PICK OF THE MONTH
Easy Star/Mr. Bongo
There’s nothing particularly new about a band blending elements of reggae and punk–Bad Brains did it (exquisitely), and so did No Doubt and the Clash and many others. But what’s unusual about the Skints’ latest album is that they’re going against the usual stream of things: most punk bands that incorporate reggae elements become less punky and more reggaefied as time goes on (just listen to the Clash’s debut album and London Calling back to back for a good example of this tendency). But while the Skints’ last album was an absolute gem of straight-up pop reggae, their latest veers wildly back and forth between and among crushing punk rock, hiccuping jungle, drill’n’bass, roots reggae, and rock steady. This is the kind of eclecticism that could come off as gimmicky if it weren’t so solidly rooted in brilliant songwriting, but the consistently high quality of the songs keeps the proceedings from ever coming off as weird or dilletantish. One of the things that sets the Skints apart from the pack is the fact that they’re blessed with no fewer than three fine lead vocalists, who take turns delivering songs of rare incisiveness undergirded by brilliant arrangements. Strongly recommended to all libraries.
Antonio Vivaldi; Raffaele Calace; Domenico Caudioso
Come una volta
Julien Martineau; Concerto Italiano / Rinaldo Allesandrini
Naïve (dist. Naxos)
Johann Sebastian Bach
Concertos BWV 1052R, 1056R & 1041; Sonata BWV 1034 & Partita BWV 1004 (reissue; 2 CD + DVD)
Avi Avital; Kammerakademie Potsdam
00298 483 6590
The mandolin has never gotten the respect it deserves in the context of classical music; these days in Europe it’s most commonly associated with syrupy Neapolitan love songs, and in the US it’s most widely known as a bluegrass instrument. But the repertoire of classical music featuring the mandolin is, if not vast, at least considerable, and one of the most notable composers to have used that instrument as a solo vehicle is Antonio Vivaldi, two of whose concerti (along with one trio sonata) are presented on this album by Julien Martineau. As lovely as these pieces are, though, what’s really striking on his album are the more contemporary mandolin concertos of Raffaele Calace (written in 1925) and another by the relatively obscure baroque composer Domenico Caudioso. The Bach album is a very different sort of program. This one consists of concertos, a sonata, a partita, and a suite all originally written for different instruments and presented here in arrangements (by Avital himself) for mandolin as the solo instrument. The package is actually a reissue of an album originally issued in 2012, augmented by significant bonus material including a DVD of Avital playing two of the pieces from the original album with a different ensemble. The playing on both of these albums is outstanding, and the tonal contrast between the two instruments is worth noting–Martineau’s mandolin is brighter and more silvery, whereas Avital’s has a darker and woodier tone. Both releases are highly recommended to all libraries.
Music for Mandora
Brilliant Classics (dist. Naxos)
From the mandolin to the mandora–an instrument you may never have heard of (I’ll admit that I hadn’t), but that will sound pretty familiar to anyone who has heard a lute, a cittern, or an octave mandolin. In design, it frankly just looks pretty much like a lute, with a teardrop-shaped body, vaulted back, and double-coursed strings. But its sound is deeper and a bit darker, due to its expanded bass range. For this delightful recording Gábor Tokodi has assembled three obscure works, one a sonata by Giuseppe Antonio Brescianello and the others suites by anonymous composers that were discovered in university and monastic archives. As one would expect, the Brescianello piece is more academic while the two anonymous suites and dance-y and fun.
Heinrich & Carl Baermann
Music for Clarinet and Piano
Dario Zingales; Florian Podgoreanu
Brilliant Classics (dist. Naxos)
The legendary clarinetist Heinrich Baermann had four sons, among them Carl, who would himself go on to become a legendary clarinet pedagogue. But both men also distinguished themselves as composers (Carl particularly), and this marvelous disc features world-premiere recordings of three pieces from each of them, as well as a wonderful performance of Carl’s instrumental settings of six Schubert lieder. All of these pieces were written at a time–the Romantic period–when the clarinet’s emotive qualities were being put to the most fruitful use, and the performances (on modern instruments) are outstanding. This disc should be considered an essential purchase for all classical collections.
O crux benedicta: Lent and Holy Week at the Sistine Chapel
Sistine Chapel Choir / Massimo Palombella
On my third time listening to this album, I finally realized what it was that struck me about it so strangely: its opening track is a piece of Gregorian chant on which the choir sounds absolutely eerie. The voices seem to be floating like mist out of a dark cave, which is fitting given the deep solemnity of the liturgical setting for which it’s intended: Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. The remainder of the program is given over to polyphonic works by the likes of Palestrina, De Rore, Victoria, Festa, and Lasso, all of them chosen for liturgical purposes and all of them evoking the somber mood of reverence and wonder leading up to Good Friday; all of the works presented were written to be sung in the Sistine Chapel, which is where they were recorded. The Sistine Chapel Choir has a unique sound; despite the presence of boy trebles, its tonal colors are all purples and grays, and they are perfectly suited to this repertoire.
Baroo (digital only)
I was introduced to the music of Carl Stone only fairly recently, when I received a review copy of a collection of his electronic music from the 1980s and 1990s. This led me to investigate a similar collection of his music from the 1970s, and both albums failed utterly to prepare me for his new release, which sounds completely different from his earlier work. Baroo consists of electronic music intended for live performance, all of it being created by the splintering and re-assembly of sonic source material, some of which seems to be live recordings of African bands (“Baroo”), jazz combos (“Xé May”) and perhaps Southeast Asian pop music or maybe a highlife ensemble (“Sun Nong Dan”). The actual origins of these pieces are obscured by the various ways in which they’ve been digitally folded, spindled, and mutilated, and the result is a fascinating and often startlingly beautiful roller-coaster of kaleidoscopic sound.
Gabriel Fauré; Francis Poulenc; Claude Debussy
Requiem; Figure humaine; Trois chansons de Charles d’Orleans
Ensemble Aedes; Les Siècles / Mathieu Romano
Aparte Music (dist. PIAS)
One could hardly ask for a more stylistically varied collection of late-19th and early-20th-century French choral music than this one. Opening with Fauré’s famously affecting setting of the Requiem Mass, then shifting to Poulenc’s more astringent (and sometimes rather puckish, as was his wont) double-choir cantata Figure humaine, and from there to Debussy’s settings of three 15th-century verses, the Ensemble Aedes presents three strikingly different takes on French choral developments of that period. It’s a very fine recording, and in particular represents one of the richest-sounding renditions of Fauré’s Requiem that I’ve heard.
Jean-Baptiste Lully; Georg Philipp Telemann; Jean-Philippe Rameau
The Lully Effect
Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra / Barthold Kuijken
Ah, the baroque period–when women were women and men all had a minimum of two first names. Anyway, for this recording the great flutist and conductor Barthold Kuijken has created a program designed to remind us of the “power and intensity” of the music of Versailles, as particularly expressed in the theatrical music of the two French masters of the period: Lully and Rameau. Between Lully’s Armide overture and Rameau’s suite from Dardanus, Kuijken has elected to insert Telemann’s popular e-minor suite for flute and other wind instruments with strings and continuo–a work that drew deeply and explicitly on the style of his French counterparts. Anyone who has been following the work of the Kuijken family over the past four decades knows what to expect: exciting, exacting, and passionate performances that shed new light on even the most familiar material. For all libraries.
Liminal Garden (LP and digital only)
Sounds et al./Beacon Sound (dist. Forced Exposure)
No cat. no.
Dolphin Midwives is the pseudonym of harpist, singer, and composer Sage Fisher, who subjects both her voice and her harp to significant electronic manipulation to create shimmering and otherworldly compositions that sort of feel like songs, but not really. Interestingly, the harp is usually immediately identifiable as such, and so is her voice–but even when the music is genuinely lyrical and mellifluous, as it usually is, the sonic disruptions created by her treatments undermine its lyricism in consistently interesting and often very beautiful ways, resulting in music the abstraction of which ebbs and flows.
This one would make a good companion piece to the Dolphin Midwives album reviewed above. If you know pianist/composer Kuba Kapsa’s name, it’s probably because of his work leading the Polish avant-garde group Contemporary Noise Ensemble. But on his own he’s also a composer of film and theater music, and on this solo piano album he takes an approach somewhat similar to Fisher’s, recording his piano pieces and then subjecting them to electronic alteration. The big difference is that in his case, the unaltered piano tracks remain front and center while the electronically-modified manifestations mutter and burble and glitch along in the background. Sometimes the effect is gentle and moody, and sometimes it’s genuinely eerie and even a little frightening. Cool stuff.
Bill Frisell; Thomas Morgan
For their second duo album, guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan returned again to the Village Vanguard, the legendary (and legendarily intimate) jazz venue where they recorded their first album, 2017’s Small Town. And as before, together they explore an idiosyncratic program of standards (“Lush Life,” “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning”), country melodies (“Wildwood Flower” [again], “Red River Valley”), and less-familiar fare (Paul Motian’s weird “Mumbo Jumbo”). As the title indicates, there’s some Monk on there as well: not only the title track, but also a lovely take on the ballad “Pannonica.” And just as they did with “Goldfinger” on the last album, they take a run at another Bond movie theme here: “You Only Live Twice.” Frisell and Morgan are a dream duo, never sounding “tight” but always connected. Brilliant and gorgeous.
And Then Comes the Night
The title of bassist/composer Mats Eilertsen’s third album (and his second as a leader for ECM) might lead you to expect music of quiet intensity and darkness. If so, you’d be only partly right: accompanied by pianist Harmen Fraanje and drummer Thomas Strønen, what Eilertsen delivers here is a program of music that is quiet and intense, but also oddly bright in flavor. Some of it is carefully composed and some of it is significantly improvised, and the group recorded without headphones so that their interactions would be as acoustically organic as possible. There are very few solos; instead, the three players constantly move with and around each other, giving each composition its own identity but treating the music less as a vehicle for individual self-expression than as a project that they are constantly working on collaboratively. In some ways this is classic “ECM jazz,” and in other ways it’s unlike anything else I’ve heard.
Arbors Jazz (dist. MVD)
After decades of demonstrating his facility on virtually of the reed instruments, Scott Robinson decided to put together an album that makes a clear statement: “I’m still a tenor player at the core.” And that statement comes across loud and clear on this quartet date, though his eclecticism comes through in other ways, notably in his arrangements: the Beatles ballad “And I Love Her” performed as an unaccompanied sax solo; the Tin Pan Alley classic “Put on a Happy Face” arranged as a ballad; “The Nearness of You” cast as organ-driven quiet-storm bedroom funk; the deeply gospel-informed “Rainy River” (written by Robinson’s drummer here, Martin Wind). Robinson’s originals are interesting in their own ways: “Tenor Eleven” sounds like bebop as written by Hindemith, while the title track is funkier and more experimental, though never completely out. Overall, this is an album that would find a welcome home in any library’s jazz collection.
Akira Tana & Otonowa
Ai San San: Love’s Radiance
This stunningly beautiful album is the third from drummer Akira Tana’s Otonowa ensemble, which also features the mighty pianist Art Hirahara, bassist Noriyuki Ken Okada, and saxophonist/flutist Masaru Koda. Many of the tunes on Ai San San: Love’s Radiance are traditional Japanese melodies, though they are so thoroughly adapted to a jazz context that they will be difficult for many listeners to recognize as such. Other, more obviously Japanese elements do creep in from time to time, though, such as Koga’s use of a shakuhachi on both the title track and on the group’s strange and lovely adaptation of Horace Silver’s “Peace,” and the all-too-brief presence of a koto on “Habu No Minato.” Everything here is exquisitely beautiful, even when the group is swinging smartly. For all library collections.
Eight Track III
Operating in a classic guitar-organ trio format with the addition of vibraphone (and a little extra percussion on several tracks), guitarist Dave Stryker offers up a third helping of 1970s pop, R&B, and soul melodies in a swinging and funky jazz style. This one will make you feel good from the very first bars: opening with a strongly swinging take on the Curtis Mayfield classic “Move On Up,” the program moves on to include familiar tunes by Steely Dan (“Pretzel Logic”), the Carpenters (“We’ve Only Just Begun”), Roy Ayers (“Everybody Loves the Sunshine”) and others. I have to confess that the inclusion of “We’ve Only Just Begun” raised one of my eyebrows a bit — was there any way that Stryker and his crew could come up with a non-yucky arrangement? The answer is an emphatic yes; listen for yourself to the delicacy and quietude with which they replace the flugelhorn-heavy schlock of the original. There’s nothing innovative or groundbreaking here, just lots of great examples of how to arrange pop tunes for a jazz combo. Highly recommended.
Pride & Joy
I’m normally loath to say what any kind of art or music “should” be. That said, if jazz is played without a sense of joy or fun, I do tend to want to know why. That thought occurred to me several times while listening to the latest album from Lioness–not because I found it joyless or no fun, but because I kept wondering why so few jazz albums are as fun and joyful as this one. What’s particularly interesting and impressive is how much fun this album is even as it serves an almost academic purpose as a tour of jazz styles. Consisting entirely of tunes written by women, the program includes drummer Allison Miller’s “Mad Time,” which has a swaying, swaggering second-line feel; the explicitly calypso-flavored “Sunny Day Pal” (a composition by Jenny Hill, the combo’s tenor sax player); the briskly boppish “Down for the Count” (by bari sax player Lauren Sevian), and organist Akiko Tsuruga’s blues-based “Funky Girl.” There’s a great arrangement of “Think” (yes, the Aretha Franklin song) as well. Not a moment of this album is less than stellar. Highly recommended to all libraries.
Strangers in the Room: A Journey Through the British Folk Rock Scene 1967-1973 (3 discs)
Grapefruit/Cherry Red (dist. MVD)
With this 60-cut, 3-disc set, the Grapefruit label continues the survey of British folk rock that it began with last year’s Gathered from Coincidence: British Folk-Pop Sound of 1965-1966. And, as that collection did, this one will be a revelation to curious Yanks who may have heard of Sandy Denny and Pentangle and Steeleye Span, but to whom bands like Paper Bubble, Unicorn, and, er, Oo Bang Jiggly Jang are foreign territory. For library collections, both of these sets are an absolute treasure–not only due to the quality and quantity of the music itself, but also because of the extensive liner notes and photos that accompany them. And for listeners who are new to the British folk-rock genre, they may be as baffling as they are enjoyable, given the rather tenuous connection to the folk tradition that many of these tracks evince. (There’s a Joan Armatrading number on here, believe it or not–and it’s outstanding, though hardly “folky” despite the prominence of acoustic guitars in the mix.) And it has to be admitted that some of these songs are pretty goofy-sounding, in that inimitably turn-of-the-70s way that songs can be goofy–but others will be a revelation to newcomers. For all libraries.
Partly on Time: Recordings 1968-1970
Guitar aficionados will likely recognize Kinloch Nelson’s name–he’s a widely renowned master of fingerstyle guitar and author of a book on alternate tunings. But in 1968 he was just a kid whose guitar and compositional technique were still in their formative stages, though already pretty impressive. Between 1968 and 1970 he finagled his way into the radio station of his older sister’s college and managed to record a bunch of tracks, most of them solo but a few with his friend and fellow guitarist Carter Redd. The original tapes are long since lost, but they survive in copies that were brilliantly recovered for this release. Nelson’s playing, though nimble, isn’t especially technically advanced yet, but you can hear the indications of both the technical and the compositional sophistication that would come later (note in particular his use of extended guitar techniques on “Tone Poem”). Recommended.
Choral Scholars of University College Dublin / Desmond Earley
Signum Classics (dist. Naxos)
Classical label, classically-oriented choral group, yes — but this material consists significantly of traditional folk music, and the arrangements (many by the conductor) tend to honor the music’s origins rather than obscuring them. Opening with an energetic but subdued arrangement of “Dúlamán” featuring a tenor soloist accompanied only by a bodhrán, the program then proceeds to present such familiar songs as “My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose,” “Wild Mountain Thyme,” and even “Danny Boy” alongside more obscure material and modern choral pieces that are related to, though not directly drawn from, Celtic tradition. Fans of traditional Celtic music and of contemporary choral music alike will find much to enjoy here.
Live at the Palomino 1983
Not exactly straight country, but not exactly cowpunk either, Lone Justice came up at a time when the LA punk scene was nurturing bands like the Blasters and X, the former a sort of rockabilly/R&B band that harnessed the energy of punk and the latter a punk band that drew on the soul of country. For context: in 1983, when Lone Justice was regularly playing sold-out shows at LA’s legendary Palomino club, Dwight Yoakam was opening for them. This previously-unreleased live tape will show you why: not only does their performance crackle with energy, but it also shows off their uncanny tightness and precision and, of course, the glorious wail of Maria McKee’s Aretha-meets-Loretta voice. The sound quality is good, though the mix is a bit unfortunate: the guitar is deeply buried and the bass is nearly inaudible. But that just make’s McKee’s voice that much clearer.
Hans-Joachim Roedelius & Tim Story
Lunz 3 (LP and digital only)
Hans-Joachim Roedelius (a legend of experimental pop music for more than 50 years now, and founding member of Cluster) and Tim Story have been collaborating off and on as Lunz since 2000. Their latest duo project is, as one would expect by now, a weird but beautiful collection of avant-garde soundscapes built on a foundation of piano but ranging very far afield from traditional acoustic keyboard sonics. Described in the press materials as what it might sound like if “Boards of Canada were being deconstructed by Philip Glass as Erik Satie dreams on the piano,” this music is neither academically dry nor cloyingly sweet, but rather consonant without being simple, pretty without being conventionally melodic, astringent without being sour. Highly recommended.
Futurama (reissue; 2 CD)
Cherry Red (dist. MVD)
Guitar wizard Bill Nelson first hit the big time with his band Be-Bop Deluxe, which released a string of astonishing albums in the 1970s. When I say “astonishing,” what I really mean is something more like “confounding”–the band combined elements of power pop, prog-rock, and jazz fusion to create music that thrilled music critics and a generation of aspiring hotshot guitarists while capturing the imagination of a rapt but not huge audience of listeners. This expanded reissue of the band’s 1975 album Futurama offers the album in its original mix and in a new stereo mix, along with a handful of outtakes and alternate versions. Nelson’s songs are very fine, but honestly it’s his guitar playing that most consistently surprises and delights. (There is also a deluxe 3-CD/1-DVD box set version available, which includes other fripperies probably not of interest to libraries–though it does include some wonderful live recordings from the period that unfortunately aren’t found on this version.)
Other People’s Lives
This British band creates what frontman Ed Seed characterizes as “absurd office funk”–and if that sounds less promising to you than it did to me, I encourage you to give it a chance. Stats’ first full-length album (following the self-released digital Where Is the Money? EP from 2014) manages the nice trick of breaking new ground while drawing on familiar elements: “There Is a Story I Tell about My Life,” for example, manages to be fresh and new while harking back simultaneously to Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime” and the Fixx’s “One Thing Leads to Another.” Other songs walk a thrillingly woozy line between old-school synth-pop and modern funk, balancing irony and sincerity at the same time. For all pop collections.
Blues musician Henry Jesse “Mule” Townsend made his first recordings for Columbia Records in 1929. An accomplished pianist and guitarist as well as a singer, he made his most significant recordings as a sideman to the likes of Big Joe Williams, Walter Davis, and Sonny Boy Williamson, and he played an important role in both the history of the St. Louis blues scene and the emergence of the Chicago sound in the middle of the century. Chances are you’ve never heard of him (nor had I), and so this expanded reissue of his 1980 solo album may come as a revelation. There’s a smattering of additional musicians, but for the most part what you hear is Townsend playing piano and singing songs of his own, in a voice that is remarkably clear and strong for someone of his age at the time (71). The production is outstanding as well, rich and clear and present. This reissue adds eight previously-unreleased tracks to the original album’s program of 13.
Baby, Please Come Home
Last Music Co. (dist. Redeye)
Jimmie Vaughan is known primarily for two things: being the lead guitarist of the Fabulous Thunderbirds (who rode Texas blues and R&B to unlikely fame in the 1980s) and being the older brother of the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, to whom he bears a striking vocal resemblance. On his latest solo album he plays a solid set of classic blues shuffles, rockers, and ballads including the title track, I’m Still in Love with You,” “So Glad,” and “Baby, What’s Wrong?”. Although he’s a highly skilled guitarist, his style is resolutely unflashy, with a strong focus on emotional communication rather than technical wizardry. And his arrangements–which prominently feature a great horn section–are similarly straightforward and tasteful. Great stuff as usual from this elder statesman of Texas blues.
Harbour Boat Trips Vol. 02: Copenhagen
HFN (dist. Forced Exposure)
To my mind, shoegaze is the most inexplicably persistent musical style of the 1980s. Characterized by slow tempos, dense and murky atmospheres, and mopey lyrics, it’s a genre that has never exactly been mainstream (despite the relative success of such flagship bands as My Bloody Valentine and The Jesus and Mary Chain) but has also never really died, and seems now to be making something of a comeback. On the second installment in his Harbour Boat Trips compilation series, producer and multi-instrumentalist Trentemøller has pulled together a program that starts out with several tracks of heavy modern shoegaze material and then wanders around from there, exploring dream pop, electronica, and other related genres with a focus on artists from his native Denmark. Highlight tracks include Black Marble’s rather Cure-esque “Static” and Trentemøller’s own sulky-but-pretty “Transformer Man.” There’s a pretty cool number from shoegaze stalwarts Slowdive, too.
Gentleman’s Dub Club
Lost in Space
The concept album has a long (if not necessarily distinguished) history in pop music. But you don’t see them very often in a reggae context. The latest from Gentleman’s Dub Club is one such, a program of modern roots and dancehall reggae songs organized around a unifying “outer space” theme. Don’t worry, though–the music isn’t wanky or self-indulgent. The songs are tightly written, the grooves are heavy (with a strong tendency towards a relentlessly thumping steppers beat), and the theme is mostly expressed by song titles like “Intergalactic,” “Stardust,” and “Out of This World.” And although the band boasts an exceptionally fine lead singer in Jonathan Scratchley, they also make room for excellent cameo appearances by roots legend Winston Francis and Swedish reggae phenom Million Styles. This one is perhaps not quite as essential as their earlier work, but it’s a solid contribution to the GDC catalog.
American Music Vol. VII
Blue Corn Music
Some polycultural fusion bands seem to be more about showing how polycultural they can be than about writing and performing great songs. Others take polyculturalism as a simple matter of course, a function of making art in a polycultural world, and incorporate wide-ranging influences in a natural and unselfconscious way. Austin’s Grupo Fantasma falls into the latter category; fundamentally, they’re a Latin funk group that draws most deeply on musical traditions from around the Texas border region. But that doesn’t stop them from happily ingesting and seamlessly incorporating elements of Turkish psychedelia, Punjabi bhangra, punk rock, R&B, and whatever else serves their musical purpose. The result is a joyfully (rather than defiantly) diverse explosion of musical colors, and while this album finds them essaying political statements a bit more explicitly than they have in the past, the overall flavor is one of exuberant happiness. This may be the best party album of the year so far.
Alborosie Meets the Roots Radics
Dub for the Radicals
As beautiful as it is, this album is something of a mystery. It consists entirely of dub mixes of tracks recorded by the legendary Roots Radics band and singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Alberto D’Ascola (a.k.a. Alborosie). There are no vocals; this is an instrumental-only dub set, played and mixed in vintage early-1980s Roots Radics fashion, with Style Scott’s signature rockers beats supporting the elephantine basslines of Errol “Flabba” Holt and the sinuous guitar of Eric “Bingy Bunny” Lamont. The question, however, is: where did these tracks come from, given that Style Scott was tragically murdered five years ago? Are they from the vaults of a Roots Radics band member? Do they represent a new and artful simulacrum of the Radics style? (If so, the result is artful indeed.) In any case, the music is excellent, and will appeal primarily to Roots Radics fans rather than Alborosie’s large international following, given that his presence on the album is pretty subtle.