Spring cleaning has its rewards. Pretty much every attempt to clean up the server at Lucid Culture HQ causes strange and sometimes beautiful things to float to the surface. Case in point: this album. The media kit file wouldn’t open and went into the trash, but the tracks remained. A listen to the first song was addictive – it was impossible to stop with the next track, and the one after that. The first begins with a long, flamenco-tinged bass solo, of all things. Flamenco guitar follows it, solo, darkly atmospheric rather than all melodramatic like the Gipsy Kings, with the thump of a cajon in the background. It’s basically a modal vamp on a couple of chords, the guitar with a harplike clarity and articulation. What was this magical music and who was playing it?
A little googling revealed the answer: back in October, legendary jazz bassist Dave Holland joined forces with Spanish gypsy flamenco guitarist Pepe Habichuela and his son Joseli (of crossover flamenco group Ketama) along with a percussionist, and put out this tremendously cool album, simply titled Hands. As it turns out, this is the result of a rather long process, Holland seeking to immerse himself in flamenco and become a good flamenco bassist rather than trying to jazz up the music, sometimes playing vocal lines on his bass. To his credit, not only did he become a good flamenco bassist, he keeps very good company. Although this is a pretty straight-up flamenco album, there are other influences here, especially Brazilian. What’s most striking is how judicious and thoughtful the guitar is, and how unpredictable the compositions are. There are crescendos to big choruses, but no cliches, and also no grand guignol, and a lot of counterintuitive touches. For example, on Camaron (“Shrimp”), Habichuela essentially plays an indie rock melody, Holland responding with a long, aptly cantabile solo. Then, on El Ritmo Me Lleva (“The Beat Moves Me”), the two guitars and bass follow a rhumba beat, with an airy, almost Pat Metheny-ish feel.
The title track starts out hinting at samba but quickly goes back to a tersely bristling flamenco groove, following an absolutely delicious, un-flamencoish chord progression and then a long, pensive bass solo that again stays solidly in flamenco territory. Likewise, Holland mimics the guitars on the most traditional number here, Puente Quebrao. Habichuela offers a solo guitar tribute to his new bass-playing friend; Joyride, by Holland, is the gentlest, most Brazilian-inflected tune here. There’s also the joyously crescendoing, tango-tinged Subi la Questa; Holland’s Whirling Dervish, a spotlight for Josemi’s rapidfire fretwork, and the rippling closing track. What a fun discovery at close to midnight on a work night – it’s less like being transported to a sangria-fueled gypsy campfire than to Holland’s studio where this beautifully intricate stuff began life.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Tuesday’s album is #658:
The Congos – Heart of the Congos
Considered to be dub producer genius Lee “Scratch” Perry’s finest hour, this 1977 roots reggae classic was reissued as a double cd in 1993 along with a handful of rare, consistently excellent, absolutely psychedelic dub versions of original album tracks. The harmony trio’s lead singer Cedric Myton’s falsetto soars over the oldschool backing unit, including Boris Gardiner on bass and Ernie Ranglin on guitar, as Perry moves one instrument and then another through the mix, twisting and turning them inside out, sometimes breaking it down to just the drums or the bass, everything drenched in reverb. The songs run the gamut: from the remake of the old mento song Fisherman (complete with a basso profundo shout-out to a local herb dealer); the hypnotic chant Congoman; the gospel-influenced Open Up the Gate, Sodom and Gomorrow and Can’t Come In; the sufferahs’ anthems La La Bam Bam (Jamaican patwa for “clusterfuck”) and Children Crying; and the Rasta anthems Ark of the Covenant, Solid Foundation and At the Feast. Here’s a random torrent.
Guitarist Xander Naylor made an impact with his completely unhinged, ferocious work on Ben Syversen’s Cracked Vessel album last year. He’s also a tremendously interesting writer, in an individual style that spans jazz, rock, funk and plain old brutal noise. On the expansive ep by his trio PinkBrown, he’s joined by saxophonist Johan Andersson and drummer Max Jaffe for an intuitively conversational, fascinating mix of composition and improvisation. Which is which? Trying to figure that out is a lot of fun. There’s so much going on here, yet so little in places: shifting from full-bore assault to wispy minimalism, the band deliver the kind of performance that you can play along to as you listen. It’s all about interplay rather than simply trajectory: they’re playing as a unit, rather than everybody shooting from the three-point line.
The first track here, Octagon begins with washes of feedback over a stiff martial beat, joined by sireening sax, skronky pinging Daniel Ash reverb droplets and then some guitar torture as the drums loosen and slide into funk. The sax joins the melee and suddenly the melee is over, replaced by an austere, minimalist section kicked off by Naylor, sax and drums joining in gingerly. The sparse atmospherics expand, a spacious mysteriousness pervades until Naylor makes his way back with big, sunburnt, sustained chords and the most memorably tuneful passage here. They wind it down gracefully and quietly. That’s the first eleven minutes of the album.
Track two, According to Taste is all about conversations and loud/soft contrasts. They begin wry and chirpy until Naylor’s frets catch fire and then extinguish by themselves. A single, simple noir riff appears; austerely chiming minimalism grows almost imperceptibly to a brief skronk interlude, then back down again, skeletal and whispery. A stomping anthem in disguise grows out of it, drums being the secret weapon here. They go out with a quick machine-gun volley. The third cut, Undisembowled, is a blistering instrumental that wouldn’t be out of place in the King Crimson catalog circa 1976. Beginning as staggered, metal-toned riff-rock, Andersson jostles Naylor tentatively and then a brief battle ensues, spacy feedback reverb guitar against sostenuto sax. Then Naylor trades 21st century schizoid riffs with the drums, sax and guitar go off into separate corners and bludgeon something and then return in unison to go out with a triumphant funk/metal chorus. Count this as one of the more enjoyably captivating albums so far this year. PinkBrown play an in-store show at Downtown Music Gallery at 7 on May 15.
Like Elliott Smith’s From a Basement on the Hill, Jay Bennett’s final album Kicking at the Perfumed Air is unfinished. Yet it’s still relatively polished, and a cruel reminder of what we lost when Bennett died in May of 2009. One of this era’s greatest talents in any style of music, the ex-Wilco multi-instrumentalist could play pretty much any instrument and could write pretty much anything as well. And his songwriting was only getting stronger. We picked his previous, solo acoustic album Whatever Happened, I Apologize – issued a couple of months before his death by insurgent Chicago netlabel rockproper – as one of that year’s best. And over two years later, our review of that album remains one of the ten most popular articles in the history of this website. Despite a chronic back condition that required him to take the pain medication that ultimately killed him, this album is the reverse image of the previous one: upbeat, fun and often very funny, it puts to rest any claim that Bennett might have been a suicide.
There are a couple of stark acoustic tracks, just guitar and voice, that revert to the vibe of the previous album. When Heaven Held the World, a sad country ballad, ends on an unexpectedly hopeful note, while Footprints somewhat grimly recalls an affair with someone who “only left footprints on my heart…you were just her to take pictures.” There are also a couple of first-rate collaborations with Bennett’s longtime pal Edward Burch: Second-Last Call, a raucous country blues that paints a sarcastic, surreal barroom scene, and Twice a Year, a lament which despite its roughness has layers of piano and acoustic guitar that are absolutely exquisite. The title track of sorts is a cover of the Boomtown Rats’ classic Diamond Smiles, done as oldtime country with layers of acoustic guitars, piano bass and mandolin that only enhance the song’s brutal sarcasm: in this one the spoiled suicide girl grew up on a plantation. There’s a marvelous rumble after Bennett reminds that “love is for others but me it destroys,” and a LOL funny ending.
The best song here is Mirror Ball, a gorgeously lush, distantly Big Star influenced psychedelic pop ballad. It’s as good as anything Alex Chilton ever wrote, a bartender’s remembrance of a star he never knew. Hotel Song is another gorgeous one, a big towering ballad with watery Leslie-speaker guitar in the background, Bennett playing agile Stax/Volt leads and finally a pretty unhinged, icepick solo over Jason Sipe’s blistering, sustained power chords. There’s also a funky, Afrobeat-flavored number, a Dylanesque chamber-pop ballad, the bitter, rustic waltz Chamber Physics and a tribute to beer funnier than anyone else’s since Tom T. Hall did I Like Beer in 1975.
So why didn’t we review this when it came out over a year ago? At this point, it’s impossible to remember. Yes, we were remiss: this is our atonement. Download it for free from rockproper and be grateful they put this out.
In her interview here a couple of weeks ago, eclectic chanteuse Meklit Hadero affirmed her interest in cross-pollination, not only musically, but across cultural boundaries. At her show last Sunday at the Skirball Center at NYU (where she’s currently artist-in-residence), she reaffirmed her dedication to both goals. It takes nerve to open a show a-cappella, but Hadero pulled it off without breaking a sweat. There are plenty of women with beautiful voices out there, few who deserve comparison to Nina Simone and Hadero is one of them. Part oldschool soul, part jazz, part Ethiopian folk, her music defies category because it’s so different from anything else out there. Occasionally singing in Amharic, she charmed the audience with a jaunty proto-Afrobeat theme that translated loosely as “I like your Afro;” another, like a vocal counterpart to Hamza Al Din’s Water Wheel, celebrated bucolic Ethiopian farm life, in many ways unchanged from how it’s been for millennia.
Much of Hadero’s music is quiet, but it’s also unusually earthy and rhythm-oriented. She likes low tonalities, and it showed, with four incisive, sometimes sly bass solos from Keith Witty. Hadero also plays acoustic guitar more as a rhythm instrument, like her vocals, quiet and determined and steady. It’s always a treat to hear trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, who contributed characteristically spacious yet almost minimalistically jewelled lines, both with and without a mute. As she frequently does, Hadero put down her guitar and backed by just trumpet, bass and drums, ran through a mix of pensive yet warm material from her most recent album On a Day Like This…, including a jazzy, swinging version of the popular title track, the vividly sunny, funky Soleil Soleil – written after “forty days of rain,” Hadero told the crowd – as well as some unreleased material, including the unselfconsciously wry yet torchy Mixed Message Men that she used to close the show on a high note.
Other material took on a lush atmospheric vibe – “Like sleeping in the sun on a feather bed,” Hadero smiled – enhanced by some luscious arrangements for two-cello string quartet featuring both Analissa Martinez and Jennifer de Vore along with Tarrah Reynolds on violin and Eva Gerard on viola. It was the perfect vehicle for Hadero’s unselfconsciously warm delivery. Some singers work hard to engage the audience: with a jaunty blue note springing out of a velvety, hushed phrase, Hadero lets them come to her. She’s got an ongoing residency on Wednesdays at 4 PM this month at the Lincoln Center Atrium, where she’s engaging some eclectic artists (including members of ecstatically fun Ethiopian groove unit Debo Band on the 27th) in both music and conversation along with Q&A from the audience.