New albums from Julia Holter, Eiko Ishibashi and Josephine Foster close out 2018 on a high note

Julia Holter (photo: Dicky Bahto)

Julia Holter (photo: Dicky Bahto)

For the last few months of 2018 I spent an inordinate amount of time pleasurably and confoundedly trying to dissect the charms, mysteries, and depth of three dazzling albums that might fit clumsily into the category of singer-songwriter or maybe art-pop. The fact that the latest albums by Julia Holter, Eiko Ishabashi, and Josephine Foster resist such categorization is but one hint to their power and vision, but there's a whole lot more to all of them, which stand as some of my favorite recordings of the year.

I've been an admirer of Holter's ambitious marriage of pop and experimental arrangements since her fragile 2011 album Tragedy (Leaving), and with greater time and resources her work since then has consistently expanded in depth, rigor, and audacity, as her popularity. Naturally, she pays no heed to expectations or orthodoxy with her latest missive, the sprawling 90-minute double album Aviary (Domino) that contains its fair share of hook-laden confections--including "Whether," which somehow balances a regal elegance with a careening, staccato organ drive, and --but as she pushes into the heart of the album Holter turns boldly to her experimental side. (Let's not forget that she studied under Michael Pisaro at Cal Arts, and she's paralleled per "pop" career with more outré collaborations, whether singing the songs of Chicago composer Alex Temple, backed by Spektral Quartet, or partnering with Olivia Block for a dizzying collage of sound and texts.)

"Chaitus," which draws some of its text from the Occitan troubadour song "Can vie lauzeta mover" by Bernart de Ventadorn, is one of several episodic tunes that collides wordless, overdubbed vocal patterns (including some operatic fragments that skirt effectively through the din) that cumulatively drift like clouds, with aerated chamber arrangements, only to witness a richly sculpted melody in dialogue with a snaking bass line played by Devin Hoff. And then there's another section that ratchets the energy level into a thrilling climax. The piece is emblematic of many of the songs here, with Holter masterfully splicing together discrete sections that feel like multi-movements suites rather than overstuffed patchworks.

On "Voce Simul" Holter shapes a gorgeously delicate melody amid layers of MIDI harp, wordless vocal sounds both melodic and percussive--treated with various effects as well as a vocoder--embellished only by the mewling Harmon-muted filigree of trumpeter Sarah Reid Belle. It's followed by the soft-focus cacophony and bleating of "Every Day is An Emergency," with a front half serving a melange of Tashi Wadi's astringent bagpipes, Dina Macabee's citric violin, Belle's tart smears, and the leader's droning, overdubbed chants before a mournful piano progression shadowed by ghostly synth clouds and waves of reverb that concludes things with a haunting meditation that leaves the listener beautifully adrift and uncertain.

At times Holter exploits her nimble ensemble to create a massive sound--the opening track "Turn the Light On"--suggests a Spector-like hugeness right at the edge of dissolution, while the remarkable pop song "I Shall Love 2" builds and builds in density, pushing towards an explosive burst of emotion and sound without ever surrendering a decidedly airy, hooky melody fragment that Holter has long mastered. There's much more to the album, and after more than a dozen listens I'm still digesting its bounty. Below you can check out another dense gem, "I Would Rather See."

Eiko Ishibashi (photo: Seiji Shibuya)

Eiko Ishibashi (photo: Seiji Shibuya)

Eiko Ishibashi also makes richly multivalent music. Earlier this year Black Truffle released Ichida, a meditative improvisational session recorded live in 2013 with American bassist Darin Gray in which she moves between flute, synthesizer, and piano. The music progresses with a gripping spirituality that isn't always serene: Grey's warm, woody pizz sound conjures the 70s sounds of Charlie Haden or Johnny Dyani at the outset, but he soon picks up his bow and Ishibashi starts manipulating her lines with pedals for a quietly brooding kind of intensity, which is only heightened when the bassist experiments with squawky cries produced on some sort of mouthpiece. Ishibashi soon adds exploratory piano and the duo carries out an absorbing, searching dialogue for the rest of the performance, regularly shifting timbre, vibe, and density, never letting abstraction interfere with melodic elegance.

Still, as wonderful as Ichida is there's no disputing the fact that Ishibashi's greatest achievement in 2018 was the release of The Dream My Bones Dream (Drag City) which presents a different kind of density from Holter's album, but, nonetheless, one I've been happily tangling with for months. The album presents a poetic rumination on the singer's late father's early life: after his passing she found photos that pulled back the curtain on a chapter of his life she'd been unaware of. He spent many of his formative years in Manchukuo, a Japanese puppet state in northeast Manchuria that existed between 1932-1945 that tried to foster an almost Utopian sense of opportunity in a rural landscape. One of the images she found pictured her father in his job for the South Manchuria Railway, and the albums Ishibashi wrote for the recording pivot on that photograph. "Iron Veil," for example, opens with the wail of a train horn and the chugging of steam engine; as the loping song unfolds a guest vocalist named Li Li intones a series of station names, in Mandarin, along the Manchurian rail system. In the song "Agloe," she time travels to a land she's never visited, singing, "You and I have started / One ticket to the end of the earth / One ticket for paradise / on a doubtful rail line / a heart turned to stone still shimmers."

The album was co-produced with Jim O'Rourke and the twin drumming of Joe Talia and Tatsuhisa Yamamoto dominates the stunning arrangements, although in the end the beats provide heft and atmosphere as much or more than propulsion. As O'Rourke explained in a recent interview published by the Wire, "There's one song where the drums alone are 64 tracks." On "Agloe" there's a martial feel to the drums complemented by layers of electronics, shortwave radio, electric flute, Fender Rhodes, and synthesizer that feel impossibly thick; wading through the viscous waves is both luxuriant and harrowing. On the opening instrumental track "Prologue: Hands on the Mouth" the remarkable Norwegian trumpeter Eivind Nordset Lonning (Streifenjunko) blows part tender, part strident smears that put me in the mind of vintage Robert Wyatt, and throughout the record I hear similarities in the way Ishibashi's beautifully patient, warm singing and melodic grace plays against the grain of the arrangements much like the Brit's best work did.

There are several lovely instrumentals, including the airy "A Ghost in a Train of Thinking," which makes me think of Steely Dan in a weird way--even though there are no strong similarities--the stark, stuttering title track which deftly conveys an overarching sense of uncertainty. Below you can check out the gorgeous ballad "To the East," licked by delicate cymbal play, O'Rourke's spare double bass line, elegiac piano, and masterfully placed pedal steel swells. With every album Ishibashi has grown, but this one represents a truly quantum leap.

Josephine Foster (photo: Mark Sink)

Josephine Foster (photo: Mark Sink)

Josephine Foster hasn't explicitly worked in disparate areas over her prolific career, but at the same time her music has been so pleasingly elusive in terms of its moment-to-moment points of reference here music's as sui generis as it comes. Over the years she's applied her otherworldly voice to old-timey folk tunes, heavy psych-rock, flamenco, and folk-pop, among other forms, while perpetually sounding only like herself by dint of an unmistakable voice and a seductively fluid aesthetic. I'd say Faithful Fairy Harmony (Fire) is as good or better than anything she's ever done in part because it seems to touch upon everything she's experimented with in the past. It not only sums up her various strengths, but it makes a powerful case for her vast talents--it's richly varied yet seriously coherent, and while it touches on her past, it doesn't really sound like her previous albums.

She's supported by a stellar cast of musicians including her husband and guitarist Victor Herrero, cellist Gyda Valtysdóttir, pedal steel ace Chris Scruggs, and bassist Shahzad Ismaily, Foster herself handles the lion's share of instrumental responsibilities, contributing harp, autoharp, piano, guitar, percussion, and organ. But straight out of the gate, with the woozily liquid "Soothsayer Song" it's patently clear that it's all about the voice. Foster's post-operatic presence often sounds like the model for the Theremin--a warm, tremulous tone with eerie sustain, sweeping range, and a genuinely ethereal charm--and amid the basic thrum of autoharp she carves out an imaginary world in a three-and-a-half minutes. That's followed by "A Little Song," with Foster accompanying her delicate warble with elegant parlour room piano and spooky slide guitar ambience from Herrero. "Benevolent Spring" relies only on autoharp and a brief, Dylan-esque harmonica solo, but Foster's meticulous overdubbed vocal harmonies give it an irresistible contrapuntal depth

There's a chugging energy to "Force Divine," with lovely melodic filigree from Scruggs and an almost unhinged improvisation by Herrero, both of which provide nifty ballast to Foster's most outward bound delivery. On the dazzling "Lord of Love," which you can hear below, Foster summons a dusky 70s folk-rock vibe anchored by the brittle but throbbing bass of Jon Estes, washed-out organ swells, and layers of guitar from Herrero, but it's her melodic inventiveness that pulled me in and won't let me go.

Today's playlist:

Beto Scala, Beto Scala (Discobertas/Discos RGE)

Arditti String Quartet, From Scandinavia (Montaigne)

Joe McPhee, Alone Together (Corbett vs. Dempsey)

Various artists, Ishq Ke Maare: Sufi Songs From Sindh & Punjab, Pakistan (Sublime Frequencies)

Ora Clemente, Cover You Will Soften Me (Penultimate Press)