Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Mamani Keïta, Kanou

The contemporary world of African music is exploding. Strong traditions unite with electricity lately on a series of albums that are nothing short of extraordinary. We've dealt with several here in the past year and there is another I must tell you about. Mamani Keïta, a fully nuanced singer in the best of African vocal arts traditions, hailing from Mali, has put together a group that combines West African traditional instruments, such as the stringed ngoni (played beautifully by Moriba Koita) and percussion, with the electricity of bass guitar and the spectacularly right-on electric guitar of Djeli Moussa Kouyaté.

All this on her latest album Kanou (World Village).

The combination of the natural bluesiness of the tradition, the call-and-response vocals and the strong groove conjoins with a rock-blues presence that is near irresistible.

Ms. Keïta sings with complete command and authority. The band takes control of the groove in ways that reminds us that musical Africa has always been and remains central to the world's music. In the updated electric versions all the power of tradition remains but the added jolt of modern wattage gives us a new map of what is possible. Highlife was one way that Africa connected with the world, Afrobeat was another. Whatever you may call this new synthesis, when it's done as excellently as it is here, it is calling to us, reminding us of our universal homeland and what has beautifully become of it in music.

Excellent album! Very recommended.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Tom Griesgraber, Bert Lams, Unnamed Lands

Unnamed Lands (ThosSounds) is a beautifully created dual acoustic (and electric) guitar album by Tom Griesgraber and Bert Lams. It begins with Walt Whitman's thought: "Of all those men and women that fill'd the unnamed lands, every one exists this hour here or elsewhere, invisible to us."

This is about our pre-history, our migrations in musical terms in a way, the life that existed for humanity before we gave much thought about it all, about posterity, enough to write down what was happening and how. And of course perhaps about things happening to those who could not write yet, or very well, to our often anonymous forebears.

It is a singularly beautiful album. The intricate guitar work, sometimes seemingly enhanced by a bit of overdubbing, has a sound that is a cross between contemporary folk and the contrapuntal sound that Robert Fripp's League of Crafty Guitarists favored. There are synth parts now and again that fit right in without taking away from the essentially homespun sound of the music, though there are moments that take on an ambient soundscape-ish quality.

So in other words there are at times some formally worked out compositional elements and at other times or alternatingly a folkish informality, an improvisational front-porch recital. But then again all of it seems pretty thoroughly worked out regardless of how it comes across. That of course is not a bad thing, especially when it works well as a totality, as it does here.

The fact that it all works and does so well has to do with these two player-inventors and their vision. They get a program together here that has real merit. It is all cosmically mellow, but never vapid or un-contentful.

So for these reasons I do recommend you hear it!

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Young Mothers, A Mothers Work is Never Done

Unless you already know, you never know. And none of us know it all. So it feels like that with acoustic and electric bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and his band, the Young Mothers. It's not exactly what you'd expect. I've been listening to the latest, A Mothers Work is Never Done (Tektite), and it frankly surprised me. It starts off in a hip-hop bag and then gets plenty outside.

The band is interesting. Of course Flaten is on the bass. Chicago's Frank Rosaly is in the drum chair and rises to the occasion with grooves and freedom as called for. Then Jason Jackson plays a key role on reeds, as does Jawaad Taylor on trumpet, electronics and vocals. Jonathan F. Home plays electric guitar. Stefan Gonzalez takes up the vibes and appears on drums, too, in his special way. He's Dennis Gonzalez's son and a member of Yells at Eels as well as appearing in his role here.

It's a group effort all the way. There are nice arrangements, hip compositions, good soloing and a mix between out jazz, electric jazz and hip-hop that is unusual but also works well because of Flaten's leadership and the entire band's commitment.

Once you get past what you do or don't expect from this band, you can relax and appreciate. It goes at it and succeeds by taking the music to places that feel right, with conviction and fire. It is cutting-edge yet it incorporates something of what is happening outside the realms of free music in the insular sense. That's healthy when it works. It works.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Glass House, Long Way Down

After 23 years working together, the duo known as Glass House comes through with a new album that has the songs and the delivery. Long Way Down (self-released) gives us Mark Vickness on guitars and David Worm on vocals with some carefully wrought arrangements that feature a good mix of guests that includes the Turtle Island String Quartet, a very capable tabla player, the help in production of Jon Evans and a good deal else besides. You may think of Sting or Peter Gabriel as influences. And of course that suggests what is the case, that Glass House have a sort of prog-rock art-song approach.

After a continual deluge of all kinds of music for review, sometimes I need some good songs to bring me back to earth. Long Way Down has just that something that refreshes my ears without pandering to whatever base instincts such a package often encourages--the easy-peasy, I mean.

This is not easy-peasy pop. There is substance, from the subtle finesse of Vickness on acoustic or the blaze of his electric, the vocal sincerity and substance of Worm's vocals, the arranged hipness and, yes, songs, real songs.

It's not what I might ordinarily listen to, but I felt very much at home hearing this one a bunch of times.

These guys are good. Here's to 23 years more!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Doug MacNaughton, Guitarias

Something today a little unusual: a collection of modern compositions for voice and guitar in the new music classical zone, nicely played and sung by Doug MacNaughton.

Guitarias (self-released) is the name of the offering. It's one of those albums you need to listen to a few times to get acclimated. Once you do, there is plenty of artistry in MacNaughton's classical guitar playing and his singing has real credibility and poise in the modern classical way.

There are four composers, each with a song or song cycle well represented. John Beckwith gives us two "Beckett Songs" based on Samuel B's texts; Leslie Uyeda provides us with "Flower Arranger" on a poem by Joy Kogawa; William Beauvais comes through with a four-song "The Truth of Matter" with poetic texts by Linda Hogan; and lastly John Rutter furnishes his eight-song cycle "Shadows" set with poetry from the 16th and 17th centuries.

This is music with a kind of contemplative aura about it, modern but rather quiet and sophisticated, tonal in an evolved sense. The pieces feature lyrics that evoke imagery that the vocal and guitar parts extend and make concrete in music.

If you aren't into contemporary classical song, you may be a bit at sea with this music. On the other hand this is a chance to hear some good examples, some excellent guitar-vocal part combinations and get yourself into the contemporary classical ethos.

I found the album charming, memorable, and after a while, rather haunting. If you put in the listening work, this one will come through with something excellent, and all told, rather different. Recommended.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Transatlantic, Kaleidoscope

If you are in the spacey prog-psych rock zone today or feel the need for something new in that realm though it may not be your current steady fare, Transatlantic may be just the thing--specifically the album Kaleidoscope (Radiant 15278-2).

It combines some of the hardness of progmetal with the intricate compositional-arranging and instrumental acuity of the classic middle-period Floyd, Yes, Crimson, Genesis and the like.

Now to do that without sounding like a clone of those bands isn't easy but Transatlantic pulls it off. The quartet gets a very integrated sound out of the lineup--Roine Stolt on guitars and vocals, Pete Trewavas on bass and vocals, Neal Morse on keys and vocals, and Mike Portnoy on drums and vocals.

This is their fourth studio album; they have been at it off and on since 2000, and their group dynamic by now is palpable. You can feel it.

So they run through some very nice originals that have that long-form medley-thematic extendedness that lets you float along indefinitely.

It's one of those albums that convinces you that art-psych-prog rock is far from dead. And that should tell you something of the quality here. Nice!

Monday, August 11, 2014

A Psych Tribute to the Doors

When I was growing up if you didn't like the Doors you were stuck. Their music played everywhere, on AM and FM radio, at your friend's house, at parties, coming out of storefronts, at high-school dances, just everywhere. I bought their first album when it first came out, long before it was immanent, present in all places at most times. I took to the music right away. Morrison was the real thing, the words had clout, the band was excellent, and the songs stuck with you. It was poetic and driving, mysterious-avant and rootsy, life-affirming but on a death trip, rebellious yet a repository of tradition, a bundle of contradictions that the age responded to as to a lost relative.

Well and of course there is a point of saturation, when you are not sure that more is better. But then Jim died. And that ended it.

So we exist still. Humanity, I mean. And the music still sounds fresh. A compilation that's been out for a little bit confirms that, with 13 bands doing 13 of the Doors' gems with full psychedelic flourish, A Psych Tribute to the Doors (Cleopatra Records CLP 1556).

It's the Black Angels and 12 other bands, each getting a certain leverage on a song icon and travelling with it into space. At the end of the space is a garage, for this is garage psych in its own way, mostly all of it.

In the halcyon days of youth all the bands locally played a Door tune or more than one for a while. And much of it sounded something like this in the high school gym, sort of. We lived in a world pretty far removed from Ozzie Nelson and his pancakes then. Our parents, most of them, didn't get it. I feel sorry now about that. Turns out Ozzie-ism came back with a vengeance later, and we did not collectively levitate. But then the Doors and their sound have returned too. Post-surf guitars, Farfisa organs, deep echo, it's stayed around underground and surfaced in various places to good effect. This anthology forms a good part of all that.

No better evidence than on these tracks. They sound in no way dated. New life is breathed into them by pushing them a little further into the psych zone than they were originally, for the most part. But then the Raveonettes take "The End" and give it less push and more lyricism, so go figure.

That is of no importance in the wider scheme. This is music that breathes fire again. It reminds you why the Doors were so strong. Songs!! The songs were the thing...though Jim made us believers by his sheer charisma.

So get all the Doors albums too, but check this one out. It's worth it. Very cool.