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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1656

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Gabriel Kahane: Where Are the Arms
by George Graham

(2nd Story Records 161-004 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 9/14/2011)

People naturally tend to categorize music. It's an easy way to look for something that you are more likely to enjoy. And the music business is built on separating music into different genres, each of which can be sold to a different audience, and in many cases, to people with different lifestyles. It might be make for an interesting study to determine exactly why city-dwelling fans of commercial country music tend to drive more pickup trucks.

Nevertheless, being the contrarian than I am, I find myself drawn to music that defies categories, or which mixes styles that seem quite unrelated or even incompatible. Sometimes such mixtures are merely a novelty or just an artistic mess, but at others, the result can be quite absorbing.

This week we have a very good example of a curious mixture that makes for quite fascinating listening. It's the new second CD by Gabriel Kahane called Where Are the Arms, and I suppose it could be described as a mixture of art rock with the singer-songwriter genre: some sophisticated compositions and arrangements with a setting in which one usually expects strumming guitars and fairly uncomplicated music.

Much of this album's distinctive quality comes from the background of its creator. Gabriel Kahane is a serious classical composer whose works have been performed by ensembles, orchestras and theater groups around the country, including at Lincoln Center in New York. Gabriel Kahane was born in Southern California in 1981, to a musical family. His father is classical pianist and conductor Jeffrey Kahane. Gabriel attended the New England Conservatory of Music then Brown University, where he wrote his first musical. He currently resides in Brooklyn, New York. He does commissioned compositions for orchestras and theatrical groups and tours performing his own songs on piano and banjo. In 2006, he created a piece called Craigslistlieder, using postings on the classified ad website for lyrics for a song-cycle in the classical lieder style for voice and piano. He also works as a studio musician and performs with artists like Sufjan Stevens and Rufus Wainwright.

Kahane released his eponymous debut album in 2008, and now he is out with Where Are the Arms. Now here I go categorizing the music, but that's what critics, self-styled or otherwise tend to do. This CD is a fascinating mix of lyrically interesting music, in the singer-songwriter mold, that draws on Kahane's classical composition background, with orchestral instruments from a string quartet to a brass choir, with some electronics. Kahane's vocals are clear but often contemplative-sounding. I am at times reminded of the late Nick Drake or Jeff Buckley -- both of whom also applied elements of classical composition to their songs and Duncan Sheik's Phantom Moon album. Sometimes Kahane's album can sound folky, but it almost always takes interesting turns, including hints of Philip-Glass-inspired minimalism, with phrases that have a kind of interlocking quality. All this while the music remains rather approachable, and does not get off into too abstract a sound.

Kahane's band includes Casey Foubert, Matt Johnson, and Bob Moose, though the CD notes don't say what each plays. Recognizable guests on the CD include mandolinist Chris Thile of the Punch Brothers, who is listed as playing guitar, and Aoife O'Donovan of the group Crooked Still who does some backing vocals. But there are a lot of other players especially in the songs that have orchestral settings, though it's chamber music rather than full orchestra.

The CD opens with a piece called Charming Disease, which illustrates the album's intriguing mixture of influences -- the sophisticated musical composition with the somewhat cryptic lyrics expressing sympathy for the charming disease in question, which is left unsaid. <<>>

Merritt Pkwy is an oblique love song, about a couple of people meeting, after being immediately attracted to each other. That is apparently not a good thing for the protagonist. It's done mostly with a piano accompaniment with some distant spacy string samples. <<>>

Rather different in sound is Parts of Speech. With its electric instrumentation, the piece resembles a progressive rock tune along the lines of Gentle Giant with minimalist-inspired swirling musical phrases. <<>>

Kahane addresses his native area in a song called LA, in which Kahane's folky side is highlighted. It's a fine piece both musically and lyrically. <<>>

On the other hand, Kahane's classical facet comes out on Last Dance, with its brass group <<>> before it gets into a more electric section with an appropriately art-rock sound. <<>>

The title track Where Are the Arms is one of the more contemplative on this multifaceted album. The rather cryptic lyrics seem a kind of third-person love song. <<>>

One of the most musically intriguing pieces the CD is Calabash and Catamaran. The electric art rock side comes out with a vengeance in a way that might make Gentle Giant fans smile. <<>>

The CD ends with Great Lakes a kind of ruminating song of relationships whose musical setting can match the mood of the words. <<>>

Gabriel Kahane's new CD Where Are the Arms is not exactly party music. It is a creative blend of sophisticated compositions by someone who creates orchestral music for a living, with a good singer-songwriter's knack for literate, often-intriguing lyrics, sung in a pleasing tenor voice that can hint at Jeff Buckley or even Nick Drake. It's an album that has a lot to it, in musical layers that seem to reveal something new each time you listen.

Our grade for sound quality is about an A-Minus. There's good clarity and the studio effects are used well. Dynamic range, though, is mediocre at best, due to the usual volume compression that kills the ebb and flow of the music foolishly in order to compete in some kind of CD loudness war.

Singer-songwriter/orchestral art-rock: it seems like an oxymoron the way we categorize music. But I think that might be a good way to describe Gabriel Kahane's intriguing new recording, if you want a thumbnail sketch. But there's more to it than that. As an artist, Kahane is very much multifaceted, and so is his music.

(c) Copyright 2011 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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