Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: Razia – Zebu Nation

Malagasy songwriter/chanteuse Razia Said is on a mission: to raise consciousness worldwide about global warming, specifically the devastation it’s brought to her native land. The zebu of the album title – a member of the horse family – is only one of thousands of species in Madagascar who are in danger of extinction. An extraordinarily successful blend of polemic and music, this is a lush, hypnotic, frequently beautiful album, grounded in reality but at the same time transcending it. Said sings in several dialects, as well as one song in English, with a compellingly world-weary, highly nuanced voice that’s been compared to Sade but gentler and airier. On several of the tracks here, the somewhat more energetic but less subtle singer Abena Koomson handles the vocals, along with the rest of a first-rate band: noted jazz drummer Obed Calvaire, bassist Michael Oletuja, Malagasy guitarist Dozzy Njava and accordionist Rabesiaka Jean Medicis. Said’s songwriting mixes traditional tsapiky and salegy music along with elements of American soul and Mediterranean balladry.

Said’s story is something of a triumph: growing up in the Comores Islands with her grandmother, she never knew who her real mother was until she was already in grade school. Her first exposure to music was the salegy songs of the Comores; while still a gradeschooler, she began singing French pop hits and then rock. She moved to Gabon and then France, earned a doctorate in pharmacology and eventually landed in New York where she flirted with several pop styles, unsatisfyingly. This is a return to her roots. The album kicks off with the clip-clop Babonao, a love song (available for free download from Cumbancha), followed by the absolutely gorgeous, wary minor-key ballad Omama, a tribute to motherhood. The band follows that with a lickety-split antiwar song and then the celebratory Salamalama Aby. The best song on the album is the understatedly magnificent epic NY Alantsika (Nature Laments), the first of the numbers sung by Said herself: with its stately 6/8 rhythm and lush atmospherics, it’s a call to action, a gently, compellingly persuasive one.

The hypnotic Slash and Burn takes on a south Indian feel with its circular rhythms and sitar, another gentle but insistent broadside, this one about deforestation: “I heard that the hills were burned away,” muses Said. Koomson and Njava join voices on the distantly melancholy Tsy Tara: “It’s not a malediction, but an urgent call; let’s react now so we won’t regret,” is the translation in the album’s meticulously detailed liner notes. The album winds up with a gentle acoustic guitar ballad, a requiem for an area that once was not a desert; the most Sade-esque number here, Tiaka Ro, a plea to the earth not to unleash disasters on us, and the slinky, West African-inflected wah-guitar anthem Mifohaza (Wake Up). The Clash used to make relevant, topical albums like this: Zebu Nation is considerably quieter but no less timely and important.

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July 12, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Ana Moura – Leva-Me Aos Fados

The title of fado sensation Ana Moura’s latest album translates as “take me to the fado club” in Portuguese. What is fado? The national music of Portugal, sad acoustic guitar ballads of lost love and longing typically sung by women. The influence of iconic chanteuse Amalia Rodrigues is everywhere here, from the spiky string band arrangements (although these are significantly pared down), to the way Moura’s slightly breathy voice takes on an insistent, sometimes accusatory edge at the end of a phrase. Which enhances the plaintiveness of the songs (most of them by popular guitarist/producer Jorge Fernando) – fado (Portuguese for “fate”) is all about loneliness and transcending it. Behind her, Fernando’s playing blends seamlessly, often hypnotically with Portuguese guitarist Custodio Castelo, along with Felipe Larsen on electric bass. To say that an album is good to fall asleep to is typically an insult, but as wee-hours music, fado is unbeatable, and this cd fits right in – it’s already gone platinum in Moura’s native land.

Like a lot of stylized genres – blues, funk and reggae to name a few – fado is frequently self-referential. What kind of fado is she singing? She’s feeling fado, she wants to go out to hear some – or sing some. The narrator in the opening title cut just wants to go out and lose herself in the music; in the scurrying dance that follows, she sees her recent breakup as inevitable, in the commercials on tv, in newspaper headlines and even the law. The slow ballad Por Minha Conta (On My Own) ends as “the voice of a silent scream wants to know me.” But all is not despair: the bouncy Caso Arrumado (The End of the Affair) reminds the lover who abandoned her that there will be no second chance, and the concluding cut, Na Palma de Mao (In the Palm of Your Hand) is a warning, essentially, don’t play with me because you’re playing with fire. If most of this sounds much the same, that’s because it’s supposed to: no drum machines, no heavy metal guitar, just plenty of simple poignancy. It’s out now on World Village Music.

May 25, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Monika Jalili – Elan

This might be the best world music album of the year, a frequently haunting, unabashedly romantic collection of popular acoustic songs from Iran from the era before the mullahs took over after the fall of the Shah in 1979 (to call what happened there a revolution is revolting). New York-born Monika Jalili comes from a musical theatre background, which makes sense when you hear her clear, minutely nuanced soprano, to which she’s expertly added the trademark ornamentation of Iranian classical song, using a delicate vibrato which often trills off at the end of a phrase for emphasis. The songs, mostly dating from the 60s and 70s, combine the austere microtonality of traditional Iranian music with the vivid emotionality of French chanson and a lush Mediterranean romanticism. Jalali sings in Persian and Azeri as well as English and French on two songs. The musicianship is equally nuanced and haunting: for this album, her second collection of songs from Iran, she’s enlisted the extraordinary New York-based oudist/composer Mavrothi Kontanis as well as his bandmate Megan Gould on violin, Erik Friedlander on cello, Riaz Khabirpour on acoustic guitar, Marika Hughes on cello and Silk Road Project percussionist Shane Shanahan. To call their performance inspired is an understatement.

Jalili communicates an intense sense of longing on the opening track, Ghoghaye Setaregan (Dance of the Stars), a jangly cosmopolitan ballad in 6/8 with incisive violin. Arezooha (Wishes) evokes 60s French folk-pop with sparse violin and cello behind Jalili’s subtle vocals. Gonjeshgake Ashi Mashi (Little Sparrow) is not a Piaf tribute but an upbeat take of an old folksong, done anthemically with some stirring oud work by Kontanis and the string section.

Ay Rilikh (Separation) is masterfully evocative, Gould’s violin dark and distant with reverb, a chilling contrast with Jalili’s warm interpretation. The upbeat, happy medieval folk dance Evlari Vaar (To Bemaan) has an almost Britfolk feel; by contrast, Biya Bare Safar Bandim (Let’s Be on Our Way) has a slightly Asian tinge, especially on the vocals. Kontanis’ oud holds it to the ground as Gould’s violin soars skyward, Jalili following in turn and then adding some spectacularly flashy vocalese at the end.

Peyke Sahari (Messenger of Dawn) builds to a crescendo with a haunting three-chord descending progression at the end of the verse, illuminated by a beautiful string chart that grows more insistent. The mood turns in a considerably brighter direction with the coy, percussive, bolero-ish Bia Bia Benshin (Come Sit by Me), Kontanis and Gould again taking brief but memorable turns on the bridge. The cd ends with its best song, the darkly swaying, dramatic Ay Vatan (Oh, My Homeland):

Freedom’s here, not in the distance
Oh, my land…
You’re the hero, oh this madness
Oh, my land,

Jalili wails delicately over Kontanis’ eerily swooping oud riffs. The ensemble takes it out with an elegantly fluttering, understatedly chilling conclusion. With the people of Iran uniting against the repression of the past thirty years, there could not be a more auspicious time for this album to come out: the anthem for the next real Iranian revolution could be on it. Watch for this high on the list of the best albums of 2009 here at year’s end.

September 4, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

CD Review: Grand Atlantic – How We Survive

The way “Brisbane’s favorite power-pop band” Grand Atlantic survive is by writing catchy songs. This is the excellent album Oasis should have done after What’s the Story Morning Glory but didn’t. True to their name, Grand Atlantic go after big, towering hooks. They know that hit songs are simple, and they keep them that way – this is the kind of album you’ll be humming despite yourself after you’ve heard it once. As terse as the writing is, the production has a massive, big-room 90s feel, with a ton of guitar overdubs ringing, pinging, clanging and crashing in their allotted spaces. What hits you right off the bat is how smartly and tastefully this has been assembled.

The album gets going with Coast Is Clear, a midtempo, harmony-driven escape anthem which sets the tone for the rest of the cd. Tripwires introduces the band’s other specialty, crunchy riff-rock, here spiced with some clever retro 80s synth patches. The big hit here, obviously, is She’s a Dreamer, which could be Oasis but thankfully without the coked-out poser attitude and all those pilfered Beatles licks (you can hear it right now on their myspace). The upbeat post-Oasis vibe continues on Freeway and its tasty layers of guitar.

The title track, interestingly enough, goes back in time another twenty years for a sort of Badfinger ballad feel. After that, the Rickenbackers kick in with some tasty jangle and clang on the sarcastic sha-la-la power-pop number Used to Be the Sensitive Type. There’s also a satisfying, electric piano-flavored dis of a gold-digging woman, a garage rock number, and the pensive anthem These Are the Times, a feast of textures with the Rickenbacker adding gorgeously echoey accents above the roar. Finally, on the last song, there are some Beatles echoes, specifically, Lennon’s Imagine. Otherwise, this is great driving music, great loud party music and something that could easily take off internationally. Keep your eyes on Grand Atlantic whether you’re in the antipodes or somewhere north of there. Oz fans can see the band live next at 8 PM on August 29 at the Coolangatta Hotel on the southern end of the Gold Coast, corner of Warner Street & Marine Parade in Coolangatta, Qld.

August 17, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Song of the Day 7/11/09

Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Saturday’s song is #382:

Jenifer JacksonAfter the Fall

A slowly swaying, actually pretty mesmerizing, artsy country ballad, with that warm, gentle voice singing your pain away:

Love is an ocean

Love is a stone

Love is a wish that you make on your own

If all of these ghosts would just leave me alone

I know that I could be free

From Birds, 2002; the link in the title above is the stream at last.fm.

July 11, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 7/5/09

Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Sunday’s song is #388:

Ellen FoleyIndestructible

Singer/actress Foley rode her famous cameo on the Meatloaf monstrosity Paradise by the Dashboard Light to considerable European top 40 popularity before hooking up with Mick Jones. He and Joe Strummer produced, wrote and played on her 1981 lp Spirit of St. Louis (she’s from there) – it’s the great lost Clash album. This is one of its most riveting moments, a slow, wrenchingly haunting ballad written by frequent Strummer collaborator and violinist Tymon Dogg. Foley continues to record and play the occasional New York show. The link in the title above is a video from Hungarian tv; mp3s are kicking around if you do some digging.

July 5, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 5/28/09

Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Thursday’s song is #426:

Penelope Houston – Voices

Slow, haunting, 6/8 ballad from the Avengers’ frontwoman’s excellent 1986 acoustic solo debut album Birdboys (still available on cd and high quality cassette!). It’s an ominous meditation on getting old – which Houston seems incapable of becoming.

May 28, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 4/23/09

Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Thursday’s song is #461:

The Alan Parsons Project – Day After Day

About 35 years ago, British songwriter/keyboardist Eric Woolfson wrote a song cycle based on several Edgar Allan Poe short stories (hey, don’t laugh, it was the 70s). One thing led to another and it ended up being recorded in 1976 by a group featuring most of the powerpop band Pilot, put together by producer Alan Parsons (hence the name). The lp, Tales of Mystery & Imagination, was a surprise hit, so the group decided to follow it up with a vaguely sci-fi themed, more pop-oriented one, I Robot, that spawned a couple of big radio singles and established the band as a sort of poor man’s Pink Floyd for the next eight years or so. This is its centerpiece, a beautifully wistful 6/8 ballad about looking for lost time. 

April 23, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Mariza – Terra

Terra, the fifth album by Portugal’s “Queen of Fado” coincides with a marathon 47-city US tour kicking off on Valentine’s Day in Chicago which should vault the chanteuse from cult status here [scroll down to the next paragraph if you’re familiar with fado music]. Fado, meaning “fate” is the national music of Portugal, dark, troubled ballads sung by women with an ache in their voices. Fado is characterized most overtly by “suadade,” a uniquely indigenous term whose translation falls somewhere between angst, longing and sentimentality, all qualities which show up here in droves. On this album, Mariza is backed by a tasteful acoustic backing unit including six- and twelve-string guitar, upright bass, piano and drums. There’s a little bolero feel here as well as a somewhat noir cabaret sensibility and a few songs that stray toward more modern pop territory, with the omnipresent twelve-string adding an otherworldly, eerily ringing edge.

As can be expected, laments comprise much of this cd, most notably Já Me Deixou (Now It’s Left Me) and Alma De Vento (Soul of the Wind), with their dark swaying relentlessness. The most striking number on the album is Beijo De Saudade (Sentimental Kiss), its catchy 12-string melody set against restrained muted trumpet, the vocals getting all smoky on the second verse. It’s based on a poem by a famous Cape Verde poet, written as he lay dying in his hospital bed in Portugal, badly missing his native land. There’s also more upbeat material including the bouncy Rosa Branca (White Rose), whose narrator finds she’s danced so much that the flower she’s been wearing has fallen to pieces: “If you love roses so much why don’t you love me?” she inquires exasperatedly. As can be expected, the strongest songs here are the more traditional numbers: when they edge toward a more overtly commercial, contemporary American sound, both singer and band sound a little out of their element. The cd ends on a particularly haunting note with Morada Aberta (My Door Is Open), where Mariza asks the river to rise up and wash away every physical and metaphorical trace of the past.

There’s also a “secret” track here, an English-language cover of the old pop standard Smile that doesn’t add anything. That one song aside, this music is nothing if not edgy. If the whole American noir crowd, i.e. your Nick Cave, Botanica and Dresden Dolls fans can be wooed, Mariza will have a massive crossover fan base on her hands. Here’s to casting the first stone. Mariza’s American tour kicks off on 2/14 at 8 PM at Orchestra Hall, Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave. in Chicago.

February 3, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Paul Wallfisch and Abby Travis at the Delancey, NYC 1/22/09

Botanica frontman/keyboardist Paul Wallfisch has taken over booking Thursdays upstairs at the Delancey, effectively creating one of the very few “must-see” nights anywhere in the New York rock scene, especially considering that for the time being it’s free. Simply put, New York hasn’t had a consistent home for intelligent, challenging rock and rock-related music since Tonic closed two and a half years ago. With this new series, playfully titled Small Beast, Wallfisch aims to change that. Typically, he starts the evening solo on piano, perhaps introducing a guest or two and then bringing up the night’s featured artist or artists.

 

In a fascinating if all-too brief forty minutes, Wallfisch ran through a set that illustrated pretty much every style his band plays: an eerie, carnivalesque tune; a fast, scurrying ragtimish number, a noir minor-key blues and the pretty, impressionistic A Matter of Taste, with echoes of the Strawbs’ classic New World on the chorus: “I’m not the tragic figure I once was,” he sang nonchalantly. Then he launched into the gorgeous lament Eleganza and Wines (from Botanica’s most recent US release, Berlin Hi-Fi) and as usual, he used it as a lesson in 7/8 time, getting the crowd to clap and stomp along and for the most part this was successful. Who says American audiences don’t understand anything other than 4/4, anyway? He closed with a Jacques Brel cover and then the fiery, politically charged gypsy rocker How and finally took the solo that everybody’d been waiting for, part high romantic anguish, part sly Tom Waits blues.

 

Torchy balladeer Abby Travis followed with a gorgeously melodic, frequently riveting, mostly solo show. A striking presence on the small stage, she held the crowd rapt through almost an hour’s worth of songs. As well-known a sidewoman (she’s made a living playing bass on tour with innumerable big-name acts) as she is a songwriter, she impressed as much with her writing and her vocals as with her chops. The obvious comparison is Jeff Lynne: like the ELO mastermind, Travis welds an ironclad pop intelligence to a big dramatic sensibility, in her case part classical and part noir cabaret. “I look in the mirror and see myself dead,” she sang on the first of several big anthems, dramatic yet understatedly so: impressive as her range is and as much as she likes to leap around and belt, she doesn’t overdo it and that only adds to her songs’ considerable suspense. The best song of the night was a new number, Lulu, a lush, crescendoing anthem that built to a chorus rich with subdued longing and anguish, a tune that wouldn’t have been out of place on Out of the Blue or A New World Record.

 

After a few more on piano, she switched to bass. The idea of just bass and vocals might sound supremely boring, but Travis gave a clinic in smart, tuneful playing. With a muscular, fluidly melodic style, she demonstrated effortless command of every weapon in a good bassist’s arsenal – chords, slides, hammer-ons and vibrato – without wasting a single note or inflection, on an original and then a stunningly good cover of I Put a Spell on You. The world may be full of great bass players, but this was really something special.

 

Then she brought up Wallfisch to take over the keys on the beautiful, regretful anthem Now Was and then another big, torchy original, Hangover Flower: “Your seeds are lying on my bed, the hangover flower is in bloom,” she sang with nonchalant, breathy sarcasm. Travis then went out the way she came in, solo on piano with yet another big 6/8 ballad possibly titled Our Last Ride. Travis makes much of her material available generously via her podcast; New Yorkers who remember the glory day of Lisa Lost’s noir pop band DollHouse about eight years ago will love Travis’ stuff. Readers in the LA area ought to go check out her upcoming show on Feb 3 at the Cavern Club, 1920 Hyperion Ave in Silverlake.

January 24, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, small beast | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment