10 Underexposed 2023 Releases
You might not have heard of them, but they caught my ear.
Tiny Leaves may be the closest modern kindred spirit I’m aware of, exploring the fertile space between field recording and instrumental music inspired by—and designed to be in conversation with—the natural soundscape. Mynd goes deeper, using biological data in the composition process, as well as in-situ instrument recording; harnessing the wind for a glockenspiel performance, for example. Comparing it to my own repertoire, it’s like half Soundwalk (there is a narrative thread here, and footsteps are part of the composition), and half Field Report (each song feels like a window with distinct moments in time and space captured by the field recordings), presenting a constellation of impressions from The Long Mynd in the Shropshire countryside.
A departure for pop artist Christina Cano, Gravity Wave is a compelling ambient/new age debut, and cornerstone release for the fledgling label Bathysphere Records. Pulsing synth arpeggios give the compositions mesmerizing movement, while the sound palette does not shy away from the synthetic patches of the late 70s-80s. If the name Kitaro means anything to you, you’ll find in Gravity Wave a compelling tribute (and update) to that era. Another brave experiment I admired about this release was only half of the tracks were released to streaming platforms. For the full EP, you needed to purchase a cassette or listen on Bandcamp. A prescient adaptation for the new Spotify era?
Because theatrical scores tend to require music that is all over the map stylistically and dynamically, I don’t tend to find myself settling into them for repeat listens. L’Immensita is not that kind of score. It works really well as an album. I find its breathy woodwind and hushed flautando string arrangements both immaculate and gorgeous. This is an album that can work in the background or foreground; its details are subtle, but there for the discovery.
Songwriter Greg Olin hit paydirt when he countrified his indie ballads and adopted a distinctly personal storytelling angle for his lyrics. Who is Gary Owens, exactly? It’s a bit of a mystery, but it’s interesting to note the alter-ego inspired a work at once so intimately personal and universal.
Spiddal is a welcome release from PNW-Australia singer-songwriter Shelley Short, arriving six years after her last full length. This is an apt sequel to 2017’s Pacific City, recorded again with the support of multi-instrumentalist Peter Broderick whose warm enthusiasm, natural way with children (he was the childcare provider for the sessions), and understated touch as a producer played no small part in capturing these songs for the record. Of course it’s Shelley’s timeless voice, her vivid lyrics, and her melodic sense that remains magnetic.
Igor Khabarov is a Russian pianist who came late in life to study the instrument. 4 comes on the heels of the impressive Blank: Etudes for One Hand. Listening to “Forget” or “Snow Song” from Blank will have you wondering aloud, How on earth is one hand playing all those notes? If Blank is the sound of one hand playing, is 4 the sound of four? Yes but not entirely. The compositions don’t sound busy, or over-stuffed. There are crescendo passages that definitely sound like the work of four hands, and the EP-closing track Four is a rousing climax of overdubbed performances, but when you know what this pianist can accomplish with just one hand, you have to think twice.
I think of Michael Scott Dawson as another bird of a feather, given his recent albums incorporate field recordings liberally. Each one is a masterpiece of tone. Find Yourself Lost employs fewer natural soundscapes in favor of a human voices and sound fragments, the whir of a projector, and other subtly mechanical sounds. The distinct warp of pedal steel and twangy riffs that sparsely decorate the glacial melodies give this album a more western feel. The cover art is a pitch-perfect representation of the sound: pastoral, but harrowing.
Brass Clouds is the work of shapeshifter Dustin Dybvig. The plasticity and scope of these compositions is impressive. Escape Vessels drifts from ambient cloudscapes to fractalized, kalleidoscopic rhythms. Electric piano and live drums imbue the melange with a touch of jazz cool. It sounds like nothing else that I know of.
Schaus reminds me a little bit of YACHT’s Jona Bechtolt, for this decade. Listening to Lovers Loop I hear someone who is really, really connecting with their tools in an evolved way. The production ideas just come bursting out of the speakers, fast and furious. If I had to guess, there’s a capable drummer behind the programming. The vocal delivery is crooner meets post-pop. This is a polished album that you’d expect to discover on POLLEN or other bleeding-edge playlists.
Saroon is the moniker of singer-songwriter-composer Ayal Alves. Gilgul is highly conceptual, evolving from a work that became its centerpiece; “Traffic Operators on the Transmigration Highway”. I particularly like the voiceover in the final act of that piece, lending an almost procedural tone to the invocation: “Alright you may experience a little inner peace here.” That might lead you to think it’s an artsy, or self-indulgent work. It’s not. It’s approachable and engaging.