Avishai Cohen is an Israeli-born bassist who is currently part of Chick Corea's new Origin ensemble. This is the 28-year-old's second album as a leader, and it announces, it big fat capital letters, that there is a major jazz talent looming on the horizon, because Devotion is, quite simply, a truly stunning work of art.
I'm not sure which is more impressive - his bass playing or his composing. Cohen has crafted a set of originals (except for two songs) that merge together the various ethnic influences of the Middle East with a fine ear for jazz improvisation and space for his fellow musicians to cut loose. The varied program is both introspective and forward-chugging, with anchoring basslines that creep directly from the feet to the spine, and offsetting chamber-like pieces sooth with flutes, trombones, ouds and nais.
"Ot Kain," based on a poem by Shay Yemini that is a retelling of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, is one of those songs, much in the tradition of jazz classics like "Tanya" (from One Flight Up by Dexter Gordon), that will sound just as fresh and invigorating 50 or 100 years from now. It simply gets in your head, and you suddenly realize that you've had it on repeat for the past hour. And it's just one of many classics contained here.
Warner Brothers Records
Regardless of the fact that the artwork shows a side shot of him naked, it is Seal's fingers that invariably draw the eye upon viewing the cover of Human Being, his third album. Splayed out as if casting a spell, or maybe casting out demons, it is an image that drills itself into the memory each time that you see it, leaving a lasting imprint.
It is, however, no match for the music inside. This is his first album that actually has a name, and for the occasion Seal has put together a highly spiritual voyage that is both cathartic and caustic. As always, the lyrics are not included, so you have to make do the best you can in terms of interpretation, which allows for some very personal reflections in terms of the words - each individual listener will ultimately draw something different in their conclusions. But the trouble is worth it, because Seal has crafted a journey that is Everyman's spiritual quest.
Musically, Human Being uses sonic textures to fine advantage. To these ears, it is a mixture that draws equal parts from Hendrix and Gaye, though it ends up being specifically his own sound, with a voice that has become one of the most immediately identifiable this decade. There is no mistaking Seal for anybody else.
Though his output only includes three albums, Seal's artistry stands among the best that the 90s have produced. Human Being is rhythm and blues that could exist only at this time, synthesizing it all into a mix that solidifies his place as one of the voices to lead us into the next century.
Prelusion/Before the Dawn
Back in a time before "Forget Me Nots" morphed into "Men In Black," Patrice Rushen was a childhood keyboard prodigy who whizzed through the USC music program, after being nurtured at Locke High School in L.A. Before she hit pop stardom and the soundtrack fast track, she began a jazz career which has always been a home base that she returns to even today.
This is a compilation of her first two albums, and with the miracle that is the compact disc, we only lose one track, "Puttered Bopcorn" from Prelusion (which, of course, was one of my favorite tracks - oh well). Recorded in 1974 and 1975 with her music mentor from Locke, Reggie Andrews, producing, they display the already-rich talent of a much-underrated pianist and composer.
Working within a framework of both hard bop and fusion, they feature what would become the cream of LA's session and jazz stars in early stints: Lee Ritenour, Harvey Mason, Oscar Brashear, Tony Dumas and her long-time musical compatriot, Ndugu Chancler. Her strength has always been her ear for melody, and some of the tunes here will stay in your head long after the disc is over. Add to that some mighty fine keyboard chops, and what you have here is essential listening for anyone who appreciates jazz that is funky, not smooth. For those that though jazz fusion has no lasting value, here is proof to the contrary.
Guilty: 30 Years of Randy Newman
Warner Archives/Rhino Records
One of the best pieces of news last year was the announcement that Rhino Records would oversee any further cataloging of the various Warner label vaults. This means that from now on Rhino, the masters bar none of repackaging previously released material, will handle all anthologies, career retrospectives, unreleased nuggets and box sets that spring out of the massive Burbank archives. Who knows what riches may appear?
They've already put out an excellent single disc collection chronicling Gary Wright; Guilty: 30 Years of Randy Newman is the first box set under the new arrangement. Four discs and 105 tracks long, it is broken up into two discs of studio material, culled from his ten albums, a disc of odds and ends that includes a lot of demos sprinkled with a couple of live tracks, and a final disc that is an overview of his rich film scoring career. The song choices for the most part are excellent; there is even a single, "Golden Gridiron Boy," from 1962 (otherwise, everything dates from 1968 onward) that was produced by Pat Boone and Jimmie Haskell. Extensive liner notes in the accompanying booklet cover all that you need to know.
Put quite simply, Guilty is a prime example of how to practice the art of the BIG package. And when you consider the people included that have recorded for the WB over the years, the mind literally spins at the possibilities (Joni! Neil! Seals! Crofts!). Up next: a Deep Purple set in March.
Still I Can't Be Still
If there is a bit of theatricality in this album, there is a wonderfully good reason for it. Idina Menzel first came to the public's attention in the original Broadway production of Rent, in a musically vamping role that snared her a Tony nomination her first time out.
However, she always had the heart and soul of a singer/songwriter, and viewed Rent as a performing gig: it wasn't where she had necessarily intended to head. But it did allow her to land a recording contract of her own, of which this is the stunning first result.
Menzel pulls no punches in the material here, all of which she co-wrote with producer/bassist Milton Davis. The soul-baring songs sizzle with a sexuality and sensuality that put Liz Phair in the slow lane. With a voice that commands attention and a varied musical palette that entices in all sorts of ways, it's really hard to describe; there will probably be comparisons to Madonna, but that only scratches the surface. For once, you'll just have to take my word and take a chance on it. If you like adventure, you won't come away disappointed. Trust me.
When Keith Urban was growing up in Australia, he knew from an early age what he wanted to do when he grew up: go to Nashville and be a country singer. With the help of a fellow Australian, drummer Peter Clarke, and bassist Jerry Flowers (he hails from the wilds of West Virginia), the singer/songwriter/guitarist has achieved his dream. Teaming together as The Ranch, the three musicians have just released their self-titled debut, and it could very well make them the best-known ranch since the Ponderosa.
Brimming with songs that display a craft that belie their young age, The Ranch is full of hooks and radio friendliness that should break the trio away from the pack. Urban and Clarke were good enough in a previous incarnation of the trio to score four number one country hits in their native country, and the addition of Flowers after their original bassist decided not to make the move to the U.S. was a stroke of luck for all involved. Flowers and Clarke provide the perfect rhythmic bottom to Urban's guitar work, with the three of them getting a much bigger sound than one would normally expect. And, as their recent show at the Troubadour proved, Flowers is also a soulful vocalist in his own right, providing the perfect harmony and foil for Urban. The Ranch were good enough to catch the ever-attuned ear of Miles Copeland, who signed on to manage them. He sees in them the same kind of talent and future that he saw in another three-piece band he's been involved with: The Police. Whether they find the same fame and fortune remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: Copeland is an excellent judge of talent. This record is proof, and you can bet your vegamite on that.
Paula Cole/This Fire (Imago/WB)
Anyone who read the October issue of the Concert Guide already knows that Paula is one of my favorite artists, and this, her sophomore CD, does nothing to diminish my enthusiasm for her music. Whereas 'Harbinger,' her exceptional debut, centered on a troubled upbringing, 'This Fire' moves into adulthood and the growth that involves. She's moved on from "Bethlehem" into the world at large, and as she continues her career it promises to be a most interesting journey indeed. Highly recommended.
Marshall Crenshaw/Miracle of Science (Razor & Tie)
There is a good reason that Crenshaw is a favorite among other songwriters—the man melds words and melodies on a par with the master craftsmen of our generation (Elvis Costello is the first to come to mind). A superb collection of new classics just aching for airplay, it may be his loopy version of "The In Crowd" that might just break him through to the public at large.
Bela Fleck & the Flecktones/Live Art (Warner Bros.)
A two-disc live career retrospective, the world's premiere banjoist leads the world's most unlikely fusion band through a set that features special guests and all sorts of surprises, including a bass solo piece by Victor Wooten that will cause a great many bass player retirements and possibly the only banjo-driven rap tune ever made.
Fairport Convention/Old.New.Borrowed.Blue. (Green Linnet)
The first all-acoustic set by the venerable English folk/rock/roots band is a true delight. Half studio, half live, it features new songs and old favorites, including an 'old' English folk song about cryogenics ("Frozen Man") and one of the best anti-war songs ("The Deserter") since the world went supposedly peacetime.
B Sharp Jazz Quartet/Searching for the One (MAMA)
This disc is proof that not all the new young lions of jazz reside on the east coast. A co-op group of four young L.A. musicians, they play with a depth and maturity far beyond their years, and in addition they write some damn good tunes. Further proof that the future of jazz is safe, and that the torch has not been dropped.
Imagine the powerchords and pop hooks of 80's new wave grafted on the pulsing, driving dance grooves of the 90's, and you'll have a good picture of what Republica is about. Featuring the hit single "Ready to Go," this London-based is currently taking the U.S. by storm with it's Blondie-for-the-90's sound (hey, I liked Blondie, so this is not a bad thing). If you want to get the party in gear, just set this disc in the tray and hit repeat.
Hiroshima/Urban World Music (Qwest)
I remember seeing this band at the beginning of their career at L.A.'s East/West Players Playhouse and thinking to myself, "Now this is a truly unique band." Their career has taken off from that point and borne fusion fruit—their synthesis of Eastern instruments and Western pop has won them legions of fans worldwide. Ready-made for airplay across a variety of formats, the best tracks of this new CD are the ones that put the koto of June Kuramoto, always the heart and soul of Hiroshima's music, front and center. Check out "Koto's Blues" and "Timekeeper" for proof, and the title track for a case study of cultural fusion at it's finest.
The Posies/Amazing Disgrace (DGC)
The latest by the most melodic of the Seattle bands that have burst on the scene is also their most forceful and hard-edged set yet, but even with the roughness you can still delight in the power hooks that the Posies excel at. A worthy addition to the catalog of a highly-underrated band.
Keiko Matsui/Dreamwalk (Countdown/Unity)
I made the mistake of playing this for a friend—when I wasn't looking, he stole it out of my machine and has 'borrowed' it ever since. The best CD yet by the former child piano prodigy, it is smooth sailing from start to finish—if you are into wave music, it doesn't get much better than this.
Ferron/Still Riot (Earthbeat)
Long an icon on the folk and women's music circuits, Ferron moves into a jazzier direction with this new collection. She still writes about relationships with the best of them—it's just that her songs are now framed in a larger setting, and her raspy voice has never sounded more at ease. Not exactly mainstream, but then again, folk-based artists have a tendency to breakthrough when least expected. After 20 years, she's due.
Michael Hedges/Oracle (Windham Hill)
A totally self-produced set by one of the world's most acclaimed guitarists, Michael Hedges has made another tour-de-force that features originals and music by Mancini, the Beatles and Zappa. If that's not a wide spectrum, I don't know what is. Highly recommended.
Ark 21 Records
The name might not be familiar, but you will certainly recognize the voice. Paul Carrack has been a member of Ace, Squeeze and Mike & the Mechanics, providing the vocals for such hits as "Tempted," "The Living Years" and the all-time classic, "How Long" (which he also wrote). He is a Grammy-nominated songwriter and last year received ASCAP's PRS Song of the Year award for the Eagles' "Love Will Keep Us Alive." However, when it comes to his own solo career, he has toiled in relative obscurity, which is fine for eating in restaurants undisturbed, but artistically it must be frustrating. Blue Views, with any luck, should change this once and for all.
Blue Views contains nine new songs written by Carrack (with a few co-writers like Brenda Russell, Will Jennings and Chris Difford—not exactly a shabby crew) and new versions of the aforementioned "Love Will Keep Us Alive" and "How Long," which is given a voice-driven arrangement and is an obvious choice for a single. Other candidates would be the hook-laden "No Easy Way Out" and "Eyes of Blue," a ballad that has a reassuring quality similar to his work with Mike & the Mechanics. On the whole, Blue Views displays a soulful earthiness that oozes chart hit and radio friendliness, a heartfelt set that should finally garner Carrack name recognition to match the voice.
Live on Tour
Oh Boy Records
People have always been on the lookout for the "next Bob Dylan." Maybe 25 years from now, people will be searching for the "next John Prine." This ex-Chicago mailman is quite simply the best wordsmith operating in pop music at the present time. Has been for the last 25 years.
A storyteller as much as a songwriter, Prine is at his prime in a live setting. Loosening up the parameters, he can enrapture an audience like a Harry Houdini or a Billy Crystal. Spinning word magic and hilarious punchlines, his songs are little masterpieces of the absurdities of everyday life and other big events. Whether the subject matter is the 'missing years' of Jesus Christ's life (including those formative teenage years) or the first monkey in space, Prine observes the world with the eyes of a two-hundred-year-old man: in other words, there's nothing he ain't seen, and there's nothing he won't comment on. Even his love songs are askew.
This is his second live set (it also includes three new studio-recorded songs), and pretty much picks up where the other one left off, though this one is only a single disc. Recorded at shows in Nashville, Boulder, Austin and Chicago, it features material from The Missing Years forward, along with a few chestnuts ("Illegal Smile" and "Storm Windows"). He is in fine form throughout.
Someday the world will catch up with Prine. Chances are, he'll probably have something to say about it when it does. And it'll probably have the punchline of a lifetime, too.
Eight Arms to Hold You
Chicago's Veruca Salt may find it difficult to top their initial foray into the pop consciousness of the music buying public, 1994's "Seether," a charming little ditty of rage, but they come close on this, their second album (their third if you count EPs as albums). Louise Post, Nina Gordon and the other Salts, along with producer Bob Rock (Metallica and Motley Crue among others), have come up with a metal-tinged alternative sound that is instantly likable and should prove a good transfer to the arena stages they have quickly graduated to. With quality songs like "Volcano Girls" and "Venus Man Trap," they more than hold their own against the rest of what is becoming a rapidly-filled genre (female-led garage alternative rock bands). And anyway, how can you not like a band that takes it's name from a character in "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Family?"
Concrete Blonde y Los Illegals
Concrete Blonde y Los Illegals
Ark 21 Records
First things first: this is not a Concrete Blonde reunion album. Rather, this is a project born out of both friendship and frustration. The friendship is between two bands that came up together out of two disparate neighborhoods of L.A., sharing equipment, rehearsal space and the birthing of a new L.A. sound they each helped to hewn. The frustration is with a society that reacts to social ills and riots by passing laws like Props 187 and 209. Friendship and frustration. Yin and yang.
Recorded three years ago, this album was passed over by a number of record companies as being non-commercial and too hard to market. Finally, Miles Copeland and his new company, Ark21, came to the rescue, and now it is finally available, just as the rock en Español scene is finally making inroads to the general public. As they say, timing (and demographics) is everything, and this labor of love could just be the turning point to prove that English is not essential to rock. And if it knocks a few walls down in the process, so much the better.
The tunes contained here are a collection of bilingual originals along with a few well-chosen covers from some surprising sources (the Gipsy Kings and Woody Guthrie). Carefully crafted yet hard driving, the songs work a collective magic that is almost dream-like when listened to as a whole. This is thought-provoking music, regardless of what language you are used to. Songs like "Ode to Rosa Lopez," featuring a 'rap' by noted journalist Ruben Martinez, and a stunning reworking of Woody Guthrie's "Deportee," simply proving nothing at all has changed, are framed by the psychedelic mambo/cha cha of Los Illegals and the flamencoized guitar pyrotechnics of James Mankey. If nothing else, consider this Mankey's coming out party—Concrete Blonde is no longer just Johnette Napolitano. In fact, she has given a lot of room for her dual bandmates to shine, sharing the vocals with Willie Herron III and Jesus Velo. This is truly a democratic work of art.
If there is any justice in the world, this album will sell millions. But even if it doesn't, the fact that a barrier was broken and people, even just two people, were brought together by the common ground of music, then consider it a victory in any language. After all, there is always the beat, and that doesn't require any semantics whatsoever.
Julian Priester/Sam Rivers
Hints on Light and Shadow
A pair of jazz masters who have been at the forefront of modern music for nearly a half-century, trombonist Julian Priester and reedman Sam Rivers get together here for a series of musings and improvisations backed only by the electronics of Tucker Martine. This is music that is quietly intense, with the spaces of no notes as important as those that are played. Priester and Rivers have both been underappreciated in the past—this CD serves notice that they are still voices with more to say than any number of 'young lions' you can name.
For those who know Mike Oldfield only as the composer of "Tubular Bells" (otherwise known as that little tune from The Exorcist) might be surprised to find out that he has sold more than 40 million albums worldwide over the last 23 years, and only 16 million were copies of the aforementioned record. A composer who has followed an eclectic and varied musical path that has influenced the current generation of electronic musicians such as The Orb, Oldfield, who is half Irish, explores Celtic music in a "hand-played, as opposed to electronic" setting that is rich and warm, full of beautiful melodies and enchanting musicianship. If you are a fan of Enya, you will love this album, and if you're not, well, there is still much to enjoy here.
My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult
A Crime for All Seasons
Red Ant Records
If Troma Studios had a house band, it would be the Thrill Kill Kult. After all, band co-founders Buzz McCoy and Groovie Mann originally planned to make a Fellini/Meyer/Polanski-type of movie, and instead formed this band. Each new release has been given a stage spectacle-setting to go with it, and the songs contained here on their sixth collaboration should provide quite a setting—with titles like "Blondes With Lobotomy Eyes" and "Mr. & Mrs. Bottomless Pit," A Crime for All Seasons should be as visually stunning as it is aurally moving—the feet, that is. This is fun music from a band that owes more to Roger Corman and Abel Salazar than any musician you can name.
E Squared/Warner Bros. Records
Some people can draw from a pool of experience; Steve Earle has an ocean full. He uses it to write stories that also happen to be songs, though you get the feeling it’s the stories that are important to him. That he is a gifted singer/musician is beside the point.
This is the third album since Earle resumed his musical career after his 1994 release from prison on heroin charges. The first two are classics, and there is nothing here that will keep El Corazon from achieving similar status. Stylistically all over the place, from straight bluegrass to R & B to grunge and back depending on what the words call for, El Corazon is a dozen set pieces that take the listener to such places as Washington, D.C. (at Christmastime), NYC, Taneytown (where racism is confronted through the eyes of a retarded black man) and the other side of town (don’t matter much which town - they all have ‘em). Wherever he goes, Earle makes one fine tour guide.
As the title says, El Corazon is definitely one from the heart.
Contact from the Underworld of Red Boy
There is a key line in the chorus of "Making A Noise," one of the songs contained here, that pretty much lays the foundation and theme for this album: "You can bet your ass, I won't go quietly/Making a noise in this world." Though there are many lyrical, soothing moments to be found here, this is basically confrontational, in-your-face music that demands to be listened to. It is a stunning cross-cultural tour de force.
Most people know of Robbie Robertson as one of the driving creative forces behind one of rock's most heralded Bands. It's been over twenty years since he left his Bandmates to follow his own muses; like John Fogerty, his solo work has been forthcoming at a millennial pace. Also like Fogerty, the quality has triumphed over the quantity. This is his fourth solo work, and continues his pattern of never repeating himself. Unlike other guitar giants from his generation, Robertson can never be accused of formulaic, cookie-cutter rehashes.
Robertson's previous album was 1994's Music for the Native Americans, a return to his reservation-steeped youth (he is part Mohawk). Featuring Native American musicians who have been bypassed by the mainstream (why is it that Native American music is found in the world music section at most record stores?), it was a wonderful introduction to a realm of music that most consumers do not venture into, much less know about. Contact from the Underworld of Red Boy (don't ask me to explain the title) once again features a number of traditional Native American musicians and forms, but with a huge twist: Robertson and producer Howie B (of U2 and Bjork fame) have brought the music crashing into the techno world, with a sampling framework that works to astonishing affect. Where most artists would come off as simply trying to follow the latest trends, Red Boy, with it's sampled chants and spoken word passages along with various other electronic flourishes, is an amazingly organic and virtuous work. There are so many textures and colors here to go with Robertson's passionate statements that it is hard to separate out highlights, but the record's centerpiece, "Sacrifice," featuring a narration from prison by Leonard Peltier, should be required listening in high school social studies classes.
By looking ahead to his past while going back to embrace the future, Robertson has simply created a work for the ages. Hopefully, radio will embrace it, too. After all, it is music that demands to be heard.
The French horn (purists refer to it simply as the horn) is by its very nature a hard to play instrument, and an extremely hard instrument to master. That is perhaps why there have been so few horn virtuosos in the field of jazz.
It's time to welcome a new member to that select few. Richard Todd, currently the principal hornist for the L.A. Chamber Orchestra, among others, and an extremely in-demand studio musician, displays prodigious technique and talent on Rickter Scale, his first CD as a leader. With backing from Billy Childs on piano, John Clayton on bass and Ralph Penland on drums, this is a rarity in horn jazz: a blowing session.
Featuring a program of jazz standards (some familiar, like "In a Mellotone," others less so, such as Chick Corea's "Got a Match?") along with his tuneful title track original, Todd plays with vibrancy and confidence, highlighting a tone so smooth that at times it resembles that of a trombone. The backing trio, with occasional coloring help from synthesist Mari Falcone, is an equal part in the success of this album; Childs, with his classical tendencies, is a perfect foil for Todd's horn.
"When it comes to using the horn in an improvisational setting," Todd recently told me, "generally it's a case of adapting the medium to fit the instrument. I am working at trying to reverse that." On the basis of Rickter Scale, he appears to be well on his way to doing just that.
Undercover is flautist Tim Weisberg's 20th album (and second for Fahrenheit) in a career that predated today's 'smooth jazz/adult contemporary/wave' genres by a number of years - long before jazz splintered he was making top-selling albums that merged the jazz idiom with pop sensibilities. However, unlike many who followed, his music held a broad appeal to purists and popsters alike because it never came out calculatingly cold and superficial on it's way to the cash register; it always maintained a warm, fuzzy feeling.
Undercover is a revisiting by Weisberg and producer David Benoit (who also contributes the keyboards, including Hammond B3 organ!) of their roots, which in many ways are intertwined like twin sons of different mothers, to quote a hit title from the Weisberg library. The two are very much in sync here as they explore songs which have been key influences (Herbie Mann's "Comin' Home Baby") or major points in their respective careers (Benoit's "Kei's Song," given a beautiful reading here). My favorite is a version of "Moondance" with the silky smooth vocals of Kenny Rankin that is a true gem.
The simpatico between Weisberg and Benoit goes back to 1982, when they first played together in Benoit's small studio in Manhattan Beach - Weisberg says that he felt "like Benoit was reading my mind, and could see where I would want to take the song, through all the subtleties and nuances." That simpatico is very much alive here, as both musicians reach for some of the best heights either has scaled. Twin sons indeed - different mothers, hmm, who knows?
Those Were the Days
The first thing that strikes you about this fine four-disc box set is that it looks like the cover of the Disraeli Gears record album cut in half. The second thing that hits you is the music. For the rather short time they were together, Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker made some truly mind-blowing music.
Those Were the Days collects together all of their studio and live recorded output along with some demos, alternate versions and even a beer commercial in a remastered package that shows three raw talents coming together briefly as one totally awe-inspiring single musical mind. Lately, when listening to them, I have been keying in to the bass playing of Bruce - it is so far ahead of it's time that most of the musical world still hasn't caught up with it yet. In many ways, though their music was blues-based, musically they have a lot in common with the jazz fusion movement that would be coming a decade later
As a special treat, the two discs of live material are sequenced in concert order, so that the aural experience of a Cream show is intact, much as the lucky audiences who heard it in person. Ah, I do so love box sets, especially those of artists who truly deserve the treatment, and this is the Cream of the crop, so to speak.
Austin Lounge Lizards
Employee of the Month
Sugar Hill Records
"Molly's nose is warm and dry, since she sat and watched you pack/She figures that you must be lost and can't find your way back/And Scooter's just a basket case, he won't accept my calls/His squeaky toy lies silent, he's lost interest in his balls" -'The Dogs, They Really Miss You'
Somehow, country divorce songs will never seem the same now.
A lot of other country themes - life on the road, Texas, being down on your luck, knocking on heaven's door, trucks - take a beating from this talented crew of Austin pranksters. They skewer all those and Leonard Cohen, too, on this virtual gem of a record.
Whether it's Brian Wilson and Jan and Dean meeting up in suburbia in 'Hey, Little Minivan,' or the family values found in 'Love in a Refrigerator Box,' the Lizards back it all up with musical talent that keeps the proceedings from becoming a mere novelty session. These guys, who have been together for 18 years, can really play.
However, the highlight, the song that should become a Dr. Demento classic for years to come, is a 45-second little ditty entitled 'Momma Don't Allow.' You'll have to take my word for it, the first time you play it, you'd better not be driving. It could cause an accident, in more ways than one.
Trust me on this one. I know.
Live at Carnegie Hall
Bill Withers, over the course of only a few albums, created one of the richest bodies of work to come out of the 70's. His was a new kind of musical synthesis, a grafting of the black experience onto what can best be described as the singer/songwriter tradition, which was basically folk music redefined for the era's emphasis on the solo artist (think James Taylor or Carole King, both of whom were having an immense impact on the marketplace at that time). It's been 25 years since this live set was recorded, yet it is as vibrant and chock full of soul today as it was on the rainy night it was made. Time has not dulled the classic songs of Bill Withers one bit.
At the time of this recording, these songs, including the likes of "Lean On Me," "Grandma's Hands" and "Ain't No Sunshine," were still making their way to the status they now enjoy as standards. Richly drawing from a diverse background including gospel and blues, Withers and his crack band give emotional, full-bodied readings of now-classic songs that still bear great influence on young artists 25 years later. Along with Stevie Wonder, Withers was one of the breakthrough songwriters whose work transcended any kind of racial or stylistic boundaries; it was breathtaking time for music, and this time capsule hopefully will remind people of the gifts that Withers gave to the world.
Just one question, though. Where have you gone, Mr. Withers?
Up Close and Alone
The title of this album is a perfect summation of the music that is contained within. For nearly thirty years, Burton Cummings has been the main driving force behind Canada's gift to pop/rock, the Guess Who. It isn't until you start glancing through their catalog, or looking at the track listing on one of their greatest hits collections, that you realize just how good this band has been over the years. Their body of work has stood well the test of time, and songs like "Laughing," "These Eyes" and "Undun" should take their place alongside the works of the Lennons, the McCartneys, the Joels and the Johns as standards for a generation of boomers.
Recorded live in Toronto with just his voice and a piano, Cummings produces a set that sounds like a friend giving a relaxed recital in his living room. He recasts the above songs and others from both the Guess Who and his solo career into intimate little movements that bring a new appreciation of just how good a writer Cummings (with help occasionally from Randy Bachman) is. Stripped down bare to the melodies and lyrics, Cummings' familiar not-quite-nasally voice is as supple and bending as it was back when these tunes first appeared. With his subtle Canadian accent (yes, there is such a thing), it is a warm and familiar sound to the ears.
Always a bit twisted as a performer (I can remember him doing a lounge lizard version of a BTO tune on one of his early solo album), Cummings also includes a dead on impression of Gordon Lightfoot singing Rod Stewart's "Maggie May" that is hilarious (if you're familiar with Lightfoot's style). Mostly, though, Up Close and Alone is a superb showcase for a vastly under appreciated talent. Can you guess who?
Spirit of Adventure
Alternative country. Cow punk. Americana. The No Depression movement. These are all names made up by the media for a new hybrid of country music that is currently making commercial inroads at AAA radio stations across America (there is even an Americana chart). Regardless of the moniker used, the music is a roots-conscious backlash against Nashville's current trends and pop-like slickness, as perceived by a new breed of artist, generally younger and as likely to be influenced by Bill Monroe as by Gram Parsons, generally considered to be the patron saint of this school of music.
Right now, the big names in alt.country are the Jayhawks, BR5-49, Whiskeytown, Wilco and Son Volt (the latter two splinters of the late, great Uncle Tupelo), but it is the less-commercial independent artists and labels that really drive this genre. Just flipping through the magazine that lends it's name to this movement, one finds a cornucopia of ads for small, fiercely autonomous labels that are generally available only by mail or through the internet. They've sprung up in all sorts of non-Nashville type places, from Omaha to Sunland to Fairbanks. As in Alaska.
Wild Frontier is a perfect example of this new crossbreed. Hailing from the Great North, the Fairbanks band's new CD, Spirit of Adventure, is drenched in traditional country roots combined with a decidedly Alaskan attitude (stridently individualistic and independent, though thouroughly tongue-in-cheek at times). With titles like "Creed of the North," "Jack London" (which is getting airplay in markets all across the country) and "Men Who Don't Give In," it gives a northern twist to what is usually considered southern music. As an added bonus, the sound is totally amazing, having been recorded in a paradise of old tube machinery. It is as clean and natural as they come. For information on the band, the recording process (a techhie's heaven!) and ordering, check out their extensive website at www.alaskaswildfrontier.com.
Whether Nashville will ever embrace this new movement is really irrelevant - and with the anti-establishment sentiment that is one of the linchpins of the music, probably unlikely. But that's okay - it's about time someone put Sunland, Omaha and Fairbanks on the musical map.
Windham Hill Records
In a summer that has been served by youth and gender, it is sometimes easy to lose sight of one's roots. However, fall is upon us, and it is a time of year for the sages to take over. First out of the gate this autumn is Janis Ian, she of "Society's Child" and "At Seventeen" - both tunes that most of the current crop of Lilithian women could only hope to someday match - with a stunning album of songs that speak of things ranging deeply inward ("Shadow") to issues larger than one("Black & White," which explores the ever-widening chasm between the races by juxtaposing Montgomery'65 into the present) and everything in-between.
Hunger is a mature work by an artist who has had more than her fair share of ups and downs, from the high of worldwide fame to having been cashed out by unscrupulous business managers. Ian's songs reflect a world weariness (though there is no bitterness, the voice of experience speaks throughout) of someone who's been pushed to the sidelines, seemingly forgotten, only to come back stronger than ever. Ian could easily serve as Lilith's Godmother; it is somehow fitting that the only 'name' guest on Hunger is Ani DiFranco, who shares a similar artistic vision tempered with a 90's sense of independence, swooping in from the fringes to take the mainstream by storm. . . much like Ian did before her. Who says social consciousness can't sell?
Robert Earl Keen
Arista Austin Records
No. 2 Live Dinner
Sugar Hill Records
Sugar Hill Records
There is something about Texas, and Austin in particular - maybe it's the water, I don't know - that brings out the best in tunesmiths. If they're country, folk, or a bit of both, male or female, it doesn't seem to matter. There seems to be a universal richness to their storytelling and songwriting.
Robert Earl Keen is one of the current shining stars of the Texas music community. Picnic is the album that is getting a lot of attention, and rightly so. It's the debut release from Arista Austin (proof enough that there is a scene going on here) and is packed full of songs with some amazing imagery and wordplay. My favorite is the last song, "Then Came Lo Mein," about winding up crazy in a Chinese restaurant - you'll just have to read along. It features haunting co-vocals from Margo Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies, and is the perfect wrap-up to an album full of masterful stories - if you like John Prine, then you owe it to yourself to check Keen out.
However. . . for those that have been Keen fans for a while (he's released six albums on the Sugar Hill label, so he's not exactly a newcomer), then you know that he is best enjoyed live. Kind of like a Texas version of Jimmy Buffet in terms of the rabidness of his fans and the enjoyment they get out of his shows, Keen's latest for Sugar Hill, No. 2 Live Dinner, is perhaps an even better introduction to his music and persona than Picnic. Featuring 13 songs culled from various points in his career, his working band (who burn better than any batch of studio musicians ever could) and an absolutely in-tune audience, No. 2 is chock full of highlights, including perhaps the best tune ever written about a totally dysfunctional group of relatives, "Merry Christmas From the Family."
Of course, if you want to check out yet another Texas master songsmith, Guy Clark also has a new live album out, also on Sugar Hill (they have an ear for fine songwriters - others in their corral include James McMurtry, Tim O'Brien and the late Townes Van Zandt). His is called Keepers, and it's an appropriate title, because I doubt the man has ever written a clinker in his life. Clark's songs have been covered by a wide array of country artists, but the versions on Keepers stand equally tall. They're all here: from "L.A. Freeway" to "Desperados Waiting For a Train," you'll find plenty of hits that you probably didn't realize were from the same pen.
I don't know about you, but I'm thinking of sending for that Lone Star travel guide. . . and just maybe that Austin moving guide.
Sunday Morning To Saturday Night
Rising Tide Records
A successful Nashville songwriter who has written for the likes of Trisha Yearwood, Deana Carter, Patty Loveless, Linda Ronstadt and Reba McEntire, Matraca Berg steps to the forefront on this 11-song masterpiece that raises the bar for other Nashville artists to shoot at. Anchored more in the singer/songwriter tradition of a Joni Mitchell or Carole King than your standard Music Row tunesmith, Berg shows that she hasn't given away all her best songs, though there are probably more than a few singers around the Nashville area that wish they'd had a crack at these.
The album centers on both real-life and the female experience, along with a few portraits of women she has known. "Back When We Were Beautiful" speaks of the pain of growing old, and was sparked by conversations with her grandmother and her mother-in-law. "Good Ol' Girl" is one of the portrait songs, a 'combination of women from my aunts to the waitresses at the Pancake Pantry.' "Back In The Saddle" is, well, about what you'd expect it to be with a title like that; it's not about horseriding. The title tune is a modern morality tale, Nashville style. All the songs are radio ready, yet without the slickness that so much of country tends towards when commercial in nature. Berg is simply a complete natural: she's the real thing, and she is the artist to watch as country music approaches the millennium. If I were voting, this would be my choice for country album of the year.
Warner Western Records
For some strange reason, Native American artists too often get classified either in the new age or world music sections of your local corner record shop: it's similar to putting U2 in the Celtic section just because they're Irish lads. And that's too bad, because a lot of excellent mainstream music gets passed over this way. It happened to Bill Miller with Raven in the Snow, which to me is one of the best albums of the 90's (if you haven't heard this work of art, believe me, search it out - it is a stunning tour de force of impassioned rock, blues and folk). I just hope it doesn't happen to Robert Mirabal this time out.
Produced by Mike Wanchic, the guitarist for John Mellencamp's band, Mirabal successfully merges together two cultures, one ancient, one modern, in a musical setting that pays homage to the twin influences of a rich Native heritage and a love for rock and roll, with neither taking a back seat to the other. Both parts are equal, and they make a musical pairing that sounds as natural as the beauty of the Taos Pueblo where Mirabal makes his home.
Where Mirabal in the past has mainly produced music rich in his ethnic background, prominently featuring his traditional Indian flutes (crafting them himself, his work as a flutemaker is recognized enough that some of his flutes are on display at the Smithsonian Museum), this time he has taken on more of a roll as a modern singer/songwriter/storyteller who also happens to be a Native American. The flutes and chants are still here, but they have been put in a modern context that allows Mirabal to explore themes both universal and Indian in nature, with stunning results that, if there is any justice in the world, will sound right at home on both modern rock and triple-A radio.
Mirabal is full of surprises and delights from start to finish, from the beginning "Hope," which sets the tone by melding lyrics that reflect traditional Indian life into a driving, modern rock context, to the closing "Cyberspace Warrior," with it's 'space-native' theme and pure pop groove. However, for me, the highlight of the album is it's centerpiece track, "Tony & Allison." A narrative epic that clocks in at over ten minutes, it's story of murder in the desert is a study of good and evil and the violent encounter between the ritualistic past and the modern present. The hip-hop drum cadence that enters towards the end is a jarring reminder that whether one is from a rural setting or an urban world, there are stories to share and to learn from, regardless of the source.
The Moog Cookbook
Ye Olde Space Band
I remember the first time I heard Switched-On Bach by Walter (now Wendy) Carlos. It was one of the most amazing aural experiences I can remember. The layers of sound, the wash of choral colors, it was all so new. This was the sound of the future.
Of course, that was many moons ago. Music has gone through all sorts of changes, among them the use of computers and tape loops; for the most part, the banks of synthesizers went by the wayside. But then I came across this wonderful little album, and the days of switched-on music came rushing back, only this time the classics are of the rock variety. Instead of the "Brandenburg Concertos," we get "Hotel California."
The duo of Roger Manning, Jr. (late of Jellyfish and Imperial Drag) and Brian Kehew, with a little from such friends as Michael Penn, Wayne Kramer, Charlotte Caffey and Mark Mothersbaugh, have lovingly crafted an album of classic rock covers utilizing vintage synthesizers - it's still kind of weird, I think, to put those two words together. They have grafted on more than a few touches of modern day electronica, and the stew they have come up with is mighty delectable. There are a lot of levels going on simultaneously here, and the layers show both a loving and a tongue-in-cheek relationship with the dinosaurs they reconstruct here. Each one takes on a new twist, from the funk of "Whole Lotta Love" to, well, you'll just have to listen for yourself. I don't want to spoil the fun, but suffice it to say, you'll never hear "Hotel California" ever again without hearing this version in your head first.
Ye Olde Space Band is the kind of album you'll either love or hate, depending on your point of view. Your first tendency might be to laugh this one off as party background music, but if you dig in a bit, you'll find there is actually a lot of substance here. Of course, you may have a hard time getting it out of your brain: such are the dangers of modern music.
The Ray Pizzi Quartet
The circumstances behind this CD piss me off. No, it has nothing to do with the artist - Ray Pizzi is both a gifted reed player and composer, and he is considered to be the world's foremost jazz bassoonist (Henry Mancini once wrote a piece specifically for Pizzi, "Concerto for Jazz Bassoon and Orchestra"). And no, the music contained within this disc is stunningly beautiful, a pristine example of the finest in current jazz. If you must know, what pisses me off is the fact that Pizzi had to go to Germany to record Wind Rider, and he still doesn't have a distribution deal for it - if you want a copy, you can't go down to Tower to buy it. The fact that he had to do it all on his own while far lesser talents are gobbled up by myriad American record companies, well, I guess you catch my drift here. . .
The songs contained here will be familiar to anyone who has been lucky and/or smart enough to catch a club performance by Pizzi in the past few years. They display a talent that is at the least equal to anything found on any broadly distributed label - hey, you big guys, are you listening? Recorded in Munich back in July of 1995, Wind Rider features Pizzi on soprano sax, flute and bassoon, along with Walter Lang on piano, Christian Stock on bass and Walter Bittner on drums. Eschewing the usual set of tired standards, all the compositions are by Pizzi - a man who once wrote an odd-metered jazz piece dedicated to his truck - and they provide a rich framework for the participants to explore and open up. This is modern acoustic jazz at it's finest.
In a world that was fair, Pizzi would be signed to a company like Sony or Concord, and his Cds would be easy to find (including the reissuing of his fine work for Discovery and Pablo Records, which has yet to see the light of laser day). But, of course, the world ain't fair. Until that time, you can write P.Z. Music, P.O. Box 8137, Van Nuys, CA 91409, for more information on ordering this excellent CD. Or better yet, watch the jazz listings and catch Pizzi live at a nearby club. I'm sure he'd be happy to sell you an autographed copy of Wind Rider.