Label Guide: Nonesuch Records
Originally founded in 1964 as a boutique label, Nonesuch Records has steadily evolved to become the home to both forward-thinking rock and pop as well as boundary-pushing classical and jazz and vibrant music from around the globe. They were the label that gave a home to Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot when others passed, who introduced the world to the Buena Vista Social Club and are home to timeless works by Philip Glass. Explore the rich history of Nonesuch records below — get reacquainted with some old friends, and discover some new favorites.
The Wilco catalogue breaks down fairly cleanly into before-and-after Yankee Hotel Foxtrot segments. Such is the landmark nature of this album, which attained mythical status after it was initially rejected by the band's label; when it finally saw the light of day a year later, it vaulted to the upper reaches of the charts. The entire process was detailed in the documentary film I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, which is... also the title of the album's first track, a seven-minute testament to Wilco's decisive turn away from pop convention and toward art-rock experimentation. The making of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was marked by turmoil — in addition to the label hassles, leader Jeff Tweedy and key bandmate Jay Bennett had a professional meltdown during the sessions (documented in the film), and longtime drummer Ken Coomer was replaced by Glenn Kotche, coveted by Tweedy for his unconventional approach to percussion. The result was an album with a lot more open space than its predecessor, the densely-arranged Summerteeth; the emphasis is less on melody and more on mood. The first few songs suggest a soundscape for a sci-fi film about a bleak futureworld; from that detritus blooms the delicate fiddle solo that frames "Jesus, Etc.," which can't help but bring to mind 9/11 when Tweedy sings, "Tall building shake/ Voices escape/ Singing sad, sad songs," even though the album was recorded a few months before the WTC attacks. That sorrowful sentiment carries over to the next track, "Ashes of American Flags," before Tweedy delivers the lighthearted and playful "Heavy Metal Drummer" as a sort of antidote to the proceedings. When Tweedy acknowledges on the album's serene, shimmering final track, "I've got reservations/ About so many things/ But not about you," it feels like a personal reckoning, and a way forward for both the art and the artist.more »
Straight Outta Akron
Like so many long-suffering couples, Dan Auberbach and Patrick Carney needed some time apart to really appreciate each other. After 2008's inert, Danger Mouse-produced Attack & Release, the two members of the Ohio blooz-rock outfit pursued solo ventures; howling guitarist Auberbach worked on his weary solo debut, Keep It Hid, and then Carney, a bit scorned by that release, put together Drummer, a quintet of players from their home state. Absence makes... the heart grow fonder, and all of that.more »
Brothers is a reunion, return to form, and a slight reappraisal of that form. Auberbach sings with just a bit more wonder in his voice, emulating soul men more than blues legends, as on their delicate cover of Jerry Butler's "Never Gonna Give You Up" and the searing 'The Only One." Carney modulates his walloping rhythms, too. "Howlin' For You" is built on an unlikely foundation — the heavy, four-on-the-floor beat from Gary Glitter's "Rock 'n' Roll (Part 2)" — but somehow the band is just as comfortable driving hard as they are peeling back and moaning. There are classicist Black Keys songs here, particularly the rangy "Next Girl" and the lone Danger Mouse contribution, "Tighten Up." But mostly Brothers is about growing without straying. "Someone said true love was dead / Oh what can I do?" Auberbach sings at one point. They've done enough.
That’s Stephin With An -In
Stephin Merritt seems to function best within self-imposed confines, whether it's the overarching concept of 69 Love Songs or the stylistic boundaries of his many musical personae. But he's never set himself a task quite as determinative as on the Magnetic Fields' Distortion, whose 13 tracks are characterized by cranked guitars and drums that sound as if they were recorded in the wash of a jet engine. There hasn't been an... album to so diligently marry analog fuzz and insistent melody since the Jesus and Mary Chain's Psychocandy.
Given that the Magnetic Fields often seem like two very different bands in the studio and on the stage, it's not surprising that Distortion's static-drenched arrangements reflect that duality: They sound like songs created by a largely acoustic chamber ensemble that were doused after the fact with a thick, warm blanket of sound. The production feels like set dressing, even if the decoration substantially spruces up the joint.
The most transparent Psychocandy descendent, "California Girls," is built around JAMC's version of the "Be My Baby" beat and the one-woman girl group of Shirley Simms, whose brassy vocals lend a wry edge to Merritt's acid lyrics ("They ain't broke, so they put on airs / The faux folk sans derrières"). "Too Drunk Too Dream," sung by Merritt, characteristically mixes romanticism and world-weariness, the latter serving, always, as an insufficient defense against the world's infinite ways of breaking your heart.
Inevitably, the restricted palette starts to feel a tad snug, like a sweater that might still fit if you could just work in some gym time. Or perhaps it's the suspicion that the distortion's real function is to serve as sonic stucco, filling in the cracks in an otherwise patchy set of tunes. Pull the thread and they unravel, some revealing a solid body and some a padded skeleton. For Merritt, fortunately, it's mostly the former.
Steve Reich has a remarkable arrangement for a composer in that he is an exclusive artist for Nonesuch and has been so for more than two decades. Back in 1996, when Reich celebrated his 60th birthday, Nonesuch issued a 10-CD box set of "everything" -- all of the works in the Warner Classics vaults that he had recorded, including some new at the time, such as Steve Reich: Works 1965-1995. With Reich's... 70th birthday afoot, the earlier set still in print and Nonesuch belonging to a classical music division that is operating on one lung, it has decided on a more modest approach to the newer observance with Steve Reich: Phases -- A Nonesuch Retrospective, a collection consisting of five discs. It is an apt description, as apart from Come Out, everything on this compilation was recorded originally for Nonesuch and produced by Judith Sherman between 1984 and 2005. There is nothing new here, and Steve Reich: Phases -- A Nonesuch Retrospective incorporates the whole of his most recent Nonesuch album, You Are (Variations), along with the Nonesuch recordings of The Desert Music, Drumming, and Music for 18 Musicians, all works occupying complete Nonesuch discs. In the first three cases, Nonesuch has added works to flesh the discs out to fill more time than the originals occupied. Reich has done relatively little recording for Nonesuch since 1996, and much of what there has been is rather difficult to compile into a collection like this one; Reich's operas The Cave and Three Tales are not things even the most disinterested of producers would care to carve into. One development since 1996 that has added considerable interest to Reich's recorded canon is the increasing number of artists other than Steve Reich and Musicians, and specific players for whom he fulfills commissions, who are learning, performing, and recording Reich's work. While Reich is an expert performer of his own music, without others coming into the fold his output will succumb to "Harry Partch Syndrome," a condition whereby the music becomes more or less unperformable after the passing of the composer. There is no reasonable way for Nonesuch to reflect such a wide array of more recent developments in recorded Reichiana -- that is best left to those who enjoy collecting Reich recordings of the single-disc variety. However, there's no denying that Steve Reich: Phases -- A Nonesuch Retrospective is a tremendous bargain; you can get most of his key works here along with others in authoritative readings in a package totaling nearly 400 minutes for roughly the price of a two-disc set. If you have a Reich-loving relative this would make a superb gift, or want to even just test the waters with Steve Reich: Phases -- A Nonesuch Retrospective, which is a very generous and comprehensive starting point. It seems strange to praise a collection of the music of Steve Reich from the standpoint of economics, so it should be mentioned that all of these Nonesuch recordings are, or were, state of the art when made and reflect Reich's intentions to a "T." ~ Uncle Dave Lewismore »
Harrington describes lovingly the experience of learning about plucking a violin string from the composer Morton Feldman, who wrote a string quartet for Kronos that is an uninterrupted, four-hour meditation on shades of quiet. "We had a late-night rehearsal and he was talking about pizzicato and feeling the string leave the skin of your finger, and the way he was describing it was in such slow motion, but so amazingly sensual and... infinitely gentle, that his words have become a part of my playing." In bowing technique, too, Feldman left his mark. Instead of the juicy, throbbing vibrato most string players are raised on, Feldman asked for paler shades of sound, different brushstrokes made by using less (or no) vibrato in the left hand and varying the speed and pressure with which the bow slips across the string.more »
Breaking Down Brad Mehldau’s Best Works
In the most enigmatic project up to this point in his career, Brad Mehldau explores conflicting aesthetics, sometimes in tracks positioned next to each other, and occasionally within the confines of a single performance. A spare simplicity governs much of the album, emphasized by almost puritanical horn arrangements -- long notes, mournful triadic chords. After acknowledging these episodes with childlike figurations on the piano, Mehldau then builds his solos along more dissonant... lines, which invariably end up enhancing the mood. But then there are tracks like "Dropjes," whose electronic effects gnash angrily at the piano, or "Free Willy," on which putty attached to the instrument's low strings allows Mehldau to unleash a feral improvisation, with lines that suggest scurrying rodents more than bebop blowing. Producer Jon Brion stimulated much of this adventurism, at times diving directly into the mix with his guitar synth or Chamberlin keyboard. But what intrigues most about Largo in the end is the perspective it offers on Mehldau, whose playing here is, as always, intelligent, perhaps a bit cerebral, and now open as well to sonic exotica.more »
Around the World In Five Albums
There's been a back-to-acoustic-roots trend among African artists recently, and even the big names don't seem exempt. Salif Keita's done it, and here Youssou N'Dour's at it -- which proves to be no bad thing. His recent output has been quite schizophrenic, divided between albums aimed at a Western audience and those for his native Senegal, with the more hardcore m'balax sound that made him popular in the first place reserved for... the African releases. While the easy melodies of Nothing's in Vain (Coono Du Rr) place it far more within the Afro-pop category than much of his previous work, it's still a real gem, bringing in traditional musicians alongside his band, as on the opening "Tan Bi," which works gorgeously, the harp-like kora intersecting with N'Dour's rhythm section. The keening griot wail which has typified so much of his work is absent here, allowing for more subtlety of infection and tone. While that might be a bit of a necessity as he grows older, it also reinforces the fact that Youssou is one of the world's great singers, capable of wrapping and communicating emotion in a note or phrase -- even if you don't understand a word of Wolof (or French, since several of the pieces, like his version of "Il N'Ya Pas D'Amour Heureux," are in French). And when he does break into English, on "Look This Way" and "Africa, Dream Again," it's not the ridiculous, gushing lyrics that have appeared on some of his more recent discs. Yes, there are too many lush keyboards for it to fully qualify as a true acoustic release, and the low-key tamas juddering across "Yaru" do sometimes make you wish the band would kick into high gear, but overall this is N'Dour's most focused and accomplished disc in a long time. Maybe it's a new path, maybe it's a breathing space while he decides what to do next, maybe he just wanted a change. Whatever the reason, it works. ~ Chris Nicksonmore »
Deep Cuts Across All Genres
Tell Me is 21-year-old songwriter Jessica Lea Mayfield's sophomore effort and her debut for Nonesuch. Produced by the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach (again), these 11 songs reflect a more ambitious sonic palette for Mayfield's moody, broken love songs. While comparisons to Laura Marling are inevitable, Mayfield's songs -- and Auerbach's production -- touch but also reach far outside singer/songwriter fare toward indie rock terrain. Mayfield's songs are darker, with more discontent, and... all contain elements of the subtly sinister or perverse. In her Kent, OH drawl she moves ghostlike through a no-woman's land of loss, want, and discontent, discarding what her protagonists already possess in favor of something much more elusive and possibly dangerous. The album opens with the rootsy "I'll Be the One That You Want Someday," with reverb aplenty from Auerbach's guitar, highlighted by a piano, electric bass, and drum kit. It's country-flavored, but it pushes at those limits. "Our Hearts Are Wrong" follows suit with Auerbach playing even meaner reverb-laden guitar and an organ by Scott Hartlaub. The lyrics scorn a lover but not without counting the cost: "...The only time I miss you is every single day." The album changes shape in "Blue Skies Again," where a throbbing bassline by David Mayfield chugs the melody into strident indie rock, as layers of guitar and drum loops underscore the vocal; on the verses it's weary and lonesome, but the refrains turn that upside down. The male backing "doo wop" choruses add a perverse element to her lyrics, turning the song's optimism into irony. "Grown Man" features innocent-sounding analog synths and cheap drum machines that stand in sharp contrast to Mayfield's brazenly sexual lyrics as she lets want and enticement drip freely in her vocal. "Nervous Lonely Night" could have been recorded by the Shins, with its swooping "ooo-oooo" group choruses highlighted by a squiggly synth. While "Sometimes at Night" is a 21st century version of a country waltz, "Tell Me" is indie rock futurism with a nostalgic, exotic twist. This sets up the most dramatic and beautiful track on the set -- the languid "Run Myself into the Ground" -- before the Americana singer/songwriter fare of "Sleepless" closes the set. Tell Me is slicker and delightfully weirder than its predecessor, but its emotion and craft ring true throughout. ~ Thom Jurekmore »