I invited David D. McIntire, composer and founder of Irritable Hedgehog, to review Leah Kardos’ sophomore release, Machines.
Among the many recent “sky-is-falling” tropes in the music world, one that has been widely circulated, endlessly repeated as if inevitable, is the notion that “the album is dead.” Maybe. When digital music distribution entered the marketplace, it was widely assumed that people would simply cherry-pick the tracks they liked, and thus ignore or undermine any web of relationships or concepts an artist might have woven between and among tracks. “We’ll never have another Sgt. Pepper!” was the panicked conclusion. Like many such notions, the unfolding reality is turning out to be a bit more complicated. In my opinion, the prospects for the album seem as promising as ever. Leah Kardos’s new recording, Machines, provides a fine argument for this thesis. From the processional opening “Incantation” to the coda of “Sleep Modes,” Kardos creates a singular musical journey.
A few months ago I bought Kardos’s debut album, Feather Hammer, and thought it one of the best of the year. I was struck by the fluid ease with which she blended compositional styles and techniques, while honing a distinctive sound of her own. That album focused on her relationship with her primary instrument, the piano. (I take the title as describing an idealized conception of keyboard touch…)
Her new album, Machines, finds her moving confidently forward in a number of ways. Her writing and playing remain extremely assured, but her production technique has soared. While both albums are comprised of thematically-related material, Machines has a more deeply-rooted organicism that makes it a remarkable achievement. Oftentimes when I get a new recording, I listen through and then bounce among the individual tracks that have caught my ear. With Kardos’s new album, I dial up the opening, hit “play,” and then continue until the end.
Despite the title, which evokes images of a cold, hard-edged musical conception, Machines is a deeply nuanced album: warm, rich and evocative, and powerfully emotional. Kardos explores notions of isolation versus solitude, how we connect (or don’t) via the internet or other electronic means, and “the cheapness of words.” Her lyrics are taken entirely from spam emails that she acquired and then subjected to cut-up techniques, via David Bowie and William Burroughs. This produces a surprisingly personal and subtle reflection on her chosen themes. (The curious may find her lyrics reproduced on her website, along with the original spam messages whence they came.)
While Feather Hammer was an entirely solo endeavor, Machines is abetted by the musicianship of soprano Laura Wolk-Lewanowicz and cellist Catherine Saumarez. The addition of the other musicians adds further richness to the sonic palette and provides more opportunities for Kardos to deploy her production skills. In Wolk-Lewanowicz she has found a superb vocalist whose ease in many styles is a perfect match to Kardos’s own genre-smashing approach. Her flexibility and range of color is such that I kept checking for additional vocal credits, not quite willing to accept that I was hearing the same singer every time.
Kardos’s sound world is one that appeals to me greatly, calling for hefty amounts of Fender Rhodes amidst more delicate sonorities like kalimba and other bell-like timbres. The purity of these sounds is nicely balanced by use of ambient and environmental material. Attempting to pinpoint her stylistic whereabouts is a fool’s errand, but I’ll mention some personal reference points. Kardos is clearly well-acquainted with the entire span of electronica history and one hears the breadth of that knowledge continuously, from earlier practitioners like Cluster and Eno, as well as more current electronica artists. A few tracks seem to have echoes of the Icelandic group Múm, but that may say more about me than Kardos. I mention these in order to throw out a couple points of musical latitude/longitude, not from any certainty that Kardos is referencing these artists, but because they share similar musical terrain and timbres.
Machines has a wholeness that is quite remarkable. But equally impressive is the manner in which Kardos conceals her virtuosity. Nothing draws attention to itself; everything is deployed in pursuit of an organic integrity. I had listened to the album several times before my attention was conscious of astonishing passages such as the intertwining keyboard lines that close “The Closeness of Distance” or the poly-temporal percussive underscoring of “Highly Active Girls.” The entire album is beautifully paced, with each individual track fitting into a larger whole. The phrase “song-cycle” is entirely apt. Many tracks stand easily on their own merits, although that’s not really how I wish to experience them, any more than I would wish to hear “Die Nebensonnen” apart from the rest of Winterreise.
In a recent article in The New Republic, David Hajdu wrote, “Electronica, the sound of our moment, has something in common with the earliest known music, which was the accompaniment to ritual: neither was made just for listening.” For me, Kardos’s Machines fits this description in the way that it attempts to create a map of our paths between the virtual and the corporeal worlds. She listens attentively to her materials and contemplates the way in which our online communications are changing our perceptions of ourselves and each other. In the age of Facebook, the meanings of words like “friend” have shifted substantially. Kardos creates an aural sextant via which to navigate this new and uncertain landscape.