’s debut album, Beautiful Mechanical
(2011), the ensemble both exceeds the expectations of a debut release and also falls victim to a few blunders usually encountered in a young group’s journey. Firstly, the record exhibits a blend of instrumental voices that coalesce in a tightly knit, luminous synchrony that is exceedingly rare at such a stage, and in fact is difficult to achieve for even some well-seasoned companies. It’s as if each of the six players not only can anticipate what the others are thinking and thus expressing, but is perfectly situated to complement and amplify those sentiments. yMusic thus weaves these seven instrumental pieces with a grace and deftness that is utterly remarkable for its youth, indicating the musical expertise of its players and their adept understanding of the group aesthetic.
To pick apart each of the six musicians in an attempt to rank based on skill or emotional competence is moot, because they all exhibit an equivalent intensity and robustness. Their handling of these songs is quite masterful, and creates a sonic landscape in which the listener becomes both entranced and invigorated. However, there are some signs that show that yMusic hasn’t yet found its full footing, which is certainly acceptable considering this is their debut release. First, Beautiful Mechanical
is billed as a work that blends and merges the contemporary classical and pop music worlds, and while this is effective marketing in employing the cross-pollination effect, it falls short when digested alongside the record. Sure, all of these six players have deep roots in the often liminal space between indie rock and classical music, as exhibited in their collaborations with bands like Antony and the Johnsons, My Brightest Diamond, Sufjan Stevens and Björk, but what is somewhat magical about Beautiful Mechanical
is that it partially belies these partnerships (while effectively supplementing them in turn) by forging a musical vocabulary that is quickly becoming a yMusic ensemble vernacular. So, to have a weakness in an album that can, if handled judiciously and precisely, develop into a major strength is an impressive sign this early in their career.
One of the main motifs of Beautiful Mechanical
is an engagement of American classical music of the past century, as well as a credit to its influence-- a move that is often shirked by contemporary groups because of its supposed unhip-ness. Son Lux’s title track opens the record with a frenetic cello line that builds into a highly rhythmic but altogether manic juxtaposition of strings and woodwinds. Resembling very much an electronica sensibility, it also evokes a Philip Glass-ian postmodernism, as if it were a sister piece to Koyaanisqatsi
. In doing so, it combines a 1970’s /early 1980’s lexicon with flourishes of late 2000’s deconstruction. Annie Clark (of St. Vincent fame) contributes the following piece, “Proven Badlands,” arguably the most impressive and poignant work on the album. It’s very reminiscent of golden-hued, Southern-drawn American Riviera cinema, conjuring up images of a lazy summer around the Mississippi. Even so, it actively incorporates St. Vincent’s sound (listen particularly to the horns in their three-note bursts), which yet again updates the motif of nostalgia with and injection of contemporary innovation.
While Shara Worden’s “A Whistle, A Tune, A Macaroon” breaks the continuity by wandering off into the realm of Japanese Shinto and traditional work, with a specific nod to Butoh-style dance, it does not feel sacrilegious in context, because the song remains open to interpretation by entreating a world of fragments rather than one whole piece. Gabriel Kahane’s “Song,” however, does really break from the coherence of the record, by foregrounding with an electric guitar. Obviously, criticizing the use of this instrument automatically brings dissent from those urging for a broader, and in turn more inclusive, approach to contemporary classical music, but that’s not the issue with Rob Moose’s placement of guitar. It’s that for the most part, Beautiful Mechanical
relies (and succeeds) on strings, and to a lesser extent woodwinds, providing a rhythmic mapping and fabric that is highly original and thought-provoking. To then resort to an electric guitar on the final track seems lazy, flat and uninspired, especially taken next to CJ Camerieri’s utterly magnificent trumpet line.
With some fiddling with Beautiful Mechanical
’s tracklist, this could have been a downright force of nature. Instead, it is a bit disjointed in its sequencing. Perhaps starting with Clark’s “Proven Badlands” could have set the tone with its eloquent sonorousness, which could then lead into Sarah Kirkland Snider’s point-perfect “Daughter of The Waves,” which introduces the electric guitar in a thoughtful and compelling way. Lux’s title track would work well in the middle of the album, because taken as the introduction to the yMusic ensemble, it comes across first as overly hectic without much lucidity, but upon repeated listenings truly opens up.
Even still, the yMusic ensemble has delivered a first rate record in Beautiful Mechanical
. The next step is to see how they handle works written by the group (or specific members of yMusic), rather than just commissioned works by their contemporaries. Their instrumental prowess and emotional depth is exemplary, making it absolutely worth the attention in seeing their maturation as a collective. Even taken with its apparent downfalls, this is an album with which they should be quite proud. It not only proves their capability alongside their frequent collaborators, but actually asserts the relevance and necessity for a language that is wholly yMusic.