PICK OF THE MONTH
Rooted & Grounded (2 discs)
Ben Woodbridge, a.k.a. Ben Alpha, a.k.a. Alpha Steppa, is heir to a decades-long dynasty of British dub reggae originators and in recent years has established a strong legacy of his own. His signature style is hinted at by his stage name: what’s known in reggae parlance as a “steppers” rhythm is a hard-driving reggae variant characterized by a kick-drum accent on every beat, and is often a feature of songs of a more militant nature, particular those that call for repatriation to Africa. Alpha Steppa uses that basic rhythmic foundation to promote messages of social consciousness and to seriously nice up the dancefloor. On his first solo album, the first disc features vocalists like Sistah Awa, Prince Jamo (not to be confused with Prince Jazzbo), Ras Tinny, and I-Sarana; the second disc features remixes of the first disc’s content. If you want to know what the future of dub music sounds like — and want to know why Alpha Steppa’s productions are regularly featured on such A-list sound systems as Channel One, Iration Steppas, and V.I.V.E.K., by all means check this out.
Sonatas for Viola and Piano
Geraldine Walther; David Korevaar
MSR Classics (dist. Albany)
For this recording, violist Gerladine Walther and pianist David Korevaar have made the interesting choice to present Hindemith’s three viola sonatas in reverse chronological order, beginning with his unnumbered 1939 composition and ending with opus 11, no. 4 from 1919. The 1939 piece is the one that most fully exemplifies his mature style (unsurprisingly), while the earliest one is most familiar, a recital favorite for violists. But I find the middle one (opus 25, no. 4, from 1922) most interesting — here we find Hindemith lashing out at musical convention, developing his quartal harmonic language, simultaneously rejecting traditional tonality and the duodecophany that was currently in the ascendant. Walther is a brilliant, fiery advocate for these works.
Franz Anton Hoffmeister
Orchestra della Svizzera italiana / Howard Griffiths
CPO (dist. Naxos)
The symphonies recorded for this release (in C major and D major) are the last two such compositions Franz Anton Hoffmeister produced, and indeed the C major work is among his very last in any format; he died only three years after it was published in 1809. It finds the composer moving, if somewhat grudgingly, into the Romantic style that was emerging in Vienna at the time. To be honest, Hoffmeister’s symphonies are not earthshakingly innovative or interesting — he’s better known for his flute music, and rightly so. But they are very attractive and enjoyable, and are beautifully performed here. Recommended to comprehensive classical collections.
Contact / Jerry Pergolesi
Cantaloupe (dist. Naxos)
Forty years ago, Brian Eno effectively invented the genre of ambient music with Discreet Music, a piece that was constructed out of complementary melodic fragments that were prerecorded and looped such that they interacted with each other in somewhat unpredictable ways (in a manner somewhat reminiscent of minimalist composer Steve Reich’s experiments with phasing). For this recording, percussionist and ensemble director Jerry Pergolesi has tweaked the melodic content a bit and created a system that assigns the different melodies to instruments including violin, piano, soprano saxophone, and vibraphone. The result is every bit as beautiful and relaxing as the original, with the added tonal richness of live instruments. Every library would benefit from a copy of this luscious album.
Venecie Mundi Splendor: Marvels of Medieval Venice. Music for the Doges, 1330-1430
Arcana (dist. Naxos)
Normally when we think about cathedral music in Venice, we naturally focus on the work of Renaissance giants like Monteverdi and the Gabrielis. But Saint Mark’s Cathedral had hosted splendid sacred music for centuries before that period, and this disc features music composed at the behest of local politicos during the 14th and early 15th centuries. This is mostly polyphonic music, of the astringent ars nova variety, and the program consists mostly of motets, but there are also some liturgical settings. Featured composers include Johannes Ciconia, Antonius Romanus, Francesco Landini, and Christoforus de Monte. Lovely performances, beautifully recorded.
Sonatas for Violin & Guitar; Sonata for Viola & Guitar
José M. Álvarez Losada; Joaquín Riquelme; Pedro Mateo González
Eudora (dist. Allegro)
Do your patrons a favor and facilitate their discovery of this remarkable music by the obscure but prolific Austrian composer Ferdinand Rebay, whose sonatas for violin, viola, and guitar are given world-premiere recordings on this disc. Although written in the early 20th century, these pieces are completely tonal and exhibit none of the angsty chromaticism of so much other art music of the period — which isn’t to say that they’re boring or predictable; quite the contrary. But they’re a pure joy to listen to. Here’s hoping more from this sadly neglected composer will come forward soon.
Flos virginum: Motets of the 15th Century
CPO (dist. Naxos)
Bias disclosure: normally I much prefer mixed-voice choirs to all-male ones — and I prefer multiple voices to a part over one-voice-to-a-part configurations. But on this collection of motets and chansons from the period when polyphonic writing came into its maturity, the awesome Stimmwerck ensemble has just about convinced me to go back into their catalog (and to dust off my old Hilliard Ensemble discs). Their accounts of these works by various anonymous and obscure composers, with one Dufay number thrown in, consistently maintain that essential but delicate balance between devotional austerity and tonal lushness, their intonation is impeccable, and their blend exemplary. Maybe not essential to every collection, but certainly to all early music collections.
Consort Music for 4, 5 and 6 Viols
Olde Focus (dist. Naxos)
We don’t know much about the English composer William Cranford, though contemporaneous documents suggest that he flourished just around the time that consort music was falling out of fashion. His exercises in the genre are mostly preserved in a set of manuscripts collected and preserved at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. His writing style is rather intellectual and allusive, and some listeners may not find it as immediately accessible as that of his contemporaries, but the LeStrange Viols ensemble make a strong case for its value and I find both the compositions and the performances very enjoyable. Recommended to all early music collections.
This is not a miracle
The ensemble that calls itself Food has always been an amoeba-like creature, changing its size and composition more or less constantly since its founding in 1998. On This is not a miracle the band has boiled down to a duo consisting of percussionist/keyboardist Thomas Strønen and saxophonist Iain Ballamy, with guitarist Christian Fennesz as a guest. And really, on this album it’s mainly Strønen — the three musicians recorded hours of material together and then Strønen took the tracks away, chopped them into pieces, and reassembled them into something that fit his personal vision of music that consists of carefully constructed arrangements of improvised parts. As one might expect, the result is both intellectually exciting and viscerally enjoyable, with solid grooves that are constantly and stimulatingly undermined by weird and off-the-wall sound effects. Imagine a typical ECM jazz album as remixed by Lee “Scratch” Perry, and you’ll get a good sense of what to expect. For all jazz collections.
Requiem for a Jazz Lady
Tenor saxophonist Ernie Krivda is something of a legend in the Cleveland jazz scene, and this album (consisting mostly of originals, plus a version of the standard “I’ll Close My Eyes”) is presented as a heartfelt and reflective ode to his home town. That’s not to say that it consist entirely, or even mostly, of quiet and ruminative music; on the contrary, he opens strongly with the midtempo “The Remarkable Mr. Black” and gets funky on both “Questions” and “Great Lakes Gumbo.” But the overall mood is thoughtful even when the tempos are relatively sprightly, an effect compounded by Krivda’s old-fashioned tone, which often evokes the spirit of Lester Young. This is both an impressive and a lovely album.
ACT Music (dist. Allegro)
And speaking of thoughtful and ruminative, consider the latest trio effort from pianist Michael Wollny. With Nachtfahrten (“night journeys”) he ventures “over to the dark side of romanticism, to a world of fantasy, eerie shadows, and things that go bump in the night,” according to the press materials. I might put things a bit less fantastically than that, though: on this album Wollny acknowledges his deep debt to Bill Evans, unspooling a series of impressionistic and harmonically unpredictable compositions that feature almost no swing and that rarely approach mid tempo. It’s beautiful stuff, not only thoughtful but also thought-provoking.
One Night in Indy
Last May I recommended In the Beginning, the third in an ongoing series of rare and archival Wes Montgomery recordings. Here’s another one, this one documenting a 1959 club appearance by Montgomery with pianist Eddie Higgins’ trio in Indianapolis — the only time these two giants of the Midwest jazz scene are known to have played together. The sound quality is mediocre, but the playing is as marvelous as one would expect, and any library collecting jazz in anything like a comprehensive way will want to acquire this disc (as well as the others in this series).
Ask the Ages (reissue)
I remember listening to Ask the Ages when it first came out, in 1991. I had been intrigued by Sonny Sharrock’s work with Pharaoh Sanders and with Material, and I knew the album was produced by Bill Laswell, and that was all it took to pique my interest. I was disappointed at the time (too much skronk, I thought, and too many drum solos), so I thought it would be interesting to try it again 25 years later and see if I still felt the same way. And in fact, I don’t: now it sounds harsh but also often lyrical, and simultaneously soulful and sophisticated. Sharrock’s guitar playing is equally informed by gutbucket blues and downtown free improv, which makes for a pretty exciting tension if you have ears to hear. This reissue is long overdue; my only quibble is that neither the packaging nor the full-line pricing indicates that a reissue is what it is. Recommended to comprehensive jazz collections.
The Dutch Sessions
Cousin Harley is a Vancouver-based trio that specializes in strictly old-school rockabilly music. Headed by singer/guitarist Paul Pigat, who is accompanied by upright bassist Keith Picot and drummer Jesse Cahill, the group recorded this album live in the studio in a small village in the Netherlands, recording direct to tape (though it sounds like there was a little bit of overdubbing happening after the fact — either that, or an uncredited second guitarist stepped in for a bit). The energy is great and the playing is sharp; highlights include a fine version of Jim Reeves’ “Yonder Comes a Sucker” and and equally impressive take on Buck Owens’ “Rhythm & Booze,” neither of which would likely have been recognized by its composer.
To casual listeners this may sound like Irish music, but listen more carefully and you’ll hear anomalies: melodies that wander past the boundaries of what’s typical of Irish tunes, and lyrics sung in a Gaelic language that doesn’t sound much like Irish at all. That’s because this is Manx music, from the Isle of Man (which lies in the Irish Sea between England and Ireland). It’s certainly Gaelic, but definitely not Irish or Scottish, and that means that there are lots of fascinatingly subtle distinctions to be heard by fans of Celtic music who are interested enough to listen hard. And for those not so inclined, there are lots of bittersweet melodies and rollicking rhythms, and plenty of virtuosic playing to be enjoyed. Best song title: “Fir-hammag Yioogh” (translation: “High Net Worth Individuals”).
Mark Kuykendall & Bobby Hicks & Asheville Bluegrass
Down Memory Lane
For several years I was a regular reviewer for Bluegrass Unlimited magazine. It was fun, but I soon ran into the same problem I’d had when reviewing hardcore punk for the All-Music Guide: it’s hard to find different things to say about good albums in a tightly-defined genre. This one is typical in that regard: Mark Kuykendall is a great singer with a rich low-tenor voice, Bobby Hicks is a legendarily brilliant fiddler, and the songs they’ve picked for Down Memory Lane are a fine blend of old classics (“I Wonder Why You Said Goodbye,” “You Go to Your Church”) and old-sounding originals. The playing is typically tight and virtuosic — guest pickers include mandolinist Doyle Lawson — and when you put all of those elements together you get an absolutely stellar straight-ahead bluegrass album that will sound exactly like all other stellar straight-ahead bluegrass albums to all but the most deeply-informed adepts of the genre. But if your collection could use more stellar straight-ahead bluegrass albums, by all means pick this one up.
Red Moon Road
Sorrows and Glories
Canadian trio Red Moon Road continues its ongoing exploration of folkie-soully-Canucky-semi-country modern pop on this, its third album. Imagine, if you will, Lake Street Dive with slightly less aggressive virtuosity, or Over the Rhine with much (much) less self-importance, or what Aretha Franklin might have sounded like if she’d been raised by hippies in Manitoba who had an extensive collection of Charles Trenet and Kingston Trio albums. This crazy-quilt welter of influences is held together and kept coherent by the chesty and powerful voice of Sheena Rattai, who is a genius but doesn’t make a big deal of it. Delightful surprises lurk around every sonic corner on this album, which would be equally at home in a folk or alt-pop collection, or frankly any collection at all. Highly recommended.
Maybe it’s my age (and the fact that I listen to it on headphones rather than in clubs), but in my experience, bass music hits hardest not when it’s loudest or texturally most dense, but rather when it’s most detailed and sonically rich. Dub Phizix seems to agree with me. His contribution to the Fabriclive series of DJ mixes features plenty of heavyweight rhythms, jungly breaks, and dubsteppy wub-wub-wub, but also lots of microscopic sonic detail — tiny little rhythmic glitches, disembodied vocal samples, etc. And the tracks he features from artists like Chunky, Skeptical, and Chimpo are going to send me straight to Soundcloud to learn more. Is there a better index of success for a DJ mixtape than that? I submit that there is not. Recommended to all collections.
Cradle to Grave
I guess it wouldn’t normally be considered a compliment to say that a band’s sound hasn’t developed noticeably in more than thirty years. But in the case of Squeeze, it feels like high praise. The architecturally perfect soul-inflected Britpop that they’re purveying on their new album (the first since 1998) would have sounded perfectly at home on one of their albums from the early 1980s: the subtly tricky chord progressions, the octave-based vocal harmonies, the sweet and indelible melodic hooks. And the fact is, too, that neither Chris Difford’s nor Glenn Tilbrook’s voice has aged noticeably since the band first started making hits. What this means is that if you didn’t like them then, nothing about this album will change your mind — but if you did, welcome home.
DMF (dist. Redeye)
Speaking of bands that don’t sound like they’ve lost a step since their heyday in the 1980s, consider this new album from the Selecter, mainstays of the second-wave (or “2 Tone”) UK ska revival alongside such legends of the genre as the Specials and the Beat. Subculture features original members Pauline Black and Arthur “Gaps” Hendrickson, but not founder Neol Davies (with whom the band has been in sporadic legal conflict since the 1990s). Despite his absence, this album harks back nicely to the glory days of 2 Tone ska, when traditional Jamaican upbeats and rock-steady rhythms were abraded slightly by a punky sawtooth edge. Black’s and Hendrickson’s voices continue to be bracingly complementary, and neither one has aged noticeably in the nearly forty years that have now passed since they began working together. Pull quote: “Out on the streets/People sending dangerous tweets.” Recommended to all pop collections.
Only Love Is Real
Black Swan Sounds
Hip hop and yoga may not seem like a natural fit. And truly, they aren’t: one tends to celebrate material culture while the other promotes interiority and a life of the spirit; one leans towards images of violence and revenge, while the other promotes peaceful meditation. But if you don’t think a world-renowned yogini can be a world-class hip hop artist/producer, check out the latest from MC Yogi, who is simultaneously a top-notch beat architect and a popular yoga teacher. He also has the juice necessary to pull in guest vocalists like Matisyahu, Marti Nikko, and Trevor Hall, among others. What matters, of course, is the degree to which this music actually hangs together — and it’s brilliant. Conscious lyrical messages, slamming beats, rich textural details, it’s all here. Highly recommended to all collections.
This Heat (reissue)
Modern Classics/Light in the Attic
Modern Classics/Light in the Attic
It’s kind of hard to believe that 2016 marks 40 years since the founding of legendary/infamous noisemongers This Heat. Even harder to believe is how timeless their noise sounds today. They were significant contributors to the architecture of what would come to be called post-punk, but that seems like far too much of an oversimplification: yes, their overall sound had a distinctly serrated edge, but it also had much textural subtlety and could be quite gentle and even contemplative — though always in a distinctly oddball sort of way. Their eponymous debut is particularly rich in quietude and open space; their second a bit less so. In between those two full-length came a 12″ single titled “Health & Efficiency,” which rocked pretty hard on the A side and droned a bit monotonously (and at length) on the B. All of it is well worth hearing and can be confidently recommended to comprehensive pop collections.
Clarabelle and the Creeps The Modern Underground Sound of Muscle Shoals Soul
Arkam (dist. NAIL)
This album was reportedly “recorded in the kitchen of a random Florence Alabama house,” and of course it sounds like it: crappy production is always supposed to signal authenticity, or irony, or whatever. (How they got the fake vinyl surface noise onto tape while recording in a kitchen is something of a mystery.) Listen past the affectations, though, because the songs are worth it and so is Gracie Barrier’s voice. “Side 1” is 1950s-style horror pop, and “Side 2” is dancing-with-tears-in-my-eyes teenage-heartache balladry; most of it was written by Barrier, and all of it is tons of retro fun. To reiterate: what makes it so isn’t the retro, but the hooks. And the singing. Recommended to all pop collections.
West of Anywhere (compilation)
Alive Batural Sound (dist. Redeye)
Power pop is a rock’n’roll subgenre that transcends national and cultural boundaries: Fastball and Cheap Trick and the Knack and the Innocents all basically sound like they come from the same home town. DM3 were from Australia, and there’s nothing on this compilation album that would particularly give that away. Not that any of that matters much either way — but the fact that they were from Australia makes it a bit less likely that your patrons will have heard them before, and will make this collection of tracks from their three albums that much more of a blissful revelation. Crunchy guitars, bright shiny hooks, tight harmonies — you know what to expect, and you owe it to your patrons to provide it.
The Name of the Dub
For those whose tastes in reggae run to the instrumental and experimental, dub is usually the flavor of choice. Dub is a producer’s art form, the progenitor of modern remix culture, and Munich-based producer Umberto Echo (get it? get it?) is one of the great living masters of the practice. On this album he takes tracks from the Echo Beach catalog — songs by the likes of Dubmatix, Tackhead, Senior Allstars, and Dactah Chando — and subjects them to sometimes radical reworkings in which instruments and voices are dropped out and brought back in, bounce around the soundspace in reverberant fragments, and are sometimes twisted and warped beyond recognition. If your patrons are fans of dub already you’ll definitely want this album; if they need an introduction, this album will do the trick splendidly. Highly recommended.
Jungle Revolution in Dub
Big Dada (dist. Redeye)
Last year Congo Natty released Jungle Revolution, a celebration of old-school junglism — the kind that you used to hear in underground London clubs before jungle started getting called drum and bass and gradually lost its intimate connection to England’s Rastafarian subculture. Now comes a remix project based on that album and featuring contributions from the likes of DJ Madd, Dubkasm, Vibronics, and Mad Professor. What’s interesting is how little of the music’s jungle origins is immediately apparent in these mixes; instead, what you mostly hear is traditional dub: deep, dark, and dread. Both albums are strongly recommended to world and pop collections.
More Music More Family
Cas Haley is an unusually winning purveyor of modern pop-reggae, an exceptional crafter of hooks and arrangements, and the possessor of a voice that is as light and fresh as an ocean breeze. This time out his songwriting is informed by the experience of an injury that was serious enough to keep him out of the studio for a time and seems to have increased his appreciation for family and for the blessings of life generally. The skitteringly funky “Before It’s Too Late” and the Memphis soul waltz of “Will You Be Ready” both reflect his new and deeper lyrical concerns, but the fan favorites will probably be the 1970s-style reggae grooves of tracks like “Hold Up My Heart” and “We Learn.” The fact is, though, that there’s not a weak track anywhere on this album.
Fred Locks Meets David O.
Time to Shine, Vol. 1
Fred Locks has been a celebrated reggae singer since before there was such a thing as reggae — he got his start as part of the rock steady ensemble The Lyrics in the mid-1960s. But he really came into his own during the height of the roots period in the 1970s, and has since then never really gone away, even though he’s never reached the heights of international fame that some of his contemporaries did. David Ondrick is a producer who learned at the knees of Clement “Coxsone” Dodd and others, and together the two have produced an album of vintage-style roots reggae in a showcase style, with vocal versions followed immediately by dub mixes or instrumental versions featuring horn solos. Fred Locks’ voice is still strong and clear, and this is a solid program of classic reggae.
Set in Stone
No cat. no.
Stick Figure is the nom de reggae of self-taught singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Scott Woodruff. Genuine solo projects like this are very often hit-and-miss affairs — there’s great value in having other people involved to let you know when you’re getting too self-indulgent. But Woodruff doesn’t seem to need that: his songs are tightly constructed and are delivered with a perfect balance of creative expansiveness and musical economy. And, of course, there are guest vocalists: Collie Budz, Kyle McDonald (of Slightly Stoopid), and Eric Rachmany (of Rebelution) all make appearances. But Woodruff’s genius is the unifying element here, and it’s really very impressive. Highly recommended to all pop collections.