New Music Reviews/ Words: Dominic Valvona
Welcome to Dominic Valvona’s regular reviews roundup. This latest edition of Tickling Our Fancy includes albums, EPs and singles by Stella Sommer, Otis Sandsjö, Yiddish Glory, Yazz Ahmed, Franklin and Qujaku.
In another eclectic edition, with releases pulled together from across international date lines and genres, there’s the beautifully morose Nico-esque Gothic indie solo debut album from Stella Sommer (tipped as one of my albums of 2018 already); a no less striking debut from the Scandinavian jazz saxophonist Otis Sandsjö, who mixes European jazz styles and modernism with the cut-and-paste techniques of hip-hop and electronica in real time on the brilliant Y-OTIS; a remixed treatment EP of songs from Yazz Ahmed’s Arabian jazz suite La Saboteuse; the debut EP, Some Old Tracks, from the polygenesis psychedelic and pool splash electronic sample collage artist Franklin; and an intense dramatic overture like suite of post-punk, drone, Gothic psychedelia and doom from the skulking Japanese troupe Qujaku.
With more serious intentions, shining a light on a lost chapter in WWII Jewish history, I also look at the beautifully produced Yiddish Glory testimony of tragic laments, ballads and elegiac songs written by the Soviet Union’s Jewish community during the barbaric invasion of Russia.
Stella Sommer ’13 Kinds Of Happiness’ (Affairs Of The Heart) 10th August 2018
In the vogue of an age-old central European malady, the dour romanticism that permeates the stunning solo debut album from the German singer/songwriter Stella Sommer is wrapped in a most beautiful gauze of melodious uplift and elegiac heartache.
Artistically, as the results prove, making the best decision of her career, Sommer steps out for a sojourn from her role in the German band Die Heiterkeit. Far from an extension of that group (though band mates Hanitra Wagner and Phillip Wolf both join her on this album), there are of course concomitant traces of it. Sommer however makes louder but also accentuates these traces and lingering relationships; her lived-in, far-beyond-her-years vocal more sonorous and commanding than before.
Possibly as perfect as an album can get, 13 Kinds Of Happiness is an ambitious, slowly unveiling album of diaphanous morose. Pastoral folk songs and hymn-like love trysts are transduced by a Gothic and Lutheran choral liturgy rich backing that reimagines Nico fronting Joy Division, or Marianne Faithfull writhing over a Scary Monsters And Super Creeps era Bowie soundtrack (especially on the galloping Northern European renaissance period evoking thunderous drumming ‘Dark Princess, Dark Prince’; just one of the album’s many highlights). I don’t use that Nico reference lightly: Sommer channeling the fatalistic heroine’s best qualities atmospherically speaking.
Rather surprisingly, especially with the influences I’ve outlined, the torment and caustic swirls of the enveloping ominous fog cloaked dramatic title-track, vocally crosses Nico with Tim Booth of James fame. ‘Collapse/Collapsing’ even sounds a bit late 70s Fleetwood Mac, whilst ‘I Take An Interest’, with its ethereal lulling choruses and cathedral atmospherics isn’t a million miles away from a Holy Roman Empire inspired Beach House – imagine that!
The rest of this album is very much in the Germanic mode of religious drama and mystery. Hidden amongst the cloisters, Baroque drones and dark serious conservatism faith and tradition is brighter pop relief and troubadour, even Dylan-esque, odes on love, loss and anxiety. A perfect example of this serious but lilting, Gothic but often melodically harmonious counterpoint is the mellotron entrancing boat ride across a Kosmische river Styx, as painted by Caspar David Friedrich, ‘Boat On My River’. Following in the grand tradition of river songs, or alluding to Germany’s timeless relationship to the waters that run throughout its legacy, Sommer evokes Neu! and Cluster on this foreboding romanticized voyage, yet shows a certain vulnerability and lightness of touch too. That same vulnerability is also in evidence on the nocturnal, birds-of-a-feather duet with (I think) the lead singer (and fellow compatriot) of Tocotronic, Dirk Von Lowtzow, ‘Bird’s Of The Night’.
A curious Teutonic travail of venerable lovelorn despair and modesty, Sommer’s debut LP will take time to work its magic. But work its magic it will. A tremendous talent lyrically and vocally, serious and astute yet melodically enriching and lilted, her sagacious deep tones are starkly dramatic, but above all, rewarding. 13 Kinds Of Happiness is destined for many end of year lists; I for one, living with it for the past two months, find it one of 2018’s highlights, and one of the best debuts I’ve heard in ages. Here’s to a solo indulgence that I hope long continues.
Otis Sandsjö ‘Y-OTIS’ (We Jazz Records) 1st June 2018
Imbued as much by the complex language of North American and European modernist jazz as those who use it to riff on in the hip-hop and electronic music genres, the adroit Gothenburg saxophonist and composer Otis Sandsjö transmogrifies his own jazz performances so they transcend, or at least amorphously (like liquid) expand into polygenesis soundscapes.
His debut album, released via the Helsinki festival and label platform, We Jazz Records, is a multilayered serialism suite of ideas and experimental visions. All of which, despite that complexity, keep an ear out for the melody.
Y-OTIS reimagines a musical union between Flying Lotus and Donny McCaslin, or better still, Madlib reconstructing the work of 3TM; the flow, if you can call it that, sounding like a remix deconstruction in progress as the rapid and dragging fills and staggered rolls of Tilo Webber’s drums are stretched out, inverted and reversed into a staccato to dynamic bursting set of breakbeats and loops. Mirroring all the various cut-and-paste techniques of the turntablist maestros, Sandsjö and his dexterous troupe of keyboardist Elias Stemeseder, bassist Petter Eidh and the already mentioned Webber sound like a group being remixed in real time, live: And it sounds brilliant, as you’re never quite sure where each of these compositions is going to end up.
Sandsjö’s own articulations as bandleader never grandstand or take precedent, let alone dominate; his saxophone in a constant suffused circular and flighty motion, always there yet often drifting and dissipating. Of course there are occasional bursts of flute-y soloing and more rapid energetic squawking.
Tripping both across space, counterpointing Jerry Goldsmith’s optimistic siren-ethereal Star Trekking with Kosmische, yet also inspired by tribal and soulful earthly vistas too, Sandsjö offers up some surprising musical evocations. The avant-garde snozzling, drum rim-tapping and lumbering funk ‘BOO!’ sounds like Tortoise and a chilled Dunkelziffer, whilst the dreamy merging, of what could be two entirely separate tracks, ‘YUNG’, with its elongated rhythms, could be Coldcut going at a warped Mardi Gras Afrobeat inspired improvisation.
Importantly Sandsjö offers a jazz style birthed from an eclectic melting pot of hip-hop, dance music and even more experimental edgier R&B; reorganized into a fresh exploration. If the ACT label, or ECM ever converges with Leaf and Anticon, Y-OTIS might well be the resulting album. As 2018 shapes up to be another great year for jazz releases, the inaugural album from Sandsjö and his troupe looks set to showcase a great talent, and make the end of year lists: it will most definitely make ours.
Yazz Ahmed ‘La Saboteuse Remixed’ (Naim Records) 10th August 2018
Working her dreamy enchanted magic, encapsulating a transcendental, exotic version of Arabian jazz, on last year’s traversing trumpet suffused La Saboteuse LP, Yazz Ahmed calls on a congruous trio of remixers and artists to interpret a handful of peregrinations from that well-received suite.
This new EP of re-contextualized voyages and evocations also features, a sort of, new production hybrid that uses Ahmed and her producer Noel Langley’s self-sampling and deconstructing techniques to refashion a ‘fourth world’ sound collage. Inspired in part by Jon Hassell’s amorphous ‘possible musics’ experiments and the equally polygenesis floatisms and shifting lingers of Flying Lotus, ‘Spindrifting’, as the title suggests, languorously drifts between gauze-y environments and borders; re-placing fragments and textures from the La Saboteuse recordings.
Reflecting a constant unending journey of interpretation, filtered through ‘alternative visions’ and ‘perspectives’, burgeoning South London DJ and graphic artist Hector Plimmer, who released his debut LP Sunshine last year, cuts down and transduces Ahmed’s original lengthy ‘The Lost Pearl’ into a nuanced tropical lilt and itching understated electronic shuffler. Whereas, self-proclaimed ‘Afro-futurist’ beatmaker DJ Khalab, takes the Arabian delights and Tangier trumpet suffusions of the original ‘Jamil Jamil’ into the cosmic ether on his treatment. The Italian DJ undulates that belly-dancing souk vista with moody pulses, kinetic connective beats, vapours and starry space atmospheres.
Originally a tub-thumping percussive and trumpet heralding panoramic meditation, ‘Al Emadi’ is given a buoyant dub wafting veil by the Lisbon trio of brothers and close pal Blacksea Não Mayo. DJs Noronka, Kolt and Perigoso add a bounce and short yelp like punctuations to that vision; moving it closer towards classy electronica dance.
An articulate extension of Ahmed’s original album template, her already traversing evocations are taken on vaporous and often subtle cosmic and dreamy detours by this carefully chosen cast. A parallel navigated piece of escapism rather than enhancement, the remix EP enervates the jazz for a more electronic music feel to guide Ahmed’s 21st century Arabian imaginations across new boundaries and vistas.
‘Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs Of World War II’ (Six Degrees) Out now
Few albums can stir the soul let alone give a voice to such harrowing anguish as the sacrifices made by the Soviet Jewish community during one of history’s most brutal conflicts – 2.5 million poor souls from this Jewish community would perish in the European territories of the Soviet Union alone. A forgotten chapter, expedient to Stalin and his successors own tyrannical political airbrushing of events, 440,000 Jewish citizens from all corners of the then Soviet Empire enlisted to fight the Nazis during the 1940s.
Though an integral part of the Bolshevik revolution that preceded it decades earlier – the Jews often suffering under the Imperial regime of the Tsars and Tsarinas in countless programs over the centuries; Tsar Nicholas II no better than previous holders of the title, stirring up hatred towards the faith by propagating the most fatuous blood libel and protocols of Zion conspiracies as proof of his own idiotic prejudices and envy -, the Jewish population that survived the second World War soon found themselves the victims of Stalin’s purges.
Despite the paranoia, mistrust and the megalomaniacal politics of one of the most murderous regimes in history, the Jews of Russia have always remained loyal. Even during the enlightened age of Napoleon, with his promises during the misconceived and doomed invasion of Russia in 1812 of liberating not only the population from serfdom but also the Jews (Napoleon having kept his word in freeing the Jews from the various ghettos they found themselves herded into throughout Europe; Venice being one the most famous examples), Russia’s Jewish population remained stoic in their support of the homeland.
Lost in the annals of time then; suppressed, if thought destroyed, the tragic but poetic WWII testaments, made lyrical prose, of just a small cross-section of Russia’s Jews is given the richly evocative and adroit production showcase it deserves by a collective of professors, producers and musicians. Originally unified in an anthology by an ethnomusicologist from the Kiev Cabinet For Jewish Culture, Moisei Beregovsky, alongside colleague Rovim Lerner, hundreds of Yiddish songs written by Red Army soldiers, victims and survivors of the Nazi’s apocalyptic massacres were gathered in the hope of being eventually published and performed. Unfortunately at the very height of the Communist Party’s purges in the decades that followed the end of WWII, both these well-intentioned preservationists were arrested. Subsequently the project was never finished, the work sealed up and hidden away. But as it would later transpire, not destroyed.
Decades later in the 1990s, the Soviet archives now under the ownership of a collapsed Communist state, as the Iron Curtain finally tumbled, librarians from the Vernadsky National Library Of Ukraine found these lost treasures in unlabeled boxes. One of these librarians, Lyudmila Sholokhova, would catalogue these findings – just one of the many cast members in this story. Fast-forward another decade and by coincidence, one of this project’s eventual instigators, Anna Shternshis, stumbled upon these treasured songs whilst visiting Kiev. Highly fragile, deteriorating quickly, these original notes (some handwritten, others typed) opened up a whole undiscovered chapter in Jewish history to both Shternshis and her eventual colleagues on this project, musician Psoy Korolenko (known in his academic life as Dr. Pavel Lion), Al and professor of Yiddish Studies and Director of the Anne Tanenbaum Centre For Jewish Studies at the University Of Toronto Malka Green, and musical director and violinist Sergei Erdenko.
Transcribing these laments and firsthand accounts of endurance (many of which included testament evidence to various Nazi atrocities) would take patience, skill but above all respect. The results of this this most tragic desideratum, entitled Yiddish Glory, are underscored by an Erdenko-led stirring accompaniment ensemble of classically trained instrumentalists and singers, brought together by the producer Dan Rosenberg.
Challenging perceived conventions throughout this magnificent suite of eighteen songs, silencing detractors now as it would have back then, amongst the laments are stirring motivationals that adhere to a long lineage of Jewish and Russian history. Weaving in one of the revered fathers of the Russian classical school of music, Mikhail Glinka’s 1840 ‘The Skylark’ tune with a rousing call for his fellow Red Army comrades to support their Jewish compatriots, Odessa soldier (known only by his first name) Yoshke answers the anti-Semitic propaganda that ‘Jews don’t fight in war’ with his, perhaps not so lighthearted as it would seem from the title, ‘Yoshke Fun Odes’. The accompanying linear notes – featuring the lyrics to all the songs (in most cases) in Hebrew, Cyrillic and English – tell us that Yoshke is himself fighting to ‘avenge his brutally murdered Jewish family’. Though as it would prove, when the survivors of this war returned home, the Jewish population would have to once more fight for their lives, but this time against many of their Russian comrades: tragic when viewed form our vantage point, as many would end up arrested or liquidated on the most spurious and paranoid of charges; Stalin’s position after WWII solidified, clearing the path for his many sweeping purges. Showing every bit as much passion for and attachment to their country and regime as any hardline dye-in-the-wool Communist, songs such as the panoramic ‘Kazakhstan’ – possibly written, we’re told, by one of the 250,000 Polish Jewish refugees that survived the war – could have been ripped from the very soil itself. Two different vocalist versions of this minor opus feature on this album; the one sung by the smoky jazzy and commanding singer Sophie Milman is a personal dedication to her grandmother, a Soviet Jewish refugee survivor in Kazakhstan, but also a wider tribute to the millions of women who were involved in the war effort; the second version, sung by Erdenko, pays homage to the often forgotten Roma community, murdered in great numbers in the ensuing Holocaust.
Nothing could be more heart wrenching than the plaintive ‘My Mother’s Grave’, originally penned by the ten year old Valya Roytlender, a native of Bratslav in the Ukraine. Channeling the loss but also survivor’s guilt, the youngest of the ensemble cast of vocalist (five in total), Isaac Rosenberg, gets the bottom lip quivering and the tear ducts ready to flood with lines as moving as, “Oh mama, who will wake me up [in the morning]? Oh mama, who will tuck me in [at night]?”
Many of the songs are surprisingly violent in retributive prose – a result of Soviet censors adding the revengeful party line to every song; part of the state machinery’s propaganda in stirring up hatred towards their enemies, but also a nationalistic fervor -, the language of dehumanization prevalent throughout: the Nazis often referred to as vermin to be eradicated and shown no pity. Considering the Nazi’s barbarity, but also Stalin’s own ineptitude and grasp of unfolding events, caught by surprise at Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, it’s hardly surprising to find such encouragement in these songs. Yet it often feels, as it turns out, to have been added in many cases later by the state, to be in contradiction to the sentiment. Whilst certainly ready to pick up a machine gun in a heartbeat, going as far as to even taunt on songs like ‘Mayn Pulemyot (My Machine Gun)’, the lyrics often attempt to make sense of what is…well, a senseless brutalism.
An equal opportunity employer in carnage and slaughter, the stoic, hardened women of the Soviet Union feature just as heavily and prominent as the men in these songs: ‘Chuvasher Tekhter (Daughters Of Chuvashia)’, penned by a young Communist League member from Kharkov in 1942, bares testament to those women from the region of the title who were drafted into the Red Army to fight on the frontline; just a small fraction of the 900,000 women who would eventually join the rank and file.
The stars ask me [to speak]: “Tell us!
Who is marching so late at night?”
The answer: “Chuvash daughters
Preparing themselves to go into battle.”
Other songs pay homage to those women working on the production lines. All of which offer words of encouragement to their lovers to fight the good fight.
Firsthand accounts of atrocities appear on both ‘Babi Yar’ and ‘Tulchin’; the first of these harrowing laments and ballads referring to the massacre of the titular ravine near Kiev, where an astonishing 33,771 Jews were shot in 48 hours, in the September of ’41, the second, dedicated to the small Ukrainian town of the title, which lost its entire Jewish community.
Later on though, as if in a chronological timeline, there are songs celebrating the end of WWII; the finale, ‘Tsum Nayem Yor 1944 (Happy New Year 1944)’, featuring the full cast and singing circle, ushers in the New Year and ultimate victory over fascism that would soon follow.
Enough crying over our beloved dead,
The Red Army has the upper hand now.
Hitler can only kill us at night in our dreams.
Woe will be upon him, when we have peace!
Despite the materials obvious harrowing and tragic nature, the music throughout is a dizzying, waltzing mix of Yiddish, Roma, Klezmer, folk and even jazzy cabaret that’s often upbeat. The band does a sterling job in breathing life back into historical testimony; giving voice to those suppressed individuals and the songs that were believed lost forever, destroyed by a regime that would treat its loyal Jewish community, many of which made the ultimate sacrifice, little better than the Nazis they so valiantly overcame.
This is a poignant reminder that we should do more to educate ourselves on lost histories such as this; especially in the times we find ourselves with anti-Semitism once more on the rise and in the news (especially in the UK). Yiddish Glory is not just a reminder however, or even just a revelation, but a beautifully produced performance.
Franklin ‘Some Old Tracks’ Out now
Keeping the brief scant but candid, the artist(s) behind this project create a bright polygenesis EP out of frustration: ‘After a truly terrible session with an artist trying to force me to copy a hook from The Chainsmokers, it was enough for me.’ Bounding back from one too many constrictions, Franklin, in a manner, returns to its youth and the music that soundtracked it. Never able to afford the clearance but carrying on nevertheless, the spark of inspiration that now ignites Franklin, sampling montages and collages, is brought together once more and made into a vibrant psychedelic pool party splash of filtered funk, staccato House and light breeze West Coast hip-hop.
Criss-crossing genres at will over a quartet of tracks on the Franklin debut, tunes and samples, loops and ideas seem to melt and merge harmonically. For instance, the opening track ‘Frankie’ swims along to a fragmented cut-and-paste dance groove of moody breaks, shuffles and a hooting Afro sax honk, whilst the soulful plaintive tropical flavoured ‘Hate Myself’ sounds like a surfing International Pony.
A mysterious French soulstress can be heard meanwhile at the start of the low-rider ‘L’aéroport De Paris’, which in spite of its title evokes a sense of Japonism – J Dilla on a slow boat to Shogun Japan. ‘Clear My Name’ is more in the dance-y mode however; warping bowed and wooden sounding beats and enveloping waves around quasi-80s House.
This debut EP reconnects with the past to go forward. Stripped of hubris and baggage, and restriction, a breath of fresh air, it is beyond being, as the title suggests, just Some Old Tracks, and is instead an exploration of those imbued sounds and what they represent, restructured into a contemporary eclectic psychedelic dance and pop record.
Qujaku ‘Qujaku’ (So I Buried Records) 16th August 2018
Occupying both the spiritual and cosmic planes, emerging from the gloom and holy sanctuaries of the dead, the brooding Hamamatsu-based Japanese band Qujaku are back with a second grand opus of Gothic psychedelia and operatic doom post-punk. Gathering together titular EP tracks from the last couple of years and new material, this eponymous entitled epic thrashes, rattles, drones and skulks with sonorous intensity throughout. The opening ‘Shoko No Hakumei’ suite, more an overture, is itself a full on Ring cycle (as conducted by Boris) that is dramatic and sprawling: running almost the entire length of a full side of a traditional vinyl album.
On a very large foreboding canvas, Qujaku build-up an impressive tumult across the album’s nine-tracks of prowling esotericism and galloping drum barrage immensity. Between crescendo-bursting three-part acts and shorter volatile slabs of heavy caustic drone rock, the group often evokes an Oriental Jesus And Mary Chain, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Spacemen 3, or Nine Inch Nails when at their most enraged. Psychedelic in the mode of The Black Angels, but also straying at their most languid and navel-gazing towards Shoegaze, Qujaku’s dark spanning cacophony of throbs and trembles bear many subtle nuances and becalmed breaks amongst the masses and maelstroms. A balance between those forces is struck for instance on the dreamy plaintive love-crushed ‘Yui Hate No Romance’ and Spiritualized hymn-like finale ‘Sweet Love Of Mine’.
Vocally obscured by the cyclone of screeching feedback, grinding, spiraling ritual and creepy atmospherics the band’s mix of saddened male sung lovesickness and dystopia, and female ethereal sirens often invoke a ghostly, doomed horror soundtrack: The spirits in communion; floating and cooing, always present.
Though heavy-going for sure, even stifling in places, this ceremony come seething dark alchemy of an album is a brilliant minor masterpiece of Gothic, doom, psych and progressive pretensions. Limited physically to only 500 copies, this cultish group and album will sell-out quick, especially off the back of the band’s upcoming European promotional tour. On an epic scale, dreaming big and intensely, Qujaku perform the most dramatic of daemonic theatre.
Words: Dominic Valvona