Like most everybody, I love it when my basic beliefs are confirmed by experience. I love it even more when confirming those beliefs show up my biases and prejudices as just what they are – worthless biases and prejudices. I don’t much care for country music, in fact I’ve been known to get up and leave to avoid having to listen to it. But I also believe that having an open mind and open ears is fundamentally important. So, periodically I pick up a well-thought-of album in a genre I don’t typically enjoy and try and listen to it with open ears. I heard a song by Little Big Town, liked it, looked into the band, found out they are marketed as a county band, and decided to test my open ears practice with their first album, The Road to Here. Smart move. Open ears are good, bias is not.
Little Big Town are four singer-songwriters Kimberly Schlapman, Karen Fairchild, Phillip Sweet and Jimi Westbrook who do two things exceptionally well – write songs and sing them.
The first thing that will strike you when you hear The Road to Here are the vocals. Each member of the group can sing, their voices work beautifully together, and The Road to Here is built from the ground up on their ensemble singing. Little Big Town is vocal group first and a collection of individual singers second. Moreover, they emphasize harmony vocal charts rather than unison singing (everybody sings the same note). It’s hard to write a good song with a strong vocal lead. It’s a lot harder to write a song with four intertwining vocal parts. Little Big Town hit it time and time again. “Boondocks” has the kind of lyrics that embarrass sophisticates who turn their nose up at this kind of music but the vocal harmonies are so exquisite and the hooks are so strong that the song is irresistible. And if that isn’t enough they sing a break down and then launch into a four way round for the out choruses. “A Little More You” has what first appears to be a standard lead vocal playing off a choral background until the chorus turns the word “you” into an eight note riff every fourth measure. It’s a jaw-dropper.
Little Big Town’s exceptional vocal skills are matched by their songwriting. Not only can they write killer quartet vocal charts they have a pronounced ability to fit the words to the rhythm and melody lines. They know when to stretch a word and when to hit it short and sharp so that melody, rhythm and lyrics come across as a smooth and seamless whole. When this is done well the result sounds effortlessly natural and deceptively simple. It’s not.
If I have one complaint about The Road to Here it lies in the way the album was mixed. With one exception, the vocals on all of the tracks on the album are mixed tight. This strategy works because the voices are so tightly meshed. However one track, “Bones”, was mixed by a different engineer and he used closer miking and gave each individual vocal more space in the mix. The exceptional communication these four singers have with each other isn’t lost but the individual harmony parts are sharpened. It’s a small thing but I would have enjoyed hearing more of the album mixed this way.
Before the internet allowed bands with little experience actually playing together to become overnight sensations, first albums were often career highlights because the band had perfected the songs through long practice and many live performances. The Road to Here has this sound of songs that have been refined and buffed to perfection. If you like vocal harmony, listen to this album. It’s terrific. Recommended.
“A Little More You”
Time and again I’ve expressed dismay because producers of electronic dance music rely on the same sound palettes or, even worse, repeat the same 1, 4 or 8 bar pattern so many times that the listener becomes stupefied by monotony. Guillaume & The Coutu Dumonts doesn’t have this problem. Breaking the Fourth Wall is rich with different timbres and compelling grooves. It’s one of the most exciting and interesting single-artist CDs I’ve heard in the dance music category in months.
Guillaume & The Coutu Dumonts is a musician out of Montreal named . . . wait for it . . . Guillaume Coutu Dumont (Ringo should have thought of this). He started out as an anthropology student, began playing percussion at age 17, got involved in a funk band, dropped anthropology and was accepted into a music program in percussion, and then shifted into electroacoustic composition. Finding the academic environment too narrow and limited, he split and began making his own music. Breaking the Fourth Wall is his second album.
If I had to give a single characterization of the type of music Dumont produces on Breaking the Fourth Wall I’d say something like tribal but that doesn’t really do it. He uses a variety of percussion instruments, synths and even vocal lines to build layered grooves that are often very strong in rolling, propulsive rhythms. He also makes exceptionally good use of jazz-influenced horns. Before firing up Tuned In To Music I spent many years deeply involved in listening to and learning about jazz. My first Parametric Monkey track, “Horns of the Moon”, is built around the interplay between an alto and tenor sax because of this background and I’ve often wondered why dance music producers don’t make more use of jazz instrumentation. Breaking the Fourth Wall is an excellent example of just how well jazz-influenced horns can work in dance music context.
While not everything on Breaking the Fourth Wall works for me, the album is filled with original and interesting tracks. Album opener “Mindtrap” combines a Miles Davis style muted trumpet with a powerful driving rhythm. “32 Tonnes de Pigeons” is moving along nicely on what sounds like a Farfisa organ based groove when Dumont drops in a ghostly trumpet that is very reminiscent of Nina Rota’s instantly recognizable theme from The Godfather. He then works in a smokey late-night sax and it all hangs together beautifully. “Walking the Pattern” and “Decennie” are built around samples of either a preacher addressing a congregation or an organizer motivating an audience. “Radio Novela” features vocalist Dynamike over a groove that’s so deep and funky I simply cannot stop playing it.
When you delve into the software that is available to electronic music producers you immediately realize that the possibilities for manipulating rhythm, timbre, instrumentation, groove, melody, and just about anything else you can think of are virtually limitless. You also realize that the producers of electronic dance music have barely scratched the surface of what the tools they use will allow them to do. Guillaume Coutu Dumont ain’t like that. He’s thinking outside the box and the result is that Breaking the Fourth Wall is a solidly grooving album that doesn’t sound like yet another genre-driven dance music CD. Check it out. Recommended.
“Radio Novela” featuring Dynamike
“32 Tonnes de Pigeons”
Start with a blender. Add a good amount of deeply stoned psychedelic rock of the kind played by the great late ’60s San Francisco bands at their peak. Add healthy dollops of Velvet Underground and Shoegaze à la My Bloody Valentine. Flavor with a post-rock sensibility and a garage rock attitude. Add a few bits of the Doors, Can, and Stereolab. Season with discord to taste. Set the blender on low so you end with recognizable chunks in the mix. What do get? The Low Frequency in Stereo, a band that flat out kicks ass.
The Low Frequency in Stereo is a five piece out of Norway. Futuro is their first full length album. Whatever images Norway brings to mind, forget about it. These guys transcend space. The retro influences named above may also bring images to mind. Forget about those too because these guys also transcend time. You can hear the band’s influences but they are not making derivative music. This isn’t The Low Frequency in Stereo doing Velvet Underground or Stereolab. It’s a creative band making original music.
It’s rare to find a band that can internalize a style from the past so deeply that they sound like they could have been one of those bands. It’s even rarer to find a band that can do this for more than one style. And it’s rarer yet for a band to be able to do this within the confines of one song and make it sound like an organic whole rather than an bolted together, unwieldy mess. The Low Frequency in Stereo is one of those ultra-rare bands and Futuro is one of those terrific albums that doesn’t have a bad cut on it. Recommended.
Deutsche Elektronische Musik is a two disc collection from Soul Jazz Records. The set’s subtitle, Experimental German Rock and Electronic Musik 1972-83, provides an accurate description of what it’s all about. English-speaking listeners may be familiar with the term “Krautrock” as a category for this music. As explained in the excellent booklet that accompanies the collection “Krautrock” was a name coined by the UK music press that many of the practitioners of the music found offensive. Whatever you want to call it, Deutsche Elektronische Musik is a superb collection.
Today the most well known bands from this period of German music are probably Can, Neu!, Faust and Tangerine Dream, all of whom are represented in Deutsche Elektronische Musik, and, of course, Kraftwerk, which is not. I assume Kraftwerk’s absence stems from licensing issues. If so, whoever is responsible for deciding not to allow Kraftwerk to appear on Deutsche Elektronische Musik made a mistake because the set is not only excellent but likely to become definitive. Kraftwerk really should be here.
In addition to the aforementioned, Deutsche Elektronische Musik includes selections by Popul Vuh, Amon Duul II, Michael Bundt, Kollective, Cluster, Ash Ra Temple and Ibliss among others.
Deutsche Elektronische Musik comes with a 35 page booklet that is very well done. Along with pictures and short biographies of the different bands it includes an excellent essay about the social, political and cultural conditions that gave birth to and shaped this music. This isn’t the kind of pompous airy-fairy sociological theorizing about the symbolic relationships between music and culture written by people who wouldn’t have a clue about how to actually gather and evaluate evidence pro and con about the ideas they are blathering on about that is characteristic of a lot of writing about popular forms of music. It is a clear headed description of social, political and cultural conditions in Germany in the 1960s and how these circumstances were viewed by many young Germans at the time. The essay provides valuable context with which to listen to the music.
It also raises some questions about how well Deutsche Elektronische Musik may serve as a survey of the music created by these bands. The key lies in the dates – 1972 to 1983. Many of these bands began their musical careers either before 1972 or before the date of their song which is included on Deutsche Elektronische Musik. Some of the early work of these bands was created from the theoretical viewpoint that politics, culture and art, including music, was so shattered and corrupted that the solution was to begin anew with something completely different. The essay in the booklet gives a compelling description of the conditions in Germany that produced the degree of alienation that gave rise to this type of view among these German musicians. Many turned to the musique concrete movement along with the music and teaching of Karlheinz Stockhausen. The result was music that is easily perceived as harsh and demanding or as nonmusical noise.
The people at Soul Jazz have not included these works in their survey of German electronic and rock music and they give fair warning of this with the dates given in the collection’s subtitle. While this may count against Deutsche Elektronische Musik as an even-handed and thorough survey of the music, it has resulted in two discs worth of very musical selections that are a joy to listen to. Once these bands had purged their need to destroy established forms and genres with noise they turned to building musical compositions using new technologies and new types of arrangements. The result, as is amply evidence on Deutsche Elektronische Musik, was a wealth of terrific music that is highly listenable.
A good deal of the music on Deutsche Elektronische Musik owes a strong debt to the psychedelic rock that was pioneered by the San Francisco bands in the mid to late 1960s. In some cases, such as Ash Ra Temple’s “Daydream” which sounds like Jefferson Airlane with a different style of female vocalist, the connection to the Haight Ashbury bands is obvious. In others, like the extended psychedlic jams represented by Ibliss’ “High Life” or Neu!’s “Hallogallo” the connection is more one of spirit than mimicry. In all of these cases the resulting music is great.
It may be difficult at first for modern listeners to hear the “electronic” in this experimental electronic music. The 1970s were the early days of portable synthesizers and their sound, and more importantly the range of sound they were capable of producing, was primitive by today’s standards. Synthesized sound has become so essential a part of current music that it can be difficult to hear how different and experimental some of these timbres sounded in the mid 1970s. It may not sound like it to modern ears, but these German bands were blazing new trails in the sounds that could be used to make music.
That’s not true of everything to be heard on Deutsche Elektronische Musik. Michael Bundt’s amazing “La Chasse Aux Microbes” is obviously synthesized music that still sounds intriguing 30 years later and Tangerine Dream’s “No Man’s Land” is a fine example of their “Cosmic music” that introduced many to the new musical possibilities inherent in synthesized sounds.
There’s so much good music on Deutsche Elektronische Musik it’s hard to pick out one track or another for special mention. Popul Vuh’s “Aguirre 1” from the soundtrack of Wernor Herzog’s film Aguirre, The Wrath of God is likely to stop you dead in your tracks with it’s profound and compelling combination of choral singing and electronic keyboards. Conrad Schnitzler’s “Auf Dem Schwarzen Canal” is one of the best “Kraftwerk” tunes not done by Kraftwerk I’ve yet to hear. Gila’s “This Morning” is lovely, sunny power pop. Kollectiv’s “Rambo Zambo” is a flute-driven psychedelic rock-out. The list could go on and on.
Deutsche Elektronische Musik is an exceptionally good collection. If you enjoy the type of psychedelic rock that was being played in the late 1960s, you will thoroughly enjoy this album. If you like electronic music there is a great deal here you will enjoy. If you like musical creativity unfettered by traditional forms and structures and songs that reflect the joy and excitement the musicians felt in playing them, Deutsche Elektronische Musik is not to be missed. Highly recommended.
Kollectiv’s “Rambo Zambo”
and Popul Vuh’s “Aguirre 1” from Deutsche Elektronische Musik
I very much enjoyed Ewan Pearson’s mix for the Kompakt label, We Are Proud of Our Choices, so I looked for other mix CDs by Pearson and found Fabric 35. Good move. Pearson creates masterful mixes and Fabric 35 is a terrific CD.
There isn’t any part of putting a mix together that Pearson isn’t good at. His segues from one track to the next are seamless even when the tracks are wildly disparate. I bought Fabric 35 as a single track download (in wav format) from Juno Downloads and in places his transitions are so smooth I’m not quite sure where one track ends and the next begins. Pearson also rarely lets interest flag with tracks that repeat the same few bars over and over again or sequential tracks that are highly similar in timbre or rhythmic structure.
A major part of what makes Fabric 35 so enjoyable are the tracks Pearson has chosen. With the single exception of 100Hz’s “Trustlove” which hits the dancefloor DOA like a corpse dropped from the rafters in midset (at least for me, others like this track) every track on Fabric 35 is interesting and fits in the flow. Many of the tracks feature dynamite vocals beginning with set opener Jahcoozi’s Robert Johnson’s 6Am X-Ray Italo Rework of “Ali McBills”, and moving through the Prince inspired Konrad Black Mix of Snax’ “Honeymoon’s Over” and Tobi Neumann’s Swinging Remix of Johannes Heil’s “All for One” and finally ending up with the astonishing “Berghain” from Aril Brikha.
Reigning over all of Fabric 35‘s many strengths is the groove. It’s low, dark and relentless. Ewan Pearson is a master and Fabric 35 is a masterclass in how to put together a mix. Recommended.
The Yellow Moon Band is a quartet that plays . . . music. People seem to be having a hard time figuring out just what kind of music they play. “Entangled”, one of the tracks from Travels Into Several Remote Nations of the World, appears on the A Monstrous Psychedelic Bubble Exploding in Your Mind compilation which has led some to categorize their music as psychedelic prog. However, “Entangled” also appears on Fred Deakin’s (one half of the electronic music duo Lemon Jelly) Nu Balearica collection which has led allmusic.com to label the Yellow Moon Band as an electronica group. Others have labeled them as folk, funky or groovy.
Ok, so the listeners are having a hard time figuring it out. What does the CD say? Nothing. The disk I received came in a fold-over cardboard holder with a sleeve for the CD in one side and a sleeve for the pamphlet in the other. Got the CD but didn’t get a pamphlet and the cardboard sleeve has no info about the band or the music whatsoever other than that the band wrote the music.
So what kind of music do they play? For starters, Travels Into Several Remote Nations of the World is almost entirely instrumental. There are a couple of vocals but they are not what the music is about. The band sounds like two guitars, bass and drums (allmusic is completely off the mark labeling this as electronica).
As I listened to Travels Into Several Remote Nations of the World again and again I was overwhelmed with the feeling that it was really reminding me of something but I couldn’t quite place it. Then I had it. The Yellow Moon Band reminds me of the original Allman Brothers without Duane Allman, without the orientation toward blues rock, and without the jamming. wtf? You take all that away and what’s left?
A lot when you think about it. Duane Allman was such a brilliant and unique guitar player (when he was on) that no one, not even the Allmans without him, sound like the Allmans with him so the Yellow Moon Band is like every other band in the world in this regard.
What about the blues rock thing? The Allmans often used blues rock structures to bookend their jams but once they cut loose the music went where it went without regard to genre conventions or limitations. Remember these were the guys who turned Donovan’s “There is a Mountain” into a 20 minute masterwork. Losing the blues rock increases the similarity between the Yellow Moon Band and the Allmans as often as not.
Losing the jamming may be a problem. The Allmans’ improvisational jams were often superb. The Yellow Moon Band may be able to jam like that as well but the evidence isn’t on Travels Into Several Remote Nations of the World. Instead what we have are tight, focused full band work outs that sound like they may have begun as jams which were then then practiced, tightened up, and refined. Pure meat, no fat.
The end result is a CD filled with tight, muscular guitar led instrumentals. There is a clear influence of late ’60s – early ’70s psychedelic music but the Yellow Moon Band never come across as imitating someone else. They are their own band and they’re outstanding. Travels Into Several Remote Nations of the World is one of the best CDs I’ve heard this year and is very strongly recommended if you like first-rate guitar-driven rock.
35 seconds in and you’ll know whether or not you’re going to like Sonidos Gold. “El Sabio Soy Yo”, the opening track starts with four bars of a huge and arresting funk drum vamp. At 10 seconds a powerful soul-review horn section is laid over the drums for 8 bars. Grupo Fantasma then drives the whole thing to a rollicking cumbia at the 12 bar point. It kills. We were hooting, hollering and dancing the very first time we heard it and we haven’t stopped months later.
Grupo Fantasma is an Austin-based Latin big band that mixes funk, soul, cumbia, salsa, rumba and umpteen other latin rhythms in a high energy stew that never quits throughout Sonidos Gold. They are also something of an oddity in the music business as they’ve built their reputation almost solely on word of mouth and incendiary live shows. After selling thousands of CDs out of the back of their van during live gigs they were offered major label support. They turned it down in order to retain full creative control of their music and how it’s packaged.
Based on Sonidos Gold, it sounds like they made the right decision. The album has been in constant rotation in our house for months; we just can’t seem to get it out of the CD player. Typically an album is reviewed here after it drops out of the mix and finds it’s way to the storage rack. Sonidos Gold is the exception to that rule. I expect we’ll be listening to this one until another one of Grupo Fantasma’s albums comes into the house. If you would like an introduction to Latin rhythms, Sonidos Gold would be a great choice as it combines these rhythms with what may be the more familiar soul and funk. If you are a fan of powerful big band Latin music Sonidos Gold is highly recommended. Good times.
The Grand 12-Inch series (currently at 5 volumes) collects dance music from the 70s and 80s in the 12″ versions that were specially mixed for club play. Each of the first three volumes collects 40 tracks spread over four discs. After reviewing Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 and spending the past several weeks enjoying Vol. 3 I’m prepared to say that these discs are the best collections of this kind of music I’ve heard. It’s no contest, nothing else even comes close.
The sets are put together by Ben Liebrand a Dutch DJ, remixer, and producer who both knows and cares about this music. Not only has he taken the time to search out these hard to find versions, the tracks he gives us are taken directly from the master recordings. That means we are not only getting a wealth of good music, we are getting music that, in many cases, sounds spectacular. In producing music that is designed to sound good when played back in compressed formats through iPod earbuds the industry has been using drastic compression so that music will sound uniformly loud. The result is music with almost no dynamic range that sounds flat and lifeless when played on anything like a decent sound system. Compression was not used so heavily in the 70s and 80s so the music sounds much deeper and richer. Combine this with Liebrand’s inisistence on using the master recordings and you get exceptionally fine sound on many of these tracks. Crank the volume on these numbers and they sound spectacular.
In most cases the difference between the radio version and the 12″ club version is the latter’s extended break. Sometimes an extended break would be adapted for the beginning or end of a tune but no matter where they put it in the tune, it was the break that made the 12″ versions so exciting on the dancefloor. There are so many excellent examples on Vol. 3 that listing them all would come close to listing all forty tracks on the collection. The Reddings’s “The Awakening” opens with a bass solo that’s like a master class in slap bass. “I’m Not Gonna Let You Go” features a kick ass break with Colonel Abrams singing a duet with himself in stereo. I believe the 11+ minute version of M.F.S.B.’s era-defining “Love is the Message” is the Tom Moulton mix. The 13+ minute extended outro with skit on “Cruisin’ the Streets” by Boys Town Gang is not for people who are offended by, uhh, “alternative” lifestyles. lol Some other notable tracks include a disco version of Herbie Hancock’s “Tell Everybody”, a 10+ minute live version of the Commodores “Brick House”, Janis Ian’s “Fly Too High” produced by Giorgio Moroder, parts 1 and 2 of The Chaplin Band’s “Madmen’s Discotheque, and much much more.
My only disappointment with Vol. 3 is that the Shelter DJ mix of Earth Wind & Fire’s “Fantasy” won’t play on my main CD transport because of a manufacturing flaw. It’s a quality control problem at the pressing plant, not a fault of the collection and it’s only one song . . . But still, it’s a really good song and the volumes in the Grand 12″ series are too expensive to buy a new set just to replace one song. The series are only available in the US as imports and they’re expensive. This will likely be a problem for some listeners but the quantity and very high quality of sound reproduction of the music you get easily makes each of the first three volumes worth the cost. Can’t afford to buy two of them to replace one song, however, which is a bummer because I really like “Fantasy”.
If you like 70s and 80s dance music Grand 12-Inches Vol. 3 is highly recommended. While cut-down radio versions of some of these songs can be easy to find, the 12″ versions often are not. You won’t find more of them gathered in one place and reproduced with such brilliant sound as you will find on the volumes in this series.
Let me get this out of the way up front – I think Damien Dempsey is great. Not just good, not just brilliant. Great. Singing the praises of his album Live at the Olympia was the motivation for starting this blog and I still think it’s flat out, hands down, the best live album I’ve ever heard. The interplay between Dempsey and an enormous loving audience on that album is incandescent. I’ve also heard him play in a tiny venue before an audience of maybe 10 people and I was enthralled. I’m a fan and have virtually no ability to objectively evaluate Seize the Day. Be forewarned.
Dempsey’s first album, They Don’t Teach This Shit in School, was very much the work of a young and not quite ready for prime time musician. So much more the surprise, then, when his second album, Seize the Day, was released three years later. His song writing has fully matured, he is in absolute control of his material, and he sings and plays with a conviction that is riveting. Dempsey comes from working class Dublin and he has a profound and deeply felt sense of outrage at the injustices suffered by the underprivileged. In many of his songs he condemns this injustice with forceful, powerful and often poetic lyrics. On “Celtic Tiger” he excoriates the greed that has accompanied Ireland’s recent economic renaissance and has left so many of the the working class or rural Irish behind. On “Ghosts of Overdoses” he starkly illuminates the devastation wrought by drugs among the urban poor. The song includes the couplet “And the ghosts of overdoses / Replaced the ghosts of tuberculosis” which Dempsey delivers like a dagger to the heart and which is as succinct a description of the plight of the urban poor at the beginning and end of the 20th century as you are likely to find anywhere. Seize the Day is filled with moments like this as are all of Dempsey’s albums to date.
In combination with social injustice, Dempsey also has a profound sense of the ways living in a world where people expect the worst of you can drive you down to defeat. Album opener “Negative Vibes” is a moving song about a person striving to maintain equilibrium in a demeaning world. Seize the Day also includes the studio version of the rousing “It’s All Good” which receives an astonishing rendition on Live at the Olympia.
Dempsey is markedly influenced by traditional Irish protest music but he is also very stongly influenced by rock, hip hop, and, to a lesser extent, electronic music. It’s a heady and powerful mix that in Dempsey’s hands comes out as a unique and compelling form of music.
Damo, as he is known at home, is one of Ireland’s most popular musicians and has won numerous Irish music awards. One source of his popularity is that his lyrics make natural use of the history and slang of his homeland and he makes no attempt to sing with the neutral accent usually adopted by Irish singers in an effort to appeal to UK or US audiences. Listeners unfamiliar with Irish history or contemporary Irish vernacular may find some lyrics confusing but the CD booklet contains a helpful glossary.
Seize the Day is a terrific album that is strongly recommended for people who enjoy powerful music, exceptionally fine songwriting, and an uncompromising rejection of social injustice in all its forms. You will fall in love with many of these songs and will then be blown away even more when you hear them performed Live at the Olympia.
Ojos de Brujo are a large band from Barcelona that perform a combination of nuevo flamenco, Gypsy, Indian, African, Caribbean, hip hop, rap, and more that I find utterly intoxicating. Not only do they make music that I could, and often do, listen to all day, they completely control the packaging and production of their music on their own record label. Rather than release CDs designed to squeeze every last dime out of the buying public they put out lavish productions that reflect their love of the music they make and their desire to share that music in as pleasurable a way as possible with the rest of us. I love this band.
Following 1999’s Vengue and 2002’s Bari, Ojos de Brujo released their third album of new material, Techari, in 2006. On December 22nd of the same year they performed the material from the album along with some new tunes at a gig in their home town of Barcelona. Techari Live presents that concert in two formats, a CD and a DVD. Although I very much enjoy the CD, I find it the less satisfying of the two. As often happens in live performance a number of the songs from Techari are played at slightly faster tempos than they are on the studio album which results in the loss of some of the lilt and sway that can make Ojos de Brujo’s music so captivating. Also, the intensity and power of a live performance from a nine member band augmented by two flamenco dancers and innumerable guests blasts away some of the nuance and subtelty that is present on the studio recordings. Having said that, the live gig is expertly recorded and mixed so that all of those musical voices can be clearly heard and distinguished. It’s a masterful recording. And the band . . . God in heaven, the band is amazing.
Watching the band perform can greatly enhance one’s appreciation and enjoyment of this music. There are a lot of musicians working here, they are playing rhythms, counter rhythms, cross rhythms and polyrhythms that are dizzying in their complexity, and all of these guys can count. The group is so tight they are beyond belief. They’re playing within rhythmic structures that are so complex and so fast they’re almost impossible to figure out and yet the band will stop, turn and shift gears on a razor’s edge. Being able to watch them is a great help in keeping track of who is playing what and in separating out the different rhythmic strands. As if two percussion players, a drummer, a turntablist, and two flamenco guitarists all playing different rhythmic lines weren’t enough the band adds a pair of flamenco dancers for even more rhythmic goodness. They do one number where spitfire rapper Maxwell Wright and flamenco dancer Susi Medina carry out a vocal-foot percussion dialogue that begins with them trading eights and shifts to trading fours and then twos at a speed and complexity that has to be seen and heard to be believed. Another highlight is the duet between Ojos de Brujo’s spectacular vocalist Marina Abad and guest vocalist Martirio on “Todo Tiende”. Those are two great moments but there are many, many more. Time after time this band will stop you dead in your tracks and leave you awestruck. These guys can really play.
Although the CD and DVD contain the same songs (for the most part, there are a couple of extra studio tracks on the CD) the sequencing is different on each which is a nice touch because they provide different listening experiences. The DVD features surround sound but it is not recorded in either DVD-Audio or SACD. In addition the DVD has a documentary on the making of “Techari”, a short on putting the gig together, and a collection of the videos they made for tunes on the album including the terrific video for “Sultanas de Merkaillo”.
As can be heard on the Barcelona Zona Bastarda compilation, Barcelona is currently the home of an exceptionally vibrant and creative music scene and Ojos de Brujo is one of its leaders. They are are an extraordinary band that has put out one excellent album after another. Techari Live is no exception and by also providing a visual record of the concert on DVD Ojos de Brujo gives us another way to enjoy their joy-infused and celebratory music. Highly recommended.
Some CDs stay “In the Mix” list for a long time because I have to force myself to listen to them enough times to give them a fair review. Others stay in the mix because we’re enjoying them so much we just can’t get them out of rotation. “Out There” is of the second kind. It’s a terrific disc.
The Heliocentrics are an eight piece band that sound like they’re led by drummer Malcolm Catto. The music on “Out There” is instrumental with occasional brief spoken passages. The album is supposed to capture some kind of trip into the cosmos and back – you know, out there – but the overarching structure is relatively unimportant to enjoyment of the album. There is no simple way to describe the music in terms of genre because there really is no genre that captures it. On “Out There” the Heliocentrics combine elements of funk, big band jazz, free jazz, fusion, psychedelia, Middle Eastern music and electronica into a mix that is so rich and varied and so well played that considerations of genre seem beside the point. The album contains 20 tracks ranging from 0:16 to 5:26. You never know what’s coming next but the arrangements are so adept and the band is so solidly synched on groove that even the more abstract and out there passages can be easily enjoyed by listeners who are unfamiliar, or perhaps uncomfortable, with free jazz. There’s so much going on across this CD that you can listen to it every day for weeks and still pick up something new.
If the album has a weakness it’s that the relatively short running time for most of the tracks doesn’t give the band an opportunity to stretch out and examine the music a bit more. More than a few moments go by that could serve as the basis for extended passages of exploration. Of course “Out There” would then be more of a jazz album than an I-don’t-know-what-to-call-it album. Maybe it’s better the way it is.
“Out There” is the Heliocentrics only album and there’s not much info out there about them. The album may be a one-off from a group of studio musicians. I sincerely hope not because if these guys can continue to make music like this, I’ll buy everything they put out on sight. If they are a one shot and it sounds like this is the kind of music you might like, get the CD quick because it may not be easy to find in the future. Sometimes you hear a CD and know you’re going to be pulling it out of the rack periodicaly for years to come. In our house this is one of those CDs. Recommended.
With their debut album “All Hour Cymbals” Yeasayer has accomplished something most bands never achieve – an album that is both rooted in popular music forms and has a sound and approach that is so unique they don’t sound like anyone else. Their songs are rich with American, Middle Eastern, Indian and African influences and end up sounding like music that is native to a culture that doesn’t exist. If “All Hour Cymbals” is any evidence, it should.
Yeasayer is a quartet composed of Chris Keating (guitar, vocals), Anand Wilder (keyboards, vocals), Ira Wolf Tuton (bass), and Luke Fasano (drums). Listening to “All Hour Cymbals” it sounds like all, or at least some, of them are also accomplished at the mixing board as the music often has layer on layer of instruments, percussion and choir-like harmonies or chants. Middle Eastern instruments, African rhythms, tribal chants, and soaring choirs weave in and out of the music in a polyrhythmic stew. With all of these bits and pieces it should be a jumbled mess but it’s not. The melding of this wide variety of influences is exquisite and the soundscape is kept clean and uncluttered. Independently of their skill as musicians and songwriters, Yeasayer are masterful at putting it all together. With everything that’s going on in these songs, they still sound natural and easy. Organic. It’s this seeming naturalness that makes the music sound so rooted as if it comes from a culture that has existed for eons.
Yeasayer has been attracting a good deal of favorable attention and it remains to be seen whether the band can keep it together under the flood of positive press. For right now, “All Hour Cymbals” is a superb example of why getting stuck listening to the music that was popular when you were young is a big mistake. If you’re not paying attention to what’s going on now, you’re going to miss CDs like “All Hour Cymbals” and that would be unfortunate. Albums like this don’t come along very often but when they do they make listening to all the variations on a theme you’ve heard too many times before worth it. “All Hour Cymbals” is the kind of album people go back to time and again over the years. Strongly recommended.
The popular response to female vocalists is a mystery to me. People went wild over Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” which showcased a singer of great potential but somewhat limited range who has yet to decide what kind of singer she wants to be and has only begun to understand the strengths and weaknesses of her voice. An unending stream of limited talent, big hair, bad behavior bimbos pours from the record companies fronting by-the-numbers, mass produced music and propelled by slick marketing campaigns and people eat it up. Then along comes Annie Lennox with “Songs of Mass Destruction” a flat out terrific album by an immensly talented singer and it gets labeled as “adult contemporary” and largely ignored. Are people listening to the hype machines or the music? I don’t get it.
I’m also one of the people I’m ranting about. Like most everyone else I knew that Lennox was the vocalist in the Eurythmics but I had not paid attention to her solo career. Based on “Songs of Mass Destruction” that was a big mistake. Lennox’s voice is extraordinary. Her tone is clear and pure with hardly a hint of smoke and her vocal range is wide. More importantly, she fully understand her voice and wields it with absolute conviction and pinpoint control. She can sing quietly, she can sing with exhilarating power and in either mode she can invest a song which such deep emotion that it stops you dead in your tracks. She really is a remarkable singer.
But that’s not the end of the story. Lennox wrote all the songs on the CD and she’s a talented songwriter. She has a talent for hooks, ballads and power and composes a wide range of music that takes full advantage of her strong and flexible voice. I tend to initially prefer the up tempo numbers like “Love is Blind”, “Womankind” and “Ghosts in My Machine” but with repeated listenings many of the ballads like “Through the Glass Darkly” and “Lost” are becoming favorites. Album opener “Dark Road” is arresting and immediately lets the listener know that this is an album you’re going to want to sit down and listen to. One track, “Sing” is a story in and of itself. The song is a woman empowerment anthem that is fairly typical of the genre. All of the proceeds realized from the song are being given to the Treatment Action Campaign, an organization that is devoted to combating the AIDS/HIV epidemic in Africa. The song features a choir composed of Bonnie Raitt, Beth Orton, Celine Dion, Shakira, K.D. Lang, Madonna, Faith Hill, Gladys Knight, Pink, Beth Gibbons, K.T. Tunstall, Melissa Etheridge, Sarah McLachlin and many others. Wow.
To top it all off, the CD is very well recorded. Lennox’s voice is so clean that it demands a very clean recording and that’s what it gets here. Voices and instruments occupy clear and distinct places in the soundstage. The mix also makes nice use of subsonics in several places. This is an album that will lose a lot in lossy formats like mp3.
For much of Annie Lennox’s career I was deeply immersed in jazz and wasn’t paying attention to what was going on in any of the many varieties of popular music. An album like “Songs of Mass Destruction” shows just how limiting that kind of narrow-eared approach to music can be. “Songs of Mass Destruction” is a terrific album and is highly recommended to listeners who like powerful songs and powerful voices.
This is quite a story. In 1996 guitar player, singer and songwriter Gordon Anderson and a couple of friends formed a band in Edinburgh, Scotland. They called themselves the Pigeons but soon the name was changed to The Beta Band. Around the time the band released their first EP Anderson succombed to mental illness and left the group. The band continued on with a career that saw consistent critical acclaim but which ended in 2004 after three albums when they decided they weren’t happy with the music they were making. Meanwhile Anderson spent eight years in a mental hospital diagnosed with schizophrenia undergoing drug treatments and electro-shock therapy which he says did absolutely nothing to help him. He was released in the care of two Christians who took him into their home and helped him work through his problems. Three months later he believed himself to be okay again, was able to function normally, and was back making music. He hooked up with John Maclean and Robin Jones the keyboard player and drummer from the Beta Band and the trio began making music together as The Aliens.
“Astronomy For Dogs” is The Aliens’ first album and Anderson wrote all the songs. It’s terrific. The CD is bursting with great tunes, richly layered music and a scintillating combination of both massed and harmony vocals. “Rox” sounds like it could have been recorded during the Screamadelica sessions while “Only Waiting” is a dead ringer for Revolver / Rubber Soul era Beatles. It sounds like Neil Young makes a vocal appearance on “Caravan”, an extended psychedelic jam that ends the album. The best some bands can do is sound like slavish imitators of their influences while others find a way to clearly reflect the sound or stylings of their forerunners while still producing music that is fresh and interesting. The Aliens could be poster boys for the latter group. The Beatles influence on “Astronomy For Dogs” is both strong and obvious and yet The Aliens are always their own band. This is a very good band making music in a style pioneered by a great band.
It’s not all good. “Glover” is based on a very simple four chord descending riff that repeats endlessly as a grab bag of keyboard effects and ghostly vocals are scattered here and there. At just under eight and a half minutes it’s about five and a half minutes too long. But “Glover” is the exception rather than the rule and one of the reasons it stands out is that Maclean’s highly varied keyboards usually add great richness and texture rather than tedium.
“Astronomy For Dogs” is one of the most intriguing debut albums I’ve heard this year. I hope it’s not a one-shot because I’m really looking forward to The Aliens sophmore CD. Recommended.
Stars is more or less a five piece from Toronto and “Set Yourself on Fire” is their first full length album. I say more or less because, like other bands in the very active Toronto music scene (Broken Social Scene, Metric), Stars encompasses a large and ever-changing group of musicians who frequently play together both in performance and on each other’s albums. Stars employs dual vocalists in Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan. The other members of the core group are Evan Cranley, Pat McGee and Chris Seligman. They all play multiple instruments and they are joined on Stars by lots of friends.
Again like other contemporary Toronto bands Stars plays music that is almost wholly unconstrained by genre boundaries and expectations. They effortlessly incorporate rock guitar and instrumentation with keyboards, strings and brass into music that is usually characterized as indie or alt rock because these categories are so vague that they encompass just about anything. Whatever you want to call it, Stars makes varied, unique and very enjoyable music. Campbell and Millan’s voices are well suited to each other and they often use them to terrific effect as they tell stories about different stages in the lifespan of a relationship from the differing points of view of the two participants. Their lyrics and vocal interplay are wise, insightful and, at times, riveting. Musically the ensemble is right there with them. Individual tracks feel like they have been carefully crafted to suit the needs of the song in style, timbre and instrumentation with virtually no regard for trying to establish a “sound” for the band or highlight the technical skills of any individual player. There are no ego-driven musical displays of technique here.
It’s rare to find a band whose first album is as confident, well rounded and successful as “Set Yourself on Fire”. It’s a CD that gets better the more you listen to it and which doesn’t lose any of its luster when you return to it after several weeks or months away. The problem, at least for Stars, is that it’s too good. Expectations for their followup will be unreasonably high. Recommended.
Music from this CD can be heard on Tuned In To Music Podcast 014 – The Girls in the Band