PICK OF THE MONTH
ARC Music (dist. Naxos)
Drummer and kora player Secku Keita is descended from Malian royalty on his father’s side and from a long line of griots on his mother’s, and as he puts it, “to be half griot and half Keita is to have the blood of both eulogiser and eulogised in one’s veins.” Over the course of his career he has collaborated with musicians from Cuba, India, and Scandinavia, but on this album it’s just him, his kora, and his gorgeous voice (which we hear too infrequently). And I just can’t seem to stop listening to it. The cascading melodies, the beautiful glistening sound of his instrument, the sudden incursion of his voice every so often — all of the elements of this recording combine to create one of the loveliest, most restful, and most sonically interesting listening experiences I’ve had all year. I can’t imagine a library that wouldn’t benefit from making this album available to its patrons.
Hyperdub (dist. Redeye)
I realize that it makes no obvious sense to place this album by Steve Goodman (a.k.a. Kode9) into the Classical section of CD HotList, but bear with me. Although Goodman made his reputation as part of the early dubstep scene in England and continues to work in beat-based electronica, this–his first album-length solo project–can only reasonably be characterized as art music. Texturally it has more in common with musique concrète than with club music; structurally it evokes middle-period Steve Reich more than it does anything you’ll ever hear in a dancehall. You’ll get halfway through this album before encountering anything that approximates a groove, and when you do you’ll find that the rhythmic irregularities make it much more suited to sitting and listening than to dancing. This music is, in fact, more complex and carefully constructed than a good number of avant-garde classical pieces I’ve encountered in the past. Recommended to all libraries.
Choir of Trinity College Cambridge / Stephen Layton
Hyperion (dist. Harmonia Mundi)
Like all good Christmas albums, this one features a mixture of old and new and of familiar and unfamiliar fare. Those (like me) who may hesitate when faced with a choral arrangement of Mel Tormé’s “The Christmas Song” or of “White Christmas” will be pleased to see that these modern-day chestnuts are presented in versions that take full advantage of the choir’s sumptuous tone and without attempting too much potentially embarrassing jazziness, while the Praetorius setting is both surprising and lovely, and the arrangements of “In the Bleak Midwinter” and “Away in a Manger” are tear-jerkingly perfect. Opening with “Jingle Bells” may not have been the ideal programming choice, but other than that it’s tough to find any fault with this album.
The Complete Traditional Christmas Carols Collections (reissue; 2 discs)
The Sixteen / Harry Christophers
Coro (dist. Allegro)
Originally issued in 2006 and 2010, these two discs offer exactly what the title indicates: Christmas music that is familiar and beloved–at least in this choir’s native England. American listeners who may not have encountered songs like “The Truth from Above” or “Joys Seven” will probably love them, and will in any case quickly recognize just about everything else here: “The First Nowell,” “Ding Dong Merrily on High,” “In Dulci Jubilo,” etc. (And what look at first to be duplications between the two discs are, in fact, very different arrangements.) Everything is sung with the Sixteen’s trademark bright and colorful blend and a palpable sense of joy and wonder. The price is perhaps a bit high for a straight reissue.
A Wondrous Mystery: Renaissance Choral Music for Christmas
Stepping back in time and stepping back from what will be familiar Christmas music to most listeners, we have this new album by the always-excellent Stile Antico choral ensemble. The program centers on Jacobus Clemens non Papa’s Missa Pastores quidnam vidistis, the sections of which are interspersed with both Catholic and Protestant carols of the period. The result is an unusual listening experience, as relatively simple songs (with occasionally familiar melodic elements) alternate with beautifully complex polyphony. It may not sound exactly like “Christmas music,” but it’s a gorgeous listening experience nonetheless — and as far as I can determine, it’s one of only two recordings of this Mass currently available.
Christmas in Medieval England
Blue Heron / Scott Metcalfe
Blue Heron Choir
And stepping back even further in time for our last entry in this batch of Christmas recordings, we have yet another in the Blue Heron choir’s growing list of brilliant releases. Featuring 15th-century works by John Dunstaple, Leonel Power, and a variety of anonymous composers, this music is more astringent and austere-sounding than the lush polyphony of Stile Antico’s program, but the singing is every bit as skillful and there’s actually a higher density of familiar Christmas melodies here: “Veni, veni, Emanuel,” “Hayl Mary, Ful of Grace,” “Nowel: Owt of Your Sleep Aryse,” etc. In fact, in its variety and energy this album reminds me of the best Christmas recordings of another legendary Boston early-music ensemble, the Boston Camerata. Very highly recommended.
Franz Xaver Gebel
Profil (dist. Naxos)
Franz Xaver Gebel was born in Fürstenberg and educated in Vienna, but spent most of his life and career as a music teacher in Moscow. He had a reputation as something of a dreamer (who would regularly forget to teach his lessons if the muse struck and distracted him); it’s tempting to think that his otherworldly orientation may have contributed to the fact that he is now largely forgotten. However, some of his chamber music has recently been published for the first time, and this disc presents world-premiere recordings of two of his string quartets. Both are fine examples of early Romantic quartet writing, and the playing (on period instruments) by the Hoffmeister Quartet is very good. Comprehensive classical collections should definitely pick this one up.
Carolina Eyck; Christopher Tarnow
Genuin (dist. Naxos)
And you thought the theremin was just for scoring 1950s science-fiction movies. But no: this admittedly bizarre instrument (which requires the performer to move her hands within the electromagnetic fields created by two antennas, one hand controlling pitch while the other controls volume) is capable of creating genuinely delicate and nuanced music, particularly when played by a virtuoso of Carolina Eyck’s caliber. The fact that every pitch change is essentially a glissando does pose certain challenges for the composer, but Christopher Tarnow (who doubles here as Eyck’s accompanist) ably demonstrates that those challenges can be met in ways that take this instrument well beyond the realm of novelty. Highly recommended to all libraries.
Anne Boleyn’s Songbook: Music & Passions of a Tudor Queen (2 discs)
Alamire / David Skinner
Obsidian (dist. Naxos)
Anne Boleyn is known today primarily for being one of Henry VIII’s six wives, and for the grisly nature of her execution in 1536. She was also, however, an educated music lover, and in her youth she oversaw the compilation of a songbook that included vocal works by such eminences of the time as Jean Mouton, Antoine Brumel, Josquin Desprez, and a host of anonymous composers. That book is now housed in the Royal Academy of Music, and for this disc the outstanding Alamire ensemble has gathered 19 of the best selections from it — choral works, accompanied solo chansons, and instrumental pieces. One might be forgiven for wondering why the second disc is only 32 minutes long, given that there must have been more good music to choose from, but since the whole package is being sold at single-disc price that’s just a quibble. The performances are, as always by this group, sumptuously beautiful.
Johann Nicolaus Denninger
CPO (dist. Naxos)
No one is going to claim that Johann Nicolaus Denninger was one of the greats of the late-classical period. Listen to these piano trios and compare them to Haydn’s — they’re just not in the same league. On the other hand, it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone listening to these works and not being thoroughly charmed, by both Denninger’s melodic imagination and his rhythmic energy. Though to be fair, much of the credit for the latter goes to the Trio 1790, whose period-instrument performances of these four piano trios are as light and delicious as a meringue cookie. I don’t know if this disc is an essential purchase for every library, but it’s certainly finding a home in mine.
Hot Jazz Jumpers
The Very Next Thing
On the Bol
“Hot” jazz is kind of like pornography: you may not be able to define it precisely, but you know it when you see it. What the Hot Jazz Jumpers offer is a gleefully untraditional take on the hot jazz tradition: cases in point include a sort of twisted calypso version of “You Are My Sunshine,” a decidedly non-mellow arrangement of “In a Mellow Tone,” a handful of New Orleans tunes, a cover of “Got My Mojo Workin'” — hmmm. Actually, exactly how is this hot jazz? Oh, right–the plectrum banjo. And of course, here at CD HotList our Official Editorial Position is that purism is for suckers anyway. Mostly we just dance.
For Once in My Life
Origin (dist. City Hall)
Pianist Ben Paterson leads his marvelous trio through a very nicely varied set of standards, originals, and modern covers on this, his first album on organ. The title track is a re-envisioning of a 1970s soul classic as a jazz waltz that segues into a gospel shout; his take on “Cry Me a River” is gorgeous, his version of Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” is witty and insightful. At all points he sounds as if he’s been playing the Hammond B3 from the get, rather than since four or five years ago. Guitarist Peter Bernstein is (no surprise here) a powerful presence himself, and drummer George Fludas provides everything from skittering funk-swing to straight-up funk with a combination of grace and power that consistently impresses. Strongly recommended to all jazz collections.
Dan Trudell Trio
Dan Trudell Plays the Piano
No cat. no.
From a pianist who moved over to the organ, we switch to a Hammond player stepping out for his debut recording on the piano. Not that Trudell is any stranger to the ivories — he came up as a pianist — but he’s mainly known for his work with the B-3 Bombers and as far as I can tell he’s never led a recording session from the piano before. On this album you can hear his organ background in the funky exuberance he brings to “Isn’t She Lovely?” and the sassy strut of his 11-minute take on “That Old Black Magic” and of his own “Jonesin'”, and also perhaps in his tendency towards octave passages and big, orchestral chord voicings. Drummer Matt Wilson (yes, that Matt Wilson) and bassist Joe Sanders support him ably but mainly stay out of his way, the better not to get cheerfully run over. Recommended.
Lots of jazz cats play Thelonious Monk tunes (well, they play “Round Midnight,” anyway), but very few of them interpret Monk tunes. Terry Adams, keyboardist and leader of the legendary New Rhythm ‘n’ Blues Quartet (NRBQ) has been shining new light on Monk for decades now, and with this live album he delivers a brilliant and intoxicatingly fun set of very personal interpretations ranging from a barrelhouse-R&B take on “Hornin’ In” to a rocking take on “Humph” and a calypso version of “Think of One.” Because Adams thinks hard about this stuff and has been doing so since his youth, none of these arrangements feels like a novelty; he knows Monk’s music intimately and brings to this project both a healthy veneration for the composer and an equally healthy disregard for expectation and tradition. And the NRBQ have never sounded better. An essential purchase.
I don’t know about “feelings,” plural, but there’s a pretty consistent feeling across the whole of this 1975 album, finally being reissued on CD. That feeling is “cocksure exuberance,” and it is steadfastly communicated at mid-tempo on this very straight-ahead and powerfully swinging album. If it weren’t for the sound quality, you might think it was recorded in the late 1950s at the peak of the hard bop era. Edwards leads a sextet that includes the huge-toned bassist Ray Brown and Jerry Steinholz on congas and percussion; the latter infuses a gentle Latin influence into these otherwise very straightforwardly swinging performances (and a more overt influence on the much more Latin-sounding “The Blue Sombrero”). Only the harmonically static and limply funky “Eleven Twenty Three” disappoints.
Buck’ Em! The Music of Buck Owens (1967-1975), Volume 2 (2 discs)
Of the two volumes in the Omnivore label’s Buck Owens retrospective, there’s no question that the first is the essential one: it’s the one that includes Owens’ biggest hits, songs like “Tiger By the Tail,” “Above and Beyond,” and “Act Naturally.” But for libraries that collect popular and/or country music pretty comprehensively, this second volume is a treasure trove as well, featuring live versions of his early hits, novelty numbers, and pop/rock cover versions that got him into a bit of trouble with the country-music purists of his time. And like the first volume, this one will surprise anyone who thinks of Buck Owens as just another Hee Haw! goofball — the man was one of the towering geniuses of popular music in the 20th century. And he absolutely killed it live.
Raise Your Hands!
This is a brilliant concept: guitarist and singer Sam Butler, who played for the Blind Boys of Alabama for years, delivers a dozen gospel songs written by non-gospel artists (Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Tom Waits, etc.) in a style that blends gutbucket bluesiness with soaring slide guitar in the “sacred steel” style (of which Butler’s father was an early exponent). Every track is dark and gritty, the arrangements minimal — rhythm guitar, steel guitar, drums, acoustic bass — and Butler’s singing is at times slightly terrifying in its intensity and power.
Tim O’Brien seems famous to me; he’s been a part of my musical environment for my entire adult life. But I wonder if the rest of the world knows what a treasure he is. A deeply accomplished bluegrass musician, he’s been genially pushing the boundaries of bluegrass, folk, and acoustic pop music for decades now, and he keeps doing it on this excellent album. Here he performs original songs and covers of tunes by Woody Guthrie, Michael Hurley, and, er, James Brown as well as collaborations with the likes of Sarah Jarosz and Gary Nicholson. Good luck fitting this album into a particular roots-music subgenre — better yet, don’t bother. Just let yourself get caught up in the emotionally complex and musically multifaceted stream and enjoy.
Tin Halo Music
Debra Clifford and Becca Wintle, who perform and record together as the Farwells, came to their unique brand of minimalist high-lonesome folk music by very different paths: Clifford (guitar/mandolin/banjo) by way of old-timey music as a member of the Lonesome Sisters and Old Buck, and the UK-born Wintle (fiddle/guitar) by way of classical training, British folk, and American string band music. Together they sing in tight, reedy harmony and play their instruments in varying configurations, performing traditional favorites like “Little Sadie,” “Green Pastures,” and “Pretty Saro” in a mournful and unadorned style that is tremendously affecting. Highly recommended to all folk collections.
Songs of Heart and Home
Greg Blake Music
This is a very fine album by West Virginia native and current Colorado-by-way-of-Kansas transplant Greg Blake, who has been a regional star for many years and has won the SPGMA’s Guitarist of the Year and the Kansas State Flatpicking championship multiple times. On this project, however, he modestly keeps the guitar pyrotechnics to a minimum in favor of songs, which he sings in an attractive baritone voice and which he gathers from such obvious sources as Bill Monroe, Carter Stanley, and Johnny Cash and from as far afield as Bill Staines and Ian Tyson. He’s accompanied by an all-star cast that includes Claire Lynch, Blaine Sprouse, and hotshot banjo picker Jeff Scroggins. If you’re looking for Grade-A meat-and-potatoes modern bluegrass, this disc is for you.
Pay Attention! (Reissue)
On-U Sound (dist. Redeye)
Trevor Jackson Presents Science Fiction Dancehall Classics (2 discs)
From the dark and chaotic vaults of the legendary On-U Sound label has come a sporadic trickle of reissues and compilations over the past few years. The latest batch includes one of each: the reissued 1980 debut of postpunk weirdos The Mothmen, and a two-disc collection of avant-garde funk, dub, reggae and dance music by such label stalwarts as Tackhead, African Head Charge, Voice of Authority, and Dub Syndicate compiled by Trevor Jackson (former member of Playgroup, also of the On-U stable). To be very clear, all of this is weird stuff, but the Mothmen album is the weirdest. 1980 was a crazy time in England, and the Mothmen seem to have absorbed most of the scene’s quirkiness; on their debut album they sound like they’re trying to metabolize all of it, spitting out fractured funk, jagged art-rock, and experimental non-jazz in sequence. The Science Fiction compilation brings together more of On-U’s reggae and funk output, though even here the sounds are deeply quirky: the early African Head Charge tracks sound like what might have happened if Alan Lomax had smoked copious amounts of ganja; Alan Pellay’s “Parasitic Machine” sounds like Wire crossed with the Slits; Tackhead’s “Now What” is classic aggro-funk that demonstrates an exciting fusion of early hip hop and postpunk. Of the 27 tracks on this compilation, only four are previously unreleased, but lots of the others are rare or hard to find, at least on CD. As one of On-U Sound’s small but rabid international cult, I find it hard to maintain much critical distance about this one.
Flanger is a duo consisting of composers Atomtm and Burnt Friedman, who last recorded together ten years ago. Their return to the studio resulted in a near-perfect distillation of what can now safely be called the Nonplace trademark sound, which is fascinatingly self-contradictory: this music is funky in an awkward, one-leg-shorter-than-the-other kind of way; quiet in an edgy and unsettled kind of way; accessible in a grumpy kind of way. It’s also minutely detailed, expansive in its sound palette, and constantly surprising, and I find it tremendously enjoyable. Here’s hoping for a remix album before too long.
Over time, Skindred’s sound has evolved away from its origins in jungle/metal/funk fusion and towards a more standard-issue Nu-Metal sound, though singer Benji Webbe retains his unapologetic Jamaican patois. On their latest the beats are squarer (though still occasionally funky), the guitars more monolithic, the overall texture more consistently dense and heavy. Those who were drawn to Skindred by the hybrid nature of their early work might find this album disappointing, but those who always liked them best for their heaviosity or who are just generally more attracted by modern metal sounds will find plenty to enjoy here.
Yep Roc (dist. Redeye)
If you’ve followed Chris Stamey’s career over the past three decades or so, you’ll have some idea of what to expect here: solid, hook-filled jangle-pop that harks back to the early 1980s (if you’re a Gen-Xer) or to the late 1960s (if you’re a Baby Boomer). Though in fact, this is music that is pretty much timeless — the popular appetite for perfectly-crafted guitar pop never really disappears; it filters down to every generation. That means that this album should appeal as much to your freshmen as to your faculty.
New Order’s music has always had both eyes on the dance floor, even as the corner of its mouth twitched with an ironic smile and its stomach gurgled faintly with sociopolitical dyspepsia. (This is a band, let’s remember, whose first hit was a cold-eyed look at domestic violence delivered over a relentlessly thumping house beat.) The band’s latest is one of the most pop-smart in its catalog, one that shrwedly takes advantage of the current infatuation with electrop while continuing the New Order tradition of subtle social commentary. Interestingly, Bernard Sumner’s voice has never sounded so attractive. Strongly recommended to all pop collections.
Pirates Press (dist. Nail)
If you’ve never heard of Darkbuster, it’s probably for the very good reason that you haven’t been following the Boston punk scene very closely. Well, that, and the fact that it took them eight years to make this 25-minute-long “album” and they broke up (apparently for good this time) shortly after it was recorded. But here’s my prediction: put this one in the collection and all the punk kids will line up at the desk asking you to find the band’s earlier stuff. Most of these ten songs are standard melodic post-hardcore shoutalongs, but the title track is horn-driven punk-ska, and “Prevost” is a 50-second-long tribute to a Canadian bus manufacturer. “Lil’ Junkie” opens with the deathless couplet “Had a problem/With heroin.” The final track is titled “Punk Rock’s Not Dead” — but unfortunately, Darkbuster seems to be.
Nexus; Sepidah Raissadat
Self-released (dist. Albany)
The percussion quartet Nexus has prepared two suites of arrangements for this recording: the first is a set of six compositions by the famous outsider composer Moondog; the second is a suite of seven songs by contemporary Iranian composer Reza Ghassemi and performed by Nexus with singer and setar player Sepideh Raissadat. The two parts of the program could hardly be more different, but each is gorgeous in its own way: the Moondog pieces with their shimmering, pulsating tonality, and the Ghassemi pieces with their complex melodies and Raissadet’s supple, expressive singing. In both cases you’ll hear echoes of 1970s minimalism, but that’s about all they have in common stylistically. Highly recommended.
MC Boogat is based in frosty Montreal, but his music is an irresistibly warm Caribbean-Latin American fusion with strong elements of cumbia, pop, hip hop, and reggae. His lyrics are informed both by modern politics and by 20th-century magical realism, and his beats are relentlessly funky. The lyrics are all either in Spanish or, weirdly, in Lingala (a Bantu language spoken primarily in Congo), and there are cameo appearances by vocalists Pierre Kwenders and La Yegros. If you understand Spanish the politics are fairly heavy; if you don’t, the grooves are too. Actually, the grooves are heavy either way. Recommended.
Gentleman’s Dub Club
The Big Smoke
This London-based nine-piece is currently one of the two or three finest roots reggae outfits operating, thanks in part to their crack horn section and in part to their singleminded dedication to a strictly heavyweight old-school style: nimble horn charts, straightforward melodic hooks, and elephantine basslines. On The Big Smoke the production style matters too: a dubwise weirdness is always lurking at the edges, creating a big and spacious sound field and embroidering the vocals and the instruments with occasional hints of echo and delay. Strongly recommended to all libraries with a collecting interest in reggae.
Charity Begins at Home (reissue)
BBE Music (dist. Redeye)
Quick: name a saxophonist who has played with Fela Ransome Kuti, Miles Davis, and Bob Marley. Can’t? Well, now you can. Eji Oyewole has played all over the world over the course of a 50-year career, and still peforms regularly in his hometown of Lagos. This album was originally recorded in the late 1970s for EMI Nigeria, and it shows Oyewole to be a bandleader with an unusual take on the highlife sound, one that was deeply informed by his time with Fela: less guitar, more horns, greater track lengths. The remastered sound on this reissue is superb, and fans of Afrobeat will be especially excited to it back on the market.