A Terribly Beautiful, Cold Blue Anthology of New Music

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Is it possible for an album to be too pretty? It's certainly easy to dismiss a piece of music that eschews superficial complexity in favor of loveliness, whose form favors harmonic stasis over dramatic contrast, as "too pretty." But that accusation is almost always code for something else, some other agenda that the critic is bringing to the music, and dismissive listeners should probably interrogate their own responses before they look to the composer.

Case in point: the Cold Blue label's second, terribly beautiful, anthology of new music, appropriately titled Cold Blue Two. Coming almost three decades after the first Cold Blue was released on vinyl in 1984, and reissued on CD in 2000, it shrugs off any such accusations.

Unapologetically beautiful, Cold Blue Two presents 14 distinctive ways to make clear, still "pretty" music, by 14 different composers, many of whom created these pieces especially for the album.

Listen closely: there is almost always a sharp edge hidden among these glistening surfaces. Ingram Marshall's Son of Soe-Pah manages to make the sound of major-key acoustic guitar and boy treble into something deeply disturbing, and Chas Smith's Sometimes the Sword of Seven manages to bring just a hint of metal guitar edge into a disorienting swirl of warped organ. The late James Tenney's Mallets in the Air marries the diamond marimba of Harry Partch to a string quartet in one of the album's many nods to microtonal technique. Just as often, as in John Luther Adams's Sky with Four Sons, the transparent loveliness of the materials provides a glimpse into the severe rigor of the underlying construction.

On second thought, maybe there is such a thing as "too pretty," and maybe this album has found it. The most casual listen to this haunted music-box, as often eerie or melancholy as it is soothing, is an unsettling experience, a quiet disquiet. Cold Blue the label and Cold Blue the anthologies are aptly named: cold and like a glacier or a clear winter sky, this music is as shiver-inducing as it is lovely.

Cold Blue Two (Cold Blue Music)