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November 30, 2017

Music Review: Grayson Capps - Scarlett Roses


scarlett-roses.jpg Scarlett Roses, on the Royal Potato Family label, is the first solo album from Grayson Capps in six years. Right from the opening chords of the album's lead track, "Scarlett Roses", listeners are quickly reminded what it is about Capps that makes him and his music so special. From the resonance of his guitar to the rough hewn tenor of his voice each of his songs not only sound great, they feel amazing inside your soul.

Capps has always been an incredible mixture of raconteur, preacher, and mad poet that in another age would have seen either revered as a bard or sage, or maybe burnt at a stake. His songs have this strange way of working their way under your skin without you even noticing. Listening to his tunes you'll all of a sudden find yourself singing along to lyrics you've never heard before; as if they were from a song you'd been listening to all your life.

Scarlett Roses is no exception, save now he travels a little deeper into each story. Instead of merely recounting what happens, he now takes us below the surface of the journey into something closer to the psyche of his subject. What's even more impressive is how he accomplishes this without any apparent effort on his part.

There're no fancy words or finely wrought phrases delivering deep insights, rather it's a matter of how over the course of the song he builds an image in your head. It's this picture which allows you to hear (or see) what the song was about and the various truths underneath the words.

Now, don't worry. This doesn't mean this isn't an album of great music. A number of years ago I said if anyone wanted to hear what Southern rock and roll sounds like they should listen to Capps. After hearing this album I've changed my mind.

He is the best of anyone around today playing music representing the heart of American popular music. Call it Americana, or whatever you want, but its that weird place where traditional Anglo folk music meets African American blues and gospel and forms the basis for everything that's come out of the radio over the last 60 years.

With everything from the Texas blues of the 8th track "Taos", to the country gospel sound of the 6th "New Again", (with its secular/religious lyrics), the disc takes you on a wonderful tour of music which is the love child of Hank Williams and Charlie Patton. Accompanying Capps for the ride are Corky Hughes on guitar, lap steel, bass, and piano, Rufus Ducote on bass, and Hammond bass pedals, Russ Broussand on drums and washboard, and Trina Shoemaker (also producer along with Capps and Hughes) and Dylan LeBlanc singing harmonies.

In some ways, in spite of all its simplicity and apparent straight forwardness, this release is one of Capps' most sophisticated albums. He's not only, along with his accomplices, managed to create music which seamlessly blends a myriad of styles, his lyrics do an amazing job of balancing the literal and the emotional. Listeners don't just hear the story, they also manage to experience it on a visceral level.

However, what really matters is this is an album you're going to want to listen to over and over again. The combination of great music and lyrics, amazing playing by all involved, and Capps' compelling voice and delivery easily makes Scarlett Roses one of the best albums I've heard to come out of North America this year.

Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Grayson Capps - Scarlett Roses)

October 12, 2017

Music Review: Barbez - For Those Who Came After: Songs of Resistance from the Spanish Civil War


those_who_came_cover sm.jpg La plus ça change, plus c'est la mȇme chose (The more things change, the more they stay the same) was first said by Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr in 1849 and is often used in reference to the frequency events are repeated in history. So as the world descends into yet another period of political polarization it's not very surprising to see people reaching back into the past for inspiration. This is the case with the newly released album For Those Who Came After: Songs of Resistance From The Spanish Civil War from the Brooklyn based Barbez on Important Records.

In the late 1930s a group of Spanish generals led by Francisco Franco revolted to overthrow the elected government of Spain. Openly backed with equipment and money by Italy's Fascist government and Germany's Nazi government, the coup was far better prepared for war than their republican opponents. When it became obvious the countries of Europe were going to allow the Spanish government to be defeated, anti-fascist volunteers from all over the world travelled to Spain to fight.

Among those who volunteered were Americans who formed the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. In honour of these soldiers, and to inspire those fighting against fascism in WWll, an album of music from the Spanish Civil war was released in the 1940s, Songs From The Lincoln Brigade. It featured songs in English, Spanish, and German (there was a large contingent of anti-fascist Germans fighting in Spain) that had either been sung by troops during the war or inspired by the struggle.

Now 80 years after the events in Spain Barbez's album commemorates those who fought with their renditions of songs from the original album and new recordings of other anti-fascist anthems from the same period. For those familiar with the earlier recording, these versions might take a little getting used to, as they are no longer being performed either as choral pieces or simple folk songs accompanied by guitar and banjo.

Barbez is made up of musicians who have played with everyone from David Byrne to the Philip Glass Ensemble and includes not only guitar (Dan Kaufman), drums (John Bollinger), and other instruments normally associated with contemporary music, but a theremin player (Pamelia Stickney) as well. The other major difference is the lead vocalist, Velina Brown, best known for her live theatre performances.

Her voice isn't one you'd normally associate with 'folk' music as its been obviously trained for performance on the stage. However, she lends the material a power and authority which makes them the calls to arms they were meant to be. When she sings "The International" (written in 1871 by Eugene Pottier after the fall of the Paris Commune and only later co-opted by Communist Russia) it is the anthem for the working class it was supposed to be, not the symbol of oppression it became. After years of hearing it performed by orchestras or massed choirs, this multilingual version, done by a small band with a theremin led intro, reminds us of the song's origins and who it was meant to represent.

Each of the songs on this album reminds us of a time when people of all backgrounds and political beliefs first began forming a common front against an seemingly intractable enemy. "Moorsodaten" ("Peat Bog Soldiers") was written inside one of the earliest German concentrations camps in 1933 and sung for the troops in Spain by the great American Paul Robeson. "Song of the United Front" - which calls for a coalition of people to unite against fascism - was written by German playwright Bertolt Brecht and his composer Hans Eisler echoing the cry for unity of Spain's elected government.

Brown and Barbez have done a remarkable job in taking these songs from early in the last century ( and older) and not only making them sound alive and vital, but in also making them relevant to today's world. By singing them in French, English, German, and Spanish Brown not only reminds us of their origins, but of a time when people from all over the world were united against a common enemy.

The album was recorded live in 2016 at the annual reunion of Lincoln Brigade veterans. At two points in the album, Barbez have mixed in the voices of two of the last surviving American veterans of the war (they've both dead now with the last, Del Berg dying at a 100 years old last year). On the first track, "Viva la Quince Brigade" ("Long Live the 15th Brigade") we hear Abe Osheroff explaining why he went to Spain, and then more tellingly saying: "Spain was where I learned I didn't have to know I was going to win in order to fight. It became the main theme in my life, and that is, you resist whether you win or lose - you resist."

Maybe this is a part of the world's shared history some would like us to forget. How people from around the world came together to begin the long resistance against those who preached hatred, who advocated for the rights of the few, and whose power was based on the exploitation of the many. However, aside from anything else, the songs on For Those Who Came After are beautifully executed and an amazing example of how music over 80 years old can not only be relevant today, but sound just as exciting and stirring as they did when originally written.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Barbez - For Those Who Came After: Songs of Resistance from the Spanish Civil War)

August 17, 2017

Music Review: Ray Wylie Hubbard - Tell The Devil I'm Gettin' There As Fast As I Can


Tell The Devil Cover sm.jpg There're two natural phenomena occurring this week. August 21 2017 will see a full solar eclipse of the sun and August 19 will see the release of Ray Wylie Hubbard's newest album Tell The Devil I'm Gettin' There As Fast As I Can. While the former might be getting all the media attention, the latter will probably turn out to be not only more enduring, but maybe even more endearing.

Hubbard is one of those musicians who don't fit comfortably into anybody's safe little niche. He's not really country, blues, rock or folk, but he's all of those things. He plays a mean slide guitar and invokes people like Lighting Hopkins in a rough hewn voice which, to paraphrase his old buddy Jerry Jeff Walker, sounds like the voice of age when he speaks right out. Not age as in old, but age as being tapped into some inner wisdom. Some seam that allows him to gather the past and the present together to reveal little gems of truth.

From a retelling of the Book of Genesis with "God Looked Around" to a literal road trip from Hell down to Mobile in "Lucifer and the Fallen Angels" the songs on this latest release cover an incredible range of territory both musically and lyrically. Some of them, like the latter and "Dead Thumb King" are bizarre and wonderful stream of consciences riffs.

On "Dead Thumb King" he runs through a list of items which sound like a recipe for a voodoo potion designed to make you the ultimate blues musician. Dirt from Lighting Hopkins' grave, a harmonica thrown away by Charlie Musselwhite and a rattlesnake tail in your guitar.

The thing about Hubbard is you can actually kind of see him picking up a hitchhiking Lucifer and friends and taking career advice from them. "Call me Lou, Lucifer said/ Now listen don't take this wrong/Ain't nobody in this town (Nashville) going to want to publish your songs/Your cool but your old/they don't care about that snake farm groove and grip/And you didn't make any money/ even when that ass Paul Thorn recorded it."
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While songs like this and "Old Wolf", a salute to the denizens and permanent residences of roadhouses and drinking houses of ill repute everywhere, are fun and witty, Hubbard's real depths come out in the beautiful poetry of his stories. For he is one of the great raconteurs of our age as well as a songwriter.

"House of the White Rose Bouquet" recounts the tragic love story of the relationship between a gambler and a Madame. By not trying to tug on our heartstrings, but by just telling the story in plain words so its beauty shines through, Hubbard takes something which could have been sentimental tripe and makes it real.

Maybe its because I've toured with theatre companies or have friends who were in bands and lived out of the back of vans, but the disc's title song, "Tell the Devil I'm Gettin' There as Fast As I Can" resonates with me like few other tunes have in recent years. The music and the lyrics combine to create a piece which evokes the life of an itinerant artist traveling from gig to gig.

He doesn't bemoan his fate or complain about his travails - it is was it is - nothing more and nothing less. Of course the fact the song features both Lucinda Williams and Eric Church harmonizing with Hubbard doesn't hurt. Williams voice especially adds a wistfulness to the song which makes it hard to resist.

Hubbard epitomized alt country before the term even existed. He has resolutely travelled his own road without compromise. In a true and just world he'd be heard on radios around the country and sought after by record companies. However, in these imperfect times we have to make do with purchasing his CDs when they travel into our orbit.

Tell The Devil I'm Gettin' There As Fast As I Can goes on sale August 19 2017 and can be ordered through Hubbard's web site. Do yourself a favour - buy it and revel in its magic and mystery.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Ray Wylie Hubbard - Tell The Devil I'm Gettin' There As Fast As I Can)

March 30, 2017

Music Review: David Broza - The Set List


Cover The Set List David Broza.jpgAfter 40 years of performing music David Broza has a problem. It's really difficult searching through the amount of material he's produced to come up with a set list for any given tour. Titling his new greatest hit package The Set List, being released March 31 2017, is therefore rather appropriate. One could only assume this collection would contain the songs, and or performances, he would like to include in all of his shows.

For those who don't know Broza is an institution in his home country of Israel. However a good part of his early life was spent in Spain and England with his family and these influences show up in his music, especially the former. You can't help but hear the Flamenco influences in his guitar playing. It also won't be much of a surprise to know one of his most recent recordings was a collection of songs from Andalusia dating back to the days prior to the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain.

Unfortunately for Broza this greatest hits collection could never be a set list. For there are performances included in here which would be very difficult to reproduce ever again. Take for example the live recording of the song he first became famous for "Yihye Tov" (Things Will Be Better). While it was written in 1977 during the peace talks between Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat, and has become an anthem of the Israeli peace movement, the version he has chosen for this release was recorded live at the biblical fortress of Masada in 2007 with special guests Jackson Browne and Shawn Colvin.

Broza is obviously held in high esteem by his fellow musicians around the world. Even though they had only met twice, and that on stage, after his death the late American country iconoclast Townes Van Zandt bequeathed Broza two shoe boxes of lyrics. Ten years later Broza released Night Dawn: The Unpublished Poetry of Townes Van Zandt and has included the title song from that album on this release.

The second indication of the respect he's held in comes from the tracks included from the 2013 release East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem. Produced by Steve Earle and recorded over eight days in a Palestinian recording studio in East Jerusalem, Broza brought together musicians from both sides of the Jewish Palestinian divide to create this record of covers and original material. (As an aside a great documentary of the same name on the making of the album is currently showing on Netflix - a quick search of the service, no matter what country you're in, should bring it up)

The three songs included from those sessions on this disc include "One to Three", a powerful indictment of the war mentality that exists in Israel; "Ramallah/Tel Aviv", an homage to two of the largest cities in Palestine and Israel respectively sung by Broza and Palestinian singer Mira Awad; and the title song "East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem" sung with Haiti's Wyclef Jean. Each of these songs represents another effort on his part to build hope for a better future for the two people of his country.

Whether the lyrics are in Hebrew, English, or Spanish Broza's songs are wonderful to listen to. Even if you don't understand the words the music itself is a wondrous mix of the Middle East, Spain, and points further afield. On this collection you'll hear everything from Oud players to Steve Earle's mandolin accompanying songs.

The Set List may never be performed in concert, but it offers a great retrospective of an amazing musician's career. If you've never heard Broza before this is a great opportunity to get to know the music and the man. If you're already a fan, this is a chance to at least listen to what he would consider his ideal concert.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: David Broza - The Set List)

February 25, 2017

Music Review: Rhiannon Giddens - Freedom Highway


Rhiannon Giddens Freedom Highway Cover.jpgThe incomparable Rhiannon Giddens' second solo album, Freedom's Highway on Nonesuch Records is being released on February 24 2016. Not only is this album timely for its release during Black History Month, it's also a reminder of the struggle required to overcome oppression no matter what shape it comes in.

What Giddens has done on this collection of twelve songs, ten originals and two covers, is assemble a cultural/social/political history of African Americans in the United States. From slavery through the civil rights movement of the 1960s to the present day she recounts, through song and music, events and personal stories which have shaped this history. However, these aren't just political songs, they are also an amazing collection demonstrating the diversity of music that has sprung from this culture over the years.

There aren't too many artists out there who can set themselves a task as complicated as this and not only achieve it, but do so in a manner where the artistic expression is equal to the content of the material. Musically the album ranges from the soul/rap of the fifth song, "Better Get It Right The First Time" to the country sounds of "The Angel's Laid Him Aways", the disc's second track. Combined with the New Orleans sound of "The Love We Almost Had", the gospel "Birmingham Sunday", and the near bluegrass rattle of "Following The North Star", the album covers almost the entire spectrum of American music.

Of course while the music is wonderful, the centrepiece of any Giddens album will always remain her voice. Her range, control, and expression are befitting someone who went from schooling in opera to playing in the old time African American string band, The Carolina Chocolate Drops. She has the uncanny ability of being able to bring the listener into the heart of a song. Through her empathy and compassion we feel the myriad range of emotions she's expressing.

This can make for some heartbreaking experiences. The opening track, "At The Purchaser's Option", is both a lament and a statement of defiance told from the view of a young female slave. Based on a old advertisement offering a young slave for sale and her nine month baby, available at the purchaser's option, the song brings the dehumanizing reality of slavery home with a vengeance. "I have a babe but shall I keep him/Twill come the day when I'll be weepin'/But how can I love him any less/This little babe upon my breast/You can take my body/You can take my bones/You can take my blood/But not my soul"

While all the songs on the album are wonderful, and no matter how many times you listen to it you're more than likely to hear something new and breathtaking each time, the two covers, "Birmingham Sunday" and the title track "Freedom's Highway" stand out. The former is about the terrorist attack on an African American church in 1964 that left four children dead during the height of the civil rights movement while the latter is a Staple Singers song from the same era about the need for perseverance in the march for freedom.

Giddens performs this song as a duet with Bhi Bhiman, whose parents were born in Sri Lanka: "America's strength are her people, whether they came 4,000, f00, or 40 years ago, and we can't leave anyone behind" (Rhiannon Giddens). Maybe not a message some people want to hear, but a timely one all the same.

Freedom Highway is one of those amazing rarities, a politically charged and artistically refined album. The music is spectacular, the lyrics are beautiful and inspiring, and the singing is as glorious as you'll hear anywhere. Giddens proves once again she is a force to be reckoned with - musically and otherwise.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Rhiannon Giddens - Freedom Highway)

December 17, 2016

Concert Review: A Tribe Called Red - Kingston Ontario December 14 2016


A Tribe Called Red by Quinn Aebi copy.jpgOn December 14 2016 A Tribe Called Red, brought their Electric Pow Wow to Kingston Ontario and raised the roof at Stages Night Club. For those who don't know the three man DJ crew (Ian "DJ" Campeau, Tim "2oolman" Hill, and Bear Witness) mix traditional indigenous music from Canada and rest of the world with electronic beats, samples of pop songs and spoken word to create some of the most exciting and exhilarating dance music out there.

While their recent album We Are The Halluci-Nation was perhaps their most overtly political album yet, that hasn't done anything to diminish their abilities as entertainers. In fact judging by the sold out audience filling the space not only has their popularity increased it brings together one of the most diverse audiences I've ever seen at a concert.

All races and ages mixed together under one roof dancing and grooving to the sounds these three guys generated without any of the crap you usually find in an atmosphere fuelled by alcohol and loud music was something of a miracle to me. Normally you can't walk into any bar in this city without some sort of testosterone overload happening. So to see everybody simply focused on having a good time and the music was a tribute to the potency of their performance.

I say performance, because the three men of A Tribe Called Red don't just stand up behind a stack of equipment focusing on their equipment. They are involved with the audience - looking around, smiling and even jumping out from behind the equipment to dance on the speaker stacks. I've not seem many other DJ acts in a long time but these guys are not only able to do their mixes live but make it seem like they are just as, if not more, involved with their audience than most bands with instruments.

The music itself was a brilliant collage of sampled music, electronically generated sounds, and spoken voice all anchored by the sound of various First Nations drum groups. While as expected there were tracks from the recent disc; "Halluci-Nation" (featuring the voice of the late John Trudell) and "The Virus", there were also some unexpected delights as well. To all of a sudden hear bits of the old Paul Revere and the Raiders' song "Cherokee Nation" blasting out of the speakers was a hoot. It's obvious A Tribe Called Red have a sense of humour.

While I said the political content of their songs wasn't as prevalent in concert as it is on their album, in some ways their whole concert is a statement. They are telling a room packed with predominately non-native people, this is who First Nations people of Canada are today.

Their music is firmly based around the heartbeat of the traditional drum and deeply embedded in the culture of their people but is not wedded to the past. It is saying we are not the stereotypical stoic Indian brave of the movies or the cartoons of your mascots - we are a living, breathing people and we're not going anywhere.

A Tribe Called Red is coming to the end of their touring for 2016, only a few more dates in Canada. However, they'll be back on the road again in 2017 and if you have a chance check them out - they're amazing. If you're like me and we're hesitate about going to an electronic music party - don't - these guys are not your typical DJs and put on an amazing show.

As a final note I'd like to congratulate the venue, Stages Nightclub, and the promoter, Flying V Productions for putting on a show where everyone felt truly welcome. Everyone from the security staff to the bar people worked to create a safe environment. Very cool in these weird times.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Concert Review: A Tribe Called Red Kingston Ontario 12/14/16)

November 1, 2016

Music Blu-ray/CD Review: Iggy Pop - Post Pop Depression Live at the Royal Albert Hall


Cover Post Pop Depression Live Royal Albert Hall.jpg Watching Iggy Pop strut his stuff on the Blu-ray/CD package Post Pop Depression Live at the Royal Albert Hall from Eagle Rock Entertainment and Universal Music, is to remember why real rock and roll scares the crap out of the establishment. With a band fronted by Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme Pop generates enough energy to power all of London. They don't just blow the roof off - they knock down walls and shake foundations.

While at 69 Pop might not be quite as insane as he once was, he doesn't deliberately cut himself on stage anymore (although he did manage to cut himself during his first dive into the crowd) he still bounces around the stage like his legs are springs. This is a guy who takes the concept of putting body and soul into something literally as he flings himself into song after song. For nearly two hours he sings and throws himself around the stage and into the audience with only a small break between the main set and the encore.

Even more incredible is the fact his voice hasn't lost any of its power or its versatility. There's a misconception of Pop being primarily a screamer of lyrics. However, the truth is, while his range might not extend easily into the upper reaches, he can and does utilize the mid and lower ends of the scale beautifully. He can switch from near crooning lyrics in a strong baritone to growling out invective in the blink of an eye. This prevents his songs from becoming exercises in trying to overpower the audience, and becoming droning, boring noise.

While the concert was obviously designed to showcase what Pop and Homme wrote for the Post Pop Depression CD released in the spring of 2016, it also features material covering the span of Pop's solo career. With the exception of "Repo Man" (his contribution to the cult movie hit of the same name) and "Sixteen", the majority of songs not from the new album were from his collaborations with the late David Bowie.

From the show's opener, "Lust for Life", to the song you forgot he co-wrote, "China Girl", this concert could also be taken as Pop's tribute to his old friend. Without his name ever being mentioned at anytime during the performance, Bowie was an undeniable presence throughout.
Iggy Pop and Joshua Homme by Elizabeth Weinberg.jpg
However, this wasn't some guy trotting out a collection of his past hits trying to relive old glory. The new material was every bit as powerful and inspired as anything Pop has done in the first fifty years of his career. Songs like "Sunday", "American Vahalla", and "Chocolate Drops", with their musings on his time spent in the trenches of the pop music wars, are intelligent reflections on a long and tumultuous life and career.

This three disc set, one Blu-ray and two CDs, are an amazing record of nearly two hours of magic. While the CDs contain the audio of the concert and are great to listen to, the real treasure is the Blu-ray. Not only are the audio and visual perfect, director James Russell has provided us with a perfect mix of camera angels and shots to capture the event. We are on stage with the band as Pop rumbles across the stage and Homme and company play like men possessed. The lasting impression one takes away from those moments is how much fun they are all having doing this show.

Their spirit is obviously infectious as we see whenever the camera follows Iggy on one of his forays into the crowd. Whether the crowd is supporting him while he body surfs or he simply walks amongst them, everyone is invariably smiling. It's not the usual adulation of fans either. For while there are signs of the ubiquitous selfie taking which plagues any public event, most people seem content with reaching out to touch or hug Pop. It's like they are saying thank you, or perhaps good-bye.

This may or may not be Pop's swan song. If it is he's definitely going out the same way he came in - being true to himself and his music. Pop has never taken any prisoners in his life or his art and this concert is no exception. He might be older, and probably a lot wiser, then he was when he first came on the scene in the 1960s, but he still gives himself body and soul to his music. If you've never seen him in concert Post Pop Depression Live at the Royal Albert Hall is the next best thing.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Iggy Pop -Post Pop Depression Live at the royal Albert hall [Blu-ray/ 2 CD set])

October 21, 2016

Music Review: A Tribe Called Red - We Are The Halluci Nation


Cover We Are The Halluci Nation - A Tribe Called Red.jpgWith their latest release, We Are The Halluci Nation on the Pirates Blend label, the three man DJ crew/producers known as A Tribe Called Red continue to redefine the music of the First Nations people of Canada. Already well known for their inspired work mixing traditional native drum groups with dance beats, hip-hop, and electronics, the latest release expands on this base by reaching out to international indigenous and rap artists.

Aside from incorporating the Northern Voice and Chippewa Travellers drums, the three man crew (Ian "DJ" Campeau, Tim "2oolman" Hill, and Bear Witness) have used tracks contributed by artists as diverse as Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq, rap stars Yasiin Bay (Mos Def), Narcy, Black Bear, and Shad, and the voice of the recently deceased poet/musician/Native American activist John Trudell. It was Trudell who provided the lyrics for the title track, "We Are The Halluci Nation", and the inspiration for the album as a whole.

So it's only fitting the first voice you hear on the disc is Trudell's. Before he died he sent the band a tape of him reading the words for both the opening track and the release's second last song, "ALie Nation". It doesn't take too much imagination to understand who Trudell is referring to when he talks about the "Halluci Nation" and the "ALie Nation". Yet it's not as cut and dried as the First Nations European division as you'd think.

While the lyrics of the former makes no bones about the fact the song is about how indigenous people are viewed ( "We are the Halluci Nation/We have been called the Indians/We have been called Native Americans/We have been called hostile/We have been called pagan/We have been called militant/We have been called many names/We are the Halluci Nation.") the latter implies the split between peoples is not necessarily along racial lines. Rather it's between those who see the world as something to exploit and those who see it as something to celebrate.

While even that might be too radical a thought for most to get their heads around (after all we've been taught we were given dominion over the beasts and the land) the band knows a message has to be delivered in a way to make it palatable. So on the majority of the tracks the bitter pill of reality is sweetened with a musical mix that is not only infectious but brilliantly mixed. It seamlessly blends elements of traditional drums with electronics and the contributions of the guests.
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"R.E.D.", the track featuring Yasiin Bey, Narcy & Black Bear is a great example of this. The core of the song's music is a drum group laying down the beat. (If you've ever wondered why its called the heartbeat drum you'll understand after listening to this song) Mixed overtop are the lead vocals and various electronic effects. However, what's amazing is that instead of this creating an impenetrable wall of sound making the music sound like mush, you can hear every layer distinctly and how they work together.

On "R.E.D." in particular you'll notice how the song is built around the drum. During a drum's performance there are various breaks from the heart beat, either when the drum stops altogether and there's only singing, or when the rhythm and speed are suddenly increased. On this track, we hear the same pattern, in both the drum and the other elements - from voice to electronics. It's a perfect merging of the traditional and the modern.

There are two tracks, four "BEFORE" and 15 "SOON", which aren't really songs. They are recordings of a phone conversation from prison. They are heartbreaking in their reality and pain and bring up topics which most people don't really want to know about: the damage suffered by First Nations people in Residential Schools and the unsolved murders of thousands of indigenous women across Canada. Simple and direct, they go to the heart of what's wrong with Canada's relationship with the original people of this country.

I was fortunate enough to interview John Trudell about 8 years ago. What I came to realize from reading his poetry and talking with him is how much your mindset is changed by living as a conquered people in your own land. I could barely even begin to get my mind around how that must feel. We Are The Halluci Nation from A Tribe Called Red explores similar territory while at the same time trying to show all of us there is a way forward from this state of mind.

Musically this CD will knock your socks off as it blows a hole in your sternum and gets your feet moving. It will do the same thing to you intellectually and emotionally if you let it. That's the power of great music.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: A Tribe Called Red - We Are The Halluci Nation)

September 27, 2016

Music Review: Moor Mother -Fetish Bones


Cover Fetish Bones Moor Mother copy sm.jpgWith the release of Fetish Bones, her first recording for Don Giovanni Records, Moor Mother, the music stage name for multidisciplinary artist Camae Ayewa, has announced herself as a musical force to be reckoned with. Not only do her songs push the envelope musically, lyrically she takes no prisoners. If Beyonce upset you with her tribute to Malcolm X at the Super Bowl, this album will give you nightmares.

Harsh, at times atonal and discordant, musically her songs reflects the anger and pain expressed by the lyrics; lyrics which deal with the African American experience in North America in the past and the present. The disc's opening song, "Creation Myth", let's you know what you're in for as it traces African American history from the so called emancipation of 1866 to the recent events in Ferguson Missouri. "The first time you heard the whisper of death/ the death that has always been lingering here with you since the day you were born/Heard it telling you, you must be both dead and alive/One has to be dead when a man wants to beat us/When they want to rape us/Dead when the police kill me/Alive when the police kill you".

This is harsh and brutal stuff. Stuff most of us don't want to know about or want to hear. The things we so blithely ignore when we skirt the inner city neighbourhoods with their cracked sidewalks and run down housing. The poverty and desperation we, who don't live it, can pretend doesn't exist. It's all here - 13 songs filled with things no media is ever going to report and no mainstream, so-called urban music video, is ever going to show.
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Moor Mother creates sound collages of spoken word, found recordings, electronics, and instruments which crash against the ear and echo throughout your chest cavity. You'll flinch at some of the sounds, you'll be scared and repulsed by some of what she says, but above all she will make you think and feel in ways most modern music can only dream of doing.

While comparing one musician with another in an attempt to define them is somewhat unfair, for those wishing to have some frame of reference for Moor Mother think of the late great Gil Scott Heron, Laurie Anderson, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago mixed together in one package. However, she is far more than just the sum of those parts. She has her own ineffable artistry which allows her to combine those seemingly disparate elements to create soundscapes which bring her ideas to life emotionally and intellectually.

Moor Mother continues the legacy of the great African American female music artists who have chosen to express the agony of their people through music. Her's is the same anger, sorrow, and disgust expressed by Billie Holiday in "Strange Fruit" and Nina Simone in "Mississippi Goddamn". Fetish Bones is a tough, difficult recording by an incredibly gifted and honest artist. Some people aren't going to like what she has to say and some are going to be offended by the album, but like other great works of art it will force you to have an opinion.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org at Music Review: Moor Mother - Fetish Bones)

July 28, 2016

Music Review: Steve Conte - International Cover Up


Cover International Cover Up Steve Conte copy.jpgIn some ways Steve Conte is the quintessential rock and roll musician. He lives in New York City (NYC), (well he summers in the Netherlands with his wife's family) has played with everyone from the New York Dolls to the late Willy DeVille, released his own work, and is an unabashed admirer of rock and roll in all its many forms and genres. The last is made completely obvious by the choice of material on his latest CD International Cover Up.

As the title suggests the disc's eight tracks are all covers. The international bit of the title comes from the fact he recorded it in Holland with his European touring band - save for the solo acoustic versions of "Play With Fire" and "Working Class Hero" which were recorded in NYC. Now, I'm not normally one for cover albums (I think the last one I liked was David Bowie's Pin Ups) but this recording is an exception.

Not only does Conte manage to invest each song with his passion and enthusiasm for rock and roll, he brings his own interpretations to each of the tracks. However, this doesn't mean he ignores the original recording, he is after all honouring the folk who first brought the songs to our attention. What he does is use their versions as a springboard for creating something which combines his talent for performance and their songwriting.

What I also like about this disc is his choice of material. Instead of songs people are going to be automatically familiar with, he's selected tracks which are from all over the rock and roll canon. For example, the first selection is an older, and I mean 1960s not 1970s Rumours era, Fleetwood Mac tune, "Somebody's Gonna Get Their Head Kicked In Tonight". Now I don't know the original, but Conte and company play this as the hard rock song the title implies and make it work.
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That's the other thing about Conte, the fun he has playing music, any music, is damn infectious. Even the harder stuff I wouldn't normally enjoy, like the aforementioned Fleetwood Mac cover, he makes hard to resist. He and his band, Jeroen Polderman drums and Jozz Verhijen bass, are having such an obvious good time, it's nearly impossible not to be swept up in the moment.

However, what really blew me away about this release was his cover of John Lennon's "Working Class Hero". Now I've heard just about everybody cover this tune from Marianne Faithful to bar bands and I've yet to hear someone do as good a job as Conte. Sparse, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, he allows the words to speak for themselves. Imbuing them with the right level of scorn and anger he allows the underlying pathos of the song to be heard.

Being a long time lover of the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Streetalbum, his inclusion of "Happy" from that release was greatly appreciated. For some reason, even though it was one of their most critically acclaimed releases, the songs from this album don't always get the recognition they deserve. Conte's version captures the rawness and energy of the original and is reminder of what made Exile such a great disc.

It was also nice to see he included fellow New Yorker, the late, Willy DeVille's "Venus of Avenue D". What's nice about Conte's version is that he manages to capture its spirit without being a slave to the original version. Those familiar with DeVille's style will hear echoes of how he performed it, but they'll also notice how Conte has expanded on that base to give the song new depths.

It takes a special calibre of rock and roll musician to can pull off an album of cover tunes. Somebody whose love of the material and love of the music allows them to throw themselves body and soul into the songs. Like an actor who brings a new interpretation to a much loved role, they have to be willing to surrender themselves to the original writer while still finding a way to bring something of themselves to the material. Steve Conte is one of those rare musicians who can do this, and International Cover Up is sheer listening pleasure for that reason.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Steve Conte International Cover Up)

July 21, 2016

Music Blu-ray Review: Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Rust Never Sleeps


Cover Rust Never Sleeps lg copy.jpgIn 1979 Neil Young released the LP Rust Never Sleeps and the double live LP Live Rust. Later that same year, the movie Rust Never Sleeps, basically the visual record of the second recording, was also released. July 1 2016 saw a Blu-ray version of Rust Never Sleeps, complete with remastered sound, released by Warner Brothers Records.

For the record, I saw the original movie when it was released in theatres back in 1979. However, given the years that have passed since, and my state of mind when seeing it, I don't think my memories are reliable enough to make any comparisons between the two. What I can say is I had forgotten the remarkable experience the movie had been. Not only was it far more sophisticated than most concert movies of the time, it also contained a number of theatrical elements not normally seen in a straight ahead rock concert from that era.

At this point in his career Young and his band Crazy Horse (Frank Sampedro guitar & vocals, Billy Talbot bass & vocal, and Ralph Molina drums & vocals) were a seamless unit who could match any rock and roll band note for note and riff for riff. Listening to them now one can't help but hear why every grunge rocker who came along in the late 80s early 90s owes a huge debt to this ensemble. They grind through songs with an intensity and a power that can be a little overwhelming. However, they, unlike many imitators, also know how to pull back and understand the impact a moment of silence can have on a song.

The movie opens much as the audience in the concert hall would have experienced the event. We're treated to the site of Young's stage crew dressed as Jawas, complete with glowing red eyes, setting up. This involves raising tarps to reveal oversized touring crates and erecting a gigantic microphone stand (a la the flag at Iwo Jima) to the sounds of Jimi Hendrix's rendition of the Star Spangled Banner from Woodstock and The Beatles' "Day In A Life".

The last to be revealed is Young himself curled up asleep on top of one of the boxes. He then proceeds to perform a solo acoustic set starting with "Sugar Mountain" and "I'm A Child" while standing on the box. As he performs you realize the songs have been chosen deliberately to show the progression in his music. He travels from the youth and innocence of those early tunes to the person who has been tempered by life's joys and sadness in songs like "After The Gold Rush".
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After he finishes his acoustic set he lays down to sleep in a giant sleeping bag centre stage and the Jawas begin to set up the stage for the full band accompanied by stage announcements from the Woodstock Arts and Music Festival being played over the P.A. system. Once everything is set Young and Crazy Horse proceed into a set featuring some of his most well known songs from the 1970s and excerpts from the recently released Rust Never Sleeps LP.

While the majority of this set is electric he interjects two acoustic numbers, "The Needle and the Damage Done" and "Lotta Love", as a change of pace. The second half of the movie follows along the lines of a more typical concert film from the time period as its mainly shots of the band playing. However, there are a few surprises along the way which prevent it from becoming monotonous.

As the movie was originally shot in the low light atmosphere of a concert hall on film, there's not much even a digital transfer onto Blu-ray can do about the graininess of the image quality. However, the audio transfer is far better than one would have expected. The sound is so clear you can even hear the shuffling of the Jawa's feet as they move around the stage during the set up periods.

When it was released theatrically Rust Never Sleeps was considered to be something of a breakthrough in the genre of concert films. Not only was it more than just head on footage of the artist performing, there was also a semblance of a narrative. Never satisfied with doing the same thing over and over again musically, Young took this opportunity to tinker with a rather staid format and managed to make it more exciting.

Compared to the concert films that came after it in the 1980s Rust Never Sleeps looks rather primitive. However, given the limits the technology of the day imposed upon him, Young and his people created something which still manages to stand the test of time.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Music Blu-ray Review: Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Rust Never Sleeps)

June 21, 2016

Music Review: Kris Kristofferson - The Cedar Creek Sessions


Cover The Cedar Creek Sessions.jpgIn celebration of his 80th birthday (June 22, 2016) Kris Kristofferson will be releasing the two CD set The Cedar Creek Sessions on his own KK label. Recorded live over three days in 2014 at the Cedar Creek Studios in Texas (June 23, 24, and 25) the two discs are as close to a retrospective of his prolific songwriting career as can be crammed into a package of this size.

A proper recounting of his storied songwriting career would require far more than the 25 songs recorded during these three days. However, unlike most greatest hits recordings this collection isn't simply songs culled from past albums, these are brand new re-interpretations of the songs Kristofferson felt like playing over the course of the session.

Now the man has never had what one would call dulcet tones. Those of you who can remember the early days of his career will know he was born with a voice that sounded like it had been soaked in a whisky barrel and then smoked by playing a thousand bars. Age has not mellowed his voice any, but neither has it made it any worst for wear. Sure Kristofferson has a little bit more trouble hitting notes at either end of the scale, but that only gives the song's a new depth of character.

The sense of history his voice now personifies brings a new perspective to the songs. Instead of them sounding like they're about a particular moment in time, they now feel as if they were written in relation to a person's entire life. So, a tune like "Sunday Morning Coming Down, arguably one of his most famous, is no longer the Sunday morning repentance of a drunk, but the wistfulness of a person looking back through years and wondering what a simpler life would have been like.
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Those who are familiar with Kristofferson's vast catalogue will be delighted to hear gems that aren't played as often as they should. Chief among those as far as I'm concerned are "The Law is for the Protection of the People", "Billy Dee", and "To Beat The Devil". The latter is particularly great as it closes the second disc and the lines, "And you can still hear me singin' to the people who don't listen,/To the things that I am sayin',prayin' someone's gonna hear." are about as good an summation of any songwriter's career as you'll find. The fact that he wrote it about himself, and it is the last song in this collection, makes it even more powerful in this context.

Kristofferson is joined for this recording by a collection of great players who not only fill in the sound but support his voice perfectly. Shawn Camp on guitar, Kevin Smith on bass, Michael Ramos on keyboard, and Mike Meadows on drums add great accompaniment without overshadowing Kristofferson's uniqueness. There's also a special treat when he's joined by Sheryl Crow in singing the duet he wrote for Johnny Cash and June Carter, "The Loving Gift", a song Kristofferson never recorded.

Willie Nelson, no mean songwriter himself, said "There's no better songwriter alive than Kris Kristofferson. Everything he writes is a standard, and we're just going to have to live with that". While some might debate Kristofferson's status as the best songwriter alive, there can be no debating the fact he's one of the great singer/songwriters of our times. The Cedar Creek Sessions not only serves to remind us of the depth of abilities, but serves notice that he's not done yet. Which is some of the best news the music world could receive about now.

Image of Kris Kristofferson by Kate Simon

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Kris Kristofferson - The Cedar Creek Sessions)

April 24, 2016

Music Review: Fanfare Ciocarlia - Onwards To Mars


Cover Onward To Mars Fanfare Ciocarlia.jpgFanfare Ciocarlia, Romania's premiere Romany brass band, are set to release their latest album on the Asphalt Tango label. Onward To Mars is due to hit North America April 15 2016. Its not only another example of the band's musical prowess, it also continues to show off their continued evolution musically.

Fanfare first became known to North American audiences through their amazing rendition of Steppenwolf's "Born to be Wild", included in the soundtrack of the movie Borat. Their exuberant and flamboyant style of play, combined with each member's virtuosity, has garnered them praise everywhere. What is most impressive about the band is how they break any and all stereotypes people might have about brass music.

While they can wail away with the best of them and blow the roof off a concert hall, as this new release proves they also can play with incredible subtlety and finesse. On this album they've decided to continue the exploration of different musical styles they began with their previous release, The Devil's Tale. While that disc was something of a tribute to the jazzier side of Romany music, this one hearkens back more to the music they would play at festivals and weddings for a non Romany audience.

So we hear horas and another traditional Romanian music, but with, as the band's former leader, the late Ioan Ivancea, said "our very special gypsy touch, i.e. more warmth, more colour, and more shine". With seven of the disc's fourteen tracks composed by label mate Koby Israelite specifically to reflect this type of music we hear a new side to the band.

There is still the breathless pace, like watching a horse gallop across a field, and the incredible energy we've come to expect from the band. However, there are also nuances and intricacies to the music we've not heard before. They are also experimenting with some different types of music - the second song on the CD, "Mista Lobaloba", sounds like a collision between there usual sound and a the horn section of a Mariachi band.
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Than there's what I consider the most memorable track - their cover of Screaming Jay Hawkins' "I Put A Spell On You with guest vocalist Iulian Canaf. Without a single guitar anywhere to be heard they've turned this into a down and dirty blues tune which wouldn't be out of place in any juke joint. It doesn't hurt that Canaf's vocals could sear the paint off the side of a house. This is a show stopper.

If you've never heard Fanfare Ciocarlia you don't know what you've been missing. Hailing from Zece Pra˘ jini (meaning ten fields) a small village in rural Romania their families have lived in since feudal times, they continue to redefine brass band music. They're touring the US for the rest of April, you can find specific dates and locations at Asphalt Tangos' tour page. If they show up in your neighbourhood get yourself to the venue - hearing them on record is one thing - seeing them in person is like travelling to another planet.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review; Fanfare Ciocarlia - Onwards To Mars)

November 29, 2015

Music Review: Tinariwen - Live In Paris, Oukis N'Asuf


Tinariwen.jpgGiven the recent events in both Paris and Mali there's something very timely about the release of Live In Paris, Oukis N'Asuf from the Tamashek band Tinariwen on the Anti- label.

Forced into exile from their home in Northern Mali by extremists targeting of musicians in 2013, the band recorded their last studio album, Emmaar, in California. This Paris concert on December 13 2014 was the final stop on their world tour of over a 130 performances. Given Mali was a former French colony, and the band is fluent in French, this was as close to a home coming as they'll have for a while.

The title of the album, Oukis N'Asuf, to take away, forget, or get over heartache and longing, is only fitting for a band in exile - especially a band like this whose music is so tied in with their culture and their native desert environment. Making this title even more poignant is the fact they were joined on stage for this concert by one of the matriarchs of Tamashek music and culture, Lalla Badi. Not only is Badi a singer of traditional tinde, a type of song named for the drum used to accompany it and sung by women, she provided the band with a home base when they were just starting out.

Fittingly the recording opens with a song featuring Badi, "Tinde Tinariwen". Traditionally these songs were performed by women accompanied only by percussion - both drums and hand claps. Here the band's electric bass lays down the initial rhythm and is joined by a chorus of male voices. This is joined by youyous, cries and handclaps, and then, rising over top as rough and ancient sounding as the desert itself, Badi's voice soars into song. For over seven minutes the steady sound of the bass, drum, handclaps and male voices maintain their mesmerizing backdrop as she chants/sings her words.


In this opening we hear the inspiration for Tinariwen's style of desert blues - the steady, almost trance-inducing rhythms overlaid by biting electric guitar and lyrics alternatively sung and chanted. While Badi only joins them twice more during the course of the CD, on tracks six,"Tinde Part 1" and the 12th and final track, "Tinde Final Tinariwen", her influence is felt throughout the whole album.

As Tinariwen are not your not typical rock and roll band, this is not your typical live album from a concert tour promoting a new release. The set list isn't stacked to feature new material, rather the concert feels more like a celebration honouring their music and their culture. From the opening notes there's an intimacy you feel even on the recording which you don't often associate with the modern concert experience.

While the music and the performances are tight and professional as befits a band of their experience and and talent, there's also a spontaneity to the performance which makes it feel as if we've wandered into an impromptu jam session. With founding members - Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni and Alhassane Ag Touhami - having played together since the 1980s, and the newer members, - Eyadou Ay Leche, Elaga Ag Hamid and Said Ag Ayad - having grown up listening to them before joining in the 90s, the band operates as a seamless unit.

Tinariwen have long been repositories of Tamashek culture and their people's ambassadors to the rest of the world. On this night in Paris, the combination of their music and the traditional sounds of Badi, not only showed how capable they are of playing both roles, it also made it an electrifying and captivating experience at the same time. Tinariwen are living proof traditions don't have to be hide bound or museum pieces. They can evolve and grow to meet the challenges of new times. Live In Paris, Oukis N'Asuf is an album of great music by an exciting band and as good a concert disc as any you'll ever hear.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review Tinariwen - Live In Paris, Oukis N'Asuf)

November 10, 2015

Music Review: Kishi Bashi - String Quartet Live


Cover Kishi Bashi String Quartet Live.jpgEver since I heard the Kronos Quartet do a version of Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze" I've been a sucker for well performed string arrangements of popular music. So it's no wonder I was blown away when I heard my first track from Kishi Bashi's new live album from Joyful Noise Recordings, String Quartet Live.

Bashi is not only a gifted violinist he's also an incredible singer - think Rufus Wainwright playing a violin and you'll have a fairly good idea of what I'm talking about. Being completely unfamiliar with his work prior to this release I was taken aback by not only his virtuosity but the versatility he displayed with both his voice and his instrument. He has a wonderful clear voice which can soar above the music into a scale's heights without ever once becoming shrill.

As to his violin work, it's not the usual type of electric sawing you get with most pop music. Instead you have an obviously trained musician whose turned his talents to pop music instead of orchestral. His bowing, his touch on the strings and his ability to evoke a variety of emotions with his instrument are all indications of someone who has worked long and hard to understand its intricaciest.

The aforementioned first track I heard is the lone cover on the CD, the Talking Heads "This Must Bet The Place (Naive Melody)". As a long time fan of the band I'm not easily impressed by others doing covers of their music. However, Bashi and his String Quartet had me from the first notes. Not only did their arrangement sound magnificent, they captured the energy and the spirit of the song. On top of that Bashi's singing lent the song the air of wistful hopefulness it needs to make it work.

The other eight tracks on the disc are all original Bashi tunes reconfigured for string ensemble. The songs are all taken from his previous releases and are each tiny masterpieces of musical perfection. From the uptempo and fun "Mr. Steak", about the star crossed love affair of a steak dinner, to the beautiful and haunting "Manchester". Each song is a new adventure in listening as Bashi and the quartet remind us once again that anything electric instruments can do, acoustic instruments played well can do just as well, if not better.

However, this doesn't mean Bashi has ignored the potential for utilizing modern technology. The third track, "Atticus In The Desert", features his musical partner Michael Savino (aka Tall Tall Trees) on banjo. While you can hear Savino's contributions on most songs, here he comes to the fore. A duet between banjo and violin might sound strange, but don't dismiss it until you hear them together.

First of all, forget any preconceived notions you might have about what a banjo sounds like or what's its capable of doing. Not only does Savino coax sounds out of it, with the aid of foot peddles and electronics, you've never heard the instrument make, he also plays it like a drum. With its hide head the banjo is a natural drum and played with the flair, and subtlety, shown here it becomes an incredibly versatile instrument. The contrast between the sounds of Bashi's violin and voice with the ring of the banjo makes for a stunning aural display.
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As its title suggests String Quartet Live is a live recording. In the past live recordings have sometimes had inferior sound quality as compared to studio recordings. However, not only does this disc sound as good as anything done in a studio, it manages to capture the excitement and emotion of the live concert. Bash's enthusiasm and passion at playing with the string ensemble are obvious in both his playing and his comments in between songs. You can almost hear him feeding off the energy of both those accompanying him and the audience's reactions to the songs.

Kishi Bashi is a phenomenal talent and String Quartet Live is an amazing showcase for both his abilities as a violinist and vocalist. If you know his work already I'm certain you will be impressed by these new interpretations of familiar tunes, and if you've never heard him before this is an incredible introduction to the man and his work.

String Quartet Live will be released on Friday, November 13 2015 - make sure you pick up a copy.

Photo of Kishi Bashi by Bryan Bruchman

(Article originally published at Blogcrtiics.org as Music Review: Kishi Bashi - String Quartet Live - A Violin Virtuoso)

October 21, 2015

Music Review: Made Of Light Tymon Dogg


What do you mean you've never heard of Tymon Dogg? The man's only been playing and creating music for longer then most of you have been alive. Hell, he played with The Clash, for whatever sake you want to insert. (Sandinista, lead vocals and violin on "Lose This Skin") He also played with Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros in case you've never heard of The Clash. If, by some chance you've not heard this mad man play, now's your chance, as his first solo album in more than twenty years, Made of Light, is being released October 20 2015 on the Thin Man Music label.

One of the first things you have to know about Dogg is while he's one of those folk who seem to be able to play any and every stringed instrument invented, the violin is his weapon of choice. When he plays on the violin he creates a storm of passion in his listeners. He can break your heart or raise your ire to the extent you'll march off to war. His dragging the bow across the strings can create a banshee wail that will cut a path through any opposition or drag a note from its depths that would wring a tear from a rock.
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Than there's his singing voice. It isn't what you'd call dulcet - in fact some might call it a high pitched screech. However, you can't be listening properly if you say that. Yes his voice is much higher than you'd expect (the first time I heard "Lose This Skin" I thought it was a woman singing) but oh is it compelling. It reaches out and grabs you by the throat and forces you to listen to what Dogg is saying. No one is going to claim that Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen or Woody Guthrie have or had great voices, but that's never stopped anyone from listening to them.

Musically Dogg's influences range far and wide. As you'd expect from his previous associations with Strummer there's plenty of the raw energy associated with punk. However, you can also hear everything from traditional British Isles folk to the most avant garde of jazz in his music. While there's some studio tricks and effects used on the recording, the majority of what you hear on the disc comes from what he is able to accomplish with his voice and instruments.

All of which makes for a perfect underpinning of his lyrics. There's the sarcastic and biting "Conscience Money", track one, which makes fun of those who give a pittance in charity to ease their guilt about their accumulated wealth: "Conscience money, conscience money/I made a million, I'll throw a penny back/I'll give them a crumb from a bursting sack/ When I drink Champagne I offer them the fizz/Conscience money, we all know it is."

The wealthy aren't his only targets though. He also takes aim at society's eating habits in general, specifically they way we produce the meat that we eat with the third song on the album, "Pound of Grain". What's good about this song is the fact he doesn't condemn the eating of meat or act all sanctimonious about being a vegetarian. (no idea if Dogg is or isn't one) Rather, he's simply attacking the waste and cruelty involved with its manufacture. "The hunter doesn't hunt anymore/He gets his meat like a vulture from a corner store/He must feel brave as he goes in for the kill and gets out his credit card and approaches the till."

However, he's not just a satirist, he also writes beautiful and hopeful songs like track seven, "As I Make My Way". As with all the best folk music its deceptively simple both musically and lyrically, which makes its message all the clearer. "When I was a young man my friend said to me/ Remember you're just a part of all humanity/Well I forgot, I strayed, in ego games I played/Now I recall that simple truth as I make my way". Throughout the course of the song Dogg shows how there are plenty of opportunities along the way for all of us to remember this simple lesson of compassion. We just have to listen.
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With Dogg you need to rid yourself of any expectations when it comes to what you're going to hear, because he's going to defy them. He keeps you off balance with both his lyrics and his music as he explores new motifs in both from song to song. What's even better is while he definitely has something to say, he's also a gifted enough musician to blend the music and the message into a seamless package.

Some people may not be overly thrilled with what he has to say or how he says it. But the world needs voices like Dogg's to keep us on our toes and to remind us of how much better we could all be as people. Without preaching or being overbearing, and with a great deal of humour at times, Made of Light does all of those things. If you've never listened to Dogg before, or you just haven't heard him in long time, now's the time - you won't ever forget the experience.

(Photo Credit for picture of Tymon Dogg performing Alison Clarke)

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Made Of Light by Tymon Dogg - (A True Indie))

September 9, 2015

Music Review: Public Image Limited - What The World Needs Now


After a nearly 20 year hiatus Public Image Limited (PiL) has just released its second album in three years. What The World Needs Now, on their own PiL Official label, is the successor to 2012's This Is PiL and is everything, and more, you'd expect from one of the most talented, versatile and unpredictable bands in the business.

Fronted by the indomitable John Lydon, the rest of PiL's membership is made up of fellow veterans of the music wars. Lu Edmonds, former guitarist for The Damned, plays guitar and a multitude of other stringed instruments. Bruce Smith has played drums with everyone from The Slits to Bjork and has been with PiL in various incarnations since 1986. Rounding out the band is Scott Firth on bass and keyboards whose career has seen him play with Steve Winwood, John Martyn, Elvis Costello and The Spice Girls.
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While one might expect a certain world weary cynicism to be part of the band's collective conscience, you could never tell by listening to this release. Not only is this disc a refreshing collection of musical styles and genres, lyrically it ranges from the ridiculous to the sublime. Even better is the sense of fun that seems to pervade the entire release in spite of the seriousness of some songs' lyrics.

You only need to look at the disc's cover with its stylized trickster figure (not only painted by Lydon's but wearing his shoes) to have a clearer idea of what's going on inside the sleeve. Tricksters traditionally hold up mirrors to society in order to show us how ridiculous we've become. These images aren't necessarily funny, but if we pay attention to them we can always learn something. Lydon has always been one of pop music's ultimate tricksters and on What The World Needs Now he and the rest of PiL have out done themselves.

However even tricksters have their serious side and PiL are no exception. The song "One" is a poignant delving into the personal nature of sadness. This is PiL and Lydon we're talking about, so don't expect cheap sentimentality, but a sharp and intelligent homage to the times in our life when we're down or sadness threatens to overwhelm.

Lydon still doesn't pull any punches lyrically when it comes to those he considers fitting targets for his anger. Just listen to the lyrics of the song "Corporate" and you'll see he's not lost any of the volatility he's famous for. "Not global villages, but one globe/Not itty, bitty little villages of pity and learning how to survive in the 21st century and looking at WWlll/Because all humans seem to hate humanity."

While "Corporate" attacks the mentality that has allowed corporations to dictate what the direction the world takes, "Bettie Page" is an attack on the hypocrisy of the public when it comes to sexual images of men as opposed to women. "Bettie Page/Front page with Bettie Page, remember when you were the rage?/But you were censored in the greatest pornographic country in the world/Well, welcome to America/Land of the free/The pure absurd well served/Led by Betty Boop.../They all were naked 'till Maplethorpe shamed the heart of the Christian core/so get your cover off/Strip it down to the sergeant's stripes/God bless America".
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However, for a true taste of the absurd, the disc's closing song, "Shoom", is a classic. A stream of conscience diatribe about nothing and everything, which Lydon says he wrote as a kind of requiem to his father, it also answers the question implied in the disc's title: "What the world needs now is another fuck off"..."Play me, play bollocks/Pay me, you pay me bollocks/Contracts, well they are bollocks/Contacts are fucking bollocks/Success is bollocks/Botox you fucking bollocks/Sex box, fucking bollocks/Sucking lemons, fucking bollocks ...What the world needs now is another fuck off".

All of which is sung/chanted over a rather laid back dance beat save for the chorus of "What the world needs now" which comes out as a rather guttural scream. While the lyrics may prove a little challenging for some people, although I think anyone who'd be offended by them won't be listening to a PiL, taken all together they capture the irreverence towards societal norms which has epitomized Lydon's career.

Musically PiL are one of the most accomplished bands you're going to hear these days. They draw upon almost every style and genre of pop music and then make them their own. You'll everything from house to glam and art rock to punk - sometimes in the same song - on this disc. What makes it great, is the fact you're not even aware of what they're doing until you sit back and think about it later. Even within a song their segues from one style to another are so seamless it just seems like the song's natural progression.

Of course, overtop of it all rides the sound of Lydon. He's been a part of the collective unconscious of pop music since 1975, keeping us all from becoming too complacent. Whenever it seems like the world of music is becoming too corporate, too smug and too full of itself, along comes Lydon with his fistful of pins to poke holes in the balloon. He never specifically bites the hand that feeds him, but just by being his opinionated self he shows us how the medium's potential is being wasted.

What The World Needs Now is the perfect antidote for those grown sick of the pablum of the pop music machinery. Not only is it musically great, its lyrics will make you think. PiL is not going to be everyone's cup of tea, in fact they are sure to offend right thinking people everywhere. Just what good rock and roll is supposed to do.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: What The World Needs Now - Public Image Limited)

April 10, 2015

Music Review: Ray Wylie Hubbard - The Ruffian's Misfortune


Neither so called "Southern Rock" nor what passes for electric blues have ever been my favourite types of music. Too many people lack the subtlety to give either of those genres the distinct personality required for them to be interesting. All you need do is listen to a master of the style like Ray Wylie Hubbard to appreciate the difference. His latest album, The Ruffian's Misfortune on his own Bordello label, is as fine an example of the wonderful gumbo this music can be.

As Hubbard is from Texas it would be easy just to lump him in with either one of the genres most people associate with the state: Texas Blues or country music. However, even though he plays a mean slide guitar and counts Willie Nelson among his friends, dumping him in with either of those camps would be doing him a disservice. Sure he plays both equally well, either separately or in his own hybrid style, but it's what he brings to them personally which make his sound unique. Call it charisma or character, but whatever you call it, there's something about Hubbard which almost makes him a genre onto himself.

Sure he's got the low down dirty groove of a great rock and roll song and a way with lyrics that combines irony and empathy that would make most poets cry. But he can reach back even further into the lexicon of American music and come up with a country sound which puts you in mind of greats like Hank Williams, Kris Kristofferson and Townes Van Zandt. Not that he sounds like them, but he plays with a purity of intent which harkens back to the honesty and integrity of their type of music.
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The first thing you'll notice about Hubbard is his voice is as rough hewn, weathered and full of character and flavour as the wood of a cask housing hundred year old bourbon. At times he sounds like a wise elder passing on words of wisdom. Other times he sounds as if he knows most of the world's dirty laundry, but it just makes him laugh and laugh. In fact that seems like his default position on most things, laughing at the foibles of a world which takes itself too seriously.

For while his lyrics may not come right out and laugh at the world, they take far too much pleasure in describing things most "decent folk" might not find very comfortable listening too. I don't just mean those who might find sexual allusions upsetting, but also those on the, oh so politically correct side of the aisle. In fact, there's pretty much something on this disc guaranteed to either offend or piss off anybody who thinks too highly of their own opinions and has no sense of humour.

I don't think I've heard a more evocative description of blues music than Hubbard's on the second track of the disc, "Hey Mama, My Time Ain't Long": "I'll tell 'em the tale about the songs a bluesman sings/Comes from a woman's moans and the squeaks of guitar strings/Some say it's the devil jingling the coins in his pocket/I'd say it sounds more like a pistol when you cock it." Listening to him pull those words out of his soul over the moaning and groaning of electric guitar is to hear all that's terrifies and appeals to people about real blues music. It's down, dirty, and real - born out of the sweat and tears of people's lives and stirs those places in your soul that supposedly only the devil knows about.
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If "Hey Mama" is going to get under the skin of those who find blues music just a little sexual for their taste, "Chick Singer, Badass Rockin'" is going to make those a little more politicly correct cringe. "Midnight gig, cheap trucker speed/"Sticky Fingers, Let It Bleed"/A telecaster, bottleneck slide, sings like a drunk Chrisie Hyde/Says rock and roll is flat out lawless and Joan Jett is a goddess./Short dress, torn stockings, that chick singer is badass rockin'." I know plenty of people who won't like the word chick being used to describe a woman, but you've got to put these things in their proper context; the world of seedy taverns and late night rock and roll.

Rock and roll is still primarily dominated by men, and the Joan Jetts and Chrisie Hydes on stage are few and far between. It's not an easy road for any woman determined to make a life as a rock and roller, especially one wants to hold onto who they are and not play the game of being a sex toy or "one of the boys". In just under three minutes Hubbard not only captures all of this, but also manages to convey the passion that drives them. You don't play rock and roll in sleazy bars for the money, you do it for love. If it's a hard life for a man, you can only imagine how difficult it must be for a woman, and this song gives you a glimpse of what it must be like for them.

Hubbard's music crawls like a king snake through long grass. His blues weaves and slides in sinuous motions up your spine and then suddenly strikes in a burst of electric guitar that goes straight for your juggler. While the slower acoustic numbers aren't as dangerous sounding, they manage to worm their way into your system thanks to his lyrics and vocal delivery.

Hubbard might have a rather jaundiced view of the human race, but he's also having a lot of fun singing about it. Like a mythical trickster figure or court jester he sings about things in the hopes we learn something from them. He's not telling us how to live, but by turning stuff on its head he's letting us see how ridiculous we can be when we take ourselves too seriously.

Ray Wylie Hubbard is one of those rare musical talents who defies easy classification into any genre. You could call him country, blues, rock and roll or even gospel, because he does his own variations of them all equally well. However, it's easier to say he plays what he wants, how he wants, when he wants and we should all just get over ourselves and let him get on with it. In a world of ever increasing compartmentalized sound, he's a breath of fresh air blowing in every direction at once.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Ray Wylie Hubbard - The Ruffian's Misfortune - A Texas Original)

March 18, 2015

Music Review: Xavier Rudd & The United Nations - Nanna


Nanna by Xavier Rudd and The United Nations, released on March 17 2015 in North and South America on the Nettwerk Label, is the latest release from Australia's multi-instrumentalist Rudd. However, unlike previous albums this CD sees him accompanied by a full band for the first time. While he's occasionally been joined by a drummer and bassist in the studio or on the road, he's been best known as a kind of one man band; playing drums with his feet, lap guitar and yidaki (indigenous Australian instrument often wrongly called didgeridoo). So the multi-national nine piece band joining him now is quite a change of pace.

What hasn't changed is Rudd's ability to create message oriented songs where the music is just as important as the lyrics without detracting from the ideas he's trying to express. At various points in his career Rudd has shown an affinity for reggae music, including a wonderful cover of Bob Marley's "No Woman No Cry" on his second release Solace. So it shouldn't shock anyone that he's taken the opportunity of working with The United Nations to make what is primarily a reggae album. For those familiar with his previous discs, the themes of living in harmony with nature and respect for indigenous peoples and their beliefs expressed on this release shouldn't be a surprise either. He has never shied away from singing about what he's passionate about, however, this album takes it to a whole new level.
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In fact some people might be a little off put by the message he's expressing. It runs pretty much counter to almost everything you read or hear in the media today. Instead of propagating commercialism or expressing a political agenda, his songs are advocating finding a better way to live. On the disc's 10th track, "Warrior", he sings, "If she could take him by the hand/and together they could change the world/abolish greed from every man/and spread their medicine throughout the world/and every sun would rise and fall/and restore complete balance on the earth/a brand new chance for one and all".

His songs aren't just about saving the planet, they're also about personal growth, and learning how to live with yourself or with others. Both the first single from the release, "Come People" (track four) and "Struggle" (track 11) express this on various levels. In the latter he says, "One two three four,/positively close the door./Five six seven eight/spread your light radiate./ I'm moving slowly/positive diligent/what other people think of you/is none of your business."

Some of you are probably squirming in your seats after reading those two quotes. What kind of new age clap trap is this guy spouting? However, step back a second, and think about what's going on in the world these days. Governments in North America and Australia are continuing their practices of expropriating land granted to their respective indigenous populations in order to exploit them for natural resources. In the process the land is being rendered unusable because of pollution and the disruption of ecosystems.

People are killing each other all over the world because of religion and the desire to impose their point view on everybody else. As a species we are rapidly descending into a place where the world is divided into those who oppose us and those who are with us. So, just maybe, a voice which pleas for understanding and unity, no matter how he says it, deserves to be listened to without judgement or cynicism.

The other thing you have to consider is the sincerity of the person behind the message. Rudd has never shied away from his indigenous spiritual roots (he's of mixed Aboriginal and European decent). The songs on this release are simply the most open he's ever been in expressing them. However, he's not saying they are the only way of being, he's just asking us to not to ignore what we can learn from people who have a close spiritual connection to the planet. As he says on the CD's fifth track, "Sacred", "I believe we are one and we are sacred", stressing his belief there is common ground between all people if we're only willing to look for it.

Something which listeners in North America and Europe may not be familiar with are the references to indigenous Australian spirituality. Even some of the language used in songs is unique to its people - in fact the language sung in the disc's title song, "Nanna", Jandai, is considered extinct. Which is ironic considering the lullaby was written and sung by Georgia Corowa, one of United Nation's vocalists.
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Adding the disc's Australian flavour is the fact the majority of the band are from either Australia or some its neighbouring islands in the South Pacific. Aside from Rudd and Corowa, Chris Lane, flute, Peter Hunt, trumpet, Alicia Mellor, vocals and Uncle Eddie Elias, keyboards are all from Australia, with the latter two having connections with Papua New Guinea as well. Percussionist/ drummer Bobby Alu is from Samoa originally, while Tio Lerothodi Moloantoa on bass is South African and Yeshe Reiners, world percussion and ngoni (African stringed instrument) was born in Germany. Each of them bring their own musical experiences and backgrounds to the album, and this combination is what distinguishes it from your typical reggae recording.

For while the unmistakeable reggae backbeat and syncopation can be heard in most of the songs, Rudd and company do a fine job of adding new flavours to an old recipe. Some of the songs have more of a calypso swing to them, while others aren't going to be easily defined as any one particular genre. The end result is a beautiful polyphonic mix of sound which seems to provide the perfect vehicle for Rudd's lyrics.

The message on Nanna by Xavier Rudd and The United Nations is not going to be everyone's taste. Some might think it too idealistic or too radical. However, in a world full of radical problems, radical solutions which don't advocate violence or hatred shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. Whatever you might think of this disc, musically or lyrically, they're can be no denying the passion and belief permeating it. This is a great album of wonderful music and thought provoking lyrics. If you come to it with an open mind, it might just change your heart.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Xavier Rudd and The United Nations - Nanna - New Release From Australia's Eco Warrior)

July 9, 2014

Music Blu-ray Review: Peter Gabriel - Back To Front: Live In London


Most of the time popular culture looks to the past it's for purposes of reliving past glories or for wallowing in nostalgia. Very few of us have the courage and the strength to look back at where we've come from with a critical eye. Even fewer have the ability, or the desire, to tamper with past successes. Usually when a performer reaches into his or her back catalogue for a show or a recording they end up recreating the original material as exactly as possible. It's safe, easy and is guaranteed to generate ticket and recording sales.

One of those who has always displayed a willingness and ability to deviate from this practice is Peter Gabriel. Starting with his first release in 1977, Peter Gabriel 1, his solo career now spans four decades. His contributions to popular culture haven't been limited to his own material either. Through his Real World label and his involvement with the founding of the WOMAD (World of Music and Dance) Festival in 1980 he was responsible for bringing music from cultures other than our own into the mainstream. However, it wasn't until the release of his album So in 1986 he achieved widespread commercial success.

In 1986/87 Gabriel and his band, Tony Levin on bass, David Rhodes guitar, Manu Katche drums and David Sancious keyboards and guitar, toured the world to promote the release. Twenty-five years after that tour ended, 2012, Gabriel reunited the original band in order to revisit the original performances while creating a new experience for his audiences. In October of 2013 the tour pulled into London England's O2 concert hall where the performances were filmed. The result is a new release from Eagle Rock Entertainment, Back To Front Live In London.
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Available in multiple formats, including a deluxe two Blu-ray two CD set complete with a hard bound book of pictures and liner notes, the single disc Blu-ray recording I watched shows Gabriel not only knows how to please his audience, but is still not afraid to push the creative envelope to its limits. Not only does he not simply play older material the way it was originally performed, he continues to be one of one of the most innovative users of the stage and lighting techniques available to popular performers. Even better is he's one of the few who have always understood how to create the perfect balance between the music and the visual in order to create something which is more than just a concert for his audience to experience.

As the camera leads us onto the stage, showing us Gabriel's perspective on proceedings as he moves into position at his piano to open the show, we're give the first example of how this performance will differ from other events of its kind. He does not enter to a blacked out house and stage, all the lights in the arena are on. Instead of breaking into song he begins by telling the audience exactly what he plans on doing for them over the course of the night; an acoustic set as an introduction, an electric set and then play them So in its entirety.

Maintaining the immediacy created by this rather informal beginning, he and the band perform the entire acoustic set with the house lights up. One of the highlights for me from this opening set was an acoustic version of "Shock The Monkey". Always a powerful song, somehow striping it down to the bare bones sound of acoustic guitar, bass, drums and piano not only didn't diminish its impact, but made you more aware of the song's potency. The gaps left in the song from the lack of electric instruments were like poignant pauses in a conversation which say more than words ever can.

However, no matter how powerful the opening numbers might have been, you could feel the excitement level rise in the arena the moment the house lights went down and the band picked up electric instruments. While the house lights must have been gradually dimming over the course of the last song of the acoustic set, the moment when the band was all of a sudden bathed in white light and the audience was in darkness was still so dramatic the thrill that ran through the crowd could be felt right through the television screen. It was not only a beautiful piece of staging, it was a great piece of filming, as it captured for us at home the experience of being at the concert like few other concert films I've ever witnessed.
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I have to confess, and this is testimony to the skill of both Gabriel and the film's director Hamish Hamilton, that from this point on my critical faculties deserted me and I allowed myself to be carried away by the concert and the experience. While I've seen quite a number of concert films, and a few by Gabriel in the past, this is the first one I've seen where the connection between performer and audience is so strong that even sitting in my living room on a rainy afternoon I lost all track of time and space and became totally absorbed.

For those used to some of Gabriel's more elaborately staged performances, this one might initially seem more prosaic then previous ones as the band is simply lined up facing the audience. However, as the show progresses he begins to make use of the empty space down stage as he and the two female vocalists accompanying him, Jennie Abrahamson (she does amazing work on "Don't Give Up", "This Is The Picture (Excellent Birds)" and "In Your Eyes") and Linnea Olsson (who also plays cello) move forward to execute some beautiful choreography during "This Is The Picture" and "Don't Give Up".

While maybe these moments can't equal the spectacle of him singing while hanging upside down as he's done in prior shows, for those who saw last year's release, Peter Gabriel - Live In Athens 1987, capturing the original tour promoting So, you will recognize certain staging techniques and equipment. I don't want to give anything away, but I will say he uses the same equipment he did in 1987, but updates it by incorporating the new video technology at his disposal.

In the interview with Gabriel and lighting designer and Rob Sinclair included in the Blu-ray version of the concert, the two men discuss both how they incorporated the old set pieces and how they created the overall concept for the show. Unlike many of these interviews, this one not only gives you details about how they created what you see on stage, but the reasoning behind their ideas and the process they used in creating the event. Not only was it carefully executed, the planning behind it was meticulous and inspired. Oh, and while not exactly special features, I love the fact that during the film's credits, various backstage members of the crew introduce themselves and what they did to make the show possible. Gabriel is still one of the few who takes time at the end of the show to stand up in front of his audience to publicly thank the men and women who do this work. Including them so visibly in the credits is another sign of his appreciation for their work. How many other pop music stars do you know who would acknowledge the guy who drives the bus?

From the sheer pop energy fun of "Solesbury Hill" to the potency of "Biko" (which he still closes his show with all these years later by telling the audience "What happens next is, as always, up to you") Gabriel has created a catalogue of music few other modern popular music creators can match for its artistry and intelligence. Even more remarkable than the commercial success he was able to achieve with his album So is the fact that 25 years after its release the music is not only just as powerful now as it was then, and that Gabriel is still finding ways to present it which keep it fresh for both him and his audience. Back To Front Live In London might contain material close to forty years old, but it feels far more alive than most of what you hear being released today.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Blu-ray Review: Peter Gabriel Back To Front: Live In London)

July 2, 2014

Music Review: Rebirth Brass Band - Move Your Body


New Orleans holds a grip on most North American's imaginations. Little wonder when you consider the fact the city is a meeting place for so many cultures. French, Spanish and African all come together in an incredible mixture making it an hot bed for the arts and other slightly more esoteric ventures. For New Orleans is also known for its mixture of the sacred and the profane. Voodoo and Catholic beliefs intermingle and share equal billing on the streets and in places of worship and spills over into the music which forms the heartbeat of the city. For you can find everything from down and dirty funk to gospel on its streets, in its bars and even in its churches.

Yet for all the famous musicians the city has produced, it's the brass bands who parade through its streets accompanying everything from funerals to Mardi Gras celebrations which have made the strongest impression on people's imaginations. Lost amid the drunken revelry of the latter is the fact the festival marks the final celebration before the beginning of the Catholic period of repentance leading up to Easter, Lent. It may be a huge party for the tourists replete with sex and uninhibited behaviour, but its also shows the depth of the city's religious and Catholic roots. The music of the bands not only reflects this history, it also helps to perpetuate it.
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Listening to the latest release from Rebirth Brass Band on Basin Street Records, Move Your Body, provides a perfect example of the city's dual nature. For they move between the bawdy and the sacred lyrically without any apparent effort or change in their approach to the music. Musically their influences are as diverse as their subject matter, drawing upon jazz, big band, funk, blues and gospel to create their sound.

The album's opening track, "Lord, Lord, Lord, You've Sure Been Good To Me", is a traditional gospel number which has been given a Rebirth makeover. The lyrics, sung by guest vocalist Glen David Andrews, give thanks to God for providing the essentials of life. "Woke me up this morning, sure been good to me/God woke me up this morning, sure been good to me/Put food on my table, sure been good to me/And I know it was the hands of the lord". Musically, the song is a rollicking, funk influenced tune which would bring the dead to their feet. What's amazing is in spite of the secular sound of the tune, you don't doubt the sincerity of the feelings behind the lyrics.

Andrews does a great job of convincing us of the sincerity of his beliefs while at the same time singing a rollicking, funky tune. As for the band, they make us feel like they're marching us straight into salvation with a beat and tempo that can't be resisted. You can have no problems visualizing people dancing through the streets on their way to or from church listening to this tune. Some might not approve of this approach to religion, but to me it's an example of how when influenced by the divine an artist will create something that will move the human spirit even if you don't share their beliefs.
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However, Rebirth are equally at home with the more earthy pleasures of New Orleans. While it's a celebratory song in its own right, "HBNS", is about as far removed from gospel as you can get. "I need hot butt naked sex/I love it when you make me sweat/I need hot butt naked sex/Baby did you get my text". Sung as a duet by Erica Falls and Quinten "Q" Spears the song celebrates the joy of sex in both the female and male voices. Like the city itself this song is all about sensual pleasures and finding joy in them. Unlike some people would have us believe, this song lets us know you can be religious and still enjoy sex.

Musically the disc rocks and rolls through a mixture of instrumentals (including a great cover of the old Loggins and Messina hit "You're Momma Don't Dance") and vocal accompanied songs without almost a pause for breath. While normally this could be rather overwhelming, Rebirth change up the pace enough from song to song to ensure the listener's interest never fades. They effortlessly move from funk to gospel to blues to marching band without missing a beat and carry us right along with them all the way.

Like the city they hail from Rebirth Brass Band are fun, sexy, sleek and have just enough edginess to their sound to hint at the feeling of underlying darkness which is so much a part of New Orleans' make up. Hurricane Katrina may have destroyed many of the buildings and neighbourhoods in the city, but as long as there are bands like this one, its soul will live on. While it's not like being there, Move Your Body brings a little taste of New Orleans into your home and heart.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Rebirth Brass Band - Move Your Body)

May 21, 2014

Music Review: Golem - Tanz


Legend tells us that the 16th century rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel created a golem to protect the Jewish ghetto in Prague from pogroms during the Easter/Passover holiday season. A creature made of clay, the golem was brought to life when the Hebrew word for truth, emet, was carved on his forehead and put back to sleep when the first letter of the word was removed leaving, met, the Hebrew word for dead. While golems have been depicted as everything from shambling monsters to articulate figures akin to our idea of artificial intelligence, they are also a reminder of the struggles for survival Jewish people have faced through history.

Now aside from both being parts of Jew's European heritage, at first glance golems and Klezmer music have very little in common. However, Klezmer shares the same roots as the golem, as it comes from Central and Eastern Europe. The word Klezmer comes from the Hebrew words klei (vessel) and zemer (song) which when combined literally means instrument of song. Originally it was the word for any musician, and it wasn't until the 1970s it was used to describe the music of the Yiddish speaking people of Eastern Europe. Today the music not only draws upon its traditions, but has incorporated aspects of contemporary popular music.
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One of the great examples of how Klezmer has evolved is the Brooklyn based band Golem. Referring to themselves as "Not your grandfather's Klezmer band", the band sings in Yiddish, English, various Slavic languages and German, plays instruments traditionally associated with the genre (violin, accordion, horns) but infuses it with an edge that can only be called a punk rock sensibility. Their latest album, Tanz, on the Mexican based Disco Corason label, is a rollicking adventure in high energy anarchic music that still manages to capture both the spirit and feel of Klezmer.

Instead of singing songs about a way of life which no longer exists, Golem have taken the form and turned it into the means of expressing what's important to them today. While there are still some traditional songs included on the disc the majority, like the title song "Tanz", (Dance) are originals which they've based on the lives of people and experiences they are familiar with. "Tanz" is the story of a survivor of the death camps who went on to build a small fortune as an adult. Instead of worrying about what would become of his money, he lived life to its fullest. When he died, unmarried, childless and without a will nobody inherited his wealth. "This cash is only paper/Let's buy a fast red car/We don't believe in heaven/Just want to die happy/Tanz tanz tanz...dance!"

Alongside this life affirming, live for the moment song, you also have some very witty satire. "Vodka Is Poison" bases its lyrics on a Russian self-help tape designed to help cut down on the rampant alcoholism in the country. The lyrics are hysterical, "It makes you sickly, makes you cough/Makes you smell like dirty socks/Makes you happy, makes you free/Makes you wish you were me/Vodka - Yad." The song's lyrics are in sung in both Russian and English - I'm not sure if the English are a direct translation of the Russian - but if they're any indication of Russia's methods of trying to curtail excessive drinking I doubt any real dent has been made in the problem. While the song's lyrics are obviously not meant to be taken seriously, they are real enough to make us realize the ridiculousness of a self-help tape being used to cut down on people's drinking.
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However, not all the songs are humorous or even satirical, some like "7:40" deal with more serious issues. In the former USSR it was impossible for a Jew to go to medical school. The only way a cousin of lead singer Annette Eziekiel Kogan was able to receive medical training was by becoming a member of the very anti-Jewish Soviet armed forces. The song's title refers to the first time of day Orthadox Jews pray, 7:40 am. In the Soviet Union her cousin was forbidden to pray at any of the three times designated for prayer; 7:40 am (shacharit) 4:15 pm (mincha) and 8:35 pm (maairv) "Sacharit, mincha, maariv/I do no work on Saturday/Back home Jews can't go to med school/ When someone called me a kike/I stuck a finger in his eye/And now I'm free to daven (pray) as I like". (The cousin actually took out somebody's eye when he was called a kike - not surprisingly he emigrated to Chicago as soon as he was able)

Musically Golem somehow manages to combine the familiar plaintive sound of traditional Klezmer with the harder edge of their punk ethos. A great deal of their success comes down to them having not only mastered the original form, but also have a great deal of respect and affection for its traditions. It also helps that both Kogan and co-vocalist Aaron Diskin are able to sing with conviction and feeling in all the languages used on the disc. Instead of the clarinet you would expect to hear playing leads in a Klezmer band, Jeremy Brown on violin and Curtis Hasselbring on trombone accompany Kogan's accordion in pumping out the melodies while they are kept on beat by Taylor Bergen-Chrisman on bass and Tim Monaghan on drums.

While this mix of instruments might sound odd on the surface, once you hear them play you'll be hooked on the infectious music they're able to create. Golem aren't like any Klezmer band you've ever heard, but that's what makes them so much fun to listen to. There aren't too many musicians who have the ability to take a traditional form of music and bring it into the modern world while still remaining true to the genre's origins. Golem may not be your grandparents', or even your parents', Klezmer band, but that doesn't make them any less authentic or inspiring.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Golem - Tanz)

April 9, 2014

Music Review: Wilko Johnson & Roger Daltrey - Going Back Home


The early 1960s saw the rise of an incredible number of blues based rock and roll bands in of all places the British Isles. The Animals, Led Zepplin, The Yardbirds, The Kinks and The Rolling Stones (yes they started off as a blues band - listen to their early albums) were just a few of those whose careers were shaped by the blues. While most of them went on to become part of the music establishment, at the time their music was considered rebellious and dangerous by the establishment. They also entrenched their style of music into British pop culture.

No matter what was being played on the popular music stations or rising high in the charts, the blues seemed to always be hanging around the fringes ready to raise its head when people wanted to hear something a little more rebellious than what was normally available. So when four guys from Canvey Island, about thirty mile east of London up the Thames River in England, decided to formed Dr Feelgood the band who impressed everyone from Johnny Rotten to Richard Hell with their rawness and intensity they looked to the blues and R&B for their inspiration. The creative force behind Dr. Feelgood for their formative years was guitarist and primary songwriter Wilko Johnson. While Johnson left the band soon after their fourth album, he's never left the style of music he played with them behind. Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2012, he's been grabbing at as many opportunities as possible to make and record the music he loves while he can. (His doctors told him he was only going to make it until October 2013 - but he's defied all their predictions and is still performing)
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One of the projects he's undertaken was teaming up with Who frontman Roger Daltrey to record an album of ten Johnson penned, and one cover, R&B/blues/rock and roll songs called Going Back Home. Released on the Chess record label in the UK the disc is being issued in North America by Universal Music Enterprises. While it might appear the two are a generation apart as Daltrey and The Who were part of the early 1960s British rock scene, and Johnson the early 70s, they both share a love for what they call British R&B.

Lyrically speaking none of Johnson's songs are going to change the world or even probably change your life. However, that's not the point of this music. The songs on this disc are about things we can all relate to, whether we want to admit it or not. While it might be a bit odd to hear these two veterans of the rock wars singing songs about being young and irresponsible, when it comes down to it, isn't that what rock and roll should be about? A celebration of everything the supposed adult world looks down upon.

The disc's opening and title track is a perfect example. The music is rollicking, I defy anyone with any soul in their body to resist the urge to dance while listening to it, while the lyrics are a celebration of the ups and downs of a irresponsible life. "I wanna live the way I like,/Sleep all the morning, go out and get my fun at night./Things ain't like that here,/Working just to keep my payments clear." Bemoaning having to actually work to do the things you want to do might not seem overly rebellious to some, but considering the fact Britain is the home of the Protestant Work Ethic, this type of attitude would make Margret Thatcher spin in her grave.
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For those of you who are wondering how Daltrey sounds after all these years, as far as I'm concerned his voice sounds better then it ever has. Of course that could be my own personal bias as I've never been one for the rock and roll vocal pyrotechnics he used to engage in during his younger years. However, on this recording his voice is a wonderful growl full of expressive twists and turns which is perfect for the material. Listening to this disc you swear he was born to sing this music as he not only sounds great he has the right attitude to express the sentiments behind the words. The tough kid from the streets who once sang "I hope I die before I get old" is still alive and well and giving the establishment a two finger salute.

The band accompanying the two front men are the perfect match to the music as well. They are the perfect combination of sounding like they could go off the rails at any moment while at the same time being incredibly tight. It helps that Norman Watt-Roy (bass) and Dylan Howe (drums) are Johnson's regular rhythm section, but Mick Talbot on piano and Hammond Organ and Steve Weston on harmonica are equally at ease with the music and the rest of the band. Weston especially is incredible. His harmonica playing is the perfect accompaniment to Daltrey's voice, providing an amazing counterpoint to his growls without ever overwhelming him.

Of course Johnson is Johnson. His guitar is the motor driving each and every song. Whether he's chugging along in the background playing rhythm or delivering short choppy leads, his playing is a lesson in the old adage of less is more. He gets more out of what he does in a few seconds than most rock gods can get out of a ten minute solo. There's an intensity to his playing (and his stage presence) that few to this day can match. The ten original songs he's penned for this album, match his playing style, as at first listen they seem to be simplicity in themselves, but you gradually realize there's a lot more to them they you first thought.

Going Back Home is a wonderful and imaginative collaboration from two men who've never lost their love for rock and roll. Even their choice of a cover, Bob Dylan's "Won't You Please Crawl Out Your Window" from his Highway 61 Revisited album, is inspired. They've turned it into a wonderful, rollicking R&B song which fits the mood of the track perfectly. In some ways you can almost imagine Dylan recording it this way, as that could easily be Al Kooper on the organ or members of The Band providing the bass, drums and guitar. However, just because the disc looks to the past occasionally, there's no way you can call this an exercise in nostalgia. This album is a timely reminder of how the soul of rock and roll is still rebellion.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Wilko Johnson and Roger Daltrey - Going Back Home)

April 2, 2014

Music Review: Steve Conte - The Steve Conte NYC Album


One of my favourite authors, Christopher Brookmyre, in his book Not The End Of The World described New York City (NYC) as a place where "An outgoing personality and a trusting nature would be filed as contributory negligence on an NYPD homicide sheet" and the average citizens's level of paranoia as "a constant state of heightened alertness like mainlining caffeine". Like many other assessments of NYC, this is probably three parts hyperbole and one part reality. For no matter where you live there's always a certain level of heightened awareness when you step out of the sanctuary of your own house.

As I once said to a person I knew who lives in NYC, my small city with a population of just over 100,000 has all the disadvantages of living in a big city, crime, pollution etc., with none of the advantages that come with a major metropolis. A small city is often very parochial as its population never has the opportunity to expand its world view through galleries, museums, theatres or other such venues displaying works from other parts of the world. When culture is limited to only what you can produce locally, with injections of new blood few and far between, it stagnates. No matter how hard an artist tries to grow, without inspiration or examples it's next to impossible.

I was reminded of all this listening to the latest album from NYC musician Steve Conte, The Steve Conte NYC Album. In his last solo release, Steve Conte And The Crazy Truth, Conte captured the spirit of the wild ride NYC can be in a series of brilliantly done rock and roll songs. Having played with the New York Dolls and the Mink DeVille Band he's been enough of a part of the city's rock and roll story to offer a perspective of life in NYC few others can. On this occasion he's delved even deeper into its psyche to show us the city through the stories of the people who live there.
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The other change you'll discover on this album is how much he's expanded his musical horizons. While there are still some wonderful New York rock and roll songs, he's also drawn upon other musical influences. Both the disc's eighth, "Broken Spoke Saloon" and 10th, "Tax Free", tracks have definite country/blues feels to them which makes the stories they tell all the more powerful. What's even better is neither song feels like they're some sort of token piece of "Americana" tossed off because its the in thing right now. Instead their content and placement on the album make them feel like they are part of a natural progression in the overall story Conte is trying to tell us.

The disc opens with wonderfully ironic "Dark In The Spotlight" which takes aim at those who want to find fame through infamy. If you don't have talent at least make sure you're found with a needle in your arm and make a suitably impressive corpse. "Well you're a medical wonder/you're no Johnny Thunders/but you kept up quite a pace./Always severely high and ya didn't die trying/Well lord knows it ain't no race./Somehow you stayed out of the headlines,/the whose nearly deadlines,/guess you missed out on the press." Unlike Thunders, who was a talented musician with genuine demons, the subject of this song is just another sad story of the pursuit of fame for fame's sake. Not only doesn't he or she have the required talent and desire to be a great musician, they can't even get the dying young part right.

This isn't the only New York stereotype Conte's sharp pen pricks with the bite of satire/sarcasm. He also takes aim at the supercool dudes with their machismo attitudes who have long been celebrated in song and emulated by every half wit whose walked into a bar and hit on some unsuspecting victim. "Lady Luck" tells the story one of these dudes who finally comes to the end of his run of luck. "You're the king of the world with a crooked crown/Another day in the life of a fool falling down/With your face in the muck/That's Lady Luck/...She busted your glass jaw, it's the karmic law/She really left you raw". There's nothing cool or glamorous about the life of a low rent hood getting by on the luck of the draw. A player in his own mind, once he steps outside of his comfort zone his world comes tumbling down around him.
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By the time Conte's tour of NYC brings us to the "Broken Spoke Saloon" we're almost prepared for the song's bitter/sweet ode to friendships which have withstood the test of time and two people going in opposite directions. "You couldn't make the rent so you went straight/But I kept on believing I'd get my twist of fate/Now I wonder when you look at me/Do you see a piece of your history?/Something that's too far gone to reclaim/I love you just the same." How many times has a friendship ended due to the resentment one feels towards the other's success, especially when they had met while pursuing the same dream?

In a city like New York this is probably a scene played out in many different bars between many different people. For every person who is able to find a way of making their living doing what they love, there are going to be twenty who have had to give up their dreams. Of course just because you've made it to the point where you're living the life you thought you wanted doesn't mean its without frustration and thoughts of just giving it all up and running away.

The final track on the disc, "Tax Free", shows Conte giving voice to those thoughts. While the song is funny, there's also an element of seriousness to it's expression of how even the most dedicated of artists can get frustrated. "Yeah I'm big joke to the New York Press/So I wake up on the floor/I'm just an aging freelance whore/Don't want to die in this den of despair/There's always death and taxes, but no tax down in Delaware".

The Steve Conte NYC Album is a wonderful mixture of music, thought and emotion which takes you on a tour of NYC as seen through descriptions of a wide variety of people who inhabit the city. Sometimes ironic, sometimes funny but always insightful and intelligent, Conte shows himself to be more than just another rock and roller. The portraits he has created give what most people see as a highly impersonal city the sense of being a place not much different from where they might live. With this release Conte has found a way of reminding us there might be millions of people jammed into NYC's many boroughs, but each one of them is an individual and their stories are what give the city its character.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Steve Conte - 'The Steve Conte NYC Album)

March 30, 2014

Music Review: Hafez Nazeri Untold: The Rumi Symphony Project


Ever since the first of their three West Meets East collaborations was released in 1966 many other musicians from both East and West have attempted to follow in the footsteps of violinist Yehudi Menuhin and sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar's attempt to find common ground between the two musical traditions. While there's no question the results have always been intriguing none of them have found a way to merge the two with any real success. Usually the results have been the superimposing of one over the other with either switching to conform to the harmonics and rhythmic patterns of the other.

If one were to think of it in terms of linguistics, it would be the equivalent of trying to merge Farsi or Hindi with English or German and creating a language with enough elements in common speakers of the original languages would be able to understand the new tongue. This is what classical Persian composer, Iranian Hafez Nazeri has attempted to accomplish with his latest composition, Untold: The Rumi Symphony Project. Released on the Sony Masterworks label, and touring concert halls in North America throughout March and April 2014, Nazeri has used the poetry of the 13th century Sufi mystic and poet Jalal as-Din Muhammad Balkhi, better known as Rumi in the West, as his inspiration for the music and the themes it expresses.

While the choice of a medieval Persian mystic's poetry might seem an odd one to serve as a bridge between Western and Eastern classical traditions it's important to remember some of the most awe inspiring classical music in European history have been spiritual works. Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Bach and many others all wrote pieces glorifying spiritual love in much the same vein as Rumi's poetry. If you think, well one is Muslim while the others are Christian, the following Rumi quote included in the liner notes show you the poet didn't make that distinction, so maybe we shouldn't: "We dance behind veils/Muslim, Christian, Jew are the masks we wear/in truth, we are not here/This is our shadow dance."
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However, even with the establishment of thematic common ground Nazeri still had to find a way of blending the musics of two cultures with vastly different histories and means of expression. Aside from undertaking an extensive study of European classical music, he also took the extraordinary step of modifying a traditional Persian stringed instrument, the setar, to work as the bridge between the two forms. Working with Iranian luthiers, and 40 prototypes later, he added two strings to the lute like instrument to increase its range and allow it to play both polyphonic sounds and harmonies, two integral elements of Western classical music lacking in its Persian counterpart. He named the new instrument after another great 13th century poet, the man he was named for, Hafez.

The setar has always been a key element in Persian music with its distinctive sound being central to most classical pieces. The modifications Nazeri introduced to the instrument have done nothing to change the way it sounds, but has expanded its abilities. Instead of being a solo instrument, it can now played in concert with others and be part of a larger ensemble. In the case of this piece that consists of cello, violin, viola, tabla, udu drum, frame drums (hand held drums), choir and solo voice.

Untold is divided up into four chapters with each of the chapters, "Creation", "Existence", "Untold" and "Eternal Return" representing a different aspect of the spiritual history of life on both a cosmic and human level. According to Nazeri's liner notes the first and second chapter deal with first the creation of the universe and life respectively. The third chapter deals with the steps humans take on the road to spiritual enlightenment while the fourth is about the possibility of exploring new horizons and finding the means to combine traditions in order to create a "new consciousness, a new experience of self-identity, a new whole that is larger than the sum of the parts." (Hafez Nazeri)

As to the music itself, I don't have sufficient knowledge of Persian classical music to comment on how successful Nazeri has been in bringing about its union with its European counterpart except in the broadest of generalities. What I did notice and appreciate was how he has managed to keep both their unique voices alive instead of allowing one to drown out the other. Take for example the use of the string section, (cello, violin and viola) when accompanying the work of both Nazeri and his father, the world renowned Iranian tenor Sharam Nazeri, as solo vocalists. Instead of their voices being alone in carrying the melody with the instruments providing a rhythmic counterpoint, they, and the hafez, play either harmony or melodic support.
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Improvisation around specific themes has always played a major role in the music of South East Asia. We are probably most familiar with this as it is practiced in the classical music of India where the sitar plays ragas which are improvisations based on a set of previously determined notes in a specific scale. (That's a very simplistic way of describing what is an incredibly complicated process that can take years to master) Allowing the Western stringed instruments to improvise in the midpoint of Chapter Two, "Existence", is a daring move which preserves the form of its Asian heritage while utilizing the sounds of instruments familiar to Western ears.

In the classical music we're most familiar with percussion hardly ever plays more than a supporting role. Except in very specific instances we hardly ever notice kettle drums and similar instruments amidst the massed strings, brass and woodwind instruments of an orchestral or chamber piece. The same can not be said for Eastern music where instruments like the tabla play a prominent role. Normally a tabla player works within certain pre-existing parameters to provide the rhythmic accompaniment for either voice or instrument. However, in this piece the tabla plays a mixture of melody and rhythm with added textures being supplied by both the cello and the hafez resulting in a collage of sounds both beautiful and astounding.

However, technical details like those described above fade into the background as one listens to the results created by Nazeri and his fellow musicians. The true mark of his success is how quickly you forget about the different styles and instruments and how easily you're captivated by the music. From Sharam Nazeri's stirring voice in the second and fourth chapters, the intricate and beautiful instrumental magic provided by all the musicians, to the choral accompaniment at various points throughout, Untold: The Rumi Symphony Project is a constant source of awe and wonder.

There's no way of knowing how it will resonate with specific individuals on a spiritual level, but emotionally is a different matter. You'd have to have ice in your veins and a heart of stone not to be moved while listening to this music. Without a doubt this is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I've heard in a long time. Hopefully this marks the beginning of a brand new musical tradition, one with the ability to move audiences no matter what their religion, cultural or ethnic background.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Hafez Nazeri - Untold: The Rumi Symphony Project)

March 22, 2014

Music Review: IR 29.1: New Generation Dub


One of the biggest crimes committed by the music industry has been their ability to co-opt, dilute and turn even the most radical of genres into something safe for mass consumption. Disco, punk and rap have all been taken and watered down so they would sell in Peoria. Even worse is how the industry corrupts these forms, turning them inside out, so instead of preaching against the injustices which brought the genres into existence, they become something promoting the very things causing the inequities railed against. While disco was turned into mindless dance music for social climbers and punk became new wave and all about dressing well, what was done to rap/dub music was by far the most horrendous.

Rap/dub, the art of free association spoken word poetry/singing being recited over somebody mixing sounds on a couple of turntables, was born out of necessity. It was a cheap and easy way to make music and to relate information to large numbers of people. Individuals, Afrika Bambaataa and groups, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, took existing recorded music, LPs in the early days, and by manipulating the vinyl and mixing the sound of two turn tables together, would create rhythms and beats for songs, like "The Message", that spoke of modern African American frustration with the poverty, crime and drug use they saw around them.

So, its heartening to know there are those in the world who still see the potential for rap/dub music as an instrument for change and education. As I mentioned in my review of IR 30: Indigenous Visions In Dub elsewhere on this site, the grass roots organization The Fire This Time (TFTT), has established the record label, IR (Indigenous Resistance) produce rap/dub music which speaks to the plight of indigenous people all over the world. In order to facilitate the making of this music they have established a freedub page where musicians, poets and songwriters can upload and download mp3s for the sole purpose of creating new songs. Thus musicians from the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific can exchange ideas with people across the North America and create material which speaks to the plight of indigenous people everywhere.
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Their latest release, IR 29.1: New Generation Dub available for purchase as a download through Bandcamp not only is a great example of how this system works, it also shows there is more to this genre of music than most of us think. There are only four music tracks on the release, its being promoted as the first of two parts, hence the title 29.1, but they're plenty to give you both an introduction to the type of music they create and the ideas and hopes they are trying to propagate.

The second track on the release, "IR Dravidian: Earth & Life: Dr. Das Ambient Mix", is not only a great example of how their international community of artists work together to create songs, but shows you how hip hop/dub/rap can be so much more than what we hear on commercial radio. This track had been originally recorded as "Dravidian Spirit" by DJ Soundar of Asian Dub Foundation but has been remixed for this recording by Jamaican musician Dr. Das. Not having heard the original I can't comment on the impact the changes have made to the song. However I can tell you its a powerful mix of language and music which not only communicates an intellectual message but creates a strong spiritual and emotional foundation for the ideas expressed.

The Dravidian of the title are the Indigenous people of South India who have been gradually marginalized by the majority Brahmin-Aryan peoples for thousands of years according to DJ Soundar. Their culture dates back at least 6,000 years and the percussion rhythms you hear on this track are Dravidian. A quick trip across the Atlantic Ocean to Jamaica for keyboards and percussion, then down to Bogota Colombia for the sound of children reading a passage of the Tried & True: Revelations Of A Rebellious Youth by dub Jamaican writer Dutty Bookman. Finally there's a quick side trip up to North America for the words of Native American poet/activist/musician John Trudell which were recorded by Bookman for this mix.
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What's wonderful about this mix is how well all the seemingly disparate sounds, languages and ideas are blended together to create a unified message. Built around the core of Trudell's words about the nature of power, how people are being misled into believing money and the political vote are the true sources of power when they are merely manifestations of greed and exploitation ("We are connected to the real power source which is life and earth") the music is both ethereal and grounded enough so its message is emotionally and intellectually real.

Unlike most politically oriented music which tends towards the polemic, the music on IR 29.1: New Generation Dub doesn't ignore its media's role in conveying the message. The tracks on this recording work on multiple levels, reflecting the artists' concerns with conveying both a political message to the world at large and a reminder to their indigenous audience to never forget who they are and where they came from. The spiritual messages found in these songs aren't meant to make non-indigenous people feel better about themselves and their exploitation of the world like the ones found in New Age bookstores. Instead they're a means of reinforcing the cultural identity of those who have been the victim of systemic cultural genocide.

If you're like me, and the sound of rap/hip hop blaring from some car's souped up sound system is usually enough to hope the vehicle will blow up on the downbeat, these tracks are a revelation. They show that dub music can be more than just mindless noise and used as a viable tool for self-expression. With contributors from literally every corner of the world, this truly international collaboration gives voice to the concerns of indigenous people all over the globe while allowing each distinct culture to shine through.

(Article originally published at Empty Mirror as Music Review IR 29.1: New Generation Dub)

March 13, 2014

Music Review: Tinariwen - Emmaar


In the early 1960s the creation of artificial borders in the trackless wastes of the Sahara desert might have been cause for celebration among the inhabitants of the newly created countries. However, the throwing off of colonial masters in Niger, Mali, Algeria, Morocco and others, also resulted in turmoil for the nomadic people who had called the region home for close to a thousand years. Attempts at fighting to retain their lands resulted in them being forcibly removed from their territories and sent into exile. Ibrahim Ag Alhabib was a young child when he and his extended family were forced to pack up their goods and lives and leave their homes.

Like many others of his generation Alhabib witnessed the death of family members, his grandfather, as they made their way to who knew what. So it's no surprise he and other young Kel Tamashek (Tuareg) men ended up in Libya receiving military training. In the 1980s these expatriates were the nucleus behind the revolts in Mali attempting to reclaim their traditional lands. However they weren't just receiving military training in Libya, they were also being exposed to music from all over the world. It was in the training camps Alhabib first starting learning how to play guitar and met the men he would eventually form the band who would have since become synonymous with the music of the Kel Tamashek, Tinariwen.
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Putting down their weapons and picking up musical instruments hasn't stopped the members of Tinariwen from continuing their fight for their people. It's simply meant a change of tactics. Initially their intent was to create songs and music celebrating their culture and their traditional lives. While this might sound innocuous enough, they along with other "guitar bands" were soon being targeted by the same governments they had fought against. In the 1990s many musicians were forced to flee both Niger and Mali because of threats against their lives by the armed forces of the two countries. However this didn't stop Tinariwen from continuing to make music and eventually making their way onto the world's stages to spread their tribal inspired desert blues around the world.

When terrorist groups usurped the Kel Tamashek uprising in Northern Mali - one of the nomadic people's traditional homelands - and imposed their own version of Islam upon the area's population, including banning all music, in early 2013, Tinariwen were once again forced into exile. Which meant their latest release, Emmaar (Deluxe Edition) available in North America on the Anti label, was not recorded in their home desert, but Joshua Tree California. Even there reminders of the troubles at home couldn't have been far from their minds as band member Abdallah Ag Lamida was unable to make the trip having been kidnapped by the terrorists. (He has since been released)

Previously when I've reviewed albums by Tinariwen and other bands from the Sahara region I've received a hard copy which has contained translations of the song's lyrics. The digital download I received this time didn't contain any liner notes, so I'm flying blind when it comes to understanding what the band is saying. While that might be a problem with some other bands, when it comes to Tinariwen, the music is as integral to their message as the lyrics.

What's interesting to note about this album is how they have continued the process of evolving their sound which had begun on their previous release, Tassili, by incorporating new sounds into their mix. The number of guest musicians has increased to include the talents of Fats Kaplan, who plays fiddle on "Imdiwanin Ahi Tifhamamone" and pedal steel on the opening track "Toumast Tincha", current Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Josh Klinghoffer (also on the opening track) percussionist Amar Chaoui on six tracks, guest guitarist Matt Sweeny on the song "Emajer" and poet/musician/ Saul Williams providing a spoken word English language introduction to the album's opening track.
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However, for fans of Tinariwen's particular brand of desert blues featuring hypnotic percussion overlaid by the interplay of droning guitars and sparse vocals, there's no need to worry they have done anything as crass as give in to commercial considerations or been so called corrupted by being in America. What they have done is augment their sound with these additional players to give it more depth and a wider range of expression. Listen and watch the video below of "Imidiwan Ahi Sigdim" and you'll hear how little they've strayed from their original roots.

Utilizing these Western musicians is not an attempt to make their sound more accessible to a wider market, this is the band which won the Grammy for best "World Album" in 2012 after all so they don't need to attract a new audience. What it does do is broaden the scope of their musical palate. This allows them to create even more vivid musical pictures of the desert landscape they call home. For while the lyrics are still sparse and sung in Tamashek, after all the songs are for their own people not us, the music evokes the landscape of their homeland. The new musical elements, such as pedal steel guitar and fiddle, which add a certain South Western American feel to some songs, only serve to make the picture more complete.

Tinariwen have been part of the struggle for preserving their people's traditional homelands and culture since the days of armed rebellion in the 1980s. Picking up musical instruments in exchange for the guns of their youth as an attempt to encourage their own people to take pride in their traditions and culture has turned them into cultural ambassadors for the Kel Tamashek on stages around the world. Yet in spite of the international attention, no matter which part of the world they are forced to record their music, or who joins them, their sound remains firmly rooted in the shifting sands of the Sahara desert.

Considering Tinariwen's refusal to to give up in the face of odds most of us would consider insurmountable, is it any wonder the armies of Islam gave their ancestors the name Tuareg - rebels against Islam - when they first invaded North Africa over a thousand years ago? It's this indomitable spirit pervading their music that gives it the presence which makes them one of the most compelling bands playing anywhere. No matter who they choose to accompany them when recording or performing, their music and spirit continue to shine through as an example for the rest of the world. Starting March 14 2014 Tinariwen is beginning a tour of the American South, South West, Mid West and West Coast. If you get the opportunity check them out - you won't regret it.

(Article originally published at Empty Mirror as Music Review: Music of the Sahara: Tinariwen's new album Emmaar)

February 24, 2014

Music Review: Aziza Brahim -Soutak


At first glance the Sahara Desert of North West Africa seems like one of the most inhospitable places on the face of the earth. Movies, and other Western media, usually show us images of trackless wastes, endless miles of sand dunes dotted with the occasional oasis and scrubby plants. However, this supposed barren land has been home to various nomadic people for centuries. When the Arab and Ottoman armies started to move into Africa and establish their North African kingdoms, they found the tribesman already firmly established. While there were occasional alliances between the new kingdoms in Algeria and Morocco, the Caliphs and Emirs were wise enough not to attempt to impose their rule on the nomads.

Even the European colonial rulers had the initial good sense to leave well enough alone. It wasn't until the French and Spanish, the controllers of North Africa, discovered the wealth of natural resources buried beneath the desert they began to interfere. While the Kel Tamashek, (Tuareg) of Mali and Niger have been receiving most of the world's attention recently because of the attempted takeover of Northern Mali by fundamentalist terror groups with their very narrow definition of Islam, they aren't the only nomadic people who have seen their land and culture stolen out from under them in the past eighty years. The area now known as Morocco had been once been home to the Sahrawi people. Like their Berber relatives to the south they have been forced out of their traditional territories and into refugee camps and exile in Algeria through the new government's policies.

While the number of refugees living in the four camps in the northern Algeria is unclear (estimates range from the 40,000 claimed by the Moroccans to the 150,000 claimed by the Polisario Front the Sahrawi governing body) the fact remains they are people without a home whose plight has been ignored by most of the world. Unlike the Kel Tamashek (Tuareg) who have been very successful in exporting their culture, and by extension their circumstances, to the rest of the world through music, the Sahrawi representation on the world stage has been minimal. One voice who has been trying hardest to make herself heard has been Aziza Brahim. While a child of the refugee camps, she now calls Barcelona Spain home, and its there she recorded her new album, Soutak (translated as "Your Voice"), for Glitterbeat Records.
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The title is very appropriate as the songs on the disc attempt to give voice to not only the plight of her own people, but people in refugee camps all over the world. While she sings in Spanish, the booklet accompanying the disc comes with both English and Arabic translations of the lyrics, so both the people for whom the songs are meant and people in other parts of the world can understand their meaning. In an introductory statement for the CD she says, "the album contains songs about worries - intimate and collective - that take on universal dimensions". To that end she made the decision to incorporate both the musical traditions of her own people and those of other cultures in order to create a more inclusive sound.

Right from the opening track, "Gidem Izik" (Camp of Dignity) you can hear the results of this amalgamation. The solo guitar accompanying her has what can only be called a distinctive Spanish feel and sound to it. There's nothing really overt you can put your finger on, but elements of Flamenco and other styles classically associated with Spanish music come through. Underpinning everything are percussion and electric bass. Anyone who has listened to any of the music of the Kel Tamashek of Northern Mali from the last decade or so will be familiar with the rhythm - the steady, trance inducing beat which drives music forward in an effortless fashion.

While with the Kel Tamashek the rhythm provides the undercurrent for the steady drone of their version of electric blues, Brahim has used it as the foundation upon which she builds her more complex vocal melodies. Although she has something of the same declarative style of singing - she is telling stories after all - her vocals show the influence of other cultures and styles. Whereas most of the music from the nomadic tribes of the Sahara region I've heard in the past the lyrics are almost chanted in time with the pulse of the beat, Brahim allows her voice to reflect the emotional content of her lyrics and uses the rhythm as the forge upon which she creates her own sound.

Reading through the English translations of her lyrics it quickly becomes obvious she has been true to her word about creating songs which not only speak of her own people, but also echo the plight of those in similar situations around the world. Track three, "Espejismos" (Mirages) is one of the most moving examples of this. In language that borders on the poetic she describes the effects of war and strife upon the land in a way which not only brings it to life, but evokes the suffering of those who have to continue living there. "Damn the seeds of graves/that beat among the stones of your homeland/that grow/nourished by rage,/sacrificing the worth of the crop/and its fruit."
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However, her songs aren't just about desolation and horror, they are also about the potential for oppressed people to speak out and be heard. In the CD's sixth and title track, "Soutak" (Your Voice) Brahim says "I want to hear your voice/and the sweet words/that have lived within me/ever since those days." Within each person who has lived a life dominated by outside forces resides a voice which hopes for something better. Having been born in a refugee camp, and experienced what it's like to have her homeland stolen, she's in a position to say to others your story is my story and our voices are the same. She doesn't make any assumptions about other's experiences, but assures them their voices are as important as anyone else's, including hers.

Aziza Brahim has created a CD of heartrending beauty which speaks to the plight of refugees everywhere without descending into the mire of politics. Instead of pointing fingers or blaming anybody, she has focused on the results of the world ignoring oppressed people everywhere. While this impressive in itself, Soutak is also an example of the simple and elegant way in which musical traditions can be combined and blended to create a sound which doesn't compromise or insult anyone's culture. There aren't many people who speak for the voiceless among us, but here is one record which does so with intelligence and integrity.

(Article originally published at Empty Mirror as Music Review: Aziza Brahim - Soutak)

February 22, 2014

Music Review: Adrian Raso And Fanfare Ciocarlia - Devil's Tale


When the Ottoman Empire invaded Eastern Europe they brought more than just their armies with them. Even today evidence of their occupation can still be found. Muslim communities in Serbia are only the most obvious reminder of their one time rule as traces of their cultural influence can still also be seen in other, more subtle forms, including musical influences. The invading Turkish armies were accompanied by military brass bands, a type of music previously unknown in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. In spite of the general antipathy towards all things Muslim in the region, for some reason this one particular aspect of the culture became part of the region's musical makeup and today the Guca Trumpet Festival in Serbia is one of the biggest brass festivals in the world.

In the north-eastern region of Romania in a small isolated Romany village, Zece Prajini, population around 80, the tradition of the brass band has continued unchecked since the days of the Ottoman Empire even as it died out across the rest of country. From these humble beginnings the village band, Fanfare Ciocarlia, (translated as Lark's Song) has stormed onto stages and movie screens around the world. (They are the brass band playing Steppenwolf's "Born To Be Wild" in the move Borat) They have won countless world music awards for their amazing amalgamation of Romany and brass band music. Their fast and furious approach leaves one breathless and reeling, but they're more than just loud and brassy. They have the innate musical intelligence to be able to adapt their playing to almost any style and genre of music.
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This versatility is on full display on the new release from German label Asphalt Tango, Devil's Tale, a collaboration with Canadian guitarist Adrian Raso. In the past Raso has released albums of music ranging from Gypsy Swing to rockabilly and collaborated with everybody from Sheila E. to Lee Rocker of the Stray Cats, but as far as I know this is the first time he has sat down to record, or play even, with a brass band.

While I was very familiar Fanfare's previous work, I'd never heard anything by Raso before this disc. However, I did have some understanding of the style of music he plays. For while he's apparently an incredibly versatile performer, he appears to lean towards the more sophisticated Latin and Gypsy Swing influenced styles of jazz guitar work. Knowing how intricate and subtle those types of music can be, and also knowing how Fanfare's preferred approach was anything but either of those, I wondered how the heck their two seemingly widely divergent performance styles could meld successfully.

Which just goes to show how much I had underestimated Fanfare Ciocarlia's musical ability and their capability to adapt. All it takes is hearing the first notes of the disc's opening track to realize the band has entered into this partnership whole heartedly. Sure all their familiar energy is present, but now they have channeled it into musical nuance instead of blasting us out of our seats. For not only have they found common ground with Raso, but they have moved further afield musically than I would have thought possible.
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"Urn St.Tavern", the disc's opening track, is a wonderful example of how this union of styles resulted in something completely unexpected. I'm not exactly sure how to describe it, except that it would fit into the sound track of any number of Robert Rodriguez's more macabre movies. There's a slightly eerie overtone to Raso's guitar work which sends shivers up your spine while Fanfare's horns provide an ominous backdrop against which any sort of weird and creepy activity could take place. Who knows what the patrons of "Urn St.Tavern" get up to when dark comes creeping in over the mountains? Nothing any stranger would want to experience on their own, that much is for sure. (Obviously I wasn't the only one who made this connection as can be seen on the amazing video for the song)

As the disc progresses the jaw dropping work of both members of the collaborative team continues. The fourth track, "C'est La Vie" is a wonderful example of French/Romany swing music. Not only do Fanfare play with the relaxed assurance required to make this song bop and move with ease and grace, it's also a chance to hear what makes Raso such a special guitar player. Not only do his fingers fly over the fret board on his leads he manages to impart a kind of emotional joie de vivre into his playing. It's fast, loose and as full of life as the streets of the Left Bank of Paris where some new excitement is always lurking around the next corner.

The solo exchanges between the guitar and clarinet on this song resonate with not only the sounds of Paris, but Eastern Europe as well. You can hear the echoes of both Romany music and its close relative Klezmar come through as the clarinet swings its plaintive sound in cheerful defiance against the oppressive background that gave birth to both types of music. Simply listening to them perform lifts the heart and the spirit, and makes you appreciate how much music can lift you out of the muck and mire of a hard life.
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It's only fitting the final song on the disc is named "Django" in honour of the great Django Reinhardt, basically the inventor of the jazz style now called Gypsy Swing. However, the song's title can have a double meaning as the word Django translates from the Romany as "I awake". While Raso's guitar playing on this song harkens back to Reinhardt's style of jazz, the counterpoint provided by the brass is like a wake up call. While they're playing many of the same motifs Raso plays on his guitar, they put an extra punch into them which makes them leap out of your speakers. While some times jazz guitar can fade into the background if you don't pay careful attention, Fanfare's horns keep you awake and aware all the time. Whether they are providing the bass underpinning to the guitar leads with tubas and baritones, or snapping out leads on trumpets, they make sure our feet are always awake and moving to the music.

At first sight it would appear a brass band from a remote village in North Eastern Romania would have little in common with a guitar player from a small city in South Western Ontario, Canada. However, Adrian Raso from Guelph Ontario and Fanfare Ciocarlia from Zece Prajini have proven with their release, Devil's Tale, music knows no geographic, or any other, types of boundaries. Music is a universal language might sound like a cliche, but in the case of these two musical forces, not only was it literally true as neither spoke the other's tongue, but artistically as well. Each listened and heard what the other had to say and then responded in kind with results that are as spectacular as they are fun. On their own both Fanfare Ciocarlia and Adrian Raso are musicians to be reckoned with, together they are musical synergy of perfect storm proportions. Stand in the whirlwind and be swept off your feet by the result - you'll feel like you're finally awake.

(Article originally published at Empty Mirror as Music Review: Adrian Raso and Fanfare Ciocarlia - Devil's Tale)

February 19, 2014

Music Review: Viggo And Friends - Aca


Some people say, "Politics make strange bedfellows" (Don't say it to Putin - he might take it the wrong way and have you thrown in jail) but the first time I heard Viggo Mortensen had collaborated on an album with the notorious, infamous, riotous, speed metal, punk, over the top guitar player Buckethead, I thought politics has nothing on music. The idea the actor, poet and painter could find anything in common with the man who had spent the majority of his career hiding his identity behind a mask and wearing an empty KFC bucket on his head strained even my ability to suspend disbelief. However, after listening to a couple of their collaborations I had to admit they had found their own version of common ground.

While Mortensen and Buckethead have collaborated on entire CDs in the past, the latest recording of the former's music, Acá (Here), from Perceval Press is billed as being performed by Viggo and Friends. As with the majority of his previous releases this one was recorded at Travis Dickerson Recording Studios, which also means Dickerson supplies some of the accompanying instruments on three tracks (one, "Den Gang Jeg Drog Afsted", four, "Summer's Here" and nine, "Acá"). Two of the tracks (four and nine) feature drummer DJ Bonebrake, of the band X (which is fronted by Mortensen's ex wife Exene Cervenka). Track nine also features Mortensen's son Henry sitting in on bass while Buckethead joins the ensemble on tracks one and nine.

However, in spite of all the interesting people taking part, this is still essentially Mortensen's CD. Aside from composing all nine tracks, six of them feature him performing solo on keyboards. Trying to define the music is a somewhat harder proposition than talking about who appears on the recording. For these are not so much "songs" as atmospheric creations. The title of the CD is a clue to its content. In their own ways each composition defines a "Here" for the listener. However, unlike the ambient music of earlier days (Brian Eno and Robert Fripp come to mind) which were more aural wallpaper than anything else, these pieces evoke the specific places and ideas their titles suggest through their musical content.
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From specific locations, track two's "Walking Up River", describing a specific experience, "Wind In The Birches" (track three) to the more generalized expressions of emotions in "Den Gang Jeg Drog Afsted" ("The Time I Went Away"), each piece manages to find a way to bring the audience into the moment suggested by its title. That this is done without lyrics, and primarily through Mortensen's solo piano work, makes the work even more impressive.

While track one's Danish language title (thank you Google translator) makes obscures its meaning slightly, when taken in context of the rest of material it has the feel of an overture or preface. While a traditional overture usually introduces the various musical themes and motifs that will be heard over the course of a piece of music, "Den Gang Jeg Drog Afsted" introduces us to the fact we'll be going on a journey into nature and the world around us. It begins with the sounds of a thunderstorm which gradually fade into the background while keyboards, guitar, percussion and bass gradually fill in the soundscape. The instruments move to the forefront, creating sounds suggestive of the faintly heard rain storm in the background. With Buckethead's guitar recreating the sound of rain falling leading, the others fill in the space around his gentle fingering to suggest the feeling and sensations of listening to a storm.

As the English translation of the title suggests, the song not only recreates the sounds of rain, but the sensation of being transported outside oneself that can occur when you become caught up in listening to a thunderstorm. You can almost picture yourself sitting somewhere listening to the swell of thunder and the sound of rain as it patters against glass windows, on the roof and hits the leaves on the trees outside your house. The piece triggers the sense memory of allowing yourself to drift away on the sounds; travelling beyond time and place without having to leave the darkened room you're sitting in.

"Walking Up River" is the first of Mortensen's unaccompanied piano pieces on the disc. Instead of doing the obvious and trying to recreate the sounds of a river with his playing, he has taken us to the path by the river so we can appreciate the sensations of walking besides it. He doesn't try to impose his own vision of the experience on us. Instead the music he has created allows us to travel inside ourselves and relive our own times spent by flowing water. Somehow his music manages to offer sufficient suggestion we can re-experience our own moments in time walking beside a river watching the current flowing opposite to the direction we are travelling.
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Each of the pieces between the opening and the CD's concluding title track take us to a specific time or place beyond ourselves through Mortensen's ability to suggest emotional connections to them with his music. They aren't always gentle and easy to listen to, but than again, the natural world isn't always the idyllic fantasy world some would have us think. "Summer's Here" reminds us of the power of the burning sun and how it can suck the life out of us while "The Yew" evokes thoughts of stately trees which are often associated with death because of the ancient tradition which sees them planted around grave sites.

As if he's reminding us of this, the disc's concluding and title track, "Acá", begins with the jarring sound of a piano's wires being forcefully and discordantly strummed. As the song takes shape we gradually begin to notice how elements from previous songs make appearances. However, the piece also serves to bring us back to ourselves by jarring us out of whatever reverie we might have experienced while listening to what preceded it. We are now back "Here". Yet, at the same time, the reminders of what we had experienced listening to the rest of the music tell us no matter how noisy and unsettling the world becomes we always have recourse to our memories of other places and times to help us combat any disturbance.

A number of years ago I reviewed a collection of Mortensen's photographs and poems and commented on how with either media he seemed to have the innate ability to capture specific moments in time with both his words and his camera. Maybe it's through his work as an actor where you have to be in the moment at all times when you're portraying a character in order for it to be believable to your audience that he has gained this ability. However he does it, this recording shows he's equally capable of bringing an audience into a specific moment in time with his music. Acá is a beautiful and evocative collection of music which will allow you to travel into your own memories of time and place like few others I've heard.

(Article originally published at Empty Mirror as Music Review: Viggo And Friends - Acá)

January 21, 2014

Music Review: David Broza - East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem


There are some subjects I know not to talk to most people about, because they probably won't like what I have to say on the matter. Always having been slightly left of most anarchists I'm supposed to hold to certain opinions in order to not let the side down. Yet, I've always been of the opinion that being an anarchist means you can have whatever opinion you want and not have to toe any party line. Still that doesn't prevent most people I know from coming over all strange when I won't condemn Israel out of hand or give my unconditional support for the Palestinian cause. My problem is that I can see both sides of the argument and refuse to say either side is completely right or wrong.

Of course being of Jewish heritage probably does have some influence over how I feel about the issue. I can't help it, but if you've studied the history of Jews in the Christian world you'll know until the formation of Israel it was one of never being sure when your welcome in any country would all of a sudden run out. However, the fact the political leadership of Israel are enacting policies which have created conditions similar to those Jews suffered under prior to the creation of the state for other people is reprehensible. How can a country which was founded on the premise of equality for all and providing a safe haven for those who desired it do so on the backs of others? The situation as it now stands is so fraught with difficulty it's hard to hold out any hope for peaceful co-existence between the two people of the region.

However, every so often rays of hope do pierce the clouds looming over the region. One of the most recent is the latest recording from the Israeli musician David Broza. For East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem, being released on S-Curve Records January 14 2014, was not only recorded in a Palestinian owned recording studio, Broza recorded with a multinational and multilingual group of musicians including both Israelis and Palestinians. A mix of original material and covers, the album was created as a means of showing the world that it doesn't matter what politicians say or do - there are still people on both sides of the divide who haven't given up hope of region's two people living together peacefully.
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Broza is a gifted guitar player and singer, and both talents are on full display in this recording. One thing interesting to note is this record marks the first time he has written songs in English, instead of his native Hebrew. He has recorded in English before, but in an attempt to appeal to a wider audience he has taken the risk of writing his original songs for this disc in English. He figured, rightly, if he wants an international audience to take notice of his message he needed to record it in an accessible language. In the same vain he brought in American recording artist Steve Earle to act as producer for the release in order to ensure he had a better chance of connecting with a wider audience. Appropriately enough, considering the album's content, he also covers Earle's song "Jerusalem", accompanied by Earle on mandolin and harmonica.

With lines like "That I believe that one fine day all the children of Abraham/Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem", one could say the song is part hope for a better future and part wishful thinking - especially considering the current state of affairs in Israel. However, hope and wishful thinking aren't things to be condemned or put down when people attempt to put them into practical application. In the 1970s Nick Lowe wrote the song "(What's so Funny 'bout) Peace Love & Understanding" as a response to the backlash against the pacifism of the 1960s. Starting with Elvis Costello's recording of it in 1979 on his Armed Forces album, musicians have been utilizing this song to remind us not to give up on hope. "I ask myself/Is all hope lost?/Is there only, pain and hatred, and misery?/And each time I feel like this inside/There's one thing I wanna know:/What's so funny 'bout peace love & understanding?/What's so funny 'bout peace love & understand?"

Broza sings this song as a declaration of intent and as a challenge to those who would dismiss those who have given up on seeing peace in the region. He not only sings this, he also shows us an example of how Palestinian and Israeli can work together in harmony if given the chance. On this song, and on his cover of Yusaf Islam's (Cat Stevens) "Where Do The Children Play", he's accompanied by the Jerusalem Youth Chorus whose membership is made up of both Jewish and Palestinian youth. They are by no means a professional choir, but what they might lack in quality they make up for with their passion and obvious belief in what they are doing. Considering they have only recently celebrated their first anniversary their performance is as remarkable as the example they are showing to the world.

While there are other covers on the album, including a wonderful version of Roger Walter's "Mother", which are equally remarkable, it's the songs Broza has written himself, or collaborated on with others which still are the most powerful. Who he has chosen to collaborate with in this process is actually almost as important as the songs themselves. American/Haitian rapper Wyclef Jean co-wrote and performs on the cover track, "East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem". Whose chorus of "East Jerusalem, West Jerusalem/Shalom, Salam" reminds us how similar the word for peace is in Arabic and Hebrew. While Jean's participation and performance are impressive, the truly amazing collaborations are the multilingual ones Broza has chosen to write and perform with Palestinian musicians.

"Key to the Memory" features lyrics by Broza set to music composed by Palestinian musician Said Murad, who also plays both on the song, while the lyrics are translated into Arabic by Mira Awad who sings on both this tune and another of his originals "Ramallah - Tel-Aviv". Like many of the songs on the disc these two songs feature a line up of musicians from both sides of East/West divide in Jerusalem. However, when it comes to multinational and multilingual collaborations the disc's closing tune, "PEACE Ain't nothing but a word" is the winner hands down. Broza and Earle wrote the English lyrics, Muhammad Mugrabi and Fadi Awad supplied the Arabic and Shaanan Steet the Hebrew - with the latter three also performing their own lyrics - while Earle wrote the music. Part rap, part traditional song, the lyrics are sung and rapped in all three languages.
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As the title implies peace in of itself doesn't really mean that much. What so great about peace if you're not free? "Peace ain't nothin' but a word/Unspoken and unheard/If I can't be free/Ain't any frame of mind/That I'm never gonna find/Gonna save me!" Broza and his collaborators understand peace in Israel is far more complicated than simply getting people to stop killing each other. There has to be mutual recognition and respect for each people's right to exist and be who they are. You can be a slave and live in peace, but what kind of peace is that?

Of all the songs on the disc, this one impressed me the most for its willingness to face up to the hard realities existing in the region. It proves Broza isn't just engaging in wishful thinking or is blind to the social political realities of his homeland. In the album's opening track, "One to Three". he sings "I was born into this reality/I was brought up with a war/That doesn't mean I must accept it/Don't wanna fight no more/Young people from all over/Stray off and cross the lines/It's a dialogue that we're seeking/And we're running out of time". He knows the reality, he's lived it all his life. However, he also knows the only way things can change is if people talk for real about the situation instead of merely mouthing platitudes or decrying what happens.

Any real peace between Israel and Palestine will only be accomplished by the people talking to each other and learning how to overcome their fears and distrust. Projects like Broza's East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem which bring together people from both sides of the divide, Jewish West Jerusalem and Palestinian East Jerusalem, are only one small baby step in the right direction. However, its not only an example of what can be done by people when they put their minds to it, it's also an album of truly wonderful music. Hope comes in many packages, but this is one of the best you'll ever hear.

(Article first published at Empty Mirror as Music Review: David Broza - East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem)

December 17, 2013

Music Review: Neil Young - Live At The Cellar Door


It's sometimes easy to forget how long and varied a career Neil Young actually has had. Between his days with Buffalo Springfield, his work with Crosby, Stills and Nash, his remarkable solo career and his interests beyond music, he's crammed more into the past 45 years than most people can in two lifetimes. His longevity as a performer and an artist can be explained by his willingness to experiment with his music and constantly pushing himself in new directions. Sometimes the results haven't always pleased either critics or fans, but it hasn't prevented him from becoming one of the more respected, if somewhat enigmatic, figures in contemporary popular music.

Over the course of his career Young has given probably more concerts than most of us can even begin to calculate. However, unlike many, he's managed to hold onto control of recordings made of quite a number of these events and has put a great deal of effort into sorting through and remastering them before releasing any of them for public consumption. While an initial box set called Neil Young Archives Archives Vol.1: 1963 - 1972 has already been released containing a number of concerts from the earliest days of Young's career, he's also begun making various other concerts from that time available as solo CD releases. The most recent of them is Neil Young Live At The Cellar Door, available on Warner/Reprise Records, from a 1970 concert he gave in the Washington DC coffee house The Cellar Door.

The recording features Young performing solo on guitar and piano and playing songs from his then new release After The Gold Rush, his 1969 release Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, a smattering of tracks from his Buffalo Springfield days and a song that wouldn't show up on record until 1972's Harvest, "Old Man". Everybody has their favourite albums by Young, and one of mine has always been After The Gold Rush. So the opportunity to hear him perform songs like, "Tell Me Why", "Only Love Can Break Your Heart", the title track, "After The Gold Rush" and "Don't Let It Bring You Down" solo was what made this disc intriguing.
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I must say I wasn't disappointed. Even without the added production values and the additional instruments used on the studio versions of the songs, in particular "After The Gold Rush", they still retain the captivating power. In fact there is something particularly haunting about hearing him play the title track accompanying himself only with the piano. His always distinctive near falsetto voice stands out in even greater stark relief and makes the song's lyrics all the more striking. I've often wondered where Young's inspiration for the last verse of the song came from, and hearing them in this manner only reinforced my curiosity. "They were flying Mother Nature's/Silver seed to a new home in the sun./Flying Mother Nature's/Silver seed to a new home".

There was a science fiction book published in 1960, A Canticle For Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller Jr. set in a world recovering from a nuclear war. The end of the book has a group of monks flying children off to a new home in the stars in space ships. I've often wondered if Young wasn't inspired in part by the book, at least for the final verse of his song. However, no matter what his inspiration, the song remains as plaintive and frightening as it was the first time I heard it many years ago. The simplicity of his delivery and his willingness to let the words simply stand on their own reveals just how strong a song writer he is and remains.

It was also fascinating hear an acoustic version of "Down By The River" from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Anyone who has heard the studio version knows its one of Young's "grunge" rock and roll songs filled with crunching guitar chords and driving bass and drums. Live versions of the song usually feature an extended guitar solo somewhere in the middle as an exclamation point to the song's rather bleak subject matter. The version on this recording is simply Young on acoustic guitar and no leads. It comes across as a mixture between an old "murder ballad" and a traditional British isles folk song.
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Somehow, what had been a hard rock song was transformed into something which seemed to have its roots in another era. It makes you realize the power inherit in Young's writing. For when they are stripped down the their bare bones his songs not only don't lose anything, they actually gain a resonance very few contemporary artists can hope to match. I've always appreciated the level of intensity Young brings to his performances, whether live or in the studio. Hearing him performing in the intimate setting of this venue makes it obvious how much of himself he puts into to each of his songs and how he doesn't have to rely on amplification for power.

While I've always had an appreciation for Young's intelligence, this recording also gives you an opportunity to enjoy his rather quirky sense of humour. In his introduction to the old Buffalo Springfield tune "Flying On The Ground Is Wrong", which closes the recording, he displays an almost endearing irreverence for the way in which a rock and roll celebrity is supposed to behave. Obviously he's standing next to the grand piano he's going to be playing on the song, because as he's talking he's strumming on the exposed piano wires with his bare hand. He lets his audience know he's been playing piano for about a year now and thought it would be an interesting eccentricity to have a rider included in his performance contracts that a nine foot Steinway grand piano be made available for him at his shows. He then proceeds to tell us the song is about getting high, specifically smoking grass, and how that can be a problem when some of your friends, especially your girl friend, aren't as interested as you are in smoking dope.

The fact that he's idly strumming the piano's wires and giggling periodically while talking makes the whole thing very funny. Yet, there's also a sense at this stage of his career he's not completely comfortable directly addressing the audience. There seems to be a level of shyness about him as if he's not certain people are going to find him funny. However, once he begins singing, all traces of diffidence disappears and he becomes the same confident performer we've been listening to for the whole recording.

Neil Young has been, and continues to be, one of the more remarkable figures in popular music. Not only have very few others matched him in terms of their creative output, he's continually pushed himself to search out new challenges. Live At The Cellar Door is an opportunity to hear him at an early stage in his solo career experimenting with playing material in a manner different to the way in which it was recorded. While he has released other archival material over the last few years which have featured him performing solo it doesn't diminish this recording's value. Not only do you gain new appreciation for his gifts as a songwriter but as a performer as well. Recordings like this one serve to cement his reputation as one of the most important popular music artists of his generation.

(Article originally published at Blorgcritics.org as Music Review: Neil Young - 'Live At The Cellar Door)

December 14, 2013

Music Review: The Clash - Special Edition Releases


I remember a conversation I had with my brother when I was a teenager. He asked me if I thought I would still be listening to any of the music I liked then when I was 50. At the time it seemed like it was an eternity in the future, our parents weren't even that age. However, it did make me think. What would happen to my tastes in music as I aged? Looking at my parents record collections didn't bring me much solace as it was predominately classical music with a couple of token collections of old socialist/union songs.

As the years passed I forgot the conversation and never really gave it much thought again. My musical tastes have broadened and I listen to material from all over the world. I've come to appreciate the sublime beauty of a Brahms concerto but am equally moved by classical music from Persia (Iran) and India. However, like most everyone else these days, a quick glance through my iPod's playlist is probably the best indication of where my heart really lies. While you'll find an eclectic mix of music reflecting my various interests, you'll also notice a predominance of music from thirty to forty years ago, with one band in particular standing out among the others.

In their heyday The Clash were referred to as "The Only Band That Matters". While that may not be a title any band can legitimately lay claim to I listen to them today at 52 just as often and with as much enjoyment as I did over three decades ago. I still say the best rock and roll concert I ever saw was seeing them in 1982. They might have been on the downward end of their career as a band, but they were still the most dynamic rock and roll band I'd ever seen. This may sound like the typical nostalgia of an old geezer going on about the bands of his youth, but I'm not the only one who thinks they were important as Legacy Recordings has just re-released all five of the band's original studio recordings re-mastered by the band's surviving members and in their original album packaging.
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The Clash (1977), Give 'Em Enough Rope (1978), London Calling (1979), Sandinista! (1980) and Combat Rock (1982) are the legacy of the original core of the band: Joe Strummer guitar and vocals, Mick Jones guitar and vocals and Paul Simonon bass. Terry Chimes (credited on the first album as Terry Crimes) played drums on the first release and returned to the band for their 1982 tour after Topper Headon, who had replaced him on drums for all the subsequent albums, was fired because of his heroin addiction. Crimes then left the band again prior to 1983 and was replaced by Pete Howard for what would be the final tour. Strummer fired Jones in 1983 and the band staggered on until 1986, releasing Cut The Crap (an album Strummer later disowned) before they finally broke up.

In many ways The Clash were the epitome of the punk scene. They were raw energy which couldn't be contained and eventually self-destructed like the scene itself. Punk's "do it yourself" ethos couldn't stand up to the corporate reality of the music industry as even signing a recording contract would mean surrendering some of your independence. Becoming successful would almost contradict everything punk was supposed to have been against - the bloated self-importance of rock stars living in old castles and driving around in Rolls Royces while their fans were kept at a distance by managers, promoters and record companies.

However, The Clash weren't your typical punk band, or band of any kind for that matter. Strummer, the driving force behind the band, was a committed social activist who idolized political songwriters of the past like Woody Guthrie - even calling himself "Woody" for a time. While bands like the Sex Pistols were singing songs about anarchy and destruction, Strummer pushed The Clash in a different direction attacking what he saw as the inequities and injustices in Britain and the world. Songs like "White Riot", about riots by white supremacists during the West Indian celebration of Carnival in 1976, "I'm So Bored With The USA", condemning the Americanization of the UK, and "Career Opportunities" about the lack of real employment for young people in the UK, on The Clash were an early indication of the direction the band was taking. Instead of just being angry, they articulated the reasons for people's dissatisfaction.

There were also indications right from the start they were going to be more than just your average thrash and burn punk band musically as well. Their cover of "Police and Thieves" shows both Jones' and Strummer's interest in reggae. The social and political themes continued on the second album, Give 'Em Enough Rope, as did the continued development of a more sophisticated sound. While there are still straight ahead blast the walls down punk songs like "Safe European Home" and "Tommy Gun" there were also tracks like "Julie's Been Working For The Drug Squad" with its slower pace and more intricate harmonies and "All The Young Punks (New Boots and Contracts)" whose almost catchy beat is only offset by the song's rather bleak chorus, "All the young punks/Laugh your life/Cos there ain't much to cry for/All the young cunts/Live it now/Cos there ain't much to die for".
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It was their third and fourth albums, London Calling and Sandinista, when the band really kicked out the jams both musically and lyrically. London Calling, a two album set, featuring songs like the title track, "London Calling" and "Waiting for The Clampdown" continued the band's assault upon the establishment. However, it also featured songs which were far sophisticated then any other punk band had previously attempted. Jazz, rockabilly, and reggae influences could be heard on songs throughout the album. However, it still retains the same sense of urgency and social outrage which had infused the first two albums making it punk in spirit if not necessarily musically.

Those who felt The Clash were straying too far from the basic punk structure of three chords played extra fast with London Calling discovered they hadn't seen anything yet with the release of the triple LP Sandinista. While the album's title, and songs like "Washington Bullets", with their support of the overthrow of the American dictatorship in Nicaragua by the left wing Sandinistas, made it obvious their politics hadn't changed, musically the material was light years removed from the material on the first two albums and even made London Calling look safe. They went in almost every musical direction possible. From the straight ahead funk of "The Magnificent Seven" to their homage to Motown with "Hitsville UK" and experimentation with reggae dub style music.In fact most of side six are dub versions of other songs on the album and songs they had previously released which they recorded in Jamaica with producer Micky Dread. They even did their version of a gospel tune, "The Sound of Sinners", although its lyrics would have left most Christians gasping and reeling, "After all these years/ To find Jesus/After all those drugs/ I thought I was him".

They also showed they had developed a surprising amount of political sophistication on this release as they didn't limit themselves to easy political targets in order to score points with the converted. They tackled the thorny issue of England's neglect of those who fought in her wars in the past with "Something About England". While the title "Washington Bullets" would make one think the song was only about America's history of propping up dictators, the band also included lines in the song like, "Ask the Dali Lama up in Tibet/ How he feels about voting communist". They also were the first band to sing about how Western commercialism was impacting the developing world with the biting and satirical "Charlie Don't Surf".

Sandinista may not have appealed to those fans who thought the band should have stayed firmly stuck in the past playing the same music they had started out with. However, unlike many bands who had put out three album sets before, each disc remains, interesting to this day. You can't find anything you would even remotely call filler or wasted space anywhere. The band also insisted their label at the time charge no more than the price of a regular single album when it was first released, ensuring everybody would be able to afford to buy it. This combined with their continued refusal to conform to anyone's expectations musically and their insistence on sticking to their political guns marked them as punks in attitude and spirit.
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While Combat Rock might have been their most commercially successful album, "Should I Stay Or Should I Go" and "Rock The Casbah" are the two songs you'll hear played most often on "Classic Rock" radio stations, to my mind it was their weakest album and the one I've listened to the least. Although still far more interesting than what most bands were putting out at the time, there was something about the disc which felt almost half-hearted. Maybe it's only applying 20/20 hindsight, but when the news came out that Mick Jones had been fired from the band in 1983, it didn't come as much of a surprise. It had really felt like the band was only going through the motions and the end was near.

The Clash released five albums during the five years the band contained the core of Strummer, Jones and Simonon. Not only does that work out to an album a year, two of those recordings were multi-disc releases making a total of eight albums. They also released a couple of EPs of material they weren't able to fit on other recordings. Listening to these five albums more then thirty years after their release it's amazing to hear the amount the band progressed in such a short time. Musically and lyrically they singlehandedly redefined punk rock by showing it could be more than the simplistic sound of bands like The Ramones or the pure anarchy of The Sex Pistols. They were one of the few bands who demonstrated punk was more than just a style of music, it was an ethos. Speaking out against injustice, spitting in the eye of authority and always playing by your own rules. Which is probably why I can still happily listen to anyone of their albums at the ripe old age of 52. It's not a matter of recapturing my youth, it's a matter of reminding myself what's important. For me, they will always be The Only Band That Matters.

(Article originally published at Empty Mirror as Music Review: The Clash Special Edition Releases. A version of this review was also published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review The Clash - 'The Clash', 'Give 'Em Enough Rope', 'London Calling', 'Sandinista' and 'Combat Rock' [Remastered])

November 25, 2013

Music Review: Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer - An Evening With Neil Gaiman And Amanda Palmer


There have been many great artistic couples down through the ages. Now a days there seems to be more celebrity couplings than any real co-joining of artistic talents. So when I first began to hear rumours writer Neil Gaiman and musician Amanda "Fucking" Palmer (also known as AFP) were romantically involved I was intrigued. It felt a little odd to be interested in the love life of two people I've never met, but as they were both individuals whose work I admired and respected I have to admit to a somewhat puerile curiosity. While I tried to tell myself it was different from the way "others" obsessed over the latest celebrity gossip, if I am being perfectly honest with myself, the only difference was I wasn't reading about them in the tabloids, I was reading about their relationship via their twitter feeds and blogs.

When the couple married in 2011 they decided to take what amounts to a busman's holiday, and did a short tour of the North American West coast from Vancouver Canada down to Los Angeles in the States. The performances, billed as "Evenings With Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman" were mixtures of song and story telling. After the tour the couple decided to crowd fund a three CD set of the tour culled from the shows. Initially only available to those who participated in the crowd funding venture, An Evening With Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman is now available to the general public.

For those somehow unfamiliar with the two principles perhaps a little background is in order. Gaiman is the creator of some of the most inventive fiction written in the past two decades. From his beautifully frightening children's stories, Coralaine and The Graveyard Boy, his pure fantasy, Stardust and Nowhere, to the brilliant study of humanity's relationships with their deities, American Gods, he took genre fiction into the realm of literature. A combination of whimsical humour, a deep understanding of human psychology and a refusal to believe the sky's the limit when it comes to imagination means he has the capacity to both terrify you and leave you breathless with laughter within the pages of the same book.
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Palmer, after a career that included everything from busking as a living statue and being one half of the punk/cabaret duo The Dresden Dolls, has established herself as one of today's premier independent musicians. Not only is her music a unique blend of styles, she brings a theatricality to her performances as original as her material. However, what has distinguished her from her contemporaries is her commitment to making and maintaining a connection with the people she creates her music for. From couch surfing from one fan's living room to the next as she made her way around the world playing venues as diverse as the Sydney Opera House to bathrooms for groups of thirty people, to today where she use's social media to take requests on stage during live internet broadcasts of her shows, she continues to build a rapport with her audience few other artists enjoy. More than anything else it was this personal connection with her fans that allowed her to raise over a million dollars when she crowd source funded her most recent album, Theatre Of Evil.

Needless to say the show put on by these two, and the variety of special guests who showed up at the different venues, was not your typical rock and roll concert. How often on a concert CD does the in between song chatter constitute some of the highlights of the recording? The interplay between Gaiman and Palmer is not only intelligent, it's insightful, hilarious and sometimes very personal. However, no matter how much fun they are talking to each other, they are that much more interesting performing their eclectic mix of material.

Palmer has a wealth of her own material to draw upon. You'll hear versions of "Map Of Tasmania", (both a celebration of a woman's body and a critique of censors who have no problem allowing images of human dismemberment but are horrified by depictions of the naked form) "Ukulele Anthem" , "Dear Old House" and the intriguingly titled "Gaga, Palmer, Madonna: A Polemic". The latter being her take on Lady Gaga, pop music and artistic creation in general crammed within the 2 minutes and 53 seconds of the standardized pop song format. However, in typical Palmer fashion, it is the most untypical pop song you'll ever hear. Satiric, sincere and introspective, she not only makes a case for pop music to be considered art, she expresses her own insecurities around performing and critiques the media's reactions to women pop stars. No wonder you'll never hear her songs on the radio.

Ironically enough, while I'd never heard Gaiman read any of his work before listening to this recording, I had heard him sing something he'd written before. Palmer and he, as well as friends Ben Folds and Damian Kulash had produced the album Nighty Night as part of a project called "8 in 8". The object was to go into the recording studio and write, produce and record eight songs in eight hours during a live web cast. While they fell short of their eight song goal they were able to produce six tracks including one sung by Gaiman that's included in this collection, "The Problem With Saints". While Gaiman isn't the singer his wife is, his delivery of this piece is perfect.
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Musically it sounds like it stepped out of a Noel Coward play from the mid 1920s, dixie land jazz meets British music hall, while the lyrics are a biting attack on the single mindedness of fanatics everywhere. Gaiman's half spoken, half sung delivery works perfectly for this type of piece as he can allow the music to provide emphasize for the lyrics and concentrate on communicating the meaning of the words. Listening to this and comparing it with his readings of things like his poem "The Day The Saucers Came" or the story "The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury", you'll notice he takes a similar approach in all three forms of presentation. His primary concern is to allow the words to communicate their meanings to the audience. Unlike many who I've heard read he understands it's just as much a performance as if he were singing, and is able to hold his audience as easily reading solo as when he's being backed by music.

One of the more enjoyable aspects of this three CD set is the wonderful informality of the concerts. The title is very apt as it feels more like you've been invited over to Gaiman's and Palmer's house to spend some time with them than as if you're sitting in the audience. While the invisible fourth wall separating audience from performer is present during some of the actual performing, its definitely not a permanent fixture. Not only do they both talk directly to the audience in their introductions to songs, they put aside about ten minutes for a segment entitled "Ask Neil and Amanda" where they field questions posed to them via Twitter.

The questions range from the silly, "What would you do in the event of a Zombie Apocalypse?" or "Any advice for a shy person". Gaiman's answer to the latter was marrying Amanda Palmer, or somebody equally as outgoing, because that way everybody will be concentrating on the other person and you can on going be shy and nobody will notice. However, what's important about the sequence isn't really the content of their answers, it's the atmosphere created by their casualness in answering them. It not only makes the listener feel more like a participant in a conversation, it also helps you realize how little difference there is between who they are as performers and who they are as people.

Usually when you go see a concert the people on stage hide behind a persona of some kind. Whether it be simply they are the performer and you're the audience or they have a character they assume while on stage, it can't help but erect a barrier between you and them. In the case of Gaiman and Palmer, you soon realize they aren't wearing any masks. As a result, even on the CD, there is an intimacy to this performance like none you've probably ever experienced before in a popular culture setting.

An Evening With Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer is unlike any other triple CD live concert experience you'll ever have. Not only because of the content, but because of the two remarkable people at the centre of events. There aren't many three CD sets of anything which leave you wanting more, but as the final track on the final CD of comes to an end, you'll find your self wishing it wasn't over. While this is definitely not your conventional concert CD, and perhaps that's why its so compelling, it is one of the best I've ever experienced.

(Article originally published at The Empty Mirror as Music Review: An Evening With Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer)

November 16, 2013

Music Review: Tartit With Imharhan - Live From The Sahara


When the annual Festival Au Desert in Northern Mali was cancelled in 2013 due to the territory's occupation by terrorist organizations intent on imposing a very narrow definition of Islamic rule, organizers of the Festival were determined, if the world couldn't come to them, to bring the music of the Festival to the world. Formed in 2001 the Festival takes place during the traditional Tuareg (or Kel Tamasheq as they call themselves) annual gatherings called Takoubelt in Kidal or Temakannit in Timbuktu. Initially a celebration of Malian and Kel Tamasheq music and culture it has since expanded to include performers from around the world. The modern festival was created to help promote the arts and culture of the region and commemorate the 1996 peace treaty between the Kel Tamasheq people and the Malian government which ended nearly 30 years of sporadic rebellions.

For more then a thousand years the nomadic Kel Tamasheq have either been caravan leaders or herds-people crisscrossing the Sahara desert from Algeria in the north to Niger in the south. The end of colonial rule in the early 1960s, while meaning independence for some, saw the Kel Tamasheq begin losing access to their traditional territories and, as a result, their way of life was threatened. Since then, the expansion of cities and the encroachment of environment destroying uranium mining into the desert has made their situation more and more precarious. While armed uprisings and peace treaties between them and various governments in the region have occasionally bought them some breathing room, they have also been targeted for reprisals and attacks when governments decide to ignore the terms of the peace treaties when they become inconvenient.

After the rebellions of the early 1990s many of the rebels put down their weapons and picked up musical instruments instead. Through music they hoped to provide the means of keeping their culture alive by telling the traditional tales of the people through song and singing about the beauty of desert life. They also hoped to be able to raise awareness in the world beyond the Sahara of their situation. While many of the bands adopted modern instruments to play songs about traditional themes, primarily electric guitars, and were heavily influenced by the blues based music of American and British pop, some have retained more of the traditional elements of Kel Tamashek music.
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Normally the latter aren't heard as much in North America. However, thanks to the efforts of Chris Nolen, an American volunteer member of the Festival's board of directors and his newly formed Clermont Music label we now have a chance to hear performances like the one given by Tartit With Imharhan at the last Festival Au Desert on the CD Live From The Sahara.

Tartit are a group of five women who both follow and defy traditions for woman's music among their people. For while they employ the instruments normally used by women, the Tinde (a hand drum) and the Imzad (a violin) they also play the Tehardent, a stringed guitar like instrument, normally only played by men. For this concert, recorded live at the Festival Au Desert 2012, they were joined on stage by Imharhan, a band who have adopted the more conventional instruments of pop music. The first six songs on the disc are Tartit performing on their own. People familiar with the music of other groups from this region will notice some very sizeable differences in both their sound and the overall feeling of the music. The sound is rawer and far more, for lack of a better word, tribal, than the guitar oriented bands. Voice and percussion are what we notice the most, and the vocals are more along the lines of chanting then actual singing.

Naturally they sing in their own language, but the liner notes for the disc provide a description of the song's content, so we can at least appreciate what they are singing about. For instance in track one, "Dehebo" a man describes his love for a woman through the many things he loves about his people. In the Kel Tamasheq culture the women traditionally are considered the preservers of the culture and responsible for ensuring future generations learn the laws and responsibilities of what it means to be one of the people. In this song they use the conventions of a love song to tell their listeners what they think are the most important characteristics of their nation.

The third song, "Abacabok", is actually the first of two parts, its continued in track seven. It is dedicated to their great grandfather, a Sufi mystic, who had retreated from society to devote his life to his faith. In this song they talk about how their religion needs people like him. The description included says, thanks to this piece he returns to society. Now obviously they're not trying to bring the dead back to life, but they are invoking his spirit to remind people of the beauty of faith and Islam is not the religion of violence and oppression some have tried to turn it into.

It's for the second part of "Abacabok" Imharhan join Tartit on stage. All of a sudden a song played with the sparse accompaniment of percussion and non-amplified string instruments has its sound swelled by the inclusion of electric guitars and male voices. What was once a history lesson now becomes something which sounds like they are challenging their people to live up to the example set by the great-grandfather named in the song.
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It is perhaps fitting the final song on the disc, track nine Aicha Talammomt, is a solo performance by the male led Imharhan. For this is a song about the women of their people. Its lyrics describe them as the image of beauty, nobility and the source of all quality in the their culture. It continues saying a people without culture are a people without a face. While the face of the Kel Tamasheq the majority of world sees has been of the men, the men are the first to admit it's the women who have been holding their people together through fifty years of strife. They are the ones who have suffered the most because of the wars and droughts the Sahara region has endured during this time.

Playing this song during what has been a traditional gathering time for all the Kel Tamasheq is Imharhan's way of reminding their people of the importance of women to their culture. It also serves to warn of the danger their entire people face when the women are threatened or unable to live their lives in the way they should. With it being played on modern instruments, the band is not only reaching out to people of their own generation, they are talking to younger people as well in an attempt to keep these traditions alive. Unlike a lot of Western pop music, people don't just listen to the music and ignore the words of a song. Coming from a long history of griots - singers who can recount tribal and family histories - they are used to hearing and absorbing what's sung to them. So when a band like Imharhan sing, their audience will enjoy dancing to their music, but they will also listen to their words and remember them.

One thing you will notice is the quality of this recording isn't the greatest, even as live concerts go. However, you have to understand this concert was recorded outside in the Sahara desert under less than ideal conditions. Although the conflict in Northern Mali didn't start until a month after the Festival Au Desert 2012 was over, there were already worries about terrorist attacks and safety issues they hadn't had to deal with in previous years. This was on top of the normal logistical problems of holding a concert at least a two hour drive outside of Timbuktu in the desert. It's remarkable there's a record of any kind from this festival.

When the armies of Islam came down into North Africa nearly a thousand years ago the fiercest resistance they met was from the tribes of Berber descended nomads. They named them Tuareg - rebels against Islam - in reference to both their abilities as fighters and their determination to hold onto their own culture. A thousand years later they are still demonstrating those same traits. They may have changed their approach, using music instead of weapons, but they continue to fight for their survival even as the forces arrayed against them seem to increase all the time. Live From The Sahara, featuring the music of Tartit and Imhahan, is a great example of how the battle is being fought.

(Article originally published at The Empty Mirror as Music Review: Tartit With Imharhan - Live From The Sahara)

November 7, 2013

Music Review: Bob Dylan - The Complete Album Collection Vol. One


How do you write about an icon? What are you supposed to say about somebody whose life and work have already been picked over with a fine tooth comb for the past fifty years? You could probably hurt yourself trying to write something original, and at the end of day discover it was still something somebody had already written. Even if you tried chipping away at his iconic status you'd find others had beaten you to it. While you could try and fall back on being as objective as possible, with people of this stature it's almost impossible not to let your personal opinions affect what you write. They've been such a part a of our culture's fabric for so long there's not going to be many out there who don't have an opinion about them one way or another.

I figure the only way I'm going to be able to get through this review of Legacy Recordings' Bob Dylan: The Complete Album Collection Vol. One is, aside from describing what it includes, to try and explain how Bob Dylan merits such a breathtaking career spanning retrospective. The only way I'm going to be able to do the latter is by relating my own experiences with his music. Hopefully this will give you some idea of how and what he has meant to the world of popular music since his first album in 1962.

The Complete Album Collection Vol. One contains 43 CDs including all of his studio albums ever released on the Columbia and Sony labels from 1962's Bob Dylan to his 2012 release Tempest. The set also includes six live CDs; Before the Flood (with The Band), Hard Rain, Bob Dylan Live at Budokan, Real Live (the last three newly remastered for this collection) Dylan and the Dead and MTV Unplugged. The final two discs in the box, Sidetracks, are made up of material originally intended for release as bonus features on one of Dylan's greatest hits packages; Greatest Hits Vol. 2, Masterpieces, Biograph, Greatest Hits Vol. 3 or The Best Of Bob Dylan Vol.2, but never released before. If you don't want to buy the 43 CD set, you have the option of purchasing the entire package as a limited, numbered edition harmonica shaped USB stick containing all the music in both MP3 and FLAC formats and a digital version of the hardcover booklet included in the box set. The booklet includes liner notes for each CD written especially for this package.
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With the CDs listing for over $200.00 and the USB stick more than $300.00, it seems like a lot of money to be asking people to shell out. However, even simple math will tell you the sticker price is still cheaper than the cost of even downloading each title separately let alone buying the CDs one at a time. So, if you're looking to pick up the entire Dylan catalogue in one fell swoop, plus some extra's thrown in, this is quite the bargain. However, what is it about Dylan that would make you want to own all of his CDs? What did he do that merits this type of attention?

I'm sure most of you have at least heard the quotes calling him the voice of a generation or the conscience of the people. But how is that relevant to those who weren't born in the post World War ll years, known to most in pop culture as the Baby Boomer or "Boomers" for short? The thing is, others might have slapped those titles on Dylan, but he was never one to really pay attention to what anybody said about him and always carved his own path. Unlike some who have been content to continuously plough the same furrow over and over again Dylan has constantly looked for new ways of expressing himself.

Even going back to his earliest albums you can see he was always more than just your simple folkie. While his earliest albums, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963) and The Times They are a Changin' (1964), owe a debt to his mentor Woody Guthrie, they owe as much to country/blues artists as well. Lyrically he was ranging from the intensity of calling for the death of arms manufacturers and those who sent people of to war in "Masters of War" to being downright silly in "I Shall Be Free". In fact he originally was going to call "Freewheelin'" Bob Dylan's Blues he was so interested in that style of music. Perhaps if he had people might have been less shocked when he showed up with an electric guitar in his hands.

To say the electric sound of Highway 61 Revisited (1965) was considered a betrayal by his fans is an understatement. They booed their hero offstage. From the Newport Folk Festival (although a teacher I had in school says part of the problem was the sound system was so bad nobody could hear anything if you were sitting more than three rows away from the stage) to the Royal Albert Hall in London England and across the UK his fans acted with derision and outright scorn. Today songs from that record are among the ones you're still most likely to hear played on "Classic Music" stations; "Like A Rolling Stone" and the album's title track "Highway 61". However, while those songs are the most well known, others like "Desolation Row", "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" and "Tombstone Blues" are the real heart and soul of the album as they show how far Dylan had wandered lyrically from the days of protest songs. He's started to look at the world through the unique prism of his eyes, creating a refracted and strangely hued world which spoke to people at a gut level instead of being issue oriented.

As you chart Dylan's progress and evolution down through the years based on his musical output you discover he was always changing and progressing. There was the Americana music he started producing in the late 1960s with The Band, which included albums like The Basement Tapes (not released until 1975 but recorded in the late 1960s) John Wesley Harding (1967) and Nashville Skyline (1969). The latter was recorded in Nashville and featured a duet with Johnny Cash on "Girl From The North Country". While everyone around him was trying to blow the walls down with electric guitars and psychedelia, Dylan was once again charting his own path. As always he was more concerned with looking for emotional truth in his material than catering to popular taste or giving the people what they wanted.
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While I had first heard Dylan in 1966 at the tender age of five, hating the sound of his voice as I had just discovered The Beatles through the movie Help and thought that's what pop music should sound like, ten years later the combined effect of 1976's Desire and the live Hard Rain made a convert out of me. Those two albums plus 1975's Blood On The Tracks were nothing short of revelations. While the radio was full of mindless dreck here was a guy singing about ideas, weaving stories and standing up for what he thought was right. I still can't listen to "Hurricane", his song in defence of the wrongly convicted Reuben Carter, without getting chills. While some called the song naive and uninformed, Dylan was proven right when years later Carter was exonerated and found innocent of the murders he was said to have committed.

I don't know what would have happened if I had begun listening to him seriously a couple of years later when he went through his Born Again Christian faze. The lyrics are the most simplistic of his career - straight ahead Christian evangelizing. Musically they might have been interesting with Mark Knopfler and other members of Dire Straights playing on the sessions for 1979's Slow Train Coming, but I still can't listen to either this disc, or the two following Saved (1980) and Shot of Love (1981). I'm sure I wasn't the only one who took some solace in Joni Mitchell's words when she said "It's just a phase Bob's going through".

It wasn't until 1985 when he hooked up with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers to promote Empire Burlesque and 1986's Knocked Out Loaded I began to take notice of Dylan's work again. Once again he had changed and was going places musically and lyrically challenging. "Brownsville Girl" on the latter, co-written with playwright Sam Shepard, was 12 minutes long and marked his return to the beautiful storytelling of the mid-1970s. This is Dylan at his best. The storyteller and poet who can see and describe the world in ways nobody else can. Whether it's his flights of fancy like "Isis" from Desire or, as he's aged, his explorations of his own mortality, his songs are carefully thought out and intelligent.

What makes Dylan so appealing is his ability to speak to things we all have in common no matter what our age or status. (I think this is what I found most unsettling about the Born Again Christian period, the way it excluded so many where his music had always been so inclusive) Sure you have to listen to it to appreciate it (this isn't mindless music you can put on in the background) and he might make you work to understand what he's saying, but this is a small price to pay for the gems you will unearth in his words. You may not always agree with him or even like everything he's put out, but he is without a doubt one of the major artists of both the 20th and 21st centuries and continues to be so to this day.

Bob Dylan: The Complete Album Collection Vol. One is the most comprehensive retrospective of his career released to date. While others may have been equally prolific in their production or been more commercially successful, this set proves there's no one who can match Dylan when it comes to keeping us intrigued through his abilities as a lyricist and his desire to explore different musical styles. For those of you with the cash to afford this set, it will be worth every penny you spend as you'll have at your disposal the most diverse collection of music recorded by one artist in the history of pop music.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Bob Dylan: The Complete Album Collection Vol. One)

November 4, 2013

Music Review: The Jimi Hendrix Experience - Jimi Hendrix Experience: Miami Pop Festival


History is replete with tales of artists and poets who, after lives of penury and not being recognized for their talent, are revealed as geniuses after their deaths. While some might see this as some sort of posthumous justification for their work, I think they probably would have appreciated it the slightest bit more if they'd been alive to revel in it. There's nothing romantic about being a starving artist and having the money to buy the occasional meal actually makes it easier to paint or write.

One of the significant improvements the world underwent in the 20th century was how it became easier for artists of true talent to achieve recognition. Sure some still get overlooked, that's bound to happen, but innovation and genius are now rewarded far more often then they once were. However, no matter how famous today's popular artists manage to become during their lifetimes, an early death, especially one that occurs under mysterious conditions, is still their best chance at immortality. One only need examine the way people are still obsessed with everyone from Elvis Presley to Sid Visous to see the proof of this. While the former's impact on popular music can't be denied, the only reason for the latter's lasting fame is the sordid and sad manner of his death. (This is nothing against the man personally, as all accounts I've heard say he was a decent enough guy, but he was no musician and didn't even play bass on the one album the Sex Pistols released - Glen Matlock holds that honour)

Of course popular music is littered with tragic deaths from its earliest days. Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper dying in a plane crash in 1959 and Sam Cooke shot dead in a motel room in 1964. However it wasn't until the late 1960s the death toll really began to add up; Brian Jones 1969, Janis Joplin 1970, Jim Morrison 1971 and Jimi Hendrix 1970. While Jones' career was on the wan at the time, he'd just been fired/quit The Rolling Stones, the other three were at the zenith's of their talent and popularity. While both Morrison and Joplin were undoubtedly talented individuals, with their own unique abilities as vocalists and lyricists, it's Hendrix's body of work which has stood the test of time; continuing to be appreciated and grow in stature.
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In the years immediately following Hendrix's death large numbers of poorly recorded and mastered records were sold by unscrupulous people looking to cash in on his popularity. While they might have resulted in some quick cash for a few people, they didn't do Hendrix's reputation any favours. Thankfully recent years have seen a concentrated effort from the people at Legacy Recordings and Hendrix's family to correct this problem through a series of remastered re-issues and previously unreleased recordings. The latest of these to come down the pipe is ,Jimi Hendrix Experience: Miami Pop Festival. To be honest I'd never heard of the Miami Pop Festival, but it was to have been a weekend long pop music festival put on by the same guys who staged the Woodstock festival a year later, but the second day was rained out.

While Hendrix and The Experience (Mitch Mitchell drums and Noel Redding bass were the other two thirds of the band) had only recently started to tour America, they had already graduated from being the opening act for the Monkees (and they say the musician were doing strange drugs - what kind of trip must the guy at Warner Brothers been on who suggested that pairing) which lasted all of three gigs, and had gone on to headlining bigger and bigger venues. By the time they showed up in Miami they were considered one of the top concert draws in America. Hendrix's reputation as a genius on the guitar had spread like wild-fire. In the pre-internet days word of mouth was the most efficient means of communication, and the word has spread, this guy was unreal.

The Experience played a morning and an afternoon set on the Saturday, and were supposed to play another set on the rained out Sunday. The disc contains their complete set list from the opening show plus two tracks from the afternoon show the same day. With only two studio albums under their belts at this time, Are You Experienced and Axis Bold As Love, they didn't have a wealth of material to draw upon, so both sets would have been nearly the same. In fact, a quick glance at what's included on the disc shows a lot of familiar song titles. "Purple Haze", "Hey Joe", "Foxey Lady", "Fire", "I Don't Live Today" and others we've long grown to recognize as staples of Hendrix's live performances.

While Hendrix's reputation is based on his ability to improvise and his intricate and elaborate solos, this gig shows another side of him and his band. Aside from a ten minute version of "Red House", most of the tracks are about the same length as the studio versions of the songs. Yet, as far as I'm concerned, this shows off his abilities just as well as any of his pyrotechnical solos ever did. I've lost count of the number of times I've heard "Purple Haze" and "Hey Joe". Yet aside from the studio versions of the song, I've never heard him play either song the same way twice, and this gig was no different. Each time he manages to put some new flourish or twist into his playing which changes the tune's flavour or adds a different texture to a line or a verse.
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Hearing him play the tracks fairly straight also gives you a new appreciation for his ability to integrate his leads into the rhythm of a song. Most guitar players simply let the beat of the song fall by the wayside when they play their leads either leaving it to a second guitarist or his bass and drummer to hold things together. Somehow Hendrix is able to do both at the same time. Sure there are times he does the same types of leads as other guitarists, but listen to him as he's playing the short fills between vocal choruses. He adds ornamentation to almost everything he does yet somehow t without it becoming distracting or detrimental to a song's overall sound. Like the painter who knows when another daub of paint will kill his masterpiece, Hendrix always seemed to know exactly when one more note would have been one too many.

Jimi Hendrix Experience: Miami Pop Festival is the latest in a series of remastered re-issues or previously unreleased material to have been released in the past few years. Available as either a CD or a limited edition double LP it offers further proof of why Hendrix's reputation hasn't diminished over the years. In fact, as more and more material is released for public consumption not only does his reputation grow, but his place in history is solidified. You may not be able to tell it from simply listening to this recording, but when added to the rest of his catalogue it grows hard to argue with the statement he was one of the most important guitarist in popular music, and remains so more then 40 years after his death.

A version of this review first appeared at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: The Jimi Hendrix Experience - Jimi Hendrix Experience: Miami Pop Festival)

October 23, 2013

Music Blu-ray Review: Various Performers - The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert


To be perfectly honest I was never a big fan of either Queen or the band's lead singer Freddie Mercury. However, they were really good at what they did and I could respect them for that. While others might make claims on their behalf, they made no bones about what they were or what they did. They were the last great glam rock band. When Bowie took off his glitter paint post Ziggy Stardust, they were the ones who carried on the spirit of glam - and they did a great job of it. Musically they were over the top without ever forgetting they were a hard rock band at heart. As far as flamboyance went, it didn't matter what the rest of the guys in the band did, Mercury was flamboyant enough on his on to light up stadiums all over the world.

There's also no denying the band and Mercury were incredibly popular. Not only were they able to sell out arenas around the world for their whole career, how many other bands can you name who played a key role in a mystery novel's plot? (If you're a Queen fan you have to read Chris Brookmyre's A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away) Therefore, it's not much of a surprise that when Mercury passed away from AIDS related symptoms in 1991, the band would want to do something both in honour of his memory and to raise money to help combat AIDS. In 1992 the surviving members of the band, Brian May, John Deacon and Roger Taylor, got together with a bunch of friends and thousands of screaming fans to hold a tribute concert to their deceased front man. While various versions of the concert have been released over the years, Eagle Rock Entertainment have now released the penultimate package of The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert on Blu-ray, including performances not released before now and all sorts of extras as well.
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The concert was divided into two parts. The opening acts featuring Metallica, Def Leopard, Guns N' Roses, Bob Geldof and various other bands playing their own tunes and covering some Queen numbers, and the main show featuring the surviving members of Queen being joined by guests to sing a string of their greatest hits and some of the guests' tunes as well. With performers ranging from Liza Minnelli to Axl Rose appearing on stage (And Elizabeth Taylor popping up to make a speech about AIDS awareness) there was enough variety of styles and sound to please all tastes. While I could easily done without the likes of George Michael and Lisa Stanford or some of the hard rockers who also graced the stage (sorry, never even heard of half of them) there were enough great performances from the rest to make it interesting.

Watching Roger Daltrey run onto stage swinging his microphone like a lariat you'll find it hard to believe the bugger had aged a day since Woodstock in 1969. Daltrey has always been the consummate performer, and his rendition of "I Want It All" was just another example of how great a showman he is. Watch how he not only uses his mic as a stage prop but how he positions it to control his singing volume. He knows he can project his voice into the stratosphere, so when he's harmonizing with the rest of the band, he's pulling the mic away from his mouth to avoide overwhelming their voices in the mix. Unlike some singers who think they have to deep throat a microphone Daltrey lets it work for him and his voice.

It was also Daltrey who seemed to understand the most what the loss of Mercury meant to the other members of Queen. One of the special features included on the Blu-ray was a documentary made about the concert on its tenth anniversary. While nearly all the performers who appeared on stage were interviewed, Daltrey was one of the few who didn't just mutter some platitude about "what a loss it was" in regards to Mercury's passing. He talked about how he still hadn't recovered from the death of The Who's former drummer Keith Moon - how bands were like families - and how raw the wound must still be for the surviving members of Queen. Daltrey is not what anybody would call sentimental - he's always struck me as a street kid who got lucky by becoming a rock star instead of a petty criminal - so when he says something like that he means it.

Back on stage, one of the better performances was Roger Plant camping it up for his version of "Crazy Thing Called Love". In any images I'd seen of Plant prior to this show he'd always come across as somebody who took himself a little to seriously. Seeing him starting to loosen up and have such a good time on stage was really cool. You can see he's starting to change his approach to music and it's like a foreshadowing of what's going to happen with his career in the future.
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While those two guys were cool, they weren't the highlight of disc as far as I was concerned. Watching David Bowie and Annie Lennox singing "Under Pressure" is almost worth the cost of the disc on its own. Lennox looks like she stepped off the cover of one of Bowie's old glam rock albums - white Kabuki make up with a racoon mask of black over her eyes - and wearing a stark grey and black dress. With Bowie doing his thin white duke thing, the visual contrast is amazing. Listening to how their voices intermingle was a joy. They both can run up and down the scale without any apparent strain and proceed to take turns singing low and high harmonies. It was not only great music it was great theatre - which is after all what Queen was about.

However, if you want to talk about contrasts and great theatre, the best was saved for near the end of the concert. I'd be hard pressed to think of a more unlikely duo to share the stage than Elton John and Axl Rose, but that's exactly what they did for a extremely intelligent and interesting version of the Queen classic "Bohemian Rhapsody". John opened the song, doing all the soft parts leading up to pseudo choral bit in the middle. Instead of trying to recreate that live, the part of the original video for the song where Queen sang it was broadcast over the stadium's Video screens. Then, without missing a beat, the live band took over for the hard rock segment of the song, with Rose doing the lead vocals. He and John came together centre stage for the song's finale. It was a perfectly executed piece of theatre and if they had ended the show right there it would have been a fitting tribute to what Queen had been.

Unfortunately, and this is probably why I was never a big fan of Queen, they had to take it one step more and do a couple of more songs, including "We Will Rock You" with Axl Rose and a grande finale of Liza Minnelli leading everybody in "We Are The Champions". It all felt like a bit of a let down after the great performance Rose and John had given. I understand those were two of the band's biggest hits and they wouldn't want to leave them out, but they should have figured out something else. I also don't understand having Minnelli singing the closing number either. She might have had a great and powerful voice at one time, but by 1992 she was a mere shadow of what she had once been and she had all the charisma of a wet blanket.
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I had briefly mentioned the disc's special features earlier. While the documentary about the concert doesn't offer much more than people muttering the usual platitudes you'd expect to hear, the included footage of Annie Lennox and David Bowie rehearsing their performance is a treat. They've also included some nice information about the Mercury/Phoenix Trust and stills gallery from the concert. While this is a Blu-ray recording, it's important to remember the original concert was shot in 1992 and neither the sound nor the audio are going of a quality you're used to. That being said, the remastering job done on both is quite amazing as the quality was nearly as good as anything you'd buy recorded today.

The net proceeds from the sales of this disc are donated to the the Mercury Phoenix Trust, and after reading about the work they do I'd say they are more than worthy of being supported. They are working directly with grassroots frontline organizations in the places the disease is still impacting the
most. With prostitutes and the poor in both Africa and South East Asia, where they not only have to work against poverty but government antipathy and a serious lack of medical infrastructure. They are funding projects which are actually making a difference to people's lives on a day to day basis, and that's the best thing an organization like this can do.

Watching this disc makes you realize how much of what Queen was as a band was due to Freddie Mercury. The songs just don't have the same qualities they did when sung by anybody else. You need to have the flamboyance, the arrogance and the ego of a person like Mercury in order to bring them off. In the hands of other people they just sound like any other rock song, but somehow he was able to turn them into massive hits. Whether you liked the band or not, after watching this tribute to Mercury it's impossible not to realize how much of an impact the man had on popular music during his career. For Queen fans who don't already own a recording of this concert, it is a must have.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Music Blu-ray Review:Various Performers -The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert)

October 1, 2013

Music Review: Tamikrest - Chatma


The early 1960s saw the end of colonial rule for many countries in West Africa and the Sahara Desert region in particular. While the independence of Mali, Niger, Algeria and other countries in the region had come after long, hard struggles on the parts of some of their people and were cause for celebration, there were those whose futures were thrown into turmoil because of it. The creation of these countries saw arbitrary lines drawn in the sand creating boundaries between the nations where none had existed previously. While this might have defined the new nations' geographical territory, it resulted in the carving up of a homeland which had existed far longer then any of them.

The Sahara Desert had been home to nomadic people of Berber descent for generations. Caravan leaders and herdsmen who plied the trade routes from Algeria to Niger moving goods and animals as the seasons dictated, their livelihood depended on freedom of movement. With the imposition of artificial borders in the shifting sands they suddenly found travel restricted and their way of life threatened. When an uprising in Niger attempting to protect their traditions failed in 1963 they were forced to flee for fear of government reprisals. Thus began the diaspora of the Kel Tamashek people, known to the rest of the world as Touareg.

The generation born durning this period became the rebels of the future. Many of them fought to secure their traditional rights through the use of arms in the 1990s, but some also realized they needed to find another way of letting the world know about their situation. As a result a number of these rebels laid down their guns and picked up musical instruments. Not only did they sing about their circumstances, they also sang about what it meant to be Kel Tamashek and why the desert was so important to them as a people. It was their hope future generations would be inspired by their message and not abandon their culture.
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Well, the generation who were children during the 1990s are now coming of age and it looks like they were listening, if the music of the group Tamikrest is anything to go by. They have just released their third album, Chatma, on the German based Glitterhouse Records, and look to be carrying on the work started by their predecessors, groups like Tinariwen. Ousmane Ag Mossa, leader of Tamikrest is quoted in an interview as saying, "[I]t's Tinariwen who created the path. But the way I see it, if younger bands don't come through, then Touareg music will eventually die. They created the path and now it's up to us to walk down it and create the future".

The title of the new disc reflects the band's dedication to their people's tradition. The word chatma means sisters and according to the band is extremely important in Touareg society. Its history dates back to cave etchings and has been used since in everything from historical records to the modern sounds of the "la guitare" groups of today. The word denotes the place occupied by women in their culture. For women are the guardians of their history, culture and the people as a whole. They not only are responsible for the education of the children and the home (Touareg tents belong to the women) they are also the poets who bring heroes to life, tell the stories of the people, recount the beauties of the desert and maintain achek - the code of honour which unites their people. In the booklet accompanying the disc the band explains the history of the word and why they dedicated the album to the women of their people, and all women in general. They understand women are always the primary victims of any conflict, and yet still manage to ensure both the survival of their children and their culture.

The first song on the disc, "Tisnant an Chatma" ("The Suffering of My Sisters") shows how, while the band is primarily concerned with the conditions faced by their own people, they understand women around the world suffer. "We women will march as long as women have not recovered their freedom on this earth/We will march in Azawad". Here they are talking about standing up for the rights of all women, while at the same time invoking Touareg nationalism by utilizing the name used for their traditional territories in Northern Mali: Azawad. (The band sings in Tamashek, and their lyrics have been first translated into French and then the French has been translated into English) For me the final lines of the song are the most telling, as they show a very good understanding of the realities of the world, "The Sisters are waiting for their freedom/Which is hindered by the discord in their brother's breasts/And which prevents agreement."
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Of course they also talk about the situation of their own people. While filtering the lyrics through two layers of translation probably dilutes some of the words' original impact and meaning, the emotion and passion still comes through when you listen to the band sing while reading the translations. "Pain" ("Takma"), the eighth song on the disc, is a perfect example of this. "I suffer from a pain that inhabits my heart and my soul,/It is the same suffering that my brothers are experiencing/Freedom is my soul's ultimate goal,/In my land, The Desert, where my sisters live." The language sounds somewhat awkward when read off the page, but when you listen to them sing this song, using the English to help guide you, it helps you appreciate the depth of their passion.

Those of you familiar with the first generation of Touareg bands' style of music will be in for some surprises when listening to Tamikrest. For instead of slavishly imitating those who came before them, they have built on the existing foundation. While they've retained a lot of the traditional rhythmic patterns of their people, and the guitar still drives their sound, they've also incorporated other musical styles into their sound. So you'll hear the occasional reggae backbeat crop up in one song and notice a more straight-ahead rock and roll sound in another. Like their lyrics, their music reflects their recognition of the wide world around them.

The Touareg know they can't live in the splendid isolation their ancestors enjoyed; the world won't let them. However, they are trying to carve a path which recognizes both the world around them and preserves who they are as a people. The first wave of Touareg bands were primarily concerned with saying, "We are here and this is who we are". Tamikrest, while continuing the fight to reaffirm their people's identity, have also recognized they are part of a larger battle, one indigenous people the world over are fighting to find a place in the world while preserving their heritage. This broadening of vision, combined with their own musical style, makes Tamikrest not only exciting to listen to, it also bodes well for the state of the Touareg people. By refusing to let themselves be trapped in the past while at the same time being stedfast in the defence of their heritage, they can only increase their chances of finding a way to flourish in the world today. The music of Tamikrest is a giant step in that direction.

(Article first published at Blogcritics as Music Review: Tamikrest - Chatma)

September 25, 2013

Music Blu-ray/DVD Review: Peter Gabriel - Live In Athens 1987


I used to go to a lot of concerts when I was younger, and by that I mean a teenager and into my early twenties. The concerts were events, a shared experience you had with a group of people who were all there for the same reason. There was something about seeing the music live which made the experience more vital and inspiring than listening to it on record. I don't know if I've changed and concerts are still the same, but I won't go to one anymore unless I'm sure they will be in a controlled environment where people's focus will be on the stage. For under any other circumstances it seems like the audience is far more concerned with their portable devices or talking than paying attention to the person or band performing. These types of conditions make it almost impossible to enjoy a live concert the way I once did.

All of which makes me incredibly grateful for recent advances made in audio/visual technology. Now not only can I watch a performer I really appreciate without putting up with a lot of bullshit from people around me, the sound and visual quality are such they're probably better than what you'd find at most venues anyway. Even more exciting is the fact this same technology is allowing artists to revisit recordings of older concerts and remaster them digitally so we at home can experience them in ways we weren't able to before. Not only is this enjoyable, it also gives you a new appreciation for the group or individual's talent. This was brought home to me by the recent release of the Blu-ray/DVD package from Peter Gabriel Live In Athens 1987 on the Eagle Rock Entertainment label.

Instead of the usual dual format package where they send you the same item on both Blu-ray and DVD, this set is two distinct discs. The Blu-ray is the concert footage culled from three shows Gabriel gave over three nights in Athens of 1987 and the DVD, called Play, is made up of videos of Gabriel's songs from the last 25 years re-edited and mastered for 5.1 surround sound. While Gabriel selected which videos would be included in this collection, the majority of the re-mastering was done by Daniel Lanois.
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Gabriel took a much more hands on approach when it came to the concert footage. Originally the footage shot in Athens had been included in a movie called P.O.V.. Produced by Martin Scorsese the original film was more of a documentary about the 1987 tour as the concert footage intercut with film Gabriel had shot of life on the road off and back stage. For this HD remastering he went back to the original three days worth of film shot during the concerts and put together just over two hours worth of a concert movie. The film also includes the previously unreleased performance by the great Senegalese artist Youssou N'dour and his band Le Super Etoile de Dakar, who opened for and performed with Gabriel during the tour.

In 1987 Gabriel was probably at the pinnacle of his popularity and was touring to promote his most popular album to date, So, which remains the biggest selling album of his solo career. The three days of concerts in Athens marked the end of what was a world tour, so he, the band and the technical people had had plenty of time to work out all the kinks. While you might expect them to have been tired and maybe going through the motions somewhat after having been on the road for so long, nothing could be further from the truth. Maybe they had an extra adrenaline boost because these were the final nights of the tour, or perhaps they played every gig on the tour with this level of intensity, but this show is an emotionally charged phenomenon sizzling with energy from N'dour's opening note to Gabriel's final encore.

If you never had the chance to see N'dour and his band when they were in their prime their five song set will be a revelation. His set is a wonderful example of the way African popular music at the time combined popular music from other cultures with their own to create a spirited and exciting sound. Of course seeing them is twice as exciting as hearing them as they incorporate dance and playacting into their performance. The combination of N'dour's soaring soprano voice and the polyrhythmic sound of his band made for a performance that was not only a celebration of music but the joy of being alive as well.

However, this is Gabriel's show, From the moment he and the band, Tony Levin (bass) David Rhodes (guitar) Manu Katche (drums) and David Sancious (keyboards) open the show with "This is the Picture/Excellent Birds" (a song written with Laurie Anderson) you feel like you've entered into an exciting new world of sound, light and dance. For this isn't your ordinary rock concert with guys standing in a row playing. Nor is it the overblown effects some bands use to hide the inadequacy of their material. Instead what you have is a carefully choreographed and orchestrated show down to the smallest of hand gestures.

Gabriel uses his stage lightening not just for mood. It is almost a dance partner as he uses shadow, colour and light to help him weave the various stories he's telling or to accent a song's emotional content. His concerts run the gamut of taking us into the shadows where our darkest secrets lie (He introduces "Shock The Monkey" as a song about jealousy) to hope, "Games Without Frontiers" his anthem for peace and the joy of life's simple pleasures, "Solsbury Hill". On the latter the stage is bathed in clean white light and Gabriel, Levin and Rhodes almost skip around the immense stage in exuberant, yet simply choreographed, movements.
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However, it was on the song "Mercy Street" where he put both technology and choreography to their most daring usage. Not only did the lights play a part in the movement of the song. the lighting equipment itself became part of an elaborate dance with Gabriel. A portion of his lighting equipment was on a series of mobile crane like arms which could be raised, lowered, contracted and extended seemingly effortlessly. During "Mercy Street" these structures swung over the stage and then pressed down in what looked like attempts to crush Gabriel as he cowered under them. At times he would thrust the lights away from him and they would swing back up into the sky, only to come plunging back down again as he tried to stand. Not only was it an impressive display of coordinating the technical aspect of a show with the performance, it shows the depth of Gabriel's stage craft and his willingness to push the envelope of invention in all directions.

Never the less, all the technical wizardry and all the kinetic energy in the world would still be an empty shell if there wasn't a heart beating inside of, and an intellect controlling, it. In this case it's the heart and mind of one of the most passionate and intelligent performers in popular music. While those moments when Gabriel is in motion are without doubt very exciting, it's when he's still he's his most powerful. In 1987 South Africa was still under white minority rule and Nelson Mandela was still in jail. Apartheid and all the crimes committed against humanity caused by it was still a fact of life and the name Steven Biko was still emblematic for the mistreatment of Black Africans everywhere in South Africa. Biko was a school teacher and non-violent protester against apartheid who died in police custody September 12 1977 at the age of 30.

Gabriel wrote the song "Biko" in 1980 in commemoration of the man and what he believed in. The lyrics are simple and to the point, describing how he was found dead in his prison cell, and then repeating his name over and over again as part of a chant played over the sound of keyboard synthesized bagpipes and simple drum. Usually Gabriel stands stalk still in the centre of the stage to sing this song, and on this tour he closed all his shows with it, with his only movement raising his fist straight in the air. In Athens he was joined on stage by Youssou N'dour and members of his band for the chant. There is such power in this man and in this moment, that I defy anyone with a heart to listen to this song, especially this version, without shedding at least one tear. Although Biko's plight might be in the past, the song resonates with such power listening to it being performed today, 26 years later, not only reminds us of past horrors, but the fact people are still being kept in conditions similar to those which led to Biko's death today.

Peter Gabriel is the consummate performer. Not only does he understand how to marry technology and art like few others, he doesn't need technology to make his music great. He only uses it to enhance the experience for those watching not to make up for any deficiencies in his work. Live In Athens 1987 is a perfect example of this in action. Both the Blu-ray of the concert and the collected videos on the DVD are all the proof anyone will ever need. This is a case of technology finally catching up to an artist's vision rather than the other way round.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Blu-ray/DVD Review: Peter Gabriel - Live In Athens 1987)

September 24, 2013

Music Review: Willie Nelson - To All The Girls


Look at those who've endured the longest in popular music and you'll notice the thing they all have in common is they know who they are and what they are capable of. The really good ones have managed the fine art of both staying within their comfort zone musically and finding a way of not sounding like they're going through the motions. They may not deviate too much from what made them successful in the first place, but neither do they ever seem to stagnate or become boring. With some it's the force of their personality which keeps them interesting while others simply have a quality which makes them endlessly endearing to generation after generation of fans.

Since his career started back in the 1950s Willie Nelson has written some of the most iconic songs in country music ("Crazy"), had a crossover hit on popular music charts before the word was even fashionable ("Mammas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys") and put out albums of everything from jazz standards to pop songs from the 1940s. He is beloved by everybody from the farmers whose plight he raises awareness of with his annual "Farm Aid, to country music fans, bikers, hippies and millions of people all over the world. He has recorded albums with artists from almost every genre of music, and not matter how incongruous the pairing might have seemed at first, the music has always worked.

You think a guy who just turned 80 would be slowing down now, but not Nelson. He recently signed with a new record label, Sony Music's Legacy Recordings, and his third album with them, To All The Girls, is being released on Tuesday September 24 2013. Each of the 18 songs on the disc features Nelson in a duet with, as the title suggests, a different female singer. Reading down through the list of singers who have joined him for these duets is like looking over a Who's Who of country music. From great old ladies Loretta Lynn ("Somewhere Between") Dolly Parton ("From Here to the Moon and Back") and Emmylou Harris ("Dry Lightning") to new stars Carrie Underwood ("Always On My Mind") and Shelby Lynne ("Till the End of the World").
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The roster isn't limited to women from country music either as he's also joined by another ageless wonder, Mavis Staples for a rendition of the gospel classic "Grandma's Hands" and Norah Jones on "Walkin". The one thing all of these women have in common is they each have their own distinct style. It's highly unlikely anybody is ever going to confuse Parton, Lynn, Staples or any of them with anyone else. Yet such is Nelson's ability, no matter who he's performing with, it sounds like they were made for each other.

What's always amazed me about Nelson has been his ability to sing even the most sentimental and contrived song yet somehow or other make it emotionally honest. There's something about his delivery and the genuineness of his voice which can turn the most hackneyed piece of pop or country music into sincere emotional expression. As a result, while there are some singers on this recording who I normally wouldn't listen to as I find their singing contrived, paired with Nelson I enjoyed their performances. Maybe they absorbed something of his integrity, or perhaps his talent is so vast it can cover up another's deficiencies. Whatever the reason, no matter who he's teemed with on this recording the results are just fine.

Of course some of the performances are better than others and to my mind there were a couple in particular that stood out. The combination of Nelson and Mavis Staples on the previously mentioned "Grandma's Hands" is probably the highlight of the disc. These are two of the great voices of popular music and to hear them together is to hear the form elevated to art. Neither of them have an insincere bone in their bodies and it comes through with every note and word they sing. The contrast between his mellow baritone and her throaty growl is amazing. They turn this very simple song into a testimony on the power of a grandmother's love to inspire somebody for a lifetime. Like all the best gospel music it will move you and make you feel better about yourself after listening to it whether you believe in the message or not.
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Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton probably aren't to everyone's taste. Both still carry the twang of their Tennessee backwoods upbringing in their voices like a flag proclaiming their heritage. However, unlike those who might try and affect this accent and end up being annoying, in the mouths of these two grand old ladies of country music its the sound of authenticity making their words ring true. Listening to them partnered with Nelson and the mix of their respective voices is like hearing the roots of popular music come alive in song. There's a power in each of their respective voices which is capable of sending a shiver up your spine. Hearing them together is as fine a treat as you could ask for.

I only recently discovered Shelby Lynne and was impressed with her the first time I listened to her. So I was happy to see Willie had included her on this disc. The version the two of them do of "Till the End of the World" is both touching and interesting. Lynne has one of those great throaty voices which gives all her material character. She sounds like a real human being singing about issues which mean something to her. The combination of her and Willie's smooth as properly aged whisky voice makes for a great meeting of sounds and turns the song into something special.

Willie Nelson is 80 years old, but you'd never know it listening to him sing. While some people's voices become rougher as they age his has become increasingly velvety. Like the best of that material it has a surprising amount of texture. So, while it laps against your ear like liquid gold its has enough of an edge to it to give it emotional depth. Hearing his voice mix and contrast with the various women accompanying him on this collection of songs is a reminder of what an incredible talent he is. For no matter who he works with, or what they sound like, he sounds like he was meant to sing with them. This is a wonderful album of great material performed with style and grace you'll listen to over and over again.

Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Willie Nelson - To All The Girls)

September 17, 2013

Music Review: Khaira Arby - Timbuktu Tarab


It's interesting how in a time of crises there can sometimes be an unexpected silver lining. The March 2012 takeover of Northern Mali by terrorist groups intent on creating a fascist religious state based on their perverted version of Islam saw an attempt by the invaders to outlaw music. In a country like Mali where music is one of their most prized natural resources this was not just an attack on people's social life, it was tantamount to cultural genocide. Many of the various ethnic groups, both Berber and African, rely heavily on music for preserving their traditions and heritage. If the attempt to kill music had been successful people would have been cut off from their histories and thousands of years worth of culture would have been obliterated.

While Malians of all types were forced to flee, it has been reported over 400,000 refugees from Northern Mali sought shelter in neighbouring countries and the southern regions of Mali, musicians were specifically targeted by the invaders. Houses were raided, instruments and equipment destroyed and lives threatened. The annual Festival au Desert, ironically started to celebrate peace in the region, which attracts musicians and audiences from all over the world to Timbuktu in Northern Mali in a celebration of music and cultural exchange, was cancelled due to the danger of travel and worries of fundamentalist attacks on both international and local artists.

However, even before the cessation of hostilities in Northern Mali was finalized, the musicians of Mali were showing their commitment to both their art and their country. The past six or seven months has seen the release of a number of recordings by various members of the community which have not only celebrated the role of music in their society, but have been replete with messages of tolerance and respect for diversity. Even more exciting is the effort being made by those outside the country to increase awareness of the region's music beyond its borders. While the Kel Tamashek bands like Tinariwen and various other individuals are known outside the country, there remains thousands of equally talented groups and individuals waiting to be discovered. Khaira Arby has long been acclaimed as the Nightingale of Northern Mali, but probably very few outside her native country have ever heard of her. A new release, Timbuktu Tarab, on the independent American based Clermont Music label, will give audiences in North America the opportunity to discover this amazing talent.
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When listening to Ms. Arby's music those familiar with the various styles from the region will almost immediately notice how she incorporates many of them into her sound. The trance electric guitar of the Kel Tamashek (commonly known as the Touareg), the traditional instruments of the African people (the ngoni and traditional violin) and the blues of the great Ali Farke Toure- her cousin and the person she credits as her biggest influence. The other thing you'll notice is she doesn't sing in just one language. As a mixed blood Berber and Sonrhai she draws upon both cultural traditions for not only her music, but her lyrics as well.

A praise song about the bravery, the values and the grandeur of the Kel Tamashek, "Sourgou" is sung in both their Tamashek language and the language of the Sonrhai. However, she not only sings in local dialects, she also sings in what many consider the language of Islam, Arabic. Interestingly enough the two songs on the disc she sings in this language are "Salou", a prayer to Allah, and "Tarab", basically a prayer for Mali. In it she pleads for unity and patience among all the peoples of the country and cites the name of a warrior hero from neighbouring Mauritian as inspiration for them to keep on fighting for their future.

Now I don't speak any of the languages she sings in, but the good people behind this disc's release have offered capsule summaries of each song's content and subject matter so we can at least know what she's singing about. While it won't help you understand the lyrics, it will give you some insight into Ms. Arby's significance to the region and how she attempts to reach as many people as possible. It will also give you an indication of her fearlessness and compassion as she'll sing about topics you don't often hear mentioned in songs from Africa.

"Fereine" is a song condemning the practice of female excision (the female version of circumcision or as its medically known Female Genital Mutilation) which is still commonly practiced through out the world. For a female singer to bring this up in song takes an incredible amount of bravery as its not something normally talked about let alone sung about publicly. But this isn't the only social issue she addresses. In "Youba" she addresses the conditions facing those working in salt mines. The song talks about how they return from the mines hungry, thirsty and exhausted and the general hardships facing the miners.
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While other musicians from the region might sing about conditions facing their own people, or sing songs which pass on their cultural traditions, few who I've come across up to now address the broader social and cultural issues facing Malians as a whole. Ms. Arby is able to look past individual tribal aspirations and realize that for the country to succeed as a whole everybody has to respect each other and work together. She understands how the various people of the region take pride in their history and culture and the need for them to be respected and honoured, but she also believes there is room for all of them under the umbrella of Mali.

As I said earlier musically Ms. Arby's music draws upon the various traditions of the region. However, like others she's been influenced by Western pop music as well. Blues and rock and roll from America are the biggest influences one can hear in her music. However, it's her voice which will stay with you the most. Not only is she able to communicate the depth of her feelings for whatever subject she is singing about, she has amazing vocal control. How many vocalists do you know who are equally comfortable singing up tempo rock and roll, gospel, folk and jazz? If you can imagine a mixture of Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday and Annie Lenox you'll have an indication of her vocal prowess.

The past year and a half has seen the country of Mali go through some of the most brutal fighting imaginable and its people deal with truly horrible conditions. With nearly half a million people made refugees and the continued threat of terrorist attacks from the groups who staged the uprising, it may take years for the country to completely recover. However, the attempt to stamp out music in Northern Mali not only failed, but has resulted in what looks to be a renewed effort to bring the artists of the region to the rest of the world. This is giving us the opportunity to hear wonderful artists like Khaira Arby. She's one of the great singers of her country and an amazing talent. For anyone with an appreciation for great vocals and great music, this is a record not to be missed.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Khaira Arby - Timbuktu Tarab)

September 16, 2013

Music Review: The Band - Live At The Academy of Music 1971


Does anyone else find it odd a band with four members from Southern Ontario Canada is considered by so many the inspiration for what's known as the Americana genre of popular music? Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson all hail from north of the 49th parallel, so how did they end up being the group Mumford & Sons refer to as "an incredible influence on so many musicians, not the lease on the four of us"? The answer lies in part with who they all were as musicians and in part with the path their career took.

First there was Ronnie Hawkins, who came up to Toronto Canada from his native Arkansas to spread the gospel of rockabilly and ended up relocating permanently. The band he brought up with him included a young drummer, Levon Helm, and while the rest of Hawkins' Hawks were gradually replaced by the above mentioned quartet from Ontario, Helm continued to anchor the band's rhythm section. They toured up and down North America playing Hawkins' country influenced rockabilly from 1960 to 1962 and then struck out on their own as Levon and the Hawks - Helm being the senior member of the group. However, a guy named Bob Dylan happened to catch their show one night and wondered if they'd be interested in backing him up on stage for his upcoming tour of England. While Helm ending leaving the tour, the others continued with Bob to be booed off stages across Great Britain.

When the tour ended the all retreated to upstate New York where Dylan had a house in Woodstock to lick their wounds and prepare for the second stage of what was supposed to be a world tour. However, Dylan wiped out on his motorcycle and used that as an excuse to retire from performing for a while. Finding themselves at loose ends the group settled into a house of their own, invited Helm to come join them, and began writing and creating their own music. Music From Big Pink, their first release as The Band, came out in 1968, and was the complete antitheses to what the rest of popular music was doing. It drew upon everything that had influenced rock and roll in the first place, blues, country and gospel, and put them through the grist of their mill of experience as a hard playing, hard living, bar band and touring ensemble. It was as a rough gem of a record destined to be a classic.
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Three years, and three albums later, The Band booked The Academy of Music in New York City for four nights of concerts, December 28, 29, 30, 31 1971. In 1972, the double album, Rock Of Ages was released as a record of those four nights. In 2001 Capital Records reissued it on CD with a bonus disc including tracks featuring Bob Dylan accompanying The Band on four songs and six other tracks not on the original album. Now for the first time ever, Capitol/Universal Music, is releasing the definitive recording of that concert as a four CD one DVD set co-produced by lead guitarist Robertson, Live At The Academy Of Music 1971.

The first two discs contain copies of every song played over the four nights of the concert specially re-mixed for this release, while discs three and four contain the soundboard mix of the entire New Years Eve concert. The DVD are the songs from the first two discs remastered in 5.1 surround sound, plus copies of two songs from the concerts filmed by Howard Alk and Murray Lerner. The entire set come in a 48 page hard cover book containing previously unseen photos, an essay by Robertson about the concert, appreciations of the The Band and the the set's recordings from Jim James of My Morning Jacket and Mumford & Sons (where the quote earlier is taken from). (Note: as a reviewer I was only sent a digital copy of the above and the four CDs but not the DVD so I can't comment on the 5.1 remix or the video clips)

While studio albums of The Band give you an idea as to the quality of their music, it's only by listening to them perform live you come to appreciate them for what they were. For it's here you realize what it was made them so special. The raw chaotic power held together by years of performing with each other allowing them to play with complete abandon secure in the knowledge that even if one of them made a mistake, the others would be right there to smooth things over. At times you are literally holding your breath for it can be like watching a train careen down the tracks on the verge of running off the rail, but which somehow or other miraculously doesn't crash and comes safely into the station.
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Listening to the New Years Eve concert through the sound board, with it's raw unfiltered mix picking up the chatter on the stage, including them and Dylan deciding at the last minute which songs to play during the encore (prior to plunging into "Like A Rolling Stone" you hear Dylan say "haven't played this one together in 16 years") puts you into the centre of that ride. You can almost feel the energy bursting from your speakers as they put everything they have into each song. The soundboard mix is not what is played back through the Public Address (PA) system for the audience. Instead you hear each instrument and vocal track as a distinct stream, balanced with everything else, but not mixed down into one overall sound. (As an experiment listen to the recording of "Like A Rolling Stone" on Disc 4 from the soundboard mix then listen to the version of Disc 2 from the same concert through the regular mix and you'll hear what sounds like almost two different versions of the song, with the former being a lot rougher but infinitely more exciting.)

I've heard many other collections of musicians sing their versions of songs The Band performed. While they might be gifted performers there always seems to be something missing. It's an indescribable and undefinable quality which I've never been able to put my finger on. The closest I've come to it is when trying to describe their vocal harmonies on their classic gospel tune "The Weight" as saying they sound like shouldn't work, but they end up sounding perfect. The Band weren't just playing a style of music, they were the living embodiment of all that makes the music so vital and intense. Something you can only achiever from living and breathing the music together in every situation imaginable.

The Band started out touring with Ronnie Hawkins on the bar circuit, graduated to concert stages with Bob Dylan and only after eight years of playing together under those circumstances started producing their own music. On this four disc set you'll hear versions of what most consider their best material, "Across The Great Divide", "Stage Fright", "The Weight", "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down", "The Shape I'm In" "Life Is A Carnival", "Up On Cripple Creek" and some songs you'll have never heard them play before like old 1950s number "(I Don't Want To) Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes" and Stevie Wonder's "Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever". Any band would be happy to have written a couple of those songs over the course of a career, and The Band had written them all in their first three years of existence.

The four nights of concerts performed at the end of 1971 at New York City's Academy of Music showed was The Band's coming out party as a force to be reckoned with in rock and roll. They had shared the bill with others at festivals and shows, but this was their event. This four CD, one DVD collection is a wonderful reminder of just how amazing a group they were. A celebration of rock and roll and music like you've never heard before performed by the band who personified the music as few others ever have.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: The Band -Live At The Academy of Music 1971 [4-CD/1-DVD])


September 11, 2013

Music Review: Dexys - One Day I'm Going To Soar


One of the more interesting sub genres of music to come about has to be Irish soul. An offshoot of blue eyed soul - the term given to soul music sung by white singers - its first major proponent was Van Morrison. However it was probably made most famous by the movie The Commitments, which followed the ups and downs of an Irish soul band. In the late 1970s another Irish soul band was born out of the ashes of various London based punk bands. Fronted by Kevin Rowland, Dexys Midnight Runners achieved international attention with their combination of Irish folk, soul music and punk intensity as personified by their hit single "Come On Eileen".

Nearly 15 years since they last released a new recording Rowland is back with a new name, a new band and a more refined sound. Now known simply as Dexys their new release, One Day I'm Going To Soar, through BMG is straight Irish soul. Instead of the wild kinetic energy which drove the original band's material this latest incarnation is a far more sedate affair. The music is no longer the assault upon the senses it once was. The raging tornado they were back in the 1980s is now the gentle ebb and flow of the tide as it steadily advances and ebbs along the shore.

No longer super charged - anyone who saw the band in their hay day in the early 1980s will have vivid memories of the entire band charging the front of the stage like a live wall of sound - and far fewer in number then they once were, the band still retains the same core passion which made them so potent originally. Burning at the centre like a red hot sun sits Rowland; the molten core heating everything he comes in touch with. It's his presence which keeps the majority of the tunes on the disc from crossing over into the territory of being too slick and sweet. His rough hewn voice loaded with gravel and intensity rises above even soaring strings to keep things honest and soulful.
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Which isn't to say the others members of the band aren't gifted. Far from it. As usual Rowlands has surrounded himself with wonderfully talented players. From previous incarnations of Dexys are Mick Talbot on keyboards, Pete Williams on bass and Jim Paterson on trombone. Joining them are newcomers Neil Hubbard and Tim Cansfield on guitars, Madeleine Hyland vocals, Lucy Morgan on viola and Ben Trigg conducting the strings section. (Although there's obviously a drummer, I couldn't find any mention of who was playing the kit either on the band's web site or in the album's credits) What's really impressive is how big a sound the band is able to create. You would think far more people were playing the way they to create the ebbs and flows of required to make this type of music work.

For unlike most blues based music soul is all about the rise and fall of the sound. It comes at you in waves as if the players back away from a moment in contemplation before deciding to commit themselves. Once the decision is made the music builds along with the singer's passion and in theory the listener should be swept away by the sea of feelings generated. Unfortunately a great deal of soul music relies on things like swelling strings, or something similar, in an attempt to generate the sensation. There aren't very many singers or bands who can carry songs like Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye or any of the other great soul singers of the past did. Instead of there being a symbiotic relationship between vocalist and music where they each carry the other, too much of the soul music I've heard ends up being the music disguising the vocalist's inadequacies.

This isn't the case with Dexys and Rowland. The music and vocals work together perfectly to reflect the emotion behind each song. There's was only one occasion, "You", track 5, where it felt like they went overboard in their attempts to sell the song. There was just a little too much swelling strings making the tune somewhat insipid. Thankfully it was the exception instead of the rule as the rest of the disc's 11 tracks are perfect examples of what soul music should sound like.
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Even better than the sound were the lyrics. Instead of simply being satisfied with songs about unrequited love or how much the singer loves somebody, Rowland and company branch out and have written some darkly humorous numbers. One of my favourites was track 10, "Free", a song in praise of the glories of the single life. "I can't fucking wait to go outside and live my life/At last I'm free and I'm going to be the man I'm meant to be/They say, you don't marry you'll be lonely, (yeah)/All good men raise a family (Oh yeah)/Hey, that's not what I see/No, in truth some of them they don't seem so happy/They tolerate misery, but that is not for me"

Not the lyrics you'd expect from a soul song, or any pop song come to think of it. Rowland has retained the puckish humour and insolence which distinguished his music from so many others in the first place. Along with his abilities as a vocalist, he still has the ability to go up and down a scale without effort and infuse his lyrics with more character than almost anyone else in pop music, it's this edge which has always made his material intelligent and fun to listen to. Even when the music is at its most exuberant one can't help listening to what he has to say.

If you pick up One Day I'm Going To Soar in the hopes of hearing the band you heard in the 1980s you'll be disappointed. However, if you come looking to hear one of the best examples of Irish soul music to be recorded in many years you'll be well satisfied. Dexys ain't Dexys Midnight Runners, but none of us are what we were thirty years ago. As is only proper Rowland and company have moved on and evolved into something different. Yet, the music he and his band produce is as passionate and powerful as it ever was, it's just being delivered in a different package.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Dexys - One Day I'm Going To Soar)

August 28, 2013

Music Review: The Rides - Can't Get Enough


There's a saying, "Old soldiers never die, they just fade away". If old rockers keep putting out albums it seems we're going to have come up with something similar to say about old musicians. While some of them probably should have hung up their gear ages ago, others seem to epitomize Dylan Thomas' famous line of refusing to go gentle into that good night. While they may not have the vocal range they once did or be quite as quick moving up and down the fret board of their guitars, they still play with passion and soul. These are the type of guys you could visualize spontaneously combusting on stage rather than their lights slowly dimming.

Stephen Stills and Barry Goldberg are veterans of the pop music wars with both of them first coming to public attention in the1960s. Goldberg is probably not as well known, he was part of the Chicago electric blues scene of the 1960s and was keyboardist with Electric Flag and Bob Dylan when he was booed off stage at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964. Stills is of course internationally known for both his solo work and the bands he was part of, Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young to name two. Either one of them has been probably playing music for more years then Kenny Wayne Shepherd has been alive. However, that hasn't stopped them from teaming up with the younger man to form the new blues/rock band The Rides whose new recording, Can't Get Enough, is being released on 429 Records August 27 2013.

There aren't many older musicians who would willingly share the stage with a young blood like Shepherd who could easily leave them in the dust. Conversely there aren't many up and coming guitar heroes who would think playing with a couple of old guys wasn't just a waste of time. So just the fact the three of them have joined forces on what seems to be a semi-permanent fashion says a lot about their commitment to music. It's that dedication to their art which takes the fairly standard blues rock numbers on this disc and makes them something a little extraordinary.
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You hear the type of music found on this disc played in venues all around the world by musicians of all calibers. Ninety per cent of the time this type of blues/rock isn't going to sound much different no matter who plays it. It takes a lot of work to make it sound bad, but at the same time it takes some pretty special musicians to made it sound special. While the first song on this disc, "Mississippi Road House", is a fairly typical number of the type, the lyrics about the life of a bar band musician have a certain poignancy which elevates it beyond just another blues based rock song, Anybody who's ever been in a large roadhouse watching a band sweat on stage as they try and compete with large screen TVs for an audience's attention will appreciate what its expressing.

One of things you'll notice about the recording is the immediacy of the sound. This is because the band made the wise decision to record themselves live. Rather than each of them laying down their parts separately in little glass booths while listening to everybody else on headphones, they played together in the studio, only laying down the vocal tracks later. This allows Still and Shepherd as the guitar players to feed off each other's work. It gives their songs the spontaneous quality this type of music needs to be at its best. Goldberg's keyboard complimenting what their doing only works as well as it does because he's in the room anticipating what the two guitars are going to do next. There's a sense of unity in their playing you don't often find in studio recordings.

Of the ten tracks on the disc four are originals Goldberg, Shepherd and Stills wrote for the disc, five are covers and one, the albums closing track "Word Game" Stills wrote in the late 1960s for Buffalo Springfield but never recorded. The covers are an interesting mix of classic blues numbers, "Talk To Me Baby" by Elmore James and "Honey Bee" by Muddy Waters, and rockers, "Search And Destroy" by Iggy and The Stooges and "Rockin' In The Free World" by Still's old buddy Neil Young. Hearing Still's sing the latter is an interesting experience, especially if you're familiar with any of the work he and Young did together in the past. For, although it sounds substantially different Young's version, it stills sounds right. It's like Stills has an affinity for Young's material based on their years of friendship which allows him to make the song effortlessly his own, while still honouring its original intent.
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Stills and Shepherd split the vocal duties on the disc. While Shepherd's voice, by dint of age and not having seen quite as much hard living, is stronger and has more of a range, Stills' ability to find the emotional honesty at a song's core remains undamaged. His raw passion on "Rockin" In The Free World" and "Word Game" give both songs the fire needed to make them work. Maybe somebody else could have made them sound better, but he's able to bring them alive and get their meaning across in a way few can.

Normally on an album of this type the spotlight shine brightest on the guitar players. While in this case the playing of Stills and Shepherd would actually justify them being the centre of attention for the entire album, it is a trio and Goldberg's keyboard is given its rightful place in the mix. While that doesn't mean songs are tagged with unnecessary piano or organ solos. his presence is felt on almost every song. Whether playing the role of lead rhythm instrument as the two guitars exchange leads or giving the songs an extra layer of texture, Goldberg's playing is integral to every song. He gives the more traditional blues songs that extra bit of melancholy needed by smoothing out the rough edges of the guitar laden sound while at the same time adding an urgency to harder numbers. There's only so much guitars, bass and drums can do on their own without becoming somewhat predictable and Goldberg adds the extra element required to ensure the sound never falls into a rut.

It would be easy for older players like Stills and Goldberg to rest on their laurels and quietly fade away as guys who were famous once upon a time. Instead here they are putting themselves out on the front lines again playing with somebody who could very easily make them look old and tired. Instead, they prove, at least in their case, old rockers don't fade away, they just find new ways of keeping themselves inspired. The combination of Shepherd, Stills and Goldberg, the old and the new, could be seen as the torch being passed from one generation to the next. However in this case it represents a meeting of equals who aren't out to prove anything except how much they love what they do.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: The Rides - Can't Get Enough)

August 3, 2013

Music Review: Jocelyn Pook - Unknown Things


It was early in the 1980s I first heard compositions incorporating found recordings of the human voice. My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts by David Byrne and Brian Eno used everything from outtakes of a radio call in show to a recording of an exorcism played back at different speeds and put through a variety of effects to create a collection of odd and highly affecting music. They weren't the only musicians working in this field at the time and while I've come across a few other examples of this type of work since, not many have impressed me as much as that first recording.

Until I heard the re-release of Jocelyn Pook's Untold Things on Real World Gold, an imprint of Real World Records, I had pretty much given up on hearing anything in this style that would be as moving and inspiring as My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. In fact the pieces on this recording are far more than just manipulated vocal samples set to music. Each of the 13 tracks here are complete compositions where the vocals, whether found or recorded live, are only one of the instruments Pook employs to create her multi textured and intricate pieces of music instead of being the focal point.

In most forms of music where vocals are employed they are usually what the song or piece is built around. From your standard pop song to opera to choral pieces the music serves to accent the story or themes the vocals are expressing. Whether an electric guitar solo or a full orchestra the music provides an emotional context for the lyrics. The challenge for a composer looking to employ the voice in a different capacity is to find ways to overcome his or her audiences' expectations when it comes to the role of vocals in a piece of music. The majority of us are conditioned by experience to separate the voice from accompaniment to discern the lyrics being sung.
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When a composer inserts found vocal tracks from cultures and languages other than their own they redefine the role of the voice in the composition. Once they realize the lyrics are being sung in a language they don't understand the listener will lose the impetus to distinguish between voice and instruments. While this is one method Pook employs in this collection of pieces it's not the only technique she uses to make voice part of her sound pallet. On some tracks lyrics are reversed while on others she has made up languages for her vocalists to employ.

Pook is a classically trained musician and composer with experience in creating music for ballet, theatre and film; most famously the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. So these pieces aren't the slapdash creation of somebody just fooling around with a mixing board and tape loops. Each one is carefully constructed and arranged and works on both an emotional and intellectual level. For, while the various sounds might stir certain feelings within her audience their careful juxtaposition will also ensure they pause to consider what is causing the emotional reaction.

The opening track of the disc, "Dionysus", is named for the Greek god most often associated with unbridled emotions and generally letting loose. However as well as being the god of wine, he was also honoured with annual theatre festivals in ancient Athens. While some of these plays would have been ribald comedies the more serious tragedies with their moral lessons would have been staged as well. Still, the majority of listeners would associate Dionysus with his wilder aspect and be surprised by the subdued nature of the piece. With its close to ethereal vocals (Melanie Pappenheim) sung over muted strings (Jackie Norrie, Sally Herbert, Kelly McCusker violin, Pook viola and keyboards, Caroline Lavelle cello and Jub bass) and keyboards it makes one think perhaps there is more to this god than we first thought.

Emotionally the piece evokes a kind of wistfulness in the listener created by the note of yearning we hear in the combination of voice and instruments. However, if we stop and think about what we know about the god in question, instead of being carried away by the emotion suggested by the music we pause and wonder what it has to do with the song's subject. Why does a song about the most earthy of gods resound with echoes of loneliness? Pook is urging us to consider there might be more to Dionysus than we've been led to believe by popular interpretations.
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Previously when I've heard compositions which employ found vocal tracks it's been relatively easy to distinguish between them and the original music. That's not always the case with Pook's work. When you listen to track ten, "Calls, Cries And Clamours", you'll have a hard time telling the vocal sample from "Boat Song" sung by Hoang Oanh from the original material Pook created with vocalist Pappenheim. While in this instance the vocals are prominent in the mix, like all the other tracks on the disc they are simply one more instrument. Even better is the fact we don't even have the distraction of hearing something obviously "foreign" in the mix, and we can simply sit back and let the music wash over us and think about the implications of the title.

The three words of the title all refer to three types of sound. While the first two specifically refer to vocal sounds the third implies noise of a generally loud and confused nature. While the song isn't what you'd call loud by any means, it does create the impression of a number of different sounds being listened to at once. It's as if you were eavesdropping on a variety of conversations being carried on in different languages. What you're listening to may not be loud, but it's certainly confusing because you can't understand anything of what's being said. Even if you could speak one of the languages, the confusion of hearing more than one at a time would make comprehension next to impossible.

Yet in spite of this there is also a certain harmony and beauty to the way the different sounds being made by the voices and musical instruments come together. It's a very simple lesson in how diversity does not necessarily mean disharmony. Language is used to communicate ideas no matter if its French, English or Arabic. On the surface they sound different, but if we stop trying to discern meaning in what's being said we begin to hear how they harmonize.

The music on Unknown Things is both beautiful to listen to and fascinating to think about. Composer Jocelyn Pook has taken elements of Western composition and mixed it with both found vocal tracks and her own linguistic inventions to make intriguing and inventive pieces of music. While the songs all have an obvious emotional appeal they are intriguing and interesting enough to trigger an intellectual response as well. There are very few composers capable of doing both at once, and on its own this would make checking her work out worth your while, but the music is also a pleasure to listen to, which makes it twice as valuable.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Jocelyn Pook - Unknown Things)

July 24, 2013

Music Review: Etran Finatawa - The Sahara Sessions


The country of Niger in West Africa sits at the crossroads of age old caravan routes connecting the north of Africa with the south. While its economic importance has long since faded, it's now one of the three poorest countries in the world, the country's history of being a convergence point for the Arab and Berber peoples of the north and the Sub-Saharan people of the south makes it one of the most culturally diverse nations in the region with 11 distinct ethnic groups calling it home. Anyone familiar with the region will know the nomadic Tuareg are one of the people living there and of their conflict with the Niger government over the loss of their traditional territory.

The Tuareg aren't the only nomadic people who try to eke out an existence in this harsh environment. Living side by side with the Tuareg in the desert are the Wodaabe, tending their herds and trying to raise what crops they can. While in the past there might have been clashes over land and water, today the two people share common cause in trying to preserve their way of life. In 2004 musicians from each came together to form the band Etran Finatawa which translates literally into English as "the stars of tradition". While the band's numbers swell to as many as 10 people on occasion the core touring and recording group consists of three Wodaabe and two Tuareg. The band combines the musical traditions of both people and sings in both the Kel Tamashek language of the Tuareg and the Fulfulde of the Wodaabe.

As is the case with Tuareg bands in other regions one of the major focuses of Etran Finatawa is to try and help preserve the traditions of their people. To that end many of the songs they create deal with their history and their cultures. For their latest release, The Sahara Sessions on Riverboat Records, part of the World Music Network, the band eschewed the studio to record in their desert homeland. Sitting under a lean too like tent made from animal skins and sticks, surrounded by recording equipment and looking out into the desert the band recorded all 18 tracks on the album under conditions much the same as those their people have lived in for centuries.
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With the distinctive Tuareg style guitar weaving through every song listeners may well notice similarities with the work of other bands from the region. However, they will also hear some differences. The style and the sound of the percussion played on both Tuareg and Wodaabe drums gives these songs something of a different flavour. One of the drums, the azakalabo - a calabash suspended in water - has a much deeper and resonate sound than most hand drums. Unlike a bass drum it doesn't drive the music, rather it seems to give those songs its utilized on a kind of depth. The sound it produces almost surrounds the other instruments in a kind of three dimensional cocoon and helps the rhythm permeate deeper into the bones of the music.

You'll also notice a sizeable difference in sound when the vocals switch between Alhousseini Mohamed Anivolla of the Tuareg and Bammo Agonia of the Wodaabe. This is especially obvious on the tracks 5 ("An Mataf Germanawen") and 6 ("Eldam") where the former is sung by Anivolla and the latter by Agonia. Anivolla's voice moves along in the lower registers keeping time with the steady rhythm of his guitar and the beat of the drums. As with other Tuareg music there is an almost trance like quality to the song and the voice is a big part of creating the soothing nature of its sound. However, there's also an underlying sense of urgency to his voice which ensures people will listen to what he's saying at the same time they're being eased into moving to the music. The music and the voice combine to pull you into the song and then fill you with both the sound and the message.

Agonia's voice on the other hand lives at the higher end of the scale and has a distinct nasal quality to it. At first it's quite jarring in contrast to Anivolla's mellow sound, but Agonia has a power you can't ignore. Although he's not singing loud his voice is pitched to carry over almost any ambient noise the desert has to offer. You can almost imagine him singing at the head of a caravan snaking across the desert and his voice being the line holding the string of people and animals together. There's something so compelling about his voice you hang on his every syllable in spite of not understanding what he's saying.
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According to the liner notes the band set up camp just outside the town of Korey Gourou in Niger and had a constant stream of visitors stoping by to check out what they were doing. Not only did the band welcome the visitors, they also figured out ways of including them in the recording process. The guests ranged from a group of curious children whom the band spent an afternoon rehearsing in the hand clapping percussion of traditional songs before recording with them. Then there was the night a Tuareg percussionist showed up on his motorcycle with his drum and his playing can be heard on three tracks.

At one point the band was joined by a local Tuareg griot - an oral historian who sings histories instead of telling them - and he joined them in an improvisation of which "Wa Oyan A Wa Imouss I Bastila", track 4, is a short excerpt. The song's lyrics focus on the importance of the Tuareg culture and how it must be kept alive through singing and by ensuring the spread of music and the arts. While this song refers specifically to only one of the two peoples represented on the disc, the message could just as easily refer to either of them. As the years pass it becomes harder and harder for both the Tuareg and the Wodaabe to continue their traditional ways of life.

While the troubles in Mali in 2012 and 2013 (a Tuareg rebellion taken over by Islamic fundamentalists resulted in the banning of all music and the outlawing of any deviation from their interpretation of Islam which would have spelt the end of not only the Tuareg culture but many others) didn't directly effect Niger, it reinforced the precariousness position of the nomadic culture. The music of Etran Finatawa is an attempt to not only remind their own peoples of the importance of their traditional way of life, but as an example of what can be accomplished when they join forces to speak up for themselves.

Not being able to speak the language means we might no be able to understand the specifics of the messages behind the songs, but we can appreciate the the music for its sound and the passion inspiring it. When art is inspired by belief it can reach across the barriers of language and culture to touch our hearts. This album is no exception as each of these songs has a power that has to be heard to be believed.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Etran Finatawa - The Sahara Sessions)

July 21, 2013

Music Review: Roll and Go: Chanteys and Sailor Songs From Grenada


Long before there was a world music category I used to go to a record store in Toronto Ontario Canada called Sam The Record Man. It was a large ramshackle and rambling three story building which took up most of a corner lot on the major drag. The main floor of the building was taken up with popular music in the front and classical music in the back. Walking in off the street was like walking into bedlam, with different music playing out of a variety of speakers and posters advertising everybody from Elvis to the latest chart toppers. Just past the cash register was an old wooden stair case leading to the upper floors. Ascending you entered a quieter world where they stored both jazz and blues and a catch all section called folk.

In those days folk meant everything from Joni Mitchell to the massed pipes of The Blackwatch playing Scottish folk tunes on bagpipes. It was in this section you could also find music from almost every country on earth, everything from the traditional music of obscure island countries in the South Pacific to Inuit throat singers. Most of the records in this section were courtesy of people who travelled the world making what are known as field recordings. Using portable equipment they would set up shop literally anywhere, from somebody's living room to the fields where people were singing as they worked. What these recordings may have lacked in quality was more than compensated for by their authenticity.

The American music anthropologist Alan Lomax travelled all over the world making field recordings, with a strong focus on North and South America. In 1962 he made a trip to the Caribbean which included the outermost western island of Grenada. It was here he made the recordings of the fisherman and sailors who worked the boats plying the waters off the island now being released as the digital recording Roll and Go: Chanteys and Sailor Songs From Grenada by Global Juke Box Records.
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The fourteen tracks you'll hear on this recording don't sound anything like the nice clean gentrified stuff being passed off as sea chanteys in so-called pirate movies gracing the cinemas these days. In fact they're not going to sound much like any recordings you've heard anyone do of this type of music before. The closest thing to it might have been some of Harry Belafonte's calypso versions of old work songs, but those were cleaned up and made pretty for popular audiences. The first thing you'll notice on hearing these songs is you're not going to understand more than one word in 10 of what they sing. For even though you'll recognize the language they're singing as English, their island patois is so strong it's almost impossible to discern individual words.

The next thing you'll notice is the songs are chanted more than sung and while there are a group of men singing, they aren't singing as a group. Instead most of the songs take the form of what's known as call and response. One man, probably the crew chief or the person setting the stroke for men rowing a boat, will call out a line, and the rest of the men will either echo the line back or call out a response to the line as if answering a question. On occasion you'll hear the responding voices call out a variety of answers at once and it might sound confusing to our ears. However, no matter what is being said, or how many different things are being chanted in return, it's always done to the same rhythm as the initial call out.

Some of the songs have titles you might be familiar with, "Blow The Man Down" for instance, and that's not surprising. For these songs are versions of tunes which came from New England and Great Britain. The people of Grenada would have either learned them from sailors putting into port at the island or because they had ancestors who had been slaves on those boats. Wherever the songs came from though, they made them their own by adapting them to the music of the islands. So on occasion you'll hear traces of calypso, soca and even older West African rhythms under familiar sounding lyrics.
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On the majority of the tracks you're going to hear one voice more than others. The man's name is Charlie Bristol and his is the voice leading the others in the call and response. Like everyone else involved Bristol is obviously not a trained vocalist, but he has the type of voice which commands you pay attention. You listen to him calling out the cadences and you almost feel compelled to respond yourself. Even sitting at home you can visualize his crew and him at their oars and his voice easily being heard over whatever sounds the sea or the weather could send in opposition against him.

Roll and Go: Chanteys and Sailor Songs From Grenada is a fascinating collection of songs which gives the listener a glimpse into a way of life possibly dating back to early colonial times. While some of the track's may have familiar titles the way in which they are sung makes them unique. This is an introduction to a culture few of us have ever experienced and a style of music not heard as often as it once was. Even though the songs were recorded on what to us is primitive equipment the sound is remarkably clear and clean. As a historical record this is invaluable, but its true value lies in the enjoyment to be found in listening to these men sing. They might have sung these songs in order to ease the tedium of what must have been hard labour, but you'd never know it by the way they sound.

Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Various Artists - Roll and Go: Chanteys and Sailor Songs From Grenada)

July 18, 2013

Music Review: Various Performers - The Rough Guide To Flamenco


There's a story which says flamenco music has its origins in the 1500s when the Iberian peninsula was being reclaimed by the armies of Spain from the Ottoman Empire. Muslims weren't the only ones fleeing from the Spanish Inquisition who followed the armies hunting down heretics and infidels. Jews and gypsies who had lived relatively peaceful lives under Islamic rule were also being forced to either convert to the one true faith or die. It's said a group of Sephardic Jews and gypsies managed to elude the Inquisition for some time by hiding in caves surrounding the city of Catalonia. During this time they shared much with each other, including their music, and out of this exchange of musical ideas was born flamenco.

While the majority of those hidden in the caves were eventually caught, some escaped and took with them the ideas and sounds they had learned. Stories like these, while romantic, are hard to verify. However, a new release from the Rough Guide Label, part of the World Music Network, The Rough Guide To Flamenco offers at least the suggestion theres some truth to this story. One of the artists included on the disc is a Sephardic Jew singing a flamenco tune in the Ladino language of her people from the time of the Ottoman Empire in Spain.

Israeli born Yasmin Levy is only one of 13 different flamenco performers included on the disc. While each of them come from the same tradition of music, their songs are as distinctly individual as they are. From the family groups who continue the traditions of their Andalusian fore bearers to the modern groups who combine elements of pop, hip hop, Balkan, Latin and even the music of India with the familiar staccato rhythms of the genre, listening to this disc will show you flamenco is much more than you thought it was.
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The first four tracks on the disc, "Buleria Menor" by Son De La Frontera, "Por La Mar Chica Del Puerto" by Mayte Martin, "Cielo Azul" by Lenacay and "El Faro by Jorge Pardo and Agustin Carbonell (El Bola), take the listener from a Cuban flamenco mix, through traditional Andalusian to modern club beats and finally an exploration of jazz and flamenco. However, no matter if it's the club stylings of Lenacay or the soulful voice of Martin, at the heart of each song resides a passion and intensity you'd be hard pressed to find in any other music. Each of them seem to be built like a coiled spring which could explode at any moment, yet never does. The secret power of flamenco is the emotion it hints at roiling just beneath the surface. Like a hidden undertow beneath the seemingly calm surface of an ocean which could suck you under in a matter of seconds.

Yet at the same time, in spite of the passion and rawness inherent to the form, the music is also incredibly elegant. It suggests a certain amount of poise and formality no matter how it's presented. Perhaps it's the tightly woven rhythms of the music and the importance they play in each song which creates this impression. As we listen to the steady tattoo maintained by the strumming of guitars, accented by hand claps (and in some cases boot heels) and percussion accompanying the majority of the songs, one can't help but imagine the rigid pride and dignity of those performing. It's the kind of pride in who you are which creates an air of formality seemingly out of nothing. It's easy to picture individual performers in your mind's eye holding themselves straight and proud as they create this incredible sound. They might not be wearing fancy or elegant clothes, but there's nothing classier than hearing music which speaks of a people's history.

However, the elegance also comes through in how the music is performed. One of the best examples of this is the solo guitar of Carlos Pinana playing "Tarantilla". A third generation flamenco musician Pinana is a classically trained guitarist. His work combines the raw passion of flamenco with the smoothness and agility of his classical training. For just over four minutes his fingers strum, pluck and fly over his guitar's fretboard. One moment he's carefully picking out notes as if they were delicate flowers plucked from a vine and the next he's exploding into the fantastic flourishes which are the signature of flamenco. It's a remarkable display of virtuosity and artistry.
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Of course for sheer passion and pride you can't beat the contribution of Carmelilla Montoya. Performing since the age of seven she is both a singer and a dancer. Her contribution to the disc, "Carmelilla", is probably the epitome of what most of us think of when we hear the word flamenco. Her voice is raw emotion and she sings like her every word comes directly from her soul. Accompanied by guitars and hand claps, and what appears to be the sound of dancers stamping their feet as they move to the music, one moment her voice sinks into the earth's depths and the next its soaring among the clouds alongside the birds.

Just in case you fail to appreciate how diverse modern flamenco has become, the people at Rough Guide have also included a bonus CD by the Argentinian band Al Toque Flamenco, Buena Estrella. They combine flamenco music with their own country's tango to bring an extra bit of spice to what is already quite a flamboyant genre. Somehow or other they manage to bring this mixture off without it seeming like its too much or they're trying too hard to be different. In fact the combination of the two brings out the best in both genres and makes for lively listening.

The Rough Guide To Flamenco provides a great introduction to the genre for those unfamiliar with the music. It will also be interesting for those who have any preconceived notions of what flamenco sounds like as it shows the variety of ways in which the music is being performed today. While the traditional music continues to thrive, there are also those who are keeping the genre from stagnating by experimenting with form and style. Not every track might be to everyone's taste, but you'll be surprised at just how many different ways there are to play flamenco music. However, no matter how you play it, there's still something wild and untamed about flamenco which will get your heart beating and your pulse racing.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Various Performers - The Rough Guide To Flamenco)

July 13, 2013

Music DVD Review: Love For Levon: A Benefit To Save The Barn


When Ronnie Hawkins followed Conway Twitty's advise and moved up to Canada from his native Arkansas on the chance his style of rock and roll would catch on, he brought his band with him. While the rest of them fell by the wayside fairly early on the drummer he brought up from Arkansas stayed on when he hired on local Canadian youngsters to form his newest version of The Hawks, his backing band. Save for a brief time when the rest of the group travelled to England with Bob Dylan and he stayed home, Levon Helm was the drummer for The Band until they retired in 1978.

While primarily the drummer, he would also step out from behind his kit to play mandolin and was one of the key voices giving the band their distinctive vocal sound. While he didn't actually write any of the songs the group was famous for, it was his Arkansas growl fans associated with classics like "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down". If there was something odd about a group of musicians from South Western Ontario playing music with roots planted firmly in American soil, Helm's presence gave them an aura of authenticity. After The Band broke up Helm went on to do some acting in movies and kept on making music. However, it was the setting up of a 200 seat performance space in Woodstock New York, The Barn, which might prove his longest lasting legacy after his death April 19 2012.

Starting in 2004 Helm would host what he called Midnight Rambles featuring some of the biggest names in the music industry. Over the years he and his band were joined by the likes of Elvis Costello. Dr. John, Steve Earle, Kris Kristofferson and a host of others. When it was discovered the throat cancer he had beaten in the late 1990s had returned his dearest wish was the concerts at The Barn would continue after he passed. In an attempt to help out a bunch of his friends and colleagues got together to play some of his favourite tunes on October 3 2012 at the Izod Centre in New Jersey. That concert has now been packaged as a two DVD, two CD set from StarVista Entertainment called simply Love For Levon: A Benefit To Save The Barn.
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With Helm's long time guitarist Larry Campbell and producer/bassist Don Was acting as co-musical directors a plethora of musicians from all eras and genres sat in with one of the two house bands, The Levon Helm Band or an all star band assembled by Was for the night. As on any of these occasions where such a mixed bag of performers are assembled in attempt to provide something for everyone, inevitably there will be some you're not going to like. However, the real pleasure about an event like this are those people who take you by surprise and step outside their normal box.

One of the highlights of the night for me was Bruce Hornsby singing "Anna Lee". Accompanied only by Larry Campbell on violin, with Amy Helm and Theresa Williams singing harmonies, Hornsby sat on a folding chair strumming a dulcimer and sang the song with an aching simplicity. It was mountain music at its finest as the words and music floated out over 20,000 rapt audience members. It was one of those magical moments in music where it seems like the world is holding its breath so as not to disturb what's being created.

I've never been a big fan of Pink Floyd, so I'm not really familiar with what Roger Waters is capable of doing. After joining the band My Morning Jacket for a rendition of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down", he then stepped up to the microphone and sang a song I wasn't familiar with, "Wide River To Cross". It was the perfect choice for both the evening and the performer. The song, written by Buddy and Julie Miller, and recorded by Helm on his Dirt Farmer CD, was a poignant reminder of how Helm wasn't able to complete his personal journey. "I'm only halfway home, I've gotta journey on/To where I'll find, find the things I have lost/I've come a long long road but still I've got some miles to go/I've got a wide, a wide river to cross".

Water's voice might not be what it once was, but his delivery on this song was spot on. He showed an impressive emotional depth and range and allowed the song's lyrics to dictate his delivery. He, like Hornsby earlier, let himself be a conduit for the song and the charged emotional atmosphere of the evening. As a result he gave a remarkably soulful and honest performance.
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Of course there were some other fine performances on the night. Mavis Staples singing "Move Along Train" showed she can still hold her own on stage with people half her age. It was cool to hear Gregg Allman join his former band mate Warren Haynes from the Allman Brothers for a solid rendition of "Long Black Veil". John Hiatt rocked his way through The Band's "Rag Mama Rag" while David Bromberg and Joan Osborne burned up "Don't Do It". However, in spite of these good performances, there was also a sense of something being off about the evening. Whenever anybody attempted to sing a Band song, try as they might, it just didn't sound right. I kept waiting to hear the distinctive vocal harmonies of the original which made the songs unique and they never appeared. Even when everybody came on stage for a finale of "The Weight", they weren't able to capture the sound which made the song so great.

That wasn't the only thing off about the evening either. There were names people were very carefully not mentioning either on stage or on the second DVD disc containing the interviews with those participating. For all everybody loved Helm, he didn't write any of the songs performed during this show. The majority of Band material performed was written by Robbie Robertson, and it was like he doesn't exist anymore. I also found it weird neither Ronnie Hawkins or Bob Dylan were mentioned let alone taking part. After all, they were the two men who gave Helms his start and established him as a professional musician. Maybe Dylan was too busy, but why wasn't Hawkins there? He's still performing and would have fit in a lot more comfortably than some of the people chosen to perform.

Technically speaking you can't find any fault with the production of the DVD as both the audio and the video are clean and the recording sound's great in 5.1 Surround Sound. There's a couple of times where its obvious camera cues were missed as they are late focusing on a soloist, but you have to expect stuff like that at a live concert where there's been very little rehearsal. The second DVD contains interviews with all the performers, and to be honest I didn't wade through them all. The ones I did watch were the usual sort of thing, why they did the gig and when did they first meet/hear Helm. There was only one piece of rehearsal footage included in the special features and its pretty much identical to the performance given during the show. The two CDs in the set contain all the songs from the DVD so you can listen to the music anytime and anywhere.

Love For Levon: A Benefit To Save The Barn is a well produced recording of a concert given October 3 2012 in honour of Levon Helm and to try and ensure the continuation of the work he started when he was alive. Levon Helm Studios, of which The Barn where the Midnight Ramble performances take place is part of, is a place for musicians of all genres and ages to record, perform and learn. It was Helm's attempt to keep a little of the style of music he championed during his career alive and of interest to a new generation. In these days of slick commercialism the rough hewn honesty of his music and work will be sorely missed. While this isn't the perfect recording, like Helm, its heart is in the right place, which more than makes up for any flaws.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Music DVD Review: Love For Levon: A Benefit To Save The Barn)

June 28, 2013

Music Review: Willie Nile - American Ride


The road trip has taken on almost iconic status in American pop culture. From Jack Kerouac's On The Road to quasi philosophical works like Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance the road trip has come to be equated with both searching for personal identity and the quest to discover the truth about America. Part of the popular appeal for this type of story is they usually combine America's love for the automobile and their love of the rugged individual. However, no matter what they find out about themselves, most of those who make the pilgrimage in search of America discover its a country whose identity changes from region to region.

While many are loath to admit America has a multitude of faces singer song writer Willie Nile's latest release, American Ride, on Loud and Proud Records not only recognizes this fact but celebrates it. In some ways this album is Nile's personal road trip as he not only sings about America but about personal discoveries he's made during the course of his journey.

Nile has always managed the delicate task of fusing optimism with a realistic view of the world around him and this album is no exception. The opening track, "This Is Our Time", exhorts listeners to make the most of the opportunities presented to them enjoy the ride of life as much as possible. (Note: Track order in this review is based on an early promotional version of the disc and may differ slightly from the final release) Using the image of a train waiting in the station as a metaphor for life and encouraging people not to miss their ride isn't exactly original. However, as with all of Nile's songs intent and emotional honesty are what really matter and no one has ever sounded more sincere in their encouraging of others to live as fulfilling a life as possible.
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Yet Nile isn't blind to the harsher realities of life. However, he doesn't sing sentimental songs about the troubles of the world, instead he stares them straight in the eye and tells them what he thinks of them. "Holy War" is directly addressed to anyone who uses God to justify killing. Whether suicide bombers or those pointing a gun at somebody else because it's God's will his opinion of them is succinct and to the point, "God's holy, your not". It's not often a popular musician will let his anger and disgust show through so clearly in a song, but Nile has never been one to pull his punches and this song is no exception.

Nile lets his wry sense of humour come through on what is sure to be one of the most misunderstood songs on the album, "God Laughs". In it he has God going about his day and experiencing a variety of human emotions and generally acting like you and me. "God laughs, God cries, God looks for love between your eyes/God gives, God takes, God pumps your gas and slams your brakes/And why?/Because he's God". Maybe some will be offended by this humanizing of the deity, but if they do they're missing the point. Nile's God feels pain and happiness like you and me. He rejoices in our triumphs, mourns at our losses and grieves at the way we treat each other with such callousness. After all, if we're created in his image, doesn't that mean we and He reflect each other?

While these songs, and his cover of Jim Carroll's "People Who Died", are along the lines of personal discoveries, Nile does take us on an actual trip around America. The title song, "American Ride", has him travelling the length and breadth of the country and reminding us of the amazing diversity of music, and by extension, people, to be found from region to region. Starting off with a solo acoustic guitar, the sound gradually fills out as we travel further on his "American Ride". Crisscrossing the nation with a litany of place names and highways he makes it obvious he loves the country. However, there's also something elusive about his reasons for loving it. "Rolling cross the plains through the great Sioux land/As good a place as any where to make our stand/Some might say it's all a dream/Abraham Lincoln Martin Luther King/From rock and roll music to the be-bop jazz/To the unknown soldier giving all he has/From Ellis Island to the Redwood trees/You're untamed beauty got me on my knees".

His referencing of Sioux lands and the elusiveness of the equality dreamed of by two men who were both assassinated shows he's not blind to the country's less than noble past or the problems it still hasn't been able to solve. However, that doesn't mean he can't see or admire its beauty or recognize what has been created by the country's people. Unlike others who go off on a road trip searching for America, Nile already knows his country. While there are those who think blind obedience is the sign of a true patriot, Nile's ability to love his country in spite of its problems makes him seem a far greater patriot than somebody who says "my country right or wrong".

Nile is probably one of the most versatile songwriters and performers around today. He may not have what anybody would call a melodic voice, on occasion it sounds like gravel being scrapped over sandpaper, but the range of expression he can produce with it allows him to perform more styles of music than most people would even think of attempting. He can rip through a high speed rock song with ease and the very next instant be singing what's basically a traditional folk song, "The Crossing". As you journey through this album you'll find traces of country, blues, punk, soul, R&B, and nearly every other kind of music associated with American pop culture.

Not only can he play and sing all these types of music seemingly effortlessly, he can also write in each genre with equal ease. Listening to his songs it's easy to become caught up in the music and miss out on the lyrics. However, once you start paying attention to what Nile is saying you'll realize there's more to his material then what first meets the ear. His lyrics are deceptively meaningful as at first listen they sound rather straight forward. Yet, they not only stay in your mind, once you start thinking about them in the context of a song's theme, they reveal their hidden depths are made obvious. Unlike a lot of people he doesn't try to impress you with his vocabulary, instead he uses the same language most of use in everyday life. It seems that what's being said is far more important to Nile than how it is said.
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Like the great folk singers, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Billy Bragg for example, Nile sings about the things he cares about in as straight forward and honest a way as possible. He may not strike people as a folk musician, however his music has the same sort of straight from the heart honesty and passion as anybody playing solo acoustic guitar. If you listen closely you can hear echoes of every great song ever written about America in his music as he asks all the right questions and searches for answers.Any answers he might find may not always be pretty and, they may not always be what people want to hear, but you know they're always going to be truthful.

American Ride is the latest instalment in Nile's recording of the journey he set out on back in the 1970s when he started out by playing coffee houses in New York City. It's been a great voyage up until now, and if this album is any indication, not only is it a long way from over, there's still plenty to hear and see from Willie Nile.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Willie Nile - American Ride)

(Photo Credit: Photo of Willie Nile by Lucas Noonan)

May 31, 2013

Music Review: Townes Van Zandt - High, Low and In Between & The Late Great Townes Van Zandt


Something I've never understood is why people romanticize alcoholics. Even worse is why they see somebody dying a sad and lonely death as a result of their addiction proof of their authenticity as an artist. Why can't they understand the drugs and booze which resulted in these people's death also prevented many of these artists from achieving their potential. Yet people like Graham Parsons have obtained near mythical status more because of the way he lived and died than through his body of work.

I mention Parson specifically because of his associations with country music and early attempts at marrying it with pop music. For while he has achieved a great deal of notoriety after his death one who was far more prolific and influential has until recently been largely ignored. For some reason, while his talent was always recognized by his peers, Townes Van Zandt, never managed to capture the public's imagination in the same way as people like Parson.

Maybe it was because he was genuinely unwell, suffering from severe depression all his life and diagnosed by the medical profession as everything from bipolar to manic depressive. Turning to alcohol to combat his depression only made matters worse and he spent a great deal of his life living in isolation.
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Most of his income came from other musicians covering his material as his albums didn't sell that well. However, listening to Van Zandt perform his own material makes you appreciate he was more than just a gifted songwriter and his influence extends far beyond people covering his material. Earlier this year a two disc set of studio out takes and demos, Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions and Demos 1971-1972, was released. The recording sessions were made during what is considered Van Zandt's most productive time as an artist. Now, the label who released that collection, Omnivore Recordings, in conjunction with the Van Zandt estate, have released remastered editions of the two albums on which the bulk of the material from those sessions appeared, High, Low and In Between and The Late Great Townes Van Zandt.

While you might think there's something eerily prescient about the title of the latter, it was more of an example of Van Zandt's sense of irony than any foreknowledge he might have had about his death. It was on this album he recorded "Pancho and Lefty", later a hit for first, Emmylou Harris and then Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. Ironically, after his death it was revealed during the last few years of his life Van Zandt had earned around $100,000.00 per year from royalties.

Musically Van Zandt was the place where country, blues, folk and gospel hung out together. While some songs, like "Two Hands" and "When He Offers His Hand" on High, Low And In Between are specifically gospel, the most memorable tracks are the ones which defy any specific classification. "You Are Not Needed Now" and "To Live Is To Fly" from the same disc and "Sad Cinderella" and "Don't Let The Sunshine Fool You" from The Late Great Townes Van Zandt resonate with a sound and a quality distinct to Van Zandt.
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It's like he had the ability to reach into the places we hide our innermost fears and desires and find a way of turning them into song. Yet, he doesn't try to manipulate our emotions or reactions through sentiment or any of the other ploys other songwriters employ. His lyrics reflect an uncanny ability to empathize with people's feelings. Listening to some of his songs you may wonder how he managed to read your mind because of the way he was able to articulate the secrete hopes, dreams and fears most of us keep buried in the deeper recesses of our souls. While his songs are always about something in specific, he managed to make it feel like he was singing about something you'd experienced. "When the bandits have stolen your jewelry and gone/And your crippled young gypsy, he's grown tall and strong/And your dread misconceptions have proven you wrong/Well then princess,where you plannin' to turn to?" ("Sad Cinderella" Townes Van Zandt, The Late Great Townes Van Zandt)

When you hear him sing your first impression is of a rather thin voice whose twang reveals his Texas roots. Yet there's something about it which draws you into a song quicker and deeper than most singers. Maybe because his voice sounds so regular there's less of a barrier between him and his audience than if he had a more melodic voice or polished singing style. The raw simplicity of his delivery gives it an honesty and sincerity we aren't used to hearing. By eschewing the flourishes and decorative elements so many singers employ, material, which in other's hands would risk sounding mawkish, remains emotionally honest.

One of the oddest experiences of listening to both of these Van Zandt discs is hearing a song which reminds you of some other performer. The natural reaction to this is to automatically think, wow he sounds just like so and so. It's only then you remember the song was released more then a decade before the one it sounded like. That's when you begin to appreciate just how much of an influence he was on those who came after him.
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Like the human condition Van Zand't songs are funny, sad, emotional and sometimes just matter of fact. The dryness of his humour and his delivery make it easy to miss some of the subtler moments in his songs. One of my favourites is the chorus of "Pancho and Lefty", "All the federales say/They could have had him any day/They only let him hang around/Out of kindness I suppose". Who ever heard of a cop letting an outlaw "hang around" out of kindness? It's these little touches which distinguished Van Zandt from most of his contemporaries and those who have come after him.

Steve Earle was once quoted as saying he thought Van Zandt was the best songwriter in the world and "I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that". Whether you agree with that sentiment or not after listening to Van Zandt's music is up to you. However one thing you won't be able to deny is this man was an amazing talent whose artistry has been overlooked for far too long.
When lessor lights are held up as examples of great talents because of our fascination with their untimely deaths due to substance abuse isn't it about time we start to recognize those among the troubled who were the truly talented? While his fellow musicians have always known the gift Van Zandt was to popular music it's about time for the rest of the world to catch up. You won't believe what you've been missing for all these years.

(Article first published at Blogcitics.org as Music Review - Townes Van Zandt High, Low and In Between & The Late Great Townes Van Zandt)

May 22, 2013

Music Review: Pinata Protest - El Valiente


Prior to the Internet most of us wouldn't have any idea of what was going on musically in the city two hundred miles away from us let alone across the continent. Now with bands having access to You Tube and sites like Soundcloud allowing them to post music on line for audiences around the world to hear you can be living in the Yukon and listen to a bar band from Southern California. While this means bands who can now reach people around the world it doesn't necessarily mean they will become any more popular or well known because of it. Faced with the work of having to sift through thousands of hours of music on line, sorting the gems from the dross, most people will elect to stick with what they already know.

As a critic I receive countless press releases each day regarding bands of all genres from all over the world. To be honest if I don't already have an interest in what's being promoted it will take something quite extraordinary to prevent me from hitting the delete button on my email program let alone requesting a copy of a CD. Reviewing anything is a sizeable investment of time and energy which I'm not about to expand lightly. However, once in a while I'll get a feeling a band might be something special and request a copy of their disc. Such was the case with the newest disc from the San Antonio based Pinata Protest, El Valiente, released by Saustex Media and Cosmica Records.

Maybe it was the words, accordion fronted punk rock band which attracted my attention, or the fact they supposedly combined the raw energy of punk with the music of their Chicano heritage. Whatever it was I'm glad I took a chance on listening to these guys. Front man Alvaro Del Norte, vocals and accordion, J. J. Martinez, drums, and twin brothers Marcus and Matt Cazares on bass and guitar respectively have created some sort of perfect alchemy which allows them to inject the anarchy and berserker tendencies of punk into traditional Latino music. The results are an odd mixture of four guys having a really good time creating musical havoc and pointing a not so subtle middle finger at American stereotypes of Hispanic culture.
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Being from the northern reaches of North America not only don't I speak a word of Spanish I couldn't tell the difference between norteno and conjunto if you paid me. Probably the closest you can get to a Latino cultural experience in Eastern Ontario, Canada where I live is whatever is on the menu of the local plastic "Mexican American" franchise eatery. My only exposure to Latin music has been whatever has managed to seep into American pop music courtesy of people like Willy DeVille, seeing Tito Puente the one time I was in New York City and the cliches which show up in television cartoons. Of course, like anyone else, I can recognize a Mariachi tune when it hits me in the face, but otherwise the music and the history is as alien to me as if were from another planet.

However, none of this prevents me from recognizing Pinata Protest is doing something special. Maybe it's the fact an accordion features in both band's sound, but one of my first impressions was these guys are a Latino version of Irish punks The Pogues. If anyone ever doubted there was a cultural connection between the Spanish and the Irish listen to a song from each band right after each other and you'll be amazed at the similarities. It's not just because both bands have taken traditional folk music and ramped them up to warp speed or even the in your face attitude they share. Listening to Pinata Protest you're as liable to want to dance a crazed jig a la Lord of the Dance on speed as anything else.

It's not who they sound like though which makes these guys great. It's what they do with their sound which blows me away. First of all they might play fast, loose and loud, but they are also incredibly tight. While Del Norte is pummelling the accordion and letting loose with rapid fire vocals - unless you listen closely there are times when you can't tell if he's singing in Spanish or English - bass, drums and guitar are laying down the solid foundation required to keep the music from descending into chaos. They do their job so well even at the speed they are playing you are able to distinguish the differences between their music and straight ahead punk.
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I may not be able to tell one type of Latin music from another or be conversant with the varieties of traditional Mexican folk music, but I can tell when the melodies and rhythms a band are using for the basis of their sound aren't typical blues based rock and roll. In the case of Pinata Protest the band does an amazing job of ensuring whatever flavour of music they happen to be interpreting is never lost in their chaotic presentation.

As for their lyrical content I had to rely on Del Norte's ability to communicate intent through vocal inflections and the way in which he sang the songs on the disc rather than listening to what he was saying. Thankfully his voice, well rough, is also remarkably expressive. Whether he's singing in Spanish or English it doesn't make a difference for he is able to modulate his tone and his delivery in such a way as to ensure listeners get the general idea of what he's trying to communicate. In part I think this is because he's most concerned with ensuring his audience remembers the purpose of popular music is to inject a little anarchy into our lives. If you think of his vocals as another instrument, and not worry about what he's saying, it's hard not to let yourself get caught up in the wild fun of what you're listening to.

However, that doesn't preclude the band's music from occasionally having a rather pointed message. There's probably never been a song more associated with American stereotypes of Latinos than "La Cucaracha". Pinata Protest perform a version of this song done at the speed of light and with a snarl that turns it into declaration of defiance and anger. It's like they're daring you to think of them as cute little sombrero wearing mice. This is one mouse who isn't going to be pushed around by anyone any more. Watching the video for this tune will not only give you a good idea of what I mean, but it's a quick introduction to the band and their sound.

El Valiente is the name used to refer to the masked Mexican wrestlers, but it also loosely translates as the valiant one. Pinata Protest's music may or may not be valiant, but it sure as hell is strong, powerful and a whole lot of fun to listen to. For those used to a diet of the Serena Gomez's and the plastic world of Chi Chi's, this might be a little hard on the digestion. But if you've got the stomach for something hot, spicy and spiked with the worm at the bottom of the tequila bottle, you're in for a treat.

(Article first published as Music Review: Pinata Protest - El Valiente on Blogcritics)

May 14, 2013

Music Review: I Can Lick Any Son Of A Bitch In The House - Mayberry


The idea punk rock and country music could find common ground must seem pretty unlikely to most fans of popular music. However, it shouldn't really be too much of a surprise. If you think back to the early days of rock and roll when the music was still a hybrid of country and blues. Rockabilly was simple three chord music which captured the imagination of young people because it was different from anything that had come before. It was music stripped down to the basics usually played by three to four musicians. It was fast and furious, full of energy and didn't sound like anything anybody's parents were listening to.

The 1970s saw rock and roll becoming a big business. Its rebellious nature had long since been tamed and neutered and the music was now safe for mass consumption. So when punk came along with its whiff of anarchy and revolution all wrapped up in three minute three chord songs, a new generation of rebellious teenagers had something they could call their own. It definitely wasn't the music their parent's listened to. It was raw, powerful and in your face in a way music hadn't been in years. However, you didn't need to look very closely to see the similarities between it and what had come out of Sun Records in the 1950s. Three or four musicians playing stripped down music at speed.

While the folks in Nashville might not like it, but Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Elvis have more in common with Johnny Rotten and Joe Strummer than any of the rhinestone set who appear on stage at the Grand Ole Opry these days. Thankfully there are still some bands out there who understand this connection and one who I've just come across now are the in your face named I Can Lick Any Son Of A Bitch In The House. While the band's name might lead you to believe they're a bunch of good ole boy red necks who sing about the joys of bar fights and moonshine, listening to their soon to be released new CD, Mayberry, quickly dispels that impression.
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Musically they're a hard driving rock and roll band who mix the earthiness of country with the anger and danger of punk. Their line up might resemble your average blues based rock and roll bar band; lead singer/guitarist (Michael Dean Damron) harmonica (David Lipkind) drums (Flapjack Texas) bass (Mole Harris) and second guitar (Jon Burbank), but you only have to hear one song to know they are not your average anything. In fact, it's pretty safe to say average would take one look at these guys and run away screaming with its tail between its legs.

It's not that their music is abrasive or they look particularly odd - no noticeable piercings, strange clothes or any of the so called badges of punk to be seen among them - but their lyrics will make quite a number of people uncomfortable. Starting with the opening and title track of the disc, "Mayberry", and with a only a couple of exceptions, each of them has something to say about the state of life in the United States, and the world, which doesn't jibe with the vision espoused by the family values/ National Rifle Association crowd.

The title of "Mayberry" is a reference to the name of the town in the old Andy Griffith Show but it's sure not a song of praise for small town rural America. Contrasting the idealized world of the television show with reality depicts the breadth of the gap between fact and fiction. "I saw my mama get beat again/he put her head right through the door/daddy always cleaned his guns in front of me/so I shut down my heart and I turned on my TV/so I shut down my heart and I turned on my TV/They don't make men like Andy Griffith any more/Mayberry is dead and gone"

If "Mayberry" doesn't raise people's hackles, and maybe it could be construed as wishing for a gentler, kinder America, which only ever existed in the minds of television executives and conservative politicians, there's no mistaking what's being said in "Bones", the disc's sixth track. "Go on now tell me about religion/why we all choose a side/got our flags and our weapons/tell me why so many die in your name/in your name.../we're all just bones in the end/all just bones". Of course some people may not be able to get past the first verse of the song where Damron address God directly without having an apoplectic fit, "If I'm made in your image/don't want to be a bit like you anymore/anymore".
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The thing is, unlike other bands Damron and company aren't trying to shock people. No there's something far more powerful at work here. These are songs about disillusionment with the bullshit we're all fed about country, god and whatever way of life is espoused by the politicians in your neighbourhood. Sure he's singing about America, because that's where he lives, but the lyrics could apply to any country, any religion and any political system on the face of the earth. However, what makes them so potent is you come away from listening to their songs left with no doubt as to their sincerity.

Even a song like "My Guitar", a basic praise song to those musicians who influenced Damron, escapes being the sentimental tripe these types of things normally turn out to be. In part this is due to the style of music the band plays. Rough hewn rock and roll with its country and blues roots showing and not an overdub or electronic sound to be heard. While there are plenty of bands who do the same thing, these guys bring something extra to the table which elevates their sound into something special. It's hard to describe in words, but maybe its how the music works in concert with the lyrics and Damron's voice and delivery which takes them out of the realm of merely being another bar band.

Damron has one of those voices which can only be described as raw passion. There's nothing refined or pretty about it. He strains and pushes to reach notes and his voice sometimes cracks with the effort involved in getting the words out. However, this is no artfully constructed artifice nor some sort of affectation. Each word sounds like its being dragged out of his heart and spat out with all the passion of his soul. He's one of those rare singers who sound truly possessed by the spirit of his music and the need to sing his songs. It wouldn't matter if there were ten people or 10,000 in his audience, you just know he would sound exactly the same.

Punk rock isn't necessarily a few people on stage playing as fast as they can and screaming incoherently into their microphones. It's about the willingness to do things your own way and express thoughts others might not be willing to say. Rock and roll in the 1950s was something threatening because it challenged the established notions of what constituted popular music and encouraged its audience to express themselves in ways their parents didn't approve. In the 1970s punk did much the same thing and tossed the social/political content of folk music into the mix.

I Can Lick Any Son Of A Bitch In The House might not sound like we've been told punk is supposed to sound like. Yet the spirit, verve and sincerity they bring to their music makes it just as dangerous and frightening to those who value conformity as anything Elvis, Johnny Cash, The Sex Pistols or The Clash gave us. If that ain't punk, I don't know what is. While Mayberry won't be officially released until early June 2013 the band is selling copies of the disc at gigs from now until then. For details about upcoming shows where the disc will be for sale check the band's web site.

Photo Credit: Band photo by Jocelyn Dean

(Article first published as Music Review: I Can Lick Any Sonofabitch In The House - Mayberry on Blogcritics.)

April 29, 2013

Music Review: Various Artists - Live From Festival au Desert Timbuktu


Near the end of February 2013 I wrote an article outlining the situation in Northern Mali and how the ongoing armed conflict had forced the cancellation of the annual Festival au Desert. This music and cultural festival has been held since 2001 in one of two places in Northern Mali to commemorate the peace treaty negotiated between the Tuareg tribesman of the region and the Malian government. The dates its held on in January of each year also coincide with the traditional gathering of the various tribal groups of Tuareg whose territory stretches North into Algeria and to Niger in the south. For such a scattered and nomadic people these annual gatherings were an opportunity to resolve any differences that might have come up during the year between tribal groups and to make plans for the coming year.

The modern version of the festival started off as a celebration of African culture, specifically the people of the Sahara Desert region but also surrounding countries as well. Since 2003 it has gradually expanded to include acts from other parts of the world with major pop stars like Robert Plant and Bono taking part. With the rest of the world not being able to come to the festival this year organizers have been working out various means of bringing the festival to the world. They are attempting to book various acts to tour both North America and Europe during the summer and fall of 2013 for special Festival in Exile concerts. Already shows are planed as part of Chicago Illinois's fall music festival season and across the sea in Norway during November.

In an attempt to give people an idea of the type of music they can expect at these concerts the festival is releasing the CD Live From Festival au Desert, Timbuktu April 30 2013 on the Clermont Music label. Recorded during the festival in 2012, the disc gives listeners an example of the incredible diversity of music and musical styles on offer at the festival. From artists who are well known throughout the world like Bassekou Koutaye master of the ngoni, members of the renowned Tuareg band Tinariwen playing with the Indo Canadian singer Kiran Ahluwalia, (Tinariwen also backed up this guy named Bono at 2012's festival, but he didn't make it onto the recording) to groups playing traditional chants from Mali.
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While the title of the disc includes the word Timbuktu, the festival wasn't actually held in the city, its just merely the point of entry for those wishing to attend. Instead it was held a couple of hours drive out in the dessert from the city. Pictures of the festival site show a stage set up in the bottom of a naturally occurring bowl in amongst the sand dunes and scrub brush of the Sahara. Camels and land rovers dote the surrounding area as do tents of various sizes and construction. Modern nylon tents are nestled in beside the traditional felt and goat skin constructions of the nomadic Tuareg.

While you won't find the micro-brewery beer tents or the booths selling licensed memorabilia which dot the landscape at most modern music festivals you can watch camel races and appreciate the splendour of the multi-coloured clothes worn by men and women alike. You might also be tempted to adopt the turban/veil assembly worn by so many of the Tuareg men in order to keep the worst of the sun's heat off your head and gusting sand out of you mouth and nose. Away from the stage you may also take in performances in the various tribal encampments and listen to the ululating voices of women's groups or endless guitar jams.

However, everybody comes to see the performers who are gracing the stage and this disc contains a sampling of 18 tracks culled from all the music played over the course of the weekend. It starts with a simple welcoming speech in French - a hangover from colonial days maybe, but still the common tongue among the different people attending and performing. Even in the welcoming speech you might notice the sound is a bit rough. The recording was taken directly from the sound board and was limited to only two tracks. As a result there are times when the sound either distorts or is fuzzy as the equipment was simply not up to the task of containing the energy and enthusiasm of the performers.
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While some might find the iffy quality of the sound hard to take or even be put off by it, consider the conditions under which the recording was made. The concert takes place in the desert where electricity is limited which in turns limits the amount of equipment you're able to use. The priority would have been ensuring the crowd on hand was able to hear the music and the fact anyone even thought to hook up recording equipment to the two out puts available is amazing. Anyway, the sound may be rough. but it captures the feeling of being one of those lucky people crammed down near the front of the stage or sitting further back on a desert evening listening to the music.

You may never have heard of Baba Djire, Efes, or Orchestre du Takamba, the songs they perform or even understand what the songs are about. What you will understand while listening to this disc is what an amazing experience it is to be out in the middle of the Sahara Desert with the stars overhead and the sand around you listening to music. In this video trailer put out by the festival promoting the disc and the festival itself you'll find background information that not only summarizes the history of the event but the situation in Mali earlier in the year which forced organizers to cancel this year's event. Most of all it will provide you with the images from the festival which will supply the fuel your imagination needs to picture yourself standing in front of the stage with people from all over the world listening to some incredible music.

Like the festival itself Live From Festival au Desert, Timbuktu is filled with the raw passion of music being performed by artists who are not only musicians by profession but by vocation as well. They don't play out of any desire for celebrity or recognition, but because the music is their way of expressing who they are and what they believe in. You don't have to understand the lyrics to appreciate the sound of pure unadulterated passion. While the sound quality may not be up to the standards you're used to, the music is far superior to most of what you'll hear at more so called professional events. This is as close as you can get to being at Festival au Desert without actually travelling to the Sahara desert.

(Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - Live from Festival au Desert, Timbuktu on Blogcritics.)

Photo Credit: Photo of Festival Chris Nolen

April 9, 2013

Music Review: Koby Israelite - Blues From Elsewhere


When I was younger the mere site of an accordion would be enough to send me running. It was the instrument of Lawrence Welk and the worst sort of music imaginable. As my musical horizons broadened I learned this instrument, once the butt of so many jokes and derisive comments, had been unfairly maligned. Once you've heard zydeco and klezmer music you gain new respect for the accordion. However, nothing I'd heard before prepared me for what Koby Israelite does with it on his new release, Blues From Elsewhere, on Asphalt Tango Records.

While the disc has been out in Europe since March, its just being released in North America on Tuesday April 9 2013. The 16 tracks take you on a musical trip around the world as Israelite and his accomplices in musical adventurism blend genres and cultures in as extravagant display of virtuosity as I've ever heard. From North America to the Middle East, Eastern Europe and down to South East Asia probably the only continent missed out is Australia. Along the way you'll hear almost every instrument you can think of, with Israelite playing most of them. Yaron Stavi plays electric and acoustic bass on every track save seven ("Subterranean Homesick Blues"), 10 ("Rural Ghost") and 16("Kashmir"), while other guests join in on a couple of songs. Tigran Alexksanyan plays duduk and clarinet on "Lemi Evke", track 12, and "Kashmir", Ofir Gal adds electric guitar to "Lemi Evke" and John Telfer plays tenor saxophone on "Just Cliches", track 15.

While Israelite also contributes vocals, he has enlisted the aid of two highly contrasting, but equally powerful female vocalists for three of the songs. One of the highlights of the recording has to be his version of Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" featuring Annique on lead vocals. It starts off sounding like it might be a klezmer version of the song as Annique sings the opening verse to accordion accompaniment in the sort of slow and almost mournful manner klezmer sometimes takes. Then, with a suddenness almost heart stopping, it rips into overdrive with Annique belting out the lyrics overtop screaming electric guitar to only have it drop back into her and the accordion again.
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On paper that might sound weird but believe me it's bloody amazing. You can check out the video for the song and it will give you a fairly good idea of how well it works. The video also gives you a good idea of Israelite's sense of humour. Dylan put out a short film for the song way back when and it featured him holding up pieces of cardboard with the lyrics to the song. Israelite uses a computer tablet to do the same thing, although its not necessarily displaying the lyrics, but random words which may or may not have anything to do with the song.

While Annique handles what could be called the Western vocal duties on the disc, she's also featured on the intriguingly titled second track, "Why Don't You Take My Brain And Sell It To The Night?", Mor Karbasi's vocals on "Lemi Evke" take us to the other side of the world. While Karbasi is famous for singing in Ladino, the language of Sephardic Jews in Moorish Spain, here she sings in Hebrew in what is described in the liner notes as Jewish blues. While it doesn't sound like any blues song you've heard before, there's no denying the weight of sorrow conveyed by Karbasi's voice. At one point she has overdubbed her own harmonies and sends her voice soaring up into the heavens overtop of her lead and you feel chills up your spine.

It's at this point that Israelite shows his genius for arrangements. For as Karbasi's voice is keening up in the higher registers he adds a clarinet to the mix. As you listen to what is apparently Karbasi's voice rising higher and higher on the scale you all of sudden realize she's no longer singing the harmony but the clarinet has taken it over and is carrying the notes even higher. The transition from voice to instrument is so subtle and beautifully done they could be interchangeable.
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While the two women guest vocalists stand out vividly the consistent star of the show is still Israelite. From the opening tribute to Johnny Cash, "Johnny Has No Cash No More", a burst of Cash sounding licks on accordion turned into just under two minutes of fun, to "Peckham Rai", a heady mixture of Western and Arabic pop music bridging the two worlds effortlessly, he shows he can play almost any instrument he lays his hands on. Even more important though is how he redefines the whole idea of world music.

According to genre classifications world music is sort of a catch all for any music, folk to pop, not readily identifiable as North American or British. Instead of partitioning music by ethnicity Israelite finds the common ground between cultures and weaves them together. His music is anarchy made real as it knows no borders or boundaries and ignores all laws and conventions. With the accordion leading the way he shows how a love of music can bring disparate cultures together without them having to surrender either their identities or having any one assume dominance.

Anybody who was fed a diet of Lawrence Welk will find it hard to think of the accordion as either revolutionary or an instrument of change. After listening to Blues From Elsewhere not only will you radically reevaluate your opinion of the accordion, but rethink the whole notion of world music. While others might dabble with music from other cultures to give their own music some additional flavour, Israelite immerses himself in all music equally. He knows it's our differences which make us unique and are a source of pride. His music not only celebrates those differences but also shows their potential to co-exist in harmony. It might just be for a few minutes in a song - but that's a start. We just need more people to follow his lead.

(Article first published as Music Review: Koby Israelite - Blues From Elsewhere on Blogcritics.)

April 2, 2013

Music Review: Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni ba - Jama ko


It is sometimes said music gives voice to the concerns of a people. While this may not be as true in North American popular music as it once was in countries with a history of an oral tradition music is a key element in the telling of the people's stories. In West Africa griots are historians, storytellers, poets and musicians rolled into one. However, not only do they learn and recount the history of their tribe and its important people, they are also expected to be able to create songs about the state of the of the world around them in the present day.

While not all popular musicians in the region are griots, its a hereditary post passed from father to son involving years of study and preparation, it doesn't stop them from sharing many of the same attributes. So when the Tuareg uprising in Northern Mali turned into something that was far more insidious with repercussions effecting the entire country, it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone if a response shows up on an album of popular music.

Bassekou Kouyate was in the recording studio in the capital city of Mali, Bamako, when the military overthrew the democratically elected government of Amadou Toumani Toure in March 2012. With tensions mounting between the various ethnic groups in the country due to fear and anger and the very real danger real danger of reprisals and crackdowns on musicians, Kouyate wrote and recorded Jama ko, now available in North America on Out here records.
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With Islamic extremists in the North rounding up musicians and destroying and confiscating musical equipment and the Malian army's history of targeting musicians who make waves, making the record was an act of extraordinary courage. Yet not only did Kouyate make this record, he recorded songs meant to inspire hope and defiance among the people of Mali. The disc's title song, "Jama ko", translates literally as "a big gathering of people", and is a celebration of the country's diversity. It is a call for unity and tolerance and encourages people, no matter who they are, to come together, enjoy life and celebrate the true spirit of Mali.

While the country's population is more than 90% Muslim, Kouyate explains in a statement about the disc, their version of Islam has nothing in common with the strict imposition of Sharia law the forces in the North were trying to force upon people. Music has not only played a role in the recounting of their histories, it has also been a major part of their worship as praise songs for the prophet Mohammad have been written and sung for hundreds of years. He concludes with the simple yet telling statement. "If the Islamists stop people music-making they will rip the heart out of Mali".

Well in spite of frequent power outages, a curfew and fuel shortages Kouyate makes some fine music on Jama ko. He plays the West African string instrument known as the ngoni. This is basically a hollowed out gourd covered by a piece of raw-hide, usually goat skin, with a piece of doweling stuck in one end strung with anywhere from 4 to 7 strings depending on the tone the player wishes to create. The strings are plucked in the same manner someone would pluck a banjo, an instrument which in all probability was inspired by the ngoni. However it has a much more flexible sound than its modern descendant. In the hands of an accomplished player like Kouyate, for all its simplicity of construction, a ngoni can produce leads as ornate as any guitar.

Aside from being accompanied by his two sons Madou and Moustafa and fellow ngoni player Sissoko, special guest vocalists are dotted through out the recording. Two of the songs aside from the title track which relate directly to the situation in Mali at the time the recording was made are "Sinaly", featuring Kasse Mady Diabate on lead vocals and "Kele magni". The first song is about Sialy Diarra a king of the Bamara people who was famous for resisting an attempt in the 19th century of the imposition of Sharia law. While to audiences outside of Mali the significance of this might be lost, those within the country would be familiar with the history and be inspired by its message of standing up for their own culture.
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On this song we also hear how Kouyate has absorbed a variety of musical influences from around the world as there is a decided "Latin" feel to the track in spite of its very Afrocentric subject matter. Sacko and Arby are from Timbuktu in Northern Mali in the heart of the area where the uprising was taking place. In fact Timbuktu was captured by the rebel forces at about the time the recording was made, "Kele magni", which is a direct call for peace in the country, features a beautiful duet between the two guest vocalists. As the two singers would obviously be persecuted for being musicians if they had returned home while Timbuktu was occupied, the song and its message become all the more powerful.

One of the more compelling pieces on the disc is the track "Wagadou", It's one of those occasions where not being able to speak the language of those singing doesn't make a bit of difference to the emotional impact of a song. The rather pensive and moody atmosphere Kouyate manages to create with just his ngoni and some keyboards added in the mixing process by producer Howard Bilerman offers us a glimpse at Kouyate's diversity as a musician and his willingness to experiment with sound.

Among the special guests to appear on this recording the one who will be most familiar to North American audiences is the great Taj Mahal. He and Kouyate perform a great blues duet on the track "Poye 2", in French.They trade leads back and forth on guitar and ngoni and exchange duties on lead vocals. The mix of African French and what sounds like Mahal's creole French is wonderful and their instrumental duets are a brilliant melding of the old world with the new. If you ever needed proof of the old saying music knows no language and doesn't recognize borders, this song is it.

It's not often we think of the act of recording music in terms of bravery. In the case of the latest disc from Kouyate and his fellow musicians their recording was both an act of defiance in the face of those who would ban music and an act of celebration honouring their traditions and their culture. What's even more amazing is even in the best of circumstances this would be an excellent collection of music featuring great musicians. Considering the conditions under which it was recorded it's astounding the disc was ever made, let alone is of such a high quality both artistically and technically. It takes a real devotion and love for your art to overcome these kinds of obstacles and produce work of such quality. Listen to this album and hear what love sounds like.

(Article first published as Music Review: Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba - Jama Ko on Blogcritics.)


March 26, 2013

Music Review: The Waterboys - An Appointment With Mr. Yeats


While many people think song lyrics and poetry are interchangeable, the truth of the matter is there are very few song writers whose work matches up against poetry. On the other hand, just because a poem is wonderful to read doesn't mean it would necessarily make a good song. For while lyrics are written with the intent of setting them to music, including such considerations as melody and rhythm, a poet rarely concerns him or herself with those issues. People like Leonard Cohen, who records his poetry as songs with little or no alteration to their lyrics or meaning, are an exception.

Maybe that's one of the reasons such a relatively small amount of pre existing poetry is set to music. Certainly there have been attempts, but considering the amount of English language poetry available, the number is insignificant. So when I heard that Mike Scott &The Waterboys had released an album of music based on the poetry of Irish poet William Butler Yeats I was intrigued. Originally released in 2011 in the UK on Proper Records An Appointment With Mr. Yeats is now available in North America.

The album was obviously a labour of love for Scott as it wasn't something he rushed into. Over the course of two decades he gradually chose and adapted the poems used on this recording. His intent was to make a collection of songs which would sound no different from other Waterboys' recordings, with lyrics written by a guest artist. "The best thing is when people don't realize they were written a hundred years ago, but just hear them and think, 'That's a song", he's quoted as saying in the press materials accompanying the CD.
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I don't think anyone is going to mistake the language of poetry written in the early part of the twentieth century for something penned today. I'm sure there are songwriters who may write about the same subject matter, Celtic and Greek mythology and philosophers of the ancient world like Pythagorus, but I seriously doubt they would use the same turns of phrase as Yeats. However Scott and the Waterboys have certainly succeeded in turning the poems selected into modern songs. Anyone familiar with the band's sound from earlier albums This Is The Sea and Fisherman's Blues will recognize their distinctive flavour throughout this disc.

The question is does this marriage of modern post punk pop and early 20th century poetry work? Some purists might find Scott's interpretations difficult and jarring because of the nature of their sound. However, if you listen to the lyrics accompanying the music, you'll realize Scott has done a wonderful job of creating music which expresses the emotions and thoughts in the poem. The song leading off the disc, "The Hosting Of The Shee", (or Sidhe) celebrates mythical Celtic warrior heroes. marching off to war. "The winds awaken, the leaves whirl round/Our cheeks are pale, our hair unbound/Our breasts are heaving, our eyes are apart/And if any gaze on our rushing band/We come between him and the deed of his hand/We come between him and the hope of his heart."

The music accompanying these lyrics express both the thrill of watching these mythical warriors of the fairy world marching off to war while at the same time capturing the effects of their passing on the natural world. As you listen to the words of the poem come together with the music you can visualize the wild and fey army marching through the world and nature reacting to their passage. It's as frightening and jarring as you might imagine it would be witnessing the passage of such creatures.

Of course Yeats didn't just write about mystical and ancient Ireland, he wrote about what he saw around him as well. Scott makes sure we remember that by including a version of "September 1913", Yeats' poem about what's come to be known as the Dublin Lockout. Labourers had gone on strike for better working conditions and were betrayed by the church and Irish politicians. In his poem Yeats asks is this what our freedom fighters died for? Did we throw off the yoke of one master only to trade it for another? "Romantic Ireland's dead and gone/It's with O'Leary in the grave".
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If that wasn't potent enough for you, Scott has also included a version of the simple yet haunting "Let The Earth Bear Witness". It's a beautiful prayer of remembrance for those who have the bravery to resist oppression in spite of the personal cost. Yeats wrote it as a general paean for all those who have given of themselves in the hopes others might have a better life. "They shall be remembered for ever/They shall be alive for ever/They shall be speaking for ever/The people shall hear them for ever/Let the sea bear witness/Let the wind bear witness/Let the earth bear witness/Let the stars bear witness".

Scott has chosen to identify the song with the Iranian people who took to the streets a couple of years ago in an attempt to change their world only to be crushed under foot by the regime. In the video for the song he sets the tune to footage of the protests and the ensuing crackdown in an effort to keep the memory of those brave people alive. Here again he and the band have created music appropriate to the poem's spirit and words by letting their simplicity and starkness speak for themselves.

In order to do proper justice to the diversity of thought and emotion found in the poetry of a man like Yeats a band has to be able to carry off not only a variety of musical styles but be willing to subjugate their own desires to the needs of the work. The Waterboys have the versatility and artistry required to take you out of this world into the realm of magic and myth and to bring you solidly back down to earth to face reality just like the poetry of Yeats did to its readers a 100 years ago. In the process of doing so they, and especially Scott as lead singer, turn themselves into conduits for the poet's thoughts and ideas. Like the best actors they remember its the message that's important, not the messenger.

An Appointment With Mr. Yeats is one of those rare treats in popular music where the words and music come together in a perfect marriage. Not only does the music reflect the emotional context of the words they accompany, but the band has also managed to find a way to create an atmosphere for each song which makes them living and breathing creations. Even better is the fact they do this while remaining true to the spirit of the poems and the poet's intentions. The words of William Butler Yeats have never sounded so alive and so real.

(Article first published as Music Review: The Waterboys - An Appointment with Mr. Yeats on Blogcritics.)

Photo Credit for picture of The Waterboys Live In Dublin - Paul MacManus


March 5, 2013

Music Review: Jimi Hendrix - People, Hell & Angels


In her autobiography about being a young artist in New York City, Just Kids, Patti Smith described attending the opening night party for a new recording studio. Being shy and easily overwhelmed by crowds she spent a great deal of time outside on the fire escape with the equally shy musician responsible for the studio's existence. Jimi Hendrix didn't have too much longer to live when he sat on the fire escape outside his newly opened Electric Ladyland studios with a young poet. The studio was to have been the place where he would have been able to experiment and play music away from the demands of the world.

Today, more then 40 years after Hendrix's death, the studio is one part of his legacy to the world of music. Smith is only one of many artists who record there taking advantage of what Hendrix created. However Hendrix's legacy stretches far beyond the walls of Electric Ladyland. In the 1980s when Tuareg rebels in North Africa picked up guitars to begin making music as a way of preserving their culture their biggest influence was Hendrix's style of blues guitar. While still famous for his pyrotechnics on guitar as the years pass more and more are discovering what the Tuareg appreciated - Hendrix's ability as a blues musician. Unlike other lead guitar players, both then and now, Hendrix understood there was more to being a guitarist than just being able to rip leads.

Listening to the new CD, People, Hell & Angels, released by Legacy Recordings, of previously unreleased Hendrix studio sessions is to be reminded once again how complete a musician he was. Some might wonder why bother releasing the music of somebody dead four decades, especially tracks which are essentially unfinished? The answer would be for the same reason we publish, and read, the letters and diaries of famous writers. Hendrix was a musician, so these tracks are his diaries, his letters to the world. They represent a chance to gain some insight into the directions he was wanting to take his music, what his interest were and maybe get to know him a little better.
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The majority of music released under his name since his death have been of not only dubious quality, but dubious origins as well. It's only been recently his family have been able to gain control of his music and try and redress the damage done to his legacy by a legion of unscrupulous people trying to make a fast buck off the name of Hendrix. In the years following his death a number of poorly recorded and badly mixed albums were dumped on the market. Tracks appearing on this disc had previously been released in either truncated versions or with studio musicians overdubbing those who had originally been in the studio with Hendrix leaving only his solos intact.

This would be equivalent to rewriting an unpublished story by James Joyce leaving monologues intact while having some hack ghostwriter fill in the blanks. Whatever magic was originally present in the studio when Hendrix was there with those he chose to create with in the moment was lost. Taking his solos out of their original context is akin to planting a palm tree in the Arctic Circle. Not only will it look out of place, it will wither and die. Here, lovingly restored by Eddie Kramer, the man who engineered all his studio albums and recorded his most famous concerts, and co-producers Janie Hendrix (Hendrix's sister) and John McDermott the songs can be heard in all their rough uncut glory.

I remember having semi-serious discussions with high school buddies in the 1970s about the possibility of Hendrix playing disco if he had lived. Who knows, he might have. If he had I'm sure whatever he did would have been far superior to the emasculated swill flooding the airwaves at the time or what Prince churned out in latter years. Of course there's no way of knowing what he might have done, but judging by what we hear on People, Hell & Angles his heart was still firmly rooted deeply in the blues. You'll also hear that while our dire predictions of disco might have been unfounded, he retained a fondness for both funk and R&B.

The first track, featuring him accompanied by his old army buddies Billy Cox on bass and Buddy Miles on drums, "Earth Blues" is a bare bones funk tune. No horns or keyboards like we're used to, just the three of them driving the beat and playing something dark, dirty and dangerous. Recorded in December of 1969 it might have just been three old friends jamming together and having fun it could also have been an indication of his vision for the song. The version released on the posthumous Rainbow Bridge in 1971 was a far different, more mainstream radio acceptable tune.
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Two other songs on the disc which go a long towards suggesting Hendrix had no desire to be pigeon holed as just another rock guitar god are "Let Me Move You" and "Mojo Man". Both of them show him reaching back too his early days as a sideman in R&B bands. Whether trading leads with saxophone player Lonnie Youngblood on the former or taking a master vocal track created by Albert and Arthur Allen (the vocal duo known as the Ghetto Fighters - Read the interview at the other end of the link to the Ghetto Fighters, now known as TaharQa and Tunde Ra Aleem, to find out more about their relationship with Hendrix) on the latter both show Hendrix pushing the R&B genre much further then anybody today would even dream of trying.

However, no matter what the song, no matter what the style, running like a constant thread through every song in the ever changing pattern of a complex tapestry tying multiple images together are the blues. They are the solid bedrock which all the tunes on the disc are rooted in. In some ways it seems like he was stripping his music down to its bare bones and finding new ways to clothe them. Unlike others Hendrix wasn't going to be satisfied with merely rehashing the same old format. Instead he was reinventing what was possible and pushing the blues and its associated genres in directions no one else was or has considered.

Hendrix will always be remembered for his incandescent guitar work and the wild abandon he brought to music. However lost amid the sound of the pale imitations trying to copy the original was the inventive and innovative soul constantly seeking to find new modes of expression. Listening to People, Hell & Angels is an opportunity to peek into the mind of an artist at work as he explores his media and the possibilities it offers for expression. These might not be finished songs or even the most polished of efforts, but they are invaluable and worth listening to none the less. We have no way of knowing what Hendrix would have accomplished had he lived. However, if this release is anything to go by he would have always been two or three steps ahead of everyone else.

(Article first published as Music Review: Jimi Hendrix - People, Hell and Angels on Blogcritics.)



Music Review: Balkan Arts 701: Bulgarian Folk Dances


Field recordings are usually made with portable recording equipment in less than what anybody would consider ideal conditions with the result being less than perfect recordings as far as sound quality is concerned. However, since the earliest days of recording music they have been invaluable tools for preserving the music of cultures all over the world. Music anthropologists in the 19th century used wax cylinders to record everything from Native American singers to Appalachian folk music.

Field recordings of African American blues and gospel music were often most white people's introductions to both genres. Even today field recordings are playing an invaluable role in ensuring older artists' music is recorded and not forgotten. The Music Maker Relief Foundation has used field recordings to help bring the music of Southern blues artists who otherwise might have been forgotten into homes and concert halls around the world. However field recordings aren't limited to North American music. The Centre for Traditional Music and Dance's archive of recordings is a treasure chest of music from around the world. One of their most interesting collections of recordings were those done in the Balkans during the 1960s and 1970s by Martin Koenig.

His Balkan Arts Centre (the forerunner of the Centre for Traditional Music and Dance) was formed to help keep the music and culture of that region alive. Koenig's original recordings were made into LPs and 45s which he used to teach the folk dances of the region. However, they were never made available to the public. Now that's all changing. A box of the original vinyl records was found in the Centre and have now been restored. They are being released as a 13 part series of special edition vinyl EPs by Evergreene Music with the first release being Balkan Arts 701: Bulgarian Folk Dances.
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Now don't worry if you don't have a turn table as every EP comes with a code which not only allows you to download the four tracks from the recording but also gives you access to liner notes, photos and additional audio files including a recording of an interview with Koeing. In the interview he talks about his experiences recording the music in communist Eastern Europe and why it was important then, and remains important today, these recordings exist.

Like most field recordings made prior to the digital age the sound quality of the four tracks aren't the greatest. However there are other compensations. This is music we would have no record of if these recordings hadn't been made. Folk music which encouraged nationalistic feelings, or celebrated ethnic differences, were strongly discouraged under communist rule in Eastern Europe. An entire generation grew up without knowing the traditional music of their culture. Recordings like these are the only way they have of learning anything about the music and the dances of their people.

Listening to the four cuts, "Zborinka", "Ruka", "Chukanoto" and "Dobrolushko Horo", the first thing you might notice is the similarities between this music and what we call "Gypsy" music. They both have a kind of wild abandonment to them and a heavy reliance on what sound to be stringed instruments. This only makes sense as Bulgarian folk music would have many of the same influences as other musics from the region. Like their neighbours in Romania, Bosnia and Greece, Bulgaria was at one point part of the Turkish ruled Ottoman Empire. You can hear this influence in rather high pitched skirling noise produced by the combination of a type of bagpipe and the violin.

The next thing you'll probably notice is the lack of anything like a bass line providing an underpinning for the song. Unlike the majority of the music we listen to which is built around a very distinctive beat there doesn't appear to be any one instrument responsible for maintaining the song's rhythm. However by listening closely you do hear the sound of a drum buried very deep in the mix. Whether that's intentional or a result of deficiencies in the recording process is unclear.
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However, even without the drum, you'll notice each of the songs has a pattern. Out of what appears to be a sort of free for all, with all the instruments playing leads at the same time, gradually evolves something we can discern as a carefully constructed song with a noticeable rhythm. The secret is to listen to the song as a whole, not the individual instruments, and then you'll be able to hear the song's pulse. This is the engine which propels the dancers who would move to the music.

It might be hard for us to remember this is dance music as it no way matches our idea of how it should sound. Even those of us familiar with other Eastern European music will feel somewhat lost as it doesn't have the definite beat of Polish Polkas or the Cossack music of Russia. No this is far wilder. Evoking the wind swept hills and crags where the shepherds who created it tend their flocks.

In fact it's hard to imagine this music ever being recorded in a proper studio setting. It sounds like it needs to be played out in the open air with its skirling notes being allowed to escape into the sky and the mountains. It's made to be played in the village square or on a hillside around an open fire not in the sterile environment of the recording studio. Thus we discover the real value of field recordings. They not only capture music, they capture the music and its environment like no other recordings can.

The four recordings on Bulgarian Folk Dances aren't, by any stretch of the imagination, high quality. However, they are exciting, exhilarating and a timely reminder that music used to be played for the sheer joy of making it and the chance it gave us to celebrate living. Listening to the music it's fun to try and imagine the kind of dancing it encouraged and the people who danced to it. How often have you been able to say that about anything you've heard recorded recently.

(Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - Balkan Arts 701: Bulgarian Folk Dances on Blogcritics.)

February 20, 2013

Music Technology Review: MEElectronics A161P In-Ear Headset


If you're like me then more and more you listen to music through headphones. So, the old adage that your stereo system is only as good as your speakers should now be amended to your sound system is only as good as your headphones. It seems like audio companies are finally starting to catch up and make this connection. Seven years ago when I first started reviewing music you could either buy a pair of really cheap things to stick in your ears or wrap around your head, or pay a fortune and buy the equivalent of what was being used in recording studios. Aside from the price the drawbacks with the latter were their lack of portability and the fact you usually had to buy an adaptor so they could patch into a headphone jack.

Fast forward to present day and your faced with the dilemma of being spoiled for choices. You go into any electronics outlet store and you'll find row upon row of headphones, ear pieces, ear buds and whatever other names manufactures have come up with for them. The bells and whistles alone are confusing enough. Is your device bluetooth or wireless? Do you need a microphone? Do you want something to fit inside your ear, around your ear or over your head and over your ear? Does colour matter, ease of carrying when your not using them? It almost seems like sound quality is less a consideration then the extras.

Maybe the truth of the matter is within a certain price range there's not much difference from one set of headphones to another when it comes to sound quality. Oh sure some might offer ways of boosting either the bass or the treble singles, but that doesn't really have anything to do with its ability to transmit sound. For under a $100.00 the only differences you're going to find from one company's set to another are the extras, right? Well, that's what I thought, of course I haven't listened to all the sets on the market, but after sampling a fair range and not noticing any difference I had started to come to that conclusion. However, at the high end of that price range, listing at $99.99, the A161P In-Ear Headset from MEElectronics, showed me something different.
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My requirements from a set of headphones are probably a lot simpler than most people's. I don't care if its bluetooth or wireless, I couldn't care less about the built in microphone or any of the other hands free technology employed for smart phones. I'm looking for two things, ease of use and sound quality. I hate having to fiddle around with fancy ear pieces that have to be slotted into my ear in a certain way or, even worse, have to be constantly adjusting the ear buds because they're either hurting my ears or falling out. One of the first things you'll notice about the A161P is that they don't assume everyone's ear canal is the same size. Each pair comes with six sets of differently shaped and sized easily interchangeable cones. It takes only a matter of seconds to find a pair to fit your ears.

You also have the option of slipping wire guides onto the cable that will allow you to hook the buds over your ears to help hold them in place. I'm not a big fan of the over the ear hooks - no matter what anybody says when you wear glasses they feel awkward - so being able to choose whether I wanted to use them or not was a plus. I decided to give them a try, and discovered not only did they help secure the buds in my ear, they were far easier to use than any I had employed in the past and they didn't interfere with my glasses. At least they didn't make it feel like my glasses were about to be fall off my head all the time.

When it comes to performance I want my ear phones to provide crisp and clean sound which allows me to hear each instrument and the vocals as distinct elements. I don't want my eardrums ruptured with mega bass or my eyes popping out of my head because the treble is too shrill. I want to hear the music as close to how it was recorded as possible. The first thing that happened when I started using the A161P headset was I had to turn the volume on my music player down. I was thrilled. Too many times in the past I've been forced to crank up the volume of whatever player I've been using simply to hear the music. The A161P have so little interference I was able to turn the volume down by at least half and still hear the music clearly while wearing them while walking beside a busy street. I wasn't even listening to loud music either.

After recovering from that pleasant surprise I began to notice what I was listening to. The sound was perfectly balanced. No matter what I listened to, jazz, folk, rock or classical there was a depth of field which allowed me to hear all the instruments in their proper proportions. In the past I've had headphones which may have had no trouble handling pop music, but the complexities of jazz and classical would defeat them. It was like they couldn't handle the number of instruments employed and the sound around the edges would turn to mud. That wasn't the case with A161P.
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No matter where an instrument was in the mix you could hear it. Even better was the fact each instrument was properly balanced so you heard them in the right proportions. I can't begin to tell you the number of headphones and speakers I've had which grab every sound they hear and then flatten them all onto the same wavelength. Phil Spector would have loved the wall of sound they made. Thankfully that wasn't the case with the A161P. Whatever technology they employ has the ability to recognize and differentiate between a sufficient variety of sound waves and recording levels it sounds like you're listening to a song straight out of a mixing board.

What I even appreciated more was they just didn't simply boost the mid ranges and turn down the highs and lows in an attempt to bring you a balanced sound field. It didn't seem to matter what range the lead instrument or lead vocalist played or sang in for them to be placed front and centre in the mix. So even if a vocalist was singing in the same pitch as the bass guitar their voice would still stand out and the bass would still stay firmly in the background laying down the rhythm track. Now that may not sound like much to some of you, but when the same technology is applied across the entire sound spectrum it makes for some the finest quality sound you've heard in a long time.

The MEElectronics A161P In-Ear Headset also comes with some very intelligent accessories which I've not seen included in other sets before. Aside from the variety of ear buds and the optional wire guides, they also come with an adaptor cable for smart phones. Some smart phones have different frequency out puts and this jack helps compensate for any sound distortion this might cause. The second adaptor is a splitter which allows you to plug the headset into both the headphone and microphone jacks on your equipment. It's always driven me crazy that so many of these new headsets come with a "built in microphone" but you're not given any way of utilizing it. Finally someone has had the brains to include the means for you to plug into your computer, or other device with both inputs. They've also included a nice hard shell clam case for storing the headset in, although to be honest, once you've attached them to your player I don't see you wanting to disconnect them any time soon.

Anyone whose gone shopping for headphones recently knows just how crowded the field is these days. For a non wireless set under a hundred dollars I don't think you're going to find much to match the A161P in terms of sound quality, options and ease of use. To say I was pleasantly surprised by how good the sound was would be putting it mildly. They may not have as many bells and whistles as some but if you care about what your music sounds like, what they deliver in terms of quality of sound reproduction more than makes up for anything else.

(Article first published as Product Review: MEElectronics A161P In-Ear Headset on Blogcritics)

February 17, 2013

Music Review: Diana Darby - IV (Intravenous)


There's a very fine line between being dramatic and melodramatic in pop music. Two singers can use almost the same style of presentation with one of them going over the top and the other sounding perfectly believable. If there is one style of singing that lends itself to this type of abuse more than others I'd have to say it would be the ethereal voiced singer who barely whispers his or her lyrics. Like those who seem to think the louder I sing the more emotional I sound these believe the wispier I am the more sincere and earnest I sound.

Unfortunately most of them just end up being annoying. You either can't make out a word they're saying as their vocals are swamped by the inevitable atmospheric music they always seem to choose as accompaniment or when you can hear them their voice is so precious it makes you want to scream. It's as if they'd never heard the word substance and figure if they sound deep and mysterious enough the audience won't care they're not really singing about anything.

It becomes increasingly obvious how artificial most of these singers sound when you hear someone like Diana Darby. Her most recent release, IV (intravenous), on her own Delmore Recordings label, is a collection of twelve thoughtful and moving songs. Those familiar with her previous work will be aware of her very individualistic style of singing which borders on being lighter than air. However, Darby distinguishes herself from others both in the way her vocals are an organic extension of her material and her range of expression. She doesn't spend the whole recording whispering to us in a more earnest than thou voice. Instead she comes across as a real person, not some will of the wisp whose just nipped in from a New Age version of the fairy realm.
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With songs dealing with everything from mourning the passing of a pet dog to a fundamentalist parent who delights in telling her family they're all going to hell her material isn't what you'd call typical of pop music. The low pitched intensity of her voice suits this type of material. There's an introspective quality to the material which demands a certain level of quiet contemplation. As you listen you can see how her voice fits with her songs and any other vocal approach wouldn't sound right.

Sometimes the softness of her voice is an expression of compassion for her subject while at other times it makes her lyrics stand out with shocking intensity. "Looking For Trouble", the disc's opening track, is a lament for the death of her own dog sung in the third person. "You keep/looking for trouble/looking for trouble/Don't you girl/You think/He will come to you/But you/Don't know what he'll do". At first listen it's not clear what the song is about. In fact, unless you read her website and find out Darby's dog Trouble died recently you might think its about a woman who chooses to date the wrong guy all the time.

At first the lyrics seem ambiguous, but when you start to think about them in terms of losing a pet they make a lot of sense. You hear a noise and you turn around expecting it to be the animal and are reminded again of its absence when you don't see it. Looking doesn't mean you're searching for the animal, it means you keep thinking you'll see it. By singing about herself in the third person she prevents this song from becoming maudlin. She doesn't try and describe how sad or emotional she was made by the animal's death. What she details instead is what's it like to experience the hole left in our lives by the sudden absence of a familiar presence. Long after we think we're done with our mourning it still comes as a shock to realize whoever it is we're missing is never going to walk into the room again.

Darby doesn't try and elicit sympathy from us with her voice on this song with any forced trembling or other such silliness. She just gently talks about the circumstances. In fact by talking about her experiences in the third person it's like she's offering sympathy to those who have experienced what the song describes. In doing this she's able to create a bridge with her audience based on real emotions. She's able to take a subject which could easily lend itself to sentimentality and turn into a universal statement on death, loss and the grieving process.

It's hard to imagine what it would be like to have a person in your family who tries to force their religious beliefs down everyone else's throat. In the her song "Heaven" Darby describes a family whose mother spends her time telling her children they and their father are going to Hell. "My mother worries we were not Baptized/My mother worries we can't be with her/My mother says it's written in the verse/We won't go to Heaven/We won't go to Heaven". As in the previously mentioned song Darby describes what's going on without passing judgement or reacting emotionally to what the mother says.
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It's as if she trusts us to form our own opinions.Try and imagine how'd you feel if your mother told you stuff like "Your father's going to Hell because he's Jewish", or if you don't accept Christ as your king you'll go to Hell? She says lines like these and the ones quoted above with almost no inflection. The words stand out like bold type in dark black ink on a clean white sheet of paper. There's a starkness to them which makes you feel empty. What kind of person could say such cruel things to and about people they supposedly love? Maybe somebody who held to the same belief system as the person speaking those words would see it differently, but what kind of person would tell their children their other parent is going to hell?

Darby's songs aren't going to be for everyone. They're not innocuous pop songs with a bouncy beat and happy go lucky lyrics which are going to make you want to dance. What they do offer is emotionally honest takes on life told in a straightforward and uncomplicated manner. She does show occasional flights of whimsy which break the disc up. In the song "Ugly Little Toad" she creates a parable about sustainable living through her description of a toad who depletes the food in his little pond through greed. Cute and funny it still leaves no doubt in your mind what's she talking about and stresses the importance of sustainable living better than most so called environmental songs.

Darby is an intelligent songwriter with a unique voice. Unlike others who affect either an airy or an earnestly subdued tone when they sing, her quietness is a natural extension of her material. Introspective without naval gazing, when she turns her eye inwards she also manages to see beyond herself. So whether she's describing something highly personal like the death of her dog or talking about an issue, she finds a way of doing so which almost anybody will be able to identify with. Take some time out of your day and sit and listen to this disc, it will be time well spent.

(Article first published as Music Review: Diana Darby - IV (intravenous) on Blogcritics)

February 12, 2013

Music Review: Townes Van Zandt - Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions and Demos 1971-1972


Popular music is littered with the corpses of performers who died before their time. Some of them burned out on drugs and alcohol, others went by accident and a few were killed by somebody else's hand. With many of them dying during what should have been the prime of their careers, their musical legacies are often clouded. A kind of cult of the dead seems to have sprung up around many of them distorting their true significance and preventing any clear eyed assessment of their music. Yet, while some have been elevated to near iconic status for apparently no other reason than their untimely deaths, others of real talent are barely remembered.

Of those who slipped through the cracks of popular music history not making the kind of impression on the public at large his music merited, singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt's story is probably the most poignant. Born to a well off Texas family in 1944 Van Zandt stood out even as a kid when he was recognized as having a genius IQ. However a diagnosis of manic depression (bipolar disorder) in 1962 led him to being institutionalized and receiving three months of insulin shock therapy which erased most of his long term memory. After flirting with a few other options; university (he was accepted into pre-law), the Air Force (rejected on the basis of being a severe manic depressive) he began to pursue a career as a singer songwriter in 1967.

During his life most of his success came from other people's recordings of his music. Emmlou Harris had a hit in 1981 with his "If I Needed You" and Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard took "Pancho and Lefty" to number one on the country charts in 1983. Musicians ranging from Bob Dylan (who claims to have every album Van Zandt recorded) to Norah Jones have cited Van Zandt as an influence and Steve Earle recorded an album of Van Zandt covers in 2009 simply entitled Townes. After his death in 1997, and the legal bother of figuring out who owned the rights to his music was resolved, his recordings started to show up in movie and television show soundtracks. Probably the most famous of these is his cover of the Rolling Stone's song "Dead Flowers" which plays over the closing credits of the Coen brother's movie, The Big Lebowski.
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Unfortunately a great many of the recordings he made during his lifetime, especially those when he was at his most prolific during the early 1970s, ended up being overproduced. Even the producer of those albums, "Cowboy" Jack Clement admits he went somewhat over the top. In the same review of a reissue of Van Zandt's 1968 For The Sake Of The Song which quotes Clement, the album is described as being so overproduced it would make a Southern Gospel album hang its head in shame. Thankfully it turns out there were recordings made of Van Zandt's material prior to Clement adding all his bells and whistles. With the approval of his estate Omnivore Recordings has put together a two disc set, Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions & Demos 1971 - 1972 featuring some of Van Zandt's best work.

The first thing you'll notice about Van Zandt is his voice. Initially it may strike you as being almost thin, lacking the timber or body we're used to in our pop singers. However, there's hardly anybody quite as mesmerizing. Something about his delivery or his expression leaves you hanging onto every word. You'll quickly realize what he's saying and how he says are of equal importance. The first song on disc one, the "Unreleased Studio Sessions", is a cover of the Jimmie Rodgers standard "T For Texas". While Van Zandt is faithful down to including the yodel refrain, his somewhat ironic delivery makes you question the sentimental nature of the lyrics. Yet at the same time, you know he's not making fun of the song. There might have been a girl called Thelma, but we can also tell by the way he sings the line, "T is for Thelma/that girl who made a mess outa me", she's not the one responsible for the mess he's in.

Then there's "Blue Ridge Mountains", the fifth song on this disc. Musically it sounds like your typical 'mountain music' song. One about the joys of life back home and how the singer yearns for what was the simpler days of his youth. Until you get to the last line of the refrain which opens the song, "I ain't comin' back here anymore". This prepares you for what's to come. For while he sings the song with a yearning quality we've come to associate with the "wish I were back home in the country" type of song, the lyrics tell you how he really feels. "I've seen this whole wide country over/from New York City down to Mexico/and I've seen the joyful and the sorrow/and I ain't comin' back here anymore".

Normally this type of song would have the singer saying just the opposite of the sentiments expressed in the previous verse. No matter what charms big cities and foreign locales have to offer, nothing compares to my old home. Well Van Zandt has no illusions. The wide world has plenty to offer and why in the world would anybody want to go back to living in the back woods after having experienced it? As this song makes obvious, false sentimentality had no place in Van Zandt's world. Others might pretend they would trade civilization for a dirt floor cabin with no running water or electricity, but not him.
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However Van Zandt was more than just irony, he could write and sing songs that would break your heart. "Sad Cinderella", track 11 on disc one, is about facing up to reality after having been treated as something special for no real reason. Whether through beauty, wealth or popularity individuals are elevated to the status of royalty and then just as suddenly have it all taken away. "When your magazine memory has spun you around/and you realize your lovers were just painted clowns/and outside the window you start hearing the sounds/where they're building a cross for to burn you".

Sung with no adornment save for his empathy and compassion, Van Zandt made this song into one of the most beautiful condemnations of what we do to people in our desire for celebrities. What's even more amazing is he wrote this in the early 1970s when celebrity worship was nothing compared to what exists today. It's a bittersweet reminder there're human beings behind the gossip and the headlines. It also shows off Van Zandt's uncanny ability as a songwriter to find those words which cut to the heart of a subject emotionally and intellectually without beating a point into the ground.

While many of the songs on disc two ("The Demos") duplicate those on the first disc, hearing Van Zandt sing them almost unaccompanied save for his guitar (a couple have a second guitar or other basic accompaniment) allows us even more of a chance to appreciate his voice. There's a rawness to his singing that's kind of like an exposed nerve. In fact some feel so personal it's almost as if your overhearing a private conversation between Van Zandt and the subject of the song. However, it's not all heartbreak and sorrow as he had a keen eye for the absurd and a wonderfully dry sense of humour.

For those of you who have never heard Van Zandt, and those who have always loved his music, the two disc collection Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions and Demos 1971-1972 is a treasure to be savoured. Not only does it contain a great mix of his material and covers, his version of "Who Do You Love" will knock you on your ass, its him as he was meant to be heard. No strings, no horns or any of the other bells and whistles his producer piled on the songs after they were recorded. Just him and a band playing music unlike just about anything you've heard. You might think you recognize elements of others in some of these songs, but then you'll remember when he recorded them. He might not have gained the popularity or acclaim he deserved while alive, but his legacy is assured through those he influenced.

( Article first published as Music Review: Townes Van Zandt - Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions and Demos 1971-1972 on Blogcritics.)



January 30, 2013

Music Review: Kris Kristofferson - Feeling Mortal


People always seem surprised when they find out I like Kris Kristofferson's music. Maybe it's the fact I don't just like the songs he writes, but also like the way he sings them. Sure his voice sounds like its being pulled through a whisky soaked rasp that's been allowed to sit in a smoke filled room for a couple of days. There's also the fact the words he sings always sound like they had to fight to their way out of his chest in order to be heard. It's like he's only grudgingly willing to share these secrets of his heart and soul with us.

However, that's what makes his songs so powerful. There's nothing casual about either the emotions behind his songs or the manner in which he delivers them. As befitting a Rhodes Scholar (a scholarship awarded North American university students who mix excellence in academics and athletics that allows them to attend Oxford University in England) there is thought behind everything he does. Not once have I ever heard him cross the line from genuine emotion to cheap sentimentality in order to manipulate a reaction from his listeners. The direct result of what can only be careful consideration of both his lyrics and the music accompanying them. While you can check out nearly any album he's ever released, his most recent, Feeling Mortal, the first on his own KK record label, will give you all the proof you need.

There have been times in the past when Kristofferson's music has fallen victim to the machinations of some overzealous Hollywood or Nashville producer. While they have never quite succeeded in submerging his rough honesty beneath their saccharine coatings of strings and massed backing singers, they came close. Thankfully he started working with producer Don Was seventeen years ago and the results of that arrangement have been some of Kristofferson's cleanest and most honest work since the early days of "Me and Bobby McGee", "Sunday Morning Coming Down" and "The Pilgrim".
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On Feeling Mortal Kristofferson has assembled a collection of ten songs reflecting the theme suggested by the title. Yet this isn't some attempt at atonement or a plea for forgiveness on the part of a repenting reprobate. It's just an honest self examination of who he is, where he's been and what he sees when he looks in the mirror. Take the title song's last verse, "Soon or later I'll be leaving/I'm a winner either way/For the laughter and the loving/That I'm living with today". The past might hold sorrows and regrets for mistakes he made, but he's not dwelling on them. Who knows what the future holds, but the present is still something to be celebrated and be grateful for.

Of course there are songs that look to the past. While some like "Castaway" reflect moments when he realized he was flirting with disaster by sailing close to the edge (" 'Cause like a ship without a rudder/I'm just drifting with the tide/And each day I'm drawing closer to the brink/Just a speck upon the waters/Of an Ocean deep and wide/I won't even make a ripple when I sink) others are almost defiant in their lack of apology for who and what he's been. The title of "You Don't Tell Me Me What To Do" should be a giveaway, but for all those a bit slow on the uptake Kristofferson spells it out for them with the lyrics. "So I sing my own songs/And I drink when I'm thirsty/And I will go on/Making music, and whisky/and love for as long/As the spirit inside me/Says you don't tell me what to do".

Even those songs which in the hands of others might descend into what I call hangover Christianity - repentance after a night's debauchery - are saved from a fate worse than death by both the sparse production values and Kristofferson's vocal delivery. Never what you'd be tempted to call flowery, his voice sounds even more lived in and care worn then ever. However, any deficiencies in his vocals are more than made up for his capacity to deliver each word of every song as if it were being wrung directly from his soul. No matter how hard you try you'll never be able to make him sound pretty or smooth out his rough edges. All of which pretty much guarantees a purity and honesty to his music that others can only dream of obtaining.
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The accompanying musicians, Mark Goldenberg guitar, Greg Leisz pedal steel, Matt Rollins keyboards, Sara Watkins vocals and violin, Sean Hurley bass and Aaron Sterling drums, play in support of Kristofferson and his voice. They are not so much a backing band as the framework or the backdrop for his songs. Playing underneath, around and beside, but never over top of his voice, they provide accents which fill the songs out without taking away any of the rough hewn honesty that gives them their power. You have to listen carefully in order to even hear Watkins' harmonies on some songs. However this is a great change from background singers overwhelming a lead vocalist.

I can't talk about this album without mentioning the final song on the disc, "Ramblin' Jack", a tribute to the great country folk singer Rambling Jack Elliot. In some ways though the song is also autobiographical with lines like "And if he knew how good he'd done/Every song he sung/I believe he'd truly be surprised" describing Kristofferson's own life and career just as much as it does Elliot's. However the song also reaches way back to an earlier tune Kristofferson penned, "The Pilgrim", which in its introduction he dedicated to a variety of people, Elliot included.

That song was filled with the spirit of young men living the life of rebellious poets taking chances and flaunting conventional wisdom. Now many years later those who still survive have grown older and wiser and have careers to look back upon. Yet this isn't a maudlin or sentimental wondering where the years have gone song. Nor is it a song filled with regrets or repentance. Its just a simple statement of fact. This is the life we led and what we did.

In many ways this song sums up the theme of the entire album. Kristofferson isn't asking anyone for their forgiveness or understanding, he's just looking in the mirror and telling us what he sees. This might trigger some memories of things from the past and he might feel regret for the way he treated some people. However he's honest enough to realize if given the chance to do it over, he'd probably do everything pretty much the same.

Like some aged whiskies Kristofferson is an acquired taste. His voice isn't what you'd call soothing or mellow and he doesn't try to please anybody but himself with his songs. Once you get past the initial bite his music will leave you with a warmth that fills you from the inside out. Feeling Mortal is a perfect example of the magic he works with song and music.

(Article first published as Music Review: Kris Kristofferson - Feeling Mortal on Blogcritics.)


January 16, 2013

Music Review: Erin McKeown - Manifestra


I wasn't quite sure what to expect from Erin McKeown's new release Manifestra. The only examples of her work I'd heard to date had been YouTube videos of her performing solo and the satirical black comedy anti-Christmas disc, F*ck That she released in 2011. While I felt fairly comfortable in predicting this latest release wouldn't be as, shall we say, extreme as the former, I thought it would continue in the same pattern. A mix of agit-prop folk music and dark humour making wry but intelligent commentary on society today.

While there had been mention on her web site about a band, it didn't click in this was a permanent arrangement. So I was caught off guard when the opening song on the disc, "The Politician", saw her accompanied by the full compliment of a rock and roll band and effects galore. As the disc progressed it became increasingly obvious she was far more sophisticated and versatile a musician then I had realized. While I had previously been impressed by both her singing and guitar playing, not to mention her skills as a lyricist, this album shows she's much more than just another singer/songwriter plucking on her faithful six string and singing about the world's injustices.
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Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with that type of music. However, to take the impetus behind it and create something far more musically and intellectually sophisticated as McKeown does on this disc is indicative of an artistry you don't see very often in pop music. Politics aren't limited to the decisions made by those we put in power and what occurs on the world stage trickles down into the fabric of our lives whether we know it or not. Without flow charts or pointers McKeown's songs go beyond the headlines and issues. What's done in our name as a country or a people will always shape our society. Like the proverbial butterfly wings flapping here being felt on the other side of the world, those currents are part of our pulse whether we know it or not.

"The nature of the jailer is/to do just what he pleases/but when we hang another man/part of us dies with him/lock up your soul piece by piece/then tell me just what love is", McKeown sings in "The Jailer". When it comes to arguments about capital punishment most people talk about vengeance or its effectiveness as a deterrent. Some might question a state's right to take a person's life and others play on people's fears. However, hardly anybody looks at the cost passed down to every citizen when a government kills their fellow citizens in their name. McKeown asks us to consider what's being taught when the law allows people to be killed. How can we really understand what love is when we sanction murder? When an individual kills another person it's a horrendous crime against love and yet it's not when the state does it? Doesn't anyone else find that confusing?

Even the more overtly political song, "Baghdad to the Bayou", isn't what I'd call typical of the genre. Instead of a litany of complaints or an attack on somebody or something it expresses the hope generated by the people's revolts that have been occurring around the world. "Street by street we will repeat/ the revolutions of the spring/you can't stop a people/when a people start to sing". Referencing both the Occupy Movements and the Arab Spring the song puts leaders everywhere on notice people aren't as inclined to be as unquestioningly obedient as they might have been in the past. The last line of the last verse, "We want accountability", capture what's been at the heart of each of those movements.
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In doing so MeKeown and co-writer Rachel Maddow have managed to bring back the feelings of hope these movements generated. Some of the dreams may have soured, Egypt has taken some nasty steps backwards and none of the occupations seem to have changed anything, but that doesn't mean people have gone back to sleep again. There have been too many examples in recent years of how a concentrated effort by a motivated population can be a powerful force for change. "Baghdad to the Bayou" is a spirited and timely reminder for all of us who may have forgotten what's been accomplished over the past few years.

Earlier I had mentioned being surprised by the variety of musical styles McKeown employed on this disc.In fact there's no two songs employing the same approach musically. Each song has been carefully arranged and produced so its lyrical content is given emotional and atmospheric context and support by the music. "The Jailer" is a punchy mix of R&B and jazz which underlines the potency of certain lines and gives the song a richness and texture that makes you take notice. Musically it captures the feelings of defiance the song expresses and the warnings of the dangers we face by abdicating control of our lives to a few powerful individuals without missing a beat or attempting to manipulate the listener.

I've chosen this song to cite as an example, but every song on this disc is a lesson on how to marry lyrics and music to create something greater than the sum of its parts. For while there's no denying the potency of McKeown's lyrics, by fleshing the songs out with additional instrumentation and careful orchestration their power is increased ten-fold. As part of this release McKeown has included a second disc, Civics, containing solo acoustic versions of the tracks on Manifestra. While you can hear hints of what the end results, it's like looking at an artist's preliminary sketches for a painting. You get the general idea, but they've nothing of the full impact of the finished product.

There are musicians out there who sing about issues and don't pay much attention to the music. There're far too many making music these days who have nothing to say and try to hide their lack of thought behind layers of sound. McKeown is one of the few who not only have something to say but the artistry and talent to create songs both intellectually and musically stimulating. Not only was Manifestra fun to listen to, it also makes you think. You can't ask for a better combination.

(Article first published as Music Review: Erin McKeown - Manifestra on Blogcritics.)

December 31, 2012

My Ten Favourite Recordings of 2012


I don't have any idea the number of press releases I received over the course of the past year announcing yet another CD of music being released by someone. Conservatively I'd say they would have to numbered well into the thousands. Based on those numbers for me to claim I can select the ten best releases of 2012 borders on being ridiculous. However, out of the releases I released I offer you the ten I liked the most. These are the discs which have ended up on my I-pod and I will be listening to them for years to come. Hopefully you'll be encouraged to check them out and find out why I thought they were special.

Martha Redbone Roots Project - The Garden Of Love - The Songs Of William Blake When most people refer to Americana or roots music they tend to forget about two important musical traditions. Redbone and her band created an album which blends the Native, African and Anglo/Irish/Scot American roots of North American music with the words of poet William Blake. The result are wonderfully vivid versions of Blake's work. With Redbone's splendid voice leading a masterful group of musicians you'll not only gain a new appreciation for the poems but broaden your definition of roots music.

Patti Smith - Patti Smith Live At Montreux 2005 As far as I'm concerned any release by Patti Smith is a special occasion. A DVD of her in concert is something to really celebrate, especially when its as well filmed and recorded as this one. Her regular band is augmented by the inclusion of lead guitarist and old friend, Tom Verlaine and they play a selection of tunes from her whole career to date. A live recording also is the chance to see her and the band step outside the box with improvised solos you won't find on studio recordings. Listening to Smith is great, being able to her watch her perform live is even better.

Ben Folds Five - The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind The fact the Ben Folds Five are a trio should tell you something about the band even before you first listen to them. Intelligent, witty and an ability to create finely crafted pop songs make this unlikely group of pop musicians not only fun to listen to, but interesting as well. Lyrics which make you think combined with music that veers between power pop and torch songs - sometimes in the same tune - aren't what I've come to expect from most bands these days. However, that's the beauty of this band - they defy expectations with panache.

Jason Collet - Reckon If there were any justice in the world of pop music everybody would have heard of Jason Collet. Funny, irreverent and emotionally honest he tackles both topical and personal subjects in ways everyone could take a lesson from. He manages to show how the former impacts individuals and turns the latter into statements with universal appeal. If you've never heard him before do yourself a favour and pick up this disc. Your won't regret it.

Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros - Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros - The Hellcat Years Sure Strummer has been dead for a decade now, but as this digital download of fifty plus songs culled from live concerts, unreleased tracks and the three studio albums he released with The Mescaleros shows, his music remains as vital today as it ever was. While more musically sophisticated than his recordings with The Clash, this music retains an edge which allows him to cut through the shit and get to the heart of a subject. For all you Strummer fans out there, and those who missed out on the Mescaleros' years, this collection is a must have.

Mark Knopfler - Privateering There are some guys still playing who you wish would just do us all a favour and retire already. Knopfler isn't one of them. This collection of songs proves he's still a master when it comes to song writing and guitar playing. His ability to write about a variety of subjects with sensitivity and intelligence is if anything even stronger then ever and his guitar playing remains some of the most subtle and beguiling in the buisness. As comfortable as a favourite sweater, but much more exciting, this is music you'll listen to for a long time to come.

Public Image Limited - This Is PIL It's been forty plus years since John Lyndon (aka Johnny Rotten) first set people's teeth on edge with his in your face image and iconoclastic music. He might not dress to shock anymore, but his music is still as unstintingly acerbic and challenging as it ever was. With this latest album from PIL he and the band show they are still musically interesting and fiercely independent. A great reminder of pop music's ability to unsettle and question the status quo with intelligence and wit.

Ray Wylie Hubbard - The Grifter's Hymnal One of the great Texas outlaw musicians is back with another disc of gritty and real songs. Part autobiographical and part mythological his latest disc is an irreverent but heartfelt look at music and life. You won't hear any of Hubbard's music on your local country radio station, or any other radio station for that matter, mainly because he has a disturbing habit of speaking his mind. Honest, gruff and firmly rooted in reality its the best music to come out of Texas in years.

Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra - Theatre Is Evil After raising over a million dollars through her Kickstarter campaign to produce, promote and tour this album Palmer was thrust into the role of standard bearer for independent music producers. Almost lost amidst all the fuss was the excellence of the resulting album. While she made her name as a quirky and intelligent solo artist, this disc sees her step into the role of front person for a rock and roll band without missing a beat. More musically sophisticated than any of her previous releases, lyrically she's still as insightful and thought provoking as ever. While she's an adherent of the school of rock and roll as theatre, substance never takes a back seat to style. One of today's most exciting and dynamic performers has finally taken centre stage and pop music will never be the same again.

Xavier Rudd - Spirit Bird Somehow or other Rudd manages to produce record after record of topical material without ever sounding preachy or self-aggrandizing. He makes no apologies for singing about the exploitation of the environment and how it endangers life on the planet. Playing a combination of traditional and modern instruments his music is the perfect accompaniment to his lyrics. Simple and powerful his songs work on us both intellectually and emotionally without resorting to manipulation or guilt. He sings about facts, dreams and hope - asking us to join him and others in changing the way things are currently done. A brilliant musician and gifted songwriter he'll have you rethinking the way you look at the world.

Article first published as My Ten Favourite Recordings Of 2012 on Blogcritics.)

December 12, 2012

Television Review: The Magical Mystery Tour Revisited & The Magical Mystery Tour


Every year around this time there always seems to be something new being released associated with The Beatles. Those of you not old enough to have been alive when the group was still together must wonder what the hell is so special about a group who have been disbanded for over forty years. To be honest with even for those of us who were around it's easy to forget what made them special and distinguished them from the rest of the pack of pop bands. I don't listen to them very often anymore, in fact I don't even think I own a single one of their records, so I don't have many opportunities to be reminded of what the magic was all about.

However, when ever I do go back and dip into their catalogue, especially the stuff recorded from 1966 onwards, I'm struck once again by not only their inventiveness, but the musicianship and artistry that went into their work. By 1967 they had stopped touring and really didn't have anything to prove to anyone anymore. They were ruling the international pop charts and looking for new worlds to conquer. Although they all briefly experimented with Transcendental Meditation, with the exception of George Harrison, their hearts were never really into it. They were too curious, too interested in doing things and experimenting with their art to simply sit around and naval gaze all day. It was out of that insatiable urge to explore that was born one of their most controversial projects, the one hour movie The Magical Mystery Tour.

Originally aired on British television as a Boxing Day special (December 27) in 1967 it shocked people who were used to the four cute/mad cap guys featured in their previous movies A Hard Day's Night and Help. Instead what they got was an apparently haphazard collection of seemingly unconnected scenes concerning what happens to a group of people taking a bus tour together. After this one appearance on television the movie pretty much disappeared from view. Occasionally grainy prints of the film would show up, but the quality was so poor as to be almost unwatchable. Now, all these years later, its finally being restored and North American television audiences are going to be treated to their first opportunity to see it in their homes.
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Thanks to the good people at the Public Broadcasting Systems' (PBS) show Great Performances Friday December 14 2012 will not only see the broadcast of Magical Mystery Tour at 10:00 pm, directly preceding the movie viewers will also have the chance to see the documentary Magical Mystery Tour Revisited. Airing at 9:00 pm it will you in on the back story behind the film. (Please check local listings for dates and times) If you miss this airing of the film, don't worry, because this new remastered version is also being made available for sale in a Blu-Ray/DVD combo package with special features that seem to include most of the documentary as well.

I had previously tried to watch one of the aforementioned crappy versions of the film, so was very interested in seeing what it would be like with good quality sound and clean visuals. One of the problems for a North American audience will be we're not familiar with the concept of the "Coach Trip" - climbing onto a bus with a group of strangers and touring around for the day looking at sites. However in England, especially in the 1950s and the 1960s, this was a very common outing especially among working and middle class families like those the members of The Beatles grew up in. One of the observations made in the documentary is how much of the imagery used in the film would have been taken from the Beatles' childhoods and how much of it would have been very familiar to other English people at the time.

Village fairs and church socials would have featured things like sack races, tugs of war and races while novelty acts like midget wrestlers were common at side shows. The Beatles might not have been part of that world by the time they made the movie, but it was the world they grew up in and obviously had some fond memories of. However, they also understood the rather limited world view it represented and deliberately created a rather cartoonish version of it for their movie. However, there was nothing cruel about the depiction, it was more along the lines of gentle teasing that showed while they remembered these type of events they had long since out grown them.

If The Magical Mystery Tour was about anything it was about the joy of doing something just for the sake of doing it. The Beatles decided they wanted to make a movie and this was the result. They played with camera effects, different filters and various lenses to create distortion and multiple exposures. They took stock pieces from British Musical Hall and turned them on their head. The grand finale to the movie with them singing and dancing to "Your Mother Should Know" while dressed in white tail coats. (Notice while the other three have red roses in their button holes, Paul McCartney's is black - which was probably used to fuel the "Paul is dead rumours" that began circulating soon after) That none of them could really dance, made the sequence all the funnier. They manage to make it down the grand flight of stairs relatively in step, but once they hit level ground John Lennon and Ringo Starr especially seem to have a hard time walking and moving their arms at the same time.

As the interviews in The Magical Mystery Tour Revisited make clear, the movie wasn't meant to be taken seriously. It was done for the fun of doing it and to experiment with doing new things. Even the songs included in the movie itself, "I'm The Walrus", "Fool On The Hill", "Blue Jay Way", "Your Mother Should Know" and the title song "Magical Mystery Tour" were not standard Beatles fare. While Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band had just been released and had shown them starting to experiment with studio effects, these songs were just that much more out there. Ranging from the archaic to the psychedelic they all would have come as a surprise to those used to the nice safe pop songs of their early years.
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While people like Martin Scorsese and Peter Fonda weigh in on the significance of the film in the documentary, as well as some of those who were actually in the film, the most interesting bits in it are the commentary provided by McCartney and Starr. From Starr we learn that the movie was McCartney's idea. As the only unmarried member of the band at the time McCartney spent a lot of time checking out the avant-garde theatre and film scene in London. He also had picked up some rather basic film cameras and had begun playing with them and creating short films. So he came up with concept for the film and then assigned each of the others various scenes to write. However he was also fascinated with the idea of improvisation and decided things should be kept free and easy and allowed cast and crew to create spontaneously in front of the camera.

While the psychedelic era was also known for drug use, and there have been all sorts of rumours circulating about LSD and the Beatles, the subject of drugs and the film is almost completely avoided. The one brief reference to drugs is made by Starr when he's talking about experimenting with the different lenses used for filming the sequence of Harrison performing "Blue Jay Way". He says, in almost an aside something along the lines of various "medicines" available at the time made the effects even more fun to watch.

If you tune in to watch The Magical Mystery Tour on your local PBS station later this week don't be expecting to see a highly polished film. However, if you let yourself go along for the ride, you'll find yourself having a good time. You'll also come away with a new appreciation for both The Beatles sense of the absurd and their willingness to experiment. They had to have known the movie was never going to be popular and was bound to shock a number of people, but that didn't stop them. Can you picture any other band at the peak of their popularity taking this kind of risk?

To our eyes it will seem rather tame and the effects rather primitive, but for the time it must have been rather shocking to a mainstream audience. When it aired on Boxing Day in 1967 it followed a nice safe Petula Clark Christmas special. Imagine the family gathered around their television set the day after Christmas and being presented with The Magical Mystery Tour - even today I can think of any number of people who wouldn't consider it appropriate fare for the holidays. If you've never seen it before, or are like me and only seen a crap copy of it, this impeccably restored version will be a treat. Meet The Beatles all over again and remember what it was that made them so special.

(Article first published as Television Review: Magical Mystery Tour Revisited & The Magical Mystery Tour on Blogcritics)

December 11, 2012

Music Review: Shelby Lynne - Revelation Road: Deluxe Edition


I've never been a big fan of what most people call country music. The cheap sentimentality, the show business slickness and the simple mindedness of the ideas expressed by the majority of the mainstream performers has always left me cold. Too many seem more concerned with image rather than content. For a music whose roots lie in the folk songs of the British Isles and the dirt farms of Tennessee and Oklahoma that strikes the wrong chord with me. This is probably unfair and pejorative on my part, but like so much of today's popular culture the genre seems to have come to the conclusion that playing it safe by appealing to what they think is the lowest common denominator is the surest way of being a success.

So one of the nicest surprises I've had this year was the DVD We Walk The Line - A Tribute to the Music of Johnny Cash and the voices it introduced me to. Not having heard her before I was quite unprepared for the power Shelby Lynne packs. When she walked on stage and sang Kristofferson's "Why Me Lord", she blew me away and made me want to hear more of her. It was only shortly there after the press release announcing the release of Revelation Road: Deluxe Edition, on her own Eversorecords label arrived in my inbox.
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While the disc was originally released in 2011, Lynne has put together a special package consisting of two DVDs and two CDs for fans of her work. Like many other independents she raised the cash for this project though crowd source funding, in this case Pledge Music. Those who contributed to the project received the set in advance and depending on the level of their funding bonus gifts as well. However, the rest of us can purchase the set in its entirety at all the usual on line outlets. Considering it contains the original CD with five bonus tracks added, a live recording of her performing singing in the intimate back room of McCabe's guitar shop in California, Live At McCabe's, a short DVD documentary on the making of Revelation Road and a DVD of her performance at Union Chapel in London England, it sounds like a great package. it also includes a twelve page booklet with notes about each performance, lyrics to the songs from the original CD and the story behind each of the bonus tracks.

Once I started listening to the set I knew my first impression of her hadn't been wrong. I felt stupid for not having checked her out earlier - that's the problem with prejudices, it means you miss out on all sorts of great stuff - but this set provides a great opportunity to hear the many sides of Lynne. Although she really doesn't sound very much like her, I was almost immediately reminded of the great Iris Demont. I think it's because they both are so tied into where they came from. They don't just sing about their backgrounds, but sing with their feet planted firmly in the roots of the people and land that shaped them. As with Demont, part of that background for Lynne is her Christianity.

Under most circumstances the mixture of Christianity and country music is enough to make me run for the hills. However, Lynne is still an exception to the rule here as well. Maybe its simply because of the overall depth of her sincerity, but her expressions of faith remind you there can be something beautiful about the act of believing. She doesn't feel like she's claiming moral superiority, trying to convert you or threatening you with eternal damnation if you don't join her club. It's a part of her life that comes out in conversation now and then just as any other subject comes up. Since her songs are her conversations with the world it stands to reason the topic will be raised.

The title song of the disc, "Revelation Road", is an example of this. Typically one would expect a song with a title like this to be about being saved with a capital "S". However, the song is more about how we're all searching for something and how our own certainty keeps us from finding our way and hearing what's important. "Bible thumpers rest your fists/Haters rest your ire/You're both too young to know you're mute/Unconscious to the choir". In fact a number of the songs on the album reflect this theme of searching for a path. From relationships to dealing with the past, Lynne's song's are an honest examination of just how difficult it is to place your feet right.
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"I Want To Go Back" is a brilliant examination of how easy it is to fall into the role of being a victim and wallow in the pain of your past."Oh why does it feel so right to hurt so long/Is it just what I'm used to/Does my heart need these scars to keep me alive?" I don't think I've heard anyone sum up the irony of how easy it is to be comfortable with the emotional pain caused by abuse in the past because its what you're used to. When you've been conditioned by life and events to act or believe a certain way, the idea of change, even for the better, is terrifying.

Of course, dealing with these themes don't make Lynne's songs exactly cheerful. However, as she says to her audience on the Live At McCabe's disc something along the lines of, "Sorry about bringing you down, but you have to expect that from country music". Needless to say her tongue is planted firmly in her cheek, but at the same time she's giving fair warning that's she's not messing round singing about inconsequential stuff. While the nature of her material makes it obvious she wears her heart on her sleeve, both the CD and the DVD of her live performances really bring that home.

Maybe it's just the sight of her standing up on stage alone under the harsh glare of the stage lights on Live In London, the concert recorded at Union Chapel, that accentuates how little she hides from her audience. With the songs stripped back to their bare essentials of voice and single guitar her words and the way in which she expresses them become our only focus. Being petite, blonde and sort of waif like it would be easy to fall into the trap of saying she looks vulnerable, but that's not the case. It takes a great deal of strength and courage to stand up alone and sing the type of songs she does. Watching her perform live not only confirms the honesty of the emotions being expressed in her songs, it also reveals the inner core of iron necessary to write this type of material.

Rounding out the package is the short, about 11 minute, documentary on the making of Revelation Road. There are no interviews, no voice overs or any of the other things you'd normally associate with a "making of" type of thing, instead we're treated to something a lot more interesting. The camera simply follows Lynne around. From her office where she's working on song lyrics down to the studio where we see her laying down everything from lead vocals to the bass and harmony tracks. Be warned, the air turns a little blue when she struggles with the bass line, but that's all part of her reality and makes her that much more human. What's really nice is you have the feeling that the camera was just left running during the whole session and she forgot it was even there. Either that or she's so absorbed in what she's doing nothing is going to distract her.

If like me you're not very familiar with Lynne's work, than Revelation Road: Deluxe Edition will ensure you learn a great deal about both her and her music. If you're already a fan, and even if you own the original release, the two live recordings, the bonus tracks and the mini-documentary will still make it worth your while to buy a copy of this box set. The honesty and integrity of Lynne's material make her a rarity in the world of today's popular music no matter what genre people want to put her in. In her voice and her music you hear echoes of generations of mountain singers mixed in with lyrics about trying to get by in today's world. As far as I'm concerned that's what country should sound like, and Lynne has it down cold.

(Article first published as Music Review: Shelby Lynne - Revelation Road: Deluxe Edition on Blogcritics)

December 6, 2012

DVD Review: Ike & Tina On The Road 1971 - 72


In these days of the media's attention so focused on the lives of those we consider celebrities it can be hard to believe there was a time when a trip behind the scenes into the life of a pop musician or film star was considered something out of the ordinary. Yet it wasn't too long ago that the idea of a camera crew following a celebrity around was considered a novelty. In those more innocent times it wasn't a matter of media trying to uncover scandals or revealing secrets. In fact the sole purpose of these early reports from backstage seemed more concerned with humanizing larger than life figures.

At least that's the impression one gets watching the footage taken by famous rock and roll photographer Bob Gruen and his wife Nadya of Ike and Tina Turner. Using one of the first ever portable video cameras, Gruen and his wife joined the Turners and their band on the road and at home for their 1971-72 tour. Now, forty years later, the footage taken during this time has been cut, edited and digitally remastered as Ike & Tina Turner - On The Road: 1971 - 72, and released on DVD by MVD Entertainment Group.
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Needless to say video technology was in its infancy in those days. According to Gruen's notes the camera was loaded with tapes similar to those used on old reel to reel audio equipment. The picture quality wasn't the greatest. In low light the image would darken to the point where the screen would almost be black and in bright light it would blanch out. The audio was mono only and would tend to distort if the source was too loud and pick up any and all ambient noise in the surrounding vicinity. If this were filmed today we would just throw it out as garbage. However, as a historical record of a bygone era and for the look it allows us into the lives of one of rock and roll's more controversial husband and wife teams, its an invaluable document.

The sad demise of Ike and Tina Turner's marriage has been well documented. The abuse she received at his hands and sneaking out of their hotel room with only change in her pocket is all that most think about when their life together is brought up. In his liner notes for the DVD Gruen says the footage he shot shows why they were together for twenty years. While I'm not sure it accomplishes that goal, what this DVD does is remind us of just how incredible the band was at the height of their performing prowess. While I'm sure there's still footage from their periodic television appearances, I can't see any network in the early 1970s airing some of the footage included in this DVD.

If in the 1950s they wouldn't film Elvis below the waist and in the 1960s demanded the Rolling Stones change the line "let's spend the night together" to "let's spend some time together", there's no way they would have allowed the full unbridled sexuality of Ike and Tina on the air in the 1970s. It must have been hard enough to get Tina and the Ikette's dance moves approved for prime time television. This is a band that reminds you of the word funk's origins with almost every note they play. Even considering the poor quality of some of the footage there's no disguising the fact their music wasn't the safe anti-septic stuff being churned out by Motown for mass consumption. They were playing down and dirty funk and R&B which makes even most of today's rappers look tame in comparison.

At least 50% of the film, if not more, was taken off stage. There's footage of Tina at home with the kids making supper and going grocery shopping like any housewife. However, even standing over a stove cooking, out of the slinky costumes and wigs she wore on stage, her natural glamour and presence shine through. Of course not everybody's house in those days has an in ground swimming pool, a sunken living room and a Grammy trophy on the mantle piece. Yet in spite of these things we also see a fairly typical domestic situation for the time period. Wife and kids hanging at the house.
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Interestingly enough, Ike never appears in the footage shot at home. We only ever see him in work related situations. Backstage, rehearsing the band, or in the studio Ike's presence is inescapable, but we hardly ever see the two of them alone together. Taciturn to the point of almost hardly ever talking except during rehearsals, I can't recall him saying anything not related to business during the entire DVD. Even then he doesn't say much. However, there's no doubt he's the one running the show musically. Watching him lead the band on stage and in rehearsals he's like a conductor. Even during concerts he would tend to stand facing the audience in profile so he could cue the band when required.

Of course, with Tina out front nobody was going to be paying much attention to anybody else anyway. She could blow the doors off an auditorium with her voice one moment and the next bring you to tears with her gentleness. She's pulling an audience to their feet and getting them dancing in the aisles and then sitting them back down again to break their hearts. Then there's her dancing. While your mind tells you she has to have her feet on the ground, your eyes are telling you a different story. Like some exotic bird she seems to float above the stage all the while twisting and twirling like an ecstatic dervish.

Unlike others who dance with only their arms and their legs, her whole body is involved. It's like every muscle is attuned to the music and responds to what's being played. It might start with her hands or her feet, but soon it can't be contained and her whole body explodes into motion. However it's not an uncontrolled flailing around either. For no matter how fast or involved her movements she's always able to stay centred on a song's rhythm and its that pulse which lies at the base of everything she does.

As an historical record of just how incredible Ike and Tina Turner were at the peak of their career there's no questioning the value of this DVD. However, in spite of what Gruen says in his liner notes there's no evidence of them having anything in common aside from the music. Nothing of what we see of them together in this movie indicates an emotional bond existed between them. In fact we learn almost nothing about Ike except that he was completely devoted to his music. Maybe he was just a very shy man, or very private, but don't go looking for anything that will give you any insights into their private life, because you won't find it here.

While the majority of the DVD is taken from the black and white footage Gruen shot with his early model video camera, there are a few pieces of colour film spliced into it that were shot at the same time. Unfortunately all they serve to do is make the flaws in the video even more obvious. Some of the times parts of the image on screen is blacked out because of low light, and other times the exposure is off because the ambient light was too bright. However, that doesn't stop this DVD from being something special to watch. The music created by Ike and Tina Turner was some of the most amazing R&B/soul/funk produced in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Any opportunity to see them perform shouldn't be missed. No matter what happened down the line, it can never be denied what they did together was amazing - it's just too bad it couldn't have lasted.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Ike & Tina On The Road 1971 - 72 on Blogcritics.)

November 29, 2012

Music DVD Review: Patti Smith - Live At Montreux 2005


It was 1982. Six of us were crammed into a Honda Civic driving through the night time streets of Toronto Ontario with Patti Smith's "Rock and Roll Nigger" blasting. We had the windows open in spite of the fact it was the middle of a January deep freeze, letting the music spill out into the darkness and cold. It was a classic rock and roll moment if there ever was one. Where music, time and place come together so all that exists in that moment is the song, its power and the way its relentless beat reverberates through body and soul.

That wasn't my first introduction to Smith, but it was the first time I'd fully experienced the power and intensity of her and her music. At that moment the song epitomized what rock and roll should be. It was a proclamation of independence and declaration of self delivered as an upraised middle finger to society. Yet perhaps its real appeal was how it perpetuated the romantic myth of the artist living on the edge. An outlaw who could see what others were blind to and had the nerve to speak those truths in public.

Over the years of listening to Smith's music I came to realize this was her reality. She wrote and sang about things others either couldn't see or weren't able to put into words. Maybe her fascination with photography, freezing moments in time with her Polaroid Land camera, inspired her to work towards the same effect with verse that she accomplished with film. However, unlike a photograph which is forever frozen, her songs take on new life each time she performs them. This feeling was reinforced watching the recently released DVD, Live At Montreux 2005, from Eagle Rock Entertainment, as she performed songs from the breadth of her career.
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While any performer worth his or her salt won't play a song the exact same way over and over again for thirty years, only someone as gifted as Smith will allow her material to evolve to meet the challenges of changing times and circumstances. Always pushing the envelope lyrically, on this night she and her band allowed the spirit of the jazz greats who had previously graced the festival's stage to imbue their music. As her long time stalwart and guitar player Lenny Kaye, commenting on the night's performance in his liner notes for the DVD, puts it: "Patti once again defines our credo: there are no definitions but those we choose to create for ourselves." This artist and her band will never be limited by labels or concern themselves with conforming to other's expectations of what they should sound like.

While the evening starts off gently enough with the reggae beat of "Redondo Beach", and its happy, welcoming sounds, Smith and company take the audience into far more unsettled waters with the second song, "Beneath The Southern Cross". Like the North Star is used to identify due north the Southern Cross was used by navigators in the South Pacific to fix due South. With its references to travel and exploration its placement in the set list couldn't have been accidental. Smith is preparing everyone to join her on a voyage of musical exploration and discovery.

From her earliest days as a performer reciting her poetry accompanied only by Kaye's guitar improvisation has played a big part in Smith's live performances. While she's best known for her singing and song writing abilities, she's also no mean slouch when it comes to her instrumental work. For although she's not technically skillful by any stretch of the imagination she has the unique ability to utilize both the electric guitar and her clarinet to create sounds which accent and elaborate on the mood of a piece. On the rendition of "25h Floor" included on this disc her electric guitar is a chaotic barrage of sound and noise creating a roar of defiance, anger and confusion.

The very rawness of her playing is what makes it so powerful. While the song's words might tell us what she's thinking, it's this lead which gives us a glimpse of the depth of her emotional commitment to her material. It's like we're being given a glimpse into her innermost reaches and seeing what's boiling beneath the surface. While her clarinet playing is more polished than her work with the electric guitar it too take us into a place of emotional rawness most pop musicians wouldn't dare venture into. "Seven Ways Of Going" is given an even deeper layer of mystery than normal with the inclusion of her clarinet solos. Its like an instinctual reaction to the music with Smith using the instrument to express those things mere language is incapable of articulating.
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One thing that becomes abundantly clear over the course of the concert is the level of anger and defiance Smith was feeling at the time. Even such apparently innocuous numbers like her cover of Bob Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone" are delivered with a sneer and a level of distaste for the type of person the song describes you almost pity those she's pissed at. When "Because The Night", the only song she's ever written that could pass for a pop standard, becomes an expression of defiance, as if she's daring anyone to deny lovers the right to their nights, you know she's not happy with the direction the world is moving in. For she knows there are far too many people in the world who would deny people the chance to be lovers no matter what the time of day.

On this night Smith and her band, Kaye, Tony Shanahan (bass & keyboards) and Jay Dee Daugherty (drums) are joined by their fellow veteran of the New York City music scene Tom Verlaine on lead guitar. Seated off to one side it's almost as if he's in his own little world, but his guitar work is the perfect complement to the band's perfect storm of music. Like the eye of a hurricane he is calmness personified as he lays down his almost delicate leads. Yet each note he plays, whether with his slide or his fingers, stands out. He doesn't attempt to overpower, instead his guitar seems to appear when its needed in a particular song as if by magic to fill out the sound and add another layer of texture.

While there are no special features included in this DVD, as is usual for Eagle Rock concert DVDs, its technically superb. Aside from the normal surround sound options (DTS, and Dolby 5.1) the quality of the camera work and post production editing is some of the best you'll ever see when it comes to live concerts. From the beautifully focused close ups of Verlaine's fret board during his solos to the way in which they capture Smith's facial expressions while singing you're brought right up on stage. Cross fades from one shot to another have become overused to the point of cliche in concert recordings. So it was a pleasure to see them used sparingly and to great effect here. In fact the director even resisted the urge far too many succumb too of incessantly cutting back and forth between band members. Instead cameras linger lovingly on individuals allowing us to fully absorb and appreciate their performances. Watching and listening to Smith either while she's singing or hunched over her guitar squeezing sound and fury out of it we are gifted with an intimacy you'd never experience attending a concert.

For close to 40 years now Smith has been one of the most unique voices in popular music. Yet for all that her studio recordings are works of artistry, as this DVD proves, her concerts take her music to an even higher level. While catching lighting in a bottle might not be possible, Live At Montreux 2005 captures Smith's mercurial nature and indefatigable spirit and brings them to life in our living rooms.

(Article first published as Music DVD Review: Patti Smith - Live At Montreux 2005 on Blogcritics.)

November 13, 2012

Music Review: The Scenics - dead man walks down bayview


I missed the first wave of local punk bands in Toronto Canada by about two, maybe three years. By the time I was able to get into bars it was pretty much over. The bands; The Viletones and The Diodes to name two, and events, The Last Pogo, were already fading into the mystery of myth memory by 1981. Thankfully, while parts of the scene had been co-opted and cleaned up for consumption by suburbanites, places like The Spadina Hotel, Larry's Hideaway and The Horseshoe Tavern still catered to the punk trade.

Here you could see both second generation punk bands and those few who had survived from the first wave. While I was more interested in bands like The Rheostatics, L'Etranger, and Directive 17, it would have been still possible to have seen The Scenics up until 1982. Ken Badger (guitar and vocals) Andy Meyers (guitar, bass and vocals) Mark Perkell (drums) and Mike Young (guitar, bass and vocals) stayed intact longer then most, but that was the year they called it quits.
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While they were lumped in with the punk movement it was more because they embraced the "do it yourself" ethos of the times than because of their music. Instead of looking to The Ramones, The Sex Pistols or even The Clash for inspiration their music mixed an appreciation for Patti Smith, Television and Pere Ubu with a liking for Roxy Music and the Velvet Underground. Probably not a sound that most would have understood or appreciated on the nascent punk scene in Toronto.

During their first go round from 1976 to 1982 The Scenics released one LP, Underneath The Door, one 45, and were included on both the album and in the film made of The Last Pogo, a weekend long marathon of Toronto independent/punk bands held in 1978. The band lay dormant from 1982 until 2008 when they released How Does It Feel To Be Loved a collection of Velvet Underground covers and in 2009 released Sunshine World, a collection of recordings they had made between 1977 and 1978 which had never seen the light of day. Now, comes their first recording of new material in 30 years, dead man walks down bayview on their own Dream Tower Records.

I have to confess as to being curious what, if anything, these guys could have to offer that would be interesting after all this time. However I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. After all if others from that era can still be putting out music that's relevant and interesting there's no reason they couldn't do the same. Upon listening to this new recording my first impression was there's no way these guys should have been lumped in with three chord punk if this is an example of what they were producing in their first go round. In fact after listening to the first few songs and the big jangling guitar sound my first impression was here were people who had listened to a lot of The Birds and Graham Parsons.

Yet to say they are kind of an alt-country band is wrong. It just took me a while to get past the melodic guitar sound. It's been so long since I've heard guitar that doesn't sound like its patched through a million effects boxes that I'd almost forgotten the instrument could fill space with just its resonance. The more I listened to this recording the more amazed I became at the quality of sound they were able to produce using only the standard rock and roll set up of bass, drums and guitars. Normally you think loud when you think full for that kind of band. However The Scenics manage to fill space with their music without necessarily being loud. It has a richness and a melody that gives it substance you don't normally find in a rock combo's music.

As they did originally Meyers and Badger split the songwriting duties for this disc. Musically you can still hear traces of outside influences with Velvet Underground overtones here, "A Fox, Her Fur, an Where She Parks It", a Birds influence there, "When You Come Around" and rockabilly coming out on "No Sleep". The latter is actually the closest song on the disc to being akin to any of the old punk stuff you could hear back in the 1970s and early 80s. With a rockabilly beat given a hard and dangerous edge you'd never confuse this with anything from the Sun Record catalogue. The lyrics have the same rather nasty tone to them as they describe the reasons for the "No Sleep" of the song's title. "I say I love you and I get the fear that'll you'll never dump me for a thousand years/No sleep/No sleep/No sleep anymore/Tall Sally's built for speed/Cheap speed is all she needs".
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However this is track is the only one which comes in at under three minutes. In fact with the majority of the songs on the recording being a minimum of five minutes in length these guys break the cardinal punk rule of keeping songs short, simple and fast on nearly every cut. At over seven minutes "Growing Pains" isn't even the longest cut on the disc. However, its much more representative of the band's sound than "No Sleep". Haunting and sparse, but at the same time melodic, its combination of vocal and instrumental harmonies - listen for the guitar solo at about the three minute mark with the second guitar providing a harmony line for the lead - is an object lesson in how a basic four piece band can have intricate arrangements without sounding pretentious.

Judging by the lyrics the title of the song refers to the growth and progression of a relationship. From that first spark of interest in a person who you might glimpse from afar and the gradual process of two people getting to know each other. "Some lights seem brighter when they're farther away/I'll make you my galleon/Somethings you hold just to hold away/and they're no answers/I see you in streets and shapes/I see you in sidewalks and streetcars/I see something else/and you're nowhere at all/like me".

Over the course of the song both the language and the music intensify as more is revealed. However instead of there being some neat and tidy resolution it ends with an ever increasingly noisy and harsh instrumental which then just peters out into nothing for the final few moments of the tune. Inconclusive and confusing, but compelling all the same, some might feel like they've been left hanging. However, the reality of relationships is such there are no easy paths to follow while you learn about the other person and grow from two individuals into a couple. What I heard listening to this song was a band managing to capture this emotionally volatile and charged state of being both musically and lyrically.

The Scenics might have come of age in the first wave of punk in the 1970s but they are no more a punk band than The Talking Heads were. Yet, while the art rock influences of The Velvet Underground and Roxy Music are unmistakable, their sound also reflects the rejection of the excesses of the rock and roll of the early 1970s which was a hallmark of the punk scene. Combined with their willingness to embrace a range of musical influences that includes country and the ability to create music which reflects the emotional content of their lyrics, they have a sound unique onto themselves.

dead man walks down bayview is not an attempt to recapture the lost glory of youth by a bunch of middle age wannabes. What you have is a collection of songs both musically interesting and lyrically intriguing. Maybe this time around no one is going to mislabel them and lump then into some category they don't belong. This is a band that deserves to be recognized for who they are and what they are capable of producing.

(Article first published as Music Review: The Scenics - dead man walks down bayview on Blogcritics.)

November 11, 2012

Music Review: Joe Stummer and The Mescaleros: Rock Art and the X-Ray Style, Global A Go-G0 & Streetcore


It's been nearly ten years since Joe Strummer died of a congenital heart defect at the age of fifty. Born John Graham Mellor he took the name of Strummer just prior to joining Mick Jones and Paul Simonon in forming one of the most significant bands to come out of Britain's punk movement, The Clash. For six years they brought their politically charged combination of punk, reggae, ska, dub and pop music to the world.

In the all or nothing world of punk rock the band had remarkable longevity compared to most of their contemporaries. However, the departure of Jones as lead guitarist in 1983 marked the beginning of the end. Coupled with the lose of their drummer, Topper Headon, a year earlier to heroin addiction, the band was only a shadow of its former self. While Strummer and Simonon limped on with replacements on guitar and drums for another three years it just wasn't the same.
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For the next decade or so Strummer vanished from the public eye. He composed the soundtrack for a couple of movies, acted in a few others and stood in for Shane MacGowan as lead singer of The Pogues when MacGowan's drinking forced him out of the band. Yet when he returned to the world of pop music full time in 1999 it was with a vengeance. Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros were cut from the same cloth as The Clash playing high energy socially and politically conscious music. However, as the band's name implies, they were also far more a reflexion of Strummer's interests and taste than The Clash had ever been.

Over the course of three years and three albums the band's line up was constantly being shuffled with Strummer, Martin Slattery (guitar, keyboards, saxophone, flute) and Scott Shields (guitar and bass) being the only consistent members. However, this lack of a consistent line up doesn't seem to have had a negative effect on Strummer's creativity. Listening to Epitaph Records' newly reissued versions of Rock Art and the X-Ray Style, Global A GoGo and Streetcore you'll be amazed by both his ability to write in a multitude of musical genres and songs that were both meaningful and musically interesting to listen to.

While there are obvious similarities between Srummer's work with The Clash and The Mescaleros, these releases weren't an example of somebody trying to recreate the past. Instead this later body of work continues on and expands upon what he had begun to establish with the first band. Later Clash albums saw the band experimenting with different styles of musical expression. Living in London England Strummer was surrounded by people from all over the world, listening to an amazing variety of music, and couldn't help but be influenced by what he saw and heard around.

The first Mescaleros' disc, Rock Art and the X-Ray Style, feels like it picks up where The Clash left off. The second last song on the original recording, "Yalla Yalla" has a groove which hints at Jamaican dub but without the heavy bass line. At the same time it has an urgency you'd never hear in reggae or any of its offshoots. It's hard to describe as on the surface the song ebbs and flows with an easy beat, but there's the feeling of a deeper current, a hint of danger, lurking just out of sight. Perhaps it's the sound of Strummer's singing voice, rasping out the lyrics, which gives these lines an added intensity. "Well so long liberty/Let's forget you didn't show/not in my time/Not in my son's/And daughter's time."
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Even sung to the melodic tune of the song those are opening lines guaranteed to grab your attention. The tune almost lulls you into not noticing its a lament for the way so many wars fought in the name of freedom and liberty end up replacing one form of tyranny with another. Like all of Strummer's best work "Yalla Yalla" isn't just an issue song but is a commentary on human nature. Some might find his rather pessimistic take on the world, not giving it much of a chance of getting better anytime soon, as being a downer. However, given the state of the world in 1999 when this was written and the way things are now, I'd say he was pretty accurate in his assessment of what the future held for his kids and their generation.

Global A Go-Go saw the band's line up changed to include Strummer's old friend and musical mentor Tymon Dogg. While it might have been coincidence but this disc also saw their sound and vision become far more global. While the immediacy and intensity that was always characteristic of Strummer's music didn't change, the scope of the band's means of expression certainly expanded. In liner notes written for this reissue film maker Jim Jarmusch comments on the appropriateness of the disc's title: "Strummer's world wide musical influences and appreciation are certainly well known...Global A Go-Go deftly represents his outlook, his intuition, his enthusiasm, and his concerns."

Yet what continued to make Strummer's music special was the human qualities he was able to imbue his songs with. Not very many people could write a song extolling the virtues of multiculturalism, let alone write one that's as funny and cheerful as "Bhindi Bhagee". Simply by listing the variety of food and musical styles on offer in a neighbourhood he creates the image of a multitude of nations living side by side in harmony. "Welcome stranger to the humble neighbourhood/You can get inspiration along the highroad/Hommus, cous cous, in the jus of Octopus...Welcome stranger, there's no danger." Typical of Strummer the song has a point, but that doesn't mean you can't have fun along the way.
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Strummer died before the release of the band's third album, Streetcore. Fortunately after a series of gigs in November 2002 the band had headed right into the studio and had recorded enough before he died the remaining band members, Simon Stafford, Luke Bullen, Shields, Slattery and Dogg, were able to finish it off and release it in 2003. This disc really shows the many and diverse musical directions Strummer was beginning to head in. From his reworking of an old British pop song from the 1950s, "Before I Grow Too Old", retitled here as "Silver and Gold", to his writing of "Long Shadow" in the hopes of it being recorded by Johnny Cash. It was the type of song that would have fit into Cash's repertoire seamlessly with its tale of a long struggle artistically couched in biblical terms. "Well I'll tell you one thing that I know/You don't face your demons down/you grab them by the collar/and you wrestle them to the ground."

Strummer ended up recording it with Smokey Hormel, Cash's guitar player. Also included on the disc was a recording he made of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" that he had made in Rick Rubin's studio (the man who produced and recorded Cash's "American" albums). It seems eerie that both Marley and Strummer recorded this song as solo acoustic numbers and in both cases it was released posthumously. However, in case you think these tracks were an indication of Strummer mellowing, the opening two cuts from the disc, "Coma Girl" and "Get Down Moses" will quickly disabuse of the notion. The first is a satiric look at the whole music festival scene while the second tells Moses he needs to come down from his mountain and check out reality before making his pronouncements.

As lead singer for The Clash Strummer had stardom and international acclaim thrust upon him whether he wanted it or not. While there's no denying The Clash were a great band and Strummer did some incredible work with them, The Mescaleros and what he created for them was just as deserving of recognition. While they obviously didn't produce the same volume of material as his first band, what they did record was every bit as good as the best stuff The Clash ever made. Hopefully the reissuing of these three discs will ensure they receive the recognition they deserve.

(Article first published as Music Review: Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros - Rock Art and the X-Ray Style, Global A Go-Go & Streetcore on Blogcritics.)

November 4, 2012

Music Review: Sarah Vaughan - Sarah Vaughan: The Complete Columbia Albums Collection


The majority of the CDs I review are either new releases or recordings that reflect the current trends in popular music. These trends had their genesis in the amalgamation of African American music and country music which took place in the 1950s. However, that doesn't mean there was no popular music prior to those days. Every so often the opportunity arises to review music from this earlier period and its hard not to be struck by the contrast between the two eras. The most glaring of these is how the artists of this earlier era are, for the main part, far more musically sophisticated.

This was driven home to me again when listening to a recent release from Legacy Recordings featuring the works of the late great jazz/blues vocalist Sarah Vaughan. While the majority of her recordings were with other labels Vaughan released four LPs on the old Columbia label which have now been packaged as the four CD set Sarah Vaughan: The Complete Columbia Albums Collection. What's wonderful about this collection is that it not only shows off the depth of her talent and versatility as a vocalist it gives listeners the opportunity to hear her at both the beginning and near the end of her career.
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The first two discs in the collection, After Hours With Sarah Vaughan and Sarah Vaughan in Hi-Fi were both originally released in 1955. We then jump forward in time nearly 30 years for her 1982 release Michael Tilson Thomas/Sarah Vaughan: Gershwin Live recorded at the Dorothy Chandler pavilion in Los Angeles with Tilson Thomas conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The fourth disc in the set, and the last she released under her own name, Brazilian Romance, was released in 1987 and produced by Sergio Mendes.

Each disc gives us the chance to hear her singing a different type of music. Big band and swing influenced popular tunes, sophisticated jazz, the classical blues of the Gershwin brothers and finally Latin music. Yet no matter what she's singing you can't help but notice her amazing control and range. She's able to float effortlessly from the lowest end of the scale to the highest without effort. Her singing is as much second nature as breathing is to most of us.

I don't know if you've ever heard the term phrasing applied to singing, it's not something you hear often anymore. To be honest its not something I'm sure I can define. The closest I can come to is it refers to a singer's ability to associate the lyrics of a song with the music. However, it means more than just being able to carry a tune. It's how you sing the words and music together. It's the ability to turn your voice into a lead instrument in a band and take one word and extend it over a whole series of notes. However it doesn't just mean the ability to sustain a note, it's continuing to sing the melody but with only one or a few words without them losing meaning or throwing the continuity of the song out of whack.

Listen to Vaughan wrap her voice around a word and you begin to understand what is meant by the term. You also realize why you don't hear the term used very often anymore as very few modern singers have this ability. To be fair the music of today doesn't really lend itself to that style of singing either. However hearing a singer of the quality of Vaughan you begin to regret its passing. I'm sure there are jazz singers around who have the ability, but we don't hear them on a regular basis.

Of course it's this ability which allowed her to be equally comfortable with any style of music she wished to sing. On After Hours we hear her sail through a series of smoothly orchestrated pop tunes. Even the version of Gershwin's "Summertime" on this disc is given the uptempo treatment. This might have been a collection of rather commercial standards, but she gives them a soulfulness that raises them above the level of just another pop song. She might not be as emotionally raw as Billie Holliday, but that doesn't stop her from being able to imbue even the simplest of songs with the heart necessary to make them soar.

On the second disc in the set, Sarah Vaughan In Hi-Fi, eight of the original twelve songs were with a jazz combo headed by a young Miles Davis. Listen to what she does with songs like Fats Waller's "Ain't Misbehavin'" and the way her voice dips and soars throughout. The lyrics and music come together in her voice in a way that has to be experienced to fully appreciate. Each note is cherished so each word is clearly enunciated both musically and lyrically. Listening to Vaughan stretch a word over a sequence of notes without sounding artificial or forced is one of the wonders of the word. If you could hear the different notes taffy makes when its pulled I'm sure it would sound something like her singing.
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The highlight of the set for me was the third disc, Gershwin Live. The fact she opens proceedings with a medley of songs from Porgy and Bess doesn't hurt as it contains some of my favourite Gershwin tunes. "Summertime", "It Ain't Necessarily So" and "I Loves You Porgy" are the three she blends together here. Now this concert was recorded almost three decades after the first two discs, but her voice and delivery are every bit as polished and believable as they were on the earlier records. In fact I much prefer the rendition of "Summertime" included here than on the After Hours.

Instead of worrying so much about making it an uptempo offering that will appeal to popular audiences, they offer a slower, bluesier version. We're not talking Janis Joplin slow, but we're talking slow and drawn out enough to make you feel the heat of the Georgian sun beating down on those picking cotton. You can really hear the similarities between her voice and Billy Holliday's. There's that catch in her voice which sounds like its holding back years of sadness. Instead of showing any effects of aging, Vaughan's voice on this recording seems to have grown in its ability to transmit emotions. While she was always technically gifted, at this point in her career there seems to be a new depth to her sound.

As for the fourth disc in this set, Brazilian Romance, to be honest I've never been a big fan of this type of Latin influenced jazz. Vaughan makes it sound better than most people are able to, but it still sounds like Latin music that's been toned down to make it acceptable for all audiences. Something you'd hear performed by a country club orchestra in the 1950s. It might sound sort of Latin but the heart's taken out of it. However, that doesn't stop it from being well played and sung as Vaughan does her best to give the arrangements life.

For those who aren't familiar with Sarah Vaughan Sarah Vaughan: The Complete Columbia Album Collection is a great way to be introduced to this extraordinary vocalist. Not only does each disc contain all songs from the original recordings, both After Hours and In Hi-Fi contain bonus material that's never been included on an album before. These include eight alternate takes on the latter and four tracks previously released as 78rpm singles on the former. The set also comes with a booklet supplying the history of each album and detailed credits for each track.

Sarah Vaughan may not have had the same romantic appeal of Billie Holliday or achieved the fame of other singers, but this package proves she deserves to be remembered as one of the great jazz and blues singers of the 20th century. So put these CDs on your stereo and sit back and let yourself be transported back to the days of night clubs and joints that jumped.

(Article first published as Music Review: Sarah Vaughan - The Complete Columbia Albums Collection on Blogcritics.)

November 1, 2012

Music Review: The Velvet Underground and Nico - The Velvet Underground and Nico Super Deluxe Edition


Should we care about an album released 45 years ago? Specifically, should we care about The Velvet Underground and Nico, especially enough to buy a six CD set commemorating the forty-fifth anniversary of its release? Well the people at Universal Music Enterprises (UMe) feel the album warrants special attention as they are releasing The Velvet Underground & Nico: Super Deluxe Edition. Are they justified in their belief this album deserves this kind of treatment?

In 1967 the The Velvet Underground; Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker joined forces with husky voiced Nico for this, their debut album. With the infamous peel away plastic banana cover artwork (you could actually peel the yellow skin away to reveal a naked flesh coloured banana) by their mentor Andy Warhol and their association with his studio/workshop/performance space/ The Factory the band was assured a certain amount of hip cachet. However hipness is fleeting and doesn't necessarily signify the creation of something enduring nor is it any guarantee of artistic merit.
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As the saying goes, "the proof is in the pudding", or in this case, in the listening. One only has to listen to the album once to understand not only how different it was from everything else being recorded at the time, but how good it is. I say is, because even listening to it now one can't help but be impressed by its inventiveness and originality. From the lyrics to the music it still sets a standard which very few albums, no matter when they were recorded, can measure up to. In fact when you consider the technological advances that have been made since it was recorded, most of what's being made today pales even more in comparison.

Musically The Velvet Underground And Nico is a mixture of pop and experimental/avant garde. In fact this rather strange mixture of the familiar and the jarring is very much the musical equivalent of what Warhol was doing with his "Pop Art". Taking familiar cultural images and then reproducing them in either oversized, life like detail (think his infamous rendering of a Campbell's Soup can) or distorting them with colour and repetition (think of his pictures of cultural icons like Elvis and Marylyn Monroe). In the case of the album this came across in both the music and the lyrics. Familiar popular music motifs were played just differently enough to make them sound unsettling while in other cases the band left pop music far behind and entered into the realm of the experimental.

Listen to the opening track on the album, "Sunday Morning". While it sounds like your typical pop song of the day there are some very noticeable differences right from the start. First of all is the fact the lead instrument sounds like a child's toy piano. It plinks along overtop the gentle sounding rhythm and gradually becomes more and more disturbing. While Nico originally performed the song live, Reed recorded the lead for the record. He gives the lyrics an almost Bob Dylan like inflection with the slightest suggestion of a German accent and sounding very feminine, making them sound like nothing you'd ever hear in any pop song. Of course the lyrics themselves aren't what you'd call pretty."Sunday morning/Brings the dawn in/It's just a restless feeling/By my side/Early dawning/Sunday morning/It's just the wasted years/So close behind/Watch out the world's behind you/There's always someone around you/Who will call/It's nothing at all/Sunday morning/And I'm falling/I've got a feeling/I don't want to know/Early dawning/Sunday morning/It's all the streets you crossed/Not so long ago." This isn't describing most people's idea of a Sunday morning. A hangover from Saturday night is one thing, but this sounds like a hangover of a life filled with regrets and failure - like the Sunday morning of somebody contemplating suicide.

While "Sunday Morning" is musically familiar the same can't be said for "Black Angel Death Song". It challenges listeners right from its opening notes. You're immediately hit with the sound of Cale's viola scraping across its strings playing the same few notes over and over again. Overtop of this comes the sound of Reed intoning/reciting, the lyrics to the song. "The myriad choices of his fate/Set themselves out upon a plate/for him to choose what had he to lose/Not a ghost-bloodied country all covered with sleep/Where the black angel did weep/Not an old city street in the east/Gone to choose".
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Sounding more like free form poetry with atonal accompaniment, its nothing like any pop song heard at that time. In it you can hear foreshadowing of performers like Patti Smith and Jim Carrol who a decade latter would set their poetry to music. While this song isn't what anybody would call accessible or radio friendly, it's a brilliant piece of work showing pop music's potential to be more than just inconsequential disposable and forgettable songs. While other bands might have been singing about love and peace or playing long and boring instrumentals which went nowhere and calling it experimental, The Velvet Underground were producing songs which would alter people's perceptions of pop art's capacity to be meaningful. Is it any wonder that famed composer and producer Brian Eno has been quoted as saying "the first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band."

The Velvet Underground And Nico Super Deluxe Edition gives you a chance to fully experience the band and the development of this very special record. Disc one of six is the original recording remastered plus the addition of alternate versions of four songs. Disc two is a copy of the original mono release that came out at the same time. While its mostly a novelty item, it is interesting to hear the release with the sound flattened and compressed into one channel. Disc three is a copy of Nico's Chelsea Girl which features all the members of The Velvets plus a seventeen year old Jackson Browne. You'll also notice that Browne wrote three of the tracks on the album while the others were written by members of either The Velvets or The Factory with one Bob Dylan cover, "I'll Keep It With Mine", rounding out the mix.

The material on disc four was recorded prior to the band making the record. The first nine songs are taken from tapes and acetate recordings made at Scepter Studios in April of 1966 while tracks 10 through 15 are from previously unreleased tapes of a rehearsal the band had at The Factory in January of 1966. While not all of the songs on this disc made it onto the album, it does give you an interesting perspective on the album's development over the course of the year prior to its release. Discs five and six were again recorded in 1966 and are taken from a live concert the band did at the Valleydale Ballroom in Columbus Ohio. Again this is an opportunity to hear the band finalizing the tunes and testing them out on a live audience. While they didn't do all of the song's from the final recording at this concert, and there are two which aren't on the album, "Melody Laughter" and "The Nothing Song", listening to how the band and the music evolved over the space of the year these two discs and disc four represent is fascinating.

The answer to the question of whether or not we should care about an album first produced forty-five years ago is obvious - it depends on the album. When it comes to The Velvet Underground And Nico the answer is yes. Not only was it one of the most innovative recordings of its time, it is far more imaginative and creatively challenging than most of what is being released in popular music today. Listen to it and be inspired, confused, irritated, angered and moved - for like all good art even if you don't necessarily like it, it will make you feel something.

(Article first published as Music Review: The Velvet Underground - The Velvet Underground and Nico. [Super Deluxe Edition] on Blogcritics.)

October 27, 2012

Music Review: The Grateful Dead - Dick's Picks Vol. 28


I should probably be clear from the outset of this write up that I am not now and never have been a "Dead Head". While I'm familiar with the band's music I've never seen them live, let alone obsessively followed them on tour. The first time I encountered "Dead Heads" I was under the mistaken impression that they were in a band when they talked about going on tour. The idea that anybody would go from city to city following a band was something I'd never encountered before. I don't remember whether I was more taken aback with the fact the people in question hadn't been born when the Grateful Dead were first popular or that somebody would organize their life around a band's touring schedule. I guess I must have seemed equally strange to them because although I liked the band I had the nerve to suggest they weren't the be all and end all when it came to music.

What I eventually came to understand was there was a night and day difference between the versions of the band's songs as they appear on their studio albums and what they did in concert. Songs that were maybe four or five minutes long in their recorded form could turn into 20 minute jams in concert. While there has been a healthy trade in bootlegged tapes of the band's concerts over the years the Dead had their own archivist who compiled their live concert tapes. Dick Latvala put together a series of 36 volumes collectively known as Dick's Picks. Previously only available directly from the band they are now being reissued for retail sale by the Real Gone label with the most recent release being Dick's Picks Vol. 28 taken from two concerts in 1973: Pershing Municipal Auditorium in Lincoln Nebraska on 2/26/73 and the Salt Palace, Salt Lake City Utah 2/28/73.
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While Dead stalwarts Jerry Garcia (lead guitar), Phil Lesh (bass & vocals), Bob Weir (guitar & vocals) and Bill Kreutzmann (drums) still formed the nucleus of the band 1973's version also featured new comers Keith Godchaux (piano) and Donna Jean Godchaux (vocals) who were added after the death of Ron "Pig Pen" McKernan. For all pop radio tries to instil the idea that the 1970s were an era of "Classic Rock" the early part of the decade was really quite fallow as the big acts became bloated and rock and roll was being turned into a successful commercial product. It wouldn't be for a few more years that the rise of punk would shake things up again. So survivors of the 1960s like the Dead, who still played by their own rules, were one of the few bands who stood out from the pack. The addition of the husband and wife Godchaux team doesn't seem to have changed the band much at this point, as the set list for both nights' gigs is replete with old favourites.

However the big appeal of these concert recordings for Dead aficionados and novices alike will be the chance to hear some of the freeform improvisations their concerts were famous for. While bands like Phish have since assumed the mantle of "jam band to see" the Dead were the first rock and roll band to follow the lead of jazz bands and turn concerts into exercises in improvisation. Songs like "Dark Star", of which there is a 25 plus minute version taken from the Nebraska show, achieved their real fame because of their concert renditions. Each of the four discs in this set contains at least one example of a song extended far beyond its original recorded length.

However unlike the majority of rock and roll bands' extended live versions of songs, the Dead's aren't just merely excuses for solos by various members of the band. Instead the whole band is involved with elaborating on the the tune's theme. Sure there are still solos, but they aren't the long winded pointless exercises in ego stroking you're used to hearing from a rock band. There's a real unity of purpose within this group which allows individual solos to be seamless extension of the song instead of standing out too much like a sore thumb.
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While Garcia, Lesh, Kreutzmann and Godchaux are obviously talented players and as innovative as anybody in popular music, there's only so much variety you can produce with guitar, bass, drums and keyboards in the early 1970s. While they may have been trying to emulate jazz bands with their extended improvisations they can't match them in terms of range of expression. That's not a comment on their individual abilities as musicians. It's just that instruments like saxophones, clarinets, flutes and various horns can produce a far more diversified range of expression than your basic rock and roll combo. Instead of hanging onto every note waiting to hear what would come next as I would listening to John Coltrane or Miles Davis or Weather Report, I found my attention wandering during their extended jams.

Perhaps it's also simply the limitations of the genre as it doesn't lend itself to improvisation in the same way as jazz. For instead of building layers upon layers of music based on an original theme, here the music just feels like its going around in circles. After a while there are so only many ways in which you can circle back over the same material again and again without it beginning to become tedious. Others might find enjoyment in the repetition, but personally I kept finding myself waiting for some sort of evolution to take place. While the solos would provide the occasional break in the pattern, after a while they weren't enough to hold my interest.

The Grateful Dead were not your typical rock and roll band. Their rather unique blend of laid back rock and roll, blue grass, country and psychedelic was responsible for creating music quite unlike what anything anybody else ever performed. After years of playing together there's no denying they were also one of the few bands who could be guaranteed to be as seamless live as they were in the recording studio. However, while I know there are thousands who will disagree with me, neither the style of music nor the instruments they played were ideally suited to the improvised jams that dominated their live shows.

That being said, for those who are fans of their music, and for those who are interested in checking out what all the fuss was about, Dick's Picks Vol. 28 is as good an opportunity as any. Not only does it contain versions of some of the band's classic tunes; "Sugar Magnolia", "Truckin'", "Dark Star", and some interesting covers; "Big River" by Johnny Cash and "Promised Land" by Chuck Berry, you'll have the opportunity to hear examples of the jams that made them famous. Like all of the releases in the Dick's Picksseries the sound quality is not an issue. The original recording was made through the band's soundboard and has been digitally re-mastered to ensure as high as quality as possible considering the time period they were made in. It might not be the same as seeing the band in person, but you can still experience the music and make up your own mind if The Grateful Dead were/are deserving of the status of cultural icons bestowed upon them by their fans.

(Article first published as Music Review: The Grateful Dead - Dick's Picks Vol. 28 on Blogcritics.)

October 26, 2012

Music Review: Colin Linden - Still Live


I'm really beginning to dislike the word revival. I've nothing against the word itself, merely the way its being employed in the context of music. Press release after press release heralds some musician or other as being in the vanguard of some sort of revival.The word revive has its origins in the Latin word revivere which literally translates as back live but has come to mean bring back to life. So when its used in reference to a particular genre of music the inference is the style had died and is now being resurrected by somebody. The problem I have with this is the music its usually used in context with never went anywhere. The blues, folk and the other music people seem to think needed reviving, never died. It just wasn't in the popular eye because some other music was the flavour of the month. Thousands of people the world over may have been enjoying a a musical genre, but it's only when it shows up on MTV people remember its existence and it miraculously undergoes a revival.

All you have to do is sit down and listen to a disc by the likes of an artist of the calibre of Colin Linden and you'll appreciate how alive the folk/blues/roots tradition has been and continues to be. Linden has been performing and recording since the 1980s and tours throughout Europe and North America to appreciative audiences playing what most people would now refer to as either roots or Americana. Listening to the new release of a concert he gave in 2010, File Under: Music label, you'll hear as diverse a collection of material from this one performer as you'd normally expect to hear from five or six different groups. Blues, R&B, soul, rock and roll and country all make their presence felt in Linden's music, and he sounds equally at home with each.
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Linden interest in the blues started young. His mother took him to see Howlin' Wolf when he was 11 and he's been hooked ever since. You can hear his affinity for the blues in his slide guitar playing and his use of rhythm in all his music. But, blues is the foundation upon which he builds his music not the only place he resides. They are Linden's jumping off point. However, no matter how far he leaps he never looses track of his first love. Yet he's not content with being a traditionalist either and merely recreating the sounds others have made before him. Even better is what's true musically is also true lyrically. Don't expect to hear your typical "my baby done left me broken hearted" blues songs or blue eyed soul moaning from Linden. While he might have gained his reputation for being a guitar player and sideman (playing with everyone from Emmylou Harris to Robert Plant) his lyrics have an intelligent introspection you don't often hear in popular music.

The soulful, R&B influenced "Between The Darkness And The Light Of Day" stands out as a great example of this. "Just a soldier on the road between the darkness and the light of day/I did everything I was told but I still haven't found my way/Now my feet are weary but my heart is strong/Somehow or other I will carry on/And I lift my spirit and sing my song between the darkness and the light of day". It's not often you hear anybody singing about the difficulties of finding balance in a world where it's so easy to fall into negativity and cynicism. Things don't always work out the way we're told they do. Go to school, get an education and a job and family are sure to follow is the myth a great many of us were raised on. However reality turned out to be a different story.

In this song Linden talks about all those who are still struggling with finding they're way. However he doesn't do it with negativity or by trying to find someone to blame. Instead the song is about the bravery of those who make the effort to find themselves and create space for a descent life in a confusing world. These people are truly soldiers, but they don't go to war in order to conquer. They're fighting to be true to themselves and what they believe in. In a world replete with songs about broken hearts it's a joy to hear somebody sing about something real, and in such an intelligent and soulful manner.
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This tune also shows off the band playing with him on this occasion. John Dymond on bass and Gary Craig on drums effortless carry the rhythms of this song and the rest of the album. Soul and R&B have to be some of the trickiest musics to play. Neither fast nor slow the music has to have an almost effortless swing to it in order to be effective. Of the soul I've heard recently this is one of the few that haven't felt deliberately slowed down in an effort to make it sound more heartfelt. Instead Craig and Dymond have set a pace which carries Linden's guitar and vocals with a kind of effortlessness that is wonderful to hear. Of course it doesn't hurt that Spooner Oldham is providing organ accompaniment on this and other tunes. His fills on keyboard provide texture and body to songs without making them overblown. It's like he smooths out the rough edges of the sound without taking away the rawness needed to keep the songs real.

Of course Linden is the focal point of every song. His guitar playing is probably one of the best kept secrets in music. There's nothing showy or flamboyant about it, but careful listening reveals him to be as skilled as anybody out there. There's a style and grace to his playing that only comes from years of playing and a devotion to his music. At the same time there's nothing of the playing it by rote you might hear from others who have been playing for ages. Everything, from his finger picking to his slide guitar leads sound like he's still playing with the joy that comes with the first flush of discovery. Polish and refinement do not have to translate into slickness, and Linden performs with heart and passion.

While no one's going to write odes in praise of his vocals, his voice is ideally suited to what he chooses to sing about and the style of music he plays. There's a roughness around the edges of his voice that gives it an integrity which more than compensates for any lack of polish. When he sings you have no trouble believing he means every word of every song. While the same can be said about other singers, what makes Linden a little more special is it holds true across the various genres he ventures into. From the straight ahead rockers, acoustic blues to the more soulful R&B numbers he never hits a false note.

Still Live is a unique opportunity to hear an artist who plays for the love of his music. Linden plays what he plays not because its what is popular today, but because its the music that allows him to speak clearest. What's really nice about this live recording is how it manages to both capture the feel of a concert and have studio quality sound. Not only does that mean you're able to fully appreciate his talents as a musician you hear that little bit extra of himself that all artists seem to allow to show in concert. For those of you familiar with Linden this disc will be a treat as it will give you a chance to appreciate his talents in a live setting and be reminded of just how versatile a musician he is. For those new to him it will make a great introduction to a man whose life long love affair with the blues and its offspring shows in every note he plays and every lyric he sings.

(Article first published as Music Review: Colin Linden - Still Live on Blogcritics.)

October 24, 2012

Music Review: Martha Redbone Roots Project - The Garden Of Love - Songs Of William Blake


We hear a lot about Roots music and Americana now a days, but do we ever stop to ask ourselves whose roots people are talking about? Whenever I hear people talking about Americana music I can't help thinking of the movie Songcatcher. A music anthropology professor travels to the Tennessee hill country to record so called mountain music and discovers the people are singing the songs their Scottish and Irish ancestors brought over from the old country. This so called American folk music is transplanted songs of another culture sung with new accents. Of course there are other roots aside from the Anglo/Irish/Scotch in the music of the Appalachians. There were the Native Americans who were the area's original inhabitants and the African Americans who were brought in as slaves to work the land. While the former might not have contributed much directly to the music it was their land it took root in. The latter contributed the banjo, the instrument no self respecting roots music group can live without.

Therefore, it makes perfect sense to me that a woman of Native and African descent would put out a disc of music with lyrics taken from the poems of the 18th -19th century British poet William Blake set to the sounds of all three of the region's inhabitants. The Garden Of Love: Songs Of William Blake by the Martha Redbone Roots Project is one of those wonderful meetings of minds and culture that come along once in a while that literally take your breath away. On the surface it might sound like the most outlandish thing you've ever heard, setting the words of William Blake to the music of North America. However, there's a long tradition of adapting his words to music - the British hymn "Jerusalem", taken from the short poem "And did those feet in ancient time" from the preface to his epic Milton A Poem is the best known example. Of course history has shown us there's an equal precedent for adapting the work of the British Isles as American folk music.
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There was always a very strong spiritual streak to Blake's work and while it was firmly rooted in Christianity he expressed it in terms transcending the confines of doctrine. Instead of poetry worshipping his God directly, he wrote pieces of gratitude for what he saw as the gifts given humanity by its creator. The poems Redbone has elected to adapt praise the natural world around us, love and the gift of freedom. These themes are not only universal, but are ideally suited to the unique combination of musical traditions Redbone draws upon for this disc. There's a rawness and honesty of emotion in Blake's poetry that requires it be set to music capable of expressing their ideas in an as unaffected and straightforward a manner as possible. However, it also requires the music to be emotionally and spiritually honest and powerful.

I don't know about anyone else, but as far as I'm concerned I can't think of anything more emotionally and spiritually honest than either African American gospel music or traditional Native American music. Nor can I think of anything more unaffected and direct than old time mountain music. When you listen to what Redbone and co-composers Aaron Whitby and John McEuen have come up with to accompany Blake's poems on this disc I think you'll hear just how well these work together. There's a body and a depth to the music you don't normally feel with just straight ahead country as elements of both Native and African music are interwoven with it. The arrangements are such that in those songs where all three elements come together they sound like three part cultural harmony. While the European derived music might be in the forefront most of the time, without the other two strains you just know the tune wouldn't be the same.

To pull something like this off you need incredibly skilled musicians. Thankfully that's the case here as the people playing on this disc have the ability to play at level equal to the sublime nature of the lyrics. As well as composing, co-producing and arranging, McEuen also plays banjo, guitar, dobro, fiddle, mandolin, autoharp and lap dulcimer. Well that might seem like an album's worth of instruments he's not a one man band. There's also David Hoffner on keyboards, pump-organ, accordion, hammered dulcimer and tack piano, Mark Casstevens on guitar and harmonica; Byron House on upright bass, Debra Dobkin percussion and Keith Fluitt, Michael Inge, Ann Klein and Mary Wormworth on backing vocals. Rounding out the bill are special guests David Amarm flute, Lonnie Harrington Seminole chant and rattle on "A Dream" and Jonathan Spotttiswoode recites "Why Should I Care for the Men of Thames".

Save for "Men of Thames" Redbone handles the lead vocals on all the songs and also adds traditional chants and rattles as required. While the band is important, without somebody with as gifted a voice as Redbone the whole project would collapse. In the past she has shown herself capable of singing traditional native music, R&B and soul with grace and style. However, this sounds like the music she was born to sing. She seems to only need to open her mouth and start singing the words to this music to open a direct channel to her heart and soul. Every word and every note she sings not only rings true, she also imbues them with every ounce of passion she apparently possesses. Yet there's nothing melodramatic or overblown about her performance. She makes herself the perfect conduit for the words and music so we hear Blake through the filter of the music's soul without any unnecessary garnish.
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What that means is while the lyrics retain the original meanings given them by Blake, they also take on new meanings because of the music and the arrangements. When Redbone sings the final verse in "The Garden Of Love"; (the introduction from Blake's notebook for Songs and Ballads) "And I saw it was filled with graves/And tomb-stones where flowers should be:/And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds/And binding with briars, my joys & desires"; we hear Blake's condemnation of the clergy for taking the joy out of his religion and we hear how Christianity was used as a weapon against Native people.

Redbone is able to perform this type of delicate balancing act throughout the course of the whole recording. In some cases they are rendered as African American spirituals, "I Rose Up At The Dawn Of Day", while others, "Sleep Sleep Beauty Bright" are played in a way that captures what must have been Blake's original intent with the poem. It might seem an unusual combination this mixture of Native, African and European American cultures and the words of William Blake. However, together they create music that not only crosses cultural and racial barriers but can more honestly be referred to as Americana than most. The work of Blake as interpreted by Martha Redbone and the Martha Redbone Roots Project give proof to the words of another great British poet, "John Keats""A thing of beauty is a joy forever".

(Article first published as Music Review: Martha Redbone Roots Project - The Garden Of Love - Songs Of William Blake on Blogcritics.)

October 19, 2012

Music Review: VulgarGard - King Of Crooks


The other night I watched the DVD of the movie Moulin Rouge! for the first time in about a decade. While I enjoyed the movie as much as I did the first time I watched it, one scene in particular stood out, a tango performed to the old Police tune "Roxanne". In particular I was fascinated by the actor singing, a man named Jacek Koman. Upon further investigation I discovered he was an expatriate Pole living in Australia working as an actor. Even more interesting was the discovery he's the lead singer of the band called VulgarGrad. After being blown away by a couple of videos of the band performing on YouTube I wanted to hear more.

While they don't have a physical CD available in North America, you can download it through iTunes or order a hard copy of King Of Crooks through Indie CDs.com (there's no direct link to the album, so you have to use the site's search engine to find the listing). They also have a seven inch single, in yellow vinyl called Limonchiki which can be ordered from the German label Off Label Records or downloaded through Bandcamp. This might seem like a lot of trouble to go to in order to get a recording by some obscure band from Australia. However, once you hear them, I'm sure you'll agree they're worth the effort.
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VulgarGrad play adaptations of music that springs from the Russian criminal culture, specifically the thieves songs (blatnye pesni) performed by, for, and about criminals in the prisons, gulags and seedy bars of Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. Drawing upon the work of performers dating back to the 1920s, including one of Stalin's favourite singers, and contemporary Russian groups who incorporate the blatnyak style and content into their music, VulgarGrad create songs firmly rooted in tradition but which are updated for audiences who don't speak Russian. While still sung in the original language, musically the songs have an appeal that makes their lyrics' vocabulary irrelevant. It is not only almost impossible to prevent yourself from dancing to their music, there is something about Koman's delivery of the lyrics and the band's playing that makes them irresistible.

Koman has one of those voices which definitely sound lived in. It scrapes over his vocal chords like a rasp, but instead of sounding harsh and abusive to the ear it catches our attention and holds us riveted. Not only does his voice have character he also has masterful control over inflection. It's amazing what he is able to suggest by the slightest change in intonation or emphasis. Drawing upon his training as an actor he creates characters appropriate for the songs. Thieves come in all shapes and sizes and Koman doesn't just sing about one, he sings for many of them. Watch him in the video below as he struts across the stage like a bantam rooster, and know the pride and cockiness of a thief who has just scored. Yet on other songs he is equally convincing when dealing with other, less boastful, subjects.

Of course there is something about the music that lends itself to sounding boastful. Maybe its the heavy syncopation of the beat or the way the melody swirls, but listening to it you can easily visualize two thieves trying to top each other with their outrageous stories. Anybody who has heard what most of us would refer to as Cossack music, the stuff which inspires dancers to perform incredibly high kicks from squatting positions, will know something of what I'm trying to describe. Imagine a mix of jewish Klezmar, Romany violin and Dixieland jazz performed to what sounds like a cross between a Tango and a slow Polka beat and you'll have a good idea of what they sound like.

While that may sound incredibly complicated in the hands of the musicians in VulgarGrad it sounds like second nature. Aside from Koman on vocals the band consists of Andrew Tanner (contrabass balalika), Renato VaCirca (drums), Ros Jones (trombone), Adam Pierzchalski (trumpet), Nara Demasson (guitar) and Phil McLeod (piano and accordion). According to their web site they've been together since late 2004, and are a sort of on again off again arrangement depending on member's availability and schedules. With Koman working in both Poland and Australia the band's rehearsal and performance schedule is obviously limited. However listening to their most recent effort, the single Limonchiki, this doesn't seem to have affected their quality. They still play with a type of reckless abandonment which can only be successfully carried off by the tightest of bands.
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Of course one can hear traditional Eastern European style folk music fairly easily these days. From Ukrainian folk dance troupes to any number of excellent Romany or Klezmar bands there are plenty of examples of this type of music being performed by groups based in North America. So why should you make the effort to check out some obscure band from Australia? One good reason is they're not slaves to tradition. Sure their music is steeped in the spirit of the thieves songs and the folk traditions they sprung from, but at the same time they add elements of jazz and pop music which give the songs an extra punch.

In most of these types of bands the horn section is primarily concerned with emphasizing the rhythm. Very rarely are you going to hear a trumpet or trombone solo in a traditional folk band. That's not the case here as both Jones and Pierzchalski take their turns playing leads. What's really impressive is how nothing they, or any member of the band for that matter, does sounds out of place. What could descend into a chaotic mashup in the hands of less proficient musicians achieves the perfect balance of sounding like anarchy while actually being tightly arranged. They not only play the music of society's outsiders, but they manage to imbibe it with outsider spirit by adding their own elements to a traditional sound.

VulgarGrad are not your typical folk group playing "ethnic" music. Their sources of inspiration aren't quaint costumes and homespun melodies. It's the sound of an empty shot glass of vodka being slammed on a table, whispered deals in a back room, prison doors locking and the raucous laughter of all night bars. Their music comes from a world of sly winks, knives in the back and whore house bands. It's down and dirty and some of the best fun you'll have listening to music. Just don't your back on it.

(Article first published as Music Review: VulgarGrad - King Of Crooks on Blogcritics)

October 16, 2012

Music Review: John Cale - Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood


I've never been much of a fan of the use of electronics in popular music. Far too often they seem to be used to either cover up somebody's shortcomings as a musician or to replace live musicians with a machine. The thing is, I've yet to hear a machine which can duplicate the emotional nuance a human can bring to the playing of any instrument. Sure a drum machine can keep the beat, but that's all it can do. I don't know about anybody else, but I can hear a good drummer's heart in his or her playing even when they're just marking time. However, what's even worse, is the employing of electronics as short cuts in this manner shows a singular lack of imagination in the failure to realize its potential as an instrument and a tool for creativity. Most pop music barely scratches the surface when it comes to the possibilities technology represents.

This becomes glaringly obvious when you have the opportunity to hear how someone like John Cale puts them to use. His newest release, Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood, now available on Double Six Records as either a single CD or double vinyl LP, should be required listening for anybody considering using electronics of any sort in a recording. For not only does Cale not use them for short cuts, his use of tape loops, synthesizers and a variety of other electronica is imaginative and exciting. Maybe its the fact he was trained as a classical musician which gave him a grounding in composition which makes him more inventive. Of course, it could also be the same spirit of experimentation that caused his teachers at London's Goldsmith's College to honour him with the "Most Hateful Student" award in the early 1960s that makes what he does so interesting. For as this album makes obvious, he's not one for shying away from taking risks.
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However I think it's probably a combination of the two. Just as really good abstract painters have to learn the basics of figure drawing and perspective before they can experiment with form and colour, modern composers need to understand traditional composition and musical notation in order to reject them. Cale has a wealth of experience working both in popular and experimental music either as a solo artist or as the member of a group starting from his days in The Velvet Underground and his associations with Andy Warhol's Factory. While he has never strived for recognition, the world is finally beginning to appreciate his talents as he was chosen to represent Wales at the 2009 Venice Biennale art competition and festival and was awarded an OBE (Officer of the British Empire - step down from a knighthood) in 2010.

Based on that history you'd expect some sort of very serious experimental piece which most would find inaccessible and breathtakingly boring. Well, Cale has been trashing people's expectations for decades and this disc is no exception. According to the press release issued with this disc the 12 tracks began life as rhythms and grooves and he built songs out of what they suggested to him. For example the bass line for the song "Vampire Cafe" reminded him of vintage vampire movies. The combination of viola, still Cale's instrument of choice after all these years, accordion and drums is not a mix of instruments you're going to find on many albums, be they pop or classical. However as they are employed here they manage to capture both the darkness we associate with vampires and something of the emptiness at the core of the undead creatures' souls. There's also something about the accordion and viola mixture which gives the song a decidedly Eastern European feel, the part of the world we most associate with vampires.

The fact that Cale has distorted his voice heavily with fuzz, making the lyrics hard to discern, only adds to the eerie atmosphere created by the instruments. In some ways the vocals are more important for adding another layer of texture to the piece rather than for what they might be saying. The desolate and isolated feelings created by the music are enhanced as his vocals feel like they have travelled a great distance to reach us. It's as if we're hearing a message transmitted by short-wave radio from somebody, or a group of people, travelling through mountains, or a snow storm, who may or may not survive the journey.
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With "Vampire Cafe" Cale creates mood and atmosphere with effects and the sounds of the instruments used in the piece. While that might not be what most of us are used to when it comes to popular music, it is still a fairly accessible and traditionally arranged song. However, earlier on in the disc, he shows us something completely different with "Hemmingway". Created with the famous author in mind the song seems to deal with the anguish of a creative mind which has run out of new ideas. There has always been speculation around the reasons for Hemmingway's suicide. Cale's song, both lyrically and musically, suggest it was the fact he had run out of things to write about that pushed him over the edge. "I always held on to the thought/ that if they loved you long enough/they'd find out what was missing/when they finally called your bluff."

Reading those lyrics I can only think my own fears of being a fraud. We all have doubts as to our abilities at times, and when we're going through a dry patch they grow even stronger. Not only does Cale capture those feeling with the opening lines to this song, but musically it also captures how these insecurities can eat away at a person until they push them over the edge. The song starts out with a regular beat and melody line and gradually descends into the chaos of madness. Discordance seeps into the piano playing and the vocals until Cale is pounding the keyboard and turning the occasional word into a primal scream. It's a stunning depiction of how the gift of creativity can be a two sided blade. When the well of inspiration dries up the creative mind turns upon itself. Imagination turns insecurities and doubts into pits of despair from which there is no escape.

Cale's real gift as an musician is he can not only recreate something this type of emotional journey, he does so in a way so the listener understands what's happening to the person in question. This isn't just some exercise in voyeurism where we are treated to the sight of a person's descent into madness. We hear and feel their pain and travel with them as they come to the realization suicide is their only means of escaping the anguish they feel. It's not pleasant, but it's a brilliant piece of music.

Not all the songs on this disc are quite so intense or moody as the two I've mentioned, but they are all equally well conceived and executed. He utilizes technology as if it were another instrument to be played. In much the same way that guitarist Dustin Boyer and drummer Michael Jerome make their contributions to each song, drum machines, tape loops and other electronically generated sounds become part of the overall sound. The video for the album's title song, "Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood", that I've embedded here is a sample of the amazing work Cale has created. It might not be what most are used to, but its what we should hope more and more are inspired to emulate. This a great album of music by one of the most inventive composers of our time.

Photo Credit: Picture of John Cale by Shawn Brackbill
(Article first published as Music Review: John Cale - Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood on Blogcritics.)

October 12, 2012

Music Review: Terakaft - Kel Tamasheq


Where ever you find indigenous peoples you find they are known by the name their conquerors gave them. From North America where we refer to nations by the names we gave them instead of how they refer to themselves in their own language, to the Northern Sahara where the people are known by the name given them by the armies of Islam - rebel against Islam - Touareg. (The written language of these people was originally symbols which do not correspond directly with the letters of our alphabet. So they are written out in the various languages of those who have come into contact with them to sound correctly. So Touareg can be spelt Tuareg and Tamasheq can be spelt Tamashek.) That of course isn't the name they have for themselves, they call themselves Kel Tamasheq - those who speak Tamasheq.

So when the group Terakaft called their latest CD, Kel Tamasheq, released on the World Village label October 9 2012, you know they don't do it lightly. The title is a bold statement of self identification and the CD is an assertion of who they are as a people. With recent uprisings in Northern Mali being blamed on a force supposedly made up a combination of Tamasheq rebels and Islamic fundamentalists it's important the world is reminded who the Tamasheq really are and what they've been fighting for since the 1960s. As musicians like Terakaft and others have served as cultural historians for their people since the 1980s, they are the best prepared to act as cultural ambassadors to the rest of the world.
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They have assumed this role in the past, but upon reading the translations of the lyrics that come with this CD there's a sense of urgency absent on previous recordings. While earlier CDs have focused on extolling the virtues of the nomadic life or lamenting the loss of traditional territories, Kel Tamasheq talks specifically about the reasons their people have rebelled in the past. It's as if the band is asking the rest of the world compare what they felt was worth dying for in the past to what's happening in Northern Mali right now and to see the differences. While maybe they'll regret not pointing out the bleeding obvious, as in, hey what fundamentalist would have anything to do with a people Muslims still call rebels against Islam, taking the high ground by stressing their own positives rather than calling attention to another's negatives has always been a hall mark of Terakaft's material.

Thus the majority of the songs on the disc have lyrics which extoll one or more aspects of life among the Kel Tamasheq. However there are the occasional references to the nature of rebellion that seem to be questioning the validity of the recent uprisings in Northern Mali. In "Imad Halan" ("The Volunteers") the band sings, "I am stunned at your involvement/Which does not support those who work./If this is the revolution you want to provoke/I can see it coming from afar". While here they are expressing their shock that any of their people would be involved with an uprising involves outsiders which doesn't help their own people in "Bas Tela Takaraket" ("There Are No More Morals") they offer a more direct commentary on the revolt. "Our culture has escaped us/Those who were warriors before, armed with sabres/Those from whom we have inherited our ancestors/We continue in their path/We will not submit/Nor will we make an alliance with the enemy".

Here they are expressing their worry over the loss of their culture as demonstrated by people picking up weapons for the wrong reasons. Previous generations, those who fought to preserve the culture, are the ones that should be emulated. The last line, "Nor will we make an alliance with the enemy" serves notice they know the people supposedly fighting in the name of the Kel Tamasheq in Northern Mali are doing nothing of the sort. It goes against everything previous generations of warriors fought for to join with those whose goals don't include restoring the rights of their people. The title of the song suggests fighting for any other reason is wrong and is a sign people have forgotten key elements of their culture.

Of all the songs on the disc the title track, "Kel Tamasheq", is the one which exemplifies the band's attempts remind their own people to let the world know who they are. "Kel Tamasheq, you must know/It is the time to proclaim to the world/And to no longer be hidden/The one you love purely and sincerely/Whether it is in life or death/No matter the connection, separation will come/In this world or the next." The first three lines are fairly straight forward - it's time to stand up and let the world know we exist. However, the last four lines seem a bit of a puzzle at a first glance as they don't appear to have anything to do with opening. At first I thought there might be a problem with the translation (the lyrics are translated from Tamasheq into French and then French into English). Yet if you look at other songs on the disc you'll see how this type of abrupt change is common and a number are written in the same sort of elliptical and allegorical manner.
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Thinking about what little I know of the Kel Tamasheq culture and their oral traditions of story telling and what I also know about traditions in Islamic poetry, where personal expressions of love are used to express one's love of god or country, these lines make a little more sense. What I came up with was their love of their land and way of life will endure even unto death. One way or another this love will let them be distinguished from everyone else, even if it's only after they are dead. Unfortunately I'm not steeped enough in the legends of these people to be able to delve any deeper. But it does fit into what I know of their fierce love of independence and their long struggles to preserve their traditional way of life. We will be free, even if it's only after we die

One thing you will notice about the band's songs is how the lyrics are usually only one or two statements in length. These are sung to the accompaniment of music that is almost trance like in its nature. A hypnotic drum beat underscores everything and acoustic guitar and bass emphasize the rhythm over which they are sung/chanted. Electric guitar adds both another layer to the beat, as well as rising out of it for short bursts of lead work. These are like flashes of lightening cutting across a desert sky creating stark silhouettes making specific objects stand out from the rest of the landscape. While the guitar offers one kind of punctuation to the songs Naida and Yamina Nid El Mourid's background vocalizations bring the sound of the desert to life.

While some of their vocal harmonies to Liya Ag Abil's (guitar vocals), Sanou Ag Ahmen's (guitar, bass and vocials) and Abdalah Ag Ahmed's (guitar,bass and vocals) leads are what were used to, they also periodically interject the high pitched sound women traditionally make to send men off, or to welcome them home, from any type of trip and from battle. Raw and emotional, the sound seems to emit somewhere deep in their souls. and can make you break out in goose bumps. The overall result is an amazing combination of the traditional and modern. However, even the modern element of electric guitar is played in such a manner as to accent the traditional rhythms of the music as it accents the percussion.

Some of the members of Terakaft had first hand experience with fighting for the independence of their people before they put down their guns and picked up guitars to continue the fight in a different way. Their songs remind their own people about their culture and traditions and attempt to educate the world at large about them as well. It's a role that has recently taken on new importance as it's become vital to ensure Kel Tamasheq are not lumped in with those who are using their people's name in an attempt to give credibility to the recent armed rebellion in Northern Mali. By telling the world this is what we believe in and what we have fought for in the past Terakaft makes it very clear this was not a Kel Tamasheq rebellion. Let's just hope the world listens.

Article first published as Music Review: Terakaft - Kel Tamasheq on Blogcritics)

October 5, 2012

Music Review: Ben Folds Five - The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind


Probably the first thing you'll notice about Ben Folds Five is they're a trio not a quintet. However, before you can puzzle about this too much you'll then notice the band are a very odd configuration of instruments for a pop trio. Instead of the usual guitar, bass and drums you'd expect to find they are drums (Darren Jessee) piano (Ben Folds) and bass (Robert Sledge). While you find plenty of jazz combos along those lines I can't honestly think of any pop trios who don't rely on guitar. So even before you listen to a single note you know you're going to be in for something different.

Now I'm sure none of this is news to a lot of you out there as Ben Folds Five first started recording and producing music in the mid 1990s. However I wasn't really paying attention to pop music in the 1990s and missed out on their first go round. It wasn't until last year Folds even came to my attention. He was part of an experiment with author Neil Gaiman, Damian Kulash, of the group OKGO, and vocalist Amanda Palmer. 8IN8 was an attempt by the four of them to write, record and produce eight songs in eight hours during a live internet broadcast. While it ended up taking them 12 hours to produce six songs, the resulting album, Nighty Night, was really quite good. I was very impressed with what I had heard of Folds on this recording, and made a mental note to check out more of his music in the future.
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Well the future is now as Ben Folds Five has released their first studio recording since they broke up in 2000. Unlike in the past where they were signed to a label The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind (TSOTLOTM) is not only self produced they also raised all the money for its production by utilizing the crowd funding site Pledge Music. Pledge Music not only assists artists in raising money for a vast variety of projects from touring to special editions of recordings, a percentage of the money raised is directed to a charity of the artist's choice. For Ben Folds Five that meant raising money and awareness to promote the fields of music education and music therapy.

As for the recording itself it confirmed my initial impression that one should always expect the unexpected from this band. We all have our own prejudices and when I think of pop music where the piano is lead instrument my expectations have been shaped by what I've heard previously. So I thought this would be an album of finely crafted melodic tunes with the occasional ballad thrown in for good measure. So the opening track, "Erase Me", took me completely by surprise. It opens with Folds pounding out chords on the piano accompanied by Sledge playing heavily distorted power chords on bass. The opening bars end suddenly and are replaced by quiet notes picked out on the piano with gentle accompaniment from bass and drums as Folds begins to sing.

While the subject of the song is nothing unusual for pop music, the dissolution of a relationship, Fold's use of an extended metaphor to open the song took me by surprise."What was our home? Paper not stone/a lean to at most/and when you fall you're half away/gravity won like it always does/Did I weigh a ton?" It might start off delicately and introspective, the opening verse takes a sharp turn after Fold's has his protagonist pondering his role in the breakup. All of a sudden it morphs something that wouldn't have sounded out of place on an old Queen album as we're back to the big power chords from the piano and bass and a pounding drum. This to the accompaniment of Fold's voice starting to increase in power and climb the scale until he crescendos with the final two "erase me's". "Would it be easier to just delete our pages and the plans we made?/Erase me, so you don't have to face me./Put me in the ground and mound the daisies/Ah, the memory, see how it goes when you/erase me, erase me".
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During the course of the song the musical intensity switches a couple of times, matching the feelings being expressed by the lyrics. As we delve deeper into the facts behind the breakup and the relationship the music and the lyrics become angrier and angrier, with only the occasional respite. Within the context of the song the anger makes sense as the person's reacting to being completely obliterated from their ex partner's life. The switch from questioning as to why the relationship ended to anger at feeling discarded and forgotten might seem abrupt. However if you've ever gone through the breakup of a long term relationship the sudden change in emotional intensity makes sense.

Normally I'm not that fond people singing in the higher registers as they often start to become too shrill for my ear. However Fold's vocal control allows him to express heightened emotion like anger, climb the scale and increase his volume without becoming shrill. This disc is a veritable clinic in vocal technique. No matter how raw or emotional he gets, he never sounds forced or affected. Yet at the same time he's probably more emotionally honest than most contemporary male vocalists. Musically the band is equally skilled. The instrumentation in this song, and the rest of the disc, provide the perfect context for what is being said by the lyrics. Of course not all of the songs are as emotionally difficult as "Erase Me". In fact the band shows they know how to have fun as much as anybody with "Do It Anyway".

This is a fast paced tune with wonderful jazz/honky tonk piano about taking chances. "If you're paralyzed by a voice in your head/It's the standing still that should be scaring you instead/go on and do it anyway/do it anyway." While on the surface the subject matter might not seem to be that lighthearted the band manages to prevent the tone from becoming too heavy by doing things like delivering the key line of "Do it anyway" in a flat monotone. Then there's the video they've made to accompany the song. This was the song they chose when they were approached by The Jim Henson Company via the Nerdist Channel to come up with something to use for a video commemorating the 30th anniversary of Fraggle Rock.

As you can see by the video while the message in the song is not one to be taken lightly the band doesn't take itself too seriously. Which is another thing to like about Ben Folds Five. They aren't your typical rock and roll band. Just look at any picture of the three guys in the band and you're more likely to think they work in Silicone Valley than play in a band. Remember it was the Nerdist Channel that approached them for a video. Well, they may look like nerds but they play as hot or hotter than bands who look the image of rock stars. Those of you who liked Ben Folds Five the first time around aren't going to be disappointed by what they hear on TSOTLOTM. Those, like me, who are hearing them for the first time are in for a real treat. Ben Folds Five prove once and for all being cool is a state of mind and has nothing to do with the you way you look. They play some of the coolest music this side of jazz you'll hear from anyone.

(Article first published as Music Review: Ben Folds Five - The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind on Blogcritics.)

October 2, 2012

Music Review: Jason Collett - Reckon


There are some musicians who are, for lack of a better way of describing it, in your face. There's nothing subtle about them and you know immediately whether you're going to like them or not. Then there are those at the other end of the spectrum. They are so subtle that you barely notice them but for some reason you can't get them out of your mind. There's something about what they do with their music and lyrics that keeps pulling on your heart and mind and compelling you to listen to them over and over again.

The first time I listened to Jason Collett's new release Reckon on the Arts & Crafts label, it felt like it had come and gone like a puff of wind. Something that had briefly ruffled my hair without having any lasting impact. Yet, the second time I listened not only did every song sound familiar I found myself singing along with the choruses on about half of them. Music that had seemed to run together all of sudden had become a series of distinct tunes with intricate arrangements. During the first listen there might have been a couple of points where something grabbed my attention. However the next time through I was amazed to hear songs performed in a variety of genres with lyrics both intelligent and moving.
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While I don't know if this says more about my inability to listen than anything else, I do know that most of the time if a disc doesn't grab my attention the first time through I don't bother with it again. Yet that wasn't the case on this occasion. Collett had reached inside me, grabbed my attention and held on tight without me even noticing. One of the way he manages to do this is his voice. It's not what you'd call powerful nor does it have any really distinguishing characteristics that make it stand out. Yet its compelling all the same. Old time folk and country singers appealed to their audiences because their voices were familiar. It was like listening to somebody you knew singing. Collett has something similar going on. When he sings it doesn't sound like he's up on a stage singing down at you from a great distance. Instead it sounds like he could be sitting in the chair opposite you in your living room or on your back porch.

There's also something about his voice which makes it memorable and unique. While he has the same high, lost/lonely quality, as Neil Young, his voice is in a lower register and has more of a tonal range than Young. However, what you'll really notice is his voice has character. You can tell by listening to him that he's experienced almost everything the world can throw at somebody. You can hear, heck you can almost see, both what's scarred him and what's given him hope. While there are times when he gets angry and times when he can be biting in his satire, you can hear he's neither tired of the world nor does he believe he's seen everything it has to offer either.

Of course you also hear a lot of this reflected in the lyrics of his songs. Now some of the place names mentioned won't be familiar to those outside of Canada, but the circumstances his songs describe are universal. There's the young woman in the ironically titled "Miss Canada" who moved from her home in the Maritimes when the fish stocks disappeared in the hopes of finding work in the oil fields and tar sands of the West. You have to wonder what work she thought there'd be for a woman out there. "She takes off her dress/in a Fort MacMurray motel bedroom when the boys cash their cheques in the fields of Black Gold/Back home the cannery's closed and the fishing boats don't hardly fish no more/She came out West/hoping to make the best of it/It wasn't what she planned/but who can draw a line in the tar sands/money's a fast talking bird in the hand". Obviously this isn't a song about a beauty pageant contestant, but the young woman in the song is much more emblematic of life in Canada than anybody bearing the title of "Miss Canada" is liable to be.

To me the line "money's a fast talking bird in the hand" says far too much of what people are being forced to do in order to keep body and soul together. "Miss Canada" is the first of three songs in a row which are related to what politicians euphemistically refer to as an economic slowdown. It's easy for them to talk about the necessity of cutbacks and restraint, but they're not the ones who have to suffer for it. There's almost no pause between "Talk Radio" and "I Wanna Rob A Bank" which follow "Miss Canada". You have to wonder if the latter isn't the answer to the dilemma expressed by the person in the former.

I'm sure all of us have heard people call into radio shows and talk about their lives. Well "Talk Radio" is the voice of one of those people, somebody who's obviously at the end of their rope. "What is happening to me?/I have done all the right things/I'm a Christian, God fearing/ I work hard for my family/I have a gun and I believe in the values of the country/and my life is collapsing". Spaced over just a bit more then two minutes of music that's the song's lyrics in their entirety. Delivered slowly with only basic musical accompaniment it comes across as a cross between a lament and a whine. So it catches you by surprise when before the echoes of its last notes have even completely died away the crunching guitar and opening lyrics of the next song burst upon you.
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When after the first chorus of "I wanna rob a bank, I wanna rob a bank, I wanna rob a bank" finishes and we hear; "I think it's only right, what's left don't even put up a fight/Someone's got to save the day/even Jesus would say it's okay to wanna rob a bank/ don't you wanna rob a bank?/Just like Jesse James/but I don't want to rob no train/ I wanna rob a bank, I wanna rob a bank, I wanna rob a bank." It's possible Collett is referring to Jesus throwing the money lenders from the temple, but it's equally possible we're hearing our good Christian with the gun from the previous song finding a solution to his problems. If that's the case I have to wonder how that would make anarchist types who would normally support knocking over a bank feel? Is it only okay if those doing the knocking over are "politically correct"?

On the surface Collett is expressing the frustration we all feel at the government bailing out banks while poor people are losing their houses. However I think he's also reminding us that everybody, not just the Occupy Wallstreet people, are feeling the same things. Think about the guy who genuinely believed in God, country and the flag who is all of a sudden forced to confront the fact the latter two really don't give a rat's ass for him. He's going to be a lot more angry and disillusioned than any so-called anarchist. He's going to have even more cause to want to knock over a bank than anybody else. Collett does a good job of forcing us to put ourselves in his shoes and realize his pain is every bit as real as everybody else's.

That's what I meant about Collett's stuff being subtle. There's layers of meaning in almost every song and they pick away at you, forcing you to listen to them again and again to try and track the train of his thoughts. Of course there are also songs like "Don't Let The Truth Get To You" which don't mince any words. Lines like, "the fools on television not taking any sides/modern journalism is just little tongue tied" in response to their reporting verbatim what the politicians have to say about the state of the world make it obvious what he thinks of television news. That's the sort of thing that will grab your attention and stick with you, but there's even more waiting to be discovered beneath the surface. Musically the disc ranges from folk, to rock to pedal steel country, but that's almost incidental to what's going on in Collett's head.

There's a wealth of ideas to be found on Reckon expressed in a myriad of ways. However instead of having to wade through reams of rhetoric to appreciate them, you only need to sit back and let them wash over you as gently and inexhaustibly as the tide. Jason Collett proves that intelligent songs don't have to either complicated or hard work for their audience. As a bonus the CD release of Reckon comes with a second disc, Essential Cuts, a retrospective of the best songs from earlier releases. If you buy the LP version you'll be given a code which will allow you to download the bonus disc. Either way its a great package of music from an exciting and interesting musician.

Photo Credit: Photo of Jason Collett by Victor Tavares

(Article first published as Music Review: Jason Collett - Reckon on Blogcritics.)

September 27, 2012

Music Review: Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros -Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros - The Hellcat Years


The performers I've always admired the most are the ones most willing to change and or experiment with the type of music they play. As far as I'm concerned it was a willingness to experiment that made Joe Strummer a cut above a lot of the musicians who had their start in the punk era of the 1970s . From his days as front man with the The Clash to his work with Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros he never stood still musically. From mixing reggae and punk to utilizing Latin rhythms, he always pushed his music in new directions. However, one thing that stayed consistent throughout his career was the emotional commitment to social and political justice that motivated the majority of what he wrote.

A recent release from Epitaph Records, Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros: The Hellcat Years offers listeners a great opportunity to experience the extent of his musical diversity. Put together in commemoration of what would have been Strummer's 60th birthday (August 21 2012) its only available as a digital release. However it offers an almost complete retrospective of his career. For not only does it compile material from the three Mescaleros albums on the Hellcat Records label (Rock Art And The X-Ray Style,Global A Go Go and Streetcore) it also includes close to 25 bonus tracks consisting of b-sides, live material and dub versions of songs. While they are all played by the Mescaleros, they come from various times throughout his career, including covers of songs by The Clash, The Ramones and the Specials. The last 18 tracks are taken from a concert the band gave as a benefit for the Fire Brigades Union of London in 2002. Not only are there some wonderful live versions of Mescaleros songs in this concert, but it also contains new versions of some old Clash favourites.
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With 57 tracks in total this collection gives new meaning to the word comprehensive. However, what I find remarkable is that not only does it manage to demonstrate Strummer's musical diversity, it also captures the energy and emotion that made him so compelling. Even better, there are also tracks which show he could be a lot of fun as well. People can't focus on changing the world all the time, and Strummer was no exception. A great example of this is a live version of the old Specials song, "Rudi, A Message To You". He starts off by teasing the crowd, asking them which of them had owned a pork-pie hat (emblematic of ska music lovers in the 1980s) back in the day, and then leads them all in a sing-a-long of the tune. In fact he doesn't really have to do much leading, as the crowd starts singing of their own volition, he just has to encourage them.

"Rudi" is sandwiched between live covers of Jimmy Cliff's "The Harder They Come" and the Ramones "Blitzkrieg Bop". The three were originally released as the b-side for the single of the Mescaleros' song "Coma Girl". Listening to those three tracks one right after each other is like listening to the different sides of Strummer all at once. There's the social political statement of "The Harder They Come" followed by the still political, but light hearted fun of "Rudi" and finally the raw anarchy/power of "Blitzkrieg Bop". From reggae to ska to power pop/punk without missing a beat - it's almost his career in a nutshell.

I say almost, because while those are aspects of what he was, he was also much more. Listen to his version of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" or to his 17 plus minute "Minstrel Boy" and you'll hear a completely different artist. With minimal musical accompaniment he sings the former as if its a heartfelt explanation of his motivations for making music. "So won't you help to sing/these songs of freedom/cause all I ever had/these songs of freedom/cause all I ever had/redemption songs/these songs of freedom/these songs of freedom". He sings it so simply and honestly it's hard not to think its his way of telling people what he's been trying to do all for all he years of his career..

On the other hand "Minstrel Boy" is an instrumental, one of the few if not the only one Strummer ever wrote outside of music he created for movie soundtracks. Aside from its novelty, as an instrumental, its interesting musically as well. It shares many similarities with a Celtic folk song including rhythm, atmosphere and instrumentation, but there's also something about it that makes it markedly different. First is its length of course, far longer than most folk songs, but even more important is what doesn't happen in the song. For while a great many of these types of folk songs (think of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" and songs like that) celebrate or commemorate events in history and have a certain romanticism to them, "Minstrel Boy" doesn't seem to be about anything in particular. There's no mention of any great victories or tragic defeats for people to become worked up over, its just 17 plus minutes of almost slow dirge like music. It's like Stummer wants to remind everybody there's nothing romantic about war or killing people, no matter what the cause and no amount of stirring songs will change that fact.
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While the material on this collection includes songs Strummer wrote when he was with The Clash and covers of material from that time period, all of them were recorded with the Mescaleros. So that means you have Tymon Dogg playing violin on tracks like "Rudi, A Message To You" and the Clash's "Junko Partner" and breathing new life into them. Still, it's hard not to be stirred by the final three songs of the collection where Mick Jones joins Strummer on stage for the first time since he left The Clash twenty years earlier. Hearing them tear through three classic Clash tunes, "Bank Robber", "White Riot" and "London's Burning" is a treat. Yet even then, the songs aren't just faithful copies of what had been done previously as the new band puts their own take on the material.

The concert at Acton Town Hall in London England from which these live tracks were taken was on November 15 2002 and turned out to be the second last live appearance Strummer would ever make. On November 22 2002 the Mescaleros played Liverpool and Strummer died of a congenital heart disease December 22 2002. Strummer was fifty years old when he died and there's no telling what he would have gone on to do if he had lived. The final Mescaleros recording, Streetcore, was released almost a year after his death in October 2003. As you can tell from the tracks included on this compilation it was classic Strummer. A mix of the hard driving and political; "Get Down Moses" and "Coma Girl", the introspective; "Redemption Song" and folk music; "Long Shadow", written for Johnny Cash and recorded with Cash's guitarist Smokey Hormel.

Joe Strummer is still probably best remembered as the lead singer of The Clash, but his career continued for almost fifteen years after they disbanded. The new digital only collection Joe Strummer And The Mescaleros: The Hellcat Years is not only a compilation of material from his post Clash career, its a reminder he was much more than just a punk rocker. His work with the Mescaleros was as political and socially conscious as anything he did with The Clash but he also continued to take risks musically as he aged. It's probably about time his work in this second part of his career is recognized as being equally important as anything he did as a member of The Clash. If listening to this collection can convince even a hard core Clash fan like me of the truth of that statement, it should convince anyone.

(Article first published as Music Review: Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros - Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros: The Hellcat Years on Blogcritics.)

September 21, 2012

Music DVD/CD Review: The English Beat - The English Beat Live At The US Festival 1982 & 1983


It always amazes me that when I hear these so-called "retro" events featuring music from the 1980s how I never recognize any of the music. So it's been something of a relief this past summer to find Shout Factory offering a retrospective of the career of the band who easily provided the best and most intelligent dance music for the first three years of the 1980s, The Beat, or as they were known in North America, The English Beat. First, there were two greatest hits collections: a five-disc box set The Complete Beat and a single disc Keep The Beat: The Very Best of The English Beat. Now, last but not least, comes the CD/DVD combination package The English Beat Live! at the US Festival. Both the CD and the DVD feature the band's performances from the 1982 and 1983 festivals.

While the CD is comprised of the highlights of each year's show, the DVD, able to hold more material, has both concerts in their entirety. The US festival was a seven-day extravaganza of popular music with each day featuring a different category of music. Which was probably a wise decision on the part of the promoters as those who would want to watch bands like The Clash, The English Beat and others scheduled to play on "New Wave" day probably wouldn't mix well with the crowd coming to see Van Halen and their ilk.
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This was the early days of music video television and before home televisions could deliver the high quality of sound and visuals to make watching an event like this worth while. Now, 30 years after the 1982 concert, its available complete with 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound and compatible with your wide screen television. So not only does the sound quality do the band justice, the visuals are crisp and clean which is a nice change from some DVDs made of tapes from that era. In fact, the sound is crystal clear and far better than many recent concert recordings I've heard. For example, how often do you actually hear the secondary percussion instrument being played by a vocalist during a concert? On this release, you can hear every tap and beat vocalist Ranking Roger plays to accompany his singing and mad dancing.

The US Festival took place in a large open area in Glen Helen Regional Park in San Bernardino, California. In both years the stage was enormous and the band seemed dwarfed by their surroundings. In both concerts, but especially in 1982, they looked and acted like they were expending a lot of energy, but somehow or other you don't feel it. Maybe it was because they were so isolated from the audience; the bands were on this huge stage and separated from the audience by a fenced off area for press photographers. Or maybe it was because it was open air and the energy they produced just sort of dissipated into the wide open spaces around them.

Of course, no tape will ever be able to convey the experience of dancing yourself silly alongside a thousand other bodies at a show. What it should do, and what this DVD does, is capture moments which give you glimpses into the experience. One such moment is when the entire band is in motion and dancing around the stage like mad men while playing their instruments, with only lead vocalist and guitarist Dave Wakeling preventing them going into orbit by staying anchored at his post in order to sing. Or watching vocalist Rankin' Roger break into his biggest smile while desperately trying to bridge the gap with the audience by climbing on top of the monitors at the edge of the stage and dancing his heart out.
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As far as the set list for both concerts go, each year's contained an even mix of the band's material from all three of their studio albums. While songs like "Two Swords", "Save It For Later", "Twist and Crawl" and "Get A Job/Stand Down Margaret" show up both years, there are enough differences between the two to make watching each concert worthwhile. The 1982 concert features "Hands Off, She's Mine" and one of their lessor known tunes, "Sugar & Stress". The 1983 concert has a couple of my favourite English Beat tunes, "Ranking Full Stop" and their great cover of the old Miracles hit "Tears Of A Clown".

Even more fun for old fans will be the sight of their original saxophone player, Saxa, joining them on stage halfway through the 1983 concert. While his playing wasn't as sophisticated as the man who replaced him, there was an emotional depth to his playing which made him a lot of fun to listen to. In fact, once he joined the band on stage they reminded me more of the group I had seen live then at any other time on the DVD. Of course that could just be because of associating Saxa with seeing them perform, but they did seem to have a lot more fun once he started playing.

One thing you can't fail to notice is no matter how much fun they are having, and no matter how crazy they get, this band was incredibly tight. It's hard to believe this was a live concert they were so in sync with each other. Not a cue was missed and there didn't appear to be a note dropped or any of the other glitches you would normally see in a live concert. Technically there were also very few problems, including no equipment failures. Of course, this could be because all the technology was supplied by Apple computers and they were using top of the line everything. Still, technology is only as good as the people operating it, and the people crewing this event must have been at the top of their game for everything to have gone so smoothly.

The English Beat only produced three albums, but from 1978 until their breakup in 1983, their infectious mix of reggae, ska, Motown, pop and punk kept people dancing. England during this time was a powder keg of racial tension and unrest. It was said the only sure fire way to ensure a gathering wouldn't descend into violence of some sort or another was to have the English Beat play – as everybody would be too busy dancing and having fun to think about anything else. They just didn't play mindless dance tunes either, they sang about social justice and racial equality with a heavy emphasis on tolerance and joy. The English Beat Live! at the US Festival is a lovely reminder of their politics of joy and what it was like to see them in concert. I can only wish more bands would learn from their example.

(Article first published as Music DVD/CD Review: The English Beat - The English Beat Live! at the US Festival 1982 & 1983 on Blogcritics.)

Photo Credit: Band photo by Michael Grecco

September 18, 2012

Music Review: Various Artists -To What Strange Place: The Music Of The Ottoman-American Diaspora 1916-1929


At one point the Turkish Ottoman Empire stretched from Eastern Europe to the Middle East and on into Northern Africa. While it had long ago lost its toe hold in Western Europe in Spain, the rest of the Empire lasted until the end of WW l. Allied with the Germans during that conflict they not only found themselves on the losing side in the war, great swathes of the territory they had previously occupied were lost during the war. By 1918 it had shrunk back to pretty much present day Turkey's boarders. Needless to say these defeats were the cause of fairly intense internal strife and political upheaval in the time following the war. As a result large numbers of Turks of all backgrounds; Christians, Muslims and Jews, sought refuge in other countries and a great many settled in the United States, specifically New York City.

There they joined the already sizeable group of ethnic Armenians who had fled persecution in the Empire. The rounding up and arresting of Armenians in Turkey has never been officially recognized by even present day Turkish governments, but it is thought close to a million ethnic Armenians died between 1915 and 1923 during mass forced marches from their homes in Turkey to Syria. However, a number managed to escape the roundups and immigrated to the United States. No matter what their ethnic background one thing all of these refugees had in common was their love for the culture and music of their homeland.
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In the liner notes to the triple CD set To What Strange Place: The Music Of The Ottoman-American Diaspora, 1916-1929, now available as a digital download from the Tompkins Square Label, it's explained how during the period covered by the disc there was a great outpouring recording and performing of this music. While the onset of the depression brought an end to this, and countless other activities, the recordings made during these 13 years were by musicians of all stripes. From those whose careers had included being members of the court of the last Sultan to performers of Jewish, Greek and Armenian folk music.

Instead of dividing the three discs up by ethnicity the compilers of this collection have found a much more interesting and novel approach. Each of the discs contains music fitting a specific theme that the producers have identified as the three major reasons for the music's creation in the first place. So disc one is subtitled "Naughty Girl - Dances & Joys", the spirited music played by the refugee musicians in order to forget their troubles; disc two, "I Wish I Never Came: Nostalgia, Yearning & Pride" for the songs they played when they were missing what they left behind; and three "Notes From Home: US Releases For Ottoman Emigres", are songs taken from recordings made in the Ottoman Empire and imported to the United States.

As a result this compilation is able to give listeners an incredibly accurate view of the diversity of sound that was being made by the refugees in New York City during this period. For on each disc you'll find Islamic, Armenian, Greek and Jewish music rubbing shoulders with each other as they offer up their interpretations of the theme in question. Since many of the recordings were originally recorded at 78rpm, and some even are from wax cylinders made in the 19th century, their quality ranges all over the place. However there's something about being able to actually hear the needle moving over the surface of an LP that actually augments rather than detracts from the sound. For along with the slightly tinny quality, which isn't unique to these recordings but something I've noticed all songs remastered from this time period seem to have in common, the surface noises which come through help to set a mood of time and place.

Obviously most of us are going to know little or nothing about the types of music represented on these discs or the musicians playing the individual songs. Thankfully along with the three disc set you can also download a PDF of the original booklet that accompanied the hard copy. Not only does it provide the historical context necessary for the listener to understand its significance in the history of American music, almost every song is accompanied by a blurb giving the history of the performer and the song. Some of the many fascinating characters you'll be introduced to on this set include Abudul Hal Hilmi (born 1857 died April 1912) who is still considered one of the greats in Arab classical music. "Ya Binit, Ya Bidha" (pt.1) is half of a nine minute composition in which he improvised on a single line of text from an Arabic folk song.

As the recording was made in 1909 the quality is not very good. However, in spite of the muddy sound you can still tell there was something remarkable about this man and his vocal abilities. Contemporary descriptions of his performances have described him as transporting his audiences. Music historian Ahmad Al-Jundi is quoted in the booklet describing Hilmi's voice; "When he starts, with the first breath, he initiates in you a sense of a enchantment and ecstasy". Unfortunately he also made heavy use of drugs (hashish, opium and cocaine) and alcohol in order to access the feelings necessary to create that type of reaction among his audiences and died after an excessive night of partying. While he never recorded in America, this track was taken from a Lebanese recording imported into the US, there were others, equally fascinating characters, recording in the States.
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Garbis Bakirgian had been a court musician playing classical Turkish music for the Sultan in his native Constantinople (Istanbul). He travelled extensively throughout the empire and lived in Alexandria, Cairo and Jerusalem before moving to the States in the early 1920s at the urging of musician friends. When none of the major labels proved interested in recording Turkish music he founded his own label, Stamboul records, and released seven albums. While he may not have had the same sort of ecstatic impact on his listeners as Hilmi, his career lasted well into the the 1950s. He even recorded a session with Atlantic Records in 1948, founded by fellow Turkish immigrant Ahmet Ertegun, but it was never released.

While I've mentioned two male vocalists the material covered on this three disc set is by no means limited to men or vocals. Unfortunately the instrumental pieces are the ones which are the least well preserved and the hardest to listen to. One of the reasons is the pitch the instruments were played in originally was very high and the distortion caused by the disintegration of quality over the years has not been kind. The result is a sound which might have been delicate when first recorded is now so high pitched as to be uncomfortable on the ears. However, there are enough pieces where the sound has survived relatively intact to give you a good indication of the talent of those involved in these recordings.

Aside from the music the last three tracks on disc three are recordings by Ian Nagoski the person primarily responsible for its existence. Not only did he compile the collection, he also did the research and the sound restoration. On these tracks he provides you with more details about the history of Ottoman music in America in general and elaborates on the background set out in the booklet. Think of them as being like the bonus features on a DVD - a sort of making of and behind the scenes look at the CD.

It's amazing to think there was this an entire subculture of music being recorded and played in New York City in the early part of the 20th century. While most of us were aware of the diversity of immigration to North America, I don't think I had any idea there was such a thriving community of Turkish immigrants. Depending on the timing of their arrival in the US a good many of them had left the country under duress because of the roundup, deportation and murder of Armenians that occurred during and after WW l. However it wasn't just Armenians who left the Ottoman Empire, and many were renowned musicians. So here in the new world it was as if they had turned back the clock to a time when Christians, Muslims and Jews were able to find common ground through music in the Ottoman Empire. These recordings provide listeners with a sampling of the music they all played and loved no matter what their background. While they may not be of the finest quality they still make for fascinating listening.

Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - To What Strange Place: The Music Of The Ottoman-American Diaspora 1916 -1929 on Blogcritics)

September 13, 2012

Music Review: Various Artists -Songs For Desert Refugees


Life in the sub-Saharan desert is hard at the best of times. The Kel-Tamasheq nomads have been traversing the area between Mali and Niger, moving their herds from water hole to water hole, since before the coming of Islam to Northern Africa. It is said among them their ancestors chose such a harsh land to live in because nobody else would want it and they'd be left alone. However, history has shown no land is too inhospitable for those greedy for territory. First it was the Arab nations spreading the word of Islam taking their land and giving them a new name, Touareg, (literally those who rebel against Islam). Even when they eventually accepted the new religion, they adapted it to suit their own traditions and made it their own.

It wasn't until the coming of the Europeans who divided the territory with artificial and arbitrary lines in the sand their lives started to be changed for the worse. The legacy of colonialism was the Kel Tamasheq found themselves cut off from their former migratory paths through the desert and the grazing lands needed for their herds. Those living in Niger were expected to stay in Niger and not wander over the shifting sands into Mali, Algeria and Burkina Faso as they once did. At various times since 1960 they have attempted to reassert their claims to the territories taken from them. A variety of treaties have been negotiated either through rebellion or diplomacy that were supposed to guarantee them territory and rights, but successive governments in Niger and other countries have gone back on their words. The discovery of uranium under the Sahara has only made matters worse as not only did it result in their further displacement, but the process of mining has steadily destroyed the environment.

While the rebellions have not always been successful, and have resulted in reprisals against the people at times, they have always been attempts to improve their lot. So the uprisings in Northern Mali in the early part of 2012 which have forced over 200,000 people to leave their homes doesn't fit the same pattern as previous Tamasheq revolts. The fact that Islamic fundamentalist troops are also involved with the fighting is even more suspicious, as the Tamasheq would not be interested in simply exchanging one group of people telling them how to live their lives for another. However, perhaps most telling, is the release of a new compilation disc, Songs For Desert Refugees on Glitterhouse Records as an effort to raise funds for those displaced by the fighting.
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In the past Tamasheq musicians have been key figures in advocating and fighting for the rights of their people. Some of them took part in the armed rebellions of the 1980s before putting down their guns and picking up guitars. Governments in the area have gone out of their way to target them for harassment and even assassination in the past, and most have spent time exiled from their home countries. Yet, during this most recent uprising instead of using their music to spread the word or to remind people to take pride in who they are, they are lending their talents to an effort to assist those being harmed by the fighting. Artists of the stature of Tinariwen,Terkaft, Etran Finatawa and Bombino, all who have been advocates for their people, have donated either previously unreleased material or new versions of older songs to this disc.

Even better is the fact that those who have compiled this recording have included some lesser known artists, ones whom I haven't heard before. Not only is it great to hear other artists from the region their inclusion gives listeners an indication of just how much diversity there is among the Kel Tamsheq groups of the region. For although they are commonly referred to as the guitar players, that does not mean the Kel Tamasheq sound is limited to the electric blues/rock guitar that has become the trademark of those well known in the West. While the offerings from Tinariwen, "Amous Idraout Assouf d'Alwa" (a previously unreleased track) and Bombino, an extended live version of his "Tigrawahi Tikma" give pride of place to the electric guitar, there are others who are more traditional in their approach.

Amanar de Kidal (Amanar of Kidal in Mali) took their name from the Tamasheq word for the constellation Orion in memory of those times the band would rehearse through the night until the stars were high in the sky above them. While the guitar is still the lead instrument in their contribution to the disc, "Tenere", it doesn't dominate in the same way it does in other groups. Instead we are treated to massed voices, flutes and a steady rhythm carrying us forward. The rhythm is not one we're used to as it induces an almost swaying motion, as if you were being gently rocked in the high saddle of a camel. Like many other Tamasheq groups Amanar also features female vocalists in the band. Here they supply a spine tingling vocal undulation as part of the harmonies for the song as well as more conventional backing vocals.

The final cut on the disc is from the band Tartit made up of five women and four men. The women provide the lead vocals and rhythmic patterns for this song while the men accompany them. At first the vocals sound rather simplistic, but listen closely and you realize there are something like five different vocal patterns happening at once. Occasionally one of the women break free from the hypnotic trance like sound to issue an undulation that rises up like a sudden wind. "Tihou Beyatne" is unlike any other song on the disc and is probably the one closest to the traditional music of the people. Here again you also see indications of why their Arabic name of Tuareg stuck as not only do the women lead the band, they go unveiled while the men keep their faces covered.
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While Tartit may be the closest to the traditional sound of the Kel Tamasheq all of the bands, no matter how electric or how much they've been influenced by Western popular music, retain solid connections to their desert roots. The majority sing in the Tamasheq language and thematically their songs are designed to remind their listeners to be proud of their culture. More importantly they use their music to teach the younger generation displaced from their desert life who they are and why the desert is important to the Tamasheq people. Musically, even artists like Bombino, whose band uses a full drum kit and is probably most like a Western pop group, retain the traditional rhythmic elements that distinguish all the bands' music. No matter how much their guitars wail, the drum still carries the echoes of thousands of years in the desert.

Like indigenous people the world over the Kel Tamasheq have seen their traditional territories taken away from them due to the encroachment of outside influences. The safety provided by living in one of the harshest environments in the world has disappeared. No where is safe any longer from civilization's greed for resources. The discovery of uranium in their traditional territories in Niger was a death knell for a way of life that had been carried out by those living there for a thousand years. The insurrections in Mali by Islamic fundamentalists earlier this year made an awful situation even worse with the displacement of over 200,000 Tamasheq and others living there.

All profits made from the sale of Songs For Desert Refugees are being split between two Non Government Organizations (NGOS) who are dedicated to assisting the Tamasheq people. Tamoudre works directly with those nomads still trying to work the land in the war torn areas by assisting them in any way possible to make their livelihoods more secure. Etar, has the more long term goal of helping to preserve, protect and disseminate the Tamasheq culture, both for the people themselves and to educate the rest of the world about them. They are currently raising money to build a culture centre in one of the regions in Mali hardest hit by the recent uprisings.

The Kel Tamasheq are a proud people who have fought long and hard for their right to be left alone and live their lives in the same way their ancestors did for generations. Music has played a key role in this fight for survival by keeping traditions alive and helping the people to retain a sense of pride in who they are. This disc represents a slightly more tangible way of helping their people as the bands involved have donated their songs and time in the hopes they will be able to raise some money to bring relief to those of their people who have once again find themselves caught up in a situation not of their making but which is causing them to suffer. Won't you help?

(Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - Songs For Desert Refugees on Blogcritics.)

September 12, 2012

Music Review: Mark Knopfler - Privateering


A couple of years ago when I man admired and respected was dying I was asked to prepare an article to be published when he died. Basically an obituary, but also an appreciation for a talented man who through fate, bad luck and his own demons never really received the recognition he deserved. While I was able to supply the nuts and bolts of his career and give my opinion I knew if I wanted to people notice I'd need to have a quote from a not only a familiar name but one whose opinion would carry some weight. While there was an obvious choice I didn't hold out much hope of hearing back from him as he didn't know me from a whole in the ground. However, to my delight and heartfelt appreciation, it was only about a week after I sent out the email request I heard back from Mark Knopfler.

He hadn't worked with Willy DeVille since the late 1980s when they had made the Miracle album, which included the theme song for the movie The Princess Bride, "Storybook Love", which had garnered DeVille an Academy Award nomination. Yet in spite of that he wrote a beautiful and gracious letter saying what he had appreciated about DeVille's singing and the pleasure he had making his minor contributions to the album (his words not mine). Listening to his new release, Privateering, on Universal Music September 11 2012, I'm reminded once again not only of Knopfler's talent, but the simple elegance of spirit that infuses both his music and everything about the man. It's not a thing you can point your finger at and say look there's an example, there's just something his music exudes which cocoons you with its warmth of heart. Like a magic cloak you can wrap around yourself to protect you from the privations of the world.
Cover Privateering Mark Knopfler.jpg
This latest release, in its basic form, is a two disc set containing 20 tracks ranging from electric blues to traditional sounding folk from the British Isles all performed with his usual understated excellence. You also have a choice to buy the release as double LP; a deluxe set including an additional CD of rehearsals for his last tour packaged in hard back book format or you can go the whole hog and purchase a box set which includes the two CDs, the two LPs, an additional bonus CD of three songs, a documentary DVD called A Life In Song, a card with code allowing you to download a concert and a numbered art print. However, no matter which version of the release you choose to buy you can count on hearing superbly played music and a guitar which sings like no other.

In one of the books in his The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy the late British author Douglas Adams spent a couple of paragraphs rhapsodizing about the way Knopfler played his Fender Stratocaster. He called it the most beautiful sound in the known universe, even more beautiful than the sounds made by some sort of love dragons. In fact, Adams went on to say, if these love dragons happened to hear Knopfler play, they would just pack it in, weeping in frustration over their inability to match the quality of his playing. Now Adams was known for his hyperbole, and of course he was a science fiction writer, so its doubtful the love dragons in question really exist. However, his point about the sensuous beauty Knopfler is able to create with his Stratocaster wasn't exaggerated.

In his typical understated fashion though Knopfler flashes his talent only rarely. Unlike others who seem to feel the need to be constantly saying look at me, he is quite content with sharing the spotlight with those he plays with. Oh sure he'll take his solos, and be it slide, acoustic or electric guitar they are all things of beauty, but they're only one part of a song, not the song's reason for being. (Note: For some reason the order of songs on the download I received for review purposes seems to bear no relationship whatsoever to the order they appear on the actual release. So in order to avoid any potential confusion I'll only refer to tracks by name.)

Listen to a song like "After The Bean Stalk", a delta blues type ode to Jack's life after successfully pilfering from the giant in the sky three times, and you'll hear what I mean. Both Kim Wilson, harp (which I have to assume is harmonica since there's nobody credited with playing harmonica) and Tim O'Brien on mandolin, have their instruments featured far more prominently than anything Knopfler does on this song. You'll also notice as you listen to the disc how this track is emblematic of the release's theme of there's no easy ride in this life. There aren't any magic beans that will magically make your troubles all vanish: "Oh, Mama what's the matter now/Oh Mama what's the matter now/I'm still up in the morning to get behind the plough." Even after three trips up the bean stalk you still have to get up and work the fields if you want to eat.
Mark Knopfler by Fabio Lovino.jpg
Even on a song which lends itself to uncorking a guitar lead, the rollicking honky tonk "I Used To Could", Knopfler holds back to allow his long time keyboard associate Guy Fletcher to share the spotlight with Wilson's harp on the solo breaks. At the same time though, both the piano and the harp make the most sense in this song about driving 18 wheelers. The harmonica catches both the loneliness of the road and, along with the piano, brings the rhythm of the wheels eating up miles of highway to life. This combination works perfectly with the lyrics. They not only manage to capture the difficulties of life as a long distance trucker but the appeal it can have to a certain type of person, all without sentimentalizing the experience or making the driver into some sort of hero: "GMC Cannonball going like a train/All down the 40 in the driving rain/All those horses underneath the hood/I don't do it no more but I used to could".

What I really appreciated about this disc is how easily Knopfler is able to cross the ocean musically from his adopted land of blues and country music back to his homeland's folk traditions. "You Two Crows" sees him swing back from the rainy highways of America to the rainswept moors of the British Isles. The uilleann pipes of Mike McGoldrick are enough to bring a shiver to anyone's spine, and they set the tone for this tale of a shepherd and his dog out in the rain contemplating life. Taking shelter from the rain and drinking from his flask he questions his career choice; "And once again I ask/What made you think/There'd be a living in sheep/Eat,work,eat,work and sleep." However, the two crows of the title, looking for carrion to eat, but most of all survivors, seem to give him the strength to continue; "And I raise my flask/To the clearing skies/To you sweepers/You carrion spies/To scavenge and survive/If you can do it so can I."

Its a beautiful and haunting sounding song, but like the other tracks its firmly rooted in reality. The farmer has chosen a hard life for himself and knows damn well he's going to have be as tough and ornery as any crow in order to survive. There's nothing romantic about this rainswept heath, no brooding heroes or beautiful heroines wandering looking for lost loves, only mud, dirt and the hard work of making a living from a herd of sheep. Yet, even here, in this tough and dirty song, you can feel the love Knopfler has for his subject. The respect he holds for the people who have to get their hands dirty, in one way or another, in order to get by. As he says in another song, "Corned Beef City"; "You don't ask questions/When there's nothing in the bank/Got to feed the kids/And put diesel in the tank." Sometimes people don't have much choice and they do what is necessary in order to survive.

Like the gentleman he is Knopfler doesn't judge any of the people he sings or writes about. There's not many people who can sing about the realities of having to make a living with compassion and understanding without pontificating. Not only does Knopfler avoid those traps, he doesn't make the mistake of romanticizing these people either. These aren't odes to the salt of the earth, these are songs about people. Of course these are songs, not essays on the plight of the working man, so they also sound wonderful and are played with the seemingly effortless skill of all Knopfler's creations. To make this combination work successfully it takes a person with equal amounts compassion, understanding of human nature and musical ability. Mark Knopfler is such a person.

Photo Credit: Artist photo by Fabio Lovino

(Article first published as Music Review: Mark Knopfler - Privateering on Blogcritics.)

September 9, 2012

Music Review: Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra - Theatre Is Evil


No matter how many different genres anyone wants to claim there are, when it comes to pop music everything's starting to sound pretty much the same to me. They should come up a new genre called "safe music for radio" and just get it over with. Sounds sort of like country, sort of like pop, sort of like dance, and nothing like anything really. However once in a while you get somebody like Amanda Palmer, better known as Amanda "Fucking" Palmer or AFP for short, who genuinely has no respect for conventions, genres or anything else that would make it easy to pigeon hole her into some sort of category. If you were to try and describe her music up until now you could say she's that ukulele strumming, keyboard playing cabaret style singer from The Dresdon Dolls.

Which of course doesn't really tell you anything at all about her. Just some facts. She was also in a production of the musical Cabaret put on by the American Repertory Theatre playing the role of Master of Ceremonies. Whether that makes her a cabaret style singer I don't know, but she does have an amazing voice. It can float between a caress and a battle cry in a second. She can charm the pants off you one moment and burn paint off a battleship in the next. She soars up the scale like a mezzo soprano at The Met and growls out lyrics like she learned how to sing at the knee of Johnny Rotten. On the couple of solo recordings I've heard up until now the music hasn't been very elaborate as she's been primarily on her own and there's only so much you can do with keyboards and ukulele. However that's all changed with the release of her new disc, Theatre Is Evil, on her own 8 ft. Records label (funded entirely by one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns ever) September 11 2012, as she's now Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra. (A note on the release's title: she chose to go with the British spelling of the word theatre so it's not my Canadian chauvinism changing the spelling)
Cover Theatre Is Evil Amanda Palmer .jpg
I think I'm being quite honest when I say I've not heard anything like this disc before. I've only heard an online stream so far, so these are only my first impressions. It felt like listening to the sound track from some wonderfully anarchic musical. Something set in a basement nightclub in Paris during the decadent desperate period just before a war, any war. When everybody is living their lives to the utmost because they don't know what the world has in store for them. There's something slightly dark and sensual about the music while at the same time the feeling is of an unqualified celebration of being alive. A life being led on a knife's edge might be a little more dangerous but it also lets you know you're alive. Listening to Theatre Is Evil is far more dangerous than the music you normally hear, but it lets you know you're alive.

The album itself is laid out like a performance complete with an opening introduction to the Grand Theft Orchestra and a piece of intermission music at the half way point. Whether you want to get up and stretch your legs, take a pee break or go to the bar and have a cigarette the choice is yours. However it does give you a chance to pause the disc and digest what you've heard before proceeding onto the second half of the show. Believe me you'll be grateful for the break. Musically, emotionally and intellectually this is one of the most intense recordings you'll be listening to this year, or in any number of years to come. For these are multi layered and intricate songs with much more to them than meets the eye or ear.

Track 4, "Do It with a Rockstar", is at first blush an ode to the glam rock gods and goddesses of the early 1970s. You can almost smell the pancake make-up and hair spray. It's easy to visualize everybody wearing thigh high platform boots and metallic suits studded with rhinestones. Its brash, bold and brassy, yet there is an underlying note of something disquieting which comes through in lyrics like this; "And do you wanna go back home?/Check your messages and charge your phone/Oh are you, really sure you wanna go?/When you could do it with a rock star, do it with a rock star?"

From the title you might think the song is about the glamour of "doing it with a rock star". Yet the more you listen the more you hear its about the rock star looking for a little company. "Do you wanna dance?/Do you wanna fight?/Do you wanna get drunk and stay the night?/Do you want to see all my cavities?/Talk about the criss in the Middle East?" She sounds desperate for company. The contrast between the lyrics and the flamboyant music makes for an extremely powerful commentary on the nature of fame and stardom. With so much of our media obsessed with fame and celebrity these days it's a relief to see someone saying anything that might make people pause and think about the reality behind the glitter.
Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra by Shervin Lanez.jpg
I could probably write a couple of paragraphs about each one of the 15 songs on this disc but it would end up reading like a PHD dissertation and bore the shit out of everybody including me. However I can't write about this disc and not talk about "Grown Man Cry" and "The Bed Song". Both songs deal with the dynamics of a relationship between a woman and a man in ways that you'll have never heard in a pop song before.

"Grown Man Cry" stands the whole sensitive guy thing on its head. "For a while it was touching/For a while it was challenging/Before it became typical/Now it really isn't interesting to see a grown man cry." Every time the woman in the song wants to have a serious conversation about anything, the man uses emotions to avoid the issue. My favourite lyric in the song though, and the one I think sums up the way guys use "sensitive" to their advantage, is her thoughts while listening to the radio; "I'm scanning through the stations/as the boys declare their feelings/but it doesn't feel like feelings/it feels like they're pretending/it's like they just want blow jobs/and they know these songs will get them". Guys have long used every angle possible to get into a woman's pants or to avoid talking. What better way to do either than by hiding behind "being sensitive".

"The Bed Song" is a different animal again. It traces a couple's relationship from their first bed, a mattress on the floor in what sounds like a squat, to their final resting place lying side by side under a tree. When the youthful romance of the early years has dissipated, their futon on the floor is replaced by an expensive bed and their squat with a luxury condominium, disquiet seeps into their relationship alongside the affluence and comfort. The woman wonders what the problem is. Lines like "And you said all the money in the world/ wouldn't buy a bed so big and wide/ to guarantee that you won't accidentally touch me in the night", are heart rending in their simplicity and implications. Yet for all the years of their life spent together she never once asks him what's wrong. It's not until they're both lying under their tombstone she finally asks him what was the matter; "You stretch your arms out and finally face me/ I would have told you if only you'd asked me." On that unhappy note the song ends, trailing off into the sound of alonely and desolate piano. I think we've all at least known of a relationship which seems to just drift along without either person saying anything of consequence to the other. What Palmer has done is manage to lift the mask and show the awful desperation that lurks beneath the silence. What makes this truly heartbreaking is she shows how easy it is for people to fall into this trap and the awful consequences.

Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra (described as genius musicians/arrangers/programmers Michael McQuilken, Chad Raines and Jherek Bischoff) have created a disc of music unlike anything you're liable to hear anywhere else. While being unique is not necessarily an indication of quality, Theatre Is Evil is one of the most exciting albums of popular music I've heard since the first time I heard The Clash. It challenges conventions without being inaccessible and actually assumes those listening to it have a working brain. This is not passive entertainment that you put on and forget about or put into random shuffle with hundreds of other tunes. This disc will reach out and grab your attention from its opening notes and not let you go until the final chord drifts off into the ether. From start to finish this is a work of art with every note and nuance carefully crafted and presented. Be prepared to be amazed.

Article first published as Music Review: Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra - Theatre Is Evil on Blogcritics.)

Photo Credit: Picture Of Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra by Shervin Lanez

September 4, 2012

Music Review: Dispatch - Circles Around The Sun

It was every kid's rock and roll dream. Three collage buddies get together in a band and start playing locally while in school and watch as it takes off. Soon they're playing gigs all over the US in sold out venues. Songs are being downloaded and shared from friend to friend and advance work is done via the Internet without them having to do anything. Their self released albums walk off the shelves and when the big labels come sniffing round they can tell them to get stuffed, we don't need you. Yet, even a dream can become tired, and for three young men who hadn't lived yet, and had the brains to know there was more to life than playing music with two other guys, they pulled the plug before it all went sour. While fundraising concerts brought them back together occasionally they managed to resist the urge to reunite on a more permanent basis.

That all changed in 2011 with them reuniting for a sold out tour of the US. Now, 2012 sees the release of the first full length Dispatch album of entirely new material in twelve years with Circles Around The Sun being released on their own Bomber label. Yep, their back. The three college kids who turned the music industry on its head by encouraging their fans to file share their songs in order to spread the word. Who sold out not one but three shows at Madison Square Garden in New York City in hours to raise money for Zimbabwe in 2007 and an acoustic show at the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC two years latter in less then two minutes.
Cover Circles Around The Sun Dispatch.jpg
Chad Stokes, Brad Corrigan and Pete Francis; - they trade off on guitar, bass, drums, vocals, and one of them plays a mean banjo on the new disc - have gone out in the world as individuals and returned with something a lot more mature than the youthful exuberance and intelligence which were the earmarks of the band in the early years. So anyone expecting this to sound just like the music the band was playing a decade ago will be in for a surprise. Oh, some of the same elements are still there, its still the same three guys after all. The harmonies are so seamless and the playing so tight they still sound like they're completing each other's sentences musically, but the music isn't as raw or gritty and the writing is far more sophisticated. What they've each learned working on their own has been brought back to the trio and distilled down into a collection of songs reflecting their collective experiences.

What I had appreciated about Dispatch originally was how much they differed from what I had come to expect from pop trios. Normally this configuration conjures up images of bass, guitar and drums churning their way through assorted power chords with amplifiers turned up to eleven, compensating for lack of numbers with noise. Concerts would be more of the same except songs would be excruciatingly extended by endless solos. Dispatch always seemed more focused on making each song greater than the sum of their parts instead resulting in a diversity of sound most bands, let alone a trio, would be hard pressed to match. With Circles Around The Sun they not only continue on in that vein but have pushed themselves even further.

Right from the first song on the disc, title track "Circles Around The Sun", they start to take risks. Initially it sounds like fairly typical power pop song, opening with a cutting guitar lead and continuing on from there as a moderately fast, if much more melodic than normal, rock song. However, at about the half way point of the song, they start to change it up. First of all instead of what would under most circumstances be a break for a solo by one or more instruments, they have a three part harmony vocal break. What this does is serve as a both a musical and a thematic change of pace. A child born with a freak medical condition rendering him weightless had been taken from his mother; "Oh let's send him where no one else has gone/After all he cannot speak or walk/Let's send him at the moon/Do circles 'round the sun".
Dispatch In Studio.jpg
Until the break we expect the tune to be about the callousness of government and exploitation. However, the first verse after is completely different in tone and form from anything preceding it as, "But he came back, yeah he came back/He came back with a smile as big as the whole world/The Doctors were shocked by his vital signs/She said, "Would you like to come home now"". With just this simple break the song changes from being just another obvious tune about heartless governments to something a little more complex. Sure, they'll do their best to exploit us when they can, but that doesn't mean we have to surrender hope. While the song reverts back to its original theme for a final refrain of "Oh let's send him where no one else has gone", the break and subsequent verse have done their job in subverting the notion of governments being all powerful and able to get their way in everything.

As the disc progresses you'll notice the band isn't willing to let themselves be easily defined musically anymore. For while "Not Messin'", track two, is a hard edged rap song about the strange values being preached according to the gospel of money and material wealth, "Get Ready Boy", following immediately after, is a wistful song about freedom with a distinct bluegrass feel to it. Yet in spite of the changes in style that occur throughout the disc, there is still a sense of cohesion to the album as a whole. For one thing it never feels like the band is doing something different solely for the sake of being different. No mater the approach taken it never sounds forced. Each song on the disc feels like the lyrics and music are organic extensions of each other and took their particular form because it was best suited to expressing the thoughts and emotions specific to the tune.

In the 1990s Dispatch were the quintessential independent collage band. They took the industry by storm by taking advantage of file sharing and the burgeoning Internet social networks to publicize their material and promote their concert appearances. Their music was fresh, positive and fun and they tapped into young people's need to feel like they could make a difference in a world which seemed indifferent to their concerns. Now twelve years since the release of their last studio album they're back.

While they remain as fiercely independent as they were originally and have lost none of the joie de vivre that made them so appealing, they've grown both as musicians and human beings in the interim. The result is an album of material emotionally and intellectually maturer then anything they previously released retaining the enthusiasm for life and music that distinguished them in the past. If you liked them before, you'll love them now. If this is your first time listening to them, you're in for a treat. There still isn't another band quite like Dispatch, and you'll not hear another album quite like Circles Around The Sun.

(Article first published as Music Review: Dispatch - Circles Around The Sun on Blogcritics.)

August 26, 2012

Music Review: Erdem Helvacioglu - Eleven Short Stories


Since most of us don't have access to grand pianos and the opportunity to see the instrument's inner workings they provide, it's easy to forget a piano is actually a stringed instrument. It wasn't a coincidence early keyboards, harpsichords, included the word harp in their name. For what were they if not the means to play chords on a harp? Like any stringed instrument when you depress or adjust the strings on a piano you change the tonal quality it will produce. While the idea of the prepared piano, a piano whose sound has been deliberately modified by attaching or placing objects on its strings, has been around since the time of Mozart, it was contemporary composer John Cage who, in the second half of the twentieth century, used the technique for more than just effect and created entire compositions for prepared piano.

Turkish composer of new music Erdem Helvacioglu has created music for a variety of modern and traditional stringed instruments that have been unique in their balancing of electronic recording techniques and acoustic sounds. Whether using computers to generate loops that allow him to build layers of sound through improvisation or manipulating the sound of a concert harp through processors he has always managed to both preserve the integral sound of the original instrument while managing to fully explore its potential for experimentation. So it seems only logical his latest release, Eleven Short Stories on the Innova Recordings label, would see him utilizing the largest stringed instrument around - a prepared grand piano.
Cover Eleven Short Stories Erdem Helvacioglu.jpg
Each of the eleven pieces on this recording have been inspired by one of eleven film directors. Ranging from the relatively well known, David Lynch and Steven Soderbergh, to those who North American audiences won't be familiar with at all, Alejandro Goales Inarritu and Kimm Ki-Duk, the directors in question represent a broad cross section of styles and cultures. Each of them will have their own unique vision of the world they articulate in film. Yet film itself is an amalgamation of more than one art form as visual arts, music and literature are all utilized by the directors in the process of telling a story. So Helvacioglu is not simply creating soundtracks for each of the directors, but rather endeavouring to capture the essence of their overall creation.

Now, the only trouble is, what happens, if like me, you're not overly familiar with the works of the directors in question? Will you still be able to appreciate the pieces on the disc? While you may not be able to tell which was inspired by each director, and there is no mention in the liner notes as to who inspired what, these are still works of music and should be able to stand or fall on their own merits regardless of who or what inspired them. However, since we know they were inspired by films, we can use that as an avenue of approach when listening to them.

The average film soundtrack usually serves to accent what the viewer is seeing on the screen. Unfortunately this invariably leads to such cliches as swelling strings during moments of heightened emotion or other tricks designed to underline the obvious. Don't be looking for anything as trite as that from Helvacioglu, he's not scoring a movie for one thing, he's trying to capture moments that help sum up what a particular director's work means to him. If you look at the titles of each piece you'll see they all refer to either a rather striking visual image: "The Billowing Curtain", "Shattered Snow Glove" and "Blood Drops By The Pool"; a specific location "Shrine In Ruin" and "Bench At The Park" or an evocative phrase of dialogue; "Will I Ever See You Again" and "Not Been Here In Forty Years". The titles themselves are evocative and in some cases are enough to have us creating mental pictures in their own right. The music continues that process and fleshes out the initial image with an emotional context and spurs our imaginations to develop scenes built around the location, phrase or description.

"The Billowing Curtain", which opens the recording, is a good example of this and how Helvacioglu uses music to create layers of meaning and imagery. For not only did the music cause me to visualize a curtain blowing in a breeze as the title suggests, it went even further. Like a camera panning and pulling out into a wide angle shot simultaneously the music carries us from seeing a curtain in a window into the room behind it. The opening chords are the sound of a gentle breeze as he's altered the piano's sound to give it the slight buzz associated with a harpsichord. However this gradually segues from gentle to discordant so we begin to wonder what's in the room. The peaceful atmosphere suggested by the opening notes, say of a spring breeze causing the billowing of the title, is all of a sudden lost and the sound takes on a desolate tone as if the room is empty, devoid of life. The curtain all of a sudden becomes a dividing line between the pleasant feelings initially evoked by the music and the hidden world of the room.
Erdem Helvacioglu & Prepared Piano.jpg
As one would suspect from its title "Blood Drops By The Pool" is an unsettling piece of music. While Helvacioglu picks out careful notes on the keyboard that create an eerie quiet he intersperses them with a series of sounds that can only be described as scrapes and scratches. Perhaps made by taking a bow to the strings of the piano prepared with objects that caused the strange vibrations, some of them sound for all the world like the noise of a saw while others the metal legs of a piece of furniture being dragged over the concrete beside the pool. It's a disturbing collection of sounds which jar and disturb while creating the feeling of unease you would have coming across drops of blood anywhere.

Prepared piano pieces are not music as most people are accustomed to hearing it played. In some ways they are more collages of different sounds designed to create an emotional reaction in the listener than a collection of notes within the framework of a song. However, the composer of any piece of music, no mater what genre, hopes to elicit an emotional reaction from his or her listener. The difference with these pieces lies only in the fact the sounds aren't ones we're used to hearing from a musical instrument. What I found most intriguing was how while the music on this disc created a sense of detachment because of its unusual nature, somehow this separation increased its ability to communicate.

Most of the time when we listen to a piece of music there are arrangements of notes which will automatically generate certain emotional reactions. That's not the case with these pieces. Not being able to rely on the usual comfortable clues you've come to expect from musical compositions you find yourself paying close attention to each note and its relationship to the ones around it. As a result, without realizing it, you become much more invested in the piece and your reactions are based on what you're actually hearing not what you've been conditioned to hear.

Helvacioglu's use of the various treatments and styles of playing prepared piano create moments through out the recording that have more emotional depth than most conventional compositions of the same length. On top of this, each one also manages to evoke images associated with its title. Instead of the music giving emphasis to images flickering on a screen, here each song creates a short movie in our head made up of a series of images and accompanying emotions. While it may not be what your used to hearing, this is some of the most stimulating and provocative music you'll hear. Its well worth making what ever extra effort might be required.

(Article first published as Music Review: Erdem Helvacioglu - Eleven Short Stories on Blogcritics.)

August 21, 2012

Music Review: Linsey Alexander - Been There Done That


There was a time when nearly every second CD I reviewed was a blues recording. While I never tired of listening to the wide variety of sound the genre encompasses, I noticed my writing on the subject was all beginning to sound the same. Whatever the reason for it, I decided it wasn't fair to the people sending me discs to review to continue on in this vain so I took a break from writing about the blues. So it seems appropriate the first blues disc I've reviewed in a while is a release from Chicago based Delmark Records, the oldest independent record label in North America, if not the world. Not only have they brought the world recordings by some of the biggest names in blues over the years, but they also go into the neighbourhood bars and clubs which are the life blood of the genre to find and record artists who play the blues for the love of the music.

These are the people who will probably never be household names or even known beyond the boundaries of Chicago. However it's people like Linsey Alexander pouring their hearts and souls into the music who ensure the blues not only survive but grow. Listening to his newest release, Been There Done That, you not only hear the passion which has always been the strength of this type of music, you get a sense of how music in Chicago has cross pollenated. For on this disc Alexander not only plays the straight ahead electric blues the city is famous for, you'll also hear how soul, R&B and funk have exerted their influences on his sound.
Cover Been There Done That Lindsey Alexander.jpg
Like many other blues musicians Alexander is a transplanted Southerner. He moved up to Chicago in the early 1950s and has been playing the blues since1959 sharing stages with the likes of B.B King, Bobby Rush and Buddy Guy. At the same time he's also carved out a solo career for himself which has seen him not only playing Chicago, but beginning to get recognition in Europe as well. For this disc he's put together a hot band of local blues players including the ubiquitous and immensely talented Billy Branch on harmonica and the LA Horns (Ryan Nyther trumpet and Bryan Fritz tenor saxophone) to fill out the sound on those occasions he ventures into more soulful territory.

No matter what he's playing the first thing you're going to notice about Alexander is his voice. It's like it was made to sing the blues. Raw, raspy and powerful (you don't want some smooth as silk balladeer singing the blues) he is able to effortlessly project over his accompanying band without ever sounding like he's straining. On tracks like the disc's opener, "Raffle Ticket", and the other straight ahead blues numbers, his voice takes on a world weary, seen it all and had it all done to me tone that suits the music perfectly. Yet at the same time he's also gives the impression he's dropping you a wink, letting you know it's all in fun and preventing him from sounding like he's feeling sorry for himself. It also helps to take the edge off the "girl done treat me wrong" type of songs by making them sound playful rather than hateful. For while there's nothing wrong with a blues song celebrating a love gone bad, I get sick of songs about the bad things women do to men.

Something else setting Alexander apart from quite a few other blues players is his sense of humour. The second song on the disc, "Bad Man", with a funky groove propelled by Roosevelt Puifoy's driving organ and the aforementioned horn section, has him listing all the reasons why he's such a bad man. Lyrics like "My hair is nappy/I never got along with my pappy/drugs and crime only make me happy/I'm a bad man/I'm a real bad man" show you he's not taking himself too seriously. While "drugs and crime only make me happy" might sound serious, you have to wonder how "bad" he really is when how he wears his hair is given equal importance. The fact the song is a lively, almost cheery, funk number, makes it even less likely that he wants us to take him seriously. Just to top it off, the song fades out to the sound of Alexander doing a really funny evil laugh, the type you equate with people sending up the villain in a melodrama.
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However, just because he knows how to have fun doesn't mean he doesn't take the music seriously. Listening to his elegant cover of the late Willie Kent's "Looks Like It's Going To Rain", the fifth song of the disc, gives you an indication of how much he cares about what he's doing. Maybe it's because Kent was a friend of his, Alexander starts off by dedicating the song to him, but this is as good a version of this song as I've heard from anyone. The arrangement of the horns, guitar and keyboard is perfect in how it conveys the emotions of the song without being overwrought or manipulative. Instead of the horns being used to try and milk a little extra emotion out of the song, they serve as accents to the beat helping to prevent the tune from bogging down.

Too often performers take soul songs like this and slow them down far too much in order to make themselves sound more emotional. What they don't realize is the careful interrelation of lyrics, melody and rhythm are what make them powerful. Slowing them down might make the singer the centre of attention, but it also saps the tune of its energy and emotional impact. Alexander has too much respect for both the man who wrote the song and music in general, to make himself more important than the needs of the tune. So his vocals are just one of the instruments working together to communicate the song's message to listeners.

It's not just in his vocals you see his respect for the music, it's in everything Alexander does with a song. Even with the material on this disc being primarily written by him ( tracks 2, "Bad Man", and 9, "Big Woman", were co-written by Sharon Pomaville) he doesn't indulge in any extravagances, like over elaborate guitar solos, which might detract from a number's overall impact. His solos, as well as those by fellow guitarists Breezy Rodio and Mike Wheeler, elaborate on a melody's theme to accent a song instead of being excuses to show off anyone's expertise. Each song is carefully arranged to take best advantage of the entire band without any one of them taking precedence. From the rhythm section of Greg McDaniel on bass and James Wilson on drums out, the band plays so well together there are times when it feels like you're listening to a single instrument instead of the up to nine that could be playing at anyone time.

Recordings like Been There Done That show how the blues have survived both the ups and downs of popular interest. It's because of the love and passion the music inspires in musicians the quality of Linsey Alexander. Not only does he respect the music he plays, he also remembers playing implies having fun. When it's appropriate he can be as serious as the next musician, but he also knows there's enough troubles in the world that sometimes even the blues has to have some laughs. This is a wonderful album of music from a musician who deserves far more attention then he has received up to this point in his career.

(Article first published as Music Review: Linsey Alexander - Been There Done That on Blogcritics.

August 14, 2012

Music Review: Marquis Hill - Sounds of the City


I've always thought jazz and poetry have a lot in common. Poets string together words in an attempt to create an overall image which elicits an emotional response in their readers. Which is more or less what jazz musicians do, except they use music instead of words. Both poets and jazz musicians will also occasionally create a series of works based around a theme or subject matter. Each of the pieces will represent one facet of the overall subject so when taken together as a whole they leave the audience with a complete picture.

On his most recent recording trumpeter Marquis Hill has created a series of pieces representing the African American experience in Chicago Illinois. Sounds of the City, distributed by Delmark Records, isn't just about the city itself, its also about what Chicago represented, and continues to represent. to its African American population. In the days of segregation it was the first major city north of the colour line. When buses reached Illinois they could take down the curtain separating the front from the back of the bus and passengers were free to sit where they wanted. Chicago had been a destination for African Americans leaving the south since the years immediately following the Civil War. There was work to be had in the slaughterhouses and the freight yards which offered hope of a better life than sharecropping in the South.
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If the connection between Chicago and African Americans isn't obvious in the musicHill makes sure we get the message with three spoken word interludes. These short, poetic pieces establish the background for the music and leave us no doubt which city is being referred to in the title of the disc. Chicago has of course been celebrated in poetry, "The city with big shoulders" (Carl Sandburg), literature and song. Its as famous for its slaughter houses, where they make use of everything but the squeal, as it is for its art galleries and music. If you've ever been there you know it comes by its nickname of "The Windy City" honestly as the wind off Lake Michigan is funnelled up its wide avenues by skyscrapers. In short there is plenty about this city to be captured in music.

Unlike other media, music can be enjoyed in its own right and you don't have to look for any hidden meanings to appreciate it for what it is. In the case of this disc that means a collection of expertly played jazz, by some eminently gifted players. Each of the tracks, including the spoken word tracks, save for the bonus cut "Stablemates" by Benny Golson, were written by Hill. While each of the tunes are definitely jazz you won't be able to help noticing how Hill has allowed hints of other musical genres associated with Chicago seep into his compositions. Whether it's the 1970s soul influence in "She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not", with Milton Suggs' mellow vocals giving it an extra touch of smoothness, or the almost pop sounds of "Like Lee" with its infectious melody and catchy beat.

However don't be deceived by appearances or first impressions when it comes to Hill's music. "Like Lee" might at first sound light and frothy, but as you listen you'll realize its much more complex then you originally thought. While the melody might initially bounce along buoyed up by Hill's horn playing, the complex interplay between the drums and bass are an indication there is more to this song then first met the ear. With each passing verse and the addition of a new instrument into the mix the song gains in texture and intricacy. While the horn continues to provide a jaunty lilt the addition of piano at about the piece's halfway mark breaks up what has been an established pattern and introduces a hint of discordance. However, over the course of what remains of the song what was initially a jarring element is gradually blended in to its surroundings until it becomes part of the overall environment. Throughout it all the steady underpinning provided by the bass and drums continues unimpeded as if it were a separate entity.
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Following right after "Like Lee" is the second spoken word interlude of the disc. While the first interlude spoke of the role music plays in the life of the people, this short bit speaks directly to African Americans making Chicago their new home."We've come this far by faith/from the fields we found our way to a new home along South Parkway/currently known as the throne of King Drive/and though it might not be perfect/we thank God we've arrived/we survived/and it feels so good to be alive in the city of the Chi". Think of this in relation to the song prior, a people trying to find their feet in an already existing environment. How at first they are an oddity, a new element disturbing the surface, but life continues to go on, and gradually they become part of the overall whole.

Life in Chicago was far from perfect for many years for the migrants from the South and their descendants. While segregation wasn't enforced by law, it was by society. African Americans were restricted to living in specific neighbourhoods, restaurants displayed white only signs and basically they were still second class citizens. However, as "To Be Free", the song following right after this spoken word piece suggests, it was far better then what they had left behind for the hope of freedom to come it offered. Starting off with a blues tinged trumpet stirring thoughts of hardship and hope the song morphs into something wilder and freer. Greg Ward's alto sax shakes off restraints and takes the piece into a new direction, one which doesn't care about rules and thumbs its nose at society and its niceties.

To some the sound of Chicago is the sound of El train rattling by overhead, the stockyards and the floor of the commodities market during trading hours. To others the sound of the city is the music made by its people. From the ragtime and dixieland jazz of the early twentieth century, the blues and swing of the 1920s and 1930s, the excitement of hard be-bop in the post war years and electric blues of the 1950s to the explosion of the avant-garde in the late 1950s, the hopes, fears, worries and joys of Chicago's people have been tied up in the music they've produced. The music's continual rejection of the status-quo, its continual breaking down of barriers and kicking open new doors is a reflection of its community's refusal to stand still and be regulated to the back of the bus.

In Sounds of the City Marquis Hill has written a collection of pieces that somehow manages to convey both the literal sounds of the city and the historical connection between music and Chicago's African American community. The three spoken word pieces included on the disc introduce the themes he elaborates on with the music. Each song, whether through style or emotional content, fills in another piece in the overall picture he and his fellow musicians paint for us. It's indicative of the quality of the job they have done in performing this music that I became so wrapped up in appreciating the overall impression the music was making upon me, I forgot about their individual abilities as musicians. While you can't help but notice some of the great solos throughout the disc, don't be surprised if you find yourself remembering what the disc means to you more than any one individual's performance. Like any great poem, it's not the individual words that matter, it's the impact they have on you when combined together that makes them memorable. Hill is a great poet and musician, and will leave you with an indelible memory of Chicago.

(Article first published as Music Review: Marquis Hill - Sounds of the City on Blogcritics.)

August 6, 2012

Music DVD/CD Review: Various Performers - Johnny Cash We Walk The Line


I often have trouble with tribute concerts, concerts where a collection of performers gather to perform the music of one specific musician. It's been my experience people far too often get caught up in the event and the iconography of the person being honoured and forget about the reason they're honouring him or her - the music they created. The larger and more significant a figure it is being celebrated the larger the likelihood is of this happening. So it was with some trepidation that I started to watch the DVD of Johnny Cash: We Walk The Line - A Celebration Of The Music Of Johnny Cash, being released August 7 2012 by Legacy Recordings, as there's probably no bigger icon in American music than Johnny Cash.

Since Cash's death there have been a number of tribute albums released and any number of people have taken to covering his music. While there have been some amazing versions of his songs, everything from punk All Aboard: A Tribute To Johnny Cash, one of the best, to hip hop, Johnny Cash Remixed, they've not been able to capture the entire essence of the man and his music and why it appealed to such a cross section of society. To be honest the only reason I even bothered to check out this latest effort was because I read that Don Was was musical director and had helped put together the lineup. I've been impressed with events similar to this one that Was has been involved with, so I thought it would be worth taking a chance on.
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The concert, which took place back in April 2012 in Austin Texas, was the kick off to this year's celebrations in honour of what would have been Cash's 80th birthday. Over the past couple of years Legacy Recordings, in conjunction with the Cash family, have been releasing collections of Cash recordings that have been laying around in vaults for years. As their contribution to the birthday proceedings, not only are they releasing this DVD/CD set, but the same day will also see the release of four CDs of Cash's music, each celebrating a different aspect of his musical character. The Greatest: The Number Ones, The Greatest: The Gospel Songs, The Greatest: Country Songs and The Greatest: Duets. Looking at the track listing for each of these CDs will give you a clue as to how it was always impossible to pigeon hole Cash - even when you divided his music up by genre or style.

The country songs were culled from a list of a hundred Cash had considered essential for his daughter to be aware of and include everything from "Long Black Veil" and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" to his version of "The Gambler" (which he released before Kenny Rogers). However, as far as I'm concerned it's the duets collection which is the most telling. Naturally it includes "Jackson" and "If I Were A Carpenter" which he and June Carter Cash were famous for singing together. Yet unlike what you'd expect from this type of compilation they're not all love songs performed with a female vocalist. In fact nine of the fourteen tracks feature him singing with another man - everyone from Bob Dylan, "Girl From The North Country", to George Jones, "I Got Stripes".

Which is why anything less than even an attempt to reflect the idiosyncratic nature of Cash's musical tastes and his appreciation for all types of music would have made this celebration of his music a failure. My worst fear was it would turn out to be a gathering of Nashville types twanging their way through his music and sucking the life out of it by covering them with rhinestones and cheap sentimentality. Seeing that both Willie Nelson and Kris Kristoffersson were among the performers was a relief and the fact the African American string band, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, were also in the line up was also a good sign. However, there were a number of names on the list I didn't recognize which still troubled me. However, I should have trusted my initial reaction to Was' involvement, because nearly each person involved went the extra distance to try and capture the essence of Cash's spirit.

Film actor Matthew McConaughey hosted the evening and wasn't too obvious about reading from the teleprompter - in fact as the night went on he loosened up more and more and was obviously starting to enjoy himself. (One of the special features is him doing a credible job of performing "The Man Comes Around"). Was and executive producer Keith Wortman compiled their ideal Cash set list and each of the invited performers were asked to select the Cash song they'd like to perform. In the special features Wortman says he and Was were pleasantly surprised when they compared their list with the list of requests submitted by the performers and the two were almost identical. Something that people are bound to wonder about, is how many of the songs are ones Cash didn't write. Yet it's only by variety of styles he recorded that one can really appreciate him as both an artist and a human being. How many people out there do you know that can perform both "Hurt" and "Why Me Lord" with equal sincerity and credibility.
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Which is why you need as diverse a group of performers who were gathered together in Huston that night to bring Cash's music to life properly. Highlights, at least for me, included "Get Rhythm", performed by pop singer Andy Grammer. He injected some much needed fun right from the start by doing hip-hop style vocals percussion and by so obviously enjoying himself. Buddy Miller, who was also lead guitarist for the "house" band (Don Was bass, Greg Leisz steel guitar and mandolin, Kenny Arnoff drums and Ian McLagan keyboards) rocked the house with his version of "Hey Porter", Shelby Lynne was stellar singing Kristofferson's "Why Me Lord", Rhett Miller, lead singer of the Ol' 97s, tore the stage up with his version of, what else, "Wreck Of The Old '97", Ronnie Dunn brought out the trumpet section from a Mariachi Band for his version of "Ring Of Fire" and Lucinda Williams broke everyone's hearts with her rendition of "Hurt".

Nearly everyone of the twenty tracks on the disc are worth mentioning but there are a few more which stood out in particular. Putting the Carolina Chocolate Drops on stage was a beautiful move by the show's organizers, as it not only reminded people of the African American roots of so much of Cash's music, it also showcased one of the best string bands in America today. If their version of "Jackson", and leading the ensemble in a gospel style version of "I Walk The Line" to close the night, doesn't have people scrambling to buy their records there's no justice in the world. Yet for all the youthful exuberance on display it was still the two old guys, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson, who stole the show. Maybe it's because they represented a tangible connection to Cash through so many years of associating the three of them together that made the heart swell listening to them perform, but it was also just great to see them on stage again.

Kristofferson first joined Jamey Johnson for a rendition of his "Sunday Morning Coming Down" and then he sang "Big River". Kristofferson's voice hasn't weathered the years that well, but for all its current limitations there's still something wonderful about listening to him growl his way through anything. On the other hand Nelson's voice seems to be becoming more and more velvety as he ages. First performing "If I Were A Carpenter" with Sheryl Crow, then "The Highwayman" with Shooter Jennings, Kristofferson and Johnson, and finally, as a special feature on the DVD but included on the CD, "I Still Miss Someone", he sounds even more effortless then ever. It's like he just opens his mouth and liquid gold rolls out as a balm to ease your wounded soul.

The special features include interviews with nearly everyone of those performing or involved with the concert. What struck was how many times somebody said a variation of "you'll find Johnny's music in the record collections of everyone from punks to middle of the road country fans". That one man had something that could appeal to such a huge cross section of the population says something about both his abilities as a musician and who he was as a human being. There's probably no one person in popular music today who can connect to that many people. Even finding the right mix of performers whose combined talents come close to matching what Cash was able to accomplish with his music is a nigh on impossible job. But on this night in Huston they came as close as I think anyone will ever come. No matter what your reason for liking Johnny Cash there's something in this collection for you. If anybody was looking to find a way to establish common ground between all the disparate elements in American society today the music of Johnny Cash would be a great foundation to build upon.

(Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - We Walk The Line: A Celebration of the Music of Johnny Cash [DVD+CD] on Blogcritics.)

July 31, 2012

Music Review: Nona Hendryx - Mutatis Mutandis


There used to be a strong connection between popular music and its audience. This was especially true of protest music, but even regular pop music spoke to the interests and concerns of those listening to it. However, the more music has been taken out of the hands of individuals and become big business with a bottom line, the more it has been watered down so overall it has become more about style than content. Worse yet is the cult of celebrity that has sprung up surrounding the performers making them objects of admiration for their fame and wealth instead of their talent or what they have to say.

While there are some exceptions they seem to be fewer and fewer each year. So it was wonderful to hear the new CD from Nona Hendryx, Mutatis Mutandis, being released July 31 2012 on Ani DiFranco's label, Righteous Babe Records. Not only do her lyrics express opinions on subjects most people are uncomfortable even talking about, musically the disc is exciting, passionate and raw. Even better is when listening to Hendryx you feel her connection to what she's singing about. Topics range from religion to politics but she performs them in a way that anybody listening to the songs can relate to them. They're about what we see on television, what we hear in the news and what we see on the streets around us and delivered by a voice whose experiences of them are much the same as ours.
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The opening song, "The Tea Party", isn't about American history, but the political party that has co-opted history in an attempt to lend itself credibility. Against a driving funk backdrop Hendryx outlines all the ways these self-styled patriots are really the anti-thesis of what America stands for. "They say they want to take their country back, but don't they know it wasn't theirs and that's a fact". However the song isn't just the usual liberal whining about those bad guys on the right. Instead Hendryx spells out the reality behind The Tea Party's fine sounding rhetoric and exposes their real agenda. For a party who claims to be all about liberty and freedom they sure do want to deny a lot of people the freedom and liberty to be who they are and make up their own minds about subjects.

Critiquing religion and churches is always a sensitive subject because it's too easy to paint everyone with the same brush and make sweeping pejorative statements which are as much an injustice as the behaviour being protested. In "Temple Of Heaven" Hendryx walks the fine line of being critical of the way some people use religion as a means to an end without coming down on either any specific denomination or faith itself. There's nothing wrong with believing or going to the church of your choice, what's wrong are those out there pushing hatred in the name of their God. Far too many songs of this type alienate the majority of people because they come across as anti-religious, By being very specific with her target Hendryx increases the chances people will pay attention to what she's saying and makes the song far more credible than if she just complained about "church" or religion.

What I really liked about Hendryx's approach to her material was she continually found ways to sing about a subject that didn't make it sound like she was preaching to us or she's somehow morally superior to us. To quote Lou Read, the last thing we need is another self-righteous rock star. Hendryx doesn't come across as either self-righteous or a star. Listen to her "environmental" song "Oil In The Water", and you'll hear her talking about oil spills -"there's oil on the water that no rain will wash away" - but she doesn't just talk about the evils of the oil industry. She's created a song which talks about how oil spills are a symptom of what's wrong with society today. The song is about corporate greed, true enough, but its also about how we've all become disassociated from the world around us and the danger that represents. Even better, like all the tunes on this disc, she doesn't make any distinction between those listening to her music and her. We're all in this together and nobody is exempt from responsibility.
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While I could go on and on about all the songs on this disc (her adaptation of the Billie Holliday classic "Strange Fruit" - "Stranger Fruit" is brilliant and "The Ballad Of Rush Limbaugh" will surprise you) I want to make special mention of "Black Boys". "Black boys in tight blue jeans/is that a gun in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?/Black boys in tight blue jeans/Are you America's nightmare or America's dream". Not only does the song challenge the stereotypes that white people have about African American men, especially young men, it also challenges the young men in question. She says as an African American woman I love you, but I worry about and am afraid for you. She questions the gangsta-rap identity, the macho bullshit and the emphasis on material goods that accompanies it, "Don't be blinded by the bling" she admonishes at one point.

This song typifies Hendryx's approach to her material on the whole disc. She's not afraid to ask the questions most of us think but never speak out loud. She's looking around at the world we all live in and doesn't just shake her head, but finds a way to articulate in song many of the things troubling all of us. Even better is how she doesn't ignore the music for the message. Each song is as carefully crafted musically as it is lyrically with the sound ranging from old school R&B and Chicago soul, hard core funk to songs which fuse all those elements together with jazz and rock. Its an album of great music and great lyrics where neither outweighs the other and they compliment each other perfectly.

Hendryx is a veteran of the music wars and the lessons she has learned about music and presentation from her days with Labelle and performing with groups like The Talking Heads are all put to good use on this disc. On top of that, each song is timely and topical, articulating the issues facing Americans on a daily basis in such a manner that you can't help but listen to her. Not only is this a great disc musically, but any politician wanting to know what really matters to Americans these days would be well advised to give it a listen. Finding answers to the questions Hendryx raises will go a long way to ensuring yourself of victory in November.

(Article first published as Music Review: Nona Hendryx - Mutatis Mutandis on Blogcritics.)

July 26, 2012

Music Review: Jimmy Cliff - Rebirth


A big deal is always made about the role Bob Marley played in the popularization of reggae music among mainstream audiences. While it's true Marley was the genre's first big superstar, and at the time of his death easily the most well known reggae performer, he wasn't the only one responsible for bringing reggae to the attention of non-Jamaican listeners. The soundtrack from the 1972 movie The Harder They Come introduced the world to a young Jimmy Cliff. Not only did he have the lead role in the movie, he also sang and wrote the two most popular songs on the soundtrack, "The Harder They Come" and "You Can Get It If You Really Want". I don't know about anyone else, but I heard this album and Jimmy Cliff long before ever hearing anything by Marley or his group the Wailers.

Unfortunately for Cliff he never seemed to catch the public's imagination in the same way as his compatriots Marley and Peter Tosh did. In spite of writing some really wonderful tunes, "Many Rivers To Cross", to this day the most poignant reggae song recorded, and "Pressure Drop", covered by The Clash and other punk bands in the 1980s, after all these years he's still searching for the breakout album that will push him to the next level of popularity. In fact he makes no bones about it in the press materials for his latest CD , Rebirth on the Universal Music Enterprises (UMe) where he is quoted as saying "I want to become a stadium act".
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Unfortunately this desire seems to have an adverse effect on his music. When an artist, even one as good as Cliff, sets his sights on a specific type of success, rather than simply going about creating his art it can't help but impact on what he creates. Consciously or not all his choices are going to be guided by, in this case a desire for popularity and commercial success, and his creations can't help but be coloured by those desires. In the case of Rebirth the result has been an album that doesn't live up to the expectations created by Cliff's previous material. That's not to say this is a bad CD, or the music is crap. It's just not in the same league as other music I've heard from him.

Musically the songs don't seem to want to make a full commitment to reggae as if he's trying to make them more accessible to a wider audience. Unfortunately the result is they lose the solid footing that a reggae back beat would have given them. While there are plenty of examples of music which have melded reggae with other genres with various degrees of success, here they just sound like reggae songs watered down by pop hooks. What's depressing is listening to the couple of songs where Cliff's true potential shines through. His cover of The Clash's "Guns Of Brixton" is a great example of what he is capable of. He delivers the words with passion and dignity, keeping alive the challenge of the original version while showing compassion for those pushed to having no more choices."When they kick in your front door, what you goin' to do? Guns of Brixton"
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But unfortunately the majority of the songs on the disc are more like "Reggae Music". The song is a simplistic and sentimental look at the history of reggae over the past fifty years tracing both Cliff's career and a changing world. The chorus of "Reggae music gonna make me feel good/reggae music gonna make me feel all right now/Reggae music gonna make me feel good/reggae music gonna make me feel all right now" seems to imply no matter what's happening in the world reggae will make things better. While the sentiment itself is harmless enough I guess, its undermined by the fact musically the song is an uptempo pop song with the reggae influence almost buried under its cheery refrain and catchy tune.

Then there's the song "Outsider" where the music contradicts the purported message of the lyrics. For while Cliff is proclaiming his outsider status, his individuality, the music belies that message by sounding like it would be comfortable on a top forty television show. This is not the music of the streets of Kingston Jamaica or songs about injustice, but rather the stuff they play for tourists at resorts that won't offend anybody's sensibilities. I can't help but remember a movie Cliff was in with Robin Williams called Club Paradise. In it Cliff was the leader of a band who were capable of playing down and dirty reggae, but when the police come around they immediately switch to something that sounds like Bonny M would play.

Now there's no way even on his worst day Cliff could sound like Bonny M. However, listening to the songs on Rebirth I can't help but feel disappointed as they sound little or nothing like the music I'm used to hearing from him. Sure the tunes are catchy enough and he still has a great voice, but the heart and soul seem to have been removed. Cliff is one of the greats of reggae, but unfortunately you can't really tell it from this attempt. Go back and grab a copy of the soundtrack to The Harder They Come or even just listen to "Many Rivers To Cross", if you really want to experience him at his best.

(Article first published as Music Review: Jimmy Cliff - Rebirth on Blogcritics.)

July 13, 2012

Music DVD Review: Jimi Hendrix - Jimi Plays Berkeley


When a pop musician has been dead forty years it's hard to get people to take you seriously when you talk about how great they were. There have been a million players since his or her time and people whose parents might not even have been alive when the person was in their prime are going to, and with good reason, ask why they should even care. Let's face it, every generation always hears it from their elders how much better everything was in their time and learns how to tune them out, so why should this generation be an exception. It's especially difficult when so called "Classic Rock" stations choke the airwaves with uninspired shit that gives the impression that the music of four decades ago was as unimaginative as what they hear on the radio today.

So I can't blame anyone if their eyes started to glaze over simply reading the title of the item under review here. Not another article extolling the virtues of some long dead rock star. What makes him so special that we should give a shit about a DVD shot forty years ago of this guy performing? The sound quality probably sucks and the pictures can't be much better, so why should I shell out how ever much its going to cost? All of which are perfectly fair questions and the only answer I can offer is because seeing is believing. In spite of any deficiencies in audio and visual I'm willing to bet that you've never seen anyone like Jimi Hendrix and after watching the newly remastered and restored version of Jimi Plays Berkeley released by Legacy Recordings you'll agree.

Jimi Plays Berkeley isn't a concert film in the typical sense of the word, it's more like a documentary film about a concert Hendrix gave and what was happening in America at the time. The University of Berkeley California was one of the centres for student unrest in the 1960s and 1970s. The Free Speech Movement, protesting the censorship of student newspapers by the governors of the university, began mounting demonstrations in 1964. These expanded to include demonstrations against the war in Viet Nam and other causes. By the time Hendrix's concert took place in 1970 running battles between student demonstrators and police were common occurrences in Berkeley.
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All of which explains why the directors of this movie elected to include footage of various demonstrations. Whether or not these protests actually occurred during the weekend Hendrix's concerts were taking place is another question. However it does give you a historical context within which to place his music and an idea of events in society that inspired him. Barely three weeks before the concert's May 30 date the Ohio National Guard had shot and killed four students at Kent State University during a protest against the war on May 4 1970. So songs like "Machine Gun" and "I Don't Live Today", while not specifically inspired by that event, would have had special resonance for the audience.

The movie opens with Hendrix and some of his entourage driving to the venue for his afternoon rehearsal in a limousine. Quiet and unassuming, he seems to be in a world of his own quietly staring out of the car window as the others chat and drink beer. He may have dressed the part, but Hendrix never came across like your typical rock star, and you glimpse that here. From the limo we move into the concert hall, The Berkeley Community Theatre, where we see some footage of Hendrix, drummer Mitch Mitchell and bass player Bobby Cox rehearsing for the evenings performance. At one point Hendrix instructs Cox on what kind of bass line he needs for a particular transition into a solo by singing him the arrangement. It's a lovely little moment that gives you some insight into how careful he was with his arrangements and the attention he paid to every last detail.

During the rehearsals is also our first indication that the sound quality of this recording is going to be far superior than we would have suspected judging by the quality of the video. For while there's little that can be done to improve an old film's quality, modern digital technology has allowed Hendrix's original recording engineer, Eddie Kramer, to re-master the soundtrack of the film in 5.1 Surround Sound. While that won't eliminate any of the flaws in the original, it does mean the sound is far cleaner then it would have been when the film was first released. Having heard other recordings from the same time period made under similar conditions I could immediately notice the difference. It was most noticeable in the way each instrument was discernible in the mix. In a lot of older recordings I've heard of Hendrix what you normally have is a wall of sound which his guitar would occasionally break through and you'd be lucky if you ever heard his vocals.
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Hendrix was notoriously self-conscious of his voice and even on studio albums his vocals were often muted. However, Kramer has done an excellent job of not only managing to isolate him while he's singing but to make sure we hear everything he says to his audience. This is important because it allows us to hear his opening introduction asking them to forget about yesterday or tomorrow as this is "our own little world tonight".

The material he performed during the concert was his usual mix of traditional blues, "Hear My Train A Comin'", his own material, "Purple Haze", "I Don't Live Today", "Machine Gun", and "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" and his two favourite covers "Johnny B Goode" and "The Star Spangled Banner". Listening to him play is only half the story. It's watching him that you truly begin to understand how special he was. Listening you forget he's playing a right hand guitar strung for a left handed person upside down and backwards or that his beloved Stratocaster was not designed to be played that way. Watch his hands on the fret board - they seem to have a life of their own as they fly up and down it, pick out notes on the bridge, make adjustments to the guitar's controls and ply the whammy bar.

Unlike today's guitarists who have rack upon rack of effects peddles they can modulate their sound with at the touch of a foot, there's barely a peddle to be seen on the stage in front of Hendrix. Aside from a Wha Wha peddle and a couple of others which he doesn't even seem to make use of, he's creating every sound that comes out of his guitar simply by playing with the sound. Throwing his whole body into almost every note like he's trying to see how far he can bend or milk the sound for that extra little bit of impact he looks to be entering into another world. When he comes back to the microphone to sing it's like he's returning from a voyage and reporting back to his listeners on what he's seen. Watching him come alive with the guitar in his hands one realizes how much the music meant to him. The more you see and hear him play the more you realize it wasn't about fame for him. The money he made allowed him to play and create. Just before he died he had opened Electric Lady Land studios where he recorded his last studio albums. It was meant to be his laboratory where he could make wonderful things come to life. Instead it became his legacy where others now go and record.

Jimi Plays Berkeley also contains a couple of special features. One of them is the second concert of the weekend re-mastered in 5.1 audio. This concert has been released before with questionable audio so it's good to have a clean version of it. Its also being released as a stand alone CD and special edition two hundred gram vinyl. The second special feature is an interview with Abe Jacob, Hendrix's touring sound engineer. Listening to him you understand just how primitive equipment was in those days compared to our standards. For the time they were considered way out there because of Hendrix's need for multiple amplifiers and stacks. But it drives home the point of how little he depended on effects for what he did.

Jimi Hendrix would have been seventy years old on his next birthday (November 27 2012) if he had lived and there's no way of knowing what kind of music he might have gone on to create. The good thing is that after years of inferior recordings being released cheapening his musical legacy, we are finally having the opportunity to hear his music in the best shape possible. Jimi Plays Berkeley may not be perfect, but rock and roll isn't about perfection, its about heart and passion. This DVD gives us an opportunity to see Jimi Hendrix's heart and passion and some of the events going on at the time that would have fuelled his creativity. Watch it and understand why there will never be anyone else quite like him again.

(Article first published as Music DVD Review: Jimi Hendrix - Jimi Plays Berkeley on Blogcritics.)

July 7, 2012

Music Review: The Beat - The Complete Beat


Great Britain in the late 1970s and early 1980s was an extremely polarized society. Upon its election Margret Thatcher's Conservative Party government had instituted a deliberate policy of isolating and attacking those it deemed to be its enemies. It was pretty much open season on everyone from trade unionists to minorities. While it was never official government policy to target immigrants like it was to break the coal miner's union, when unemployment started to escalate and the poor and working class began to suffer, scapegoats were needed and visible minorities were an easy target. The National Front, a British neo-Nazi political party, took advantage of the hard times to whip up anti-immigrant sentiment. The result was increasingly violent altercations between their followers and the large South East Asian and Jamaican populations in London, which cumulated in race riots that were running battles between both sides and the police.

This was the backdrop against which a new type of music was born. Ska and reggae had come to Britain along with calypso with the post WW ll wave of Jamaican immigration but they had never really spread beyond their native communities. That all began to change in 1970s with the emergence of reggae stars like Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff who garnered mainstream attention in England. While bands like The Clash incorporated reggae into their sound, others were attracted to the higher tempo sound of ska. Bands like The Specials, Madness and UB40 blended ska and reggae with punk to create a high energy, somewhat politicalized, dance music. However it was a group from Birmingham, the second largest city in England after London, which had been really badly hit by Thatcher's policies, who really caught lightning in a bottle and created a perfect marriage of ska, R&B, pop and punk.
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The Beat, or The English Beat, as they were known in North America, only released three albums. (The original band broke up in 1983 and have recently reformed as two separate bands, The Beat in England and The English Beat in the US hence the two web sites) While they may have not been around for very long they blazed through popular music like a comet. Infectious, intelligent, fun and exciting their music had people on both sides of the ocean dancing. A review published around the time of their first album, I Just Can't Stop It, called them the perfect antidote to the riots plaguing England at the time. Just set The Beat down between the two factions and start them playing and people will have to stop fighting as their bodies will force them to start dancing the reviewer implied. If you didn't have the opportunity to experience The Beat the first time round, or if you're old vinyl has been worn out by repeated playings, you're in luck, for on July 10 2012 Shout Factory is releasing the box set The Complete Beat.

Not only does it contain all three original releases (I Just Can't Stop It, Wh'appen, and Special Beat Service) remastered and with extra tracks you'll also receive two bonus discs. The fourth disc of the set collects together all the extended remixes, twelve inch singles and dub versions of songs that they released during the course of their career. Dub is of course short for over dubbing and was a widely used technique in Jamaican dance halls for years. The original song is taken, and then overdubbed with effects usually with the intent of extending the track and giving it a funkier groove. To be hones when I had heard some of these tracks when they were originally released I found the idea of overdubbing The Beat somewhat redundant as they were already a great dance band. However, that being said, their overdubs do have the added bonus of being more than just simple remixes with a new rhythm track.

Vocalist and "toaster" (another term from the Jamaican dance hall lexicon equivalent to American rap) Rankin' Roger adds new "toasts" to quite a few of the tracks and he's always a treat to listen to. His soliloquies seem positively innocent compared to what you hear on the average rap record, but they're inventive. intelligent and fun. They usually involved taking the main lyric line and extemporizing, genuinely adding a new dimension to any song that he worked on.
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The fifth disc is comprised of versions of their songs recorded for the British Broadcasting Corporation's (BBC) renowned "John Peel" show. Some of the most famous bands in British pop from the 70s and 80s have had their music released under The John Peel Sessions imprint. Recorded live in BBC's studios for radio broadcast they are rawer and more immediate than the versions which appear on a band's releases and give the listener a better idea of how they would sound live. With a band like The Beat, while studio versions are great, it's only live when they're all feeding off each other's energy that one really begins to appreciate what made them so special. The inclusion of the Peel recordings in this set gives listeners an inkling as to what that experience would have been like. Having seen them twice in concert back in the early 1980s I know nothing can capture that magic, not even a live recording, but these John Peel Session recordings come close.

The last four songs on this disc are taken from their 1982 North American tour during their Boston gig in November of that year. If you thought the studio version of "Twist and Crawl" on Just Can't Stop It was high energy, wait until you hear what they uncork live. It also contains the never recorded combination of their song "Get A Job" and their plea for Margaret Thatcher to do everyone a favour and resign "Stand Down Margaret". Originally paired with "Whine & Grine" "Margaret" takes on an even bigger bite when combined with "Get A Job". Remember this was the government that did its best to destroy Britain's industrial base for the sole purpose of putting union members who voted against them out of work and then proceeded to say the poor only had themselves to blame and anybody who really wanted to could "Get A Job".

Maybe a song like "Stand Down Margaret" is dated (however it still remains the one and only song I've ever seen develop into a full scale sing along while the audience is dancing itself silly) but listening to The Beat itself will never get stale. While there were other talented ska bands like The Specials, The Beat were something special. They fused the best of R&B, soul, punk, reggae and ska into a sound that was unique to them. Listen to their cover of the old Motown hit "Tears Of A Clown" and you'll hear what I mean. What was once sort of a catchy, but basically insipid pop tune, has been turned into something with meat on its bones. Tighter, tougher and with twice the energy of the original it, like all their music, makes you want to throw your body around in ways you never thought possible.

In the years since The Beat broke up we've seen the rise of various different types of dance music. Yet for about six years or so a band existed who created music that inspired thousands of people to forget about whatever else was going on in their lives for hours on end and dance like there was no tomorrow. Their music might not have been as political as the Clash's or as cerebral as the Talking Heads, but The Beat - or The English Beat if you prefer - were in some ways just as important. For even today they remind us that music doesn't have to have a message or be selling anything to have a positive impact. They were a reminder that life can and should be a celebration, and all during a time when things were looking really quite ugly. If you think about it, that's a message the world could stand to hear more often. The songs in this collection might be thirty years old, but they still have the same impact they did when first recorded.

For those who aren't sure if they want to invest in the box set The Complete Beat Shout Factory is also releasing a fifteen song greatest hits disc, Keep The Beat: The Very Best Of The English Beat on July 10 2012. They are also offering a special incentive for ordering the box set directly from their web site as they will throw in the never before released CD/DVD recording of the Beat's appearance at The US Festival in 1982 and a signed booklet with every purchase. I've no idea of the DVD's quality - but I remember the US Festival was televised by the music networks of the day so it will probably be the television feed which means it will at least have been professionally shot - but the chance to see them perform live even on tape is something not to be missed. However, no matter which recording you choose to buy, you'll soon discover there was and is no other band like The Beat.

(Article first published as Music Review: The Beat - The Complete Beat on Blogcritics.)

May 30, 2012

Music Review: Public Image Limited - The Is Pil


In the mid 1970s the bloated and moribund music industry was given a much needed enema by The Sex Pistols. Anarchic and swearing they spit upon Britain's cultural icons and reminded people that rock and roll wasn't only the province of self-indulgent millionaires. In the 1950s Elvis scared middle class parents with his blatant sexuality while his blending of country and blues music threatened the South's segregationist attitudes. In the 1960s music came to epitomize all that was wrong with society according to the protectors of moral decency as it promoted sex, drug use, and worst of all questioning authority.

Yet when rock stars became celebrities and started earning a few bucks it's amazing how quickly they became part of the establishment. English rock and rollers complaining about have to pay taxes when they had grown up in Council Flats or raised on the National Health system funded by tax dollars was a fine example of how they became those they claimed to despise, but in reality had probably only envied. While John Lennon may have given his OBE (Order of the British Empire) back, it's hard to imagine John Lydon even making it onto the New Year's honour list.

The Sex Pistols only ever put out one studio album, Never Mind The Bollocks, and self imploded after a couple of years. Shedding the punk surname Rotten he'd worn as lead singer of the Pistols, Lydon, founded Public Image Limited (PiL) in 1978. For the next fourteen years, with a line up best described as fluid, the band released a series of albums that challenged and defied listener's and critic's expectations. Anyone who had been expecting Sex Pistols revisited was in for a shock. Lydon and PiL refused to be button holed or defined by an industry that liked everything in neat categories and just to rub salt in the wounds, managed to succeed playing it by their own rules. By the time they shut it down in 1992 they had scored five top twenty singles and five top twenty albums on the UK charts.

Twenty years latter PiL is still playing it by their own rules. They reformed in 2009 and began touring with much the same line as in 92: Lydon, and PiL bandmates since 1986 Lu Edmonds (guitar) and Bruce Smith (drums/percussion) were joined by newcomer to the band Scott Firth (bass). Any thoughts the more cynical might have had about this being an old farts looking to regain lost glory tour will be dispelled once you listen to their new release, This Is PiL. As befitting the guy who wrote the scathing "EMI", Lydon and company raised the cash for the disc themselves and have released it on their own Official PiL label (distributed in the US by Redeye Distribution).
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The twelve tracks on this CD live up to anybody's expectations of what PiL had come to represent in their first incarnation. I've seen other critics refer to it as "art rock" and other such bullshit, but the reality is Lydon and company long ago went beyond pop music and into the realm of new music composition. Sure they field the same sort of line up as pop bands but what they do with the instruments at their disposal goes beyond what anybody else has ever attempted. Perhaps the closest analogy would be some of the music being produced by the avant-garde jazz movement in Chicago. However, unlike those bands whose forte is improvisation and experimentation with aural soundscapes, PiL's pieces are written in advance and more a music of ideas than intuitive responses.

Thematically Lydon is still attacking the status quo. "One Drop" is a celebration of his adolescence and he defies the notion of it's everyone's responsibility to grow up and become a useful member of society. "The laws of nature/ be lawless and free/ we come from chaos/ you can not change us/you can not explain us/and that's what makes us/we are the ageless/we are teenagers/we are the focus of the hopeless/we are the last chance/we are the last dance". Yet he's not waxing nostalgic for his lost youth, he's talking about himself in the present tense. After all what is being an artist if not the ultimate rejection of adulthood?

Be honest, doesn't some part of you wonder at a group of fifty year old men making music most people would associate with teenage rebellion and youthful excess? They're not even playing nice safe corporate rock for baby boomers for God's sake. Instead of mellowing with age and becoming respectable members of the aging rock musicians community, Lydon sounds just as ready to sneer at icons as he ever did. However, at the same time, he's not just leading some blind attack or reckless anarchy. He looks around at present day society and sees that nothing much has changed in nearly forty years so what is there to be fucking optimistic about? Anger is a healthy response and to pretend otherwise is to hide your head in the sand.
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"The Room I'm In" is a surreal piece mixing spoken word and singing accompanied by an eerily floating electronic sound collage overtop an arrhythmic percussion track suggesting the sounds of the world heard off in the distance. We call them "projects" in North America, in Great Britain they're know as Council Flats, but they serve the same purpose. It's where the poor and the hopeless are stuffed into boxes in towers of concrete surrounded by expanses of asphalt and wasteland. With no chance of physically escaping these soul destroying and dream crushing prisons lives are wasted on drugs and meaningless violence. In just under four minutes PiL has managed to create a piece of music which brings to life the reality of those sentenced to serve life sentences in these hells for the crime of being poor. Suddenly a needle seems like a reasonable alternative.

When asked to describe the songs on this release Lydon's response was, "Well 12 songs, where do I begin? Everything and anything that attracts my attention." Each song is a reflection of what he has seen while glare through his microscope; of something that moves him strongly enough to comment on. But these aren't the obvious political songs of other people; stirring anthems with catchy choruses to rouse arena crowds aren't what PiL's about. I really doubt you'll find people singing along to their favourite tunes at the next PiL gig you go to. Instead what you're hit with are a series of images which viewed as a whole create a type of cubist picture of the current state of the world.

Picasso tried to capture all sides of an image within the confines of a two dimensional canvas. PiL's canvas stretches over the length of their CD and they use every means at their disposal to create their portrait. While all the familiar sounds of popular rock music are employed in their songs; searing guitars, synthesized sound waves, and almost everything else you can think of, contextually they never fit into the neat patterns we expect from pop music.There's nothing comfortable or safe about PiL. They won't make you feel better about yourself nor is this a disc you're going to want to play to fall asleep to. Yet, for some reason, just the thought that PiL are out there pushing boundaries, kicking conventions and doing their best to make sure people are awake gives me more hope than I've had in a fuck of a long time. Genius is never easy, art is not always pleasant, but that somebody still cares enough to be using popular music to create both is reason for celebration. Hopefully we won't have to wait another twenty years for their next creation.

(Article first published as Music Review: Public Image Ltd - This Is PiL on Blogcritics.)

May 25, 2012

Music Review: Xavier Rudd - Spirit Bird


As a reviewer or critic you're supposed to provide some sort of objective opinion on whatever it is you're writing about. You look at a group or person's work within the context of the genre they work in and ask yourself how they stack up against others like them. After a few years of doing this you get so it becomes almost rote. However the difficulty comes when you come across somebody who won't let you be objective. You start gushing all over the page about how damn amazing somebody is and nobody is going take your review seriously, it will dismissed as the ravings of some fan. Well, even music critics can be fans. I know that sounds like a stretch to some of you. It's cool to think critics hate music and only exist to run down your favourites or to say nasty things about people you like. Well I can be as nasty as the next person - ask me how I feel about the music industry in general or some of the so called celebrities/singers who somehow are referred to as artists and watch me go - but I also genuinely love music.

Normally I find a way to list the reasons I like someone's work without crossing over the line so the review becomes a fan letter. However, for some reason when it comes to Xavier Rudd all I can ever come up with is "holly shit this guy is fucking awesome". While that's a lot shorter than my reviews tend to run, and according to some that's a positive, it doesn't really tell you much about him, his music or why I think he's so great. The problem is Rudd is one of the few musical artists around these days who I react to on a purely emotional level. I've been listening to a downloaded copy of his latest release, Spirit Bird coming out on Side One Dummy records June 5 2012, for about a week now and I still haven't been able to figure out how to put into words the effect the CD has on me.

I could tell you that Rudd is an extraordinary multi-instrumentalist who plays slide guitar, regular guitar, percussion, drums and the indigenous Australian instrument the yidakis (referred to as didgeridoo by Europeans). Not only does he play all these instruments, but when he appears in concert he is set up so he can be playing as many as possible as once. Pictures of him on stage show him siting in the centre of of a construct literally bristling with instruments - a row of yidakis in the front, top hat snares off to each side, stomp box and bass drum pedals at his feet and assorted percussion scattered around within easy reach. Then he begins to sing.
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His vocal range is equally impressive as he ranges from a forceful alto right up to almost falsetto on occasion. Yet, unlike others, when he forges up into the higher altitudes of his scale the quality of his vocal expression doesn't change. In fact it seems to have the opposite effect. Most people have enough difficulty obtaining the high notes they are satisfied merely with reaching them and usually end up sacrificing expression in the attempt. With Rudd the higher he goes the more he seems to be opening himself up emotionally and spiritually for his audience. It's like his connection to the heart and soul of what he is singing intensifies with the further up the scale he goes. In some cases when people reach into the higher ranges it starts to become uncomfortable to the ear and the sound makes you wince. Somehow Rudd seems to bypass the ear and heads directly to your heart the further up the scale he climbs.

In the past there has been a decided reggae influence to Rudd's music and traces of that can still be heard on Spirit Bird. However, over the course of his career as he's evolved from being the accompaniment for surfers and late night beach parties (Not only were some of his songs featured in the movie Surfer Dude he wrote parts of the movie's score) with an environmental conscience to singing about having a spiritual bond with the planet and the compassion required to create it. While every song on Spirit Bird is related to this subject in some manner or another, not once does it feel like he's preaching to his listeners or even telling them this is how they should live. Instead he give us his vision of the potential for a better world.

From songs like the almost completely instrumental "Lioness Eye" which opens the disc and captures something of the beauty and power of nature in its wild abandonment to the haunting simplicity of the disc's first single, "Follow The Sun", and its description of the life cycle, he does his best to show us the beauty and wonder that surrounds us every day. The closest he comes to being political is the brief mention he makes of Captain Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd, the environmental protection group who exposes illegal whaling and other maritime piracy being carried out in the name of cosmetics and fake natural health care products, in the song "Creating A Dream" which closes the disc.

In some ways this song lies at the heart of the whole album. It's simple chorus of "Please, patience please, patience please, I'm creating a dream, Please, patience please, patience please I'm creating a dream", follows lists of things he asks us to imagine ("Imagine industry just had to obey') that would make the world a better place. The lists don't just deal with issues either, he also includes "Imagine the heart could just shed its skin" and other lyrics which talk about the human condition and freeing ourselves from the need for confrontation and over thinking everything. Simply reading quotes from the song you might be tempted to dismiss it as over simplified utopian idealism, but you have to hear his voice to fully appreciate it.
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He knows he's wishing for the impossible, that these things can't be accomplished just by wishing, which is why he asks for our patience. He's taking a moment to dream about a better world and expressing the vision that sustains him in the face of the overwhelming opposition, and in some ways even worse, the apathy, that most feel towards and about change. If you don't have a dream than you have nothing to shoot for, and if you're going to dream you might as well dream huge.

The press release sent out for Spirit Bird talks about its hard hitting environmental message. I think that misrepresents the nature of the recording. It makes it sound like its a collection of uncompromising politically motivated tunes when nothing could be further from the truth. This is merely a guy using every tool at his disposal to pour out his hopes and visions for a better world. His songs aren't ringing denunciations of anybody's lifestyle or of corporate greed destroying the earth. He's not preaching to the converted to make them feel good about themselves or trying to make anybody feel guilty because they drive a car. Instead, without any false sentimentality or whinging, he opens his heart to listeners to let them hear and see his vision of the potential we all share for creating a different world.

So, there you go, I tried. But that's the best I can do and I don't know if I was able to capture what it is about Rudd's music and songs that work such magic on me. My wife says he's one of the few artists today who has the ability to crack her wide open, to break through the shell we all wear to protect us against having too much hope or from having our dreams crushed one too many times. It's not like he waves a magic wand or anything. He sings with compassion and love and it shines through in every song no matter what's its about or whether he's playing electric guitar and rocking out or creating instrumental magic with his yidakis. Listen to his music and find out for yourself. You might end up thinking I'm full of shit, or hopefully, you'll come away with the same feeling of contentment at finding somebody out there able to articulate those dreams for a better world you'd forgotten and had buried away in the deepest recesses of your soul.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Xavier Rudd - Spirit Bird)

May 23, 2012

Television Review: The Goat Rodeo Sessions Live


String quartets come in many shapes and sizes but you can normally predict what they're going to perform. Beethoven, Mozart perhaps even some Bach or other composer from the recognized classical canon. While there have been exceptions to this rule in the past, the most obvious being the Kronos Quartet doing their rendition of Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze", even they have worked from carefully scored and arranged material. The idea of a string quartet coming together to create their own works is almost unheard of; for those creations to be the result of improvisation unthinkable. The idea is so improbable that it would require those involved to be uniquely talented and blessed with the immense good fortune of having hundreds of seemingly disparate ideas come together in the face of almost impossible odds.

Those of you who have listened to the CD The Goat Rodeo Sessions featuring Yo-Yo Ma on cello, Stuart Duncan on violin/banjo/mandolin, Edgar Meyer on bass and piano and Chris Thile on mandolin, guitar and violin will have already experienced the stars lining up in just the right manner to allow the improbable to occur. However it's one thing to do this in the safety of the recording studio where mistakes can be corrected though over dubs and the opportunity to do second and third takes, but it's another altogether performing the same music live. So pushing the envelope a little further they are taking their show live and thanks to the great folk at Public Broadcasting System (PBS) you'll be able to see them on Friday May 25 at 9:00pm (check local listings) in an hour long special The Goat Rodeo Sessions Live.

I don't think it will be spoiling anything for anyone by telling you watching them perform the music they created in the studio live makes you even more aware of their incredible accomplishment. Listening to the CD was awesome enough, but it's only seeing them perform most of these same pieces on stage that the enormity of their achievement is brought home. For now you see first hand not only the complexity of each person's part, but how incredibly difficult it must have been both creating and bringing them together to a make single entity. With Thile serving as de facto band leader/concert master/host the four opened the show with the piece I think epitomizes their efforts "Attaboy".
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This piece reflects the musical background of each performer and simultaneously shows the listeners both the difficulties they faced creating the music on the disc and the means they used to overcome those difficulties. Listening to it on CD one could hear how their diverse approaches to music blended to form something which was literally greater than the sum of its parts. However, watching them perform you are able to witness how they managed to accomplish this. The first thing you notice is the high level of communication going on silently in front of you. From the moment Thile counts them in to start the piece and sets the tempo on his mandolin there's never a moment when they aren't either listening or looking at each other for cues and, perhaps, encouragement. A nod here, eye contact there, and the tempo changes or somebody starts a solo or a solo ends and the rest join in. It's as fascinating an example of watching co-operative music in the making as you'll ever see.

As on the recording the four musicians are joined on stage occasionally by vocalist Aoife O'Donovan. She and Thile serve up beautiful vocal harmonies with lyrics specifically created for the recording sessions. On stage, as on CD, their voices add another layer of texture to the sound being created by the four instruments. In some ways they are like a calm in the middle of a storm as they seem to allow everyone from the audience to the performers a pause in which to breath between the thunder and lighting of the instrumental pieces. For there is an intensity to what the quartet are creating and performing on stage that listening uninterrupted might have been too overwhelming. Those couple of moments of calming influence allow us to appreciate the instrumental sections all the more.

Aside from the excitement of being able to see these four men in action, there are two other great reasons for watching them on television this week. First is seeing them react to playing in front of an audience. There's always an exchange of energy between performer and audience in a live situation that changes the dynamic of the music is some manner or other. When the audience began to clap the tempo - and when was the last time you saw that happen during a concert by a string quartet? - you could see the band react in delighted surprise. I don't think they had expected or anticipated audience participation and it appeared to push them to even greater levels of exertion, if possible. Each piece from then on seemed to soar a little higher and strive to reach a little further.
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The second, and just as important reason for watching, is to see the expressions on their faces while they are performing. Normally watching a string quartet in action is an exercise is studied formality. Everyone seems to be playing as if there lives depended on them looking intensely serious. Brows are furrowed and faces locked in intense stares of concentration. Well I don't think I saw one furrowed brow, let alone a serious face, on stage during the entire hour of this quartet's performance. From Thile's almost impish grin as he bends over his mandolin (Is it just me or does he reming anyone else of a young Jude Law?), the sly smiles on Duncan and Meyer's faces to Ma's spontaneous grins of delight as he listens and plays, there's not a straight face among them. These guys are so absolutely delighted to be where they are at that specific moment in time you can't help but feel privileged to be part of this performance even as an audience member.

Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile created something special when they recorded the Goat Rodeo Sessions. Now they are bringing that something special to life on PBS stations around America on Friday May 25 2012 at 9:00 pm. If you aren't able to see it that night, or your local PBS station ends up not carrying it, don't despair, its being released on DVD as of May 29 2012. Whichever way you end up watching, believe me, this is an experience no music lover will want to miss.

(Article first published as TV Review: The Goat Rodeo Sessions Live on Blogcritics)

May 16, 2012

Music Review: Kiya Heartwood - Bold Swimmer


I don't know about anyone else but I've always resented people telling me I should listen to, or even worse like, a certain performer because of who they are or what they sing about. Just because somebody agrees with me politically has no bearing on their abilities as a musician or the quality of the songs they write. Some of the worst tripe I've ever heard being passed off as music has issued from some of these so-called important singer-songwriters. Giving someone a good review just because of their politics, gender or skin colour is as biased and unethical as giving them a bad review for the same reason.

I might take things like the conditions under which a recording was made into account when reviewing a disc, but making what a person is more important than what they can do is not somewhere I'm ever going to go. In the 1980s and 1990s I knew people who would tell me it was my duty to like certain, more often than not women, performers because it was a way of showing solidarity with the people you supported politically. There were a couple of them who I actually liked, Ferron and Holly Near are still names I remember fondly (That doesn't mean either of these women are dead or stopped performing, just means I've not heard anything they've done recently). The rest of them were all so busy competing for the "more earnest than thou" prize they forgot that music should be an expression of the soul first and foremost and everything else is secondary. Your content can be as politically progressive as Che, but if you don't sound like you're putting your heart into it, who cares.

Six years ago I reviewed a disc by the folk duo Wishing Chair and was impressed by both their musical abilities and songwriting skills. So when somebody contacted me and asked if I'd be interested in reviewing a solo recording by one of the two women in the group I said yes. It turns out Kiya Heartwood is just as good a solo performer as she is when working as a duo. Her new release, Bold Swimmer, is a great collection of material that ranges stylistically from rocking blues to what I'd call country, but most would probably call folk.
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In spite of the success of people like Bonnie Raitt there's still a lot of macho bullshit attached to the playing of electric blues and rock and roll. I'd long ago become sick and tired of guitar players obviously in serious need of therapy regarding issues of inadequacy, and never bought into the "chicks are only good for two types of banging - tambourines and me" that still seems to predominate rock and roll. Unfortunately that attitude is so ingrained that even today the majority of woman performers in the mainstream of music aren't going to be laying down hot guitar leads while fronting a band. All of which means releases like this one aren't going to get the attention they deserve. If it were only the consumers who were losing out I'd just say your loss suckers, but unfortunately it also means Heartwood, and probably countless other women performers, aren't receiving the attention they deserve.

One of the first things you'll notice about this disc that distinguishes it from most other recordings of this kind is there aren't any songs about a lover treating the singer badly on it. I don't know what it is about blues based rock that people think they have to write about being cheated on all the time. If I never hear another he/she broke my heart tune it will be too soon. Can it be so hard for people to think of anything else to sing about? There's eleven tracks on Bold Swimmer and not one of them qualifies as a he/she done me wrong song. Even the love song on this disc, "I Love You" is just a nice and simple tune speaking directly to the subject of why the singer loves her partner without undue sentimentality or any of the histrionics one normally associates with love songs by both male and female singers.

I don't know if "Cross The Line" is quite what others would call a love song, as its a raunchy blues number singing the praises of going that one step further than PG relationships normally go, but it and the song right after it,"Take Me", are the only other songs on the disc that come close to qualifying. The other thing separating these two tracks from the type of love song you normally hear from women singers is there's not a single note of pleading with some guy for acceptance. No promises to love somebody faults and all, or any, of the other conciliatory statements women are expected to make in order to obtain true love in popular culture.
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While these tracks are good, and in fact there's not really a weak number on the disc, two tracks that really stood out were "Change (is gonna come)" and "Lights Of Austin". In the case of the former the lyrics were the primary attraction while in the latter it was the overall sound that captured my attention. Too many political songs are nothing more than self-righteous rants by people feeling guilty for making a killing in record sales and box office receipts. It's rare to hear someone take the time and effort to analyze their own reactions to events in the world.

In "Change" Heartwood sings about how anger and frustration aren't the answer and are self defeating if we want change. Sure there are lots of reasons to be angry, and she lists quite a few of them, but in the long run we only hurt ourselves and those who need our help with anger. Real change can only be accomplished with hope for something better. This doesn't mean we should just sit back and hope things get better, but we need to find a way to effect change without anger being our motivating force. It's a powerful message that needs to be heard more often, one that offers an antidote to the rhetoric of hate you usually hear from political types of all stripes in this day and age.

"Lights Of Austin" shows Heartwood is more than just your typical folk rock performer. Musically it might fall into that catch all category of "Americana" or "roots", but those labels don't seem to do justice to the song's emotional depth. With it's simple acoustic guitar introduction gradually being embellished by the other instruments, she sings about the importance of following your dreams, whatever they maybe, as far as possible. It's a topic that's ripe for being turned into sentimental tripe, but Heartwood avoids any of the musical and lyrical cliches that you'd normally find in this type of material. There are no swelling strings or crescendoes of any sort, just a good simple song about living a life which generates stories that can be told long into the future.

Heartwood's singing voice is ideally suited for the type of material she's chosen to create. Its roughness suits both the bolder rock and roll/blues numbers and the slower country/folk tunes. With the former there's the power needed to sound convincing without having to strain and sound like she's working too hard while with the latter it gives the material the extra little edge of authenticity required to make them credible. Combine this with her abilities as a songwriter and composer you have an album of music that is more than a just a cut above what you'd normally hear these days from a solo female performer. You have something that's good no matter who wrote or performed it.

Don't listen to this disc because its something you feel like you should do, like pretending you enjoy eating something because its good for you, listen to it because its a damn good album. Pleasures don't always have to make you feel guilty, and just because something's good for you doesn't necessarily mean it tastes bad. Kiya Heartwood's latest recording is proof positive that you can be nourished by music and enjoy it too.

(Article first published as Music Review: Kiya Heartwood - Bold Swimmer on Blogcritics.)

May 6, 2012

Music DVD Review: Carlos Santana -Santana's Greatest Hits Live At Montreus 2011


The first time I saw Carlos Santana was in 1976 when I saw the movie Woodstock - Three Days Of Peace And Music playing at a run down down cinema in Toronto which specialized in second run movies. There were about twenty or thirty people scattered throughout the audience and the air was redolent with a variety of marijuana smells. There was a particular brand of home grown making the rounds in Toronto in those days that smelled like muddy peanut butter and its distinctive scent is indelibly inscribed in my memory as being associated with Santana.

It might also be what's responsible for why I can't help but think of his music as dream like and trance inducing. Even in the straightest of atmosphere's the mixture of rhythms and melody that Santana and his band laid down for that concert were conducive to letting your thoughts wander. In the years since then I've seen and listened to various bits and pieces of his music, but somehow or other I've never had the opportunity to either see or attend an entire concert, and have always felt I've missed out on an experience. Well, thanks to Eagle Rock Entertainment we now have the opportunity to take in what appears to me to be the ultimate Santana concert. On February 21 2012 they released Greatest Hits Santana: Live At Montreux 2011 a two disc DVD set of Santana and the current incarnation of his band playing material that spans the nearly fifty years of his career.

Checking in at just over 200 minutes in running time, including interviews with Santana and his wife Cindy Blackman Santana and a behind the scenes glimpse at the concert, the two disc set really brings home how enduring both he and his music have been. Unlike most of his surviving contemporaries from the 1960s Santana spent long periods of time flying under most people's radars. Occasionally a song like "Black Magic Woman" or "Evil Ways" would make it onto the radio but then he'd seemingly vanish again. It wasn't until the last decade, with the rise in awareness of so called world music, that his brand of Latin tinged rock and roll really began to be appreciated by the more mainstream elements of the industry. So songs like "Maria Maria" and "Back In Black" became hits and propelled him to accolades he hadn't received earlier.
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Santana is a throwback to an earlier era in that he's a band leader who doesn't necessarily take centre stage. He very rarely takes on the role of lead vocalist, in this case the majority of vocals are supplied by Tony Lindsay and Andy Vargas, and is quite willing to share the spotlight with other members of his band. Yet on this night one was always aware of his presence on stage. Even when the cameras were focused on other members of the band it was impossible to forget him. The music and the man are so inseparable you don't even have to see him to know he is responsible for everything occurring. I was reminded of band leaders like Tito Puente and others who were able to put their stamp on the music no matter what role they played in a particular song.

Call it force of personality or what you will, but it takes a special type of artist to be able to surrender their own egos to the greater good of the music. Periodically Santana would step up to a microphone to speak directly to the audience. Normally the platitudes one hears rock and roll stars utter about loving their audience are to be taken with more than a few grains of salt. Yet with Santana you never doubted for a second that he meant every word he said about how the music he and his band were playing was aimed at spreading love and light to the world. He wasn't making these announcements to milk the audience for applause, you could almost feel their discomfort through the screen at his sincerity as if they weren't used to such public expressions of emotion, he was merely putting his motivation for creating music into words.
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Maybe it's this lack of ego or the sincerity of his convictions that always sees Santana surrounded by excellent musicians. I don't know how long the current incarnation of his band has been with him but from the rhythm section of bassist Benny Rietveld, drummer Dennis Chambers and percussionists Raul Rekow and Karl Perazzo on out to guitarist Tommy Anthony, keyboardist David K Mathews and Bill Oritz on Trumpet and Jeff Cressman on Trombone they were amazing. They were the ideal mixture of tight and relaxed so while there wasn't a note out of place there was fluidity that allowed them to make every song come alive.

It's not as if the band is only playing one kind of music either. They're called upon to play everything from the complex jazz of John Coltrane, "A Love Supreme", to classic rock and roll with Cream's "Sunshine Of Your Love". Each song they played was handled with the same verve and aplomb, revealing hidden depths to songs you thought you knew so well. Of course they were taking their lead from a master, who continues to show why he's considered one of popular music's great guitar players. Santana may not be as flamboyant as others but his playing has emotional depth others can only dream of. Each note he wrings from the neck of his guitar sounds like its been drawn forth from the bottom of his heart. Not a single note is simply tossed off in a flurry of noise, instead they all have meaning. You have the feeling watching him play that he is able to choose just the right note for that instant - if it was some other stage on some other night he might have played something else, but right here, right now, the notes he is playing are the only ones that could have worked to sum up what was happening in that moment in time.

If you're a fan of Santana, or if you've just been a casual observer of his career for a while, Greatest Hits Santana: Live At Montreux 2011 is something to be treasured. As is the case with all the concerts I've seen filmed at the Montreux Festival the sound and visuals are immaculate. The 5.1 surround sound of the DVD lets you feel like your in the middle of the concert and the camera work brings you right on stage with the band. Combined with the interviews included in the special features these discs give you Carlo Santana as you've never experienced him before. If I closed my eyes I could ever catch the faint whiff of muddy peanut butter in the air. What more could you ask for.
(Article first published as Music DVD Review: Carlos Santana - Santana: Greatest Hits - Live At Montreux 2011 on Blogcritics)

May 2, 2012

Music Review: A Tribe Called Red - A Tribe Called Red


I've been going to Pow Wow's on and off since 1995 when I was a volunteer with the local First Nation's Friendship Centre where I live. For me the best thing about a Pow Wow is how no matter where you are on the grounds you can always hear the big drum. From the moment Grand Entry begins (the ceremonial entrance of the dancers into the arena) to the closing ceremonies the drum is almost always playing. Even when its so faint that you can barely hear it, the sound throbs up through the ground and into the soles of your feet. That's when you really understood why its referred to as the heartbeat drum. Perhaps even more distinctive than the drum, and even more alien to those not used to it, is the sound of the singers gathered around the drum. In contrast to the deep pounding of the drum they, men and women, sing in a high falsetto. Guaranteed to cut through any surrounding din the singers can be heard just as clearly as the drum. Those who have never heard experienced the combination will probably have a hard time believing how spine chilling it can be.

What might come as an even bigger surprise to some, especially me, is how well the form lends itself to modernization. Now I've got to be honest, I'm not the biggest fan of most hop hop, rap or dance music. It's fallen so far from what it once was in the hands of community and political activists like Grandmaster Flash and Gil Scott Herron. So I've been leery about the First Nations hip-hop groups who have been springing up across Canada. That's until I heard A Tribe Called Red's new release A Tribe Called Red, which they've made available as a free download. A Tribe Called Red are three Ottawa area First Nations DJs: DJ NDN, DJ Bear Witness and DJ Shub. They have been putting on what they call Electric Pow Wows on a monthly basis dedicated to showcasing Aboriginal DJ talent and contemporary urban Native culture.
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So what is contemporary urban Native culture? Well judging by the twelve tracks on the collective's first CD it owes as much a debt to inner city youth culture, Jamaican dance halls and modern electronics as it does to their various nation's traditions. What distinguishes A Tribe Called Red from other DJ collectives, what makes them uniquely First Nations, is what they incorporate into their creations. While its true some DJs, especially those who specialize in Trance, have begun turning to sources other than popular music for the samples they build their tunes around, the majority of A Tribe Called Red's track's are built around various Drums. (Drum, in this case, refers to both the physical drum and the people who make up the group of drummers and singers associated with the instrument. For example, The Whitefish Bay Singers of Ontario Canada are also called The Whitefish Bay Drum)

The opening track, "Electric Pow Wow Drum", starts off with familiar "heartbeat" of the big drum. After a few bars its joined by both an electronic pulse playing counter point and the sound of the jingles on dancer's costumes keeping time with the big drum as they move around the arena. (Traditionally a jingle bell dancer's regalia was covered with deer toes, but today the jingles are just as likely to be anything from the rolled up lids of tins of chewing tobacco to manufactured tin cones) Then the singing starts. Normally the sound of the massed falsetto voices over top the drum is enough to send shivers up your spine. In this case the voices are fed through a synthesizer or processor of some kind that gives the voices an overlay of heavy fuzz which heightens the effect even more. Cutting back and forth between the electronic pulse and the distorted singers, the song builds in intensity until the first break. (There are two very distinct rhythms played on a drum during a song, the heartbeat sound which propels the dancers around the arena and the break which, depending on the dance, requires the dancers to either dance in place or freeze) After the first break in this case the singing intensifies and an electronic melody based on the rhythms of the song laid over top serves as both a counter point and to add another layer of texture to the material

Any doubts I may have had about A Tribe Called Red were erased after I listened to this first track. Instead of merely being content with sampling the original music and ignoring the traditions behind it, they've managed to merge it with the technology they use as DJs and respect its original intent. Its exactly what the title suggests it is, an "Electric Pow Wow Drum". Not only does the song capture the power of the Drum, but it enhances it. There's no attempting to make the music more accessible by watering it down or giving it a catchy dance tune. Instead it feels like they've grafted the realities of urban living onto their traditions to make them relevant to the world they live in.

Eight of the remaining eleven tracks on the disc combine traditional Pow Wow music and modern DJ technology. In each case the guys have managed to find the same delicate balance that made the first track so effective. There's nothing haphazard or sloppy about any of their choices, including the fact that they have found a wide variety of Pow Wow music to use in their material. Because A Tribe Called Red allows the original material to come through in the mix you not only get to hear the music updated, you also hear how different one Drum can sound from another.
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The last song on the disc, "General Generations", is slightly different as its taken from an old wax cylinder recording of a singer who might have been DJ Shub's great grand father. The sound of the scratchy solo voice taken from early primitive recording equipment singing a song that might be hundreds if not thousands of years old remixed with modern electronics sums up the entire disc for me. Its about keeping cultural traditions alive without allowing them to stagnate and making them relative to changing circumstances.

Also deserving of special mention is the song "Woodcarver". Written in commemoration of the Native American woodcarver John T Williams who was "unjustifiably shot" by a Seattle Police officer in 2010. Using samples of news recordings, and statements made by witnesses, family and members of the Seattle Native American community the song both honours the memory of the man and presents the facts of the case with a minimum of editorializing. Unlike the other pieces on the disc "Woodcarver" isn't something you'd expect to hear on the dance floor. What it is though is a good example a found sound installation and the way modern sound technology can be used as a means of expression.

A Tribe Called Red is not only a collection of great music, its an example of how the modern and the traditional can come together to the benefit of both. Intelligent and inspired the songs on this disc represent both a cross section of traditional Pow Wow music and the variety of sounds and techniques available to the modern DJ. In the past I've been dismissive of DJ created songs because most of what I'd heard up to now has pretty much sounded the same. The three DJs who make up A Tribe Called Red prove that doesn't have to be the case. You can download a free copy of A Tribe Called Red by following this link

Article first published as Music Review: A Tribe Called Red - A Tribe Called Red on Blogcritics)

April 30, 2012

Music Review: Bobby Dirninger - The Book

When we think of France and music we don't usually think of rock and roll or blues. Singers like Edith Piaf, Maurice Chevalier and Jacque Brel (yes I know he's Belgian) accompanied by accordions and violins are what usually spring to mind. However when you consider the fact that African American jazz and blues musicians have been traveling to Paris France to ply their trade since as far back as the 1920s it really should come as no surprise those genres are just as popular as any other type of music. In fact the blues, especially, is probably more popular in France and other parts of Europe than in its home country of America. Many North American blues musicians seeing their careers drying up on this side of the Atlantic have relocated to Europe, or at least do the bulk of their performing and recording over there.

So it was only a matter of time before France started producing its own body of blues based musicians. The most recent one I've come across is Bobby Dirninger who has just self-released his solo album The Book. I first ran across Dirninger when I reviewed Zora Young's French Connection CD a couple of years ago as he'd been her keyboard player and band leader for some time. In fact he had assembled the musicians for the that albums recording sessions. So it's fair to say Dirninger knows his blues music.
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However, being a band leader and keyboard player for someone else is one thing, fronting your own band and recording your own music is something else altogether. A band leader might have plenty of responsibilities but he or she isn't the one up in the spotlight "selling" the material. It takes a special kind of person to take centre stage. Aside from the givens of musical talent and the ability to sing, to front a band requires the indefinable quality of presence - that certain something that makes a person stand out from the rest of the band even when they aren't doing anything. Presence doesn't require a person to be flamboyant or even necessarily an extrovert, in fact the best ones only have to stand on stage for your eye to be immediately drawn to them. Bruce Springsteen usually dresses in jeans and a work shirt, but when he steps on stage an audience can't help but look at him because he just seems to radiate energy.

The first thing you'll notice about Dirninger is how relaxed he is. There's an almost effortless grace to his singing style that's far more reminiscent of French popular singers like Brel than what were used to in blues and rock singers. Maybe because its not a style we're accustomed to hearing when listening to this type of music it takes a bit of getting used to, however he is able to capture our attention and hold it from the opening song of the disc to the final track. For although at times he appears almost laconic he's so laid back, you can't help but feel like he's a coiled spring waiting to explode.

Every so often he leans into a song and gives us an example of what lies behind that calm exterior and then as effortlessly as exerted energy he slides back into his easy groove. Unlike those who feel they have to be performing at a fever pitch all the time to gain our attention, Dirninger understands the importance of modulation. The first song on the disc, "Like That Music" is a great example. The song starts off with a mid-tempo funky beat and his vocals are a gentle accompaniment, subdued to the point he's almost talking. Then as the music builds in intensity so does his voice, until the chorus when he reaches the peak of his urgency and demands you listen to him.
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One of the things I appreciated most about this disc, and Dirninger, is he doesn't equate intensity of emotion with speed and volume. Too often in blues based music singers and musician will think they have to either make our ears or their fingers bleed to let us know they are feeling some great emotion. Just listen to Dirninger's song "Late At Night" for an object lesson on how the combination of great arrangements and singing can achieve the same goal in far more convincing manner without damaging anyone. Not since Warren Zevon have I heard a musician able to sing a slow song that sounds just as intense as any rock roll barn burner with screamed lyrics. There's a rawness to Dirninger's vocals that speaks of emotional intensity while the guitar and keyboard leads accent the lyrics without drowning them out or overselling the emotion. It's the perfect balance between music and voice that in my mind separates the exceptional song from the ordinary run of the mill number.

Of course Dirninger also knows the key element of good rock and roll. It should be fun to listen to. "Love Is A Feeling" and "You'll Be On Fire" are not only great pieces of music but they are fun to listen to as well. If it can't pull you to your feet and get you up dancing once in a while, what's the point of rock and roll? On these two songs specifically, and sporadically throughout the album, Dirninger and his band show they understand that music shouldn't be just for listening to, it should also make you want to move. What makes both these songs even better is the fact they aren't obviously dance songs. It's not like they've said well we should include a couple of uptempo numbers cause people like to dance, the songs just happen to be ones you can dance to,

In fact that's the truly remarkable thing about this disc. No matter what style of music a song is, blues, rock, funk, R&B or soul, it's all effortless. The band moves easily between styles whether within a number or from track to track and nothing ever feels forced or unnatural. I don't know if any of them have played for North American musicians before, but they could match up with any blues based band I've heard anywhere and are a damn site more interesting than most I hear in North America.

Music needs to be constantly evolving to ensure it doesn't stagnate. In order to evolve it needs to be exposed to different environments and receive transfusions of new blood periodically. The Book shows just how important this is as Bobby Dirninger and his band take blues based music down some familiar paths but also branch off in totally new directions making it one of the more interesting new albums of its kind to come out in a while.
(Article first published as Music Review: Bobby Dirninger - The Book on Blogcritics.)

April 25, 2012

Music Review: Caravan Of Thieves - The Funhouse


With the advent of computers and the accompanying ability to exchange ideas and material over long distances almost instantaneously, popular musicians in North America have had the opportunity to experience a far greater selection of musical influences then prior generations. While the music industry's inherent conservatism has ensured the mainstream hasn't been overly affected, there has been a definite increase in the number of independent musicians looking further afield than their own backyard for inspiration. The best of these groups don't just copy what they hear but find a way to meld their new influences with the music they grew up with to create something unique.

With their latest release, The Funhouse on the United For Opportunity label, Caravan Of Thieves gives listeners a great example of this trend in action. First of all there's the band's complement of players. Instead of the standard mixture of bass, guitars, keyboards and drums Caravan Of Thieves are composed of a core of violin, acoustic bass and acoustic guitar. On this album they've broadened their sound to include, quoting from the notes on their web site, the kitchen sink and then some. Banjos, ukuleles, resonator guitars and various things that can be banged percussively are the main ingredients in the stew of instruments used, but there are also many unrecognizable and unattributable sounds and noises to be heard throughout the disc. Without a hard copy of the CD attributing each and every squeak and squawk it's impossible to identify all of them, but to be honest the mystery does add to the albums cachet.

As you can tell by the title of the disc they've built the disc around the central theme of a travelling carnival complete with Funhouse, fortune tellers, rigged games and mysterious dark corners where unexplainable things happen. While the Funhouse of the title and the carnival atmosphere created by the music can be taken literally, they also exist on another level as well. For the world you are ushered into with the opening track, "The Funhouse Entrance", bears many similarities to what's around us everyday save the perspective has been slightly skewed, as if you're looking at it through one of those funhouse mirrors which distorts reality. However instead of taking reality and twisting it out of shape beyond the point of recognition, they merely change the lens we view events through. The result is a chance to see things from a perspective we don't normally have the opportunity to experience.
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Check out "Monster", their fun and tongue in cheek take on love songs dealing with the way love can effect somebody. "On the slab down in the basement/in the laboratory/there's a new subject under the covers/I recall the days before the transformation/before the amputation of my heart....Love made a monster out of me!" Using the whole Frankenstein story as an analogy to describe an obsessive lover is brilliant. Not only does it poke fun at all the broken hearts to be found in most pop music love songs, it's great to hear anybody singing about so-called romantic love in less than glowing terms and in such a macabre manner. Sort of like receiving a Valentine with black borders accompanied by a dozen dead black roses.

Of course just to let you know the difference between the world of the Funhouse and the real world they leave you with a warning to close out the disc. "The Funhouse Exit" makes sure you're prepared and know where the real monsters lurk. "Don't put your feet on the outside dear/There are monsters and goblins and politicians everywhere/...overcrowded schools with education overseen by ghouls/". The list of dangers lurking around corners in the real world goes on to include "doctor's with hatchets" and "Bankers and other vultures" all out to take pieces out of you when and however they can. A real horror story if I've ever heard one!

Musically Caravan Of Thieves has cast a wide net when it comes to their sources of inspiration. One would think because of the composition of the band they would have taken the easy way out of leaning heavily on Romany influences. While there is no doubt they do owe a debt to the Eastern European branch of that musical tradition, you can't help but notice they owe just as much to the music halls and cabarets of pre WWll Europe. In fact quite a number of their pieces on this recording put me in mind of Kurt Weill and the music he wrote for Bertol Brecht's plays in pre Nazi Germany. Slightly wilder and with perhaps less of a polka influence than Weill's compositions, but the same brash and brassy attitude which challenged audiences and forced them to pay attention to what was being said and done on stage.
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However, they don't deny their own musical heritage either. For underneath a great deal of the wild and wooly playing the music almost constantly swings along to a beat reminiscent of 1920s and 1930s jazz. On this disc you can hear influences from the Dixieland stylings of New Orleans to the dance bands of Harlem from those eras. What's really quite amazing though is while this sounds like an incredible hodgepodge of styles and traditions to cram within one recording, an almost sure recipe for chaos, the result is a delight to listen to. Caravan Of Thieves has managed to blend everything together to make a vibrant and exciting sound with twice the energy and intensity of any rock and roll band.

Musically inventive, lyrics full of sly humour and gentle cynicism and all served up on a platter garnished to reflect the dark mysteries of a travelling carnival make this one of the more entertaining listens I've had in a while. It's not often you find a band whose sense of humour and intelligence are matched by both their musical talents and an ability to put spurs to their listener's imaginations. You not only listen to their lyrics and appreciate their music, but you find yourself visualizing the atmosphere they create. When you put this record on be prepared, you sure won't be in Kansas anymore.

(band photo by Michael Wientrob)
(Article first published as Music Review: Caravan Of Thieves - The Funhouse on Blogcritics.)

April 23, 2012

Music Review: Yva Las Vegas - I Was Born In A Place Of Sunshine And The Smell Of Mangos


Seattle is famous for being the birthplace of Starbucks, the town that produced Kurt Cobain and Nirvana and popularized grunge as a rock genre. Being famous as the home of corporate coffee might be something a lot of people would want to live down, but being able to lay claim to Cobain and Nirvana as native sons has assured Seattle its place in rock and roll history. Nothing, not even the embarrassment of Courtney Love, can diminish the fact the town gave birth to the first significant American post punk rock and roll band. However Nirvana and grunge haven't been the only musical exports the city has given to the rest of the world, just the ones they're most famous for.

Born in Venezuela in 1963, now Brooklyn based, Yva Las Vegass spent years in Seattle's music scene. While she does have a Nirvana connection, she and former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic briefly formed Sweet 75 in the mid 90s, from the sounds of it not many will have heard of her till now. While she's never stopped making and creating music, homelessness, drugs and being an unapologetic gay woman of colour have all contributed to her flying under most people's radar. While the media likes safe dykes like Ellen, and if they're feeling daring Melissa Ethbridge, Vegass would go over as well as Huey Newton at a Klan rally with most of them. She just can't be sold to middle America no matter how you cut it. According to documentary filmmaker Wiley Underdown who made The Life And Times of Yva Las Vegass: Giving Success the Middle Finger she also had the problem of being "a pretty good representation of the inherently self-destructive type", a great artist but not somebody who can function in everyday life.
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I can't speak to the state of Vegass' personal life or temperament, but judging by her most recent release on Moniker Records, I Was Born In A Place Of Sunshine And The Smell Of Ripe Mangos, March 13 2012, she not only has passion to burn, but she's as talented and uncompromising a musician as I've ever heard. Of the nine tracks on the disc only two of them have English language titles and lyrics and they're called "Crack Whore" and "Pussy In Your Eye". She's completely unapologetic for the fact the rest of the disc is in Spanish. In her press comments she says in twenty-first century America everybody should at least have conversational Spanish. While some might find that statement off putting, those who do aren't going to be exactly in her demographic anyway.

Being a Canadian I don't have any skill in Spanish, so unfortunately I can't speak to the content of the majority of the songs. However if they're anything like the two English language tracks they're going to challenge listeners' beliefs about everything from civil rights to sexual politics. What can you expect from a release where the performer introduces herself prior to the first song as a "Mother Fucker"? "Crack Whore" tackles the issue of racism head on and will hopefully leave any white hipster who listens to it feeling incredibly uncomfortable. In it Vegass asks why is it when white friends ask her to go buy crack for them she's the one who ends up being called the crack whore? They're so cool because they use drugs, but when they want any they are too scared of the "types" of people who sell them to buy the stuff themselves.
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While she delivers part of this song talking over her guitar exclaiming her bitterness at the death of the civil rights movement, when she does sing it's in surprisingly sweet, almost wistful, sounding voice considering the lyrical content. One would expect, and understand, a song about such an emotionally charged subject to contain a lot of anger. However, while Vegass does allow anger to show through periodically, her ability to modulate the emotional tone of the song is what makes it powerful. After a while the constant drone of anger becomes just so much noise to be blocked out. By changing it up, by showing the hurt and disappointment racism can cause as well as the anger, she keeps our attention. The range of emotions makes the song far more real to us and offers a glimpse of the true nature of the wounds caused by racism.

It was this type of subtlety that impressed me most about the recording. Being an experienced street performer myself I know the types of things you have to do in order to get people to pay attention to you. First of all volume is key when you're competing against traffic noise and occasionally that means sacrificing nuances in tone and touch. While there are still times when Vegass' tends to declaim instead of sing, she still displays far more versatility with her voice than most solo acts. You don't have to be able to speak the language to understand the overall emotional content of most of her songs. Some people might wear their hearts on their sleeves, she wears it on her voice and it makes for captivating listening.

Musically Vegass' guitar playing borders on belonging to what I call the "strum und drang" school. Hard strumming that sounds impressive to start with but eventually becomes monotonous. However, she has skill to burn when it comes to her guitar. She might play fast and loud but her ability to mix various Latin styles with her rather straight ahead punk approach keeps the music fresh. She also knows when to dial it back so that she gives herself room to build instead of playing at a fever pitch all the time. Sure there are a couple of songs that start pretty close to over the top but she carefully works breaks into them making sure they aren't a complete assault upon your senses.

Yva Las Vegass is never going to be the darling of the liberal collage student set because she's too real. She wears the scars from her battles with the world proudly and doesn't really care if people can't cope with them. She's not about "empowering" her audience by singing about issues and playing to their middle class guilt. She sings about life from a perspective that very few of us have had to experience and does so with honesty, integrity and passion. Perhaps she would be more successful if she was willing to compromise by singing more songs in English or singing about subjects less likely to offend people, but that's not who she is. Genuine artists are few and far between in the music industry these days and we should be grateful there's at least one or two still out there who won't back down from what they believe in. Forget "Viva Las Vegas", it should be Viva Yva Las Vegass.

April 22, 2012

Music Review: Various Artists - Jail House Bound: John Lomax's First Southern Prison Recordings 1933


The history of North America over the past hundred to two hundred years is split into two distinct stories. The history of white people and the history of people of colour, mainly African Americans. Originally white people came to these shores as conquerors and African Americans came as slaves and well into the twentieth century each had their own version of American history, While whites had the American dream which promised them if they worked hard they would be a success and create a good life for themselves and their family. It wasn't until the last quarter of the twentieth century that African Americans even began dreaming of being treated as equals under the law in America, let alone having a comfortable life.

So in the the 1930s when ex-banker turned ethnomusicologist John Lomax talked about preserving the distinct African American culture that had grown up out of segregation he wasn't being racist, he was just making an observation based on current societal conditions. He also knew there was little chance this culture would survive even the least amount of integration. If he wanted any chance of making an undiluted record of its music he'd have to go places where segregation was strictly enforced. As the prison populations were strictly segregated and the inmates were living in conditions similar to those they would have experienced as slaves, he thought prisons represented the best opportunities to record African American music in as pure a form as possible.
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Judging by the collection of recordings being released under the title Jail House Bound - John Lomax's First Southern Prison Recordings 1933 by Global Jukebox and West Virginia University Press, his assumption was correct. Using the primitive portable recording equipment available at the time Lomax went from prison to prison in the South making recordings of the songs the African American prisoners used to sing while doing forced labour. In these songs you'll hear the influences of everything from the tribal drums of their home lands, gospel, blues and the field songs slaves once used to help pass the time while picking their master's crops.

It was during these recording sessions that Lomax discovered Huddie Ledbeter, more commonly known as Leadbelly, the man who wrote folk/blues staples "Good Night Irene", "The Rock Island Line" and "I Got Stripes". While Leadbelly doesn't appear on any of these recordings, nor is any of the material as polished as his work, you hear the roots of his songs in almost every track. Which of course was the point of these recordings after all. While titles like "The Midnight Special", "John Henry" and "Grey Goose" have long since become popular, most of the material is no where near as widely known. There are some titles which might sound like they should be familiar, "Long Gone", "That's Alright Honey" and "Alabama Bound", but they sound little or nothing like the songs which bear the same or similar names today.

For while quite a number of the songs included in this collection had previously been recorded as popular tunes or went on to become popular, what you hear on this record are versions that wouldn't have been heard outside of the African American community. There are work songs where we can still hear the cadences and rhythms that were used to help coordinate the efforts of men working together. "Steel Laying Holler" used to be sung by men unloading heavy steel rails from flat cars and "Track Lining Song" was used to help in the lining or straightening out of railroad track.
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Than there are songs like "Black Betty", which some prisoners claimed referred to a whip used to punish them while others said it was the name given to the prison transfer truck, and "My Yellow Gal", a song about a mixed blood lover, whose lyrical content was specific to the people singing it. What white singer in the 1930s is going to sing about the beauty of their mixed race lover or how would anybody at that time who hasn't been in jail know who Black Betty was? Most listening to the latter wouldn't have idea it wasn't about some women who treated men badly.

Naturally the sound quality isn't going to be what most are used to, but all things considered its of a higher quality than I expected. Some of the tracks are pretty scratchy and in places there is some distortion, but I was honestly surprised at how good a job Lomax was able to do with the equipment at his disposal. It does say in the accompanying booklet he wasn't satisfied with some of his results and would occasionally make return visits to redo a recording if he thought he'd have a chance improving on the original. Obviously those who have put this compilation together have sifted through who knows how many recordings and picked the best ones possible. However, they're still on par with other field recordings I've heard that were made decades later using far more sophisticated equipment.

The thing is though, the roughness of the sound adds an air of authenticity to the recordings. It would be hard to believe they had been collected in prison farms in the 1930s if they were pristine. Anyway, the rawness of the end result seems somehow suited to the material recorded. The people singing weren't necessarily trained vocalists or even musicians. They were inmates in prisons who had more enthusiasm and passion than skill. These were the songs they sang working on the chain gangs, picking crops and in the prison chapels for each other's and their own comfort. Hearing them flaws and all makes both their music and their situation come alive. You really have the sense of being transported back in time and given the chance to observe a unique moment in history.
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In an interview recorded with John Lomax that's included in this collection he talks about his intent behind making these recordings. While it's hard not to be put off by his use of vernacular common to that era for referring to the subjects of his recordings the very fact he went to the time and effort to make them is what you need to remember. Most white people at that time wouldn't have considered anything African Americans, especially those in jail, produced worthy of their notice, let alone worth recording for posterity. In his own way Lomax was also recognizing how America was divided along racial lines and how that resulted in a distinct culture for each race.

These recordings are fascinating listening because not only is the music great to listen to but because they give us a glimpse into another era. The idea that African Americans might have had their own distinct culture in the 1930s would not have been something most of white America would have been willing to recognize. The music on these discs not only shows how strong and vital that culture was, but makes it obvious how much that culture influenced, and continues to influence, American popular culture.

(Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - Jail House Bound: John Lomax's First Southern Prison Recordings 1933 on Blogcritics)

April 19, 2012

Music Review: The Grifter's Hymnal


The first time I came across the name Ray Wylie Hubbard was on the credits of the Jerry Jeff Walker album Viva Terlingua, recorded live in Luckenbach, Texas. While the whole album is brilliant, it was Hubbard's "Redneck Mother" which had really grabbed my attention. It was the first time I'd ever heard a country song that made fun of all the bullshit that one usually associates with country music. The song is also memorable because it saved me from getting my ass kicked in a redneck bar in Western Canada in the late 1970s.

It's a long story involving me being your atypical long haired hippie teenager wandering into the wrong bar early one evening. I only realized my mistake after ordering a beer and looking around and noticing everybody else in the bar was wearing a cowboy hat and nobody's hair was lower than their collar. The long and the short of it was I ended up picking out "Redneck Mother" on the juke box and being told, "You might have long hair, but you have good taste". To this day I always figured I owed getting out of there intact to Ray Wylie Hubbard. Also to the fact that the good ole boys in the bar didn't know the song was making fun of assholes like them, rather than celebrating their bigotry as they seemed to think.

Now I hadn't heard anything of him in recent years so when I found out he had a new recording, I decided I owed it to him to give it a listen. Hubbard may be a few years older and his hair a lot whiter then it used to be, but after listening to a The Grifter's Hymnal, released March 26, 2012 on Bordello Records, I knew what was essential to his musical soul hadn't changed. He's as irreverent as he ever was when it comes to the bullshit in the world and still able to impart more feeling into songs about stuff that matters to him than folk a lot more famous than he is.
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Of course the question remains whether or not he what he plays is country music. I guess some would consider him country, but you could also describe what he does as good old fashioned chicken scratching. Southern anarchy mixed up with rock and roll and a life time of hard living. I mean, what else would you call a Texan with the balls to sing that Jimmy Perkins was a son of a bitch who stole from other musicians and belongs in the same circle of hell as the "whores from Fox News", as Hubbard does in "New Years Eve At The Gates Of Hell"?

Then there's the voice. Hubbard sounds like he's been aged in the bottom of a whisky barrel, then rubbed raw by life and finally cracked open by the things he's witnessed as he's made his way through this world. Now there's lots of singers out there with voices like sandpaper, but very few of them do more than just rasp out their lyrics hoping that passes for emotion. Hubbard is one of the exceptions in the way he can do so many different things with his voice. He plays with tone, volume and expression, ensuring he never becomes monotonous. You always know his intent with a song. He may not be able to cover much of the scale anymore, but he does more with what he has at his disposal than singers with twice his range.

The opening track of the disc, "Ask God", is probably one of the most powerful pieces of spiritual music I've heard from a pop music performer. The lyrics are simple, just three lines. "When darkness swoops down on you, ask God for some light/When some devil knocks you down ask God to pick you up/When death comes a knocking ask God to open a door". He sings variations on each line a number of times before continuing on to the next one. Half chanted/half sung over what sounds like slide dobro and a beat rapped out on a snare, you're quickly mesmerized by the power of his words and the plea in his voice. It's hard to describe the emotional power of the song, but part of is he's not pleading with his god for anything, he's pleading with his listeners to find a way to believe in something beyond themselves.

As you listen to the CD you realize its title, The Grifter's Hymnal, wasn't just chosen because it sounded cool. With a grifter being a con-man, somebody who makes his living by taking advantage of people's gullibility, and a hymnal being a collection of sacred songs and prayers, the title gives you a pretty good indication of Hubbard's opinion of the state of the world. While the implied irony of the title might lead you to think he's overly cynical, what you soon find out is that he's using it as a tongue in cheek way of describing his own life. Listening to the songs you realize that pretty much all of them can be heard as either prayers or as hymns of thanksgiving. On the surface a tune might not sound like it, but certain key lyrics tell the tale.

"I got everything I ever wanted, I done everything I wanted to do" he sings in the chorus of "Coochy Coochy", while in "Coricidin Bottle" he rattles off advice on how to ensure luck and success ("saying prayers to old black gods") what to do if you ever get scared (" Say the 23rd psalm ") and to make sure you "give thanks if you ever get to heaven". The songs range from the low down dirty blues of "Count My Blessings" to the honkey tonk country of "Henhouse" and everything in between. But no matter what its style there's a type of sly wisdom to each that keeps you on your toes. For every so often lyrics jump out and grab you by the ear, catch your heart and rattle your brain.
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"Mothers Blues" is sort of a talking blues/boogie song that sounds like it could be autobiographical. The title refers to a blues bar in Dallas Texas where people like Lightin' Hopkins played. At the opening of the song Hubbard says when he was twenty-one all he wanted was a stripper girl-friend and gold topped Les Paul. He sold his daddy's car to buy the Les Paul, the first of what he describes as "one of the many mistakes I made over the next twenty years". However, being young and stupid when he hooks up with a stripper he thinks his life is made. Well things didn't go quite as planned. She turned out to have a fondness for tequila and pawned his gold top three of four times. Eventually she ran off to Hollywood where she became a dancer on The Hudson Brothers TV show.

Yet, this ain't no cautionary tale about the evils of drink, loose women and rock and roll. It's about being grateful for the strange twists and turns the world takes. Like how he ended up marrying the girl who ran the door at Mothers Blues and they have an eighteen year old son who has inherited the gold lap top and shares the stage with his dad. "The days I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations, well I have really good days." is the last line of the song, and is one of the best prayers I've ever heard. If you can remember to do that more often then not I'll bet you're going to be a happy person, whether you're a grifter, musician, writer or redneck.

One of the songs on this disc which is most definitely a prayer for someone other than himself is "Red Badge of Courage". It's a song for every young person that's ever been shipped over seas to fight in a war. While this one is specifically set in the Gulf, lines like "To err is human, to forgive is divine/to err is human to forgive is divine/ain't either Marine core policy, neither's crying." and "What I say to these ghosts that keep coming round again/What I say to these ghosts that keep coming round again/We was just kids doing the dirty work for the failures of old men/We was just kids doing the dirty work for the failures of old men" make it universal to every war ever fought.

With A Grifter's Hymnal Ray Wylie Hubbard has written a collection of songs that might not find its way into most churches but sure works as a prayer book for modern times. He makes it clear that what you do with your life isn't as important as how you do it and the intent behind what you do. It's easy to be holier than thou and sanctimonious, but it's incredibly difficult to look at your self honestly, own up to your faults and still find reasons to be grateful for the blessings that have come into your life. Instead of being world weary and jaded by what he's seen Hubbard is thankful for the opportunities he's been given and the gifts he has. The world would be a lot better off if more people were able to live up to that ideal.

(Article first published as Music Review: Ray Wylie Hubbard - The Grifter's Hymnal on Blogcritics.)

April 17, 2012

Music Review: Eamon McGrath - Young Canadians


Being old enough to remember when David Bowie released the song "Young Americans", it was the title of Eamon McGrath's new release, Young Canadians, on White Whale Records which attracted my attention. Probably a stupid reason for wanting to hear a CD, especially as it was pretty obvious from the press release about the disc McGrath's music would have nothing in common with mid 1970s Bowie. However I've purchased or chosen to listen to something for stupider reasons and not had any regrets, and I could only hope this would be the case on this occasion.

Thankfully McGrath's work is not something anybody should regret listening to. For those wishing to have it classified or categorized for them, I'd guess most would say his work falls into the folk/punk genre. I'm not even sure what that means myself, but since he mixes acoustic and electric instruments and his songs range between the quiet introspection one expects from folk and the anarchic abandon of punk it would seem to fit. However I'd hazard a guess that he didn't sit down and say, "Hmm I think I'll create an album of folk punk music". I've the feeling that if it were musically appropriate to the content and context of a song he wouldn't hesitate at incorporating a funk groove or twelve bar blues. The sense I have from listening to this one album is he wouldn't limit himself or his material through arbitrary boundaries. The needs of a song would far outweigh the need to fit into an easily defined niche.

Maybe it was the title of the disc which triggered this thought, but after listening to the disc I couldn't help but remember something I had happened across years ago regarding the arts in Canada. The quote implied they were heavily influenced by the long winters so much of the country experiences and the stark landscapes which dominate its wild spaces. While that might sound like a tempting theory, the reality is the majority of artists in Canada live in urban centres far removed from the wild and its only in the far north the winters can last for what seems like ever. However, there is a quality to McGrath's work both musically and thematically that suggests both the raw energy and stark beauty of Canada's wilderness and the introspection associated with the long nights of winter.
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That's not to say his music is either depressing or bleak. Personally I don't find anything depressing or bleak about winter or the wild anyway, but I realize some would automatically make that association. Try and imagine a vista of evergreen forests brushed with snow climbing the side of a sun washed mountain and the awe it inspires. For while the songs on this album may not be safe and civilized like most pop music, they also have a far greater chance of having a lasting impact on you in much the same way the rough beauty of nature in winter will impress itself upon you far longer then a field of corn or other tame image. Like both winter and real unspoiled nature there's something a little intimidating about McGrath's work, but that's part of what makes al of them so compelling.

The disc's opening track, "Eternal Adolescence", starts off with a brief, piercing whistle of guitar feedback. It cuts out abruptly to be replaced by an acoustic guitar carefully picking out a tune and its soon joined by McGrath intoning the song's opening lyrics. While rock and roll songs in the past might have declared "I hope I die before I get old", McGrath looks at the trade off you make for the eternal adolescence of rock and roll. How do you fit a life into the lifestyle of constant touring and late nights? You can have "Eternal adolescence" but "the schoolyard is insane". What happens if you meet someone, the eternal adolescence wars with the desire for the companion and "rock and roll won't ever be the same". The lyrics are deceptively simple, the final minute of the song sees him simply repeating "rock and roll won't ever be the same" until the music ends. However, it's not hard to get the message of how the stereotyped rock and roll lifestyle doesn't really mix well with adulthood. The underlying conflict described in the lyrics is emphasized by the way the music switches back and forth throughout between distortion and gentle guitar. It creates the uncomfortable feeling of someone being pulled in two directions at once,
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Even more conventionally sounding rock songs like "Instrument Of My Release", track two on the disc, have their disconcerting moments. In this case lyrics like "I saw your picture in a magazine/how'd you end up with a man like me?/someday I'm going to trade my black holes for memory/an instrument of my release/an instrument of my release", aren't what you'd call typical for a song about regrets. Normally these songs are either full of self pity and recriminations designed to elicit pity for the person singing instead of those who have suffered through their behaviour. Not in this case, as you're left wondering what kind of stupidity did this guy indulge in that resulted in black holes instead of memories. Even the line "How'd you end up with a man like me?" which has all sorts of potential for self pity is delivered in such a way the listener wonders what somebody would have to do to another person in order to ask such a question.

Vocally McGrath is never going to win any awards for having dulcet tones or smooth as silk harmonies. Than again that type of voice wouldn't work with the music he's playing. Ironically there are probably any number of rock singers who would sell their souls to sound like him. Ever since Dylan popularized rough textured vocals as being a kind of voice of the people, singers have been trying way too hard to sound "authentic". Of course if you have to try sounding authentic it sorts of defeats the purpose, but nobody seems to have quite understood that yet. McGrath doesn't have the greatest range but he more than compensates for any technical deficiencies in his vocals with his intensity and the effortlessness of his delivery. Like other great vocalists he doesn't sound "emotional". Instead his voice simply gives life to his song's lyrics through his ability to communicate the meaning behind each word. Not just the dictionary definition either, but what they mean in the context of the song and to him personally.

As for the title song, "Young Canadians", well I'll leave you to decide what you think of it, but I was right in thinking it was nothing like Bowie's "Young Americans". In fact, while you really can't make a rock and roll album any more without sounding like something that's gone before, McGrath has created something that uses those familiar elements in ways that make them sound new again. He's taken all the best elements of rock and roll, country and folk and grafted his unique vision of the world onto the framework. The resulting album doesn't make for easy listening as it challenges the listener both musically and lyrically and forces them to pay close attention to each song. It won't be to everyone's taste, but if you're like me and want something more from your music than just escapist entertainment, its the album for you.

(Article first published as Music Review: Eamon McGrath - Young Canadians on Blogcritics)

April 15, 2012

Product Review: eers PCS-150 Sculpted Ear Buds


What are the two most aggravating things about the ear bud style of earphones? For me it's the fact they never seem to fit comfortably in the ear and even those with the little loops for draping don't seem to ever want to stay in place. The second thing is directly related to the first as I'm sure the lousy fit is a major cause of how poor a job they do of blocking out background noise. The idea of earphones is so you can listen to a portable music device when you're out and about. But what good are they if they're either falling out of your ear or the only way you can hear your music is if you crank the volume so high you risk deafness.

I'm amazed I made it to my fifties without any discernible hearing loss after spending so much time in clubs standing right up front next to the stacks of speakers listen to noisy punk bands. The last thing I want to be doing is blowing an eardrum while listening to my I-pod - the irony in itself would be mortifying. Ever since I started reviewing music I've been looking for a decent set of earphones. I want something I can use in a variety of circumstances ranging from walking down the street next to traffic to the middle of the night when I don't want to disturb anyone else. While there have been a couple that have been fine for when I'm stationary and in a quiet atmosphere, no matter how good their sound quality is once I'm moving around amidst the noise and bustle of the world nothing has really proved to be reliable.
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So when I first heard about the idea of earphones which could be sized to fit an individual's ear canal I was intrigued. Developed by a company, Sonomax, which has been making industrial ear plugs for workers for over a decade, each set of sculpted eers ear buds is supposedly tailored to fit the shape of your ear canal. Not only would this keep the earbud comfortably in place it would also provide a seal to drastically reduce the amount of extraneous noise leaking in. The idea sounds great, but how in the heck were they going to accomplish that? It's not like buying shoes or clothes where you can send a company your measurements so they know what size to send you.

What they've done is developed the means for you to literally create your own earbuds at home. I was sent the kit for a set of PCS-150 custom fitted sculpted eers to test. At a list price of $199.00 Canadian a pop (the company is Canadian) the price might seem rather steep. However if they can deliver on what they advertise the price isn't that out of line when compared to the cost of high end speakers for a stereo system. Remember, no matter how much money you spend on the other components it's the speakers which will determine the quality of the sound you listen too. A bad set of speakers will ruin a good system, while great speakers will make K-Mart quality components sound like an audiophiles dream. So if you have a $300.00 portable music player do you really want to listen to what they produce through a set of headphones that cost $19.95?

The first thing you'll notice is the quality of the packaging the materials come in. Everything is contained inside a durable, hard cardboard box, which when opened reveals the carefully sealed contents. The kit includes what looks to be a set of headphones but is actually the SonoFit Custom Fitting System. The system fits over your head just like a set of headphones, but instead of containing wires and speakers its guts contain a pair of inflation pumps and medical grade silicone. At the receiving end of silicone and pumps are two modular ear pieces which can fit into even the smallest of ear canals. The ear pieces look like your typical ear buds down to the loops to fit over your ear, but that's where the similarities end.
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Looking at everything was a little intimidating, especially with the notice warning you not to play with any of the buttons before beginning the customization process. However it comes with easy to follow trilingual (English, French and Spanish) and comprehensive instruction manual and a very efficient quick start guide as well. The latter contains all you need to know for creating your earbuds while the former has detailed instructions for how to care for your product and other helpful information. In an nutshell what happens is you use the head band and over the ear loops to position the ear pieces in your ear's canal. Once you have pushed them in as far as comfortable and done any fine tuning adjustments you require for comfort and fit, you activate the pumps which shoot the silicone into the pieces. The hardest part is sitting still with your head level and not talking for the five minutes required for the process to take place. When the time is up you simply snap the pieces off the frame and put the included face plates in place and, voila, you have your very own custom fitted ear buds.

Okay, I didn't go into the full details of how it works. However, the instructions are easy to follow, and if for some reason you have any problems they give you a link to a video to watch showing how its done and supply a 1-800 number to call for help as well. What's more important is whether they deliver on their promise of sound quality and ambiance? Well the apartment I live in right now is on my city's main street. Traffic at almost anytime of day or night includes 18 wheelers, Harley Davidsons, diesel passenger buses and cars equipped with sub-woofers big enough to knock over buildings. Normally if I want to listen to anything, including talking on the phone, I have to close the windows. With the windows open not only was I able to hear the music from my I-Pod with no problem, I could barely hear the sound of the passing traffic, and this was at four in the afternoon smack in the middle of rush hour.
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I was so shocked and surprised that it took me a couple of moments before I even paid attention to the quality of the sound I was listening to. Just being able to hear without having to crank the volume was pleasure enough in itself for the first little while. Once I started to pay attention to what was going on inside my ears I was even happier. I had been a little leery of the PCS-150s advertised bass enhancement as I'm not a fan of bass heavy music. However all it means in this case is they've found a way to create a full, rich and balanced sound. There's none of the tinniness I've long come to associate with ear phones and neither have they resorted to most people's answer to that problem by simply amplifying the bottom end.

One of the tracks I use for testing headphones and speakers features a band that uses a lot of hand percussion alongside the standard rock and roll set up of guitars, bass and drum kit. Not only could you make out instruments the percussionist was playing normally lost on most speakers and ear buds, but you could also hear each instrument and the vocal harmonies clearly, distinctly and proportionate to their place in the mix. It was like the audio equivalent of 3-D as the sound had a depth of field you very rarely have the privilege of being able to appreciate. You could even hear the individual notes being played on the acoustic bass and the pitter patter of the congas drums, instruments which are normally lost when played in a rock and roll band.
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To say I was impressed with the custom moulded eers PCS-150 ear buds isn't overstating it. Not only do they live up to their hype of providing a product that eliminates a high percentage of atmospheric noise common to the urban landscape which fits comfortably and securely into your ear, the quality of the sound they produce is as good as any high end speaker system if not better. While the PCS-150 comes complete with a built in microphone, for $30.00 less you can purchase the PCS-100 and get the same quality sound without the microphone. For the real audiophiles out there they also have the 200 series with even more enhancements to the sound quality for $299.00 with and $269.00 without the microphone. I doubt my ear is good enough to notice any difference, but if they are of the same quality as the 100 series, I'd bet they're worth the extra $100.00.

Currently the sculpted eers are only available at a limited number of retail outlets in the US, but you can purchase them through the company's on line store. As an added inducement they are not only covering shipping costs, but paying the duty on all cross border orders. In Canada they are currently available at The Source, a nation wide electronics chain, and through the online store. The price might seem a little steep, but for those who want to experience the same quality of sound on their portable device as they do in the comfort of their living room, they are worth every penny.

(Article first published as Product Review: eers PCS-150 Sculpted Fitted Ear Buds on Blogcritics.)

April 14, 2012

Music Review: Theresa Andersson - Street Parade


Nine out of ten internet stars whose claim to fame is making it big on You Tube, or some other social media site, don't usually hang around long enough for most people to remember them from one week to the next. Usually its because the person has done something freakishly memorable rather than display any real talent during their fleeting moment in the limelight. In Andy Warhol's day it might have been possible for someone to have fifteen minutes of fame, now people are willing to settle for notoriety as a substitute for fame. In this everything is for public consumption age it doesn't matter what we do, it's whether we get noticed or not.

So the fact that someone gets a million, 2 million or a hundred million hits on a video they put up on YouTube is no indicator of a person's talent. To be honest when I hear about things like that my instinctive reaction is to stay as far away as possible. I guess it's a good thing I started hearing about Theresa Andersson well after she was a sensation with her self produced videos recorded in her kitchen. While I've since seen them after the fact, and for what they were they are impressive, but the first music I heard from her was stuff she had recorded professionally through a streaming version of her live concert at Le Petit Theatre in New Orleans (now on DVD as Theresa Andersson: Live At Le Petit). Aside from a few special guests, including Allen Toussaint, it was a one woman show, and she rocked the house.

This was no flash in the pan sensation, this was someone with talent, creativity, skill and imagination. She had great presence on stage, a great singing voice and an obvious talent for musical instruments. While it was slightly weird seeing a blue eyed blond Swedish woman standing up on stage belting out African American gospel tunes and originals which had more to do with New Orleans than Stockholm, her obvious love and enthusiasm for the material helped to bridge that gap. Yet where could she go from there? There's only so many times she could do the same thing over again without it becoming tired. So I was curious as to what she would have to offer on her newest disc from Basin Street Records, Street Parade, being released April 24 2012.
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Anyone who was expecting something along the lines of the infectious pop music of her You Tube hit, "Na,Na,Na", are going to be surprised. Maturity, motherhood and growth as a musician have all had an impact on not only her sound but her lyrical content. There's a level of introspection permeating this disc not present on anything I've heard from her previously. Even "Sleepsong For Saoirse", obviously a lullaby for her new daughter, while a dreamy and somewhat charming piece of music, hints at the lengths a mother will go to in an attempt to get her child to sleep. "Rainbow moon beams and honey bees dreams are waiting for you/ but they can't play until you sleep" is only one of the inducements offered to get the child to go to sleep.

However its on songs like the title track, "Street Parade" where we really see the differences from what she's done in the past to now. New Orleans is of course famous for its parades, from the elaborate one at Mardi Gras, the ones that seem to be spontaneous celebrations at the joy of being alive to those escorting people who have died to their next destination. While Andersson's song is specifically about the Mardi Gras parade the questions it raises could be applicable to any parade or any event which momentarily lifts us up into an elevated state of excitement. What happens after you come down? When the parade goes by and all that's left is the trash from the crowds who had gathered, what are you left with? To some the answer might be a feeling of emptiness, or at least some sort of let down as you return to your ordinary life.

However, Andersson sees another side to the situation. While musically the song might lead you to think she's bemoaning the passing of the excitement, as the sound has a very "the party is over" feel to it, the chorus clearly states "I'm not alone". While the first time you hear her sing this you might think there's something of the spitting in the wind attitude about the lyric. As if she's trying to convince herself, that in spite of everything she's feeling, really, she's fine. Yet when the song progresses and she repeats the phrase you begin to hear the underlying strength in her voice. Yes the parade was a wonderful high and a great party, but the impression that builds over the course of the song is her true fulfillment comes through her regular life. A party can be a blast but you really don't get much accomplished during them.
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Musically the disc also differs from a lot of what we've heard from Andersson previously in the complexity of their arrangements, including a far more prominent role given to a staple of the New Orleans music scene - horns. But don't come expecting any of the styles of horn playing normally associated with the city. Instead of either the upbeat sound of a marching band or the syncopated beat of the horn section in a funk band she's modified them to suit the almost dream like quality permeating the disc.

"Listen To My Heels", the third track on the disc, is a good example. The horns which open the song ease us into it with extended and muted notes leading into Andersson's staccato vocals. The song seems deliberately a-rhythmical and the horns smooth out the overall sound of the piece by adding a layer of texture to the metronome quality of the other instruments and her vocals. While there's something disconcerting to hearing her sing on the offbeat - it gives the song an almost forced sound - it's also very effective and powerful. With horns rising and falling under the rest of the track the rough edges of the song stand out even more potently. It might not be "pretty" but neither is the message of the song for it's about people talking behind people's backs and the nastiness of rumours.

Theresa Andersson started her career as what easily could have been dismissed as a novelty act on You Tube. The world quickly discovered she was no mere flash in the pan or worse, someone looking to gain a few minutes of Internet notoriety. In the space of a few short years she has gained a reputation for ingenuity and creativity. Now with her latest release she continues to push herself and her music in new directions. While still paying homage to her adopted city of New Orleans, instead of merely copying what's been done by others before her she uses it as a springboard for exploration and for creating her own unique sound. It will be interesting to see where her journey takes her in the future. For now this step on her path makes for fascinating listening.

(Article first published as Music Review: Theresa Andersson - Street Parade on Blogcritics)

April 13, 2012

Music Review: Zdob Si Zdub - Basta Mafia


Why is it everybody is always so surprised when other cultures aside from our own evolve and change to suit the times. It's like we want them to stay stuck in the past playing their interesting "folk music" and dressing up in their "traditional" costumes for our entertainment. Unfortunately that music and those costumes, if they ever really existed outside of some romantic vision offered up by people outside of the culture, have very little to do with the realities of life in the 21st century. There's nothing wrong with honouring the traditions of the past, but any culture that can't continue to evolve runs the risk of stagnating and losing its power to speak to its own people.

For many years the image of the Eastern European musician playing a fiddle or a balalaika and wearing colourfully embroidered clothing has lingered. Who knows where this image came from initially and whether or not it had any validity. Even if it did to assume a people whose population is spread over thousands of square miles would play the same types of music let alone dress the same is not just unrealistic but insulting. Cultural stereotypes are dangerous because they allow people to think of those in question as somehow less then or different from normal. It then becomes easy to discriminate against them, because they aren't like us.

The fall of the iron curtain was supposed to usher a new era of freedom and hope for all of Europe and parts of Asia. What nobody seemed to count on was the fact that millions of people were going to have to be absorbed into an economic system that was already feeling the strain of supporting its own people. It's quite frankly a miracle the economic meltdown we're witnessing in Europe took this long to happen. During times like these there are always those who, usually at the point of a gun and by knowing which wheels to grease, manage to accumulate a great deal of wealth and power at the expense of others. This has been the situation all across Eastern Europe and Asia where power vacuums were formed with the fall of governments.

So expecting a new generation of Eastern European musicians to be content with putting on cute cultural displays after what they've lived through is ridiculous. I don't know about you, but I'd expect to hear something that reflected what's going on in their lives. Which is exactly what you get from the new release from Moldavian basedZdob Si Zdub's. new release, Basta Mafia on the great German Asphalt Tango label as an import in North America February 14 2012. Its a brilliant piece of work combining biting political commentary and messages of hope for a better world played over a wonderful melange of styles as the band employs everything from folk to punk, and almost everything in between, to get their message across. Yet for all the variety, and the lack of cohesion that it might imply, each song is connected to the rest by the elements they all have in common.

It's hard to put your finger on what those might be initially, but it gradually becomes clear that although one song contains elements of hip hop and another grunge, they all have the same point of origin. The brass section which emphasizes the beat and the fiddle scrawling out the melody beneath the guitar on some tunes are indications of the group's background; not because they're the only people who use those instruments but because of the way they are employed and the sounds they make. Listening to the band you hear elements representing the myriad of musical influences their region has experienced over the generations. There's the fiddle music that speaks the defiance and freedom characteristic of Romany music, traces of the Flamenco guitars of Spain, belly dance rhythms of Northern India and the brass bands of Istanbul.
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Of course no one's going to confuse Zdob Si Zdub with the "ethnic bands" of Hollywood movies. Not with songs like the title track "Basta Mafia" with its lament of the freedoms promised by the fall of the Iron Curtain being hijacked by Free Market gangsters. "And the west wind feels so cold/ because they've put freedom on hold" or "Many people gave their life/ for the values aimed so high/but some still love guns, it's easier to win/it's easier to move in the gangster's skin" aren't exactly the kind of lyrics one expects to hear sung from the steps of your typical peasant's cottage.
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It's important to remember the members of Zdob Si Zdub probably grew up not only with the turmoil of the end of communism, but being from Moldavia, once a province in the Soviet Union, some sort of civil unrest if not civil war in the period directly after the collapse of governments throughout Eastern Europe. So their lyrics are tinged by the violence they've seen and contain some of the bitterness you'd expect from seeing dreams of freedom soured. However, the real surprise is to find they haven't given up hope and still sing about what could be possible. It's really kind of humbling to hear people who have been through what they have singing lyrics like, "and I'll say it again and again/it's more than a dream/we are free/you can never put it away".

As you might have gathered a good many of the songs on this disc's lyrics are in English. In an attempt to make this disc more accessible to Western audiences they have worked with an English language composer, Andy Schuman, to make sure their lyrics were translated properly. There are still a couple of songs in Russian, but with the majority in English Western audiences will have no problem enjoying and appreciating this amazing band. Musically they're as exciting and as intense as as any band you'll hear in the so called alternative scene in North America and lyrically far more insightful and intelligent than any of the so called "politically active" bands you'll hear anywhere.

If you've missed real alternate music or are just looking for something different from what you hear all the time on the radio and other sources of music, Zdob Si Zdub will be a pleasent surprise and a welcome relief. A great band for their times and great music for all time, they have a truly unique sound and a perspective on the world that's a lesson for all of us.
(Article first published as Music Review: Zdob Si Zdub - Basta Mafia on Blogcritics.)

April 11, 2012

Music Review: Heyward Howkins - The Hale & Hearty


Listening to popular music for any length of time conditions you to have certain expectations regarding what it sounds like. This really shouldn't come as much of a surprise as we've been hearing basic variations on the same theme now since the 1950s. Every so often a new flavour is added to the mix, but the formulae of under four minutes and don't really challenge the listeners musically or lyrically is adhered almost religiously. Originality is actually seen as drawback, making it difficult for any work deviating from the norm to gain acceptance. All of which makes the path being taken by Heyward Howkins, as displayed on his first CD The Hale & Hearty being released in June of this year, seem all the more brave and difficult.

For this is not a collection of conventional pop songs by any stretch of the imagination. In fact there isn't anything others are currently doing for the listener to use as a reference for comparison. The only two singers who come close to being in a similar area would be Antony of Antony and The Johnsons and Rufus Wainwrieght. But that's only because those two, like Howkins, are not doing what everyone else is doing and have the same sort of sensibility when it comes to their approach. Their music doesn't sound much like his, but all three bring a kind of emotional impressionism to their work unlike most people's much more literal approach.

You won't find any neat little packages coming in at three minutes and twenty-five seconds about boy meets girl and gets heart broken. Instead you'll find him painting with a more subtle brush. Through a combination of music, lyrics and arrangements his songs aren't limited to one emotion, they manage to convey the myriad of feelings involved with a particular aspect of life. The lyrics themselves may not actually tell a story, but like poetry they convey the emotional message of the song through inference and suggestion. The music, and by extension a song's arrangement, serve to accent and compliment what the lyrics have created. A single song will travel from the austerity of a single acoustic guitar acting as accompaniment to a crescendo of strings, horns and vocal harmonies and then ebb and flow between the two over its course like a relentless tide.
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While in general I look upon the use of orchestration in pop music in much the same way as poison ivy in that its best avoided if you don't want to break out in hives. However once in a great while someone is able to use the instruments in question without descending to the level of cliché. The arrangements that Howkins and producer co-arranger Chet Delcampo (who also plays mellotron, keys, guitar, bass and drums on the disc) have created never stoop to the obvious, You're not going to find any "swelling strings" on this disc or anything anybody would think of describing as lush. What you do find is a careful architecture where each instrument has been placed in the exact right place, playing the exact right tone, so they all fit perfectly together in the building of each song. Their incorporation into a song's overall structure is so seamless you barely even notice them as individual entities.

Howkins vocals are as individual as the rest of the recording. While there is a slightly ethereal quality to his tenor voice, it's not without body or texture. One thing you'll notice is that unlike quite a number of male singers who use the upper ranges of the register he is not a one note vocalist. While he hardly ever strays into the lower areas of the scale he finds a way to modulate his tone so his voice changes to suit the emotional requirements of a song. There's nothing so annoying as hearing a vocalist sound exactly the same as when he's singing about supposedly opposing emotions. Howkins' voice is able to use his voice to complete the picture the music had begun to draw.

The disc's first song is the spare, almost minimalist, "Thundering Stop". In it he describes two people walking along side of a canal and having a conversation. Not quite the normal subject matter for a song in this day and age. However, like in life, there's more than meets the eye to what we think is going on. Opening with the tune picked out on guitar accompanied by cello, he sings "By the side of the sleepy canal/you gave a sibilant shout/and then the baby was out/the whole sky's in a front when we're sitting in the mud composing ourselves/for the thundering stop". What begins as sort of a serene setting is suddenly interrupted by a "sibilant shout". Now any sort of shout would be sudden, but the image of someone trying not to cause a scene by hissing or whispering their shout is somehow even more jarring than if they had just shouted.
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Without giving us time to properly absorb this first disquieting note the possibilities of the third line are upon us. Is it simply a way of saying a secret is out, or should we also take it literally and assume it means the secret was the other person was pregnant? Whatever it is the next lines imply there is some sort of storm brewing that there can be no preparing oneself for. In the next verse the walk continues but instead of being by a sleepy canal it sounds like the couple is almost speed walking to some locks a little bit further along. What's amazing about this song is not only does it manage to evoke the emotions of the scene it describes, but it spurs the imagination to picture what could have come before and what might happen after.

Two people in two completely different frames of mind set out. He looking forward to a peaceful outing walking by the canal and she plagued by some secret which has been eating away at her until she's no longer able to bear it anymore and blurts it out. After the shock they continue, but now hurry as nothing can ever be the same any more. What will happen to them when they get to the locks that are their destination? Will they climb into a car together and drive home sitting side by side in the front seat in silence? Or do they use the privacy offered by the car as a chance to have a conversation? Where can they go after such a "Thundering Stop".

While there is nothing like a typical song on the disc, "Thundering Stop" is emblematic of the type of thing you can expect from Heyward Howkins on his first release The Hale & Hearty. Each song is a superbly crafted work with music and lyrics working in tandem to create something that transcends the normal boundaries of popular music. By no means is this what you'd call an easily accessible recording. While it won't appeal to those whose appetites are satisfied with the normal fast food equivalent of music usually on offer, those looking for something more substantial might just find themselves leaving the table fulfilled.

Howkins is not only an accomplished musician and singer, he also has the ability to turn words and music into worlds for his listeners to explore. However, like a good poem or story, instead of being merely escapism, they provide us with insights and observations firmly based in reality. It's a rare thing these days to find a singer of popular music who can inspire you to flights of imagination, but Howkins does so and more. The Hale & The Hearty is being released on June 26 2012 and tracks from the album are now available for download through Bandcamp.

(Article first published as Music Review: Heyward Howkins - The Hale & Hearty on Blogcritics.)

April 10, 2012

Music Review: Kayhan Halhor & Ali Bahrami Fard - I Will Not Stand Alone


For most of us in the West classical music calls up visions of men in tuxedoes and women in long gowns playing highly formalized and rigidly controlled music. This is the last type of music we'd ever associate with any sort of improvisation with the musicians there to serve the wishes of the composer as interpreted by the conductor. Unless they're a soloist of very high standing they have little or no say in how the music sounds and what it expresses.

So it might come as a bit of shock to find out that the traditions surrounding classical music in other cultures actually encourage improvisation. For, while in countries like India there are certain formal patterns of structure adhered to, within the form there is plenty of room for the musician to interpret the music. As the performances of music is considered a personal spiritual journey, a means of expressing a connection to the gods, it can't help but change from individual to individual. India is not unique in having this kind of musical tradition, and considering the cross-pollination of culture between the two countries down through history, it's not surprising to find a similar tradition has existed in Iran since the twelfth century.

Persian classical music, like many others where there was originally nothing committed to paper, involves a long and involved training period for anybody wishing to perform it. First of all a student has to memorize a canonic repertoire known as radif (literally translated as order) comprised of over 200 model pieces of music known as gushehs. These gushehs are grouped together as progressions of modally related pieces into twelve distinct dastgah (systems). Once a musician has memorized not only all the gushehs individually and collectively in their respective dastgah, they are ready to begin creating. Unlike the West where we have specific pieces of music to perform, the radif is not something that is actually performed as an individual piece of music, but serves as the starting point for creative improvisation.

Of course listening to music the theory behind it usually flies out the window as you get swept up in the sounds and emotions being generated by the artist in question. Such is the case with I Will Not Stand Alone the latest release from Kayhan Kalhor on World Village Music in February 2012. The recording features Kalhor playing a variation on the traditional Middle Eastern four stringed bowed instrument, the kamancheh, called a shah kaman accompanied by Ali Bahrami Fard on a hammered dulcimer type instrument known as a bass santor. If you had any thoughts that the conditions described above for the creation and playing of music were restrictive they will be quickly dispelled as you listen to what these two men are able to generate between them.
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Looking at a picture of a kamancheh - the shah kaman has a slightly deeper tone then the original - you'll be amazed at the quality of sound Kalhor is able to create with what looks like a very simple instrument. With only four strings and a resonating chamber made out of a gourd covered by an animal skin you'd think its sound would be limited or at least thin. I don't know whether its the virtuosity of the player or a matter of appearances being deceiving, but on this recording it seems to have the ability to sound like most of the bowed four stringed instruments in an orchestra. From the heart stopping emotional clarity of a violin, the rich texture of the cello to the mid tones of the viola Kalhor not only covers almost the entire musical scale as we know it but its emotional equivalent as well.

Serving as a combination percussion and bass Fard's bass santor not only offers a rich counterpoint and underpinning to Kalhor's playing, he adds the additional element of being able to emphasize the rhythm through his use of the hammers required to play his instrument. Any expectations we might have as to its limitations based on our experiences of bass instruments in other compositions are quickly dispelled. For Fard does far more than merely play a simple bass line instead he plays a melodic accompaniment in the lower register that is every bit as involved as Kalhor's lead instrument.
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In the liner notes accompanying the recording Kalhor describes the eight pieces of music as having their origins during a period of unrest in Iran. He's unclear as to whether he's talking about the revolution which saw the overthrow of the Shah back in the 1970s or the more recent period of turbulence and its unsuccessful attempt to push for reforms. Whenever the period was, he describes it as one of the most difficult periods in his life, "where darkness and violence seemed to be taking over". Out of this period came the realization that music has the capability to open what he refers to as doors of hope and he made the choice to play his music for the people for this reason. The actual playing and recording of the music was a way for him to break out of the isolation he felt because of the unrest and connect with those around him - hence the title I Will Not Stand Alone

Listening to the music after reading these notes one can't help but be struck how well it captures the journey he took from darkness to light. The titles of individual pieces aren't what you'd call an accurate indication of their musical content, you'd think tunes called "The Laziest Summer Afternoon" or "Dancing Under The Walnut Tree" would be light hearted and carefree when the former sounds nothing at all like any idle summer day I've ever had and the latter bears no relation to dancing. Perhaps something was lost in their translation from the original Farsi, but I think he's commenting on the sense of disconnect he must have felt witnessing scenes of violence and trouble on beautiful summer days. Idyllic conditions have no bearing on how humans behave. It can be a beautiful day and people can still commit atrocities as easily as if there were a horrible storm taking place. The distance between the meaning conveyed by the title of the song and the story the music tells us captures that horrible irony better than anything I've heard before.

Everyone of these pieces has an emotional depth that far outstrips most music we're used to hearing, whether popular or classical. Kalhor has taken the basic skill set required to play Persian classical music and has built a collection of pieces that explore both the depths the human spirit can sink to and the heights it can ascend. You many have trouble believing this is the work of only two men playing given the multitude of sounds, tones and emotions they are able to express, but it is only Kalhor and Fard and their two instruments on each track. If you've never experienced non-European classical music this recording will be an eye opener for you. It will dispel any doubts you ever had of music's ability to cross cultural and linguistic boundaries. The gulf between the Iranian and Western governments is huge these days. Listening to recordings like this one help to remind us the divide between the people of our respective cultures is far smaller than some would like us to think.

(Article first published as Music Review: Kayhan Kalhor and Ali Bahrami Fard - I Will Not Stand Alone on Blogcritics)

April 9, 2012

Music Review: The Unthanks - Diversions Vol.1 The Songs Of Robert Wyatt & Antony & The Johnsons


There are some artists who make an indelible impression on you from the first moment you see and or hear them perform. The first time I heard and saw and heard Antony of Antony and the Johnsons was his performance of "If It Be Your Will" on a DVD recording of a tribute concert for Leonard Cohen. Not knowing what to expect, when he opened his mouth and began singing and that amazing voice issued forth, my heart almost stopped. I've heard other male tenors and contra tenors before, but none of them with the ability to put so much of themselves into their singing. Listening to his recordings with Antony & The Johnsons, and various other recordings he's made accompanying other performers since has only served to convince me of his genius. Yet how well would his material translate when performed by someone else? Would his songs be as captivating without the unique qualities of his voice giving them emotional depth?

Well a new release by the British folk group The Unthanks, named for lead singers and sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank, Diversions Vol. 1: The Songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons, being released in North America on Rough Trade America February 7 2012 seemed like a great opportunity to see how Antony's music held up in the hands of others. To be honest I had never heard of The Unthanks and only had a vague sort of awareness of the other song writer featured, Robert Wyatt. It turns out Wyatt is the former lead singer of the British 1960s group Soft Machine who, after a nasty fall left him paralysed from the waist down, went onto develop a career as a singer songwriter in Europe and the United Kingdom.

As for The Unthanks they are another in the long line of British folk groups whose roots are firmly embedded into that island nation's musical history. Unlike folk music here in North America with its topical/political associations, in the United Kingdom the genre is far more literally representative of the "folk" of the country's various regions. In the case of the Unthanks that's Northumberland, best known for its wide open moors, bloody past and having once been an industrial heartland. Not having heard any of their music prior to this recording, I don't have any means of comparing this new recording with their other work. However, judging by their history they've not shied away from tackling material most would consider outside folk music's traditional purview. No matter how progressive they are I'm sure there aren't many others in the genre who've covered everything from King Crimson to Tom Waits.
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So this foray into covering other's music isn't something new for the band. What is unusual is they had done a series of live concerts dedicated to performing the works of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons. The tracks on this CD are taken from two concerts they gave at the Union Chapel in London England on December 8 and 9 2010. Diversions Vol 1 opens with five tracks taken from the Antony & the Johnsons' release I Am A Bird Now plus one song, "Paddy's Gone", from the single "You Are My Sister". The second half of the concert, and the CD, are nine of Robert Wyatt's songs taken from five of his solo releases. At the actual concerts the audience was given an intermission between the two sets and you might just want to hit pause for a few seconds after the last Antony & the Johnsons' tune to give yourself time to prepare for the change in atmosphere that occurs with the change in material.

What is most impressive about this CD is the remarkable way in which the Unthanks are able to capture the almost ethereal quality of Antony & the Johnsons' music and convey the emotional intensity behind his highly personal material. Antony's songs are akin to paintings in the way they present a variety of self-portraits of the artist. Exploring themes such as sexual identity, "For Today I Am A Boy", "Bird Gerhl" and "You Are My Sister" all deal with that subject with remarkable candour and sweetness, it makes it extremely difficult for someone other than the writer to perform them with the honesty required for them to touch a listener in the same way as the original.

While both Rachel and Becky Unthank have strong singing voices with impressive ranges, they very wisely don't attempt to match Antony's unique style. Unaffected and pure, with a raw sweetness of their own, what their voices might lack when it comes to the ethereal quality that gives Antony's work its emotional integrity, is more than made up for by their obvious honesty. Like great actors who allow themselves to become conduits for a writer's words, the Unthank sisters have done their best to let the lyrics speak for themselves. Where others may have tried too hard, and in the process spoiled the purity of the song's emotions, they have let the material guide their performances instead of forcing their own interpretations upon it.
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However no matter how good a job they do with Antony's material, it's the songs by Robert Wyatt that allow them to show the qualities that had one of their recent albums voted onto two of Britain's more reputable newspapers' lists of the previous decades' best recordings. Hints of this quality, musical ability mixed with a certain homespun warmth, had shown up in their chatter in between the songs in the first part of the show with the comments the sisters made to each other and the audience. Wyatt's material, rooted as it is in the same folk traditions from which the sisters spring, is more of a natural fit for them not only musically but culturally. This isn't to say they are lacking in musical sophistication, because the arrangements by the band's producer and keyboard player Adrian McNally aren't simplistic by any means, but it feels like they have far more of a natural affinity for work based on more traditional folk stylings.

Wyatt's songs seemed to liberate the band more and the second half of the CD was far more exuberant, especially a rousing rendition of "Dondestan" that sounded like it included some of the clog dancing the sisters had promised their audience earlier on in the show. Of course not all of the tunes were "dance" numbers. "Free Will And Testament" for example was equally as introspective as anything done in the first half of the show, but regardless of its tempo The Unthanks seemed a little bit more relaxed and open playing this music. In fact the last time I had heard a concert with this unique a mixture of musical professionalism and "down home" atmosphere was watching Kate and Anna McGarrigle perform.

Diversions Vol. 1: The Songs Of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons will not only give those who appreciate the music of the artists being covered a chance to hear evocative and thoughtful interpretations of their work, it offers listeners an indication of t The Unthanks versatility. The fact they are equally capable of performing the work of two such different artists with almost equal comfort and ability is astounding. For those like me who had never heard them before, it makes for a remarkable introduction to their music and whets your appetite for more. That it was recorded live in front of an audience makes it even more impressive and left me hoping they'll consider touring on this side of the Atlantic ocean some time in the near future.

(Photo Credit: Pip April)
(Article first published as Music Review: The Unthanks - Diversions Vol 1: The Songs Of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons on Blogcritics.)

DVD Review: Everyday Sunshine - The Story Of Fishbone


Documentary movies about rock and roll bands are all the rage these days. The majority tend to be about those who most of us are already familiar with. I mean you have to have been living in seclusion for the past twenty years if you're a fan of pop music and not heard of U2 or Pearl Jam. While there's no denying the impact either of those bands have had, what can we really learn about them or the nature of popular music from a movie about either band? On the other hand, watching something like Everyday Sunshine: The Story Of Fishbone, a new documentary by Lev Anderson and Chris Metzler charting the story of one of rock and roll's truly unique bands, gives you insights into the nature of the industry, the dynamics of working in a band, and the sheer, almost perverse, energy required to keep a dream alive when everything seems to conspire against you.

Fishbone, for those who don't know, came out of the thriving Los Angeles punk rock scene of the 1980s. While they shared a lot of things in common with other bands of the era, one thing distinguished them from the rest, the fact they were nearly all from South Central LA and all were African American. Even today the idea of an African American rock and roll band is an anomaly and in the 80s it was unheard of. So how on earth did a bunch of guys from South Central end up as Fishbone? The movie tells us how in 1979 the California State Supreme Court decreed that the only way to achieve racial balance in the schools of Los Angeles would be to institute a program of mandatory bussing. Kids from the hood would be shipped by bus to the fancy and well funded schools in the suburbs. It was here that Norwood and Phillip Fisher (bass and drums) Kendall Jones (guitar), Chris Dowd (keyboards) and Walter Kibby (trumpet and vocals) were introduced to Led Zeppelin and other white rock and roll acts by their new classmates, and met Angelo Moore (vocals, saxophone and thermin) one of the few black kids who actually grew up in the Valley.

While bussing may not have done much for racial integration in America, when it came to the musical integration of Fishbone, it was an incredible success. Slashing guitar riffs met R&B horns, funky rhythms, gospel tinged vocals and was wrapped up in the anarchic packaging of punk rock to explode all over the bars and clubs of LA. While they were a hit with anybody who saw them, nobody cares what colour your skin in in a mosh pit, when they started to move into the recording studio it was different story. Columbia, the first label they signed with, still had a black music division in those days, but Fishbone weren't Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson - hell they weren't even rap music - and they sure didn't fit anybody's image of what "black"music should sound like. Yet in spite of these obstacles by 1993 the band looked like they were on the verge of the big time. Spike Lee directed their music video, an appearance on Saturday Night Live and signing on for the Lollapalooza tour all seemed like things guaranteed to push them into the spotlight.
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However, coincidence or not, the wheels started to fall off around the time the four cops accused of beating Rodney King were acquitted and South Central went up in flames. Growing up black, poor and male in LA they had all felt the sharp end of the LAPD at one time or another and were just as angry as everybody else over the verdict and it came out in their music. Not something a mainstream record label like Columbia was going to be comfortable with. At the same time guitarist Kendell Jones started experiencing personal difficulties, drinking heavily and accusing his fellow band members of being instruments of the devil. When Norwood and a few others tried to stage an adult intervention in order to get Jones the psychiatric treatment they thought he needed, he had them charged with attempted kidnapping. While they were all eventually acquitted, the loss of Jones seemed to signal the beginning of the end as Chris Dowd left the band a year later.

As the movie makes clear, while others had joined the core group who came together in 1979 along the way, when the centre started started to fall apart the band began a long slow decline back from the brink of success. By 2003 only Norwood Fisher and Angelo Moore remained of those who started the group, and the strain of holding it all together was starting to take its toll on them. The camera had been moving back and forth between the present and the past throughout the course of the movie as the directors wove archival footage of the band performing, rehearsing and hanging out in the studio with present day interviews, animation and even paintings to bring Fishbone's story to life. As is normal with these types of things we viewers are safe from any direct emotional involvement with the subject matter because it's all stuff that's happened in the past. So when the camera all of a sudden drops us down in the middle of something happening in the present the wall separating the audience from the movie's subjects comes tumbling down.

In footage shot at various points over the last decade we see how the struggle to keep the band going has come to affect the relationship between Fisher and Moore They both begin to harbour resentments towards the other which they start to reveal to the camera i their inteviews. Moore, the mercurial front man, is as potent a force on stage as he ever was and continues to look for new means of expressing himself. Exploding in all directions at once he washes up against the stolid and very grounded Fisher who as bass player has always provided the roots which gave the band its strength. Within the original band their were other members who could serve as buffers between the two with either the force of their personalities or their creative contributions. But the two of them as the only creative engines were gradually being pushed apart like polarized magnets.
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What's amazing about this film is that instead of merely hearing others talking about the problems between the two men, or even just the two of them talking about each other, the camera sits down with them and watches as they attempt to hash out their differences. Both of them are committed to the idea of Fishbone and have made huge personal sacrifices for the band. However that can only keep working as long as its able to fulfill each of their artistic needs. As we've seen from the present day footage showing the band playing for miniscule audiences or attending publicity events which nobody comes to, they're not making the force they once were. Yet in spite of their differences, neither Norwood and Fisher want to give up on the band and still believe they have something to say that needs to be heard. It's that common ground that allows them to work things out and to continue the band. In fact, as the movie ends it seems like the band's future is actually looking brighter then it has in ages. Kendal Jones joins them for a gig and not only appears to have rid himself of the demons that plagued him in the early 90s but also wants to play with the band again. Trumpeter Kibby had left the band in 2003, but came back in 2010 and Chris Dowd - who had been one of the main writers in the early days - plays a couple of gigs with them.

Watching the footage included in the movie of the band performing during their hay days of the 1980s you can see why people like Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers and others claim that Fishbone were the band who inspired them the most. You can also see how almost impossible it would have been for any record label to cope with them. Their music defies any sort of classification and their stage show would have a straight audience quaking in their boots. Moore thrashing atop the mosh pit, scaling the walls of the concert hall to climb into a balcony and diving into the audience and singing all the while while the rest of the band thrashes out a deadly mix of punk, funk, ska, rock and roll and jazz. What's truly amazing is how tight the band is. This wasn't some group of idiots who had no idea how to play their instruments or who couldn't find their way from the beginning of a song to its end without getting lost. No this was a tight knit and well rehearsed band with incredible skill whose vocal harmonies were as tight as a gospel choir and musical arrangements as crisp as any band.

Everyday Sunshine: The Story Of Fishbone does a wonderful job of not only telling audiences who Fishbone was, but who they are today. However, it's not just about a rock band, its about the people who are in a rock band and what it is that keeps them going when times are tough. This is one of the few "rockumentaries" I've seen where which manage to capture the love and pain involved with playing rock and roll when you care about it more than anything else in the world. It can eat at your soul. but the rewards can also be glorious. As this movie shows so poignantly the members of Fishbone have seen both sides of that coin and the long grey areas in between as well.

(Article first published as Movie Review: Everyday Sunshine: The Story Of Fishbone on Blogcritics.)

November 25, 2011

Music Review: Willie Nile - The Innocent Ones

Once in a while a pop musician comes around who makes little or no impact on the public but earns the respect and admiration of their peers. In most cases these are individuals in possession of an exceptional talent who have ended up outside the public eye of their own volition. Usually it's because they have no desire to play the game required for commercial success. Either they've been badly burned by the industry and want to have nothing to do with it anymore or they've decided their independence is more valuable to them than success.

In the late 1970s Willie Nile was on the verge of international stardom. The industry was dubbing him the next "big thing". After Springstien he was going to be the next Bob Dylan, the voice of a new generation and all the expectations that went with the designation. It wasn't just hype either as fellow musicians quickly recognized he was something special. Pete Townshead specifically requested Nile as the Who's opening act for their 1980 North American tour while more recently Lucinda Williams has said if there was any justice in the world she'd be opening for Nile not the other way around.

Instead of cashing in on his accolades in the 1980s, Nile chose to walk away to preserve his independence. Going almost a decade without a record contract, but never stopping writing and performing, he put out two releases in the early 1990s and then nothing else again until 2000. It was another six years before he released Streets Of New York, which was then followed by three live recordings in quick succession in 2007, Live In Central Park and 2008, Live at the Turning Point and Live From The Streets Of New York (also on DVD). This was followed by 2009's House Of A Thousand Guitars on his own River House Records label.
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It's obvious having his own record label has agreed with Nile as he's now released his third new studio disc in the past five years. The Innocent Ones made its way into stores in North America on November 22 2011 after enjoying a successful release in Europe in 2010. The eleven cuts on the disc are Nile's usual mix of power pop anthems, thoughtful ballads and rock and roll for the sheer fun of it. There aren't many popular artists these days who are capable of doing a credible job of any one of those types of material let alone all three. Yet Nile seems to have no difficulty in switching gears from one mode to the other and performing each with equal ability.

With the exception of "Sideways Beautiful", which he wrote on his own, all the songs on the disc were co-written by Nile and his long time musical cohort Frankie Lee. The two men have a knack for creating songs deceptively simple musically and lyrically. You don't need to be needlessly complicated to write an intelligent song. Far too many people these days seem to feel that their music won't be taken "seriously" unless they clutter it up with convoluted lyrics that a cryptographer would have trouble deciphering or complicated tunes which nobody really has any fun listening to. If you have something to say doesn't it make more sense that people understand what you're talking about and enjoy listening to you say it? Lee and Nile are not only masters at writing intelligent lyrics that speak directly to their listeners, they've not forgotten that rock and roll is supposed to be fun. Who decided that the only way pop music could be taken seriously was by sucking all the life out of it anyway? Thankfully Lee and Nile weren't listening to whoever made that decision.

When was the last time you listened to a CD and found the music so infectious that you caught yourself singing along with the chorus of a song the first time you heard it? How many times has a song's lyrics caught your attention so vividly you were able to pay attention to what they were saying without making any effort? Not only are the tracks "The Innocent Ones", "Song For You" and "Rich And Broken" from this disc capable of doing this, they do so without you feeling like you've been manipulated. Too often songs rely on cleaver "hooks", catchy arrangements or melodies, and cheap sentimentality to capture our attention. That's not the case with any of the songs mentioned above, or the rest of the material on the disc either for that matter.
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Aside from the fact they are well written and intelligent, what makes them so compelling is Nile's abilities as a performer. By no stretch of the imagination would you say he has a beautiful voice, but it has the rough hewn honesty so many strive to emulate but which can't be faked. Whether he's excited, happy, sad or just having a good time, as listeners we can always tell because his voice doesn't lie. The compassion in his voice when he sings, "For every heart that's broken in two/I'm speaking your name, I'm lighting a flame/ I'm singing a song for you" during "Song For You" is so genuine that you can't help believing him. He isn't just singing these words, he lives them, and if he could he'd find a way to comfort the lost people of the world he would.

He's not just compassionate either. In "Rich And Broken", he not only sings about the wasted lives of young starlets like Lindsey Lohan and the other party girls with genuine regret, he accepts the fact that our society, our craving for celebrity, has to accept some responsibility for what's happened to them. "She's oh so rich and broken/There's part of her that's yet to be awoken/She's rich and broken...and she's mine"..."With first name recognition/She's a walking fashion fiction getting high/Bye Bye Bye". Not only does he mourn the lost potential all these people represent and how our cult of celebrity has taken away their identities by reducing them to a meaningless name, the three words "and she's mine" are him accepting his share of the blame for being part of a society that thinks celebrity worship is normal.

Willie Nile is that rarest of musicians, a true independent. He's turned his back on record contracts twice because of the compromises involved working with studios and forged his own path for the last two decades. The result is pure unadulterated rock and roll music and lyrics sung from the heart with more genuine emotion in one song than most people can squeeze out of themselves over the course of a career. Like the bards of old, Nile seems to have found a way to tap into the human condition and create songs that are both topical and timeless. He finds universal themes and imbues them with his own unique blend of compassion and intelligence in the hope that he might make a difference. So when he sings "So if you get knocked down you gotta' take a stand/For all the outcast, dead last who need a helping hand" on the song "One Guitar" he gives you hope that maybe if people do raise their voices together they can make a difference. It's at least worth trying anyway don't you think?.
(Photo Credit: Christina Arrigoni)
(Article first published as Music Review: Willie Nile - The Innocent Ones on Blogcritics)

November 23, 2011

Music Review: Folk Uke - Reincarnation

Being the children of famous people can have it's advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side is the automatic recognition that comes with sharing a well known name. On the downside there's having to live up to everyone's expectations of what the name signifies. On top of that there's also having to deal with those who will whisper about people only making it because of their relations. So, in the end while having a famous name might get your foot in the door, you're going to end up having to work almost twice as hard as the next person in order to gain the respect you deserve for your efforts.

For a lot of people the temptation might be to run as far away from their family name as possible in order to prove they can make it on their own. However, there shouldn't be any reason for them to have to do that. If you have talent it will show through no matter who you are or who you perform with. When Amy Nelson and Cathy Guthrie released their first disc as Folk Uke a few years ago they not only proved they could stand on their own two feet as song writers and performers, they also made no secret of their family ties. Let's be real, Willie Nelson's and Arlo Guthrie's daughters aren't going to be able hide from the world who they're related to, so they might as well own up to it. So both dads appeared on the first record in support roles.
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While the first CD was fun to listen to the duo relied more on their sense of humour and intelligence than their musical abilities to impress listeners. There were only a couple of moments which hinted at the true nature of their talents. Songs like "Shit Makes the Flowers Grow" and "Motherfucker", seemed like deliberate attempts to distract listeners from the natural sweetness of their voices and how suited they were to an older style of country/folk music. Now, with their second CD, Reincarnation, being released on November 22 2011 on their own Folk Uke label, the duo, as can be seen through their choice of material, have far more confidence in themselves and their abilities as vocalists.

The opening track on the disc, a cover of Harry Nilsson's "He Needs Me", tells the listener right away the direction Guthrie and Nelson have moved in. Nilsson's material requires just the right touch or it could easily slide into sentimental mush. Like a great many of his songs its deceptively simplistic while demanding a great deal from any who attempt to sing it. The temptation would be to go over the top emotionally in an effort to "make something" of the song. However, it's the song's very understatement which makes it so powerful, and Nelson and Guthrie understand that perfectly. Their vocal arrangement is simple enough to allow the song to speak for itself, while the unaffected sweetness of their harmonies captures its emotions without getting in your face.

Of course being who they are they haven't completely abandoned their rather wicked sense of humour. "I Miss My Boyfriend", with guest vocals supplied by Skeeter Jennings, is one of the most biting and non-politically correct songs about abusive boyfriends you're ever going to hear. In a letter from his prison cell an abusive boyfriend confesses to his girlfriend how he's had a wife all along. Not to worry though, for while dragging your wife around by the bra turns out to be against the law, he'll be out in a couple of years. With its sweetly sung chorus of "I miss my boyfriend/ will you hit me/give me the beating of my life/take off your belt now/leave me a welt now/treat me just like I was your wife", some might think the tune doesn't take the subject seriously enough. However, if that's the case, you need to look up the word irony in the dictionary and then listen to it again.
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Still, the lasting impression you take away after listening to this disc is that of two wonderful voices raised in song. Whether it's the country type tear jerker "Long Black Limousine" or the title song "Reincarnation" - a love song that truly crosses all boundaries - Guthrie's and Nelson's vocals are a pleasure to listen to. Even on the aforementioned tear jerker they bring an honesty to lyrics that in other people's hands would sound cliched or downright stupid. They both seem to have the innate ability to open their mouths and sing unaffectedly. Whether one of their own creations or covering somebody else's material they have the confidence in themselves to simply serve as the song's interpreters and let it speak for itself.

On top of that their voices seem to have been made to sing with each other. Listen to the way they build their harmonies on "He Needs Me" and the effortless way their voices intertwine. It's not often you have the opportunity to just sit back and enjoy the sound of two voices working together so well. In fact you have the feeling that it wouldn't matter what they sang, and it would sound great. However, the music they've chosen here not only suits their voices perfectly, the songs also show their remarkable emotional and intellectual range as performers.

Both Nelson and Guthrie could easily slide over the edge into being cloying and sweet, and probably make a killing in the adult easy listening market, but thankfully they've taken a different direction and we're the ones reaping the benefits. They might have famous musical parents, but this latest release only confirms that Amy Nelson and Cathy Guthrie are deserving of recognition in their own right.

(Article first published as Music Review: Folk Uke - Reincarnation on Blogcritics.)

November 17, 2011

Product Review: Timbre Pro Earbuds & CS40s Headphones From iFrogz

I could never understand how people could pay thousands of dollars on fancy sub-woofers, amplifiers, turntables and other audio equipment and then skimp on speakers. The first, and most sage bit of advice, I ever received when it came to buying audio equipment was, it doesn't matter what else you buy, but make damn sure your speakers are what you spend your money on. The sound a system creates is only as good as what your speakers can handle. What difference does it make if your amplifier can generate 500 watts per channel if your speakers are only rated for 100 each? You'll either end up with distorted sound or blowing your speakers the first time you turn the volume up.

When they started making portable stereo systems manufacturers tried compensating for inadequate speakers using technological advances. While things like Dolby might boost signals and make the music louder, or give the illusion of rich sound by what basically amounted to turning the bass up higher, it came with a cost. The slight differences in frequencies generated by different instruments were gradually lost and music became more a wash of sound than collection of individual notes coming together in harmony to create magic. However, those comprises are nothing compared to what's happened with the advent of micro personal players and listening to music through headphones rather than speakers.

As a music critic I've struggled over the years to find the best ways possible to listen to the music people send me. It's become even more difficult in recent years with so many record companies only making review copies available as downloads and forcing critics to use digital players. In order to appreciate the music you have to be able to hear it - and that doesn't just mean have your brains turned to mush by mega bass and the other bells and whistles some audio companies seem to think are what's needed to make music sound better. Almost as important has been trying to find headphones that don't distract from listening to the music. There's nothing more annoying than listening to music with something which causes physical discomfort.
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So in setting out to gauge the performance of two of the many headphones offered by iFrogz, the