(from The Beat, Vol. 24, No. 5, 2005)
When Re-Covers (Yat-Kha Recordings) belches forth the first sung bars of "When the Levee Breaks," Kansas Joe and Memphis Minnie McCoy's 1929 blues made famous by Led Zeppelin in 1971, you might suppose, "Oh, that Tom Waits is at it again." But suddenly the subterranean bass lead vocal bottoms out into ain't-humanly-possible territory. Not even that guy in the Statler Brothers could coax such froggy tones from his larynx, but there they are in full unearthly glory threatening to rupture the polypropylene cone of your woofer.
Albert Kuvezin of Tuvan folk-punk throat singing ensemble Yat-Kha conceived of this album of cover versions while recovering from an automobile accident in Kazyl and pondering the future after second lead singer Radik Tiuliush called it quits. Since Yat-Kha's previous releases borrowed an aggressive rock aesthetic as their operatic modus operandi, Kuvezin's decision to filter a handful of his favorite rock songs through the rough-hewn musical vernacular of the South Siberian steppe makes as much sense as anything these days. The only question is, does the strategy bear thorny fruit, or is Re-Covers merely a Tuvan version of Pat Boone's In a Metal Mood?
A major ingredient for success is the quality of the source material. The catastrophic images of "Levee" fit Yat-Kha's characteristically gloomy delivery like a Tuvan fits a saddle. And a plucked-string rendition of Kraftwerk's "Man Machine" benefits from the farfetched but far from misguided attempt to coax a synthesizer sensibility from a twanging jaw harp. So far, so good. But the band's website quotes Kuvezin as saying that he never liked the Rolling Stones "and even less the Beatles," which unfortunately doesn't save us from a lackluster cover version of the Stone's "Play With Fire." Albert's tastes inexplicably gravitate toward Iron Butterfly's ghastly "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida," a song so far beyond the pale of redemption that it defeats all attempts at satire. The croaking version here, whether for real or in jest, elicits more eye rolling than an exorcism despite nifty throat-singing whistles during the intro. "Strawberry Fields Forever" would have made better psychedelic fodder, but kitsch beats art in this case.
I had high hopes for Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart." With a voice resembling that of an Eisenhower-era creature feature villain, Ian Curtis was hardly a crooner, yet his awkwardness lent a needed touch of pathos to the original. While Kuvezin's delivery sounds admirably close to an idling chain saw in places, it manages to make mincemeat of the song's not too subtle irony and may leave you thinking of King Kong attempting to serenade Faye Wray. Not good.
On the plus side of the ledger is a superb cover of Captain Beefheart's "Her Eyes are a Blue Million Miles" that tops the anarchy of the original through bash-everything-in-sight percussion, swooping slide guitar and goofy backing vocals. A rollicking version of Carlos Santana's "Black Magic Woman" suggests that the sorceress succeeded in making a devil out of the gravel-voiced lead singer after all, and an unrecognizable yet still marvelous version of Bob Marley's "Exodus" will have you mumbling along after a few spins if only to add a few familiar phonemes.
Re-covers may be a mixed bag, but albums of cover versions are notoriously difficult to get right. No less a luminary than Caetano Veloso flubbed his recent attempt at this in 2004's A Foreign Sound. Kuvezin's triumphs are strong enough to carry the missteps, and these are at least entertaining. At the moment, this disc is only available as in import, but Harmonia Mundi will distribute a reasonably-price U.S. version soon. Get it for "When the Levee Breaks," which is quite simply one of the best covers I've ever heard in my life. Note to Albert and producer Ben Mandelson: more like this, please.
In this country we can't even get the media to come clean about a historically incompetent president. Yet international organization ATTAC takes on the much larger project of fighting globalization. More power to them. But I hope they show greater savvy than the packaging of their world music anthology suggests. The patient listener with lots of spare time will eventually stumble upon the phrase Another World is Possible (UWe) in tiny print on the third line of one of the opening pages. Yes, that's the title. Fortunately, the music redeems the scattershot overall presentation, which also includes sketchy essays by such luminaries as Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy and Naomi Klein that come across as opening remarks to some larger event occurring elsewhere. If the writing leans toward academia, the socially conscious songs are rootsy, smart and witty, beginning with Franco-Spanish singer-songwriter Manu Chao and Tonino Carotone's bouncy, reggae-spiced "La Trampa," followed by the Asian Dub Foundation's full throttle tabla-themed cover of Eddy Grant's "Police on my Back," popularized by the Clash.
A live version of Femi Kuti's "I Wanna be Free" falls unexpectedly flat – the hot band gets no licks – while Lee Scratch Perry's "Dancing Shoes" is as weird as you might expect, though the instrumentation is nice and tight. The Skatalites' "Freedom Sounds" crackles from start to finish with show-off soloing and the eternal beat of ska. But first prize for entertainment goes to Emir Kusturica and the No Smoking Orchestra. Their gypsy brass band version of the Clash's "Lost in the Supermarket" flaunts boisterous unison broken English vocals, more blaring horns than the Tournament of Roses parade, and an arrangement that owes debt relief to dub. Other artists onboard the disc include Massive Attack, Moby, Salif Keita, and Orchestre National de Barbès.
Speaking of gypsy brass bands, Balkan horns get the hip hop jitters in the oh so jolly Balkan Beatbox (JDUB Records), programmed, engineered, and mixed by Tamir Muskat in NYC. Discordant female folkie vocals get folded into the bubbling primordial hothouse atmosphere that blooms crazy East European dance rhythms. The complex vernacular time signatures add complexity to the microchip-driven metronomic beats. "Adir Adirim" sports a Zorba the Greek-themed bazouki lead, nattering high-pitched female vocals aimed at dolphins in the audience and a few fiery hand drum bursts. Growling male voices, distorted reeds and the seasick swell of a mix make "Shusan" a potential hangover remedy that will either kill or cure. "Ya Man" subjects us to heavy metal electric guitar riffs, oud plunks and wildly modulated sax solos on top of what sounds like Moroccan Gnawa musicians doing their thing. If you've stuck with the program so far, also check out the smooth muted trombone and dueling electric guitars on "Gross," which was apparently recorded live in front of an audience. Beatbox adds up to the best deconstruction of Balkan styles since the 3 Mustaphas 3 and is more fun than a barrel of yogurt.
Mahala Rai Banda (Crammed Discs) isn't your typical gypsy brass band, either. The precision horns on "Mahalageasca" seem run-of-the-mill dazzling, then the song veers into Le Hot Club de France gypsy jazz territory with swinging guitar, cymbalon and violin licks in front of a horsy clip-clop beat. "Red Bula" could be the theme to a bad 1970's cop show, but that 'bad' quickly succumbs to exuberant Romanian-language vocals with a rhythmic hip-hop influence and novelty song appeal. Enter a bleating microtonal sax solo, then a quick vocal break borrowed from an Indian tabla drummer calling out a beat cycle, and we are clearly in a musical land of surprises. Odd harmonics abound, even for Balkan genres, as on the too-fast-to-follow waterfall of blurred note runs on "Romni Latci." No two songs sound alike, and no single song fails to branch off into some undreamed of direction before long. Plenty of hooks and happy gimmicks keep the changes nailed down. Mahala Rai Banda translates as 'the noble band from the ghetto,' and its personnel bring varying backgrounds of decades of military service and youthful street smarts to the constantly changing amalgam.
Brazilian master of electronica DJ Dolores' Aparelhagem (Crammed Discs) is jammed with more special effects than a stereo test cd – high frequency samples, dizzying pans, and nearly subsonic clicks that seem to originate inside the skull. It's enough to make a person rethink what constitutes music. He messes with concepts of time, aural space and context in such a funhouse fashion that the woozy merry-go-round figures on "Marinha" (A Pack of Dogs) are particularly appropriate. Improbable compositions created by juxtaposing unlikely elements with little relationship to one another in the humdrum natural world isn't exactly new. But seldom is the hodgepodge of folkloric with futuristic, overheard with sweated over, and lounge swill with medicinal lozenges so organically and artfully assembled as this Moebius strip of nonstop shenanigans. For every song pasted to seductive singing hung upon a haunting tune and suggesting a real band at work messing with a reggae beat, as on "Ciranda da Madrugada," we get the wounded elk trumpet calls, stuck-work spoken vocals, and percussive soundscapes out of reach of any live band on "Prece." But it all works beautifully. The dazzling effects stay out of the way of the music as DJ Delores doles out ample kilobytes to talent soloists like horn players Nilsinho, Catatau and Frank London (of Klezmatics fame), just to scratch the surface of the amazing talents here.
Orientation (Sterns' Africa) isn't another of those rural electrification projects. Former Star Band of Dakar and Orchestra Baobab vocalist Thione Seck takes the fusion route on an atypical jag by marrying his Wolof roots to the music of Egypt and India – with a predilection for film music styles. Few singers possess the pipes to fulfill the prerequisites of octave hopping and emotive force to conquer these difficult genres. But Seck, who grew up in Senegal listening to Egyptian icon Oum Kalsoum and Indian singers Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle, sounds as if he's devoted decades to both styles.
So many exquisite moments populate Orientation that it doesn't seem fair to single out one or two songs, though I'm partial to the middle third of the disc with its Indian emphasis. Spine tingles alone recommend "Ballago." Devi's buzzing veena intro makes way for Tamil choristers S. Ganga and R. Reshmi, who somehow give this 20-year-old piece from Seck's repertoire a slight griot accent, while Seck bumps vocal chords on the troposphere with a particularly high-voltage delivery. "Assalo" pairs him with carnatic vocalist Bombay Jayashri in an extravaganza worthy of a sweeping Bengali blockbuster. While most of the songs lean toward gravitas, "Doom," which was recorded in Paris and Dakar with musicians from both countries, confounds an English-language interpretation of its title with a bubbly drum-filled dance floor rhythm. Expect to find this disc on more year-end 'best of' lists than you can shake your rebab at.
I just can't say it often enough. Any musical genre that has to repeatedly announce its name in a song is definitely aiming at the lowest common denominator of an audience. Exceptions? Cumbia, of course. The best cumbia is just plain nuts. But I'm leaning toward granting a waiver to Bantu Feat. Ayuba based on sheer charisma alone. Make no mistake about it, though. Fuji Satisfaction: Soundclash in Lagos (Piranha Musik) isn't a sound clash at all. It's a highly appealing blend of German hip hopster Adé Bantu's smooth soul styling and Adewale Ayuba's stuck-groove fuji rhythms. Straight ahead fuji can be repetitive enough to make its Nigeria sibling juju seem like Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in comparison. So the horns and hooks definitely up the listenability factor here.
But wide-eyed lyrics such as what we're served in "Follow Your Road Go" don't exactly forward the merger. "Children of Zion, rise up to the sun, there is work to be done, and let's unite as one," Blain Pawlos warbles. Mariah Carey would be too embarrassed to deliver this lyric. Did I say Mariah Carey? Kelly Clarkson couldn't put it across with a straight face. "Mt. Fuji" gets off to a promising start with a funky plucked string instrument and a honey of a female chorus that just about takes us to dream land, until the English language vocal kicks in and exhorts us, "Come everyone, dance my fuji… Fuji music for young and old." Look. We know it's fuji. Sing about something else. You've got the form down cold. Now spend a little time on the content.
The Mighty Sparrow's bawdy calypsos from the 1950s don't boast about his prowess with women. Instead, the songs on First Flight: Early Calypsos from the Emory Cook Collection (Smithsonian Folkways) portray one lascivious and unattractive gal after another set on seducing a hapless male. An intoxicated "Stella" harasses poor Sparrow on the ditty of the same name, while uncouth, unwashed ex-con "Jean Marabunta" will "do anything for a banana." Meanwhile, an island girl forces a GI to sample forbidden fruit on "Mango Vert," whose off-color wordplay might have trouble finding airplay even today. If all of this makes you wonder which sex wore the pants in post-WWII Trinidadian society, "Short Little Shorts" tells of the governor who changed the decency law to accommodate a woman who enjoyed parading around in Bermuda shorts. Shocking, just shocking.
Calypso is as much about prevailing attitudes as it is about a singer's biases, so Sparrow is simply having fun with the zeitgeist in his typically engaging fashion. In addition to the double entendre ditties, this collection of 18 cuts culled from four long out-of-print Cook-label LPs includes political commentary like "No, Doctor, No," improvised battle with fellow calypsonian Lord Melody in"Sparrow versus Melody Picong," and his well-known and surprisingly tender love song "Dorothy." While the backing musicians never really get a chance to step out and show their stuff, the accompaniment is appropriately raucous. Better early Sparrow collections may be available, but First Flight definitely has its moments.
Alongside the broader American folk music revival of 1960s came a small but influential roots movement among Chicanos. Rolas de Aztlán (Smithsonian Folkways) documents 30 years of protest and inspirational songs that were never directed at a broad commercial market. The music was targeted specifically toward farm workers of the San Joachim Valley – led by labor activists César Chávez and Dolores Huerta – and their supporters nationwide but predominantly located in Aztlán, the Chicano term for the American southwest. This highly listenable collection begins with early huelga strike anthems performed by rasquachi theater group El Teatro Campesino, farm workers' children and United Farm Worker members. It progresses through corrido story songs by various artists with a familiar Tex-Mex feel and even includes a 1978 recording of Los Lobos de Este de Los Angeles, aka Los Lobos, revamping traditional Mexican son jarocho music with "El Telingo Lingo." Well documented with interesting liner notes and brimming with a range of Chicano styles, this is a much needed historical record that also happens to entertain from start to finish.
Two cool cats from Swedish neo-folkie bands Hedningarna and Garmarna combine as Hurdy-Gurdy on Prototyp (NorthSide Records) to bring the ancient instrument of the same name into the 21 century. So what's a hurdy gurdy, you might well ask. Garmarna's Stefan Brisland-Ferner refers to it as a "medieval synthesizer" in the liner notes, and it does show a range of timbres on the disc. In sounds like a cross between massed violins and massed pipes on "Delerium," and on "Skällstyggen" suggests, well, a solitary violin or bagpipe. The compositions are admirably evocative of Dark Ages superstition in a context of modern unreason, with slice-and-dice Mac laptop mixology. Trance dance fans should jump on it. But even the most vigorous gyrations can't quite shake off the suggestion that building an ensemble around a limited instrument in a starring role tires the ears over the long haul. Kudos for all the fun and creativity evinced here. What's missing is a liner-note explanation of exactly what a hurdy gurdy might be, how it is played, and the difficulties thereof, which would have added dimensionality to this project.