PICK OF THE MONTH
Inna Nice Up! Fashion
Nice Up! the Session, Vol. 2 (download only)
Two Picks of the Month this time, both of them from the outstanding reggae label Nice Up!. The first features remixes of classic tracks from the vaults of Fashion Records, the London label that arguably did more than any other to foster the early dancehall sound, delivering such massive hits as Smiley Culture’s “Cockney Translation” and Daddy Freddy’s “Yes We a Blood.” The remixes here are by the likes of Machinedrum, the Bug, and Toddla T, and take these vintage dancehall reggae tracks into outer space, their original bounce being translated into jungle, dubstep, and even 8-bit retro styles. There’s not a weak track here. The second volume in the digital-only Nice Up! the Session series takes a similar approach, but draws on a broader and more recent array of material: here we find tracks by neo-roots and dancehall artists like Blend Mishkin, Danny T, and Mr. Benn being given heavyweight treatments in a variety of UK bass styles. I can’t stress enough how much fun both of these albums are, and how timely is their release–this is music for pumping loud in the car with all the windows down.
Staniatki: Moniales ordinis Sancti Benedicti
Flores Rosarum / Susi Ferforglia
Dux (dist. Naxos)
This disc is the first entry in a series titled Musica in monasteriis femineis in polonia minore (“Music from Women’s Monasteries in Lesser Poland”), and it features music from the oldest existing collection of antiphons and responsories housed in the Benedictine convent at Staniatki. Although the music itself consists entirely of plainchant (with occasional instrumental improvisations), the antiphonary from which it’s drawn was actually collated in the mid-16th century at the instigation of Abbess Dorota Szreniawska. Flores Rosarum sing with both a warmth and clarity of tone and an admirable ensemble sense. This disc may be of particular interest to libraries that have seen demand for the works of Hildegard von Bingen.
Thomas Coates; Frederick J. Keller; Franz von Suppé
Thomas Coates: The Father of Band Music in America
Newberry’s Victorian Cornet Band / Douglas Hedwig
MSR Classics (dist. Albany)
The title of this disc makes a bold claim, but it’s not an obviously false one if you look at the historical record. By the time John Philip Sousa was beginning to dominate the band-music landscape at the end of the 19th century, Coates had come to the end of a prolific and influential career, and although the mostly-brass instrumentation of his bands fell out of favor shortly after his death, his influence as an arranger continued to be felt. Here his original compositions and medleys of traditional tune arrangements are presented alongside similar works by Frederick Keller and Franz von Suppé, and played on period instruments (including authentic mouthpieces) by the outstanding Newberry’s Victorian Cornet Band. It’s difficult to imagine a library that wouldn’t benefit from owning this disc.
Rediscovering Hugo Kauder
Lindsay Leach-Sparks (with various accompanists)
Titanic (dist. Albany)
Hugo Kauder was quite an anomaly in 20th-century music. To listen to the five chamber works presented here by flutist Lindsay Leach-Sparks and her colleagues, one would guess that the Vienna School had never existed–this music is not only tonal, but it tends strongly to be pentatonic. The harmonies are open with quite a bit of parallel movement, and Kauder draws on elements of folk and medieval music as well as the occasional Asian influence. The result is music that can come across as deceptively naïve to today’s ears, but could only have been seen as an affront to the academic music world in the middle of the 20th century.
Ragazze Quartet; Slagwerk Den Haag; Kapok
Channel Classics (dist. Harmonia Mundi)
If you had to name the single most foundational work of the minimalist school, it would probably have to be In C by Terry Riley. First performed in 1964, it calls on an unspecified number of musicians to repeat any of 53 brief musical phrases as many times as they would like. There is no real harmonic movement (hence the title), and the effect of the piece is basically kaleidoscopic–and of course it sounds different every time it’s played. The second work on this disc, Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector, was written in 1980 for the Kronos Quartet. Both pieces are played with conviction and audible pleasure by the Raggaze Quartet, the percussion ensemble Slagwerk Den Haag, and the horn/guitar/drums trio Kapok.
This is the second solo album from guitarist Rupert Boyd, and it’s outstanding. On this program he presents a stylistically wide-ranging recital of pieces from traditions including tango, Renaissance lute music, 19th-century Spanish classicism, and folk music of both the British Isles and the Iberian peninsula. While the music itself is consistently lovely, what will really strike you as you listen is how bright and colorful his tone is, and how much evident pleasure he takes in playing so many very different kinds of music. I might have swung the hornpipe rhythm of “Loch Leven Castle” a little harder, but that’s the only interpretive disagreement I have with anything on this spectacular album. Highly recommended to all libraries.
Dalmatica: From Oral to Written Transmissions: Chants of the Adriatic
Arcana (dist. Naxos)
It is difficult to describe the strange and special beauty of this recording, which brings together Latin and Slavonic liturgical texts from sources in the Croatian region, some of them sung monodically, some polyphonically, and some in a folk style called klapa. The klapa songs are sturdy and astringent, recalling the sound of Sardinian male harmony trios; other pieces have a distinct ars nova feel, and the juxtaposition of sweet and sour sounds (and of male and female voices) means that the listener is constantly in a state of slight emotional vertigo. What unites all of these tracks is the sense of archaic but deep devotional engagement. I’ve never heard anything remotely like this album, and it’s wonderful.
Johann Friedrich Meister
Il giardino del piacere (world premiere recording)
Audax (dist. Albany)
Johann Friedrich Meister’s collection of twelve trio sonatas titled Il giardino del piacere (“The Pleasure Garden”) was published in 1695, but has never been recorded in its entirety. Half of the sonatas were recorded by the legendary Musica Antiqua Köln in 2011–that ensemble’s final project, as it turned out–and the remaining six are here presented by the outstanding young Ensemble Diderot. The significance of these pieces lies not so much in their unusually high quality (the music is very good, but not earthshaking) but rather in the fact that it represents the first known incursion of the French style into Germany, where it would later take root and flourish. All classical collections should own both this disc and the previous one by MAK.
String Quartet OCD
Playground Ensemble String Quartet
No cat. no.
This 21-minute work (the only one on this budget-priced CD) is something of a program piece, an attempt to convey musically the experience of postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder (PPOCD). Less well-known than postpartum depression, PPOCD can lead to obsessive thoughts of doing harm to one’s baby, debilitating anxiety, and panic attacks. Notareschi portrays the experience musically by means of modernistically jagged and occasionally lyrical passages that convey a sense of claustrophobia, anger, and frustration–and, once in a while, a certain plucky humor. (Listen for the quote from the 1920s song “Baby Face.”) The final movement is titled, appropriately enough, “A Second Delivery,” and depicts the composer’s eventual emergence from the illness that had dominated her mind for a year. The music is of a very high quality, and the package includes handy information about PPOCD and links to resources for those struggling with it.
Nik Bärtsch’s Mobile
Pianist/composer Nik Bärtsch’s ensemble has never been what you could call a conventional jazz combo. In fact, the only reason it makes sense to review his latest album in the Jazz section is because it fits even less well anywhere else. On his latest album, he continues his exploration of modular compositions that incorporate rhythmic repetition (but nothing so simple as pulse) and spiral development. There is a funkiness here, and often a weirdly dark vibe (notice the borderline creepiness of “Modul 18”), and the addition of a string quintet to his usual ensemble of piano, bass clarinet, and two percussionists serves to enrich the band’s sound while also deepening its frequent eeriness. As usual, the music is unlike anything else you’ve probably heard, and it’s very compelling.
Plays Michel Legrand
I’m not usually very keen on jazz recordings that involve orchestral strings, still less an entire symphony orchestra. But I decided to give this one a shot, and I was glad I did. Sadly, this was the final recording by saxophonist George Robert before he died earlier this year. It finds him celebrating the melodic talents of film composer Michel Legrand, performing arrangements of themes from films like Brian’s Song, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and Yentl. My wife shot me a puzzled look when I put this on our home stereo–again: this is not the kind of thing I would normally tolerate–but there’s something about these arrangements that, despite their lushness, keeps them from ever tipping over into schlock. I think it has something to do not only with Robert’s exceptionally tasteful playing, but also with Torben Oxbol’s orchestral arrangements–which are all performed by means of MIDI and digital instrument samples. (Unless someone tips you off to this fact, you probably won’t be able to tell that the instruments aren’t live.) The result is a deeply beautiful album.
Joe Policastro Trio
No cat. no.
The title of this album has a double meaning: it’s dedicated to Pops for Champagne, the Chicago champagne bar where bassist Joe Policastro and his trio hold down a three-nights-a-week residency. But it also refers to the musical program itself: the album consists of jazz arrangements of songs by the likes of Stevie Wonder (“Creepin'”), Pink Floyd (“Us and Them”), the Cars (“Drive”) and even the Pixies (“Wave of Mutilation,” I kid you not). There’s not really anything particularly outlandish about this: jazz has always drawn on popular song for its source material. Not usually the Bee Gees, of course, but why not? Policastro and his crew make a strong argument for all of these songs as jazz vehicles, and they have a ton of fun in the process. You will, too.
Origin (dist. City Hall)
Here’s another take on source material from unlikely places: guitarist Corey Christiansen leads a quintet through a solid set of jazz adaptations of traditional folk and fiddle tunes like “John Hardy,” “Shenandoah,” and “Factory Girl.” What’s particularly impressive here is the way he manages to craft genuinely interesting jazz arrangements of harmonically dead-simple tunes like “Cluck Old Hen” and “Old Joe Clark.” One of his secret ingredients is funk, and another is his ability to coax the African-American roots of some of these tunes out from behind their Anglo-Appalachian façades. It all works really well. Highly recommended to all jazz collections.
This is a very fine leader debut for pianist Louis Heriveaux, who has been a first-call sideman and mainstay of the Atlanta jazz scene for years. Accompanied by bassist Curtis Lundy and bassist Terreon Gully, he delivers a nicely varied set of originals and standards that showcases his wide stylistic range: from the strangely melancholy funk of “One for Simus” (named a friend who committed suicide while the tune was being written), to his sweetly contemplative take on “Body and Soul,” to the loping midtempo groove of the title track. Heriveaux’s playing sparkles and the trio sounds as if they’ve been together for years. Recommended to all jazz collections.
The Evenfall Quartet
The Evenfall Quartet
Tenor saxophonist Mark Earley and bassist Brad Hallen met during their shared tenure in Roomful of Blues, where they also worked with Blue Duchess label head Duke Robillard. But this isn’t a blues or R&B project; instead, it’s a straight-ahead jazz album, which their quartet decided to record in a very old-school way: show up at the studio, confer on a set of standards, play them live with no overdubs or punch-ins, and release the best takes. The result is a set that sounds very old school, not just stylistically (check out Earley’s Hawkins-esque warble on the ballads, particularly “The Shadow of Your Smile”) but also in terms of its immediacy and warmth. Listening to this album leaves you with the feeling of having eaten a solid, deliciously prepared, and well-balanced meal. Highly recommended to all collections.
Cool Rock (dist. Thirty Tigers)
John Doe left the world of punk rock behind long ago, when X (one of the primary architects of the Los Angeles punk sound) finally dissolved after two decades of brilliant music-making. But he took away with him two of the things that had helped to define that sound: his rich baritone voice and his affinity for country music and roots rock. As a solo artist, he brings a serrated edge to those traditions and he sounds as great as ever. His latest album is a slightly surrealist triumph of country-inflected postpunk rock’n’roll, and it is released at the same time as his memoir of his early career (Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk, which is actually a compilation of recollections by himself and other figures of the period including members of the Go-Gos, the Minutemen, and Black Flag). Both the album and the book are must-haves for library collections.
Weight of the World
The members of Seattle-based Western Centuries come from all over the place, musically speaking: hip hop, punk, conjunto, roots rock. But what you hear when they get together is rough-grained honky-tonk country music sung in a variety of voices (lead vocal duties are swapped between the band’s three chief songwriters) and incorporating, every so often, a sly hint of something exotic–a little touch of bluebeat on “In My Cups,” an echo of 12/8 R&B balladry on “Off the Shelf,” a decidedly crooked rhythm on the verse of “Rock Salt,” etc. None of these guys will ever be contestants on The Voice, but they sure do write great songs. And how many country songwriters would (or should) come up with the line “Gonna float down the stream in a ketamine dream”?
A Shedding Snake
Don Giovanni (dist. Redeye)
I don’t know whether I really ought to be putting this one in the Folk/Countryk section, but I can’t escape the feeling that it’s really a roots album cleverly disguised as scrappy post-pop. Singer/songwriter Cara Beth Satalino has clearly been listening to quite a bit of early REM (check out the first couple verses of “Heavy Stone Poem”), but more importantly, there’s something about her jangly guitar arpeggios that just says “folk rock” to me. I’m probably wrong, but whatever. Call it what you want, this is a grungily sparkling debut for her as a solo artist.
Rob Ickes & Trey Hensley
The Country Blues
Compass (dist. Naxos)
Despite its title, this is not a country blues album–it’s a country album, or, perhaps more accurately, a post-bluegrass album (i.e. mostly acoustic, but with drums and a Grateful Dead cover). Hensley and Ickes are a great team: Hensley has one of those gorgeous, copper-colored voices that are prized in modern bluegrass, and Ickes remains one of the hottest and most tasteful slide guitarists working today. And their sense of artistry continues to be tempered by a sense of fun: Hensley delivers a nice Merle Haggard impression on Haggard’s “I Won’t Give Up My Train,” and while my review copy didn’t include liner notes or musician credits and I therefore can’t say who the hotshot Telecaster player is on “Leave My Woman Alone,” that track in particular is a high-octane hoot. I’m not sure the phase shifter on Ickes’ Dobro was necessarily a great choice on “Biscuits and Gravy,” but it’s still plenty of fun. Great stuff overall.
No cat. no.
In a world in which new genre and subgenre designations dissolve into irrelevance almost as soon as they can be invented, the term “dream pop” seems somehow to maintain a certain level of referent utility. If a release is designated as “dream pop” you can pretty much assume that the voices will be mixed at the same level as the instruments and the words only sporadically decipherable, the melodies will be filled with hooks (but modest ones, nothing to pump your fist and chant along to), the harmonies will be multilayered and rapturously beautiful, and everything will be presented in a haze that is the sonic equivalent of a cloud of atomized cotton candy. Funky beats, if such there be, will be quiet and decorous. And there you have it: a pretty good description of the debut full-length from Sweden’s Yumi Zouma, as enjoyable a pop album as I’ve heard yet this year. Now I need to track down their previous EPs…
Aria Rostani & Daniel Blomquist
Also dreamy, but nowhere near as hooky, is the debut album from San Francisco-based experimental duo Aria Rostami and Daniel Blomquist. Their general modus operandi is to take source material from field recordings, online communications, and Rostami’s piano and synthesizer playing, and then create a live performance by looping and manipulating the various sounds. The result is ambient music of a sort, in that it develops slowly and is deeply repetitive, but music that departs from the ambient tradition by being, at times, quite intense. This is also music that harks back significantly to the heyday of analog tape-based experimentation during the 1960s. All of it is quite lovely, if sometimes also a bit creepy and unsettling.
Charlie Faye & the Fayettes
Charlie Faye & the Fayettes
No cat. no.
1960s revivalism is nothing new, but Charlie Faye’s latest project takes it a step beyond the usual, and takes her well away from her roots as an Austin-based Americana artist. With the Fayettes, she embraces the sound of the Shirelles and the Ronettes completely and explicitly, also adopting hair and clothing styles from the period. How does it sound? Awesome, if you like that kind of thing–and even if you don’t, Faye’s way with a hook and a vocal harmony makes the album a pleasure. Highlight track: the exquisite and soulful “Sweet Little Messages.”
ESP-Disk (dist. Forced Exposure)
Blending jazz and free improvisation with absolutely head-pounding, booty-shaking funk, Joe Bowie’s Defunkt changed the way we thought about all of those musical styles back in the 1980s. The band has never gone away completely, but went through multiple lineups during the 1990s and 2000s, not all of them terribly successful. Now the original bandmembers are back together, and this live album documents them reprising a bunch of their 1980s material (“Strangling Me with Your Love,” “Make Them Dance,” “Defunkt,” etc.) and dang if it doesn’t sound even better than it did back then: tighter, faster, funkier, punchier, wilder. I defy anyone to listen to this album and sit still for more than five seconds. (As I write this I’m sitting on an airplane, trying without complete success not to embarrass myself playing air drums along with “Defunkt.”)
Marc Ribot & The Young Philadelphians
Live in Tokyo
For a very different take on funk/avant-garde fusion, consider this highly unusual project led by guitarist Marc Ribot. Working with guitarist Mary Halvorsen, bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma, and drummer G. Calvin Weston (plus a pickup string trio), he presents a live set of vintage Philly soul and disco tracks including hits like “Fly, Robin, Fly,” “Love Rollercoaster,” and, inevitably, “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia),” all played in a gritty but genuinely affectionate style that occasionally threatens to collapse into skronky harmolodic chaos–because the other explicit touchstone for this band’s sound is that of Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time ensemble. The set opens with a slightly clunky version of “Love Epidemic,” but the group quickly finds its feet, and by the time they hit their encore (“The Hustle,” believe it or not) everything is grooving blissfully if still somewhat abrasively. Great stuff.
Adam & the Ants
Kings of the Wild Frontier (deluxe reissue; 2 discs)
If ever there was an ’80s artist who would be unlikely to go over well fully 36 years after his heyday, you would have to expect it to be Adam Ant. What seemed transgressive at the time (the weird Native American/pirate/18th-century-highwayman costume, the self-consciously twee sex-symbol posturing, etc.) would surely seem merely silly today, wouldn’t it? Well, as it turns out, yes–and no. The fact is that songs like “Don’t be Square (Be There)” and “Jolly Roger” are still lots of fun, and “Antmusic” still sounds weird in a slightly hair-raising way. And it’s also true that the particular brand of postpunk craziness documented here was pretty groundbreaking: the Ants’ juxtaposition of spaghetti western guitar sounds, tribal drumming, and eerie yodeling was not typical New Wave fare at the time and remained that band’s unique stylistic territory for a long time. This deluxe reissue offers extensive liner notes plus a disc-and-a-half’s worth of demos, outtakes, and live recordings.
Sherwood at the Controls: Volume 2 1985-1990
On-U Sound (dist. Redeye)
Although he is best known as an innovative producer and impresario of avant-garde dub and neo-roots reggae, Adrian Sherwood had a lot of success in the late 1980s working with funk, industrial, and experimental hip hop groups like Ministry, the Beatnigs, KMFDM, and Tackhead. About a year ago, Sherwood’s On-U Sound label released a collection focusing on his work in this vein (many of them previously unreleased or in unreleased versions), and now we have another one that picks up chronogically where that one left off–and if anything, it’s even better. Here you’ll find an excellent early version of Tackhead’s “Mind at the End of the Tether,” Pankow’s jackboot-funk cover of Prince’s “Girls’ & Boys”, and a great remix of the Beatnigs’ “Television.” And, for those of you who live for the bass pressure, at the end of the program is a handful of alternate versions and outtakes by the likes of African Head Charge and Bim Sherman. Absolutely essential.
And, of course, if what you’re after is dance music of a somewhat less challenging but every bit as interesting variety, you never have to look further than the latest release by Lorin Ashton, a.k.a. Bassnectar. No one in the world of bass music explores texture, rhythm, and melody with as much creativity and infectious joy as this guy, and Unlimited is, in my opinion, his best effort since 2005’s Mesmerizing the Ultra (now, sadly, out of print). As always, the Bassnectar sound is brightly-colored without being too poppy, richly booming without being oppressively dark, happy without being cloying. There are fine vocal cameos from the likes of Rye Rye and Lafa Taylor, and Ashton’s ability to change up the beat without warning and in mindblowing ways remains unparalleled.
Tanbou Toujou Lou
Subtitled “Meringue, Kompa Kreyol, Vodou Jazz & Electric Folklore from Haiti 1961-1981,” this compilation clearly casts a very wide net both stylistically and temporally, and therefore touches only lightly on each of the genres and pseudo-genres (“Electric Folklore”?) mentioned. But for library purposes, that’s probably a feature rather than a bug: if you need one collection that nicely spans a wide range of Haitian pop music genres during a hugely fertile period in that troubled nation’s history, this one would make a great choice. Highlights include the debonaire crooning of Tabou Combo on “Gislene,” Nemours Jean Baptiste’s “Haiti Cumbia,” and the sumptuous big-band sound of Super Jazz de Jeunes.
Dedication to Sylvia Rexach
The bolero is an incredibly important song form in Latin America, and there is a particularly strong tradition of them in Puerto Rico, where they have often been sung in harmony by male-female duos. This album by Reinaldo Alvarez and Laura Ann Singh is a celebration of the songs written in that mode by mid-20th-century icon Sylvia Rexach, who died young in 1961. The arrangements are gentle and quiet, the better to showcase the emotional intensity of the singing. While the organ parts can get a bit cheesy at times (seriously, is that a Farfisa?), the songs themselves are lovely and the singing outstanding. Libraries with a collecting interest in Latin American music should snap up this disc.
Anian (2 discs)
This is a strange and lovely album of Welsh songs by a band called 9BACH. It draws on a variety of other cultural influences (including Greek and Near Eastern flavors), and the lyrics are unusually topical for this group, focusing on disturbing world events of the moment. Of course, if you don’t speak Welsh you may have a hard time catching the sociopolitical messages in the music, so the package includes both a lyric booklet with translations and a second disc on which a number of English-speaking actors, writers, poets, and singers offer spoken interpretations. It’s a very unusual release altogether, but the music is quietly stunning.
The Return of the Tru Ganjaman
Musically speaking, this is Rocker-T’s best album in years: hard-hitting roots and dancehall reggae grooves, guest appearances from the likes of Mykal Rose, Prezident Brown, and the wonderful Gappy Ranks, and of course Rocker-T’s own top-ranking singjay style. The relentless lyrical focus on marijuana smoking (which has sacramental significance for Rastafarians) gets a bit tiresome–song titles like “Blazing Everyday,” “Real Singer Smoker,” and “Herbalist” tell you what to expect–and there are moments when you wish he would focus on another aspect of cultural livity for just a minute. But it’s not like he didn’t tell you what to expect with the album title–and again, the music is just outstanding.