Archive for the ‘world’ Category

Rising Appalachia: Making Music with Intention (Part 3)

Friday, June 26th, 2015

Continued from Part Three

Leah Song relates that Rising Appalachia have many friends around the country who are involved in art and creative projects. “Many of them,” she notes, “end up being codependent on grants. They call it the Nonprofit-Industrial Complex. We wanted to have that feeling of being independent; and if we’re indebted to anybody, it’s to the community that supports us. We don’t want to be indebted to a third party. Because even if it’s a ‘silent donor,’ it’s something that we’re really not interested in. We want our responsibility to be to the fans, to the community, to our peers, and to our collaborators. So we decided we would [crowd fund] again. And we were really able to direct the funding we got into producing the most nuanced and delicate work we’ve ever done.”

As always, Rising Appalachia is about more than the music. “We were able to tie in some amazing nonprofit work. We did the first leg of our [current] tour via rail. At the headwaters of the Mississippi, we did some work with a Native rights organization.” She makes the point that if artists are paid enough, they can put their efforts into becoming spokespeople for the causes in which they believe, and they can do work that supports those values. “Then they’re not just overworked and exhausted and always eating grilled cheese sandwiches,” she says. The goal is to make the efforts “people powered, and involving everyone in the work. And that’s a very important part of it for us.”

The group has learned a great deal through their Kickstarter experiences. “You don’t just ask and then get a bunch of money,” Leah cautions. “It’s a ton of work. We’re still licking stamps and sealing packages. On the back end, I think it’s really wise to make sure you put together offers that you can [deliver on]. And you want to be able to do that right; you don’t want to just make your goal and, ‘Thanks! Bye!!’”

Long based in New Orleans – and closely identified with the varied musical scene there – Leah and Chloe Smith relocated to Asheville NC, a city with its own musical identity. “I don’t really want to be considered an ‘Asheville band,’ says Leah, good-naturedly. “I want us to be thought of as representing the South: the mountain culture, the urban culture, the swamps. We hold this whole region as our home base. And I think our relationship to New Orleans will continue to be cultivated and long-term.”

Leah explains the group’s reason for moving north to Asheville. “We came to the mountains to get some respite. We wanted the quiet relationship with nature, and we’ve been able to get parts of that on our off-time.” She sees Asheville as an ideal place to “get into the local crafts, and study the culture. We’ve spent a lot of time in Latin America and in New Orleans, so we wanted to make sure we were adding fuel to the mountain culture that is also part of our story.” Leah notes that she doesn’t intend for Asheville to be her forever home. “But,” she adds, “I don’t think that we know.”

The move to Asheville has certainly enriched the group. “An amazing team of musicians and leaders and management has stepped into our circle through this community,” Leah says. “It’s very powerful, and it has been very grounding for us.”

Another grounding experience was the group’s Amtrak tour. Train travel affords one a perspective on America that is very different from the one absorbed via airplane or car travel. Train travel was part of a larger goal of Rising Appalachia, the concept Leah calls the “slow music movement. Very loosely, it’s our entire philosophy of music, independence, and self-management. So as we fleshed it out, we asked ourselves, ‘What if it also entailed slower travel?’” The idea came about while traveling through Europe via train, something much easier done there than in the States. “We started looking into routes,” Leah recalls, “and we found that there was a lot we could not do. But there was a lot that we could do, so we built the first leg of our tour around the route itself.”

The trip highlighted both the advantages and limitations of the passenger railway system in the United States. “The resources and infrastructure are there,” insists Leah. “We have this vast country, with a codependency on fuel, on cars. And it’s really isolating. And that leaves out a whole population of people who can’t afford – or don’t choose to prioritize – a personal vehicle.” She poses a rhetorical question: “What would actually happen if we made rail travel a viable option? We feel mostly inspired. The tour involved labor and logistics, and there’s a lot to configure when you have a band and instruments, but it worked. And we went through rural areas that I had never seen in my life. You don’t see billboards and casinos and McDonald’s. You see open spaces, small towns. People sit on their porch and wave. It evoked a wonderful nostalgia and a slow pace, but it also worked. It was functional. You could see a labor force that was proud of their work. There is a beautiful pride in the work that you don’t always see at a gas station.”

There’s a similar pride on display in the music (and extramusical efforts) of Rising Appalachia. Like train travel, one of the benefits is a greater emphasis on interpersonal, community relationships. And like train travel, taking part in Rising Appalachia’s ongoing musical journey is – in and of itself – a big part of what the experience is all about.

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Rising Appalachia: Making Music with Intention (Part 2)

Thursday, June 25th, 2015

Continued from Part One

In those years, music as a professional pursuit was never a goal. Leah Song says that even when she and sister Chloe Smith did begin making music, “we were just trying to create a project that paid homage to all of our musical influences. It was only later – three or four years into the project – that we said to ourselves, ‘Okay: we’re really going to take this seriously, crafting and cultivating what we want to be doing. Let’s think about what we want our lyrics to convey.’ And in that sense, all of those [earlier] travel experiences were important. And will be forever.” Rising Appalachia endeavors to tie in world culture. “We want to represent the South,” Leah acknowledges, “but in a context with the rest of the world.”

Rising Appalachia manage and produce themselves. From the beginning of their recording career, they’ve made a conscious decision not to take part in the machine, in the music industry as it used to be known. Based on the current state of that industry, the business choices that the sisters made in 2006 show their prescience in opting to stay outside many of the traditional distribution channels for music.

“We have a really hilarious and wonderful relationship with all of that,” Leah laughs. “We recorded our first album [2006's Leah and Chloe] in a day.” They recorded the album as a gift “for our dad, who was having a hard time. We had both left our home city, and we wanted to do a project that tied in all of our parents’ musical influences. And ours, as well. We recorded it in a basement with some friends, and made several hundred copies. We figured, ‘Cool. That was fun. We’ll be able to sling those albums for the next fifteen, maybe twenty-five years.’”

But that’s not how the story developed. “We were at a music jam. It was a once-a-week thing at a pub in Atlanta, and we were singing with our mom. The director of a Celtic Studies program came in.” He wanted Leah and Chloe to perform at a three-day concert festival that featured musicians from around the world, representing different forms of Appalachian and Celtic folk music. Leah chuckles as she recalls what the man said: “I want you to represent the young face of Appalachia.”

Leah thought the guy was crazy. “We hadn’t ever sung into a microphone at that point. We hung out in Atlanta. We sang folk music with our parents! It was like, ‘this isn’t…we don’t…we can’t.’ But…we did. We sang onstage with Grammy award-winning musicians at this showcase for about 700 people, three nights in a row. I was okay [regarding] stage fright; Chloe had some issues with stage fright. But we sold all of the albums that we had made at that show.”

The performance earned the sisters – at this point about 20 and 24 years old – some attention. They were approached by a record label that had been a big part of the festival, and that played a leading role in the emerging Americana music scene. “We went to Nashville,” Leah says, “and met with this record label. Chloe and I went to a dive bar afterward, and had a beer. We thought about it, and really talked about it. We thought, ‘We could sign this contract, and we would be handed a silver-platter career. We would be billed as those harmony-singing sisters who play folk festivals all around the world. We would be a well-supported project without having to think much further about it.’”

“And,” recalls Leah, “we said no. We decided, ‘if we want to do this, we want to do it on our own terms. We want to learn what we’re doing, and then decide how we want to do it.’ We didn’t really want fame, glitz, glamor. But,” she smiles, “it was nice to be asked.”

Leah reflects on what signing that contract might have meant. “We might have been turned into some sort of pawn. In those early days, we knew that our combining of folk music, Appalachia, hip-hop, blues and jazz was weird. And rare. There weren’t a lot of people who had all of those things in their upbringing since they were two years old. And we knew that there was no genre for that.” The music industry, on the other hand, often likes to put its artists into boxes, to give decisions about musical direction over to marketing people. This is especially true where attractive female artists are concerned.

“We were very aware that we were marketable,” Leah admits, “in our story, and our…aesthetic,” she laughs. “But we were not marketable in our genre. For the first several years that we worked, it drove the places we’d play crazy: ‘We don’t know where to put you.’ And we wanted to figure that out.” In the end, she says that “it took years for people to write about our music correctly, to not write ‘Girls with banjos! Playing bluegrass! And then they throw in this crazy, wonky, weird beat!’” Bemoaning the pandering aspect of some genre-fusion music (“It’s so piecemeal and awkward!”), Leah says that Rising Appalachia strives to “give air to what we hear, which is a very strange and wonderful conglomeration of influences.”

Continuing to embody the DIY ethos, Rising Appalachia has been at the forefront of self-funding and crowd funding. Recorded at Asheville’s Echo Mountain Studios, Wider Circles is being crowd funded to the tune of $30,000. “This will be our second Kickstarter project,” says Leah. “Our first one was a really amazing honor, and very exciting. When we got to a place where we were ready to record this album, we thought long and hard about [whether or not to do] a Kickstarter. Because we’re not really interested in taxing our fan base. We don’t like to always be asking; we’ve been taught to be self-sufficient. And we did have some funding opportunities; we did have some donors who were interested. So we round-tabled it: Chloe and I will sit and have a glass of wine, and philosophize until we we get to how we want to move forward.”

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Rising Appalachia: Making Music with Intention (Part 1)

Wednesday, June 24th, 2015

Sisters Leah Song and Chloe Smith lead Rising Appalachia, a renowned folk/world music group whose music is as intriguing as it is hard to classify. Their eighth album, Wider Circles, has just been released, and the group (also featuring percussionist Biko Cassini and bassist/guitarist David Brown) appeared onstage in their current hometown at Asheville, North Carolina’s New Mountain Theatre (Amphitheatre Stage) on June 13.

To the uninitiated, the group’s name suggests Americana. But even a quick listen to one of their songs reveals that such a term would be far too limiting. “We actually – years and years ago – wanted to change the name,” says Leah. “Because we did want to be exploring roots music and folk music from all around the world. We even put in some effort to change [our name].” 2008′s Evolutions in Sound: Live re-branded the group as R.I.S.E. “But our collective fan base sort of put their foot down and said, ‘No. You should stick with it; there’s a legacy that’s important for you to hold onto. You’re redefining what Appalachia[n music] means to the mountain culture.’ They really didn’t want us to let go of that. It was part of our initial identity; we had folk traditions in our upbringing.”

She elaborates. “Several generations [of our family] have studied and played Appalachian fiddle. We were also brought up in this wonderful, urban metropolis of Atlanta, with all that that includes. So we had the idea that we could rise out of the traditions, and see how they mixed. The name Rising Appalachia was an attempt to redefine that tradition, and to figure out all the other ways in which we have a folk tradition. So we have found the name limiting, but we have also found it a really, really valuable part of our pursuits.”

The sisters’ parents both have strong roots in the arts. The idioms in which they work differ somewhat from what Rising Appalachia does, but there is a common thread running through all of it. “We have one of those family dynamics that is really treasured,” observes Leah. “And it’s pretty rare. We were raised in a very modest, lower-middle-class, hard working family. We went to public school, and we played on all of the community sports teams.” But she says that there was always a strong foundation in art and culture. Leah characterizes her parents as “big jazz record-playing, NPR-listening people.” That common thread of the family’s everyday life was part of shared meals, discussions and debates. “Holidays weren’t necessarily built around ‘stuff.’” The focus was, she says, more about sharing the product of some or other creative expression.

“Our mom is a folk fiddler; our father is as well,” Leah notes. “And they both have been playing in contra dance bands and old time jam circles since we were babies. There was music in our house five days a week. And then on weekends, we’d attend a lot of old time folk studies; we’d go to fiddle camps; contra dances. We were very, very much musical. My mom started a sort of gospel/Appalachian/jazz singing group, a 12-woman project. They rehearsed at our house.” So in many ways, Rising Appalachia was predestined, an extension of the family tradition. Leah and Chloe were going to do something. They certainly weren’t going to grow up and go off to law school, now, were they?

“Well,” laughs Leah, “you never know! My sister actually thought she would go into entertainment law. And I think I was going toward [becoming a] college professor or some sort of social justice activism. Music was just a permanent part of our expression; I don’t think we ever thought it would be a career choice. It would always have been a [life] soundtrack, a front porch project. But we didn’t go into this at any point saying, ‘Yeah! Let’s make a band!’”

Leah does see Rising Appalachia’s raison d’être as very connected to her family tradition. She connects it to “how we were raised, and the stories we were given.” And the way they were raised does reflect itself in the group’s music and overall outlook. The sisters attended Atlanta’s inner city Henry W. Grady High School, a multicultural institution in which they were the minority. “It informed both of our approaches to music and to social justice,” Leah says, noting that local events, activities and gathering places all reflected the influence and character of many cultures. “The local farmer’s market represents 250 countries, and many, many languages. So we grew up with this incredibly vibrant relationship with diversity, in an urban community that represented so many cultures. Atlanta has strong black leadership, and incredibly powerful international business owners. Where we grew up was wonderful to be part of a community that had that many different perspectives: religious, educational, economic.”

She doesn’t view that community through rose-colored glasses, however. “It wasn’t perfect,” she stresses. “It wasn’t without strife. But there’s a really strong collective mentality. And in hindsight, I realize now what an unusual upbringing that was. And it’s something that we’re always trying to bring into our social and musical awareness. And we encourage our audiences to really think about what justice and equality look like.”

At eighteen, Leah left home to travel the world, most notably in Latin America. There she found herself “on the periphery” of the Zapatista movement. The sisters’ worldly, real-life experience gives their work a degree of authenticity that is sometimes missing in musical acts who merely suit themselves in the Americana identikit of vintage suits and the like. “I did want those experiences to serve as fertile ground for the rest of my life,” she says. But she wasn’t going about collecting life experiences as fodder for songs she might write in the distant future. The traveling was a World Studies project of sorts. “I was given really strong direction by my family: ‘If you want to travel, do it with intention.’ And Chloe – she’s my younger sister – would do the same.” Eventually the two “met up again, and started doing some traveling together. And music was a very different wellspring that we tapped into later.”

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Album Review: Bassekou Kouyaté & Ngoni Ba — Ba Power

Tuesday, June 16th, 2015

Ask most informed music enthusiasts to cite an example of “world music” from Africa, and one of the first names offered up will likely be Malian guitarist/vocalist Ali Farka Touré. Thanks in large part to Talking Timbuktu, the 1994 album (Touré’s twelfth) released in collaboration with Ry Cooder, the music of the late Touré is the standard by which much world music is measured.

The term itself is more than a bit suspect: in most cases all it really means is music originating from somewhere outside North America and Europe. And that’s a pretty narrow way of looking at things, the same kind of mindset that leads some to refer to certain countries in Africa and elsewhere as “third world.”

The seeds of much that is called American music had their origin in Africa. And that may well be the reason that – labels aside – for Americans, there is often something familiar (on an almost molecular, unconscious level) in music that originates in what was once known as the dark continent.

In any event, when one approaches the music of Malian lute master Bassekou Kouyaté, the sonic touchstones are the preconceived idea of world music, and the international appeal of Ali Farka Touré. Adopting an approach similar to the one used on Talking Timbuktu, the latest album from Kouyaté aims to synthesize a current-day American style (rock) with a homegrown one. The ancient Malian lute known as the ngoni is the “lead” instrument on Ba Power, and Kouyaté’s backing musicians (known as Ngoni Ba) supply more ngoni textures (there are four ngonis played on the album, including one played by son Mamadou Kouyaté that has a bass frequency range) along with percussion, vocals and – on several tracks – drums (Dave Smith from Robert Plant‘s group) and trumpet (Jon Hassel).

In keeping with the rock-leaning aesthetic of Ba Power, the arrangements make use of wah-wah and distortion pedals, effects customarily applied to electric guitar. But they add fascinating textures to the ngoni, and help to root the music in a fashion more accessible to American ears. The bass ngoni – which often doubles the melodic lines of the upper-register instruments – helps lay down a propulsive, solid musical foundation.

When the vocals are present (Koyaté’s wife Amy Sacko), the scales and textures of the voice are clearly rooted in African tradition. Sacko sings [I think] in Bambara, the indigenous language of Mali. (French is the country’s official language, and Ba Power‘s gatefold LP sleeve features English and French lyric translations.) But during the instrumental-only passages, the music is decidedly rock-oriented, albeit interpreted on non-western instruments.

Many of Ba Power‘s nine tracks (all under six minutes) feature extended passages built around a single chord, giving the music a hypnotic effect. The dizzying percussion pushes the music forward constantly, and the guest musicians – most notably trumpeter Hassel and an electric organist – add to the texture without ever calling much attention to themselves.

There are bits of electric guitar on Ba Power, but they’re played by guest musicians and are subtly mixed. So it’s Bassekou Kouyaté’s ngoni-through-pedals that you’ll hear blasting out the opening licks of “Aye Sira Bla” (“Make Way”), which the liner notes explain is a reworking of a traditional praise song. With no Malian frame of reference, it sounds to these Western ears like a pretty hot riff-based tune.

And in the end, it’s that Western musical perspective that most listeners outside of Mali will bring to their enjoyment of Ba Power. It’s exotic, yes, but the album is rooted in just the right amount of rock aesthetic to be a genre-bridging exercise that’s fun to hear, and one suspects it’s not any kind of sellout that would betray the music’s indigenous character.

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Album Review: Shanti — Shanti

Thursday, May 21st, 2015

At this stage in the game, nobody’s sure who developed the genre (or, much less, coined the phrase) “world music.” And a definitive explanation for what is and isn’t world music remains elusive. But to paraphrase the Supreme Court justice, I know it when I hear it.

Some strong candidates for early pioneers in what would come to be known as world music include George Harrison and Herbie Mann. The former, as early as the mid 1960s, was working in sounds and influences of Indian music into songs he wrote (“Within You Without You” from Sgt. Pepper and “Love You To” from Revolver) and tunes from Lennon and McCartney (“Norwegian Wood”). And even earlier, jazz flautist Herbie Mann was synthesizing tropicalia into the jazz idiom (and later, he’d cast an even wider stylistic net). The Paul Butterfield Blues Band‘s epic title track from the East-West album fused Eastern styles with the blues. And there are countless other examples.

But one of the most aesthetically successful forays into cross-genre synthesis is the self-titled 1971 debut by a group called Shanti. Led by master of the tabla Zakir Hussain, this Bay area collective combined the rock aesthetic (thanks to a four-man lead/rhythm/bass/drums section) with a decidedly Eastern approach (Hussain on tabla, dholak and naal; Ashish Khan on sarod; and guest musician Pranesh Khan on tabla and naal). The result of the collaboration is an album full of exotic flights of fancy that remain firmly rooted in a Western pop sensibility. And that’s no simple trick.

“We Want to Be Free” features a lovely lead vocal with exquisite harmonies, all backed by Indian instruments playing some decidedly riff-oriented Western pop. And that piece sets the tone for the entire album. Neil Seidel‘s lead guitar trades licks with the sarod masters, and Frank Lupica‘s rock/jazz drumming engages in a running dialogue with Eastern percussion.

Khan’s extended piece “Innocence” initially leans more in a traditional Indian direction, but quickly moves into a hook-filled piece of transcendent pop. Shanti stands in great contrast to the more “serious” (and ultimately less musically accessible) excursions into musical cross-fertilization. Seidel’s ‘Out of Nowhere” comes from the opposite direction (rock) and ends up in nearly the same place, again featuring rhythm guitarist Steve Haehl‘s soothing yet powerfully assured vocals. At times Shanti sounds a bit like Santana, albeit with Indian flavor in place of the Afro-Cuban/Latin styles.

Shanti just plain rocks out on the good-timing riff rocker “Lord I’m Comin’ Round,” which isn’t totally unlike something The Allman Brothers – stylistic gap-bridgers themselves (jazz and rock) – might have done. Here, it’s the Indian percussion that gives the tune its worldly flavor. And the group sounds even more like Gregg Allman and his pals on “Good Inside,” which sounds to all the world in 2015 like the kind of thing that would have stormed the rock charts in ’71.

But that’s not what happened. As Richie Unterberger‘s liner notes in this Real Gone Music reissue explain, Harrison wanted to sign Shanti to The Beatles‘ Apple label, but Indian music legend Ravi Shankar counseled him against doing so, purportedly because Shanti was “too pop” and as such its Indian members weren’t making proper use of their god-given talents.

Your mileage (like mine) may vary on that score. Those aforementioned talents are in full flower on the lengthy “Shanti,” which starts out sounding a bit like The Rolling Stones‘ “Paint It, Black,” and then moves into sonic territory close to Butterfield’s “East-West.” Those Eastern textures are always right there, but the grounding in Western pop aesthetics makes Shanti perhaps the most musically accessible of all stylistic hybrids. Heck, even that most clichéd of 1970s western rock tropes – the drum solo – feels fresh and new in Shanti’s capable hands.

The album ends with the contemplative and exceedingly brief “I Do Believe,” reminding listeners that power and subtlety can peacefully coexist on a single album. And that album would, sadly, be the only release from this group. Forgotten at worst, overlooked at best, Shanti is an exemplar of cross-cultural styles that serves as a showcase for the boundary-pushing mindset that took hold at the tail-end of the 60s and the early 1970s. Highly recommended.

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Album Review: Dengue Fever — The Deepest Lake

Wednesday, February 18th, 2015

The band Dengue Fever has been together for about twelve years; prior to their latest album, they’ve released six full-lenth albums (including a film soundtrack) and three EPs. But somehow I’ve missed them until now. My only prior exposure to the group was via their curating a 2010 compilation called Dengue Fever Presents Electric Cambodia. In my measured review, I put across the reaction that the disc was a bit exotic for my tastes. And my tempered enthusiasm for it stuck with me, making me (by extension) less receptive to music from Los Angeles-based Dengue Fever.

The loss was clearly mine, as I discovered when I gave the band’s latest, The Deepest Lake, a spin. Where the tracks on the 2010 compilation betrayed miniscule or nonexistent recording budgets and a musical sensibility somewhat alien to western ears, the music of Dengue Fever bears none of those characteristics.

Sure, it leans in a decidedly “world music” direction, but Dengue Fever’s music is firmly rooted in western styles – most notably (but by no means exclusively) sixties garage and psychedelic rock – with a pan-global sensibility folded into the music.

Right out of the gate, Dengue Fever employs an approach that seamlessly blends east and west: on “Tokay,” drum machines chug along right alongside “real” percussion by Paul Dreux Smith, and a southeast Asian-flavored melodic line is delivered using western instruments like Ethan Holtzman‘s venerable combo organ and synthesizer. Lead vocalist Chhom Nimol sings in an unfamiliar language (Khmer), but Zac Holtzman delivers some delightfully reverberated spaghetti-western electric guitar. The result is exotic and familiar all at once, and quite hypnotic. We don’t know what Nimol is singing about, but we like it.

“No Sudden Moves” is, if anything, an even more successful hybrid of Asian and western textures; David Ralicke‘s soulful horns nudge the group’s sound in the direction of bands like New Mastersounds and DC Fontana, and Zac Holtzman’s surf-n-spy guitar licks. But Nimol’s delightful, expressive and high-register Khmer vocals take the music other places indeed.

For “Rom Say Sok,” Nimol not only sings in English, but the band adds in backing harmony vocals; the result sounds not unlike X crossed with the go-go-dance aesthetic of The B-52′s, with some ultra-cool guitar and synth work layered on top. As good as the first two tracks are, with “Rom Say Sok,” The Deepest Lake really hits its stride. And Ralicke’s horn charts on the cut are thrilling.

“The Ghost Voice” dials back the energy, creating a gentle, swaying ambience. Nimol returns to singing in Khmer, and the stuttering beat of the tune – lots of cowbell – will draw listeners in. But everyone in the band contributes something interesting and valuable, so picking the song apart in one’s head yields further delights. That it all works together smoothly – that it’s not some sort of gruesome or precious hybrid – is a testament to Dengue Fever’s skill at songwriting and (especially) arrangement. (Composition of all of the band’s music is credited to the full band.)

“The Deepest Lake on the Planet” weds western ba-ba-ba vocals (from the Mamas & the Papas / Turtles school of pop) to a spooky, slinky melody with a dreamy Khmer vocal from Nimol. One could imagine the band playing this in some smoky Cambodian bar while a tuxedoed James Bond sips on a vesper nearby. “Cardboard Castles” continues in that vein, adding some appealingly twangy lead guitar licks throughout. Here, Nimol alternates effortlessly between Khmer and English.

I’m not sure if it’s a real or sampled flute that opens “Vacant Lot,” but whichever it is, the effect is lovely. Because of the Khmer vocals (and lack of a lyric sheet), it’s impossible to know for sure, but one can’t help wonder if Dengue Fever’s songs on The Deepest Lake concern themselves with melancholic and poignant subject matter; some of the titles certainly suggest it’s the case. The music on “Vacant Lot” and many of the album’s nine other tracks delivers beauty and sadness in equal parts.

The upbeat “Still Waters Run Deep” uses Nimol’s vocal lines as a musical instrument; the Memphis-styled horn battle that provides the song’s centerpiece is easily the most exciting musical moment on an already highly engaging album. “Taxi Dancer” is one of the few tracks on The Deepest Lake in which male (backing) vocals can be heard clearly; the English-language response to Nimol’s Khmer call is a bit unexpected, but it works.

The album closes with “Golden Flute,” featuring a stripped-down arrangement that feels like Martin Denny crossed with Parisian street music; it’s delightfully disorienting in its musical hard-to-pin-down-ness.

Listeners who are open to an album featuring little in the way of English-language vocals are strongly encouraged to give Dengue Fever’s The Deepest Lake a spin; the alluring performances and strong melodies will win over the open-minded.

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Best of 2014: Books

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2014

Musoscribe isn’t strictly a music features, interviews and reviews blogzine; because I am constantly reading at least one book – and because as often as not, it’s a music-related book – I review several books each year. 2014 has been no exception (and there are three more on my desk right now for future review). These four are my favorite new music-related books of this year.

Who Killed Mister Moonlight? by David J. (Haskins)
The story of goth-rockers Bauhaus could have no better chronicler than the witty and deeply thoughtful David J. The bassist for that band (and then Love and Rockets, and then a reanimated Bauhaus) tells that story, but in some ways it’s merely the backdrop for Haskins’ larger story. Readers will come away with a better understanding of what Bauhaus was all about, and – perhaps more importantly – an appreciation for the role each member played in bringing it all together. Haskins’ unnerving forays into the occult make uncomfortable reading, but you’ll likely not be able to put the book down until you’re finished.

One Way Out by Alan Paul
There are many ways to tell a tale. Alan Paul‘s approach is perhaps not unique, but it is certainly well-suited to his subject matter. When one is dealing with a story as sprawling as that of The Allman Brothers Band, it’s inevitable that there will be at least as many perspectives as there are characters in the story. It’s a mark of Paul’s skill that he weaves those disparate (and sometimes polar opposite) perspectives together into a cohesive narrative. One Way Out might not make all camps happy (Gregg Allman wrote his own book, for example) but the author seems not to have an ax to grind; he stays out of the way and lets the key figures tell the story.

Joe Meek’s Bold Techniques by Barry Cleveland
Barry Cleveland is an innovative musician in his own right; coupling that background with his well-established writing/editing skills, his knack for research, and his insatiable curiosity, this book explores the work of Joe Meek. Pointedly not focusing on Meek’s personal problems and the more sensational and lurid aspects of his story, Cleveland instead points the reader in the direction of Meek’s undeniably forward-thinking work in the recording studio. That Meek succeeded at all seems against all odds, but the author helps the reader understand not only why he did, but how. A fascinating read.

The Evolution of Mann by Cary Ginell
Part of author Cary Ginell‘s literary mission in life seem to be to rehabilitate certain jazz figures, ones who – for one reason or another – fall more into the “popular” category. As such, his biography of flautist Herbie Mann is right in line wit those goals. Mann is often thought of as a genre-jumping opportunist, but as Ginell illustrates, Mann was an early exponent of what we now know as world music. And he was no dilettante: his forays into other genres were fueled by genuine interest. An excellent guide into the flautist’s work and deep catalog.

More best-ofs coming tomorrow.

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Album Review: Abelardo Barroso with Orquesta Sensación — Cha Cha Cha

Wednesday, November 19th, 2014

Full disclosure, right up front: I know next to nothing about Cuban jazz. I enjoyed Kirsty MacColl‘s ventures into the genre, and I’ve long had a special place in my heart for The BeatlesLet it Be-era outtake, “Besame Mucho.” But that’s about it: beyond being able to say, “Yeah, that sounds like Cuban jazz,” and an appreciation that it influenced American jazz in the 50s and 60s, I don’t know a great deal about the genre.

But like you, dear reader, I do know what I like. And I very much like Cha Cha Cha, the new compilation of recordings featuring famed Cuban sonero mayor (lead singer) Abelardo Barroso, backed by Orquesta Sensación. Fourteen tunes dating from 1950s Havana, the songs on Cha Cha Cha present a delightful sampling of the work that the beloved Barroso did in that period.

It seems that there are quite a few Barroso compilations in the marketplace. His recorded legacy extends back to 1925, and his association with Orquesta Sensación was at the forefront of the “second charanga (Cuban traditional dance music) movement.” The roots of this music are decidedly Afro-cuban, and the mulato (mixed-race) Barroso was at the forefront of the style.

The album’s title might suggest that its contents feature some watered-down, dance-craze LP made by a bunch of gringos (my parents’ LP collection featured just such a record, with a Jane Russell-looking gal on its cover). And the graphical approach used on Cha Cha Cha is pointedly designed to look and feel like an old record: dated fonts, muted pastel colors, etc. But what’s going on in the grooves of Cha Cha Cha is far more substantial than all that: it’s not only historically important music, but it’s a heckuva lot of fun to listen to. Even if – like me – your Español is good enough only to get a drink or a face-slapping (or both).

The dapper Barroso shines on numbers such as “El Manisero,” a much-loved traditional Cuban song about a peanut vendor. The sexual undercurrent is clear in the song’s lyric in which a woman tells us she won’t get to sleep unless she can dine on a, er, peanut cone. The instrumentation on this and the other album tracks includes a good bit of percussion (congas, timbales and such) alongside prominent flute solo fills and silky violins. And the sonic quality of the recordings is superb: if Cha Cha Cha is in stereo (which it may be), there’s a very subtle bit of separation between left and right channels. But the sessions were clearly recorded with a great deal of care; that’s a bit surprising in light of the fact that these recordings were made 1955-57, the height of the Cuban revolution.

The vinyl album – from World Circuit, “the label that brought you Buena Vista Social Club,” the cover copy helpfully explains – is pressed on high 180-gram vinyl, includes a download card (though mine didn’t work online), and a pair of extensive and excellent liner note essays, one of which is an interview with Rolando Valdés, founder and director of Orquesta Sensación. A four-color booklet provides lyrics with English translations and brief background information, as well as lineup information about the orquesta. If one defines “world music” as anything that comes out of anywhere besides the USA, Canada and Great Britain, then Cha Cha Cha should be short-listed as one of 2014′s best world music reissue/compilations.

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Capsule Reviews: January 2013, Part 3

Monday, January 21st, 2013

Here’s another installment in my occasional series of capsule reviews; today it’s prog, ambient, worldbeat and acoustic. I had a huge stack of CDs deserving of review, but time doesn’t allow for full-length reviews of everything, and these were beginning to gather dust. They deserve better. My self-imposed limit for this particular exercise is 150 words on each album.


Under the Psycamore – I
From Stockholm comes this self-described neo-prog duo (Well, a duo of a drummer/bassist/vocalist and a singer/guitarist, augmented by a cellist). Typical of progressive rock, there’s plenty of drama, emotion and atmosphere, much of it conveyed instrumentally. The vocals here are often (but not always) used more as a textural element than as a means to deliver lyrics. It’s not necessary to be “discovered” by a tastemaker, but it rarely hurts, and Under the Psycamore was discovered by no less a luminary than former King Crimson touch guitarist Trey Gunn (he mastered and mixed I too). Guitarist Carl Blomqvist favors clean, acoustic picking over power-chording, and as such I takes on a dreamy, introspective feel through most of its eight tracks. The Enneagram in the album artwork probably means something; not sure what. But the emotional quality of the music will draw you in no matter what it all means.

Marvin Ayres – Harmogram Suite
I’m a rock’n'roll guy from way back, but beginning in the 80s, I discovered – and became quite intrigued with – ambient music. Now, the brand I discovered relied primarily on synthesizers and other electronically-based instruments, but even then I understood that the form allowed a much wider sonic palette than that. Marvin Ayres‘ work relies solely upon cellos, violins and violas to shape its sonic landscapes – six movements in all – and perhaps it’s the way the whole thing is produced, but the listening experience is so enveloping that you may (as did I) quickly stop thinking about (or caring) what’s making the sounds. Though it’s much more placid than Glenn Branca‘s music, Harmogram Suite does bear some similarities. Most notable among these is the way in which sounds seem to come out of nowhere, created (I assume) by the overtones of the instruments that are present. Recommended.

Mehran – Subterranea
Uh-oh: A concept album from a progressive artist. No fear: although the purported story line of Subterranea concerns what the liner notes describe as “an imaginary, surrealistic and utopian society,” the album is largely instrumental. And Mehran is a flamenco guitarist, so while the backing musicians provide string synth pads, electric bass and drums, there’s an undeniable worldbeat flavor to the proceedings. The lovely melodies have their basis in popular, melodic arrangements, and the new age vibe that pervades much of the music is leavened by the solid rock ensemble backing. (Mehran makes a point of letting the consumer know that those musicians created their own parts; no musical dictator he.) Imagine something halfway between the (admittedly popular) airball sounds of, say, Mannheim Steamroller or Kitaro and something much more dour and substantial, and you’ll find the something approaching the best of both worlds (so to speak) in Subterranea.

Toulouse Engelhardt – Toulousology: Definitive Guitar Soli 1976-2009
I’m not a student of “serious” music, so guitar virtuosi outside the rock spectrum often (if not always) escape my notice (I only “discovered” Wes Montgomery and Buckethead in the last year or so!). So it’s no surprise to me that I had never heard – or heard of – the work of acoustic 12-string guitarist Toulouse Engelhardt. He’s released eight album between 1976 and 2011, and recently compiled this career-spanning best-of. The nature of acoustic-based music such as this – built around Engelhardt’s finger-style guitar – is that it’s pretty damn well timeless. Thus, there’s nothing “dated” about the earlier pieces on the album. They all flow together nicely, taking in elements from various styles. “Revelations at Lunada Bay” would sound right at home on Led Zeppelin III, for example. Engelhardt synthesizes many styles, no mean feat when you’re working with just a guitar.

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One You May Have Missed: Miles From India

Friday, November 16th, 2012

I don’t claim to understand jazz. I think, I believe — and this is the thought, the belief of a rock fan, please understand — that at its most successful, its most transcendent, jazz is the intersection of mathematics and soul. It’s the crossroads of mind and spirit, of intellect and feeling.

I don’t claim to know a whole lot about Miles Davis. I own a few of his albums, and that’s it*. Offhand, I think it’s Miles Davis’ Greatest Hits or something like that. And I know him as a sideman of one of the jazz artists I truly enjoy, Cannonball Adderley. What little I know about Miles is that he pushed boundaries, was an incredibly demanding bandleader, and — to put it mildly — was not known as a sweetheart. A bit like Frank Zappa, to make a reference that brings things back into an area in which I’m on more solid footing.

To continue the Zappa parallel, if you worked with Miles, that was shorthand for your being good. Damn good. Scary good. It also meant that you could traverse musical boundaries the way mere mortal musicians could play in different keys.

A bunch of Miles veterans — people one or at most two degrees removed from Davis’ orbit — got involved with this project, this Miles From India: A Celebration of the Music of Miles Davis. The other half of the musicians are traditional Indian musicians, people from a culture in which (as the liner notes helpfully explain) there is no jazz tradition. So all these cats got together and played a bunch of Miles tunes. Not willing to leave well enough alone, they did challenging stuff like change the time signatures. Not from 4/4 to 3/4, mind you; none of that simple stuff for this crew. Instead they took a track like the already mind-blowing “All Blues” and recast it from 6/4 into 5/4. That track starts with a long sitar solo intro; beautiful stuff, but nothing way out of the ordinary. But then the horn section comes in, and it’s on familiar (read: Western) ground. Juxtapose the two and you’ve got something that is unlike anything I’ve heard before.

The two-disc set is full of this kind of thing. On “Jean Pierre,” guitarist Mike Stern takes things into another dimension. This stuff defines psychedelic, and not in some lame Grateful Dead space-jam noodling way, either.

Look. I don’t know how to explain half of what’s on this set. All I know is that it’s amazing. Perfectly suited in turns for pleasant background music, close and critical listening, or zoning out in a “wowwww” mode, Miles From India is perhaps the most provocative release of 2009. That in itself would be enough. But it’s quite accessible as well. Required listening.

* That was true in 2009 when I wrote this review. I have (and treasure) many more now.

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