(from The Beat, Vol. 25, No. 5, 2006)
Hoven Droven, Sweden's answer to ZZ Top, opens the concert recording Jumping at the Cedar (NorthSide) with "Bjekkerg Auken," a raucous, rollicking Scandinavian boogie, in which fat power chords high-five a see-sawing violin. It's impossible to keep from smiling at the joyously stripped down and highly amplified sound that helped launch the 1980's wave of the country's ongoing folk rock revival, along with Hedningarna, Vasen and other overachievers.
While Hoven Droven's repertoire is firmly anchored in traditional fare, the arrangements are rock solidly rooted in the R&B-drenched guitar psychedelia of the 1970s. In fact, once the boys start masticating on a riff and a honking sax breaks in, you might think that British bluesy space band Hawkwind is spending its retirement years in Sweden. To call this performance off-the-wall is like calling a schizophrenic a mild eccentric.
I don't know another band on the planet that would exhort the crowd, "Are you ready for a waltz? I don't believe you. Are you ready to waltz?" And then pay off the rabble-rousing with a lurching mastodon version of the old 3/4 tempo on "Okynnesvals," which must have pegged the Richter scale with its massed strings and guitars riding bareback on clattering drums.
But Jumping at the Cedar isn't limited to funhouse fury. Hoven Droven also shows finesse by kicking off disc two (yes, there's a second disc) in a comparatively mellow mood with polska "Årepolska." With requisite skill and a dollop of grace, Kjell-Erik Erikkson waxes warm on his minor mode fiddle, while Jen Comen gets lyrical with soprano sax stylings. It makes a good lead-in to "Dortea," which sets a pretty violin passage to chunky guitar chords and gets progressively louder before ending in a high decibel crash. Keeping the crowd off balance, the Swedish earsplitters insist on a Norwegian language sing-along to the goofy highlife and ska borrowings of "Skuffen." And who could resist? If the next generation of Scandinavian folk-rockers is waiting for a wake up call, Hoven Droven's live performance has the decibels and chops to stir the deadest doornail.
What could be better than the blend of African, Arabic, and rap elements on Bole 2 Harlem, Volume 1 (Sounds of the Mushroom)? Well, you could leave off the rap, I guess. On second thought, crank it up instead. The dancehall style vocals and hip-hop sensibility fit in wonderfully with the stuck-phonograph-needle groove that we demand and love in African pop. Thus, the monotony of the sing-song foreign language vocals by Maki Siraj and others translates into rhythmic thrust that drives David Schommer's compositions. And you can't beat the horn charts on "Hoya Hoye" without trashing classic James Brown. "Ensaralen Gojo," with its sabar drums and Carnatic violin wiggles, even waxes somewhat tuneful. While I still prefer Ethiopian fare that pumps up the complexities of the country's traditional genres over this stripped down New York City-based approach, I'm filing this release under 'Unexpected Appealing.' But it scares me that this is only volume one.
The title track to David Krakauer's Bubbemeises - Lies My Gramma Told Me (Label Bleu) bastes in a smidgen of hip hop shtick, positing DK's complaining clarinet against cracking beats and the inevitable rap. Krakauer plays nice with his licorice stick. He also plays down and dirty when he wants to, unleashing growls and moans on "MS N.C." that any didgeridu-ist would envy. "Moskovitz and Loops of It" cooks like a grease fire, evoking the early Klezmatics with a serious caffeine buzz as Will Holshouser's gypsy accordion contributes a Le Hot Club de Gomorrah apocalyptic ambience. When both castanets and a the sample of a cozy jazz vocal chorus pop up on "B Flat A La Socalled," and Krakauer paces Sheryl Bailey's acid guitar runs, you realize that this disc may veer off in any direction, and probably will. Every kaleidoscopic cut is instantly recognizable as klezmer even as DK and band mates give tradition a poke in the eye.
Migration (Lila Sound Productions) isn't recommended for the impatient or itchy. These duets for Keyavash Nourai's violin and composer Shahrokh Yadegari's 'Lila' computer software unfold slowly over four extended compositions that merge together into a single sprawling work. Unlike most computer-based electronic music, the digital manipulations here have nothing to do with pounding beats and teeth rattling repetition. Yadegari captures and alters Nourai's Persian-themed string improvisations and plays them back to him for further improvisation in what the liner notes describe as "a continual and circular process." Once the compositions develop, it can be difficult determining whether you're hearing the violinist in real time or the Lila maestro. The results are lovely, if a bit low key, unless you're able to focus your complete attention on the music. Then it becomes a full-scale transportation device.
Unlike most of the other Tuareg bands, Tartit isn't so intense that you need to thrust a digitalis tablet under your tongue before firing up their music. Acoustic and electric guitar, local stringed instruments, throttling tinde drums, and handclaps charge the songs on Abacabok (Crammed Discs) with a near hippie ambience, as if Brian Jones took a hiatus from Their Satanic Majesties Request-era Stones to hang out with a caravan in Timbuktu. "Eha Ehenia" with its warbling female call and response vocals and primitive ganged beats is as close as this gets to a spirit possession soundtrack, though none of the pieces here feel particularly like pop. While there's nothing much to hum, the simple melodies will overhang your day like a wispy cloud positioned between you and the sun.
The well of quality reggae anthologies may not be bottomless, but Life Goes in Circles (Pressure Sounds) proves we're not even close to scraping the bottom. These 1974-1979 tracks from Tommy Cowan's Talent Corporation boast names as big as Ken Boothe, Augustus Pablo and the Abyssinians along with Desi Roots, Earl Zero and other lesser lights. Like the best compilations, Circles is rife with eccentricities, including Jacob Miller's stuttering sufferers lead vocal on "Ghetto on Fire," punctuated by pistol shots that inexplicably resemble ray gun crackles. Little Madness checks into "Mother Country" with atonal singing that melts into a cheery bass riff, dub effects and an unanticipated falsetto bridge. Harmony pair Two Rasta Man answer the "False Rumour" that Haile Selassie passed away, while Roman Stewart's bouncy "Hit Song" launches Dillinger's "Natty Sings a Hit Song," which in turn spins off "Dub Songs" and who knows how many other versions along the way. Producer Cowan – who started as a singer with The Jamaicans and eventually helped Bob Marley set up Tuff Gong – has a keen ear for the snappy song, and while none of these cuts are necessarily crucial, all of them are highly entertaining.
The acoustic disc of the two-disc Electric Gypsyland (Crammed Discs) is the disc with all the electricity. This bonus disc of original tracks by Balkan bands featured on the remix disc crackles with piston-action horns, percussive batteries, and high voltage vocals. The lightning violin and clarinet dialog on Koçani Orkestar's "Siki, Siki Baba" shoots out sparks, and Taraf de Haïdouks' "Duba, Duba Si Hora" fuses a jazzy kanun hammered zither to swing violin plus a lead vocal straight out of the Louis Prima mold. And on it on it goes with one roundhouse punch of a song after another. This isn't just party music, after all. This is the soundtrack for a brawling bash, though you'll be too busy moving your feet to contemplate fisticuffs.
Instead of pummeling us with sharp cut and pasted shards, the Gypsyland remix disc turns out to be surprisingly mellow, starting with the bell-toned lead instrument on Tunng's pastoral reinterpretation of Taraf de Haïdouks' track "Homecoming." Animal Collective's 'shamanic' treatment of a Koçani Orkestar tune on "Oi Bori Suije" goes all dreamy around the edges, pumping up the lute riff, swaddling the voices in signal processing, and beep-booping us into merry-go-round heaven. Despite some tantalizing trumpets on NYC-based Balkan Beat Box's version of Mahala Raï Banda's "Red Bula," we never do approach the sustained mass brass attack of the acoustic disc. However, DJ Click's peek-a-boo dub treatment of Mahala's klezmer-esque "Romano Dance" succeeds wonderfully, and Franco-Tunisian mix-master Smadj's subdued hip hop on "Mi Bori San Korani" accentuates the eastern underpinnings of the lovely lead vocal, kanun and accordion. The out-of-nowhere Andean opening on Cibelle's version of Koçani Orkestar's "Maxutu" is brilliant – and so is much of this disc.
Speaking of gypsy brass band music, that's what the wild and wooly disc opener "Andando vengo" by La Cumbiamba eNeYé resembles on Marioneta (Chonta Records), sounding more like some kind of orchestra merengue in mad overdrive than any cumbia I've ever heard. While there's no trendiness in play here – no hip hop rhythms, no computer effects – the music isn't soaked in nostalgia, either. The marimba solo on "El camarón" is equal parts West African and Central American with a hint of jazz improvisation. The rural flutes and drums on "Marioneta" and "Pachanga" bang and whistle with ritualistic suggestion, though the flute solo on "Pachanga" borrows soprano sax phrasings. The Cuban son and cumbia connection on "Chicarrón peluo" made me think of England's Ska Cubano ensemble minus the caricature. Based in NYC, La Cumbiamba eNeYé seeks to broaden the American audience for traditional-based Colombian music, and what I'm hearing as energetic recombinant cumbia succeeds wildly, and, if I may repeat myself, I definitely mean wildly.
Carolyn Hester may lack the name recognition of '60s folk legends Joan Baez or Glen Yarborough, but her newly reissued 1961Tradition-label recording The Tradition Years (Empire Musicwerks) demonstrates that she's among the best of the era. Her inimitable voice hitches the timbre of an ingénue to the full-throated passion of a woman who's obviously been to the rodeo and back on her knowing version of "The House of the Rising Sun." On the Irish standard "She Moves through the Fair," she switches to a less inflected style, not counting the brogue she attaches to the song. With power and purity, she not only makes this ghost story her own, she also inhabits it like a restless spirit prowling an abandoned house. Most of these pieces feel haunted. "Little Pig," which the liner notes dismiss as a "playful nonsense ditty," comes across as deeply mysterious in Hester's emotional telling of a pig's death that causes its owner, then the owner's lover, to drop dead of grief. Alternating with the narrative, the singer's lament, "Go find my true love in some lonesome valley," provides a counterpoint that coaxes us mine to the pig plot in search of some esoteric truth. Throughout the disc, she transfixes us in essentially a cappella performances framed with bits of harp or guitar, and nothing more. Yet her voice fills the musical and emotional space to the brim.
If you though yodeling was safely confined to hollows of Appalachia and the summits of the Swiss Alps, be afraid, be very afraid of The Rough Guide to Yodel (World Music Network). This wide-ranging, far flung, oxygen-sapping compilation odelayeehooes from one corner of the globe to another. With its lurching orchestration, depleted bouzouki parts, male and female falsetto, and cattle mooing, Christine Lauterburg's "Erika's Alptraum" adds Greek and Fellini-esque flavorings to a just-recognizable Swiss neutrality. The Ho'opi Brothers sing about the "Hawaiian Cowboy," but weirdly enough, instead of gliding through homegrown island yodel styles or harking back to American cowboy roots, Solomon and Richard cleave to a classic Swiss style. Also disappointing is the included example of the Baka pygmy people's complex vocalizations via "Call of the Forest" from world beat band Baka Beyond. Much better, neck hair-bristling examples are available elsewhere, but for a Mexican rendition, you won't find better than the Huasteca octave jumpers Trio Los Camperos de Valles on the skittery-jittery fiddle ditty "La Rosa." Also included are Mongolian and Indian yodels, and, if you can believe it, a number of novelty songs. Now, I ask you, is nothing sacred?Sally Nyolo's return to Cameroon occasions a disc of collaborations with rough hewn local musicians on Sally Nyolo and the Original Bands of Yaoundé, Studio Cameroon (Riverboat/World Music Network). If you can make it past the herding calls, ululations and mouth music of opening track "Souris-moi" with Guéyanka, you'll probably skate through the remainder of the songs. Okay, you still need to get up and over the goofy nursery rhyme cadence of the Bidjoi Sisters on "Chantal," but before long Marché Mokolo's aptly named "Instrumental" offers a sublime rumba guitar track,while "Pek" augments Nyolo with the luxurious choral voices of La Voix du Cenacle. Recorded in an impromptu studio in a tin-roofed building, this cd benefits from a crackling spontaneity that most African pop releases lack. Kudos to Sally for taking a break from her studied studio albums to go all rustic on us, and for stepping aside to allow her country people to hop into the spotlight.