Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Jolly Boys Surpass Expectations

The Jolly Boys’ new album Great Expectations – their first in possibly decades – might be the year’s funniest release. The octogenarian Jamaican band – who used to serenade Errol Flynn back in the 50s – plays mento, the folk music that gave birth to calypso, ska and eventually reggae. Where the Easy Star All-Stars have fun doing reggae versions of Pink Floyd and Radiohead, the Jolly Boys have just released an album of rock songs – most of them standards, with a few obscurities – done with vocals, banjo, acoustic guitar and stompbox. It’s hilarious and it’s totally punk rock even if it’s 100% acoustic – and the music is pretty good, too. The lead singer can’t hit the high notes, but that’s part of the fun – and it’s not as if he isn’t trying his best. Is this exploitation? No, it’s satire.

One of the funniest things about it is that you get to hear the lyrics clearly. The most brutal version here is Blue Monday, a synth-disco hit for New Order in 1986. Stark, rustic and the most punk track here, what’s obvious from the first few nonsensical lines is what a truly moronic song this is. It’s the one point on the album where you can sense that the band can’t wait to get this over with. Strangely, Golden Brown, a slick 1985 British pop hit by the Stranglers, isn’t funny – it’s as boring as the original. The rest is a long series of WTF moments. “Just a perfect day, drinking Bailey’s in the park,” rasps frontman/guitarist Albert Minott as the upbeat, bouncy version of the Lou Reed song gets underway – is that the actual lyric? Riders on the Storm is hilarious: “From the top to the very last drop,” Minott announces, obviously aware of who sang it the first time around. And their version of You Can’t Always Get What You Want is every bit as interminable as the original, if not as annoying, Jagger’s fifth-rate Dylan impersonation naked and ugly in the stripped-down arrangement.

But not everything here is as cruel. There are two Iggy songs. The Passenger is just plain great, and the band responds joyously; Nightclubbing is reinvented as a banjo tune, where somebody takes a mean pickslide after Minott announces that “We learn dances like the Nuclear Bomb.” The Nerves’ (and later Blondie’s) Hanging on the Telephone is a period reference that fits the band perfectly; Steely Dan’s Do It Again is the least recognizable of all the songs; by contrast, I Fought the Law and Ring of Fire could both have been mento originals, considering how many influences it shares with oldtime American C&W. The most bizarrely amusing track here is the Amy Winehouse hit Rehab, which has to be heard to be appreciated (and has a clever video streaming at the band’s site). The album closes with three deviously aphoristic mento standards: the cautionary tale Dog War, the slyly metaphorical Night Food, and a hypnotic, harmony-driven version of Emmanuel Road. It’s safe to predict that many of these songs will end up on late-night mixes at bars and parties throughout the next few years and, who know, maybe for a long time. The Jolly Boys have been around for more than half a century and show no sign of going away.

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May 3, 2011 Posted by | folk music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 8/10/10

Every day, we count down the 1000 best albums of all time all the way to #1. Tuesday’s album is #903:

Ernest Ranglin – Wranglin’

The preeminent Jamaican guitarist, Ernest Ranglin had led probably hundreds if not thousands of calypso and ska sessions by the time he recorded this album, only the second where he’d been credited as a bandleader. The original 1964 Island Records lp did not sell well and has been out of print for decades, but is happily still available as a bootleg, if a somewhat dodgy sounding one. Ranglin’s career began almost fifty years, during the age of calypso yard sessions (and the birth of what would become hip-hop twenty-five years later). He was probably in the studio, maybe playing, when Lloyd Knibb of the Skatalites invented the one-drop, which would transform ska into rocksteady and then into reggae. Ranglin served as Jimmy Cliff’s musical director throughout his 70s heyday, then mined a frequently transcendent reggae-jazz collaboration with pianist Monty Alexander in the 80s and 90s. Now almost eighty, he retains the vigor and vitality of a player fifty years younger. This album shows how developed his jazzy, Les Paul-influenced style had become by the early sixties, replete with whispery, lightning-fast filigrees that switch in a split-second into frenetic tremolo chords and then back again. Here he sticks with a straight-up 4/4 beat, taking British bassist Malcolm Cecil and drummer Alan Ganley into the Caribbean sun for a characteristically warm, expansive jaunt through a mix of originals and old mento standards like Linstead Market and Angelina. You can download it here.

August 10, 2010 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

El Pueblo Take You to the Islands

The cover image of El Pueblo’s new cd, a map of the Caribbean, pretty much says it all: they play just about every style of reggae ever invented, including some they can take credit for coming up with themselves. And they do it well: if their new album, Isla, is any indication, they could stretch pretty much all of these tracks out into mind-warping psychedelic dub. It’s a mix of instrumentals and vocal numbers in both Spanish and English, featuring Robert Julian’s skanking reverb guitar, Lucas Leto’s shuffling drums, Kevin Sherman’s tasteful bass and Jeremy Danneman’s warmly balmy alto sax along with guest Danny LoPresti’s bubbling organ on two tracks. For the instrumentals, the obvious comparison is the Augustus Pablo classic East of the River Nile, if you substitute sax for the melodica and take the energy level up about a hundred degrees. The songs are a strikingly original blend of roots reggae with edgy rock en Español tinges, frontman Chino Sing’s casual, laid-back presence a perfect match with the band.

The album opens with its most dub-flavored track, Babylon Is a Chain Gang, textures rising and falling out of the mix Lee “Scratch” Perry style – and then they suddenly come out of the smoky cloud with sunny sax. They follow it with the first of two chorus box-driven reggae-pop tunes and then Dejate Llevar, which is catchy and Marleyesque, like something off the Kaya album, with a sly wah-wah guitar solo. Cabarete sounds like a vintage Skatalites instrumental gone halfspeed, with Danneman’s low, sultry clarinet taking the lead. One of the best songs here is the workingman’s anthem Babylon System Slave: “Don’t talk to me about freedom,” Sing asserts, not with 40 hours of misery looming in the week ahead. The other is the absolutely gorgeous El Capata, a swinging, hypnotic, Americana-tinged ballad rich with jangly, clinking acoustic guitar textures. There’s also the title cut, a big, guitar-fueled reggae anthem, a couple of playful, fun dub-tinged instrumentals, the lively ska jam Tatica’s Town and the closing track, The Ocean, a thoughtful reggae-rock ballad with gentle waves of reverb guitar. What a fun summertime album. El Pueblo play Shrine uptown on 8/27 at 9 PM.

August 7, 2010 Posted by | latin music, Music, reggae music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Tito Gonzalez – Al Doblar La Esquina

For those who love oldschool latin music, this is a straight shot of rum. For those who discovered it via the Buena Vista Social Club, it’s…hmm…a good mojito. Cuban expat tres (Cuban guitar) player and singer Tito Gonzalez is a feel-good story: he got to see the world as a commercial fisherman, drove a cab, studied under Papi Oviedo of the Buena Vista Social Club and then with Cuban guitar legend Octavio Sanchez Cotán. Courtesy of the other musicians in his taxicab union, Gonzalea made his pro debut at 40 and finally made it to the US in 2000 where he became a fixture of the San Francisco Bay Area latin music scene. Backed by an absolutely dynamite, horn-heavy band, Gonzalez takes you back to the future not in a DeLorean but in a 1955 Nash Ambassador, to a time when Guantanamo meant gambling and girls rather than Geneva Convention violations.

Because that era wasn’t so far removed from a previous one without electricity, many of these songs show their folksong roots. Cuba being an island nation, a whole lot of diverse styles washed up onshore, many of them represented here. Traditional Cuban son is the framework for all the songs here, but there are also elements of rhumba, tango and especially bolero on the slower numbers. A vibrant call-and-response vibe is everywhere, whether between lead vocals and backing chorus, piano and horns, or, in too few places actually, Gonzalez’ spiky tres and the piano. The songs are a mix of party anthems and aching ballads, notably La Despedida (The Goodbye), a big, intense Machito-style three-minute masterpiece with a strikingly haunting horn chart. The slinky bolero-inflected ballad Aquel Viejo Amor (That Old Love), written for Gonzalez’ former wife, subtly works a bittersweet piano riff all the way through to a gorgeous, horn-driven crescendo at the end. The wistful Cancion Por Bonnie, another bolero-based tune is another standout track with some clever baton-passing among the horns. The album’s final track, Evocation is straight-up oldschool son with intense, percussive piano, Gonzalez finally wailing on his frets and joining the fun. It all makes for great summertime music – maybe it’s just as well we’re so far behind the eightball getting around to giving this delightful album a spin.

May 26, 2010 Posted by | latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Gilzene & the Blue Light Mento Band – Sweet Sweet Jamaica

Two words: YEAH MON! This new cd does double duty as valuable cultural artifact and strangely delightful party album. With acoustic guitar, a primitive “rhumba box” for a bass and an impressively energetic octogenarian banjo player, Gilzene & the Blue Light Mento Band play what Jamaicans were playing and dancing to before calypso, decades before reggae. Mento is sort of like Jamaican bluegrass, with similar chord changes but a different rhythm. It’s not reggae, but as this album goes on you can hear several elements that survived the transformation: for example, the way the percussion rolls when the song reaches a turnaround, and the guitar accent on the downbeat. Sung in old-fashioned Jamaican patwa, the lyrics reflect an earlier era, sometimes sly, sometimes silly, laden with puns and innuendo. Authenticity these days may be a dubious concept, but this album has an strikingly roughhewn, rustic vibe. The ramshackle quality of the performances, the dodgy harmonies and the slightly out-of-tune instruments only enhance the vintage feel. Although mento is an indelible part of Jamaican culture – island jazz still abounds with mento themes and references – it’s been a long time since it was in style. So this album is overdue, and particularly welcome for preserving these songs pretty much the way they were played seventy and eighty years ago.

The group kicks it off with a stripped-down, acoustic version of Crying, an international hit for Katie Kissoon in the 70s. The second track has a rousing, careening bluegrass feel with bracing, sometimes abrupt banjo accents. Gungu Walk, which follows, is a playful narrative told from the point of view of a peeping tom. The work song Hill & Gully is a long (some might say interminable) call-and-response vamp with a vintage Cuban feel – being an island nation, Jamaica has long been a melting pot for a stupefyingly large variety of styles. Ole Im Joe (Hold Him, Joe) is similarly rousing, in this case the metaphorically loaded tale of a donkey who can’t get enough to drink, alcoholic or otherwise. And Wata Yu Garden needs no explanation. The last of the fifteen tracks is a somewhat breakneck, out-of-tune version of the Toots & the Maytals classic Sweet & Dandy with vocals by Toots himself.

The backstory here is classically Jamaican. Gilzene has two other incarnations, one as Culture George, a reggae artist whose orthodox Rasta roots album was produced by the Twinkle Brothers’ Norman Grant back in the 70s, and the other as a gospel singer. Backup singer/percussionist Donnett Leslie moonlights as the keyboardist in his reggae band.

January 29, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment