Album reviews: Unpacking the Trailer… & Gravity and Air

QQQ - Unpacking the Trailer...It’s certainly too early to predict whether or not 2009 will best last year in terms of quality musical output, but a pair of new releases from the fledgling New Amsterdam label already has it off to an interesting start.  The imprint, which opened its doors in January 2008, has become a showcase of sorts for a diverse group of artists based in the greater New York City area.

The first of these acts with a new release is QQQ, a modern chamber quartet made up of two husband-and-wife teams (Dan Trueman on Hardanger fiddle, Monica Mugan on classical guitar, Beth Meyers on viola, and Jason Treuting on percussion).

When I gave a spin to the group’s debut album, Unpacking the Trailer…, the first comparison I thought of was with Build, another New Amsterdam act.  QQQ’s style of music is a little less studied however, which is apparent with the first notes of “Tøykey Jøykey”, a raucous and propulsive number that mixes elements of chamber music and bluegrass.   What follows is a fascinating collection of what I’ll call “classical folk” songs that are alternately reserved and contemplative (“Spring”, “Sister Sparrow”, “Ghostwalk”), progressive and dense (“Swimming Under the Moonlight” and the title track recall the more abstract side of early ’70s King Crimson, sans electric guitar and bass), or peppy and ebullient (“Happy ’til You Hurt Yourself”, “Rocolocosmokotoko”).

The key ingredient to the quartet’s sound is Trueman’s Hardanger fiddle (or hardingfele), a traditional Norwegian stringed instrument.  It’s played like a violin but has twice the amount of strings, and produces a unique echoed sound.  The effect in some songs is not unlike that of a stringed bagpipe I imagine.  The influence of Norwegian folk music is felt further in “Beth’s Springar”, QQQ’s take on an old native musical style that had me pining for the fjords (an example of this style can be seen in this video).

For someone like myself who was raised on pop/rock music and has only really branched out from it in the last 7 or 8 years, music like that found on Unpacking the Trailer… can still be a tough nut to crack.  But sometimes tough nuts are the tastiest.

Track listing:
“Tøykey Jøykey”
“Swimming Under the Moonlight”
“Runaway Puppy”
“Sister Sparrow”
“(t)His Land”
“Beth’s Springar”
“Ã…l or Nothing”
“Happy ’til You Hurt Yourself”
“Orton’s Ode”
“Unpacking the Trailer”

Andrew McKenna Lee - Gravity and AirI’m not even going to pretend to understand the compositional or performance technique of classical guitarist Andrew McKenna Lee.  What I do know is that his new album, Gravity and Air, is a pleasure to listen to and has a welcome home in my relatively limited collection of contemporary classical music (at least 40% of which is Steve Hackett’s more sedate offerings).

Lee, a South Carolina native, is currently enrolled in the Ph.D. composition program at Princeton University, so clearly the man knows his stuff.  But does that translate to music you’ll want to listen to?  Absolutely.

Most of the album is just Lee and his classical guitar, and that includes his brief but beautiful rendition of Bach’s “Prelude for Lute in D Minor”.  It’s followed up by a song sequence entitled “Five Refractions of a Prelude By Bach”, each one a distinct take on Bach’s prelude.  I couldn’t tell you how successful the suite is from a compositional standpoint, but it’s very pretty music and executed with great aplomb by Lee.

The other compositions on Gravity and Air are the three-song “Scordatura Suite” and the 14+ minute chamber piece “the dark out of the nighttime”, which finds Lee accompanied by the Janus Trio (Amanda Baker on flute, Nuiko Wadden on harp, and QQQ’s Beth Meyers on viola).   The latter piece is, as the name implies, a dark and dense composition that may challenge those whose exposure to classical music isn’t very broad (it certainly challenges me).

This album is definitely not background music, and for me it didn’t offer the instant gratification that QQQ’s record did.  Nonetheless, it’s clearly the work of a very talented artist who has a lot to say, and I look forward to hearing more from him.

Track listing:
“Prelude for Lute in D Minor, BWV 999”
“Five Refractions of a Prelude by Bach: Variation”
“Five Refractions of a Prelude by Bach: Fixation”
“Five Refractions of a Prelude by Bach: Fantasy (Perpetuum Mobile)”
“Five Refractions of a Prelude by Bach: Nocturne”
“Five Refractions of a Prelude by Bach: Toccata”
“the dark out of the nighttime”
“Scordatura Suite: Arabescata”
“Scordatura Suite: Gravity and Air”
“Scordatura Suite: Dizzying Array”

Unpacking the Trailer… and Gravity and Air are out now on New Amsterdam Records.  I’ll be attending a dual record release party for both acts in New York City later in the week, so look for a review of the show.