Music Reviews

Brahem, Anouar – “Thimar ” – [Ecm Bmg Records]

Rococo   7/5/2005   CD, Jazz

It’s impossible for me to review this CD without first saying how incredible the sound quality is on this recording. This is the kind of CD you’d want to take to your nearest high-end audio shop and play on their $20,000 sound system. Just close your eyes and YOU ARE THERE! The clarity, the separation, the depth…wow! Fortunately, the performances here are indeed equal to this marvel of recording technology. Anouar Brahem is a Tunisian oud virtuoso who has spent years learning Arab classical music, but who also seeks to explore new contexts for his instrument. On this album he is joined by two near- legends in jazz: John Surman (on bass clarinet and soprano sax) and Dave Holland (on double-bass). The result is an incredibly beautiful and intimate trio recording, blending jazz and Arab classical musics into something wholly original. Five stars!

Boothe, Ken – “A Man and His Hits ” – [Heartbeat]

Rococo   7/5/2005   CD, Reggae

Ken Boothe is not just one of the greatest reggae singers, but one of the greatest soul singers ever recorded. His career spans almost the entire history of reggae music, from the latter days of ska to a 1996 dancehall hit with deejay Shaggy. This collection is not a career retrospective, though, but rather a reissue of some of his best work for Studio One in the 1960’s. Primarily comprised of ska and rocksteady hits, this collection highlights, in no uncertain terms, the huge debt that Jamaican music owes to American R&B. ESSENTIAL!!!

Bila, Vera & Kale – “Kale Kalore ” – [Tinder Records]

Rococo   7/5/2005   CD, International

Vera Bila has been dubbed “the Ella Fitzgerald of gypsy music” and that moniker seems entirely apt, because this second album by Vera and her band Kale swings like a mother! No stodgy traditional folk music here; this stuff is alive and kickin’. The album is filled with original compositions, steeped in traditional gypsy music but sounding quite contemporary. The band shares vocals (and some incredible harmonies) with Vera, and back her with guitar, bass, and a whole mess of tamborines. Given the sadness of the (translated) lyrics, it’s ironic that the music is so uplifting.

Bell, the – “Bootleg ” – [Yikes Records]

Rococo   7/5/2005   A Library, CD

Ethno-jazz fusion par excellence! Former Axiom label manager Peter Wetherbee co-produces and plays hand drums on this massive double-CD of live performances at New York City’s Bell Cafe. Tablas, digeridoos, and other (more obscure) ethnic instruments collide with electric guitars in a psychedelic world-music jam session, sounding something like a more improvised version of Material’s HALLUCINATION ENGINE. A dub sensibility is evident in the production, as vocals fade in and out, and bass and drums each take their turn in the spotlight. This is an exotic trip that is definitely worth taking…already firmly ensconced in my Top Ten for 1998.

Basque – “Basque ” – [Laqua Records]

Rococo   7/5/2005   A Library, CD

As bands go, you can’t get much more basic than this: a bass player and a singer. That’s all. And that’s all you need, for this is the sound of Basque: spacious yet intimate, dramatic yet honest, simple yet unique. Aiming somewhere between the bluesier avenues of Portishead and the gothic sounds of Dead Can Dance, this Brooklyn duo creates a mystical blend of pop that’s totally compelling from start to finish. Music for candlelight and incense; a powerfully simple debut that’s going to be hard to improve on for future releases.

Asian American Orchestra – “Far East Suite ” – [Asianimprov Records]

Rococo   7/5/2005   CD, Jazz

It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. Fortunately this new interpretation of Duke Ellington & Billy Strayhorn’s “Far East Suite” swings mightily. Originally recorded in 1966, following several trips to Asia and the Middle East, the suite blends the sounds of the jazz orchestra with musical instruments and concepts from Iran, Japan and China. To commemorate Ellington’s 100th birthday, director/conductor Anthony Brown has re-arranged the work for his 12-piece Asian American Orchestra. This album contains great pieces of almost every length, from the short, swinging “Depk” to the 15- minute “Ad Lib on Nippon” that’s almost a suite unto itself. Also be sure to check out “Mount Harissa,” which starts and ends with a beautiful piano/percussion duet, and the powerful big band sound on “Amad.”

Art Ensemble of Chicago – “Sirius Calling ” – [Pi Recordings]

Rococo   7/5/2005   CD, Jazz

Following the deaths of founding members Lester Bowie and Malachi Favors, the future of the Art Ensemble may be open to question. But there’s certainly no question that SIRIUS CALLING is a strong release from a venerable band. Recorded before Favors’ death in January 2004, this album features shorter tracks than the Ensemble is typically noted for, and in so doing, may be a good entry point for new listeners. Instrumentally, it’s just as eclectic as ever, with a variety of percussion instruments, flutes, recorders, bells, whistles, and what-not. It all sounds about as comfortable and effortless as free jazz can get, with all four players contributing in equal measure.

Art Ensemble of Chicago – “Coming Home Jamaica ” – [Atlantic (Jazz)]

Rococo   7/5/2005   CD, Jazz

Under a grant from the Odwalla juice company, the venerable Art Ensemble of Chicago was recently given an all-expense-paid trip to Jamaica and over two months of studio time to record this, their first studio album in six years. Odwalla’s generosity is our gain: COMING HOME JAMAICA is one of the finest jazz albums of the year and possibly of the Art Ensemble’s entire 30+ year career. Their motto, “great black music: ancient to the future,” continues to provide inspiration in this recording, which features elements of everything from blues, ragtime, and swing to African and Caribbean rhythms. The album’s tracks are more tightly structured than many previous Ensemble recordings, but the players’ outstanding solos and inventive use of percussion keep things interesting throughout.

Aoki, Tatsu – “Basser Live ” – [Asianimprov Records]

Rococo   7/5/2005   CD, Jazz

Recorded live at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art in May of 1998, BASSER LIVE is Tatsu Aoki’s seventh album of solo bass improvisations. And by the sounds on this album, there’s still plenty of exploration going on within those narrow confines. Of the eight long tracks here, two are augmented by Asian percussion (“Wed Lock” and “Fisherman’s Song”), and one is an arrangement of a Japanese pop song (“Sukiyaki”). Complex rhythms and funkiness abound. Though some of the tracks may go on a bit too long, Aoki is obviously having a good time, and you will too.

Afro Cuban All Stars – “Distinto, Diferente ” – [World Circuit]

Rococo   7/5/2005   CD, International

Thanks to Wim Wenders’ wonderful film portrait, the world has fallen in love with the members of the BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB. And for once in a blue (Havana) moon, mass popularity and quality music are not such strange bedfellows. This second album by Juan de Marcos’ Afro Cuban All Stars features BUENA VISTA regulars Ibrahim Ferrer, Ruben Gonzalez, Omara Portuondo, and others, along with younger musicians who give the record a more modern sound. Extremely danceable and extremely elegant.

Bettye LaVette “Some Of Her Best Songs: 1962 – 2003” [Anti-]

Hunter Gatherer   6/29/2005   CD, Soul

Michigan native Bettye LaVette is another female soul singer with a shockingly low fame-to-talent ratio. This CD, released by Anti-, is a compilation of 25 soulful songs that showcase her amazing voice.

The songs follow her career for over forty years as she moved from label to label, releasing singles and staying mainly in the soul and R&B genre with touches of country here and there. Ms. LaVette has an unnerving way of getting inside the lyrics and making them her own. You believe her whether she is shouting for joy, singing about her love, or moaning in pain. Listening to the whole CD in one sitting is an overwhelming experience.

A few words about the more notable covers:
He Made A Woman Out Of Me (Bobbie Gentry) — a paean to either young love or statutory rape, depending on the age of consent where the song is being played.
Take Another Piece Of My Heart (I always heard the Janis Joplin version) — Ms. LaVette sings it beautifully and is still alive to boot
It Ain’t Easy (Ron Davies) — the most famous version is by David Bowie
Your Turn To Cry (Joe Simon) — fantastic, though this single’s failure to sell as much as expected led Atlantic to not release an album’s worth of material. It was later released in 2000 as “Souvenirs”
Behind Closed Doors (Charlie Rich) — interesting
Souvenirs (John Prine) — the best song on the CD

Ms. LaVette is still going strong, touring and putting out albums, and winning music awards.
–Hunter Gatherer

Goodbye, Babylon – [coll] – [Dust-to-Digital]

Art Crimes   6/23/2005   CD, Country

Probably the definitive collection of American religious-themed music since the dawn of recorded sound. Producer Lance Ledbetter founded the Dust-to-Digital label to release this project, calling on experts from the worlds of American music scholarship and record collecting to find the most idiosyncratic and heartfelt spiritual music drawn from all manner of styles, including gospel, folk, country, blues, and jazz, as well as fiery sermons delivered by ministers who often were just as popular as the musical artists of the time. Over 150 tracks span the 6 CDs here, mostly transferred from 78 rpm records, with the sermons taking up the entirety of the sixth CD. And drawing on his experience as a radio programmer, Mr. Ledbetter sequenced each disc by themes, rather than genre, resulting in a huge variety of styles on each disc, far more rewarding for extended listening than a purely chronological or genre-specific collection would have been. As if that wasn’t enough, the set is accompanied by a massive paperbound book that provides biographies of every artist, as well as useful historical and/or cultural information to give some context to each selection. It’s nearly impossible to single out any individual tracks as standouts, given the overall quality and quantity of the contents, but suffice to say that those who enjoy the full spectrum of American music forms will find plenty to get excited about here.

Yo Yo a Go Go 1999 [coll] – [Yo Yo Recordings] (CD)

lombard   6/21/2005   A Library, CD

This is a great document of Yo Yo a Go Go, the indie music festival held in Olympia, Washington beginning in 1994. The 1999 fest has many highlights, from the simplicity of folky Mirah and Mountain Goats to Yo-Yo regulars/feminist icons Mecca Normal and The Need. Pop sweetness from Crabs and Sleater-Kinney always rock. The closer is Negativland leading the audience in a “sing along” of Casey Kasem’s raunchy outtakes. (added 6-21-2005)

Note: Language on 9, 21

-Cynthia Lombard

Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players- “Vintage Slideshow Collections from Seattle, Vol. 1” – [Bar None] (CD)

lombard   6/14/2005   A Library, CD

This is a wacky pop opera/concept album that provides the soundtrack to their touring slideshow of found photos. You can pop the CD into a computer to see slides for a few songs. It IS a family affair, with the youngest Trachtenburg starting her drumming career at age 6. Kitschy lyrics inspired by Swiss fondue, corporate marketing memos, and tourists in Japan. 2003 release. (added 6-14-2005)

-Cynthia Lombard

Rough Guide to Afro-Peru [coll] – [Rough Guide]

Hunter Gatherer   6/4/2005   CD, International

Another excellent release from the Rough Guide series. This time it is a collection of music that was brought to Peru by slaves from West Africa and continues to evolve through their descendants.

This CD can only present us with the music, but it is important to realize that this sensual music cannot be separated from the dances that accompany it, such as The Alcatraz (track 14) in which dancers have a piece of red paper between their legs that other dancers try to ignite with a lit candle. These dances were so threatening to the Spanish colonialists that they were outlawed along with all drums.

This explains why a large wooden box, called the cajon, is the one of the important percussion instruments on this CD. The instruments are acoustic: guitar, bass, some brass. There are many different types of percussion instruments (including my favorite, the vibraslap) marking complex meters. It combines the best elements of African and South American music. Check it out.
–Hunter Gatherer

Weird War ?Illuminated By The Light? [Drag City]

Hunter Gatherer   6/4/2005   A Library, CD

Though they were originally intended as a one-off project, this is the third full-length release by Weird War. The line up is frontman Ian Svenonius and bass player Michelle Mae (who also play together in the Make-Up), guitarist Alex Minoff (with Mr. Svenonius and Ms. Mae are the Scene Creamers) and drummer Sebastian Thomson. It was released 4/19/05.

When I heard the synth roto-tom fills on the first track, I figured that this band was either completely naff or completely great. Of course, as I listened further I decided it was the latter. Combining elements of funk, disco, and glam with a solid rock underpinning, they are beyond irony, beyond tribute, and on to their own thing.

Ian Svenonius‘s vocals are all over the place, with from falsettos and sobs to blas? intonations. He said in an interview that the only bad sounding vocal is a quiet vocal. He makes his point on this CD. Alex Minoff solos through almost the whole album with a compressed distorted tone that I haven’t heard since I lost my Rockman.

The lyrics have some great lines like ‘Why do girls like guys like that?’ and ‘I may be weak but history will vindicate me,? and my personal favorite, “I don’t love you any more… Have a nice time at the war.”
–Hunter Gatherer

Variable Unit ?Mayhemystics Outbreaks? [Wide Hive Records]

Hunter Gatherer   5/22/2005   CD, Hip Hop

This is the fifth release by Variable Unit, a San Francisco self-described ‘community? (as opposed to a ‘band?) with a fluctuating membership made up of experienced musicians interested in combining genres like hip hop, down tempo, dub, soul, and anything else they can get their hands on. It was released 4/20/2005

This release started out as outtakes from their previous release, Mayhemystics, and soon took on a life of its own. Only two songs of the thirteen are new versions from Mayhemistics – Second Seals (originally Seals) and Liberation 2 (originally Liberation).

The sound is a mishmash of genres listed above, bringing out the best elements of each. The great keyboard playing by Jacob Elyah Aginsky and the rhythm section of Thomas McCree (drums) and Matt Montgomery (bass) keep the music interesting and funky (especially on 8: Contradiction). DJs Quest and Zeph participate on this release as well. Azeem and Omega have a powerful delivery to match the power of the subject matter.

Most of the songs are a reaction to the second Gulf War and the general hassles of being on the less desirable end of a capitalist society combined with a healthy dose of apocalyptic vision. They get points for writing the first song I’ve heard that points out the fact that vinyl records are made from oil derivatives.

Instrumentals: 4, 7, 9, 13
–Hunter Gatherer

Nikaidoh, Kazumi ?You Dropped Something Again, Didn’t You? [Poet Portraits]

Hunter Gatherer   5/22/2005   A Library, CD

Kazumi Nikaidoh, or Nika to her friends, is a Japanese singer/songwriter with a distinctive voice. This is her second album, released 2/2005, and it was recorded at her home when she got the chance between live shows. There are also two videos on this CD, one of a song that is not on the audio section of the CD.

Nika plays the acoustic guitar with a distinctive fingerpicking style but far more distinctive is her singing style, which can sound cute and childish at one point and then broken and jagged with little warning. There are long sections of wordless singing that drifts away from the key and out of the meter.

She is accompanied mostly by other acoustic instruments – piano, cello, flute, clarinet. This gives this CD a folky feel though parts of it sound poppy.
–Hunter Gatherer

Books, The “Lost and Safe” [Tomlab]

Hunter Gatherer   5/22/2005   A Library, CD

The Books, a New York-based duo, are Paul DeJong and Nick Zammuto. Lost And Safe is their third full-length release.

Put it on and you will hear acoustic instruments (guitar, banjo, cello, ?) sometimes highly processed and looped, sometimes not. But the most striking thing about this release is that about half the lyrics are from found recordings. Sometimes the spoken texts are obviously from different sources but they are put together to make a conversation which creates a rather unsettling effect. Other times it is oddly moving. The other lyrics are sung, spoken, or multi-tracked by Mr. Zammuto.

The overall feeling of this release is one of calm in the center of a storm, loneliness in a crowd, and safety in the midst of chaos. It’s perfect music for people watching in a crowded city. Xlr8r magazine called it 23rd centry bluegrass in their review, which is about right.

The songs on this promotional CD are in different order than the one that was released.
–Hunter Gatherer

Sun Ra “Spaceship Lullaby” jazz [Atavistic-Unheard]

Thurston Hunger   5/16/2005   CD, Jazz

Doo wah Sun Ra… What an interesting time capsule on the
outstanding (and appropriate) Unheard Music Series from the
Atavistic folks. Hermetically-sealed Herman Blount sounding
very earthbound, anchored to a trash can on the corner, but
still with eyes searching for Saturn in the sky…and ears
angling for angles in the stars. He punches his Chicago
ticket twice at the end of the Nu Sounds section. There’s
a sweetness to the jingle-like melodies, and more than a
few jewels to the roughness here. Honestly, “Ra Coaching
Roland Williams” may be my favorite. Or the Lintels
picking up “Blue Moon” from scratch or the little racing
dips in “Louise” (a favorite of my departed mother-in-law
who is undoubtedly somewhere in the galaxy begging Sun to
do another rendition of that number.) A lot of older folks
will get jukebox shivers hearing these tunes. Liner notes
are a must. Zoom zoom zoom…

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