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Amen Dunes, the project of Damon McMahon, was born out of a collection of songs made in the fall of 2006 in upstate New York. They were personal recordings not intended for release, a cathartic answer to the music, people, and life in New York City. After sharing them with a few friends, the tapes were shelved, and the following summer McMahon moved to China and all but quit making music. He would live in Beijing for the next few years, writing and recording only occasionally with no clear intention to return to New York.
While McMahon was in Beijing the tapes found their way to Locust Music in Chicago who championed their release, and after two years of deliberation, the recordings emerged as D.I.A. in the spring of 2009. The record was met with unexpected admiration among critics in the musical underground, prompting McMahon to move home to New York that summer. He began to perform live in the US and Europe, playing with a rotating cast of musicians.
In July 2010 McMahon released his first record on Sacred Bones, the EP Murder Dull Mind, a set of recordings tracked in his Beijing apartment. Then, in January 2011, he spent a month recording a collection of songs in New York City that would be his first proper recording in almost five years, released that August on Sacred Bones as the Through Donkey Jaw LP. Where Murder Dull Mind was sparse, acoustic and almost all first-take improvisation, Through Donkey Jaw contained more fully realized sounds and songs; its tone very much the winter to Murder Dull Mind’s summer. In the two years following Through Donkey Jaw, McMahon toured the US and Europe and self-released a few limited edition experimental recordings on his imprint Perfect Lives. The Ethio Covers 7″ was a set of downer covers of Ethiopian music and the Spoiler LP was a collection of experimental pieces.
Early in 2013 McMahon turned to focus on his most ambitious project yet. Where the previous Amen Dunes records had all been largely improvisational first-take affairs, recorded in a matter of weeks at most, the forthcoming full-length, Love, is the product of close to a year and a half of continuous work. As he began to flesh out the new material, he found himself guided by the work of classic American singers and songs more strongly than on any previous Amen Dunes record. And unlike the earlier recordings of McMahon’s which were almost always a solo affair, the music on Love was performed by a variety of musicians, centered around the core trio and symbiotic interplay of McMahon, Jordi Wheeler on guitar and piano, and Parker Kindred on drums (both longstanding collaborators of Damon’s).
Eager to capture a musical feeling outside the confines of New York City, McMahon chose to hold the main recording sessions in Montreal with Dave Bryant and Efrim Menuck of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. In addition to recording the sessions that McMahon produced, members of Godspeed also played on several of the songs, along with Colin Stetson on saxophone and several other Montreal musicians. The remainder of the recordings took place back in Brooklyn at Strange Weather and Trout Recording, and featured additional performances by a handful of musicians, including Elias Bender Ronnenfelt of Iceage, who duets with McMahon on “Green Eyes.”
Amen Dunes has always been rooted in traditional song and sound, but Love is his first work in which this so clearly shines through. The guiding influence of Astral Weeks, Sam Cooke, Tim Hardin, Marvin Gaye, Hector Lavoe, and the cosmic non-verbal mediations of Leon Thomas, all kept vigil over the songwriting of Love, and the spirit of late 60′s/early 70′s spiritual jazz of Pharaoh Sanders and Alice Coltrane channeled the sound. The result is simply the most substantial Amen Dunes record to date. These are elemental songs about time, love and memory, as much about the listener as they are about the writer: pure, open, and beautiful.