding prog-rock discursion of the highest order with twin electric guitar motifs between Meloy and Funk, along the lines of the ‘70s Celtic rock band, Horslips, with maybe a soupcon of Gentle Giant thrown in (and a piece of Dire Straits‘ “Money For Nothing” lopped on too) over John Moen‘s insistent, slamming drums. Worden’s husky dusky voice is well suited to her role, with bluesy undertones and a dark undercurrent flowing just beneath her delivery.

The instrumental “An Interlude” features Meloy on acoustic guitar, Robyn Hitchcock floating in the background on electric guitar, with Chris Funk on bouzouki. A pastoral pastiche. Over a familiar G-Em acoustic guitar riff, Meloy takes the vocal as the villain in “The Rake’s Song.” The rake in question seems to find great satisfaction in the death of his wife delivering his fourth child, “ugly Myfanwy,” with no feelings of regret. Ah, the fatal flaw!

“The Abduction of Margaret,” wherein the rapacious Rake makes off with our heroine, recycles the arrangement–two note riff and vocal melody of “A Bower Scene.” Meanwhile, “The Queen’s Rebuke/The Crossing” reveals the Queen’s true being, bred of wind and rain and sunshine with all the vicissitudes and random venomous compassion of a tree, a snake, or Nature herself. It is here that William’s fawnish shape-shifting history is divulged. And it is here, where her directive to the Rake to despoil poor Margaret is made patently obvious. You don’t cross this Queen. Nuh-uh! The Queen giveth and the Queen taketh away.

William, not one to back down from a challenge, confronts and cajoles the river, which separates him from his true love on “Annan Water.” A jangling acoustic background- comprised of acoustic guitar, mandolin, autoharp, hurdy-gurdy and hammer dulcimer lend the song a decidedly folkish feel not unlike Led Zeppelin’s “Black Mountain Side (which was loosely inspired by Anne Briggs’ “Blackwaterside,” incidently- or Burt Jansch‘s interpretation of her version, to be exact).

The Rake has his way with Margaret in “Margaret In Captivity,” as our heroine pleads with the wind to beckon William to save her. The Rake assures her this is impossible. A jangly 12-string acoustic guitar riff representing the Rake is balanced by the intense electric guitar crush of Margaret’s plaintive pleas. The string quartet returns at the end to lend destitute emotion to her furtive cries.

Reworking Conlee’s harpsichord riff from “The Wanting Comes In Waves” the electrified band hits heavy as suddenly the sweet voices of the Rake’s dead children come to haunt him in a gentle chorus. Uh-oh, the hazards of love. That electrified theme returns with the reprise of “The Wanting Comes In Waves” a dashing heroic piece. William is one motivated white fawn. Rest assured of that.

Finally William and Margaret are re-united though–as in James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake”–the lovers become as inseparable stones in the Annan Water and drown, peacefully, in love. Those anticipating a happy ending to this tale will be saddened and uplifted by this final twist.

“The Hazards of Love” stands as a peculiar artifact, alike nothing else released in decades. While the conceits here are irrepressible, so is the artistry, which matches its author’s ambitions. The Decemberists distinguish themselves as a band who are just now coming into their own full voice, their own true sound.

One big relief on this album is the fact that Colin Meloy has pretty much ditched most of his various vocal affectations, which in the past put some people off (mainly me). Nearly gone is the Cockney Mockney, including an array of speech impediments, tics and tacs that need not be reiterated here, because, for the most part, they have vanished. Huzzah! Huzzah I say.

For folks who like their pop works short and sweet: songs three-minutes long and out, this album will be a colossal bore. But for those who appreciate the Decemberists own special anachronistic style, there is much in this, their finest album yet, to recommend here. This album is a true work of art and is artfully assembled by real artists


Ethan Rose

Ethan Rose
Holocene Music

The concept of “musique concrete” was first developed in the late ‘40s by a French composer named Pierre Schaffer. It was a natural outgrowth of the new technology of tape recording. The tape recorder allowed composers such as Schaeffer, and other composers of a like mind, to construct music out of pre-recorded snippets- not necessarily from a single source- altered with a variety of effects- to create sound collages that were hither-to unimaginable (except in the mind of Charles Ives, perhaps).

The music created within musique concrete is not so much a composition, in the historic meaning of the term- notated, linear music, with natural contours of melody and rhythm- as it is a construction of musical (and other) sounds, set forth in a musical manner- somewhat random and non-linear in structure.

Possibly the best example of musique concrete in recent popular music is the montage created by John Lennon (with the help of producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick) for “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” on the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album of 1967. He subsequently took the idea a step further with “Revolution #9” found on “The Beatles,” otherwise known as the “The White Album” released in 1968.

With the advent of samplers and other pieces of computer software, it has become easier for modern composers to create such music- some of which tends to fall in the “ambient” musical category- attributable primarily to the atmospheric quality of the finished result. But not all ambient music is musique concrete, nor is all musique concrete necessarily ambient in nature. But the two forms have much in common.

Which brings us to Ethan Rose. Ethan Rose is a local musician whose compositions tend to bridge the gap between musique concrete and ambient music. When Rose’s name came up, friend of mine said “oh I like what he plays.” I replied that I thought that he didn’t so much “play” music, in the typical sense of the word, as to gather and prepare it, to rebuild into a completely different form. This caused no end of perplexion.

But that’s what Rose does. It is impossible to tell (and truly, unnecessary to know) how much of the music Ethan Rose actually plays (if any) on this album and how much of it that he merely treats. Whatever the case- this album is a true work of art and will be an influential recording for many artists who will follow him.

It is fairly well known that Rose became enchanted with the historic pipe organ at the Oaks Park skating rink- a true throwback to another, less complicated, musical era. Pipe organs were more or less the synthesizers of their day- reproducing any number of various instruments (though, in many cases, not very well), allowing a single individual to act as an entire symphony orchestra. That idea is not new. JS Back wrote incredible pieces for the pipe organ. In many of his compositions, the foot controlled bass pedal requires of the player that he dance a veritable jig in accompaniment.

The organ at the Oaks is a 1926 Wurlitzer, one of the better known contemporary organ manufacturers. It is a theatre pipe organ, not necessarily a liturgical organ that you might ordinarily find in a church. The current Oaks Park organ was installed in 1955. There have been several celebrated organists in Oaks Park’s history. Keith Fortune is one of the current organists. He provides the source material for Ethan Rose’s flights of fantasy.

And such flights they are! They are actually pieces of musique acousmatique- which I am not going to explain here. Look it up. The idea though is that it becomes difficult to tell of what source the created music is comprised. That is oftentimes the case here. So, what exactly Ethan plays here, if anything, besides effects pedals and a computer mouse, is difficult to ascertain. But the results are splendid, indeed.

These roller rink organists are a dying breed (as are roller rinks themselves). Many of the organists were long ago replaced by sound systems- blaring the current hits of the day. But if you want to know what good roller rink organ sounds like, watch this:

This guy, Corey Fridinger, plays some pretty hot shit- indicative of the style that is typically adapted for rink play.

So what does Ethan Rose’s music sound like? Well first we should define what it doesn’t sound like. It does not sound like the old roller rinks where the organist was a thousand years old and played things like “Somewhere My Love” from Dr. Zhivago, “Let Me Call You Sweetheart, Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called To Say I Love You” or Billy Joel’s “I Love You Just The Way You Are.” There is a possibility that Ethan has sampled one or more of these songs or others comparable, but that is impossible to say. Another interesting album might be Ethan (and organist Keith Fortune) releasing the original tracks from which these cuts were culled and reassembled. There is no way of identifying the originals in their new form.

No, Ethan Rose’s musical pieces are inscrutable, other worldly- composed of water, smoke and the ether. They drip and waft and hover. They go nowhere- though they go somewhere. But no place you’ve ever been before (except, possibly, in your dreams). Ineffably indistinct. Vaporous.

“On Wheels Rotating” works from simple percussive hammer hits, with shimmering drones- like something Sigur Ros might develop; then moves to a more melodic section, which proceeds more or less linearly- though nowhere in particular. Parts of this section sound like snippets of “Silent Night.” the third section reverts to a very pretty, misty conclusion.

Working from a humming pedal point, “Rising Waters” trickles and flows like rain into puddles on an Oregon winter’s day. Random clicks and clacks and swirls mingle with melodic foghorns in the musical haze. Hypnotic. Somewhat more muscular, though no less mesmerizing, “Grand Marcher,” satellites through expansive skies, like a comet in the endless sonic cosmos- the sound of air passing over gigantic bottles.

The chimey “The Floor Released” moves haltingly in no direction in particular- like a music box slowly losing its momentum. Ghostly gasps punctuate the windless breath of all time melting down to zero, to renew again in endless space. “Fortunate” is a cheeky pun- regarding the organist’s name: one would suppose. A hymnal pall is cast- as if the marriage of air and water were forming earth, or some other such grandiose cosmic event were transpiring.

Clattering and clanging, “Scenes from When” sounds as if it has a guitar playing single notes above the mechanical industrial whir of the treadmill bed of sound. Certain sections here (and elsewhere) sound as if they are unreeling backwards, from end to beginning, in some alternative musical universe.

The bell-like tones of “Mighty Mighty” call to mind Salvation Army Christmas ringers, with a haunting clarity- punctuated with subtle tympanic explosions in the distance. Vaguely melodic in a charmingly unfettered way- like a musical slinky tumbling down a flight of stairs. Finally, “Bottom” starts off sounding like a musical garbage can tipped over in an alley, before resolving into plaintive jingle bells above a snowy panorama of thematic wonderment.

This is certainly not music to play at your next rave. The textures here are dreamy, the tempos are dirge-like. But there is no doubt about the inexpressible compositional beauty that Ethan Rose has developed in the eight tracks found (with an accent on “found”) here. This is not like anything you have ever heard before. It is music to fall asleep by- perchance to dream. It is the music of heaven unfolding like a fluffy cotton jack-in-the-box. It is the sound of one hand clapping.

Blind Pilot

Blind Pilot - Earth 3 rounds and a soundEarth Three Rounds and a Sound
Blind Pilot
Expunged Records

Here’s a new duo with a promising future, whom have sort of crept up on the local scene, by going about things a little differently than most musical acts do. For one, the band has organized and executed two (count them) West Coast bicycle tours (totally green, mind you- no motorized vehicles whatsoever were utilized in the process)- performing their music in out of the way locales from Bellingham to Mexico, promoting their EP (which has now grown into this full-length, eleven song album) and creating a buzz about the band that now stretches across the nation. Their first tour was abbreviated, because their equipment was stolen in San Francisco.

First KCRW, the influential So. Cal radio station started playing some of their stuff last summer- at about the time that their song “Go On, Say It” was picked as iTunes’ Single of the Week. That put them within listening distance of Aimee Mann, who christened them her “new favorite band.” Deservedly so. Then, more recently, the new album was selected as Starbucks’ “Pick of the Week.” Quite an achievement for coming out of nowhere.

Now the band is prepared to embark on their first national tour which will find them playing at South by Southwest in March and New York City’s famed Mercury Lounge in April. Not bad for a couple of “unknowns.”

Portland natives Israel Nebeker (vocals, guitar) and Ryan Dobrowski (drums), have been friends since college, and have obviously bonded musically: creating forlornly beautiful music with such bare-bones simplicity- that the sky would seem to be the limit for their musical futures. Nebeker’s songs evoke material performed by the Shins or Death Cab For Cutie. They are in that same contemplatively dejected category. But one can also hear Conor Oberst or Elliot Smith in Nebeker’s voice (though not as precious as the former, nor as depressed as the latter). Nebeker claims he was influenced by Neutral Milk Hotel and Joanna Newsom, which could very well be.

The foundation for the band’s sound lies in Dobrowski’s drums. He is to Blind Pilot what Scott Plouf was to the Spinanes- another Portland duo who met with success in the early ‘90s. Dobrowski plays with a solid, rock temperament, but he does not overshadow Nebeker’s plaintive guitar. Nebeker’s guitar sound is taken directly from Bob Dylan’s late ‘60s album “John Wesley Harding,” with a warm ambience that usually comes from gut strings- ala Spanish guitars, but could be something like a Martin Double-Ought; a smaller acoustic guitar with steel strings.

It is a convivial sound that melds distinctively with the drums- creating a wonderful bed for Nebeker‘s soft, smooth vocals. Some songs feature a bit more instrumentation- augmented by touches of a string section, banjo, vibes, keyboard or trumpet. But most of the power comes from the duo and Nebeker’s songs themselves.

The eleven songs presented here are immaculate in their conception and lovingly precise and pristine in their execution. The set begins with “Oviedo,” perhaps an ode to the city in Northern Spain. Nebeker’s lyrics are vague enough to obscure their full intent, but not their emotional depth: “Four times is once too much for luck/and that’s how many times the clock struck/ I wandered home saying your name.” Over soft, almost ukelele-like guitar work and crisp drumming, the song leisurely unfolds. Strings join in at about the midway point of the song, and then a plucky banjo joins to add atmosphere to an already atmospheric song. “You’ll be having my head as big as a birthday/Coz I left all my doubts on the airplane.”

Production-wise “The Story I Hear” sort of takes off where the last song, left off- although the lyrics are not so oblique, but only barely so. Likewise, “Paint or Pollen” more or less combines themes of the previous two songs, while staying within the same essential musical structure. Here, bell-like vibes flutter above the arrangement, while sonorous strings cry mournfully in the turns. The waltz “Poor Boy” utilizes major 7th chords the way Paul Simon used to in the heyday of Simon and Garfunkel (“Old Friends,” “America”).

One of the highlights of the set, “One Red Thread,” kicks off with forlorn guitar over bracing drums, before melting into the slow-moving middle section at the sound of the vibes; swinging back into the chugging train of the main verse. The aforementioned “Go On, Say It” dances on sorrowful strings and piquant vibes- a sad song about the lack of communication, when it is most needed in a relationship. A lovely song.

“I Buried A Bone,” a short sweet song, bears an instantly memorable melody, punctuated by Mexicali trumpets. The string section returns, with muted trumpets to augment “Things I Cannot Recall,” calling to mind some of Sufjan Stevens’ more orchestral work. Nebeker handles the introduction to “The Bitter End,” before Dobrowski joins in, set off by chiming vibes, bass guitar and a backing vocal choir on the chorus. Another very pretty song.

The title track is a laid-back number, accented by accordion and strings, surrounding a harsh, confessional lyric- “Now I see you to kingdom come/ you’re the one I want to see me/ For all the stupid shit I’ve done.” A fitting ending to a very satisfying first album.

The sky is the limit for Blind Pilot. With this album, they have done the groundwork necessary to further their careers. It is obvious that the plan is to widen the production scale, by adding sparse instrumentation. That is ostensibly being reflected by their local performances- with nine performers taking the stage to fill out these songs. But, even as a two-piece, this is a band with which to be reckoned. Israel Nebeker and Ryan Dobrowski have found their niche. And not a lot is required of them to succeed. They only need to keep coming up with wonderful songs, such as those found here; and to maintain their status as one of the best new bands in Portland- or anywhere else, for that matter.