This is arguably the funnest and most romantic album of the year. Japanese retro Hawaiian swing band the Sweet Hollywaiians have earned rave reviews, including one from Hollywood film director Terry Zwigoff, and the hype is deserved: they can flat-out play. With Tomotaka Matsui’s Hawaiian steel guitar, Nobumasa Takada‘s ukelele, Takashi Nakayama’s acoustic guitar and Kohichi Tsutsumishita on standup bass along with mandolin, violin and cameos from Robert Armstrong and Tony Marcus of R. Crumb’s Cheap Suit Serenaders, they run through a 1930s jukebox worth of jaunty instrumentals and period-perfect vocal numbers. It’s a feast of spiky string textures, dazzling virtuosity and inspired musicianship, not to mention scholarship – along with the standards, they’ve unearthed some real gems. But more than anything else, this is great makeout music.
The title track and Wasting My Love on You are well-known, covered by New York Hawaiian swing institution the Moonlighters along with plenty of other bands; the Sweet Hollywaiians’ versions are impressively purist, hewing close to the originals, the former blissfully upbeat, the latter quite dark in the same vein as Brother Can You Spare a Dime. The Hawaiian Beach Combers’ My Girl from the South Sea Isles and the Dallas String Band’s Chasin’ Rainbows totally nail the originals’ ambience right down to the vocals, whether Tin Pan Alley or hillbilly swing. The tango La Rosita works its major-to-minor mood shift with a marvelous ominousness; perhaps the prettiest melody of all the tunes here is Giovanni Vicari’s Nostalgia, a beautifully wistful, gypsy-inflected waltz featuring steel guitar and violin from Armstrong and Marcus. The band’s latin-inflected original Oh! Caroline is gorgously dark and spiky – one wishes they’d included more of their own stuff here. There’s also plenty of more lighthearted material here including the novelty songs Ten Tiny Toes and Singin’ in the Bathtub (a 1930s precursor to the Lyres’ garage rock hit Soapy!). Steampunks of every stripe will go crazy over this album once they find out about it. Maybe if we’re lucky here in the US we can get a Moonlighters/Sweet Hollywaiians tour!
How can you tell if a latin jazz album’s any good? Well, for one, if you can dance to it. For the new one by trombonist Wayne Wallace‘s Latin Jazz Quintet, the answer is a joyous si! Over the course of two deliriously good Ellington covers, an imaginative rearrangement of a Coltrane classic and some rambunctious originals, they cover a variety of styles perfect for swinging or snuggling across the floor. In the spirit of the great latin bands of the 40s and 50s, there are as many as four trombonists on the album, including Ellington Orchestra vets Julian Priester and Dave Martell along with Murray Low on piano, David Belove on bass and percussionists Michael Spiro and Paul van Wageningen on trap drums. Obviously, with all the trombones, they go for a big sound, but there’s plenty of space for the rest of the band as well.
Of the originals, the best is the album’s title track, a rousing guaguanco. Eddie Harris’ Freedom Jazz Dance gets a slinky bomba treatment; another original, Mojito Cafe sets an expansive Low piano solo over some tricky changes and eventually a crescendoing call-and-response between the vocals and Wallace’s trombone. Memo Acevedo’s Building Bridges is inspiring and optimistic, with a sweet ensemble horn chart. The deceptively simple cha-cha Playa Negra – another original – is bouncy and even seductive. And the Duke would be proud of how Wallace works In a Sentimental Mood as wee-hours theme music, along with the group’s strikingly dark, intense version of Going Up (Subete).
The album wraps up with two innovative covers. Sonny Rollins’ Solid is basically a blues with a latin groove, transformed into a showcase in subtlety as the group brings it down to just Low and the percussion before soaring up again. And Coltrane’s Africa is brought vividly into focus, straight up and accelerated considerably over an unstoppable groove. It’s quite a change from the original but it works because it’s so different, and embraces the melody so strongly. This works equally well as dance music, as party music and just for listening. Wallace is a California native with an exhaustive gigging schedule: his next one with this crew is as part of the San Ramon Jazz Series at the San Ramon Library, 100 Montgomery St. in San Ramon, CA on November 20 at 8 PM.
Ex-Amparanoia guitarist Jairo Zavala AKA Depedro impressed with an acoustic set that managed to hold an impatient crowd attentive for an all-too-brief half hour. Having just recorded his debut solo cd (very favorably reviewed here) with Joey Burns and John Convertino of Calexico, it would have been awfully nice to have had them onstage with him, especially since Calexico’s covered him and he’s shared a stage with them on multiple occasions. But it was not to be. To his credit, Zavala’s songs still resonate even without the album’s mansions of echo and ominous tremolo guitar arrangements. His shtick seems to be to take pretty much every style he knows and transform them into southwestern gothic; watching his solo show was more of an excursion through those particular styles rather than the dusky, otherw0rldly trip that is the album. The straight-up feel was enhanced by Zavala’s casual stage presence – he didn’t let what seemed at least early on to be a tough audience phase him a bit.
Minus all the Mexican and latinisms of the cd, Zavala’s guitar playing stood out as distinctively Spanish. He took one number deep into flamenco territory, rapping on the body of his guitar while essentially playing bass and rhythm simultaneously (he’s an excellent electric player, as well). The best song of the night was a powerful take of his Mexican liberation anthem La Memoria, galloping along with a gorgeously resounding clang. Done acoustically, the old Amparanoia song Como El Viento (Like the Wind) took on a sunny Mediterranean ballad feel; his reworking of a Mexican folk song, La Llorona (The Weeping Woman) was stark and rustic in contrast with the album’s twangy, ghostly version. His strong command of English helped carry the noir, slightly Orbison-esque ballad Don’t Leave Me Now; he closed the set with a singalong on a new one, then the lullaby that closes the album and a funky take of the bouncy number Comanche that could have been mistaken for G. Love if G. Love had soul and a feel for latin rhythm. Zavala promised a return trip here; hopefully he’ll have a crew behind him next time to flesh out those captivating songs.
Argentinian tango nuevo/pop sensation Federico Aubele was next on the bill, but at this point the show was running an hour and a half behind schedule and there were more captivating things to see, for cheaper (namely, Cliff Lee shutting down the Yankees in Game One of the World Series).
This is what free jazz ought to sound like. While there’s definitely plenty of composition here, there’s also an extraordinary amount of listening and the smart, thoughtful playing that good musicians do when they’re all tuned into each other. Trombonist Samuel Blaser leads the crew and gets extra props for putting this particular unit together. This is one of those albums that the drummer absolutely owns: Tyshawn Sorey rumbles underneath, methodically like a subway (by turns a steady local train, a work train inching by or an occasional express roaring along) as guitarist Todd Neufeld and bassist Thomas Morgan add shade and color in a stunning display of minimalist precision. No wasted notes here!
Blaser gets the over seventeen-minute title track to work off a stately, thoughtful five-note riff punctuated by stillness and deftly placed accents by Neufeld and Morgan. As with the rest of the tracks here, there’s more following and echoing than there is actual interplay, the musicians taking turns building off a minute, intricate phrase, almost a contest where the winner is he who can say the most with the least. Which with generally quiet music is an admirable goal. On this song, guitar and then bass maintain suspense two steps behind the beat, which at a lento crawl is a lot harder than it sounds. Blaser’s unexpectedly triumphant windup to the song actually adds an undercurrent of unease (that device will recur later to rousing effect).
The second cut, Red Hook scurries without actually scurrying – Blaser’s trombone runs it alone as the rhythm section stays terse and deliberate with vivid washes of sound from Neufeld’s guitar. They follow it with the pensive, plaintive Choral I (which they return to as a concluding theme), and then the aptly titled Mystical Circle, Blaser remaining defiantly casual, even out-of-focus throughout a series of methodical descending progressions. The dark, murky, minor-key Mandala is nothing short of phantasmagorical; by contrast, Speed Game is tongue-in-cheek, more a series of relays than any kind of sprint. This quiet, deft display of talent is nothing short of a stealth contender for one of the best jazz albums of 2009.
Their best album. It’s amazing how much energy the Wiyos get out of a couple of acoustic guitars, harmonica and upright bass – and to their further credit, the quality of the songs and the playing here transcends the presence of a human beatbox. Cross-pollination is usually a good thing, but this time it is not, and happily the hip-hop effects are mostly buried in the mix on all but a couple of the songs. Which represent the Wiyos’ inimitable blend of rousing 1920s-style hokum blues, ragtime, guitar swing and oldtimey hillbilly songs – everything here sound live, which is especially fortuitous since their concerts are reliably high-intensity affairs. This one kicks off with a rustic traveling song, followed by another equally jaunty number, then a starkly minor-key banjo tune. There are also a couple of hobo songs here, one a cautionary tale to stay one step ahead of the law, the other a soaring tribute to the excitement of riding the rails. Singer/guitarist Parrish Ellis’ Angeline has a Hank Williams-gone-cajun feel; guitarist Teddy Weber’s Green Bottle #6 is jazzy and swinging with a sweet lapsteel solo. By contrast, Drum, by frontman/harmonica player Michael Farkas is a dark and aptly aphoristic antiwar number with train-whistle steel guitar. The album wraps up with a deliriously fun country drinking song, a ballad that starts out hypnotic with an early Grateful Dead feel before picking up steam, and the vividly lyrical, wary Valentina, a thoughtful evocation of a girl stuck in a city that once made a great place to hide but has now swallowed her whole. “The kings can’t grow up to be kings,” Farkas muses – it’s an anthem of sorts for the new depression. Steampunks everywhere will be salivating for this. The Wiyos got their start here and make frequent return trips – these guys live on the road, watch this space for future NYC dates.
Spanish rocker Jairo Zavala has been cutting across genres since his days with Amparanoia back in the 90s. On this solo disc, the debut release for the new label Nat Geo Music, he takes the name Depedro with the intention of blending latin and Mediterranean influences. What he essentially achieves here is to take a bunch of different styles and make southwestern gothic out of them, and considering he’s working with two of the foremost SW goth stylists in the business, Joey Burns and John Convertino of Calexico, the album is enormously successful. Dusky, glimmering, otherworldly and drenched in reverb, with mostly Spanish-language lyrics that range from the thoughtful and aphroristic to the neither-here-nor-there, the songs jangle, clang and often linger with a haunting intensity.
The opening track, Como el Viento (Like the Wind), takes an old Amparanoia tune and gives it a swinging, Caifanes-esque Mexican sundown rock feel. The single best cut on the album is Don’t Leave Me Now, its ominous horns evoking a ghostly bordertown of the mind circa 1940. La Memoria, which follows is a feast of spiky string textures, banjo and acoustic guitar backed by the eerie, watery strains of a guitar phased through a Leslie organ speaker. Otherwise, Zavala takes Weimar blues to Santa Fe, adds Norteno agression to a darkly lilting border ballad, takes a couple of detours into latin funk (one such an evocation of War that it’s practically camp) and then Mexicanizes a big 90s style guitar rock anthem. Burns and especially Convertino add the requisite, deliciously ringing, clanging, reverberating guitar and bass effects (the latter often played with a bow for a dark cello tone), and Zavala does a marvelously soaring evocation of the Friends of Dean Martinez‘ Bill Elm on lapsteel on one of the cuts. If southwestern gothic, David Lynch soundtracks, Chris Isaak, Steve Wynn, Calexico or just about any recent rock en Espanol is your thing, get this album, it’s a stylized masterpiece. New York listeners can see Depedro tonight, October 28 at SOB’s in the West Village at 8 on an intriguing doublebill opening for Argentinian tango nuevo star Federico Aubele.
Concert Review: System Noise and Vera Beren’s Gothic Chamber Blues Ensemble at Fontana’s, NYC 10/27/09
A pre-Halloween summit meeting of two of the most charismatic women in rock – or for that matter, any kind of music – went largely undiscovered due to an incessant drizzle. What is up with you, New Yorkers? You used to be so tough. Have all the cool people been priced out of town by the yuppies and trendoids, or is it the depression and the harsh reality that nobody except the yuppies and trendoids have any money to go out anymore? Likely so, since System Noise and Vera Beren’s Gothic Chamber Blues Ensemble don’t exactly project the bland, corporate vibe preferred by the Malibu leisure class and the hedge fund nebbishes from New Jersey. Despite the light turnout, platinum blonde System Noise frontwoman Sarah Mucho and her raven-haired counterpart Beren seized the stage to represent two vastly different eras of cutting edge vocals. Both got their start in their teens – Beren’s legendary avant-punk first band Die Hausfrauen had already been signed, toured, put out an album and had broken up long before she reached her twenties – while Mucho honed her unearthly wail as an underage kid belting over crowds of drunks in piano bars. Both women also have a category-defying, intensely dramatic sensibility that draws considerably on underground theatre. System Noise kicked things off with their most ferocious set in a long time, and they’re ferocious most of the time anyway. Mucho, raccoon-eyed and dressed head-to-toe as a skeleton, cut loose with the single most bloodcurdling scream of the night on the band’s towering, macabre Carrie tribute, Prom Night. Otherwise, the band’s new material, particularly the opening number, Hair and Nails (the two parts of the body that continue to grow after death) showed off more catchy hooks than ever, even as they’d intersperse innumerable wild, screaming noise-rock interludes, off-the-cliff tempo shifts and rollercoaster dynamic shifts orchestrated with gleeful abandon by Pouth their drummer.
Beren had also done her best to make herself look dead – or undead – but that didn’t really work, from the moment she sat down at her keyboard and unleashed the contralto roar that has been her trademark since the 80s. Ecstatically alive as she comes across, this was a particularly forceful, intense set, maybe due to the fact that she did more straight-up rock songs instead of the titanic epics in 6/8 that she and her band – this time with two guitarists, trombonist and rhythm section – do so inimitably well. A couple of them evoked Patti Smith, another the Damned; others brought to mind Blue Oyster Cult with a gypsy-inflected downtown sensibility. The most gripping one of the night began stately and anguished in 6/8 before leaping into 4/4 on the wings of bassist Greg Garing’s booming, percussive chords.
Their finest album. Over the past almost thirty years, Malian Tuareg desert rockers Tinariwen have pushed the envelope, taking their hypnotic, trance-inducing duskcore sounds around the world. This is their most diverse, their catchiest and most memorable cd yet, a triumph of determined, contemplative guitar, methodically swaying rhythms and vividly aphoristic lyricism (sung in Tamashek, their native tongue). All of the songs here share Tinariwen’s trademark resolute, sometimes mantra-like insistence, many of them inflected with an Ali Farka Toure-style bare-bones desert blues vibe. Yet this is also their most ambitious effort: it’s their most accessible, most straight-up rock-oriented album so far. The opening track, like most of the others written by the band’s often inscrutable leader Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, works a ridiculously catchy riff that would be perfectly at home on a Clash album. Except that it’s about half the speed the Clash would have played it at, Alhabib ruefully examining the state of a revolution whose leaders have run dry: they can’t keep the trees growing.
Another tune, a battle anthem, kicks off with echoes of Hendrix: but it’s the pensive, thoughtful Little Wing Hendrix, not the madman of Machine Gun. A traveling song slinks along with contrasting layers of male and female voices (there are ten fulltime members in the band, but as this album was recorded on the band’s home turf in Mali, they had plenty of friends available to join the fun). A rousing call for Tuareg unity gives bassist Eyadou Ag Leche, the band’s most overtly aggressive player, the chance to go up the scale and add some striking crescendos within the song’s characteristically static, resolute structure. There’s also a strikingly warm, almost pop song with a 60s soul feel, a haunting, pulsing number whose eerie descending progression evokes early Pink Floyd or even Bauhaus, and the fiery Ere Tasfata Adouna (He Who Values Life) that wraps up the songs, guitars finally cutting loose and ringing out in a hailstorm of overtones, jangle and clang. The album concludes with a somewhat tongue-in-cheek drone instrumental a la the early Grateful Dead, Alhabib playfully toying with his amp for as many subtle feedback effects as he can find. As psychedelic music goes, this is unsurpassed. It ought to win an even wider audience for the self-described “world’s most popular African band,” and for those who’ve already discovered them, it’s a must-own.
An especially valuable plus here is a complete lyric sheet with English translations. As another bonus, the cd includes a thirty-minute DVD film by Jessy Nottola, an understatedly shot mis-en-scene featuring clips of the band in their milieu along with songs from several of their recent albums. Which makes this one a considerable bargain.
Concert Review: Thomas Truax, Paul Wallfisch and Little Annie, and David J Survive CMJ at the Delancey, NYC 10/22/09
It wasn’t as bad as that: actually, it was transcendent. It’s hard to imagine a better bill in this year’s CMJ atrocity exhibition than Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch’s entrant, part of his weekly salon/extravaganza, Small Beast. Lots of talent on this bill: Pamelia Kurstin and Spottiswoode had played early in the evening. By ten, Thomas Truax had taken the stage, solo, accompanied by a couple of his Rube Goldberg-esque inventions, the Hornicator and something else whose name is lost to memory. It was something of a triumphant homecoming for the songwriter, now based in London but once a denizen of the late, lamented Tonic scene and a popular attraction here. He has a new album of songs from David Lynch films out, and played a handful of these, often leaping from the stage with his acoustic guitar and darting through the audience, Reverend Vince Anderson style. The best was a haunting version of the Orbison classic In Dreams, swaying along on the pulse of the Hornicator and its primitive echo/reverb effect. For an encore, with Wallfisch on piano, he tossed off a viscerally evil, feedback-driven version of I Put a Spell on You. Let’s hope he brings his menace back sometime sooner rather than later.
Wallfisch, joined by erstwhile Big Lazy bassist Paul Dugan and Botanica violinist Heather Paauwe, then ran through an especially passionate set of new material, surprises and covers, beginning with a knowing, cautionary tale affirming that “nothing is still too much,” set to a crescendoing five-note descending progression. Their cover of the Leonard Cohen classic I’m Your Man channeled a sultry triumph; the centerpiece of Botanica’s forthcoming album Who You Are had a similar exalted feel, albeit infused with classic gospel in place of classic soul. The quasi-official Small Beast theme, Eleganza and Wines was nothing short of exhilarating, Wallfisch effortlessly kicking out a Chopinesque solo before leading the crowd in a brief lesson in 7/8 time. After an angst-fueled Because You’re Gone, he then invited his longtime noir cabaret cohort Little Annie – who wrote it – up to do it again, infusing it with even more gravitas. But then she flipped the script with a brief, characteristically bitingly funny take of her post-rehab narrative The Other Side of Heartache: “If I could have invented an original sin, I would have and shared it with all of you,” the punk rock Eartha Kitt confided to the crowd.
Then they brought up David J. Over the past 25 years, the Bauhaus bassist has built a rich, stylistically diverse body of work that overshadows what he did with his original band. Without his bass, he embraced the role of noir crooner, sinking his fangs into the songs with unabashed relish, imbuing them with equal parts ominous deviousness and offhandedly snarling wit (he can be very funny – a few years ago he did a hilarious cover of Madonna’s What It’s Like for a Girl). He turned an LCD Soundsystem number into Orbisonesque pop, evinced every bit of gleeful menace as he could from Tom Waits’ Dead and Lovely and turned St. James Infirmary into a carnival of dead souls. Boulevard of Broken Dreams was as old-world phantasmagorical as it could have been: at the end, he finally let the audience know that “Bela Lugoi’s dead,” as close as he would come to a Bauhaus song. His lone original of the night, a new one titled Bloodsucker Blues was a caustic dismissal of twelve-step idiocy; he closed with an almost sadistic stalker cover of New York Telephone Conversation, finding yet another level of meaning in what was already a completely tongue-in-cheek lyric. There were other bands on afterward – this was a CMJ event, after all – but by then it was one in the morning and time to find an alternative to the now-dormant F train (FYI – after midnight when the F stops running, the J and M from Delancey will connect you with other trains at both Canal and Fulton). Small Beast returns with Wallfisch and another equally haunting rocker, Randi Russo on November 2 at 9.
Obviously a labor of love for Waxing Deep label head Dan Zacks, this is another album (see our review of the Komeda Project from a couple of days ago) that’s as good as it is important, in the best sense possible. None of these songs, mostly dating from Cuba in the 70s through the 90s, have ever been available in digital form, or for that matter, outside of Cuba. What Zacks and Waxing Deep have done for obscure Cuban funk classics from the 70s here is the equivalent of what The Harder They Come soundtrack was for reggae, or what Olivier Conan and Barbes Records have done for Peruvian chicha music: introducing a western audience to an extraordinary blend of indigenous and rock-influenced sounds never available before outside where they originated. Not only are the Si Para Usted volumes (this one especially) great dance music, they’re also great stoner music. Historical documents have seldom been more fun.
As with Barbes’ The Roots of Chicha, the songs here have been remastered from the original analog tapes, and to the engineers’ infinite credit, the tinniness of the originals (Cubans weren’t exactly working with the latest state-of-the-art gear) has been significantly reduced. If anything, the rudimentary sonics adds to the music’s often quaint, sometimes utterly bizarre charm. What’s saddest is that because of chronic shortages of just about everything, Communist Cuban pressing plants had to compete with just about everyone else who used vinyl, making albums something of a rarity and second pressings virtually nonexistent – as this cd’s extensive and fascinating liner notes make clear, some of the greatest Cuban groups of the era simply didn’t record. Fortunately we have this genre-busting, sometimes woozy document to immortalize some of those who were fortunate to leave something behind.
Because every type of latin music has a groove, the songs here, mostly instrumentals, swing and sway – the herky-jerky beat of American funk doesn’t translate, the result being a strange, sometimes slightly uptight hybrid rhythm similar to Peruvian chicha (a blend of American surf music, Colombian cumbias and indigenous styles). There’s Safari Salvaje by Los Rapidos, a wickedly grooving variant on Barrabas’ Wild Safari featuring some wild prog-rock organ work. There’s the best-ever cover of the Ides of March’s Vehicle, complete with another organ solo that builds from a quote from Bach’s Toccata in D. Cuando Llego a Mi Casa by Los Brito (a native sensation) works a slinky, lushly orchestrated Isaac Hayes vamp for all it’s worth with tasty, jazzy flute.
Another cover, the classic son song Siboney is recast by Los Llamas as Os Mutantes-style psychedelia. Interestingly, the group’s musical director was born in 1929, the same year the original was released, meaning that if he was involved with this particular arrangement (history isn’t clear on this), it would be something equivalent to Benny Goodman making a successful transition to psychedelic rock in the 70s. Other standouts among the fifteen tracks here include the wild, trippy, Electric Prunes-esque El Sueno de Andria by Mirtha y Raul (a popular tv news show couple!), the Sergeant Pepper-style Beatlesque pop of Los Barba’s El Cristal, Grupo los Caribe’s cinematic surf instrumental Andalucia and the album’s concluding track, the utterly hypnotic guanguaco number Para Que Niegas by the still extant Los Papines. Kudos to Waxing Deep for the obviously herculean effort it took to track down these songs. The world is a better place – and a lot more fun – for their efforts.