PICK OF THE MONTH
Joy of Living: A Tribute to Ewan MacColl (2 discs)
Here’s a tribute to a titan of the 1960s English folk scene: Ewan MacColl, sometimes called the godfather of the folk revival in the UK. Those who don’t recognize his name may still be able to sing at least one of his songs, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” That’s a great one, but in my book the most brilliant and heartbreaking song he wrote was “Schoolday’s Over,” in which three different fathers tells their sons that now that they’re home from school it’s time to get dressed and go to work in the mine: “Time you were learning the pitman’s job/And earning a pitman’s pay.” That’s the song that opens this collection, and the album proceeds from strength to strength, featuring names both famous (Martin Carthy, Dick Gaughan, Steve Earle, Christy Moore, Billy Bragg) and less so. As you proceed through the program you’ll be struck by how consistently powerful MacColl’s songs are, how concisely they convey sharp and telling observation, how they portray workingclass life with deep sympathy and (well, mostly) a minimum of political hectoring, and–perhaps most importantly–how incredibly gifted he was as a melodist. And then there’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” which I still believe is the single most romantic song written in the 20th century. One regret: I wish someone had thought to ask Ian Robb to sing “The Big Hewer” for this collection. Still, this one is essential.
Antoine de Févin; Anonymous
Missa transfigurationis: Tournai, XVe-XVI siècles
Psallentes / Hendrik Vanden Abeele
Musique en Wallonie (dist. Naxos)
The monastic Brotherhood of the Transfiguration was attached to the Tournai cathedral upon its founding in the 15th century, and eventually produced a manuscript collection of plainchant and polyphony that was thought lost in the wake of World War II. Rediscovered and returned to the cathedral in 2006, that manuscript’s contents are here performed and recorded for the first time by the Psallentes ensemble. While this recording will be of primary interest to specialist early-music collections, every library collection will benefit by acquiring this disc–both because of its great historical interest and because of its gorgeous musical qualities.
Music for Harp
Innova (dist. Naxos)
Postcard from Heaven
New World (dist. Albany)
These two discs find harpists Karen Gottlieb and Susan Allen teamed up with an array of collaborators on programs of 20th-century works for harp, both solo and in small ensembles. Gottlieb’s disc features solos and duos by Lou Harrison, Wayne Peterson, John Cage, and Dan Reiter; Allen’s includes works by Cage, James Tenney, Alexander Tcherepnin, and Gloria Coates. John Cage’s “In a Landscape” represents the sole programming overlap between the two discs, and the differences in the two harpists’ interpretations of his semi-determinate piece are very interesting. Of the two, Gottlieb leans more in the direction of modernist sounds while Allen tends to favor tonality and post-minimalism, but it’s Gottlieb’s rendition of Harrison’s achingly lovely Music for Harp with Percussion that provides the most viscerally enjoyable moments. (Also worth noting is Allen’s performance of Coates’ suite Perchance to Dream, on which she is accompanied by bowed vibraphone, though there are some slight but troubling intonation issues there.) Both discs are highly recommended to classical collections.
Complete Viola d’Amore Concertos
Rachel Barton Pine; Ars Antigua
Cedille (dist. Naxos)
CDR 90000 159
“Oh, great,” I hear you mutter. “Another album of Vivaldi violin concertos. Just what our collection needs.” Not so fast: these are actually concertos written for the viola d’amore, a violin-like instrument considered exotic even during the composer’s time. Somewhat like a hardanger fiddle, the viola d’amore has a set of sympathetic strings in addition to the pitched strings that are fingered and bowed. Its sound is subtly but noticeably different from that of the violin, and the brilliant Rachel Barton Pine’s love of the instrument is palpable on this collection of eight concertos. These are works rarely recorded on the instrument for which they were written, so all classical collections should seriously consider picking up this disc.
There’s always a certain visceral thrill that you get listening to a recording by a genuine guitar virtuoso–someone who plays in a way that seems to defy the laws of physics. When that thrill fades, though (which it always does within minutes) what you’re left with is the music: the quality of the compositions, and the taste and insight of the interpretations. In the case of this debut album from the young Spanish guitarist Pablo Villegas, the musicality is deep and it’s evident throughout. The program he has selected draws on the work of composers from all over the North and South American continents, including Heitor Villa-Lobos, Antonio Lauro, and Roland Dyens; it also includes the world-première recording of John Williams’ “Rounds” and several arrangements of traditional American (as in U.S.A.) fiddle tunes. This is a remarkable album by a tremendously exciting talent.
Ave, Dei patris filia
The Cardinall’s Musick / Andrew Carwood
Hyperion (dist. Harmonia Mundi)
Whenever I encounter a new recording of works by Thomas Tallis, I ask myself the same question: “Is this recording obviated by the excellent complete-works collection by the Chapelle du Roi that came out on Signum ten years ago?” The question is especially acute when the competing vocal ensemble (in this case, the venerable Cardinall’s Musick) is configured so similarly: eight male voices, two female. And in this case, here’s my answer: no. Partly because the program on this disc is so nicely arranged, putting some very early English-language liturgical works alongside Latin Responsories and psalm settings, and partly because the singing is so lushly enjoyable and compares very nicely to that of the Chapelle du Roi without exactly eclipsing it. Strongly recommended.
Louis XIV: Les musiques du Roi-Soleil (3 discs)
Alpha (dist. Naxos)
These three discs bring together recordings made between 2001 and 2013 of monumental French baroque works from the time of Louis XIV: on the first two discs are Charpentier’s and Lully’s Te Deum settings and Du Mont’s grand motets. The third disc consists of chamber and solo pieces of a less somber and more entertaining nature by a variety of composers including Couperin, Campra, and Marais. Taken together, this set offers a good sense of the variety and quality of music that was made possible by the patronage of this most music-minded of French kings. The liner notes are a bit sketchy and the list price may be a bit high for this kind of collection, but the music and the performances are marvelous throughout.
Neuma (dist. Albany)
The flute is an instrument rich with possibilities when it comes to experimental and avant-garde music: it can be used percussively, it’s very well suited to all kinds of multiphonic and extended techniques, and its overtone-rich sound makes it especially amenable to electronic enhancement that render its subtle acoustic complexities more easily audible or that expand its sonic palette, which can be done pretty much infinitely. On this album flutist and composer Jane Rigler uses a variety of physical and electronic tools to make very new sounds with flutes and piccolos, often in collaboration with three other, similarly adventurous musicians: prepared guitarist Jane Feder, keyboardist Shoko Nagai, and percussionist Satosho Takeishi. The music is wildly various, sometimes slightly terrifying, and never boring.
C.P.E. Bach; Ludwig Christian Hesse; Johann Gottlieb Graun
Trios for Fortepiano & Viola da Gamba
Lucile Boulanger; Arnaud de Pasquale
Alpha (dist. Naxos)
If you’re paying attention, you may notice a disjunction between the title and the instrumentation of this disc, which consist of works for viola da gamba and fortepiano. But in late baroque and early classical music, a “trio” was often written for solo instrument and keyboard, the idea being that the keyboard would play two parts simultaneously. Here we get to hear those parts played on a couple of very different fortepianos, which is fun and interesting, but the real draw is the fiery elegance of gamba player Lucile Boulanger. This one is well worth considering for all classical collections.
DJ Maestro Presents: Little Girl Blue Remixed
Bethlehem (dist. Naxos)
DJ Maestro’s stage name is particularly apt on this project, on which he orchestrates a set of remixes by other producers based on Nina Simone’s 1958 debut album. Maestro himself participates on a couple of tracks, but mostly leaves the mixing duties to the likes of Renegades of Jazz, Mees Dierdrop, The Reflex, and Gramophonedzie. Some of the remixes strip the original tracks down quite radically and rebuild them cubistically, while others leave a substantial amount of Simone’s quirky vocal and even quirkier pianism respectfully in place, embroidering the sound subtly with imported elements. Personally, I would have preferred fewer thudding house treatments, but your mileage may vary. Very nice overall.
I’m hard pressed to come up with a jazz guitarist who matches John Scofield for the ability to blend noisy avant-gardism, hard-swinging straight-ahead jazziness, and pure melodic joy the way John Scofield does. (Actually, Bill Frisell is his clear equal in this regard, though their sounds could hardly be more different; when they play together, the results can be spectacular.) On his latest, he’s joined by bassist Larry Grenadier, drummer Bill Stewart, and saxophonist Joe Lovano. (Why Joe Lovano? Because if you can get Joe Lovano, you do, and Scofield can.) The program is all originals, but the style varies pretty widely, from the cheerful bop of “Chap Dance” to the greasy and bluesy “Get Proud.” As always, Scofield’s virtuosity is everywhere evident but is never the focal point: the focal point is the tunes and the group’s exceptional interplay. A must for all jazz collections.
John Fedchok New York Big Band
Like It Is
Mama (dist. Allegro)
John Fedchok is a very fine trombone player, but where he really shines is as a composer and arranger. This album showcases him in those roles, with innovative but highly accessible arrangements of standards like “You and the Night and the Music” and “Never Let Me Go” and his own original takes on traditional forms, including the 12-bar blues “Like It Is” and the midtempo hard bop of “Hair of the Dog.” Fedchok worked for several years as chief arranger for Woody Herman, and the fruits of that labor are richly evident on this very fine album. All jazz collections should seriously consider acquiring it.
Three on Two
Trumpeter and composer Joe Magnarelli leads a razor-sharp quintet on this mixed program of originals and standards in a mixed bag of styles, from the aptly-titled original “NYC-J-Funk” to the swinging midtempo bop of the title track and the very straight-ahead account of John Coltrane’s subtly weird “26-2.” There are lots of challenging heads here and lots of adventurous solos, but the group’s impeccable sense of swing holds everything together very nicely, and Magnarelli has a very nifty habit of conveying harmonically advanced ideas in an accessible way. Recommended to all jazz collections.
Scott Hamilton & Jeff Hamilton Trio
Live in Bern
Whenever I see saxophonist Scott Hamilton’s name on a CD I get the same feeling that you get when one of your favorite people shows up at a party — “Ah. Now things are going to get good.” And by “good,” what I mean is good, solid, meat-and-potatoes jazz played in a straight-ahead manner that unabashedly pretends the 1960s and 1970s never happened. Not to disrespect those decades (well, not the 1960s anyway), but there’s something deeply and uniquely satisfying about listening to a band like this swing like this, and with Jeff Hamilton on the drummer’s throne you know that the swing will never relent. Interestingly, although this album was recorded n a club it doesn’t sound as if it was recorded in performance — there’s no applause and no audience noise whatsoever, just a warm and roomy ambience that suits the music perfectly. Highly recommended to all collections.
Reinventing Richard: The Songs of Richard Fariña
Richard Fariña was one of the young heroes of the 1960s folk revival, and he stayed that way, dying at age 29 in a tragic motorcycle accident. His influence has endured, though, both in his home country and among likeminded folkies over in the UK. Hence this tribute album from the English group Plainsong, which has been championing Fariña’s songs for over 40 years. Those with a low threshold of patience for 1960s lyrical tropes may find themselves rolling their eyes at songs with titles like “Lemonade Lady” and “Sell-Out Agitation Waltz,” but keep listening: there’s plenty of inspiration here, and Iain Matthews and his crew interpret Fariña’s music both affectionately and acutely. (Hey, guys — how about a Richard Thompson tribute next?)
FY5-Finnders & Youngberg
Eat the Moon
Neotrad roots combo FY5 has something of a perverse streak, which is something I like about them. Check out the rhythmic weirdness of “Desert Bluebell,” for example, and the slightly avant-garde fusion of Tin Pan Alley and honky-tonk sounds on “Back Door.” Elsewhere the sound is straight-up bluegrass or a sort of New Acoustic folk-pop, and that sound is especially attractive when Erin Youngberg is singing lead — notice in particular the gorgeous “After Tonight.” Everything here is well worth hearing, and though the album’s production is curiously muffled, there’s still a fresh brightness to FY5’s sound.
The Traditional Grass
The Blues Are Still the Blues (compilation)
Of all the great bluegrass bands with terrible names — and there have been many, oh so many — the Traditional Grass was one of the best with one of the worst. In the early 1990s they made four albums for the excellent Rebel label, and highlights from that catalog are collected here and offered at budget-line price (a sound decision, particularly given the program’s under-40-minute running time). The highlights here are truly hair-raising: check out the archetypally high and lonesome “You Are My Flower,” the fiddle-and-banjo feature “Old Joe,” the gospel classicism of “I Believe in the Old-Time Way” and “Lazarus.” A collection like this should not have any weak tracks, and indeed this one doesn’t.
Rack ’em (dist. Redeye)
RER CD 0007
Joe Ely being who he is, I came to this disc with high expectations. And I have to confess that the first track left me feeling disappointed — but then comes “Magdalene,” one of the most mature and affecting love songs I’ve heard in ages, sung perfectly in Ely’s sweetly aging voice. And that song’s pleasures turn out to be typical of the album as a whole: minimal, largely acoustic settings for tightly-composed observations on love, loss, and rural Texas culture delivered in a style that can’t exactly be called country: it’s much more specific than that, and often reflects the landscape of Joe Ely as much as it does that of Texas. Recommended.
It is, I suppose, a stinging indictment of the current state of the music industry that a singer-songwriter of Freedy Johnston’s brilliance and stature would have to seek crowdsourced funding in order to release his first new album in five years. (Or maybe he didn’t actually need to; maybe he just wanted to preserve his independence and keep some of the sales proceeds for once.) In any case, if you’re a fan like me you know what to expect: songs that hide sharp observations behind slightly oblique lyrics, that reveal deeply affecting stories of heartbreak and confusion when you listen closely, that are couched in melodies whose hooks are subtle but impossible to forget. And over the past 20 years he’s become a real singer, too — on his debut you heard a great songwriter with a kind of strange and reedy voice, but today you hear a great singer with a pure and clear high tenor. He’s made albums that have rocked louder, but I’m not sure he’s made one that hits harder.
Firestation Towers: 1986-1989 (3 discs)
Fire (dist. Redeye)
Back in the mid- to late 1980s, when Close Lobsters were making their modest inroads into the American alt-pop scene, two of the most overused critical adjectives were “quirky” and “jangly.” But both applied perfectly to this Scottish band, whose sparkling Rickenbacker arpeggios and deeply weird lyrics were simultaneously inviting and forbidding. This 3-disc retrospective collects everything they recorded for the Fire label: two studio albums and one singles collection. Musically it stands up terrifically well — these are fun and engagingly weird songs that sound perfect turned up loud in a car. Production-wise, it sounds pretty good for the period — but this isn’t music you listen to in order to luxuriate in shiny surfaces. It’s music you listen to in order to luxuriate in hooks and to chuckle at the juxtaposition of straight-ahead three-chord progressions with lyrical couplets like “This is an empty vessel lesson/A collective works of what the mystic insults” and “Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah/Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah.” Highly recommended to all libraries.
Neida (EP; VINYL/DIGITAL ONLY)
As its title indicates, CD HotList generally covers only CDs, as that’s the format in which most libraries acquire materials for their circulating collections. But every once in a while a vinyl-only release grabs my attention forcefully enough to justify coverage here, and this EP, by Russian producer Dimitry Kuzmin (dba Nuage) is one such. You can hear his roots in drum and bass, but his sound palette is broad and varied and the beats he constructs are both gentle and compelling. He creates truly enormous sound fields and populates them in a dubwise manner, with shreds of vocal floating through the mix and microscopic sonic details placed at varying distances from the listener. Sometimes the mood is a bit unsettling, but mostly it’s simultaneously soothing and groovy. This is the kind of thing that the Project: Mooncircle label does better than any other.
Body Is Dead (VINYL/DIGITAL ONLY)
The Native Sound
No cat. no.
And here’s another one. Though his stage name and album title might lead you to expect Scandinavian death metal; in fact Tyler Kershaw’s music is dream pop of the most shimmering, ethereal loveliness. Lyrics are beside the point, because his voice is completely unintelligible throughout — it’s heavily laden with reverb and buried under two or three layers of guitar. His songs’ considerable emotional wallop comes entirely from the chord changes and the arrangements, and every one of them will make you feel as if the sun has just come out after a long spell of rain.
Big Dada (dist. Redeye)
One of the early architects of what would eventually come to be called grime, Roots Manuva is a pillar of the UK’s healthy and always-changing hip hop scene. Actually, “elder statesman” might be a better term, as his influence has grown and deepened over the past two decades to a degree not necessarily reflected in the chart positions of his albums. On Bleeds you can hear him coming into his full maturity as a lyricist and a beat sculptor, his grooves becoming simultaneously heavier and subtler, his lyrical concerns becoming ever more thoughtful and serious. If your library owns nothing by Roots Manuva I would suggest starting with Run Come Save Me (and its companion volume, Dub Come Save Me). But if his previous albums are circulating, don’t hesitate to pick this one up.
Y Dydd Olaf
Formerly a member of the Pipettes, Welsh singer-songwriter Gwenno Saunders has now emerged as a solo artist in the wake of that band’s breakup with an album sung entirely in Welsh (except for one sung in Cornish). The press materials indicate that the songs are political, more specifically feminist, but since my Welsh is kind of rusty I’ll have to take their word on that. What I can hear is that the songs offer a fun and engaging update on traditional electropop, that Gwenno has an attractively breathy voice, and that she’s got a nice way with a hook. And I’m a sucker for foreign-language pop music anyway. Recommended.
Syrian pop star Omar Souleyman teams up with several well-respected producers from the dance and electronic scenes (including Modeselektor and Gilles Peterson) for his sophomore album, and the results are not exactly what you might expect. Yes, the beats are hard, but they’re also pretty minimal: what remain front and center are Souleyman’s voice (which, oddly, strikes me as attractive enough but not exactly world-class) and the nearly constant interaction between Khaled Youssef’s saz and Rizan Said’s electronic keyboards. This is brilliant, high-energy music that could be used to spice up any party. It’s also pretty great driving music — but if you use it that way, I urge you to keep an eye on the speedometer.
Warp (dist. Redeye)
Shangaan electro is a sort of new-wave electronic dance music that has emerged from South Africa over the past ten years, and DJ/composer/impresario Nozinja is its central figure. Nozinja Lodge is his debut full-length album, and I promise it’s unlike anything you’ve ever heard: the beats and tempos are frenetic, manifesting a strange blend of chaotic density and digital hard-edgedness that is tough to describe: imagine the sonic equivalent of a kaleidoscope broken open and its contents dumped on the ground, but falling naturally into tightly ordered and complex patterns. The vocals (contributed by a large stable of guest singers) draw on traditional folk melodies, but the predominant sound is that of technology, and the album is thrilling and exhausting in equal measure.
The 1980s was a golden period for reggae music in England, and thanks to the continuing diligent work of the Bristol Archives label, it’s becoming increasingly clear how much very high-quality reggae was being made outside the Jamaican migrant centers of London and Birmingham. Case in point: Rhythmites were based in Bath, and were responsible for some of the solidest roots reggae of the period. Not very much of it, granted — this was their only full-length album. But with this reissue (remixed from the master tapes, with the addition of two new dub versions) it becomes clear what a great band they were: comparisons to Steel Pulse and Aswad are entirely fair, and you’ll even hear hints of UB40 in the mix. If your library has a collecting interest in reggae, this one is a great choice.
Lusafrica (dist. Harmonia Mundi)
Lura fell into singing mostly by accident, while a teenaged student in Lisbon in the early 1990s. Since then she has recorded several albums, all of them simultaneously celebrating and expanding upon her Cape-Verdean heritage and on the funaná and batuque traditions of her homeland. On her latest, she covers songs by old-school favorites Ildo Lobo and Os Tubaroes and by Zezé di Nha Reinalda, bringing a subtle modernism to the batuque groove of “Maria di Lida” and a throbbing bittersweetness to the gentle “Sema Lopi,” which celebrates the history of Cape Verde’s people. Recommended to all world music collections.
No cat. no.
Mariachi/electronica/cumbia/hip-hop fusion? Yes, please! Especially when the artist is a woman who plays the vihuela and is more interested in hip hop’s rhythmic intricacy than its braggadocio, and when she takes every opportunity to incorporate skanking reggae backbeats into her arrangements. And when she’s a great songwriter. This debut release is only a six-song EP, so here’s hoping for a full-length album sometime soon.