Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Swift Years Mash Up Eclectic Sounds from Montreal and Around the Globe

Here’s how it works in the blogosphere:we’ve got every PR agent on the planet hammering on our virtual door, pleading for some attention, but we like it best when we do a writeup on the Montreal Jazz Festival, a Quebecois band we’ve never heard of finds it, and then sends us a link to their stuff. And it turns out, they’re great! Canadian trio Swift Years’ most recent album goes back to 2005, and it’s a ton of fun. They’re sort of a north-of-the-border counterpart to Tribecastan. What guitarist Patrick Hutchinson, mandolinist Bob Cussen and bassist Suzanne Ungar have assembled here is an endlessly surprising, eclectic, genuinely amusing mix of cross-pollinated global sounds. They don’t have drums on the album, but it’s so tight that you don’t notice unless you listen closely.

Musically, the two real killer tracks here are The Exile and The Sand, both tricky, bitter, bracing, psychedelic Smyrnika rock instrumentals much in the style of Annabouboula, with layers of mandolin, guitar and soaring bass. The real classic here is Old Man Santo. See, Old Man Santo – think about that title for a minute – had a Farm, E-I-G-M-O. On the farm he had some pot, and some pigs, and some cows, really bloody pissed-off mad cows everywhere. We won’t spoil the plot because it’s as funny as it is unfortunately true.

A lot of the other tracks here add reggae to enhance the comedic factor. Beside Me’s protagonist doesn’t let his lack of money stop him from trying to pick up the girl: “After supper we could split a beer,” he tells her. He’s strictly oldschool: “I’m a rotary phone, I’m the last bus home…at home I drink out of glasses that I take home from bars, an old piggybank is my retirement plan, the clothes from my back are from the Sally Ann.” Rasta Puszta blends reggae, bluegrass and a happy Eastern European dance in there somewhere. And I Dreamed I Stopped Smoking is an amusing faux-country song, like a zeros update on what the Stones did with Dear Doctor.

They do a tongue-in-cheek speed-up and then do it all over again on the gypsy-flavored Hanko Hanko, and merge Quebecois with bluegrass on the equally sardonic Mon Vieux François. The title track, which sounds like the Boomtown Rats doing a creepy reggae tune, offers a view of the afterlife where everything is pretty much the same for these guys, everybody playing everyone else’s culture’s music in one big mashup, with a politically aware edge. In this particular world, right-wing politicians are reincarnated as single mothers. The album also includes a gorgeous, plaintive Belgian barroom waltz, a medley of the Eddystone Light and three jigs, and a lickety-split string band version of Ain’t Nobody’s Business. The whole thing is streaming at Swift Years’ bandcamp site – thanks for finding us, guys! Now it’s the rest of the world’s turn to discover this entertaining band.

Advertisements

July 21, 2011 Posted by | folk music, gypsy music, irish music, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, reggae music, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Compared to Bee vs. Moth’s Acronyms, Most Other Bands Sound FUBAR

Part 27 of our ongoing, never-ending process of playing catch-up: Austin instrumentalists Bee vs. Moth’s album Acronyms came out last year. The fun factor is off the hook – they pin the needle in the red. They’re part jazz, part noise-rock, and part movie theme music. Their compositions are very clever, but there’s just as much improvisation going on and that’s just as clever. Yet any good jazz band has that: what sets these folks apart is their sense of humor and out-of-the-box mashup-style songwriting. For a point of comparison, it could be said that what Tribecastan is to the Red Sea, Bee vs. Moth is to Americana. Some of this you can even dance to. To give you an idea of how much is going on here, these are the notes our reviewer took while trying to get a basic idea of how to explain just the first song on the album: “Drum hammers out the ‘one’ – guitar comes in against the beat – a blast of fuzzy guitar feedback – down to just bass holding the beat, backward masking and glockenspiel, up with it then horns and the whole band, becomes an actual anthem – then it falls apart with disembodied voices, comes back with a distorted guitar rock interlude – simple fast 2/4 changes a la Joy Division – down to glockenspiel and trumpet again.” Something for just about everyone in 3 minutes, 50 seconds.

Interplay is everywhere throughout this album: instruments converse, argue, twirl each other across the floor, blow up in each others’ faces and then make up. Now More than Ever, whose focal point is a warped spaghetti western theme, has the trumpet, guitar and bass doing a neat call-and-response. Peter Benko, a blend of Chronic Town-era REM, Tuatara jazz nocturne and reggae, has the bass taking over for the guitar – which in this song plays a role usually reserved for a drummer. The fiery, hypnotic Afrobeat song Pennies from Hell (these guys are good at titles) has trumpet and baritone sax riffing off each other. And Ugly Is the New Black welds crazed noise-rock guitar to a vintage doo-wop theme.

The rest of the album is more cinematic. Tuesday in Tuskegee shifts from mournful gospel to joyous noise, with some intense guitar tremolo-picking, and then back down again. The Sky and the Dirt Earth is southwestern gothic teleported to Bali; Mexican Noise Soda warps out of horn-spiced metal to a nasty, satirical trumpet waltz. They prove especially amusing with marches. All Hail Freedom is scathingly sarcastic and bombastic, the band taking their time machinegunning the propagandistic theme to bits, while ICP on Parade has gleeful fun mocking a parade theme and I Listen to Coffee All Day add hayseed banjo and cowbell to raise the eyebrow factor. The most straight-up number here – straight-up being a relative term – is Gor’s Apparatus, a joyously crescendoing, noisy jaunt featuring a couple of tongue-in-cheek bass solos and some particularly satisfying drum work. Bee vs. Moth’s next gig appears to be on March 19 at Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse Ritz Theatre, where they’ll be doing their live original score for Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman as part of the Austin Film Festival.

February 12, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, experimental music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rahim AlHaj’s Little Earth Breaks Down Barriers

A protege of legendary Iraqi oud player Munir Bashir, Rahim AlHaj was persecuted and jailed during the Saddam Hussein regime for writing a protest song questioning the Iraq/Iran war. Following his release, he was driven into exile, first in Syria and then eventually the United States, where his sponsoring agency, thinking he would prefer a desert climate, set him up in New Mexico. It wasn’t exactly what AlHaj was hoping for, but in retrospect it seems fortuitous. One of the world’s foremost oud players and composers in his own right, AlHaj’s latest album Little Earth is a cutting-edge collaboration with some unlikely but supremely well-suited suspects, several of whom he met in his new surroundings. To call what he does “world music” is accurate in the purest sense of the word – on this massive two-cd set, AlHaj mixes Iraqi oud styles with American Indian, Greek, Appalachian, West African, Australian aboriginal and Chinese chamber music, bringing out the best in a spirited crew of like-minded boundary-defying adventurers: a famous jazz guitarist, a world-renowned chanteuse, the scion of a prominent Malian musical family and one of the guys in REM. Yet despite the broad stylistic reach, AlHaj’s signature, steely intensity remains front-and-center: this is one of the most fascinating and gripping albums in any style of music in recent months.

All the compositions here are instrumentals with the exception of an Iraqi lullaby turned into an oud/flute duet with a brief vocal from Pueblo Indian flutist and craftsman Robert Mirabal, and a collaboration with Maria De Barros, a Cape Verde morna teleported to the Middle East. The pieces closest to AlHaj’s home turf wield the most power: the funereal Sama’i Baghdad, its haunting string chart played by the Little Earth Orchestra; the absolutely sizzling Dance of the Palms, and Qaasim, a requiem for his cousin, killed in Bush’s Iraq War, Stephen Kent’s oscillating djeridu lines meant to evoke the tears of the survivors. The others are somewhat more upbeat: to call them inventive would be an understatement. The Searching uses djeridu as a bass, holding down the low registers while accordionist Guy Klucevsek swirls over the incisive attack of the oud. Morning in Hyattsville, a duet with Americana jazz guitar legend Bill Frisell, evokes John Fahey or Leo Kottke at their brightest, with a wickedly unexpected shift into Middle Eastern territory from the guitar. Athens to Baghdad, with Peter Buck on twelve-string acoustic guitar, is gentle Tuatara/Tribecastan esoterica.

AlHaj also includes some richly intertwined pieces for oud and accompanying instruments, twisting and shifting shape until it’s hard to tell who’s playing what. The Other Time mingles oud with the West African kora harp of Yacouba Sissoko; River (the Passage) does the same, with some wildly interesting pipa work by Liu Fang. Other pieces set the oud against an unorthodox backdrop, whether a baroque-tinged piece featuring the Santa Fe Guitar Quartet, or the Andalusian-flavored Rocio, with oud over hypnotic sitar by Rosman Jamal Bhartiya. A listen to this ought to expand a listener’s brain at least as much as it did for the musicians involved. Talk about thinking outside the box! And what might be most impressive here is who’s not included on this album: no celebrity dj’s, no bedheaded indie rock dilettantes, no techno remixes. With all the amazing cross-pollination going on here, who needs any of that?

January 12, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, folk music, jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Tribecastan – 5 Star Cave

Imagine if your favorite world music band made a straight-up rock record. It would probably have some interesting rhythms – American beats are not the world’s most exciting – and probably fewer chord changes, considering that changing keys doesn’t happen very often, or at all, once you get past the Gulf of Suez. Tribecastan’s new cd 5 Star Cave could easily be that album. Their first album Strange Cousin, from last year, will probably prove to be a cult classic, a dizzying range of styles from around the world (with distinct Balkan/Asian overtones) played on a museum’s worth of stringed and wind instruments. This is the instruments from that same museum being used for rock instrumentals. As before, multi-instrumentalists John Kruth and Jeff Greene are joined by a like-minded, devious cast: Mike Duclos on upright and electric bass; world beat mastermind Todd Isler on a small army of percussion instruments, with cameos by Charlie Burnham on violin, Al Kooper on organ and guitar, Samantha Parton of the Be Good Tanyas on vocalese and Steve Turre on trombone and shells, to name a few. If there’s one band they resemble – not that such a richly diverse band could ever be approximated anywhere else – it’s similarly devious, more Balkan-and-blues-minded New York band Hazmat Modine.

If the fictional, tongue-in-cheek republic (principality?) of Tribecastan really existed, it would be the last stop on the Silk Road. As much as the crew here appropriate a ridiculous variety of traditional global styles, this is an indelibly New York album – a fearless, sometimes gruff, sometimes completely punk rock sense of humor pervades a lot of these songs, whether the silly, “surf sarod” shuffle of the Violent Femmes ripoff that opens the album, the acoustic wah funk of Ghetto Garbo, the tongue-in-cheek Afrobeat blues of From Bamako to Malibu, a showcase for Turre to jump into and be as funny as the rest of the crew, or the shamelessly psychedelic faux gamelan soundscape He Hears the Ants. There’s also a calypso number, several adventures into funk and blues, and a boogie driven by slide mandolin and a forest of acoustic fretted instruments like something Roy Wood might have done in 1970 if he’d had an even greater attention span.

Yet as with their first album, it’s the darker material that really stands out. Starry Stari Grad and Hemlock Falls are arrestingly sad waltzes with Greek/Macedonian overtones. Bachir’s Blues (a reference, no doubt, to their joujouka pal Bachir Attar) has Kruth playing saz, Greene on boomy yayli tambur lute and even some Jew’s harp – the original wah-wah instrument. And the lone cover here is a darkly rustic Afghan traditional song, Kabul Hill. Tribecastan plays the cd release for this one at Joe’s Pub on May 8 at 8:30 PM with the whole cast of characters, celebrities included. Let’s hope the Tribecastan Concert Bureau has a big WWII-surplus 6X6 truck to get all those instruments to the club and then back home across the border in one piece.

May 7, 2010 Posted by | blues music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Abaji – Origine Orients

This is like an anthology of the world’s most interesting Middle Eastern bands, except that it’s one guy all by himself. Origine Orients, his fifth cd, is one of the most stunningly imaginative albums of recent years. Abaji’s syncretic style reflects both his mixed Greek/Turkish heritage and his other career as an inventor of instruments – notably the oud-guitar prominently featured here, a fretless creation with a double set of nylon strings. Drawing on such diverse elements as levantine dance music, Lebanese ballads, American blues, indie rock and singer-songwriters like Greg Brown, Abaji is literally a one-man band – or make that an orchestra. A collector as well as inventor, he plays bouzouki, saz (Turkish lute), Colombian sax, flute, blues harp, fiddle and all sorts of percussion instruments, singing in five different languages in an impassioned baritone, equal parts Mediterranean balladeer and western rocker. Because he draws on so many diverse styles, he can sound like a whole lot of people, but the obvious comparison is devious New York Middle Eastern multistylists Tribecastan.

The album’s opening Middle Eastern riff quickly morphs into a circular indie rock theme. The second cut, Desert to Desert is an insistent slide guitar blues played on a bouzouki with Abaji using an eerie wooden flute for a slide! The single best song on the album is the ominously gorgeous bouzouki rock ballad Menz Baba, which sounds like it could be an acoustic version of a Botanica song, but with vocals in Armenian. Abaji winds it up with a towering, anguished vocal crescendo. Then he brings it down with a pensive solo Colombian sax taqsim.

Building from simple blues harp and spare percussion to a big frenetic buildup with saz and cymbal crashing, Saz Dance vividly evokes New York panstylists Hazmat Modine, right down to the crazed Wade Schuman-esque vocalese. Likewise, Anatolia, an acoustic art-rock instrumental in 6/8, evokes legendary Turkish rockers MFO with Abaji whistling over his apprehensive, intensely strummed saz. The other songs here include a long, evocatively rustic fiddle taqsim; a hauntingly catchy acoustic rai-rock song; a spare ballad that builds to a lickety-split, almost bluegrass tune; and a trio of songs that smashingly blend Django swing and flamenco with intensely soulful Middle Eastern flourishes.

The closing title track is a vividly torchy blues played on the low-register Colombian sax, which wouldn’t be out of place on a recent JD Allen album. That’s keeping good company, to say the least. If there’s any album that’s been released recently for people with diverse taste in music, this is definitely it!

January 30, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: TriBeCaStan – Strange Cousin

An alternate title for this cd could be Around the World with 180 Instruments. This is definitely a strange album, also a very clever, entertaining and playful one, ostensibly showcasing the music of the tiny and fascinating nation of TriBeCaStan, landlocked by the Manhattan neighborhoods of Chinatown, SoHo and the Financial District. In one sense, this seems to be a vehicle for bandleaders John Kruth and Jeff Greene to air out what seems to be a museum’s worth of exotic and unusual instruments. Bolstered by a like-minded cast of adventurers including oud master Brahim Fribgane, gypsy jazz pioneer Matt Darriau and seashell virtuoso Steve Turre, they have a boisterously good-natured out-of-the-box sensibility much in the same vein as sprawling avant-gypsy/klezmer/reggae improvisers Hazmat Modine.

The first cut is Mopti, a Don Cherry tune redone as rustic, hundred-year-old one-chord oldtime blues. Tonko the Zookeeper maintains the rustic blues feel, featuring Kruth on the Moldavian kaval (recorder) and Greene on the dutar (a beautifully resonant Uzbek lute). The suite continues with Yusef’s Motif, a flute composition, Greene this time on the koncovka, a wooden tube of Slovakian origin used here for its otherworldy overtones.

Raphaella is a sad tango for mandolin, mandocello, six-string ukelele and guiro. The Flowers (That I Placed at My Ancerstor’s Grave Spontaneously Burst into Flame with Their Appreciation) waltzes along sadly with understatedly poignant clarinet from Darriau. Dancing Girls (of TriBeCaStan), another sad waltz credited as “traditional,” showcases yet another lute, the Middle Eastern rebab. TriBeCaStani Traffic Jam uses a whole swamp full of reed instruments  – the Chinese sheng, harmonica, krummhorn, Pakistani taxi horn and alto sax – to very vividly illustrate a street scene where nobody’s going anywhere.

Sunda Sunday is a hypnotic but not lazy vignette with Turre on shells and Greene playing both incisively minimalist steel drum and bowed tambur (a Turkish lute that resembles a banjo), followed by Lady Dez, a swinging, Balkan-inflected minor-key harmonica tune that sounds straight out of the Hazmat Modine catalog. The best song on the album is the striking Black Ice, Kruth’s kelhorn (a popular Renaissance-era wooden flute with a marvelous tremolo tone) floating darkly over Greene’s rustic nyckelharpa (a Norwegian autoharp of sorts with two sets of reverberating strings). Of the rest of the cd’s fifteen tracks, The Bottle Man takes bluegrass to Bulgaria; Otha’s Blues takes the delta to Indonesia; Princess Rahsaanica takes a soul song east to India, and there’s a gamelanesque Sonny Sharrock cover. And the title track, a blazing, blaring march sailing along on the wings of Kruth’s Andalusian shepherd flute with a Master Musicians of Jajouka feel. To say that there’s something for everybody here would be the understatement of the millennium. Suggestion to Kruth and co. – send out a few unlabeled CDRs to world music reviewers and the people who put out the Rough Guide compilations and see how many people you can dupe into believing that this is the real thing. Which in a sense it is, the triumphantly indigenous music of the fearlessly syncretic people of TriBeCaStan!

July 13, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment