Saturday, May 29, 2010

Old Glory

So here in the United States, the first of our patriotic holidays is upon us: Memorial Day. It would be nice to say that I chose to do a set of red, white and blue songs to honor this day, but that’s not really what happened. I was feeling uninspired, (probably from the incredible heat earlier this week). I thought that I would go easy on myself, and do a set of color songs. I knew from when we did that on Star Maker Machine that there was plenty of good material, so I got started. I found myself drawn to a certain mood, and it happened that my song choices were all red, white, or blue. So here they are.

I have told you, my readers, that I personally oppose the wars I have seen my country fight in my lifetime. But this is the time to honor our fallen, and I do want to say that I appreciate the sacrifices our soldiers have made. While I may not agree with the war they are fighting, I understand that their courage is greater than mine, and that they are fighting out of a sincere belief that they are protecting us all. That is worth honoring, and I see no contradiction with my personal beliefs when I say so. My songs this week have a lot to say about being parted from a loved one. This is another of the sacrifices our soldiers make, and I honor that as well. So, by accident or not, I find this set to be a suitable one for the occasion.

Abigail Washburn: Red & Blazing


The first verse of Red & Blazing has four lines, the last of which is, “I knew that day was ending”. The later verses have only three lines. In omitting the last line, the narrator is hoping against hope that it doesn’t have to come true. This is a great piece of songwriting, presenting the desperation of the narrator perfectly and wordlessly. The music reflects her growing emotional turmoil. Finally, the someone she’s singing about dies, and in the last verse, a last line has returned. But now the words are, “to meet those birds a-singin’”. The person has died, and presumably gone to Heaven. The narrator has her bittersweet release.

But who is dying, exactly? In a short note in the CD booklet, Abigail Washburn tells us that the song is based on an older song called The Dying Soldier.

Diana Krall: Almost Blue


The first album Diana Krall released after marrying Elvis Costello was The Girl In the Other Room. The album included six cowrites with Costello and this cover of a tune Costello wrote before they ever met. Krall turns the song into a poignant jazz ballad, full of regret over a love squandered and lost. Although Costello once recorded an country album called Almost Blue, this song was not on it; Costello’s original version was arranged not too differently than this. Still, Krall captured the emotions perfectly in this performance.

Rocky Votolato: White Daisy Passing


Rocky Votolato uses vivid nature imagery to encourage his partner to slow down and savor the small beautiful moments in life. So many of these moments are gone already, never to return. I don’t think Votolato had this in mind, but this song seems to me to be good advice to a soldier who is soon to ship out.

Peter Gabriel: Sky Blue


Sky Blue is all about the sorrow of parting, and Peter Gabriel makes his point with the eloquence not just of his words, but more importantly, his music. This one gathers emotion as it goes, finally becoming a secular hymn at the end. The background vocals at the end are by The Blind Boys of Alabama.

Spotlight Song of the Week:

Spike Flynn: Silver Nitrate Serenade


Spike Flynn is a wonderful songwriter from Australia. His shorter songs are little slices of life that perfectly capture the emotions of his characters in just a few lines. But his longer songs are a revelation. These are perfect noir short stories, dripping with atmosphere. As with any good short story, the plotting is tight, with the resolutions feeling completely satisfying. Silver Nitrate Serenade is a superb example. I couldn’t help as I listened to this one seeing in my head Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not.

This music is not blues exactly, but it shows that Flynn is well versed in blues styles. The basic band is drums, bass, acoustic guitar, and keyboards. Sometimes, harmonica or saxophone are added for color and flavor. Flynn sings in voice that reminds me of Mark Knopfler’s, although Flynn sometimes gets gruffer. All in all, it’s a combination that works beautifully. I am looking forward to Spike Flynn’s next one, and if he publishes a novel or a book of short stories in the mean time, I hope I find out about it.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

For a Song: Fields of Gold

Sting: Fields of Gold


This week on Star Maker Machine, our theme is Public Domain. So a lot of our posts are traditional songs. In thinking of what to post, my mind naturally lighted on songs that should have been traditional, but aren’t. Fields of Gold by Sting is a perfect example of what I mean.

The structure of the lyric follows the model of many folk songs from the British Isles. A line of verse is followed by a line of the first refrain, ending with the words ”fields of barley”. There is another line of verse, followed by the words of the second refrain, ending with “fields of gold”. This same structure is used, for example, in the traditional song Cruel Sister, and there are many others. Fields of Gold sounds like a traditional melody, and Sting has even left in part of the uillean pipes part. I hear in my head an arrangement for those pipes, Celtic harp, and voice. I remember when I first heard the song that I tried to find a recording with the traditional arrangement. Of course, there wasn’t one, and I think there still isn’t. The song was written by Sting, and this is the original recording. Still, if anyone knows of a recording of it with something like the arrangement I mentioned, or if you have done such an arrangement, please let me know in the comments.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Catherine Russell - Inside This Heart of Mine


Catherine Russell knows her jazz history. In the booklet that comes with Inside This Heart of Mine, she identifies her source for each tune, not necessarily the original artist, but the one she first heard. Here are Fats Waller and Duke Ellington from before World War II, but here also are Maxine Sullivan and Arthur Prysock from much later. The booklet gives a year for each tune, and they range from 1929 to 2009. But, from the sound, I would say that the model for this music overall is the period when jazz was pop music, before rock n roll. In those days, jazz was music for dancing, even when there was a singer. The band had to keep a consistent beat through each tune, and the solos had to make sense to a casual listener, while also rewarding a closer listen. The singer had to deliver the words clearly, and not go off on wild scat adventures. What made a great singer was her ability to carry the emotion of each piece, and she had to go from sorrow to joy and back again from one song to the next.

These are the limits that Catherine Russell sets for herself and her band here. But she also has to know that, nowadays, people will not be dancing to this. So she must focus on the listener. The emotion is the key. And since this is an album, Russell and her band must provide enough variety to make this an interesting listen throughout. One way to do this is by varying the arrangements, and this lets Russell surprise us.

So those are the rules. And Russell and her band do a wonderful job. The rhythm is tight throughout, and the energy is high. This is true even though many of the songs do not use drums, and the personnel shift in and out. The solos always preserve the emotion of the song, while usually providing a countermelody. In the course of the album, solos are taken on trumpet, clarinet, saxophone, piano, guitar, fiddle, and even banjo. Russell has all of these musicians completely in tune with what she’s after, and they all deliver. And then there is Russell herself. She sings in a low soprano, mostly smooth with just the slightest catch. She adds or subtracts breath as needed, to go from joyful to sorrowful to sultry to humorous, and it is all completely convincing. She also works with variety of musical settings, and adapts her voice to work best with each.

The lyrics are not deep. These songs are about conveying an emotion in a very direct way. We the People is an election year, (1938), plea for good music. Quiet Whiskey, although it has a lot of words, is the story of a drunken revel, told from the point of view of a bottle of whiskey. The rest of the songs are full of sentimentality, from earnest pledges of love to the sorrow of love lost. The key is that Russell’s performance makes all of this true. She inhabits these songs, and we believe in them because she does. As Long As I Live is the most complex lyric here. The arrangement is for just piano, bass, guitar, and voice. The song presents a woman who hopes that she can love her man enough while she still lives. The threat of mortality hangs over this one, and Russell does not shy from it. Her performance here avoids the potential in the lyric for mawkishness, and makes this woman’s love noble.

Some of the arrangements took me by surprise. November is arranged for bass, violin, accordion, and voice, and neither the accordion or the violin have shown up on the album before this. The song uses the coming of the colder weather as a metaphor for the loneliness of separation, and the arrangement really works. Just Because You Can also has the violin, but here it is joined by bass and banjo. I’ve never heard jazz banjo before, except in Dixieland, but it works here kind of like Django Reinhardt’s guitar. And Howlin’ Wolf’s Spoonful is arranged here for banjo, drums and tuba. It’s an amazing sound, with all of the intensity of the original. These unusual arrangements help to keep things interesting, but the album is a coherent whole. Catherine Russell and company have succeeded in taking this music from the dance halls of yesterday and making it a rewarding musical experience for the listeners of today.

Catherine Russell: As Long as I Live

Catherine Russell: Spoonful

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Welcome, Summer

When does summer begin? In New Jersey, where I live, it was 86 degrees today. But we topped that in March, so that’s not the answer. The ancient Celts marked the beginning of summer with the festival of Beltane. They observed the blooming of certain trees, and Beltane marked the end of the planting season and the beginning of the growing season. This occurs somewhere around May 1, but it moves depending on the weather. This year, it was early. Today, summer begins when school gets out. So, for kids, it is still spring, but my wife is an adult learner, and she got out last week. So, by many measures, summer is here, and I thought it was time to acknowledge it.

Richard Thompson: Sumer is Icumen In


The title of this song translates into modern English as “Summer is Coming In”, so I know it fits. The song dates from about 1260, so the language of the rest of the lyrics would require a translation that I do not have. It certainly feels right. I always feel a burst of excitement at the arrival of summer, and this song has that.

Herbie Hancock (with Joni Mitchell): Summertime


Of course, this post had to have a version of the Gershwin classic Summertime. The only problem was, I didn’t have one. But I found something wonderful. I hadn’t known that Joni Mitchell had worked with Herbie Hancock before the River album. If anything, this performance may top the version of The Tea Leaf Prophecy from that album. Joni nails the soulfulness of this song, and Hancock’s playing is brilliant, as always.

John Cougar Mellencamp: Hotdogs and Hamburgers


Here is a classic set up for a summer romance song. The guy gets the girl to get in his car and go for a ride. You can imagine the top down, and the wind blowing their hair around. But John Mellencamp takes it someplace unexpected. His later work has been overtly political, but Hotdogs and Hamburgers was from The Lonesome Jubilee. Mellencamp, at this point, was still doing everyman rock anthems, and this feels like it will be one of them. The Authority Song is certainly rousing, but it has no particular issue in mind. Hotdogs and Hamburgers does. Mellencamp’s protagonist gets to know this girl, and what he learns and how he reacts take both him and us by surprise. My friend Boyhowdy says that Mellencamp is a very underrated songwriter. On this evidence, I must agree.

Joni Mitchell: Harry‘s House - Centerpiece


For me, Harry’s House - Centerpiece is centered on one image: “Her body oiled and shining, at the public swimming pool”. Harry, a traveling businessman, thinks back on what his marriage was compared to what it is, and that image is the transition point in his reflections. It’s a very powerful one. Unlike with John Mellencamp, I don’t have to tell anyone what a fine songwriter Joni Mitchell is. But here’s more proof.

Spotlight Song of the Week:

The Buskers: Spank That Tambourine


Growing up, I used to make trips by bus into New York City with my best friend every summer. One of my favorite thing about these trips was stopping to listen to the street musicians, or buskers. I heard some truly amazing music that way. Now there is a trio from Vermont called the Buskers. In my mind, that’s quite a name to have to live up to. The Buskers manage it beautifully.

Spank That Tambourine, the album, is a wonderfully varied collection. There are folk rock numbers, like the title track. There are some bluesier numbers, including a cover of the Taj Mahal classic, She Caught the Katy. And there are some instrumentals that remind me of the work of David Grisman. The Buskers make it all work, and Spank That Tambourine also works as a coherent album. Spank That Tambourine, the song, is an ode to buskers. It is delivered with the good cheer that a busker must have no matter how they actually feel at the time. Enjoy the song, and don’t forget to drop some coins, or even a bill, in their case.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

For a Song: Blue Telescope

John Hiatt: Blue Telescope


John Hiatt is one of my favorite writers. There’s nothing wrong with his music, but his words are what draw me in. Hiatt can be funny or ironic, or both at once. This is the man who rhymed amoeba with Queen of Sheba, and talked about a couple who stole money to do their laundry “and drove away clean.” But Hiatt can also be serious and poignant. And he can tug at the heart strings with a single image. Blue Telescope is about a man who broke up with a woman some time ago, and now regrets it even as she is marrying someone else. Hiatt describes the bride lifting up her veil, “her breath a lonesome vapor trail.” The feeling of the whole song is captured in that one image, and it’s one no one else would have thought of. That is what great writers do.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

J Shogren - Bird Bones & Muscle


Last year, I reviewed J Shogren’s last album, American Holly, and I talked about his wild imagination. More recently, I kicked off my Americana Festival with Jalan Crossland‘s latest album. I found Crossland in the first place because J Shogren told me they were working together. Bird Bones & Muscle is the result of that partnership. To me, the album feels like two very talented musicians feeling their way until they found what works for them as musical partners.

Bird Bones and Muscle begins as a rock record. Burnt Fields begins with a figure on electric guitar, and soon the whole band tears into this blues tinged number. It sounds some what like the heartland rock of John Mellencamp, around the time of the Scarecrow album. But wait, one of those electric guitars sounds odd… That’s a banjo! Yes it is, and Crossland gets it to do some things I’ve never heard before. Blues and rock banjo are new to me, but they work. Three more up tempo rockers follow, and the last of these, Loving Time, is also the weakest. The lyric is skeletal, and the song sounds like a band rocking just to rock. There’s not really anything wrong with that, but American Holly led me to expect more here.

And then the next song started, and I got more. Big Blue Bird of Happiness is the first ballad on the album. The lyrics present unrequited love in an original way, and the music has subtle touches that add to its beauty. From here on, we are in good hands. Paper Barn is a declaration of love that promises that dreaming together can make it true. The song has a spare arrangement that does everything it needs to with just acoustic guitar and a few elements for flavor. My Remedy is another declaration of love, this set to a slinky blues groove. Later, there is Polkagris, an actual polka, where Shogren’s sense of humor sneaks out for a moment. This one sounds like it was a blast to record, which also makes it a treat for the listener. And there are two songs, Wandering Foot, and Judge & the Hangman, which are ballads in the old sense that they tell stories. Wandering Foot is the tale of a man who sacrificed his family for an ill-advised affair, and had cause to regret it. This may be Shogren’s most emotional vocal on the album, and the song is totally convincing as a result. Judge & the Hangman is a powerful evocation of the Old West, something Shogren does very well indeed.

I mentioned the four rockers that start the album. Each has its merits, but I found the block of them a bit much. Indeed, there are more up tempo numbers as the album progresses, and they sound better. So I think it might have sufficed to sequence the album differently. On their own, I can certainly recommend Charlie Poole, Charlie Poole and Salvation especially. So I don’t know if Shogren and Crossland intend to continue working together, but I would like to hear the results if they do. In any case, I hope to have for you whatever each of them chooses to do next.

One more quibble if I may: there is a female vocalist on Bird Bones and Muscle, who adds some wonderful harmony, and whose work really makes a difference on several songs. J Shogren only lists his musicians by first initial and last name, so I don’t know who she is. If I find out, I will let you know.

Update: I heard back from J Shogren, and he tells me that the background singer is Mandy Bohlender. She is in a band called The Free Range Band; I don't believe that they have recorded anything for release yet, and when they do, they will need a name change. There is already another band out there by that name.

J Shogren: My Remedy

J Shogren: Wandering Foot

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Spotlight: Music From Ireland

The title of this post is not Irish Music. That would imply traditional music from Ireland. And that is the source and inspiration for the music in this post. But this music is not strictly traditional. And the musicians are from many places, Ireland being just one. As Her people have moved to other places, so the music has traveled, and interacted with those who heard it in its new home. The results of those interactions have even made it back to Ireland again, and can now be heard in the music of those who stayed or came back.

Cady Finlayson: Open Roads Ahead


Take Cady Finlayson. She is a wonderfully talented Irish fiddler from County Brooklyn. You won’t find that on a map of Ireland; I’m talking about the one in New York City. Brooklyn is known as a hotbed of musical cross-pollination; this is the town that gave us Vampire Weekend, for example. Indeed, in her newer work, Finlayson is moving to incorporate sounds from various parts of the world. But Open Roads Ahead is a fine example of an Irish air, even though Finlayson wrote it. One thing though: midway through the tune, John Redmond enters on accordion. Redmond is steeped in the Scottish tradition, so some mixing occurs even here. No matter, this is still a beautiful tune. Finlayson also excels on jigs and reels and such, the faster tunes. Whatever impurities may be in the mix, the resulting album is by turns exhilarating and beautiful.

Maria Dunn: Sailor Song


Maria Dunn is Canadian, and Sailor Song is an original song. But it takes off from a classic situation in English and Irish folk songs. A woman disguises herself as a boy, and goes off to sea. Dunn’s tale was inspired by a historical account of Mary Reed, who sailed with a pirate called Calico Jack. What happens in the song is Dunn’s invention, and a marvelous twist on the old trope. The music shows a strong Irish influence, of course, but we are moving further away from strictly traditional music. Here is an upright bass part that sounds almost jazzy, but it fits beautifully into the mix. The sound of this song pretty well represents the sound of the album as a whole, and it’s a sound I look forward to hearing more of.

Burning Bridget Cleary: Ah Tusa Shi/ Killavil Jig


Burning Bridget Cleary is a trio from Pennsylvania. Bridget Cleary is known in Ireland as the last woman in Ireland to be burned as a witch. I would like to report that this happened hundreds of years ago, but in fact, Liam Clancy said he met someone who witnessed the event. Burning Bridget Cleary has included a song about this on each of their two albums, and this is the newest one. The song is an original, but the brief instrumental break in the middle is Killavil Jig, a traditional tune. Like Maria Dunn, the members of Burning Bridget Cleary show a deep understanding of Irish folk music, but they also mix in influences from pop, and even Middle Eastern music. They make all of this sound perfectly natural, and they back it up with fine singing and playing throughout.

Finbar Furey: America Cried


At last, we wash up on Ireland’s shores. Finbar Furey is a member of one of the great clans of Irish music. His father was Ted Furey, who was renowned as one of the great Irish fiddlers. One of Finbar’s sons, Martin, can be heard here on background vocals. But the music is moving still further away from the traditional sound. Irish sounds are used here mostly for color. No matter. In America Cried, Finbar Furey delivers a powerful tale of a father explaining to his son the sacrifices that he and his countrymen made in Coming to America, and how he dreams of returning to Ireland one day. Every note rings true, and maybe that is what Finbar learned from his father.

Aine Furey: The Bonny Boy


Aine Furey is Finbar’s daughter and Martin’s sister. She has some of the qualities of her father in the tone of her voice. Also like him, she delivers a lyric with all of her heart. The Bonny Boy is a traditional song which made its way to the United States as The Trees They Grow High. There is very little in this arrangement that resembles what I know of traditional music, but this is a beautiful reading. What remains of the tradition is mostly the Irish approach to the singing. I’m not even sure how to define that, but that’s what I hear.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Black Prairie - Feast of the Hunter’s Moon


Let’s talk about expectations. Black Prairie is a five-piece band whose main instruments are dobra, guitar, fiddle, string bass, and accordion. They record on the Sugar Hill label, and Sugar Hill has a long reputation for bluegrass music. There is some of a bluegrass feel on some songs here, but it would be best to put those expectations away.

Black Prairie is a band that includes three members of the Decemberists and two of their friends. So smartly literate songs with a strong folk influence and tight storytelling might be the order of the day. You had better put those expectations aside as well.

What Feast of the Hunter’s Moon offers is something else entirely. Black Prairie was originally conceived as an instrumental band. They had been together, working out their sound for a while, before they decided that it would be a shame not to feature the wonderful voice of violinist Annalisa Tornfelt. So nine of the album’s thirteen tracks are instrumental, while Tornfelt sings four. I started this review by saying the band had a fiddle, but I just called Tornfelt the band’s violinist. Which term fits? It depends on the song. Some of the songs have a pronounced classical feel to them, and the musicians all prove perfectly capable of pulling this off.

Feast of the Hunter’s Moon opens with a drone, played on accordion and bowed bass, which sounds like something out of Eastern music. This soon settles into a tune, Across the Black Prairie, which has a sort of jazzy folk feel to it, ala David Grisman’s work. But the song retains the eerie feel that was set up by that opening drone. The album closes with a tone poem, The Blackest Crow, which is actually a traditional tune, and is one of the vocal tracks. The playing and singing do not set up a rhythm; rather the song modulates as it goes along.

Now you know, anything is possible here. Leave your mind open, and let Black Prairie take you where they will. Toward the end of the album, you’ll find, in Home Made Lemonade, some of that bluegrass feel you were looking for, but there’s a break in the middle where it almost becomes a classical piece, before returning to the original theme. Crooked Little Heart will give you some of the kind of songwriting you wanted, but, pin me down and I will call the delivery on this one jazz singing; not quite right, but I have to call it something. The classical influence is strongest in Ostinato del Caminito and Tango Oscuro. These pieces have distinct sections, but also coherent musical ideas that tie each of them together as a single piece.

All of these diverse influences could make for a scattered mess of an album, but that doesn’t happen. Feast of the Hunter’s Moon comes off as the work of fine musicians who are bursting with ideas, but who keep it all together. The making of the album must have been an exciting voyage of discovery for the musicians; it certainly is for the listener.

So come in to this one expecting a high degree of musicianship. Expect abundant musical imagination. And expect to be amazed. Black Prairie came about as a side project, while the Decemberists were on hiatus. I really enjoy the Decemberists, and look forward to more albums from them. But now I also hope there is time in the future for more from Black Prairie. I want to see where that imagination will lead them next.

Black Prairie: Crooked Little Heart

Black Prairie: Tango Oscuro

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

For a Song: Rosalie

Alejandro Escovedo: Rosalie


I’m doing things out of order this week. The album review is taking longer than I expected, so I am running the For a Song post now, with the review to follow.

As I write this, the immigration debate has flared up again here in the United States. I’m sure my views on the matter are not those of all of my readers, but I take the matter personally. It seems to me that the fear of immigrants is the fear of strangers. And this country is a land of strangers. It is who we are. Trace it back far enough, and almost everyone is from somewhere else, is an outsider. None of the Founding Fathers were born on American soil. I am not blind to the fact that, nowadays, there are dangerous people trying to enter this country, and I agree that precautions must be taken. I only say that, in doing so, we must not forget who we are and how we got here.

In my own family, I do not have to be so abstract. My grandfather was one of nine brothers who fled persecution at the hands of the cossacks. But the brothers could not come here all at once. For a time, these brothers were separated by an ocean. My grandfather, age 11 at the time, was one of the last to make the journey. The dream of being reunited, and its eventual realization, is the first thing that being an American means to me. That these brothers, as Jews arriving in the United States in the early twentieth century, were hated and feared is something I only came to understand as I grew older.

That dream of reunion is the subject of Rosalie as well. Here is a pair of lovers, parted for seven years, and about to be reunited. Alejandro Escovedo captures the yearning, but also acknowledges the sacrifice that giving up ones homeland forever entails. The song comes from a play about the Mexican-American experience, but it should resonate with anyone whose family was separated, even temporarily, by the process of immigration.


Announcement: Raina Rose needs your help

Raina Rose, whose last two albums I reviewed here and here, needs your help. She is competing in a contest for studio time and the attention of some music industry heavies, as well as other prizes. The winner is the top vote getter, and you can vote here.

Saturday, May 8, 2010


The inspiration for this post was our theme last week on Star Maker Machine, Instrumentals. At the end of the week, I still had instrumental songs I wanted to share. So I decided to gather a few of them up, and put them here. Then things got interesting. As I selected the songs for this post, I realized that there was more to my theme. The term “fusion” was applied to jazz music that used electric instruments, starting in the 1970s. The starting point for this music was Miles Davis’ masterpiece, Bitch’s Brew, but the music went down hill from there. Eventually, the label “fusion” acquired a bad name among jazz afficianados. Kenny G would be the prime example of everything that was wrong about fusion jazz. The short answer was that it wasn’t jazz any longer, and I agree. I might call the music of Kenny G and the like instrumental pop.

Having said that, let’s back up. The word fusion simply means that two or more unlike things have been combined. Sometimes in music, this combination sounds like the result of a violent collision, with parts flying everywhere. But there are other times when a true fusion occurs, and two or more styles of music that should not fit together do. And that’s the kind of music I found myself being drawn to for this post. So here are the results.

Buckshot LeFonque: Jungle Grove


Branford Marsalis is a great jazz sax player. His brother, Wynton, is known for his zealous adherence to the purity of jazz in his work. But Branford is another matter. He has worked with Sting and other pop artists, and Branford is not afraid to push the boundaries of musical genres in his own work. Buckshot LeFonque was a side project that Branford Marsalis worked on for all of two albums during the 90s.

Jungle Grove starts out sounding like straight ahead jazz. The bass and horns get a groove going, and it cooks. But then the drums and percussion enter. The style they play is an offshoot of hip-hop called jungle music. And the combination works! Buckshot LeFonque was all about combining jazz and hip-hop, and the results, with and without vocals, were wildly uneven. But Jungle Grove points the way to further exploration.

Yeska: Skaliente


Latin jazz is already a fusion form. Jazz meets the traditional rhythms of Latin America, and the result has been thoroughly road tested by now. Yeska combines this with ska. They do this so well that the combination seems obvious. The key is not to force it. The ska beat comes and goes within each song, and is never quite gone. If you keep that beat in your head as you listen, you will hear where it went.

Jon Hassell: Sundown Dance


For Jon Hassell, all the music the world has ever made is fair game. I’m not even sure what is being fused here, only that I like the results. I first noticed Jon Hassell playing trumpet on Talking Heads’ album Remain in Light. Nothing sounds like what I think of as a trumpet, but it’s right there in the credits. So what’s going on here?

In time, I found out. Hassell processes the sound of his trumpet through electronic filters. The resulting sound is what you hear starting at about the 1:40 mark of Sundown Dance. In his own music, he plays this over a stew of musical sounds from all over the world. Always, there is a pulse. The result is hypnotic, and excellent for meditation, but also just for listening. Maybe this music is jazz, but of a very unusual sort.

D‘Gray: Vavarano


Henry Kaiser and David Lindley once made a trip to Madagascar, and recorded the music they found there. Madagascar is home to many plants and animals that are found nowhere else in the world, and the same is true of its musical instruments. One of the songs the songs that Kaiser and Lindley recorded on that trip was this one. Vavarano is a traditional song; the fusion element is that it is not usually played on acoustic guitar, as D’Gray does here. Elsewhere on this album, many of the native instruments can be heard. Playing this on acoustic guitar gives the song a completely different feel, and a beautiful one it is.

Spotlight Song of the Week:

Andrew Downing: Hospital


Andrew Downing is a classically trained cellist and composer who has played in a rock band, as well as in jazz ensembles and groups that played gypsy music. For the last few years, Downing has received commissions to create new music for classic silent films. The album Silents collects music from two of these scores, Impossible Voyage and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Downing uses a consistent ensemble for these film works, and it includes an unusual combination of instruments. Here is a string quartet, plus clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, guitar, melodica, celeste or harmonium, and percussion.

Classical music unfolds gradually, with subtle changes in mood over an extended time period, compared to the music I usually cover. But Downing doesn’t have time for that here. This music must follow the needs of the action in the films. So there are subtle shifts in mood and even instrumentation, but they must happen fairly quickly. Sometimes, these shifts are abrupt, as is the action on the screen. But the album is divided into songs that, I imagine roughly correspond to scenes. I have not seen the films involved, so I can report on this album purely as a work for listening. I understand why the music sounds this way, but, out of context, I find this to be a very enjoyable listen.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

For a Song: Mama Tried

Grateful Dead: Mama Tried


Last year around this time, we honored mothers and their day on Star Maker Machine with our Oh Mama theme. This year, it’s Mothers. Both times, Mama Tried was the first song I thought of. Last year, Paul posted a version by someone called Merle something or other. That’s a guy’s name, apparently.

I’m kidding, of course. I certainly know who Merle Haggard is by now. But I first heard Mama Tried in 1971, and that probably would have been my reaction at the time. In 1971, at age 11, there were things I knew for certainties. The Grateful Dead were the greatest band on earth. Country was terrible, something I would never like. And Mama Tried was a Grateful Dead song. Since then, there have been some changes.

I suppose that kids don’t ever think that a song by a band they like could be a cover. Indeed, the very idea of a cover is alien to them. I can’t remember the first song I learned was a cover, but I know it was a shock. The first time I heard a cover of a song I knew in its original version, I know my reaction was, “how dare they!” Learning that Woodstock was by Joni Mitchell really confused me, because I loved her music, but CSNY did the “real” version. But, by the time I learned that Mama Tried was a cover, I had learned that tracking down the originals was a great way to expand my knowledge of songs and artists. And I had learned to love the good stuff in country music. I was ready for Merle Haggard. Having said that though, I still think of Mama Tried as a Grateful Dead song. Do a search for “Mama Tried Grateful Dead” in Amazon’s mp3 store, and you will find 13 versions, all live, spanning from 1969 to 1983. Indeed, listen to them in rough chronological order, and you can trace the evolution of the Dead’s sound, for better or for worse. So, in a sense, this is a Grateful Dead song after all.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Jennie Avila - Civil War Stories in Song


Civil War Stories in Song was created through a special arrangement between the artist and the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau. As part of this arrangement, Jennie Avila could not give permission for the posting of a song from the album. Streaming audio clips of parts of the songs may be heard at the purchase link above. Jennie Avila was kind enough to send one of her earlier albums, so that I could give you an idea of her sound. You will find one song from that album at the end of this post.

Jennie Avila sings in a soprano voice that exudes sunlight and optimism. This is a voice that would be well suited to making music for kids. In fact, Avila has done that, and it really worked. I will be doing a set of kid’s music soon, and you will get to hear that. You would not expect the owner of such a voice to be doing a set of songs about the Civil War, but here it is. The Civil War was probably the most anguished war in American history. Brother sometimes fought against brother, and the whole thing took place within our borders. My readers from other countries should bear in mind that this almost never happens in the United States. So, Avila could easily have focused on the harrowing aspects of the war. Some great music has come from that, and Avila doesn’t downplay the serious nature of her subject. But she also finds a way to tell some stories that don’t usually get told.

Avila lives in Maryland, a border state between the two sides in the war, and she takes much of her inspiration from the objects on display in a historical museum in Boonsborough. Here, one may see objects carved from bullets used in the war, a desk made from the scaffold where John Brown was hanged, and pages from Clara Barton’s diary. Each of these gets a song. The bullets inspire an ironic song about what the bullet did as a bullet and in its new form. The man who made the desk is presented sympathetically; there could be no ethical dilemma for him, when usable wood was scarce. And the diary pages inspire a tribute to a war hero of a sort that was new to that war. There are also a couple of battlefield tales, and Avila pulls no punches there. But the gore and mayhem are never the point; the people are.

Throughout, the emphasis is on how individuals were affected by the war and its aftermath. Avila never forgets that these were real people, and you feel their love and fear, and hope. Breakfast at the Heck’s presents a pair of brothers who find themselves home at the same time sharing a meal, and then returning to the battlefield on opposite sides. Family provides a brief respite from the madness, and Avila makes you feel it.

The songs are all based around Avila’s voice and acoustic guitar. Other instruments are used sparingly, and mostly for color. These include fiddle, banjo, mandolin, and percussion. Avila uses fuller arrangements in her other work, but here the spareness really suits the material. Warrior Spirit and the Keeper of the Bones uses just guitar and percussion, but this is the emotional high point of the album. This is a tale of a badly wounded soldier and a ghostly vision. I don’t want to give away more, but this one really tugged at me.

My only complaint? This is an EP, with just six songs. If Avila could have presented another six songs this good, I would have gladly kept listening.

Meanwhile, as promised, here is Oh Good(bye) from Avila’s previous album Naked in the Rain.

Jennie Avila: Oh Good(bye)


Saturday, May 1, 2010

Repost: Our Evolutionary Cousins

This is the first time I have presented a repost here on Oliver di Place. I don’t plan to make a habit of it. But I didn’t have time for a new post this time, what with finishing the move, and I wanted everyone to have something to enjoy from me going into the weekend. I chose this post from just over a year ago because I put up the original right before I had to change file hosts, so not many people got to enjoy the songs before they came down. Also, I have many new readers and listeners since then, so hopefully this is brand new to many of you. Regardless, enjoy and have a great weekend. And be assured that regular posting of new material will resume next week, starting with my next album review.

Charles Darwin was famous for letting us all know that we used to be monkeys. Fortunately, we have made great strides since we came down from the trees.

Willie Dixon: Signifying Monkey


Consider Willie Dixon’s tale of monkey behavior. The monkey is devious and manipulative, and has no conscience. Both the lion and the elephant are his unwitting tools.

Willie Dixon was the bass player in Muddy Waters’ greatest band. His playing can be heard on many of the classic Chicago blues songs of the 50s, and many of the best known songs from that scene were Dixon’s compositions.

Los Lobos: Wanna Be Just Like You (The Monkey Song)


And, as Los Lobos tells us here, even the more self-aware monkeys yearn to improve themselves by becoming human.

Los Lobos needs no introduction. This track comes from a collection of covers of Disney tunes, called Stay Awake. The original version is from The Jungle Book.

Toots and the Maytals: Monkey Man


Perhaps, some monkeys have even made the attempt. That would explain the strange creature that Toots and the Maytals encounter here.

Toots and the Maytals’ best known song, Pressure Drop, is a classic reggae tune. Monkey Man is considered a ska classic, and has been covered by The Specials and Reel Big Fish, among others.

Nil Lara: Money Makes the Monkey Dance


Of course, Nil Lara reminds us that the love of money can make a monkey out of any of us.

Nil Lara’s family are originally from Cuba, he was born in the United States, and Lara grew up in Venezuela. This background helps to explain why Lara sounds like nobody else.

Irene Reid: One Monkey Don‘t Stop No Show


And, as far as Irene Reid was concerned, any man who mistreated her was a monkey.

Irene Reid was a fine jazz singer, with great musical timing, but, outside of music, she never seemed to get anywhere at the right time. She joined Count Basie’s band in 1961. Later, she joined the Broadway cast of The Wiz in plenty of time to assure that she wasn’t on the cast album. But she never lacked talent. In the last few years of her life, Reid released six albums as a group leader. This song comes from one of those.

So maybe we haven’t evolved as far as we would like to believe.