|music that makes my ears wiggle|
Mogwai "Young Team" Jetset
Records (740 Broadway, 2nd Floor, NYC NY 10003 USA; licensed from
Chemikal Underground Records)
Instrumental rock music of achingly desolate poignancy, "Young Team" shifts from one bleak soundscape to the next in an often dynamic manner. Smoldering beginnings mutate into crescendoing emotional climaxes replete with dense guitars and flailing drums, sometimes abruptly such as on "like Herod", only to become whisper-soft again just as quickly. "R U still in 2 it" is the one song that does have vocals, tunefully mumbled, which adds to the melancholy backdrop. The last epic, "Mogwai Fear Satan", begins with a repeated motif slowly gaining mass, dropping back down, then surging forth with variations of the same motif until a simple flute melody courtesy of Shona Brown becomes the calm after the storm. The brooding intensity of the rest of the album, a pressure cooker about to explode, is finally given a sense of emotional release during this last song.
Many of the quiet parts consist of a very simple, tender snaky bass line and accompanying ride cymbal or simple drum groove supplied by Martin Bulloch, with John Cumming's guitars usually consisting of either plaintively picked parts or droning, echo-drenched atmospheres. Dominic Aitchisin's bass parts occasionally remind me of Hugo Largo's hypnotic, serpentine bass lines. Spoken words, a distant piano, and panned guitar feedback augment the interludes and intros of songs. Between these quiet parts, Mogwai will often implode into heavier passages, sometimes only for fleeting moments. They don't necessarily rock the hardest between the parts; it's their contrasts that effectively heighten the intensity.
Song titles like "Yes! I am a long way from home" and "A cherry wave from stranded youngsters" add to the imagery. If desolation has a sound, it is Mogwai. Easily one of the best rock releases I've heard in years, and highly recommended.
Contact: PO Box 15107 Glasgow G1 1US Scotland
Olive "Extra Virgin" RCA
Very pleasant pop songs dressed in slick trip-hop and vaguely dub grooves. The soothing vocals of Ruth-Ann weave in through the Robin Taylor-Firth's ethereal-lite keyboard textures. Lyrics as banal as "lighten up, give it up/I see a chance to make it up" or "In a way it's a matter of time/I will not worry for you/you'll be just fine" don't speak to me in any sort of meaningful manner, but the melodies are pretty strong in a sort of British Motown/R&B sort of way. The pretty melodies of the songs and the smooth grooves are the saving graces of "Extra Virgin".
I will admit, however, that somehow, the song "You're Not Alone", the Big Smash Single, has gotten under my skin in a way that makes me play this song again...and again...(I can be a major pop geek sometimes)...hope my neighbors like it. But actually, why should I worry? This is the kind of music that will piss off no one. It's very pretty, pleasant, music that goes down easily, like drinking Hawaiian Punch. I know this sounds insulting, but not everyone can (should?) push the boundaries of sound. If you are looking for aural adventure, it's probably best to look somewhere else; this is music for vanilla lovers, and for that, this works quite well.
Cesaria Evora "Cabo Verde" 1997 Nonesuch
This will be the easiest review I have ever done. Go read my earlier review of her 1995 eponymous release -- earthy-acoustic-rich-lonely-bittersweet and other superlatives. Now imagine that, only better! I kid you not. This time it's produced by Jose da Silva for Lusafrica, with exquisite arrangements by Bau. As with the previous release, Paulino Vieira (who produced the "Cesaria Evora" album) also plays 6 and 12-string guitars, bass, and cavaquinho. Bau, who also played on the previous album, not only contributes violin, but now also 10 and 12-string guitars and solo cavaquinho. Truly sublime.
Brian Eno "The Drop" Thirsty Ear/All Saints
It says "Brian Eno" on the disc, but someone at the factory effed up and stamped "The Drop" on a stack of generic Korg sequencer software demo discs. Brian's gonna be pissed when he finds out.
Bjork "Homogenic" Elektra
I've loved Bjork's voice since I first heard the chorus of The Sugarcube's "Birthday" and saw the 'Cubes perform with Hugo Largo. However, Bjork's post-Sugarcubes output has been quite spotty. But "Homogenic" is the first Bjork album that sounds by far the most cohesive and Bjork-like. The Icelandic String Octet envelope Bjork's open-throated voice while fuzzy drums fed through distortion stompboxes parade through stark soundtracks. The songs use relatively minimal instrumentation but achieve a dense, symphonic heaviness. The most distinctly Bjork-like thing she's done.
Gravitar "Now the Road of Knives"
Noisy, chaotic lo-fi stuff with some really interesting changes, largely via edits. The few "vocals" that are on this CD are mumbled or off in the distance or moaned. The overall sound is often distorted, with some static thrown in, and even a (sampled?) string ensemble for segues.
The guitars are distorted. Ordinarily, this isn't a big deal, but not only are the guitars distorted at the amp -- they also frequently sound distorted due to the recording process itself (overloaded mics, mic preamps, tape saturation??)! Great fun! It sounds as if all the songs were improvised in the room, with the best bits edited together. This album will probably be too discombobulated, rough-sounding and chaotic for most people; the rest of you will eat this up.
Harvey Keene "Casual Heroes" (no label)
I should probably mention at the outset of this review that I am probably not the best person to review this sort of music since I don't have a lot of points of reference or framework to place this acoustic guitar folk duo within. But then again, that never stopped me from writing the Noirin Ni Riain review...
This self-produced 17-song disc features Harvey Keene on vocals and guitars, and Steven Moore credited with guitar and mandolin instrumentals, providing some tasteful counterpoint to Harvey's songs. Steven's picking and accompaniments are extremely complementary, adding some very beautiful shading to Harvey's low-key songs. My sole complaint about this collection of songs is the ninth song, "Pig Meat Rap", extolling the joys of eating pig meat, which to me is rather distracting, and interrupts the flow of the songs.
One of the first impressions that I had upon listening to "Casual Heroes" is that the performances sound very relaxed and comfortable. There is no pretension, the vocals sound very much at ease, the acoustic guitar picking and strumming sounds very relaxed and in the pocket, and the recording is almost "anti-production", as if the microphones were stuck in front of these two almost as an afterthought. The recording is no-frills, and serves the music well, at times capturing the occasional tiny imperfections that a live performance would naturally have without being distracting. I can picture these two bearded gentlemen sitting in faded blue jeans perched on stools picking and singing these tunes, having a great time. This disc has captured that atmosphere extremely well, and that's what makes it enjoyable.
Contact: Harvey Keene 36 Cider Mill Lane Upton, MA 01568
DJ Spooky "Songs of a Dead Dreamer" Asphodel
"Songs of a Dead Dreamer" is swimming in surreal urban ambient soundscapes, often a textural street sound collage. Hip-hop grooves begin, then trail off. Odd ham radio-type chirps groove along, then drop off; vaguely gritty analog keyboard sweeps come in, and static and overheard voices whisk by as if overheard from a passing car. Vocals and bass beats are relatively scarce. Even the occasional percussion and world music sounds creep in. Interestingly, this release is oddly warm and emotional. If Brian Eno had been raised on the Lower East Side today, he might be sculpting music that sounds like this. However, Paul Miller, a.k.a. DJ Spooky, The Subliminal Kid is the creator of this fascinating "illbient" music, which manages to evoke a surreal New York mindwarp while simultaneously transporting the listener to another environment altogether -- heady music for the late-night dance clubs.
DJ Spooky, also a science fiction writer, has written or annotated the fairly lengthy
liner notes in the CD booklet. And anyone who quotes the 1591 Sir Francis Bacon "New
Atlantis" passage which describes, among other things, "sound houses, where we
practice and demonstrate all sounds and their generation...we represent small sounds as
great and deep; likewise divers(e) tremblings and warblings of sound...We have also means
to convey sounds in tubes and pipes, in strange lines and distances..." must be an
alright guy (see the liner notes for "In Strange Lines and Distances")!!! Careen
across town now and grab this disc.
Choying Drolma and Steve Tibbetts "Cho" Hannibal/Rykodisc
Interesting collaboration between Choying Drolma, the other nuns in the Himalayan foothill nunnery of Nagi Gompa, and Steve Tibbetts. I have several other CDs of Tibetan nuns and female Tibetan singers, and sometimes find their phrasing to be a bit shrill for my tastes. However, as you may guess by the fact that I have chosen to review this particular release, this one is not shrill at all. Steve Tibbetts plays some very gentle instrumental accompaniment, adding delicate arrangements with guitars, bouzouki, and bata drums, which quietly adds to the stark beauty of these songs. Other musicians tastefully add the occasional cello, double bass, viola, and violin. The musical accompaniment sound like they were written with the ancient songs, and do not sound out of place, which was a concern of mine when I initially purchased the disc.
The Nagi Gompa is located in the mountains overlooking the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal, and the nuns there practice Tibetan Buddhism which Samg-yum Kunzang Dechen brought with her when fleeing the now Chinese-occupied Tibet. She was instrumental in building many temples and retreat centers in Nepal, and widely promoted the practice of Cho ("Cutting" -- this refers to cutting through ego-clinging) and encouraged women to involve themselves in spiritual practice. These songs and meditative chants from the nunnery all add up to a very beautiful, mysterious release.
Kate & Anna McGarrigle "Matapedia" Hannibal/Rykodisc
"Matapedia" invites you to come inside, sit cross-legged next to the fireplace, and experience the enchanting down-home songs of Kate and Anna McGarrigle. These two songwriter/singer sisters have returned with their first release since "Heartbeats Accelerating" six years ago. There is a sobering sadness that pervades this album, but the music at every turn seems fresh and timeless. Low-key accordion, acoustic guitar, piano, and fiddle support the intimacy of this French-Canadian flavored music. There is a simplicity to the lyrics and the music, but that simplicity is also what adds to the charm. Recorded by Joe Boyd (Fairport Convention, R.E.M.), Pierre Marchand (Sarah McLachlan), and Michel Pepin.
Noirin Ni Riain "Stor Amhran"
Sounds True Audio
I love this sean nos style of singing -- its grace and beauty bring out the Irish in me, and believe me, that's no easy feat! Gaelic soprano Noirin Ni Riain (pronounced NorEEN n'REEyin) sings the traditional sean nos (literally, "in the old style") form of unaccompanied singing. Possessing great beauty and complexity, it is thought to have been handed down from the bardic tradition, which died out in the early seventeenth century with the demise of the old Gaelic order. It's a very demanding form of singing, requiring the singer to vary the interpretation of each verse by subtle changes in tempo, timbre, stress, and ornamentation. And it's that ornamentation that especially captivates me.
Now that I've gone on about the unaccompanied singing form, I should probably mention here that the singing on this album is accompanied, often in the form of spare harmonium/organ drones and tin whistles. Riain's singing was recorded in Glenstal Abbey, and it seems to add a timeless albeit slightly murky resonance to these secular and sacred songs.
My chief criticisms of this disc would be the aforementioned murkiness of the vocals and the thin quality of the production. Also, the overall production is flat to a point of distraction. I don't have many examples of sean nos in my collection, so I honestly don't know how this compares to, for instance, Maighread Ni Dhomnhaill, considered to be one of the masters of this style. However, I do know that there are some pretty moments on this disc.
Spring Heel Jack "68 Million Shades of..." Island Records
British duo John Coxon and Ashley Wales create an interesting electronic groove pop
often lumped in with the drum 'n' bass and jungle scene that other electronic groups such
as Photek and LTJ Bukem honed their breakbeats in. First known for their production work
of Everything But the Girl's "Walking Wounded", Spring Heel Jack have now
created their own slightly delicate, not-quite-ambient version of instrumental music,
infusing decidedly jazz-like drum grooves with an infectious and bristling drive, often
fueled by low throbbing bass lines. Samples and keyboards round out the ambience.
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