Difficult Listening Hour: William Brittelle's "Sheena Easton" Is Alt-Classical That Really Works

by Seth Colter Walls


Crossover is a hard row to hoe sometimes-so hard, in fact, you wonder why people even try. The ground that’s tilled rarely, if ever, gives up a good crop in return. So if soprano Renee Fleming wants to drop her voice a couple octaves and cover Arcade Fire, Band of Horses-and, naturally, “Hallelujah”-no one can stop her, but it’s not like folks on either side of the indie-classical chasm are gonna hold their hyper-critical, specialist fire. (I’d say Fleming’s take on “Intervention” is strong. Ditto the Band of Horses number. The rest: stay away.) And, as the Times has noted, there’s not much combining of disciplines on Fleming’s new disc, Dark Hope: it’s just someone who’s known for one style deciding to execute (sorta) a completely different style. The novelty is all in your head.

But what if you actually wanted some new music that drew from the alt-sphere as well as from the classical world? Well, you would be well advised to listen to these two great new tracks from William Brittelle that we are going to stream for you!

His forthcoming album, Television Landscape, is out on July 27 from New Amsterdam records.

“Rio Rio” opens with an intriguing flourish of strummed guitar and saxophones, before heading into a seductive beat with keyboard work that hints at world music and Carl Orff-y exuberance. Then there’s some crazy guitar grind, which never sounds constrained by the fact that Brittelle has fully notated the entire bit into his overall score. (Probably this is because the guitar part is played by one of indie-classical’s top shredders, Mark Dancigers). Every time you think the music is about to spin off into an alternate, conservatory-nerd universe of abstruse noodling, a pop impulse pulls you back to the beat: the chants of “Rio Rio,” a lyrical reference to a song by The Smiths, that sort of thing.

[wpaudio url=”http://3-e-3.com/08%20Rio%20Rio.mp3″ text=”William Brittelle: ‘Rio Rio’” dl=”0″]

Every song on Television Landscape has something distinct to recommend it; I’ve only had the album for a couple days, but I can report that it all bears up incredibly well on repeat. There’s acoustic strum-and-mope along the lines of Bon Iver, some hazy noise sections that fans of Fennesz could get behind, and hints of post-punky drum and electronics (all of those styles are actually represented in “Vivid Culture,” the first track). And naturally, you’ll find some of the minimalist string writing that’s become a lingua franca for American composers, post-Reich and Glass. But for out-and-out pop songcraft, the real winner on Television Landscape is “Sheena Easton.” After some “Alexa de Paris”-era Revolution psychedelia, the track even features the Brooklyn Youth Chorus singing the soaring lyric “Sheena Easton be my mother / and I’m going off to Miami,” so really, click now!

[wpaudio url=”http://3-e-3.com/04%20Sheena%20Easton.mp3″ text=”William Brittelle: ‘Sheena Easton’” dl=”0″]

The novelty of an opera star like Renee Fleming covering “No One’s Gonna Love You” will of course draw quizzical links from indie writers. That’s what musical marketing stunts are designed to do. But when it comes to the alt-classical meme, such stunts also result in cynicism and closed-ear-syndrome — with listeners becoming ever more suspicious of whether the hybridization could ever produce a viable new species. It would be a shame if the Pitchforks and Pastes of the world allowed the Fleming record to put them off the alt-classical beat for the balance of 2010, because Brittelle’s album might just be that kind of beast.

Seth Colter Walls has a day job.