Album Review: “Become Ocean” by John Luther Adams

Become Ocean is a moving work, to say the least. My first listen left me reeling in such a way that I immediately started over from the beginning. Mississippi-born and Alaska-based John Luther Adams won the 2014 Pulitzer for this piece, and it’s imminently clear he deserved the award.

John Luther Adams - Become OceanJohn Luther Adams (not to be confused with California’s John Adams, also nominated for a Pulitzer this year) has the heart of an ambient musician, the hands of a skilled composer and the spirit of the wild. If enjoyed without distraction, you can in fact, “become ocean.”

I first learned of Become Ocean (as many of my friends did) via this excellent episode of Radiolab, excerpting the equally impressive podcast Meet the Composer. Snippets featured in these shows drew me in, but none of that prepared me for how truly impressive as a whole Become Ocean is.

Alex Ross, a contributor to The New Yorker, shared this rough illustration of Adam’s form in an addendum to his review of the piece. The power behind Become Ocean emanates from the overlapping swells of an orchestra distinctly segmented. The result is an ever changing tide, the full ensemble hitting simultaneous crescendos thrice. Become Ocean strikes its most intense moments around the half-way mark; after that point, the piece is performed in reverse. Among many things, Become Ocean is a palindrome.

Alex Ross' diagram of Become Ocean.
Alex Ross’ rough diagram of Become Ocean.

In all honesty, Become Ocean feels like it shouldn’t be possible. At the very least, it’s hard to believe that it was not assembled in post production. Rather, John Luther Adams has created a solid 42-minute composition recorded with a real-life orchestra in full surround sound. Harps in the left ear swell into similar arpeggios on piano dead center, then strings in the right ear. At times, it’s easy to forget that the lulls in each wave are produced by real people, and not computer-built improvisations.

I can only imagine what it felt like to be John Luther Adams, experiencing his work in the flesh for the first time. After a year in composition, Adams did not hear Become Ocean until its third presentation: a packed house at Carnegie Hall. Become Ocean is a must-listen, if only to experience the subtlety and power a master of modern composition such as John Luther Adams can create.

In Adams’ own words:

Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. As the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean.

Check out Become Ocean for yourself on Murfie. While you’re at it, make sure to hear the full story via Radiolab.


John Kruse
@mamtweet

John Praw Kruse is an Operations Manager, and Product Manager for the Murfie Vinyl Service. In his free time, John makes music, including scores for indie films and various shorts. He is the founder of Mine All Mine Records and the Lost City Music Festival. John devours new music.


[Album Review] Caroline Smith: Half About Being a Woman

Half About Being a Woman
Caroline Smith

Caroline Smith, who we originally met back in July 2012 at a house show in Madison, gave us a taste of her new material that night when she performed the song “Child of Moving On”.

Contrasted with the more indie rock sound previously conveyed with her band, Caroline Smith & the Good Night Sleeps, this new song showcased a more soulful Caroline, with deep roots in soul and R&B.

That’s exactly what Half About Being a Woman is all about: Soul. Within the first few seconds of the first song, you know that this album brings something different to the table. It showcases Caroline’s powerful, soulful voice, over songs that range from more beat-driven R&B to slower jams about love.

That’s not to say the indie element is completely lost in this album. Songs like “Magazine” and “Walking Off Strong” sound very intertwined with indie rock still, with electronic garnishes. Contrast that with those slow jams including “All That I Know” and “Half About Being a Woman”, and you’ve got an album featuring the best of both ranges which Caroline so successfully masters.

This album really is incredible—and that’s coming from someone who went in with no preconceptions. I’m going to go ahead and say you’ll enjoy this album if you enjoy Billie Holiday, Norah Jones, and classic neo-soul queens like Erykah Badu. But keep in mind, it comes with a modern twist—and it doesn’t fully depart from the original indie rock sound which Caroline’s band started off playing.

Half about Being a Woman is now available on Murfie. Check out the track clip previews and I know you’ll want to hear more!