Personally, I’ve been on a bit of a classical music binge lately, picking up albums as diverse as Glenn Gould’s recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, as well as Mozart’s Requiem and Sergei Rachmaninov’s Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 3. There’s something soothing about this genre, and I’ve cuddled myself in a heavy blanket listening to these discs and played them while taking a relaxing evening’s bath. I’ve often wondered why music like this, outside of the Phillip Glasses and Avro Pärts of the world, isn’t made any more. I surmise that it might be that in the 18th and 19th centuries, this style of music belonged to the upper crust, and with the dawn of the industrial age and the rise of the working and middle class, other forms of popular music rushed in to take its place. (I may be right, I may be wrong, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’m still very much a novice when it comes to classical music as a whole. So please be gentle with me.) This makes the latest release, and first for Graveface Records, of Minneapolis-based multi-instrumentalist Martin Chavez Dosh, who records under his surname, quite appealing to me, at least on the surface. Milk Money feels like modern-day classical music, and employs one of the genre’s main hallmarks: namely, the lengthy, multiple suite composition.
In the case of Milk Money, that comes in the album’s second half, which solely consists of the nearly 25-minute opus “Legos (for Terry)”. The piece was originally commissioned for a live performance in February 2013 with Glenn Kotche for the Walker Arts Centre in Dosh’s hometown, meant to be played as a duet with Kotche on the night of the Wilco drummer’s unveiling of his John Luther Adams collaboration, Illimaq. Interestingly enough, the piece as a whole was inspired by the period Dosh’s father spent as a Benedictine monk, though it feels much more current than that fact might lead one to believe. Given that the composition was commissioned for a benefactor, “Legos (for Terry)” could very much be said to be a modern classical composition in many respects. And clearly it is the centerpiece and highlight of Milk Money. It is an impressive achievement. Starting out with gently plucked Rhodes-piano notes, the song builds and builds, with female coos cutting in and out of the piece in a chopped-up fashion, until about the ten-minute mark, when a gorgeous piano melody in a loop begins to take shape. From there, the piece adds texture with an added motorik drive, as pinwheeling drums and children’s voices get gradually added to the mix. It may be nearly a half-hour long, but “Legos (for Terry)” commands the utmost attention.
Alas, the album that precedes it doesn’t quite have the same effect, although it is certainly interesting at best. In gestation since January 2011, and a work that sees Dosh performing alone (guests who have graced the artist’s previous records, such as saxophonist Mike Lewis and violinist Andrew Bird, are absent here), the large bulk of Milk Money consists of three- and four-minute pieces that don’t quite have the same impact as “Legos (for Terry)”, though the material does get more appealing the deeper you get into it, which may be a result of the listener getting used to Dosh’s particular vision or, more likely, the songs getting better. The album opens with “We Are the Worst”, which is notable for, once again, offering chopped up female voices, but the feeling is one largely of ennui. The song, as a whole, doesn’t really take flight in the way “Legos (for Terry)” does, for reasons that are hard to pin down, but it could just be that the song simply feels too short to really soar. It isn’t until the Mellotron-drenched opening to “Kisses” that things pick up: the song quickly devolves into a rather eight-bit-esque stab of vintage gaming electronica, a feeling that gives the composition a bit of heft in a nostalgic sense of the term. It’s nice. And then “20 Year”, perhaps the high water mark of this earlier part of the album, takes drums that sounds a lot like hand claps, and builds a threatening yet glistening keyboard part on top of this, as male voices weave their way in and out of the mix. Being perhaps the best of the earlier doesn’t make what follows any less appealing, however. “Unto Internity” appears and is somewhat chillwave-esque, with vintage keys throbbing and stabbing, before a remotely hip hop beat comes to the fore. However, follow-up song “Golden Silver” is a lilting piano interlude that does little more than set up “Legos (for Terry)”, although it, too, is nice.
All in all, Milk Money is an intriguing work of songcraft, but one wonders if it might have been a tough stronger by just including “Legos (for Terry)”. That might have just rendered this album a glorified EP, but that particular piece overshadows virtually all of the rest of the songs on this record. Perhaps there is something to be said for this type of music stretching out and being allowed to meander, as most of the stuff that is before it sometimes feels a little on the truncated side. However, “Legos (for Terry)” rescues the LP from being the wanderings of an artist who seems to be finding his way without the use of his former collaborators. That particular composition is anthemic in quality, and one has to wonder what this piece would have sounded like live—if pieces would have been added or taken away from it, if it could be stretched out to, say, an hour in length or shortened just a tad bit. The possibilities seem endless, and, to be sure, this is the kind of sound meant for cold winter nights huddled by the hi-fi in a particular heavy blanket getting lost in the song’s various movements and shifting changes. Milk Money is pleasant enough as a whole, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t say that this journey is all about the destination, and getting to the particular pinnacle of the album is an fascinating, if it isn’t altogether successful at times, proposition.