(from The Beat, Vol. 25, No. 4, 2007)
Not since the heyday of the Algonquin Roundtable has there been such a meeting of literary minds. This past week, your not-so-humble pet book author welcomed The Beat's editor, propaganda minister and occasional Greyhound bus driver CC Smith to my West Michigan hovel, along with Gary Stewart, author of the essential and just plain fun to read Rumba on the River; A History of the Popular Music of the Two Congos.
In my role as host, I immediately rushed CC, Gary, and Gary's daughter Samantha out to the barn, where we basked in the luminous personality of my large white turkey, Albert, who's negotiating a column of his own for The Beat. CC flattered Albert by describing him as a "walking wedding cake," and then in a rare moment of revelation, finally shared the secret of what 'CC' stands for.
It seems that her father, the watercolor artist Dwight Smith, had intended to name his six children after Balkan countries. Thus, CC’s sisters Lisa and Diane – whom I’d met over dinner in Lansing the previous week – were to be named Slovenia and Croatia, and the other four kids in a similar vein. But Dwight's wife demurred on the Balkanization, dubbing our editor ‘CC’ as shorthand for Crimean Sea instead.
While Gary Stewart didn’t drop any bombshells of this magnitude, he did confess that, owing to the remote location of his West Virginia shack, he still used a dial-up Internet connection. We all gasped, including Albert the turkey. “I can’t get any kind of television reception, either,” he admitted. While I was trying to contemplate life without So You Think You Can Dance, he added, “I had to take down my birdfeeder. A bear came in the night and snapped the metal pole in half.”
In my part of the country, we have enough trouble with marauding raccoons, possums, and Republicans, and I couldn’t imagine with having to deal with Yogi on top of all of that. As I struggled to console Gary, seven-year-old Samantha informed us that she was already reading at a third grade level. Oh, how we all envied her – all of us except for Albert the turkey, who had just finished scratching out a monograph on avian symbolism in The Brothers Karamazov for Bird Talk magazine. Impressive, to be sure. But he can’t dance the turkey trot like I can.
Talk about procrastination. While I'd heard songs by Radiohead over the years, I'd never plunked myself down and listened to the 1999 release that's regarded as the British band's masterpiece – and one of the best rock releases of the past 20 years. So I grabbed a copy of OK Computer from the department store down the street intending to make up for lost time.
Certainly Radiohead has a sonic signature all its own. And while I admire OK Computer’s density and textural complexity, the dyspeptic dystopia makes it a rather nasty piece of work in the end. Burrow beneath the modernity, and you bang your shovel against a point of view that feels inherited from British rock curmudgeons Pink Floyd. “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” in fact, with its deceptively pastoral slide guitar and effortless flow of pessimism, would just about fit on Dark Side of the Moon – which brings us to the Easy Star All-Stars.
In 2003, the New York City-based ensemble released an all-reggae version of Pink Floyd’s classic and called it Dub Side of the Moon. Radiodread awards a similar honor to OK Computer, and I wondered if this album would be an equally good fit. Despite the finger wagging, Dark Side has an airy bounce that makes it a natural adaptation for reggae. So how would Computer fare? I almost didn't find out. I put off requesting a review copy until the last minute, if only to be consistent with everything else in my life. But the results were well worth the wait.
From the drum hit at the start of "Airbag" that opens the cd, it's clear that Radiodread possesses a fun factor that the source material lacks. Horace Andy's quavering tenor frees the tunefulness that lies under the surface of Thom Yorke's somnambulant delivery on the original, and it also amplifies the human dimensions of the song. Buford O'Sullivan's trombone and a fuzz guitar solo add to the appeal. But how would the rest of the material fare? The first section of "Paranoid Android" hewed perilously close to Radiohead’s arrangement, suggesting that The All-Stars had been defeated in their attempts at reggae-fication. Then comes the bridge, and the lugubrious atmosphere shifts and erupts into joyous ska.
The triumphs go on and on. The guitar riff that defined Radiohead's Pink Floydian "Subterranean Homesick Alien" is supplanted by Michael Goldwasser's uplifting melodica, while Sugar Minnott soars with a dub version of "Exit Music (For A Film)." But Toots and the Maytals steal the show, transforming the stubbornly downcast "Let Down" into a scorching rave-up that seems as if it had been plucked intact from the "Pressure Drop" era.
Among Radiodread's countless virtues is its benefit of bringing me back to OK Computer with newfound affection, although this is the rare occasion where I consistently prefer the version to the original, hands down. My only quibble is that the producers pretty much adhered to the original song lengths, apart from a couple of dub versions at the end. This temporal faithfulness made sense with Dub Side of the Moon, because of The Wizard of Oz connection. But compression and expansion of the tracks would have added another dose of freedom to an already exhilarating enterprise. Speaking of The Wizard of Oz… I've got to get around to watching that, one of these days.
I love cds that come from out of nowhere, and Belize is further from the commercial mainstream than Timbuktu. The mainly acoustic music from Belize, Honduras and Guatemala on From Bakabush (Stonetree Records) makes it the rare Central American anthology not to be defined by easily identifiable French, Spanish, British or Cuban influences. Except for "Que Será- Será," by Leroy Young the Grandmaster, the lyrics on these recordings culled from the first ten years of Stonetree Records releases are sung in indigenous languages. Most of the tracks have strong Garifuna underpinnings. Paul Nabor's "Naguya Nei" (I am Moving On) backs the gravel-voice septuagenarian Paranda legend with call and response vocals straight out of West Africa and a driving acoustic guitar. The Creole accordion performance "Soloman Gi Ah" by the 'King of Brukdown' Wilfred Peters may suggest zydeco or merengue, but it, too, sounds more strongly African than anything else. You get the feeling on Bakabush that you're listening to locally developed genres that have yet to be contaminated by rap, electronica, or the other flavor of the week.
Credit for recording this beautiful and thoroughly engaging music goes to Belize-based Stonetree Records founder Ivan Duran, who reports in the liner notes that most of the label's releases have "taken years to complete." The results are a total labor of love, and the love, not the labor, shines through the performances. Hands down, this is one of the best cds I've heard in years, and I hope that future Stonetree albums become more readily available here.
The first two tracks of Elysium for the Brave (Six Degrees Records) nearly tell the tale. Iranian-born, Indian-raise, Los Angeles-based Azam Ali wraps her octave-hopping pipes around an English-language lyric and pulsing electronics on "Endless Reverie." The comparatively traditional "Spring Arrives" features lafta lute figures and peppery hand drums as she plays Persephone in wordless vocals aimed at the vernal equinox.
On the strength of these two songs, you might justifiably buy the album. But there's a catch to the English-language tracks that follow, and the catch is in Azam's throat. It's a throaty half-sob that mars nearly every line of "In Other Worlds" but also shows up on tracks five, six, seven, and nine. This American Idol-style gimmick is a shortcut for expressing emotion, and a singer as marvelously expressive as Azam doesn't need the affectation. To hear her soar on the non-English lyric to "I Am a Stranger in This World" is to experience a range and passion few vocalists can touch. So, if you're made of stronger stuff than I am, the many virtues of an otherwise exquisite cd may carry the day. But this single hobble spoils most of the songs for me. Why cheapen a diamond by scattering it with dust?
Hazmat Modine isn't a klezmer band. The New York City-based ensemble does an off-kilter take on the blues, fueled by large doses of gypsy swing, dollops of throat singing, and a smidgen of rock steady. But what's reminiscent of klezmer on the band's debut release Bahamut (Barbés Records) is how lead vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Wade Schuman and his band mates use music to accentuate the travails of human life, while simultaneously stepping back to implicitly make fun of them. The disc is a happy onslaught of over-the-top vocals, oddball harmonica and contrabass saxophone pairings, Hawaiian steel guitar interjections, and mixed up mythology (Behemoth meets Bahamut on the title cut).
While this strategy of surprise constantly refreshes the songs, it does expect a lot of leeway from the listener. The same irony that shapes Hazmat Modine's repertoire inevitably distances the band from the wellspring of genuine emotion. The performances may tickle the ear, stimulate the mind, and even palpitate the heart, but they don't make much of an impression on the soul. Helping the concept fly as high as it does are the amazing chops wielded by this predominantly acoustic ensemble. Tuvan throat-singing ensemble Huun-Huur-Tu provides inestimably great accompanying whistling vocals, grunts, twangs, and thumps on three songs. And instrumental "Almost Gone" is reminiscent of one of Tom Waits' stateless compositions that sound familiar and strange at the same time. That's pretty much a working description of this entire disc.
As sailors brought songs from port to port and took other ditties back onboard their ships, sea shanties were a means of dispersing far-flung musical idioms in the days before mass media. These songs also helped disseminate easily stowed instruments, like the guitar and concertina, around the world. "Paddy Doyle" on Blow Boys Blow (Tradition Years/Empire Musicwerks) reminds me of a Sardinian herding song, and I may not be too far off the mark, since the liner notes credit "Do Me Ama" as having a tune that "may derive from some languorous melody heard on a Mediterranean trip." Most pieces here derive from English ballads or suit the choppy work cadences of rowing, hauling, pulling sails, or manning the bilge pumps. This fine collection – originally issued in the late 1950s on the Tradition label – brings together two legends of Celtic folk singing, A.L. Lloyd and Ewan MacColl, accompanied by British folk mainstays, Alf Edwards and Steve Benbow, plus American musicologist Ralph Rinzler. The pieces are perfect for your next kayak outing or to regale the captain's table on a posh Caribbean cruise. After all, what lad or lassie can resist the playful gender bending of "The Handsome Cabin Boy?"
Just how much whimsy is too much whimsy? Don’t ask me, ask Felonious Bosch. On New Dark Ages (Omnium) the Minnesotans construct a quirky pop style using mainly the bowed and stringed instruments you might expect to pop forth in, say, a Scandinavian, Celtic, or bluegrass band. But you wouldn’t expect Bosch’s vaguely East European ambience yoked to a whiff of Medieval gloom. Norway’s Frifot dabbles in similar territory, and ditto fellow Minnesotans Boiled in Lead. Adding to the disc's atmosphere of murky obscurity is the personnel listing in the liner notes claiming Vernon Thomas provides the obviously female lead vocals. The band's website fnbosch.com proves more forthcoming by attributing that voice to Katy Thomasberg, while also switching string credits from Ric Lee to Nemo Bouzoukis. Whimsical, eh? While Vernon-Katy's leads often veer perilously close to a rock diva delivery that clashes with the bubonic plague appeal of the instrumentation, "Behind the Wall of Sleep" flaunts a fine funereal classicism; village stomp "Valle" coaxes hurdy gurdy tones from strings, winds and voice; and the epic "Ode to Billy Christ" adds an oud sound, Turkish violin seasonings and a confluence of gnomic vocal styling and lyrics as circumpolar as anything in the Thom Yorke songbook. New Dark Ages may be uneven, but skip the tracks with hopscotch vocals and you’ll yourself reveling in the beautiful bits.
When I fired up The Rough Guide to the Music of Malaysia (World Music Network), I realized that I didn't have a single Malaysian entry in my cd collection, except for a rainforest soundscape at the base of Mount Bobdiscs. Expecting a strong native Malay or Chinese influence, I was surprised to hear a dominant bellydance flavor to the tracks. Alongside these borrowings are stylistic appropriations from Indian film music, but applied with a smoothness reminiscent of Zanzibari taarab. The homogenous musical heterogeneity makes sense, since Malaysia shares Zanzibar's status as a centuries-old crossroads for merchants, colonists and scoundrels from at least three continents.
Things start getting more regional with track five, "Setia Menuggu (Main Chali Main)," which is Zaleha Hamid and M. Sharif's blend of Malay roots music and Indonesian dangdut pop (so named because of the dang-dut beat of the tabla). This little slice of confection features ultra-romantic male and female vocals set off by a string section and cinched by a wonderfully cheesy synth. "Burung Burung Ayam" gets its kicks without sticks as a member of Kumpulan Ahmad Yusoh's ensemble Rakan-Rakan wields the cone-shaped single-headed dok drum to add a distinctive indigenous sound. Oud and harmonium contribute the requisite Arabic flavor in a workmanlike contribution to a thoroughly enjoyable disc.
Beat columnist and Rough Guide radio personality Martin Sinnock does a fabulous turn compiling The Rough Guide to West African Gold (World Music Network), an eccentric collection disguised as a representative sampler of 1970-80s vintage tunes from the region. But the disc brims with as many oddities as you'll find on the most out-there West African anthologies, like Luaka Bop's Love's a Real Thing: The Funky Fuzzy Sounds of West Africa or the Evolver label's Afro-Rock, Vol. 1. Legendary Ghanian bandleader E.T. Mensah waxes excitedly about "Africa's strongest foundation" of "Ghana-Guinee-Mali" on a bouncy piece of highlife propaganda. Nigeria's Geraldo Pino reliably ramps up an Afro-soul howler with robust delivery of numbingly repetitive lyrics, roller derby organ excursions, and shouts to the musicians. Guinea's Bembeya Jazz remind us of their enduring greatness and make us long for another reunion album on the unstoppable "Whiskey Soda," capped by a drunken vocal punctuated by hiccups. And don't forget Nigeria's Sir Victor Uwaifo and his Melody Maestroes, as they merge Santana-era rock with Jethro Tull on "Ekassa No. 34/Igiodo-Giodo," a percolation that's really an excuse for Sir Victor's longer than endless flute solo. Don't miss this amazing release.
New Shabbos Waltz (Acoustic Disc) has the joyful spontaneity of a Hawaiian slack key hoedown, though the palette is Jewish music performed by clarinet wizard Andy Statman and patriarch of the mandolin David Grisman. The performances spout an air of freshness that suggests they were captured on the first take, which turns this gorgeous music into the perfect remedy for manufactured-in-a-studio music. And speaking of slack key, joining the duo is the instantly recognizable Bob Brozman on the title cut plus three other tracks. Other guests include drummer Hal Blaine, bassist Jim Kerwin, and tuba player Zachariah Spellman. Shalom and oy!