Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Michael Leonhart Orchestra Bring Their Epic, Ominously Cinematic Soundscapes to the Jazz Standard

The Michael Leonhart Orchestra’s debut album The Painted Lady Suite – streaming at Sunnyside Records – doesn’t concern a medieval femme fatale. The central seven-part suite portays the epic, over-the-North-Pole migration of painted lady butterflies from Mexico to North Africa. Even by the standards of Bernard Herrmann, whose work this album strongly resembles, its mammoth sweep and dark majesty is unrivalled in recent years. The band are bringing it to life with a two-night stand this July 17 and 18 at the Jazz Standard, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $30.

Along with his singer sister Carolyn, the trumpeter/multi-instrumentalist bandleader is the rare child of musical talent (dad is bassist Jay Leonhart) who’s also produced noteworthy material. Beyond the jazz idiom, the vastness of the music echoes an army of influences as diverse as Pink Floyd, Brad Fiedel’s film scores, Steve Reich and Antibalas (some of whose members play on this album).

The big title suite begins lush and lustrous in the Mexican desert, tectonic sheets of brass alternating with a hefty Afrobeat groove anchored by the low reeds, punctuated by Donny McCaslin’s slashingly modal phrasing. From there the swarm moves north over El Paso in a wave of symphonic Morricone southwestern gothic, Nick Movshon’s shamanistic drums and Nels Cline’s menacing psychedelic guitar interspersed amid the big swells.

North Dakota big sky country is the next destination, Sam Sadigursky’s alto sax fluttering uneasily over ambient, ambered brass ambience in a brooding, Roger Waters-esque soundscape. A couple of ferocious “let’s go!” phrases from the whole orchestra signal a move further north to the wilds of Saskatchewan: Philip Glass as played by the Alan Parsons Project, maybe.

As the migration passes through the chill air high above the Arctic Circle, Movshon’s tersely dancing, staccato bass punctuates serene orchestration, then the circling bass melody shifts to the high reeds, Erik Friedlander’s cello and Pauline Kim’s viola peering through the ether.

The suite concludes with nocturnal and then daytime Saharan skyscapes. With its ominous, repetitive siren motives and the bandleader’s echoey, allusively Middle Eastern muted trumpet, the first is awash in dread and mystery. The second builds from a cheerily strutting Afrobeat tune to a blazingly brassy, triumphantly pulsing coda – but the conclusion is too apt to give away.

There are three more tracks on the album. In the Kingdom of M.Q. features dancing, loopy phrases and a little dissociative swirl beneath a bubbly McCaslin solo. The sardonically titled Music Your Grandparents Would Like has a slow, steady sway, tense close harmonies, a crime jazz interlude and a bizarrely skronky Cline guitar solo. The final cut is The Girl From Udaipur, its enveloping wave motion punctuated by allusions to bhangra.

The orchestra lineup is just as epic as the music. The rest of the trumpet section includes Dave Guy, Taylor Haskins, Andy Bush, Carter Yasutake and Andy Gathercole. Ray Mason and Mark Patterson play trombones, with John Altieri on tuba. Matt Bauder, Ian Hendrickson-Smith, Aaron Heick and Cochemea Gastelum round out the sax section, with Charles Pillow on bass clarinet and alto flute. Sara Schoenbeck plays bassoon; Mauro Durante plays violin; Erik Friedlander plays cello. A revolving drum chair also features Homer Steinweiss and Daniel Freedman. In addition to the bandleader, Joe Martin also plays bass, with Mauro Refosco and Leon Michels on percussion.

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July 10, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lee Fields & the Expressions Bring Oldschool Soul to Williamsburg

The trendoid band who opened at the Williamsburg Waterfront Sunday afternoon were as pathetic as expected: uptight, fearful beats, inept guitar, vocals (you couldn’t call it singing) that sounded like a drawl learned from tv rather than in a part of the world where people actually speak with a drawl, and a girl on sax who made Poly Styrene sound like John Coltrane. But wait – this was indie rock. Indie rock isn’t supposed to be good, in fact it’s not even meant to be listened to at all. It’s something you’re supposed to know and take blurry iphone photos of when you see it so you can prove you’re as much of a conformist as the next bedheaded boy. Still, it’s sad that a band like the Highway Gimps were limited to tearing up the back room at Tommy’s Tavern the previous night when they or plenty of other good Brooklyn bands could have torn up a much bigger stage on Sunday, giving Lee Fields a real run for his money.

Fields is a rediscovery, one of the more recent, obscure black performers resurrected by white kids who’ve discovered the magic of oldschool soul music. He started out in the late 60s, reputedly doing a pretty solid James Brown imitation, expanding into other styles as the years went on. He never put out an album til 1979, recording sporadically in the years that followed while plying his trade up and down the eastern seaboard and in the south. Fields’ output is actually more diverse, and has changed with the times, more than was evident during his roughly fifty-minute set. This was the 60s show, and he and the absolutely killer band behind him excelled at it. They all looked sharp – the drummer even wore a tie, and didn’t take it off despite the humidity – and played as if it was Memphis, 1968, the pint-sized Fields resplendent in a white suit that probably dates from that era: stagewear is expensive, you know. The bass played sinuously melodic, fluid grooves while the guitar channeled Steve Cropper at times, augmented by a terrific, understated latin percussionist and an organist who also kept it simple and in the pocket. A lot of the faces up there looked familiar: an Antibalas ringer or two, maybe?

The set mixed long, hypnotic, JB-style one-chord funk grooves with a handful of disarmingly pretty ballads lit up with vividly incisive, jangly guitar. The band opened with a couple of tasty midtempo grooves, then brought up Fields, whose voice has taken on more of a gravelly tinge, but he still worked the crowd as if he was on his home turf – and seemed genuinely grateful for the support from an unusually diverse audience (at least in conservative, whitewashed Bloomberg-era Williamsburg). They did the bitterly defiant kiss-off anthem Gone for Good, a dead ringer for the Godfather of Soul in his classic 60s period, early on. Money Is King, a long vamp that slowly slunk along to a quick couple of chord changes on the turnaround, came across as unselfconsciously hungry and probably resonated with crowds in the 60s and 70s as much as Fitty does these days. On Ladies, an even more simple, direct groove, Fields tried engaging some of the girls in the front row, but they didn’t respond. Quickly, he made a joke out of it, reminding them how lucky their guys must be. The end of the set featured more of the slower and midtempo material, including the evocatively retro My World, the title track to his new album, which wouldn’t have been out of place in the late 60s Smokey Robinson catalog. Fields doesn’t break any new ground and doesn’t really have a signature style of his own, but he knows his history and he should because he was there – and the band sounded like they were too.

August 18, 2010 Posted by | concert, funk music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Top Ten Songs of the Week 7/26/10

OK, we’re a little behind with this but we have not been idle: new NYC concert calendar coming August 1, the 1000 best albums of all time, not to mention 72 albums and two concerts to review. At least. In the meantime here’s this week’s version of what Billboard should be paying attention to: we try to mix it up, offer a little something for everyone, sad songs, funny songs, upbeat songs, quieter stuff, you name it. If you don’t like one of these, you can always go on to the next one. Every link here will take you to the song. As always, the #1 song of the week is guaranteed a spot on this year’s best 100 songs list at the end of December.

1. The Larch – Sub-Orbital Getaway

A masterpiece of catchy paisley underground rock dressed up in a skinny tie and striped suit. From the Brooklyn band’s best album, the brand-new Larix Americana.

2. Devi – When It Comes Down

The psychedelic rockers are giving away this live showstopper as a free download. Doesn’t get any more generous than this!

3. People You Know – Glamour in the Hearts of Many

Go Gos soundalike from the fun, quirky Toronto trio.

4. Wormburner – The Interstate

Long, literate highway epic: it’s all about escape. What you’d expect from a good band from New Jersey (they tore up Hipster Demolition Night this month).

5. The Fumes – Cuddle Up the Devil

Not the Queens ska-rock crew but an Australian band very good at hypnotic pounding Mississippi hill country blues a la RL Burnside or Will Scott. They’re at the Rockwood 8/26-27

6. The Alpha Rays – Guide to Androids

Ziggy-era Bowie epic warped into an early 80s artpop vein from these lyrical London rockers.

7. Fela Original Cast – Water No Get Enemy

A Fela classic redone brilliantly, from the Broadway show soundtrack – then again, it’s what you’d expect from Antibalas.

8. Iron Maiden – God of Darkness

This is the first Iron Maiden – bluesy British metal from 1969!

9. Darker My Love – Dear Author

Faux psychedelic Beatles – funny in a Dukes of Stratosphear vein. Free download.

10. Megan McCullough Li – Blood in the Water

Solo harp and vocals – creepy!

July 29, 2010 Posted by | blues music, lists, Music, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Fela – The Original Broadway Cast Recording

If all the songs featured in the musical were played at their original length, this would be a five-hour box set. That the shortened versions here are worth hearing at all is an achievement. That they’re as fiery, and fun, and as true to the originals as they are, given the constraints of their use in a Broadway show, is nothing short of extraordinary. The original soundtrack to Fela, the most important Broadway show of our time (and arguably the most relevant Broadway show ever) more than lives up to its hype. For fans of world music, this album (just out on Knitting Factory Records) is essential; diehard Fela fans will not be disappointed. The band is killer, which is no surprise since the musicians have been drawn from the collective that started this whole thing, the western world’s best Afrobeat conglomerate, Antibalas. The percussion clatters, the bass slinks, the horns punch and soar. As the show’s star singer, Sahr Ngaujah does a mighty good Fela impersonation, although during the album’s occasional spoken interludes, he comes across far more lucidly and articulately than Fela ever did. Ngaujah eschews any attempt at projecting Fela’s defiant, dangerously stoned vibe: for whatever reason, he sounds a lot like Linton Kwesi Johnson – which is actually not a bad thing at all.

Reducing Fela’s endless, often interminable vamps down to a manageable essence of sometimes as little as three minutes minimizes their original intent – to keep a bunch of stoned dancers on their feet for hours at a time – but the added focus is actually welcome, especially as the musical plays up their importance as revolutionary anthems. The longest number, BID (Breaking It Down) clocks in at just under seven minutes. It’s awfully nice to see the scathing, richly lyrical, double entendre-laden Expensive Shit included here, poop jokes and all, in just under four. Most of the arrangements hew closely to the originals, although a few, notably Zombie and a tense, suspenseful Coffin for Head of State, are somewhat stripped down. The backup singers’ harmonies, most impressive during a lushly arranged and ecstatically delivered Trouble Sleep, are spot-on. Unfortunately, most of the women in the cast come across as dancers who can sing a little rather than singers who can also dance – they share the cookie-cutter, over-the-top, fussily melismatic corporate vocal style that’s been de rigeur since Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis destroyed what was left of black pop in the 1980s. Which is only a problem because the supporting cast get more time out in front of the band than they ever would have if the real Fela was running the show.

But when the group is cooking, Ngaujah is intoning “o-rig-in-al,” wagging his finger at the corrupt bourgeoisie or railing against their thugs, it is a historic occasion: both in terms of Fela’s role as a freedom fighter, and the somewhat improbable success of his music as mass-marketed theatre product. May the triumph of Fela on Broadway be an inspiration and a lesson to producers everywhere: the audience that has embraced this musical, and similarly edgy music, has been vastly underestimated for decades.

June 28, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Dende & Hahahaes – Bahia de Todos os Santos

This is a really good, oldschool style, mostly roots reggae album from a bunch of A-list New York Brazilian musicians. Dende fronts the band and plays percussion, maybe the reason why there’s so much of it and why it’s so high in the the mix. It’s sort of a trebly alternative to the bottom-heavy, rustically and hypnotically drum-flavored sound popularized by Ras Michael back in the 70s, giving the songs a boost of energy and some cool textures you don’t often hear in classic reggae. Behind Dende there’s Gustavo Dantas on guitar, Ze Grey on bass, Adriano Santos on drums and zabumba, Ze Luis on flute and sax, Carlos Darci on trombone, Takuya Nakamura on trumpet and guests Vinicius Cantuaria on guitar and Amayo from Antibalas supplying vocals on one track. Lyrics are in Portuguese.

The album kicks off with a catchy, upbeat roots reggae number, followed by one that wouldn’t be out of place in the Bob Marley catalog. They follow that with a couple of latin grooves, growing more and more hypnotic. Then they pick up the pace with a fast disco beat, and then a ska number with a Message to You Rudie feel followed by a psychedelic, Santana-style organ interlude. There’s also a smoky, vamping, soul-inspired number, a tricky yet hypnotic tropicalia tune with flute and a backward-masked intro, a fast piano-driven number in 11/4 time, a slinky soca-flavored dance song with tinkly piano and festive horns, a majestic yet catchy roots reggae number with echoes of vintage-era Burning Spear and then a jungly, gamelanesque percussion interlude to close it out. Like a summertime vendor selling ices from his cart at Delancey and Clinton, whatever tropical flavor you like, this album has pretty much everything. Dende & Hahahaes’ next New York show is at the Atrium at Lincoln Center on April 15.

April 7, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Spanglish Fly – Latin Soul y Bugalú

This is what Spanish Harlem was rocking to forty years ago. What Sharon Jones did for oldschool soul, what Antibalas did for Afrobeat and what Chicha Libre is doing for chicha, Spanglish Fly is doing for bugalu. It’s what happened when Cuban son melodies collided with Stax/Volt and Motown, with fiery horns and a fat midtempo groove over a latin beat. It was a Nuyorican phenomenon and very popular back in the day. If you know Bang Bang by Joe Cuba, this is the same kind of thing. It’s about time somebody brought this stuff back and it’s a good thing it’s this band because they have authentic sabor with a 5-piece horn section, three percussionists, piano and a rhythm section plus Erica Ramos’ casually alluring, soulful voice soaring over it when there’s room. As dance music, it’s irresistible (at a live show, the group will often offer a free dance lesson for anglos or newschoolers who didn’t have the good fortune to grow up with this).

The cd’s opening track, Think (Pensamiento) is typical of what the old bugalú bands would do, a brand-new latin version of the old James Brown hit with fat low end, tight horns and a suspenseful intensity where the band theatens to completely rip it apart at the end but just manage to keep it together. An original, Latin Soul Stew was obviously made to be played live, with soaring trumpet over an ominous piano groove, the horns coming back in full force after a little vocal break. Another original, by one of the band’s trumpeters Jonny Semi-Colón a/k/a Jonathan Goldman sounds like ska but with a slinkier groove. Like a lot of bugalu hits, it’s a series of trick endings where the intensity builds every time the song comes back, with a gospel-inspired break toward the end. There’s also a joyously rattling cover of the big Ray Barretto crossover hit New York Soul. 

The band is an inspired collection of veteran New York jazzcats: besides Ramos and Goldman, they have Martin Wallace on piano, Mick Santurio on congas, Charly Rodriguez on timbales, Gabo Tomasini on bongos, Atsushi Tsumura on trumpet, Dimitri Moderbacher on bass, Rose Imperato on tenor sax, Jonathan Flothow on bari sax and Sebastian Isler on trombone. Spanglish Fly’s next dance party is April 2 at Camaradas El Barrio, First Ave. and 115th St. at 10 PM; the cd release show is on April 23 at Rose Bar.

March 18, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

CD Review: Aphrodesia – Precious Commodity

The cd cover of Bay Area Afropop dance band Aphrodesia’s new album (available both digitally and on yummy vinyl) depicts an old 1970s vintage boombox in a briefcase, as if it’s been smuggled in from somewhere. Likewise, the music on the new cd has a defiant feel – it’s insanely good to dance to. Aphrodesia earned their cred in the African music community the hard way, touring the continent and eventually being invited by Femi Kuti to play his famous Shrine club in Lagos. Fela and Antibalas are Aphrodesia’s obvious antecedents, but they add their own fiery, relevant lyricism over a delirious, horn-driven dance groove and adrenalizing solos from the whole band. The songs stretch out, moving between styles comfortably but intensely, especially when the horn section is going full blast.

The instrumental that bookends the album has frontwoman Lara Maykovich playing a mbira (thumb piano) through a bunch of loud amps for something of an over-the-top vibraphone effect, a vividly original evocation of the joy of the morning after Election Day, 2008. The cd’s second cut, Special Girl serves as the title track, a sarcastic rail that mocks the fearfulness of mass consumption (and the global sex trade): “Too much to buy in the marketplace,” Maykovich comments sarcastically as the horns soar ecstatically over the hypnotic, busy shuffle of the guitar and percussion. Track three, Make Up Your Mind takes a jazzy Sade-style ballad and transforms it into catchy funk with a characteristically pointed Maykovich lyric and a long, searing backwards-masked guitar solo

Think/Suffer is a big swaying anthem opening with a fiery horn riff, eventually working its way down into a slinky reggae groove with more explosive noise guitar. Friday Night works a catchy, hypnotic, jangly riff: Vampire Weekend only wish they were this tuneful or fun. “Friday night you ask me for a penny, Saturday night I’ll give you a dollar…when I come you say you’re sick; when I go, you say you’re well,” Maykovich relates sardonically. Spiced with playful sax, Say What is a more traditional, hypnotic Afrobeat groove building to a blazing crescendo of horns.

By the Iron kicks off with an insistent reggae beat and an apprehensive horn chart, morphing into a horn-driven Yoruba chant and then back to the reggae with the horns working up a mighty storm. The rest of the cd includes a couple of more straight-up funk numbers, the second even catchier than the first, and the slinky, wah-wah driven, self-explanatory Caminando. Wow! Don’t put this on if you’re planning on falling asleep.  If this album is any indication they ought to be amazing live; watch this space for upcoming NYC dates.

July 28, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mafrika Festival Review: The Superpowers, Pink Noise, the Brown Rice Family, Devi, Konny and Funkface at Marcus Garvey Park, NYC 6/1/08

It’s hard to recall a better outdoor music festival in New York in recent years than this one was. Forget Central Park Summerstage: not that the rent-a-pigs there would ever let you in anyway, in 2008. That Coney Island thing that the Village Voice does every summer? Snooze. Today’s all-day outdoor show at the bandshell in the northwest corner of Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem harkened back to the days of the old First Street festival about ten years ago, where you could sit on the sidewalk, surreptitiously drink beer and see one good band after another. For one reason or another, this one started late, with sets getting shorter as the day went on, the promoters obviously wanting to get everyone onstage and then off for the following band. This year, they really outdid themselves: six good, frequently brilliant bands in just under five hours, from time to time augmented by random rappers, dancers and even a fashion designer who paraded two of her models around the stage to considerable applause.

The Superpowers, an eight-piece reggae-jazz band with a four-piece horn section opened, auspiciously. They don’t sound much like Antibalas but they’re just as good. Best song title of the afternoon belonged to them: American Exceptionalism, the Reason Behind All Good Songwriting, or something to that effect (they were kidding, obviously). Often led by their organist or one of the sax players, they’d go off on a long exploring mission and then come back to a catchy, anthemic roots reggae chorus evocative of greats like Burning Spear. They could have gone on for twice as long as they did and nobody in the audience would have complained.

Next up were Israeli/American indie rock quartet Pink Noise. Like all the other half-million or so sons and daughters of Sonic Youth, they’re all about the guitars, and when they’d gotten both of them roaring and ringing with all kinds of eerie overtones, the effect was very captivating. When they’d go off on some dorky, herky-jerky math-rock tangent, it was vastly less so. They also could have done without any vocals or lyrics and been considerably better off for it. Memo to the frontwoman: when you sing “I’m so unattractive,” over and over again, that’s what you become.

The following act, a Coachella-style, sunny, cheery, Asian roots reggae band went by the name of the Brown Rice Family. Basmati, yes; jasmine, yes yes; Canadian wild rice, yes yes YES. But that awful glutinous stuff served in health food restaurants? Maybe where these guys come from, brown rice means something different than what it is over here. The world’s only reggae band with a ukulele (played by one of the two lead singers) likes happy uptempo tunes so fast that they’re almost ska. Otherwise, they don’t break any new ground. But that’s ok. It dread in a Babylon, music is the universal language, let’s all get up and dance, ad infinitum, we all know that. It never hurts to be reminded.

Psychedelic guitar-driven power trio Devi (whom both of the emcees onstage introduced incorrectly as “Devirock”) had their second chance in as many days to wrestle with an inadequate sound system. This time around they didn’t even get a linecheck, let alone a soundcheck: when they hit the stage, it was plug in and play. But frontwoman Debra DeSalvo knows a thing or two about DIY from her punk rock days with the False Prophets, and the rest of the crew followed her lead. And she finally got the lethargic crowd out of the shadows and paying attention. If the previous night’s set was the band’s attempt at being quiet, this was the party set: a searing, almost ten-minute When It Comes Down, an equally boisterous cover of Dell Shannon’s Runaway and eventually, after DeSalvo had to put up something of a fight to keep the band onstage for a final number, the potently catchy powerpop hit Howl at the Moon. Many of these songs will appear on the band’s debut cd due out this year, something to look forward to.

The festival’s organizers billed the next act, expat Burkina Faso roots reggae singer Koony as someone on the same level as Tiken Jah Fakoly or Alpha Blondy, a claim that seemed laughable. Believe the hype. Koony is that good, and so is his sensational band, his organist inducing more than a few smiles with some amusingly over-the-top Dr. Dre-style synth fills, his superb guitarist, rhythm section and percussionists laying down a groove that was a bulletproof as it was rubbery. Singing in French in a somewhat thin, raspy voice, he also proved to be an excellent lyricist. The high point of his set was the determined, defiant Sept Fois (a pun – it means both “seven times” and “this time” in French). If reggae is your thing, get to know this guy before it costs you $100 to see him at Madison Square Garden.

Funky uptown heavy metal band Funkface got all of three songs but made the most of them: it would have been nice to have heard more from them, which is a compliment. Their first song was totally riff-metal, but their two guitarists share a remarkable self-awareness and sense of humor (in metal, humor is often 99% of it). Their next one revealed them equally good at ska-punk; the last saw them bringing up a couple of enthusiastic gradeschool girls from the audience (someone in the band’s kids?) to get the crowd going on a call-and-response, and this finally got the massive to respond, massively. Their album is titled Your Politics Suck: no doubt the crowd would have been into it.

By now, the clouds that had obscured the sun for most of the afternoon were gone, and both sides of the bleachers, in the shade, were full. A trio of trendoids took the stage and took forever to set up, the guitarist apparently too effete to figure out how to work his guitar. And when the band, the Octagon, finally got going, it was with an attempt at a surf instrumental. For about five seconds, this seemed like a good thing but quickly proved that A) they have an excellent drummer and B) the guitarist doesn’t have a clue. After that, their silly, off-key falsetto vocals and clueless attempts at songwriting gave them away for what they are, imitators of some lame-ass, popular indie band or another: the Flaming Lips, maybe? It’s bands like this that drive the audience out of the house. It would have been nice to be able to stick around to hear the always entertaining, self-described “sonic slayers” Apollo Heights, but they’re on some label, they’re well-known and they’re playing Central Park in July. You probably know them already. Or maybe you will, someday.

June 1, 2008 Posted by | concert, funk music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, reggae music, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

El Grupo del Verano 2008! Chicha Libre Finally Puts Out a CD

This is the cultural artifact of the summer of 2008. It’s the one album released this year that you want to put on if you’re having a party and you want to get everyone’s attention (or impress everybody with your brilliant and eclectic taste): you’ll get plenty of “who’s that?”s. Readers of this space already know plenty about Chicha Libre’s intoxicatingly good live performances at Barbes throughout the past year: now, the party is available for takeout. On their debut cd, Sonido Amazonico, America’s best (and only) chicha band have revived the amazingly danceable, hypnotic, psychedelic sound that was popular in the slums of the Peruvian Andes thirty-five years ago, while adding their own inimitable vision and wit.

Chicha is what resulted when Peruvian bands first heard American surf and psychedelic rock and then added electric instruments, rock arrangements and Caribbean rhythms to their own sound. What Antibalas did with driving, horn-driven African groove music, what Dengue Fever is doing with deliciously psychedelic Cambodian pop, Chicha Libre is doing with chicha. When frontman/cuatro player Olivier Conan first heard the style, he was hooked, to the point where he found himself traveling to South America to track down as many original recordings as he could get his hands on, as well as the elusive musicians who created it. The result was the fascinating anthology The Roots of Chicha, released last year on his label, Barbes Records.

Chicha Libre’s debut mixes instrumentals and vocal numbers, originals as well as deviously crafted cover songs. While in most surf music the guitars carry the melody, in Chicha Libre’s music it’s usually keyboardist Josh Camp’s vintage Hohner Electrovox (a relic from the 70s which is basically an electronic organ with settings that mimic the sound of an accordion) which serves as the lead instrument. In addition to Conan, the rest of the band includes two percussionists, acoustic bass and Barbes co-owner Vincent Douglas playing reverb-drenched, surfy guitar. The result can be haunting, triumphant, celebratory or absolutely mesmerizing, often all in the same song. While just as in surf music, there’s occasional cheese in places, Chicha Libre thankfully tones it down as much as possible. The vocal numbers (in both Spanish and French) are the most overtly humorous songs on the album.

There are so many great songs here. The title track, a hypnotic yet danceable one-chord vamp that builds to a nasty Douglas solo, and Tres Pasajeros, an ominous train-ride theme written by Camp. The amusing Hungry Song plays with the macho posturing found in a lot of latin music. Their cover of the obscure El Borrachito (The Little Drunk Guy) has the narrator asking plaintively in Spanish, “Why are you making fun of me?”

They take the famous Ravel Pavane and chichafy it, breaking it down into dub reggae at one point, then the band starts chanting “pavane, pavane, pavane,” quiet and deadpan in the background while the guitar solos. Indian Summer tips its hat to Serge Gainsbourg in a big way, Conan and las Rubias del Norte frontwoman Allyssa Lamb doing spot-on early 70s ye-ye harmonies over a slinky spy theme. They also cover Hot Butter’s silly synth instrumental hit Popcorn with a sarcastic, punk edge: the Electrovox is out of tune on the highest registers, and there’s a silly bass solo. And then the band adds their own lyrics, a tribute to corn whiskey and weed. The album ends with its best song, a cover of what is probably composer Erik Satie’s signature work, Gnossienne #1 (you’ll recognize it from a million movie soundtracks). As simple as it is macabre, it’s also extremely difficult to play on the piano because Satie deliberately omitted the time signature, leaving the rhythm completely up to whoever’s playing it. Chicha Libre give it a slightly staggered tango pulse, making it as sexy as it is dark. What else is there to say – this is a great album, a must-own if you like psychedelia, right up there with the Vampiros Lesbos soundtrack and Mass in F Minor by the Electric Prunes. Five maduros con queso. The cd is available at better record stores, online and at shows. Chicha Libre play the cd release tonight at Drom at 10; Las Rubias del Norte open the show at 9.

April 4, 2008 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment