Archive for the ‘world’ Category

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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