(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 22, Number 6, 2003)
(Click here for cover art, purchase info, and RealAudio samples of the CDs reviewed in this column.)
We Know You Know, the third and best release by the Madison, WI-based Reptile Palace Orchestra, is hyped in a promo sheet from Omnium Recordings as "vibrational field messages" from an ancient reptilian race of extraterrestrials that has infiltrated our world. But with its fog of classic rock, woozy low-tech electronica, and tongue-in-cheek psychedelia, We Know You Know doesn't suggest an abduction by sophisticated aliens. Its ambience is decidedly earthbound, more like the perfect soundtrack for the extended moment when the inebriated groom falls face first into the wedding cake.
The Reptilians' repertoire is so varied, you could hear six songs here and suspect you were listening to that many different bands. The cd includes a cover version of an ancient top-40 radio annoyance, dirge-rock numbers, a sparkling solo mandolin ditty, Balkan- and Arabic-flavored instrumentals, an acoustic piece from Crete, a tape-loop creation featuring Adam West reciting erotic phrases about the Catwoman ("Earth Lee Julie"), and the mind--numbing novelty song "If You Were A Frog," so chock full of banal good cheer it throws into question the sincerity of every note on the disc.
Despite the plethora of disparate material, most of the songs combine a love of feedback-laden grungy arrangements and a world-weary attitude that says, while music is important, it isn't exactly life and death - even when life and death is the theme, as on the meditation to the infamous Faces of Death video "Sex and Death." Not since the late, lamented 3 Mustaphas 3, in fact, has there been another world-beat band that refuses to let the goofiness of its songs stand in the way of passionately playing them. The only real misfire is a cover version of the Ides of March's 1970 hit song "Vehicle" on which a change of gender via Anna Purnell's slightly sinister reading recasts the song rather than destroying it. Past Reptile releases played the version game more adroitly with sparkling reinventions ranging from an Eastern European twist on Brian Eno's "Somber Reptiles" to a fondueing of the cheesy "Speak Softly, Love" from The Godfather.
But all else on the disc pales next to the raging ethno--instruments, starting with the jackhammer delicacy of Assyrian dance tune "Kochari" sporting a screaming electric violin solo by Biff Blumfumgagnge, who tones down the electronic distortion but keeps his amp turned to 11 on the Balkan klezmer romp "Uranus Sirtez." Quacking reeds and rapid-fire 22-beat phrases make the Bulgarian "Sandansko Horo" seem merely frantic at first. But synthesizer growls, gaita bagpipe howls, and Robert Schoville's brawling, rolling drums kick the song into a punk no-man's land. "Tune for Ibn Khaldûn (Part 1 and Part 2)" brings in guest percussionist Siggi Baldursson raising clouds of dust from his dumbek as all sorts of unholy noises float above the taut bellydance rhythm. Interrupting the two-parter is a jazzy arrangement of the Balkan "Sauna Deck Cocek" pairing Anna Purnell's smooth trumpet with pumping reeds and an off-kilter nine-beat tempo reminiscent of Dave Brubeck's "Blue Rondo A La Turk."
The second half of the disc is stronger than the first, because that's where the ethnically charged songs congregate. Wouldn't it be nice if there were enough of this material to fill an entire cd? It's nearly possible once you dip into the 14 additional songs included on We Know You Know in MP3 format. Or grab early Reptile Palace Orchestra cds Hwy X and Iguana iguana and burn yourself the ultimate multi-ethnic wedding reception disc. Just add a three-tiered cake, get the bridal party all liquored up, and you're ready for anything.
Purists sniff at world music anthologies. Samplers are bottom-feeders, after all, subsisting on recycled material. Few have sufficient flow to wet your ears. And the sustained vision that comes easily to most single-artist albums usually eludes anthologies. Their try-this, try-that mentality favors stand-out songs while ignoring quiet gems that lurk in the middle of an album, giving us the equivalent of a foreign singer's "All Shook Up" while leaving out "Mystery Train." But for musical genres that seldom surface here, nothing beats an anthology for illuminating an artist you hope to hear more from - or avoid like the West Nile virus. The most compelling reason for picking up a well-thought-out anthology is that it holds the potential for surprise and outrage like few single-artist discs.
The Rough Guide series of world music samplers now numbers over 130 titles, and the releases seem to get better all the time. The Rough Guide to the Music of China (World Music Network) overflows with the unexpected. The last significant anthology of Chinese music was 1998's three-cd China: Time to Listen from the Ellipsis Arts label, populated mainly by folkies and classically trained musicians performing scholarly versions of folk music. Rough Guide's China is more adventurous. It kicks off with a cut that might have you simultaneously cheering and grimacing, as Beijing rockers Cui Jian drill deep into "Yi Wu Suo You" ("Nothing to My Name") with a '70s glam aesthetic built around electric guitar, synthesizer, yearning vocals and a sax solo straight out of Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street." On the one hand its blatantly Western format is depressing. On the other hand this exuberant song carves out a small Sino-European territory all its own.
Female vocalist Urna floats her acrobatic vocal on "Silaihuar" over a drone instrument in a lovely if excessively polished pop take on a traditional Mongolian ditty that might make you long for the contrasting grit of local throat-singing styles. The instrumental "Jiu Kuang" ("The Drinking Song") evokes a helping of Delta blues guitar as Yao Gongbai plucks and slides the 1700-year-old melody on the guqin seven-string zither. If these first three songs threaten an overly sedate disc, Bai Hong shakes things up with a jaw-dropping piece of prerevolutionary fluff that probably originates from the late '30s. "Wo Yao Hui Jia" weds the clip-clop hooves of horses, an American cowpoke-style tune, and a full Western orchestral arrangement with a bouncy Chinese-language vocal. The campy excess of this slab of memorabilia could compete with the glitziest Bollywood offering. Even more of a jolt is "Hong Niang Hui Zhang Sheng," an all-too-brief excerpt from an unnamed Cantonese opera performed by Zheng Jun Mian and Li Hong. The clattering percussion, expressionist vocals, birdlike flute accompaniment, and apparent chaos come across as deliciously avant-garde, even though the style dates back to the 8th-century Tang dynasty.
While we have gotten a fair sampling of South African choral music here over the years, The Rough Guide to South African Gospel is, as far as I know, the first disc dedicated to that genre. And the result is, well, a revelation. The scope of the material ranges from the kick-off cut's Zulu arrangement of the familiar hymn "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" - here cast as "Namhla Niyabizwa" (Today Christ is Calling) - to peppy songs you'd never guess had anything to do with religion. One of the best succeeds in spite of a trite drum machine rhythm and thin keyboard sound. "Lefatshe La Dikhutsanyane" (Sotho, Land of Orphans) by Vuyo Mokoena and Pure Magic borrows a bouncy beat from French Antillian zouk and generates crackling waves of energy from pop music paradise. Mokoena's soaring lead vocal is positioned in back of a buzzing, beautifully layered chorus that shifts and shimmers in its exaltation of a simple melody and endless extended climax. It's no wonder that Pure Magic has a history of multi-platinum records at home.
Amadodana Ase Wesile's "Zingandidakumbisa Na?" (Can This Make Me Sad?) has a fluid yet slightly disjointed feel that's reminiscent of American shape note or sacred harp singing styles, presumably due to the Wesleyan heritage. Amagugu Odumu use an appealing lead vocal style that suggests familiarity with Jamaican rock steady hits of the 1960s and American soul music, topping it off with crackling tenor guitar chords. The 32-voice International Pentecostal Church Choir sets "Tumelo" (Believing) to the old-time tune of "(Give Me) That Old Time Religion," and is one of the few cuts on the disc (along with Rebecca Malope's overheated "Usizo Lwam'") to actually reference American gospel music via one of the voices behind lead singer Priscilla Likaba. Kings Messengers Quartet performs the English-language "There's Room Enough" with rich male harmonies and multi-part singing that wouldn't be out of place on an Alan Lomax Southern Journey-series field recording culled from the 1950s. Despite a few cuts with drum machine annoyances, this is a terrific album, and it even includes a characteristically fine devotional ditty by Ladysmith Black Mambazo dating all the way back to 1975.
The first track of The Rough Guide to Bollywood Legends: Asha Bhosle delivers a jolly what-the-hell-is-this kind of jolt. After a heady intro of 1940-style swing music, instead of the expected English-language jazz vocalist, a high-pitched female songbird flits in delivering the lyrics of "Ina Mina Dika" in Hindi. Though the song feels laid back now, at its release in 1956 as part of the soundtrack to Haridas Bhattacharya's film Asha, it was considered scandalous rock 'n' roll which a respectable woman had no business singing. Asha Bhosle needed to push the limits to compete with her sister Lata Mangeshkar, the most popular and prolific playback singer in the history of filmi. Over the decades, Bhosle recorded something like 20,000 documented songs in over a dozen languages and in a dizzying array of styles ranging from classical to rock. (Her sister recorded over 40,000!)
While the Rough Guide collects several of Bhosle's popular performances, the material is impressive even if you don't know the songs. On the opening moments of "Faasle Hain Bahut," she does a dead-on imitation of a saranghi violin, and her phrasing on "Kali Ghata Chhaye" mimics the twang of the sitar accompaniment. "Mera Naam Hai Shabnam" from 1969 brandishes a complex arrangement which she sings, talks and laughs her way through like a heroine from mythology navigating a labyrinth. "Rang De" from a 1999 score by reigning filmi composer king A.R. Rahman finds Bhosle fitting easily into a modernistic song with club overtones over 40 years after her first recorded notes. What an artist, what a disc. Cue the elephants.
Forget about Robert Plant. Or, better yet, thank him for the wide exposure that his presence on Festival in the Desert(World Village) will give the mainly Malian musicians who assembled in Essakane in the northeastern region of Mali in January 2003 for a music fete. Familiar African artists give great performances, from Afel Bocoum's gliding, hypnotic, guitar-charged "Buri Baalal," to Ali Farka Toure's bluesy, hypnotic, guitar-charged "Karaw," and Oumou Sangaré's passionate, guitar-charged "Wayena." Hey, there were a lot of electric guitars. French world music gypsies Lo'Jo contribute stirring vocals and dramatic violin on "Jah Kas Cool Boy," a collaboration with Malian vocalist Django, who further showcases his amazing set of pipes on a cut of his own. Lesser-known performers also strut their stuff, including gritty Tamashek guitar band Tinariwen, whose desert boogie style suggests John Lee Hooker with heatstroke. Kel Tin Lokiene illustrate Tamashek culture unplugged on "Ihama," combining breathy vocalizing, handclaps, drums and serious vibes with a serious party undertone. There's lots more in 20 cuts of lovely, restless-spirit music, including a rather out-of-place performance by Robert Plant and Justin Adams, but bless the two of them anyway for making the trip. Now where's the DVD?
Who cares if several of the cuts on Les Yeux Noirs Live (World Village) are featured in studio version on the black-eyed band's 2002 disc Balamouk? If the studio material is intense, the same stuff live is hurricane force as violin throttlers Éric and Olivier Slabiak burn their bridges on "Cioara," backed by Aidje Tafial's tribal percussive whomps and Marian Miu's throbbing cimbalom. Oh, baby. The already unstable fusion of Balkan, Yiddish and Franco-centric world beat goes thermo-critical in front of an audience. Even "Hora Ca La Caval" with its Le Hot Club vibes turns into a klezmer rodeo of overcharged particles, and you need the occasional silly solo piece like the showboating "Cymbalum" just to pop your jaw back in place, though the flights of fancy are also fairly ferocious. "Yiddishe Mame" pitches and sways between dual tethers of heavy electric guitar and wistful violins, while "Balamouk" goes North African via dark Parisian alleys haunted by the devil's accordionist. The Central European French Jewish Gypsy diaspora has never sounded quite this wild before.
Speaking of mixing things up, how about a Celtic music and flamenco merger with Luis Rodriguez guesting on operatic vocals? And don't forget the clattering bellydance drumming or the orchestral crescendo that climaxes in so beautiful a roar, it almost literally builds to a fever pitch. And that's just the first song on the wildly unpredictable and constantly compelling Luna Park (World Village) by Irish band Kila. "The Mama Song" extends the Celtic flamenco connection eastward toward the Balkans with East European gypsy influences, full-tilt strings, accordions, reeds, hammered dulcimer, exuberant vocals, frantically funky electric bass, and go-for-broke pacing that meshes all the bits together into a galloping shout of joy. These red-hot young pups are actually seasoned pros with six albums now under their belt, and while I haven't heard their previous work, here everything clicks with great holy accord. I love the way that "Baroki" - one of three compositions clocking in at over nine minutes - begins somberly with soft guitar strums, water dripping, and pastoral violin colored by Irish pipes. It gains intensity as sort of a flute-led Celtic raga. Guitars, lutes, and bouzouki ratchet the piece way up, until it sails out on clouds of guitar, piano and purring oboe like a storm that has broken and passed. "Grand Hotel" has recognizable elements of an Irish reel, but a lush and nearly orchestral depth. Nothing on Luna Park hies too tightly to tradition, but nothing strays so far from Celtic roots that you would confuse them with anything else.
Easily the most charming cut on Barbarito Torres (Pimienta) is "La Comparsa." This high-energy re-imagining of the Ernesto Lecuona standard boasts Torres' fleet-fingered laud and guest Chucho Valdes' far-reaching piano forays. The cut begins with a staid, almost-classical music feel that rapidly turns fluid as Valdes parses harried note clusters and skittering treble key runs, while Torres chimes brightly in counterpoint. Jorge Reyes slides in unobtrusively between them on acoustic bass, keeping up the bouncy pulse that allows the soloists to artfully stray. More of this kind of genre-bending fun would have given Torres' second solo disc more air. It lacks nothing in exhilaration. Nearly every song hits the ground running, but the backing vocalists contribute a little too much uniformity from guajira to son to cha-cha-cha. Disc-closer "El Cuarto de Tula" provides a nice excuse for Torres to make his 10-string lute sound like a pair of guitars executing unison hairpin melodic curves, but did we really need another rendition of the Buena Vista Social Club showpiece? Still, there's lots of variety here, and Torres sparkles even when taking a backseat, as is witnessed by his harp-like accompaniment to "Amarrala." Guests Omara Portuondo, Pio Leyva and Jesús Bello add snap and depth to quite a nice collection of polished rural nuggets.
If Van Morrison had been born 30 years later and, instead of listening
to rhythm & blues, hooked his ear to, well, Van Morrison, Tim Buckley,
Jeff Buckley and Nick Drake, you might end up with Ireland's latest Celtic
pop visionary, Damien Rice on O (Vector).
Rice's songs have a mysterious impact that transcend his top-notch songwriting,
singing and crisp small-combo setting. "Volcano" meditates on
a couple's perceptions of each other's neediness, pairing Rice with Lisa
Hannigan in an edge-of-the-bed disagreement that is both wry and affecting
as the duo first alternates verses than sings on top of one another, their
interior monologues blotting out the sensible word. "The Blower's Daughter"
turns on the single phrase, "I can't take my eyes off you," repeating
it and rephrasing it until we can almost see the object of the singer's
obsession. The effect is impressive, but it is also an affect. While Morrison's
vocal idiosyncrasies flow directly from the same uncontrollable id that
reportedly makes him an unpleasant soul to spend an hour with, Rice's frequent
contrasts between clutched midrange notes and falsetto sighs owe as much
to technique as to emotion. "Eskimo" ends the disc with a whimsical
extension of Rice's operatic soul-baring as opera-voiced diva Doreen Curran
lends a slab of Finnish-language gravitas to an otherwise wispy ditty. The
effect is so over the top, it works. And it even cuts, not to the bone,
like Van Morrison, Tim Buckley, Jeff Buckley or Nick Drake, but it cuts.
(Click here for cover art, purchase info, and RealAudio samples of the CDs reviewed in this column.)
[Copyright 2003 Bob Tarte]