Monthly Archives: October 2010

Natacha Atlas – Mounqaliba (In a State of Reversal)

January 01, 1970

(Six
Degrees)

 

www.sixdegreerecords.com

 

Sung
mostly in classical Arabic, Mounqaliba
(In a State of Reversal)
is Natacha Atlas’s latest attempt to trace her musical lineage. The
Brussels-born, Magreb-rooted singer is serious about the undertaking, but not
literal-minded. Recorded in London,
Atlas’ principal musical base since her days in the ethno-rave Transglobal
Underground, the album mingles traditional Arabic song with Western jazz and
folk-rock. Sprinkled amid the tunes Atlas co-wrote (with Egyptian-bred Samy
Bishai and others) are versions of the traditional “Muwashah
Ozkourini” as well as Nick Drake’s “River Man” and Francoise
Hardy’s “A Nuit Est Sur la Ville.”

 

Bishai
programmed the album’s synthbeats, but such electronic touches are subtle. The
principal instruments are piano — sometimes played by British jazz musician
Zoe Rahman — violins, accordion and ney (a kind of flute). While drums patter
gently, such upbeat numbers as “Batkalim” and “Taalet”

are
fueled mostly by their robust backing vocals and swooping, Turko-Egyptian-style
strings.

 

“Upbeat”
is a relative term. Nothing on Mounqaliba could compete on the dance floor with Atlas’ thumping early material (both with
and without the Transglobals). The album’s mood is delicate and somewhat
melancholy, an outlook linked to samples of Egyptian street noise and distracting
spoken-word asides about economic globalization and such. (The remarks come
mostly from the Zeitgeist movement’s Jacques Fresco and Peter Joseph, although
Barack Obama also has a cameo.) These attempts to explain the state of things
seem out of place on an album that’s most worldly at its most intimate.

 

DOWNLOAD: “Muwashah
Ozkourini,” “Taalet” MARK
JENKINS

Ben Folds & Nick Hornby – Lonely Avenue

January 01, 1970

(Nonesuch)

 

www.nonesuch.com

 

 

Lonely Avenue, the collaboration between American
singer-songwriter Ben Folds and British novelist/essayist Nick Hornby – whose
key subject is rock ‘n’ roll – dares you to criticize it with the lyrics of its
opening song, “A Working Day”:

 

“Some guy on the net
thinks I suck/And he should know/He’s got his own blog.”

 

Talk about preemptive strikes! But nevertheless, much as
Folds – who provided the music, sings and also produces – and lyricist Hornby
might like to present this album as an important, music-literary event that
transcends mere rock (and rock criticism), it has some distracting weaknesses
along with the strengths. A key problem is that, on several of the faster songs
– and “A Working Day” is an example – the melody is chasing the lyrics, with
Folds’ slight, thin voice unable to bring the two together.

 

Another, and maybe this is the result of Folds’ tendency to
let his voice push upward at the end of lines, is that some songs come off too
bright, too weightless, for the subject matter. The key “Doc Pomus,” a tribute
to how the late, physically challenged songwriter (of Ray Charles’ “Lonely
Avenue” and several Elvis songs) turned his tough life into Top-40 material,
lacks gravitas. One senses a Steely Dan sensibility here – an offhandedly sunny
delivery hiding a darker meaning. But Folds’ voice lacks the caustic acidity of
Donald Fagen.

 

In other songs, Hornby for all his talents sometimes delivers
an underwhelming lyric – “Levi Johnston’s Blues” simply isn’t as interesting as
its real-life subject and “Your Dogs” is awfully forced.

 

Still, elements do come together for several really striking
songs, Beatlesque in the tradition of an exquisitely arranged McCartney ballad
like “Yesterday or “Eleanor Rigby.” “Picture Window,” which contains Hornby’s
best and most sensitively observed lyric, masterfully uses implication rather
than overt statement to tell of a mother having to take her child to a hospital
on New Year’s Eve. And the empathetic “Claire’s Ninth” is bathed in gorgeous #Pet Sounds#-era harmonies and also
gives Folds a chance to showcase his flourishing piano work. (On other songs,
he uses Moog nicely.)

 

Throughout, the album benefits from string arrangements by
Paul Buckmaster, maybe pop music’s best ever – listen to the Stones’ “Moonlight
Mile” if you question that.

 

Hornby’s novels High
Fidelity
and Juliet, Naked
have a meta-quality about rock history, placing their fiction in a real-seeming
world of pop music. The album’s final song, “Belinda,” has some of that.
Intentionally overblown in its prettiness, so that you both like it and smile at its excessive grandiosity,
it slyly recalls a 1970s power ballad like “Mandy” in telling of a man
leaving  his lover for someone he met on
a plane:

 

“She had big
breasts/And a nice smile/No kids, either/she gave me extra complimentary
champagne.”
(Does this mean Hornby only flies first-class?)

 

Folds is at his best balancing the song’s humor and bathos,
even supplying a coda that sounds like McCartney getting down on “I’m Down.”

 

You can fault this album’s weaknesses while still admiring
its ambition. Folds actually showed a similar ambition producing William
Shatner’s great (and overlooked) Has
Been,
for which he and Hornby contributed one of the best songs, “That’s Me
Trying.”  Good to see that sparked this
further collaboration, and that they’re still trying.

 

DOWNLOAD: “Picture Window,” “Belinda” STEVEN
ROSEN

 

 

Toubab Krewe – TK2

January 01, 1970

(Nat Geo Music)

 

www.worldmusic.nationalgeographic.com

 

Asheville,
North Carolina, is a thriving
arts community in the midst of the deep south, so it’s no surprise that a band
like Toubab Krewe would grow from such fertile soil. The instrumental quintet
made a reputation from adapting African guitar styles, particularly the bluesy
textures of Ali Farka Touré, to rock, but in truth the group has expanded into
a more general eclecticism on TK2.

 

Tracks like “Carnivalito,” “Konkoba” and “Mariama” do indeed
highlight the group’s African influences through the nimble kora picking of
Justin Perkins. But “Area Code” weaves African snake guitar through a
psychedelic haze before hitting the highway running. “Nirvana the Buffalo” rides the surf
while cranking the volume on the beaches of two nations. “Beacon,” “Mansani
Cisse” and “Holy Grail” incorporate reggae flavorings, while “Sirens”
reconnects African music to its natural successor the blues. The improvised
“One Night Watkins” gives jam bands a good name, while “Gine Fare” focuses
everything the band likes into one titanic psych/prog/surf/African rock anthem.

 

Genrefuckers supreme, Toubab Krewe embodies the pan-sexual
ideal of musical open-mindedness.

 

DOWNLOAD: “Gine
Fare,” “Konkoba,” “Nirvana the Buffalo”
MICHAEL TOLAND

Roots Manuva Meets Wrongtom – Duppy Writer

January 01, 1970

(Big Dada)

 

www.bigdada.com

 

Roots Manuva joins with the mysterious producer Wrongtom for
an album of roots-infused remixes of mostly older material. Roots Manuva, whose
combustible cocktail of hip hop, reggae, dancehall and dub helped originate
grime and dubstep, has long spliced street poetry and protest to slinky
backbeats. His collaboration with Wrongtom accentuates the island rhythms of
some of his best-known songs. “Tropical, shit, you know?  Like the juice that you drink in the
morning,” guest DJ Riddla observes, as the upbeated slouch of “Butterfly Crab
Walk,” creaks into organ bleating motion, and indeed, the whole album has the
heat of equatorial sun on urban sidewalks.   

 

Track titles are slightly altered versions of older song
names – so that “Chin Up” is a re-imagination of “Chin High” and “Proper Tings
Juggled” is a remixed “Juggle Tings Proper.” 
“Kick Up Your Foot”, originally from 2008’s Slime and Reason, becomes, somewhat amusingly, “Lick Up Ya Foot,”
in the process losing some of its futuristic gloss in favor of a warmer, more
organic vibe. A jazzy dialogue between piano and organ replaces the original’s
queasy, technologically sleek synthesizers, and the multi-voiced chorus turns
less militant and paranoid, more easy-going and relaxed. “Rebuff” the remixed
version of “Buff Nuff” which was the starting point for Manuva and Wrongtom’s
partnership, has a wonderful slackness to it, despite machine-gun rapid sprays
of syncopated verbiage. The highlight, though is “Motion 82”, a new take on
“Motion 5000”, which appeared on Manuva’s first full-length Brand New Second Hand. The 1999 version
is dense with strings, its twitchy beat warping this lushness into uneasy
shapes. “Motion 82”, by contrast, layers rickety offbeats of organ over the
slow swagger of bass and drums in an infectious reggae groove.

 

There’s only one original track on Duppy Writer, the Ricky Ranking DJ’d “Jah Warriors,” which sounds a
bit chillier and less organic than the re-made cuts, but otherwise fits into
the backbeat-heavy whole. Still these remixes veer far enough from the
originals that long-time fans will find new things to think about while
listening – and they’re strong enough that even new listeners can enjoy them on
their own, without knowing the material.

 

DOWNLOAD: “Motion
82” “Lick Up Your Foot” “Jah Warriors” JENNIFER KELLY

 

 

 

 

 

Various Artists – Bubbling Under Volume One: 32 Tracks that Bubbled Under the Billboard Charts from 1961 to 1964

January 01, 1970

(Rare Rockin’ Records) (import)

 

www.rarerockinrecords.com

 

 

It used to be, in the early 1960s, that the key drama in
caring about rock ‘n’ roll was following the weekly Top 40 on AM radio,
wherever you lived. Like miniature lives moving from birth to death, songs
debuted, rose, fell and disappeared. If their recording artists were lucky, or
big enough stars, they came back quickly with another hit. If not, they could
spend months – or years – in oblivion. Or, worse they became condemned as
one-hit wonders. They ceased to exist on Top 40 radio…so they ceased to exist.

 

The Wizard of the “star making machinery behind the popular
song” – to quote maybe Joni Mitchell’s best line ever – started lifting the
curtains later that decade, when FM radio set out to educate its
ever-more-curious audience about rock culture and its creators. And ever since,
there’s been a market – via books, Websites, magazines, reissues, festivals –
for those who want to learn more, retroactively, about rock from the era before
it began to be taken so seriously.

 

But how much more is there to learn? The import Bubbling Under Volume One really pushes
that question. We’ve known for some time now that, while local radio stations
only played about 40 songs at any given time, the national (American)
music-industry publication Billboard charted 100 “hits” weekly. But Rare
Rockin’ Records, the Australian reissue label, now has collected 32 songs that
“bubbled under” the Hot 100 – as low as 130 – during 1961-1964 on a
supplemental chart that Billboard ran. None of these 32 ever rose to hit status
– the ” bubbling under” chart was their graveyard.

 

Those years are telling. Post-rockabilly and pre-Beatles,
they’re considered the nadir of rock, when Brill Building songwriters and
producers/arrangers tried to turn too many pretty boys and girls into stars
with artificial-sounding “teen-idol” material. There were, of course, plenty of
great songs then (there always are), but how many good ones could there be this
far down the food chain? How many of these did program directors, etc., get
wrong at the time?

 

Maybe ten or so on this collection were good enough to
deserve to be hits, although not classics: The Murmaids’ “Heartbreak Ahead” was
a decent follow-up to “Popsicles and Icicles”; Rick Nelson’s “There’s Not a
Minute” was better-than-average for him in this fallow period; Jackie Wilson’s
“Baby That’s All” was a worthy harbinger of a hit that followed a year later,
“Baby Workout”; and a girl-group called the Elektras showed dynamic energy with
the stop-start, Shirelles-style melody of “All I Want to Do Is Run,” which
switches from minor-key verse to a rip-roaring chorus. And there are a few more
good ones, including one by a Bernadette Castro, who gave up the music business
to run her parents’ Castro Convertibles company.

 

But more, this collection is insightful in showing how the
Top 40 – and the pop-music business – worked in this era. Everyone wanted a
Brill Building hit – far more than such star songwriters as Mann & Weil,
Goffin & King, Leiber & Stoller and Howie Greenfield could manufacture
on order. They also wanted the superbly crafted pop arrangements – the
swinging, punctuated string sections, the snazzy little guitar runs, the
intuitive balance of major and minor chords – of Bobby Vee’s or Gene Pitney’s
hits of the era, which featured consummate craftsmanship and set a standard.

 

But the songwriters show more perspiration than inspiration
on “Just Another Fool” (a Goffin-King composition for Curtis Lee, a singer with
little range) or Mann & Weil’s corny “I Wanna Thank Your Folks” for Johnny
Burnette. Too often, in order to make these songs slightly different than the
hits they seek to imitate, the writers/producers/arrangers insert a false
sounding chord change – going major or minor where your ear wants to hear the
opposite.

 

Sometimes the problem is the performer’s. Del Shannon – who
wrote his own material and could evoke scary desperation with his falsetto howl
– seriously compromises himself imitating Vee with his fussy “I Won’t Be
There.” Dion hadn’t yet found the swaggering courage (or good material) when he
recorded the wimpy “Somebody Nobody Wants” in 1961. Timi Yuro, as forcefully
dramatic a singer as the Top 40 ever had (“What’s a Matter, Baby”), suffered a
momentary hammy moment when choking up at the end of Willie Nelson’s
“Permanently Lonely,” thus harming an otherwise-strong performance. Not awful,
mind you, just off enough to betray weakness in an unforgiving competitive
environment. 

 

To be fair, the album’s liner-note researcher/writer, Mike
Edwards, believes these songs to be lost gems. And Rare Rockin’ treats them
like that with the sumptuous layout, photos and well-written information for
each selection. To that, we can thank them for their anthropological-level
work.

 

This album’s greatest value is in letting us see into the
process by which hundreds – thousands – of young singers, all trying
desperately to have careers rather than make enduring art, put their faith in a
system they hoped would provide them with the right stuff to keep going.
Somehow, it makes you appreciate the songs that hit big all the more to also
hear the ones that tried hard but didn’t.

 

DOWNLOAD:  Bernadette Castro – “His Lips Get in the Way”;
The Elektras – “All I Want to Do Is Run” STEVEN ROSEN

 

Louie Bluie

January 01, 1970

(The Criterion Collection; 60 minutes)

 

www.criterion.com

 

BY MARY LEARY

 

Art, cultural movements, and grassroots stirrings that envision
and embody a rich way of life for “the common man” (and woman) tend to evoke
gut-level reverence from this quarter. Accordingly, a pause was indicated after
initially viewing this film. Even if the exuberance of fanzine writing weren’t
pretty much extinct, jumping up and down and crying, “This is amazing!” over
and over only works sometimes, with certain readers. And there is no particular
moment or place in Louie Bluie when its
subject, visual artist and mandolin/guitar/fiddle master Howard Armstrong, says
anything about a determinist cultural movement.

 

But as this rich, ingeniously woven document unfolds, one
realizes that before Robert Crumb drew his first line there was another trippy
artist in an incredibly similar vein.  When it falls from Armstrong’s lips, one also
realizes that a phrase heretofore associated more or less with
Crumb/hippies/San Francisco, “Different strokes for different folks,” was uttered
by musicians and hipsters at least 15 years previous. The film underscores the
sometimes anorexic girth of the line between blues and country emanating from
the deep South. Without much being said on the subject, it showcases artists so
committed to their form, and lifestyle, that living through racist policies and
attitudes was treated like just another challenge.

 

While Terry Zwigoff’s more recent work (Art School Confidential, Bad
Santa
) has received mixed reviews, between 1986 and 2001 he fashioned a
trio of films with staying power: this one, Crumb,
and Ghost World. Two of those focus
on offbeat cultural strata and/or the struggles of its protagonists to find
themselves within their environments. But “Louie Bluie” radiated such charisma,
one might say the world sometimes adapted itself to him. We see this in scenes
like the one where his ex’s sister keeps cracking up at his stories and can’t
wait to jump into a gospel jam with him. We see it when Armstrong interacts
with merchants in a Chicago marketplace. We see it when he performs: Armstrong
exemplifies the musician who elevates other players while being open to
whatever the moment has in store. And our eyes pop with it when he shares his
intricate, comical and revealing (of the male psyche) masterwork, The ABC’s of Pornography, with
astonished page-turners.

 

Great art is often marked by serendipity. Zwigoff’s
commentary reveals the meant-to-be manner in which the documentary took shape.
Michael Sragow’s insightful liner notes knit together Armstrong’s full-color
drawings in the booklet accompanying the DVD. We learn how “Banjo” Ikey
Robinson got sprung from a depressing downward spiral to play with Armstrong. Guitarist
Ted Bogan’s failing health and spirit were revived by his involvement in the
project.

 

Even folks with no interest in jug bands, vintage folk,
American history, or stream-of-consciousness artwork should know that Louie Bluie, rescued by this reissue from
obscurity and the likely death of “vinegar syndrome” (disintegration of the
original ‘86 print), beautifully presents  the story of a phenomenal talent. I laughed
and cried, often at once, throughout. Sometimes it was in response to
Armstrong’s way with words, as when he describes an aroused man (“He got harder
than a Chinese arithmetic problem”), a friend with a liking for wine (“He’d
drink the sweat off a grape”), or when he comments that the “supply of talk
exceeds the demand.” It’s all pulled together so lovingly that no one should
feel ashamed for jumping up and down about this film. It gives Armstrong, who
died in 2003 at 94, the treatment so often owed, but too rarely paid, to American
roots players.

 

Oh, and among the musical interludes there’s a pretty
swoon-inducing rendition of a tune penned in 1931, “Wrap Your Troubles in
Dreams.” It’s still on the money.

 

Special Features:

Audio commentary featuring Zwigoff

30 minutes of unused footage

Illustrations by Howard Armstrong

Stills Gallery

Sarah Blasko – As Day Follows Night

January 01, 1970

(Universal Records/Dramatico)

 

www.dramatico.com

 

Is adorable such a bad thing? If you’d tend to answer “Yes”
or even “Meh” to that, then chances are, you’d find this record way too cute to
rate a listen. Hell, I’ve only ever seen four pictures of the woman and that
was enough to have seen her in two different bow ties. But she wears it well.
Not the bowties. The cuteness, which places her closer to Regina Spektor’s
school of cute than Katy Perry’s (if not far removed from the cuteness of Sara
Bareilles’ “King of Anything”).

 

You know that story where St. Vincent says she fell asleep
to Disney movies while writing the music to “Actor?” The opening track here,
“Down on Love,” sounds way more like the end result of that particular approach
to finding inspiration in the damnedest places. It’s effortlessly dreamy, in
waltz-time, no less, with a melody that makes me think of Leonard Cohen’s
“Hallelujah” as sung by a woman whose wistful delivery conjures images of Amy
Adams in Enchanted. These are all
good things, I promise. Other highlights of Blasko’s third album range from the
Peter-Gabriel-producing-’60s-girl-groups swagger of the aching “We Won’t Run”
to the loping, country-as-Magnetic Fields-would-do-it vibe of the bittersweet
“Hold on My Heart.”

 

DOWNLOAD: “Down
on Love,” “Hold on My Heart” A. WATT

Silje Nes – Opticks

January 01, 1970

(Fat Cat)

 

www.fatcatrecords.com

 

Norway’s Silje Nes home records, and while it adds warmth
and intimacy to her songs, they come off so delicate and cocoon-like they can
induce claustrophobia — you can’t help but think she would benefit from
another musician’s hide-toughening input and the room it would require to let
them into her songs. Now, Nes wields delicacy like an anvil, and that warmth
and intimacy feels definitely like the Nordic variety. Her sophomore release –
while certainly lovely at times – also suffers from these contradictions.

 

You have to start with Nes’ lighter-than-air vocals, which
dominate each track but never rise above the whisper decibel; they’re so soft
they tend to shy away in the folds of other instruments. That’s a double-edged
sword – her voice is foremost another texture, which can be nice, but it
relegates lyrics to an afterthought. On certain tracks you don’t give a damn —
on “Levitation,” her sibilant delivery coats what passes for verses in pleasing
mists – while on others it’s simply too insubstantial. On “Symmetry of An Empty
Space,” for instance, Nes makes The Innocence Mission chick sound like Tom
Waits; on “Crystals,” she slows to a near-talk pace and sounds like your
prepubescent kid sister.

 

To anchor the songs, Nes uses crystalline guitar figures
similar to the circular patterns Tara Jane O’Neill employs, though not quite as
hypnotically riveting. Still, they serve as ballast for songs so slight and ethereal
they seem to almost dissolve at times. Even the percussion — Nes played
timpani in an orchestra and bass drum in a marching band – usually sounds like
an usher politely asking you to move along.

 

Nes’ real strength lies in her use of accents, best exemplified
in her blend of the organic and processed. The viola on “The Glass Harp”  contrasts perfectly with a swath of synth
static that also doubles as a bridge; a glock and melodica bring welcome
leavening to the sinister undertow in “Silver > Blue”; on “The Card House,”
multiple layers of guitars create a gorgeous quilt for delicate background
noise; on “Rewind” the chirping birds and background loops sound like a child’s
music box as imagined by the Brothers Grimm; and the melodic chop shop effects
and beats of “Shades” place it proudly in the company of cut-and-paste wizards
like Four Tet and Books.

 

 “Levitation,” the
disc’s longest track, embodies both the good and bad about this record. Riding
a Moog’s percussive and catchy beat, Nes drapes it with feedback and synth
noise (and those previously mentioned sibilants) through the first half of the
six-minute song, creating genuine heat for the only time on the record. She
drops the beat during a noise-filled middle eight, and then threatens to bring it
back from then on without delivering. The song peters out without resolution –
a perfectly acceptable outcome if what came before didn’t cry out for closure –
as Nes mumbles something indecipherable in the far-off distance.

 

Still, there’s a lot to recommend Nes, and two records into
her solo career she shows the kind of sonic curiosity and nascent chop shop
skills that usually results in something memorable one day. Opticks comes close at times, but the
distance between the promise and the final tally for most of these songs is
just enough still to keep their warmth at arm’s length.

 

DOWNLOAD: “Shades,”
“The Glass Harp” JOHN SCHACHT

 

Frankie Rose and the Outs – Frankie Rose and the Outs

January 01, 1970

(Slumberland)

 

www.slumberlandrecords.com

 

Frankie
Rose gained her fame and fortune in the indie scene by hitting the skins for
such outfits as the Vivian Girls and Crystal Stilts (Dum Dum Girls, too), but
last year she shed the background image and released a terrific 7″ on the
Slumberland label (“Thee Only One”) so to say that he debut full-length
was highly anticipated in the world of folks who follow labels like Slumberland,
Captured Tracks, etc. would be a bit of an understatement.  And the verdict
is… well, it’s a good record with a few great songs on it but not quite
the monster folks were hoping for.

 

On
the long-play format  Rose and company haven’t strayed too far from her
love of ‘60s pop of Ronettes/Spector meets ‘80s UK pop of Shop Assistants and Jesus
& Mary Chain wall of noise pop tunes (love that drum sound!). Some of the
songs feel like interludes or not quite finishes pieces. Opener  “Hollow
Life” is church organ and dreamy vocals while another fragment, “Lullaby for
Roads & Miles,” sounds gorgeous but sounds like it could be more
realized and “Memo” nearly dissolves into prettiness. Onto the great stuff,
“Little Brown Haired Girls”  is a soaring symphony of bells, whistles,
reverb that you wish would go on forever while “That’s What People Told Me” is
a choppy garage monster and “Girlfriend Island” brings to mind all of those
C-86 bands in the best way possible.

 

Bet
the monster will come next time.

 

DOWNLOAD: “Little Brown Haired Girls”, “Girlfriend
Island” TIM HINELY

 

 

Blonde Redhead – Penny Sparkle

January 01, 1970

(4AD)

 

www.4AD.com

 

With
each new album. Blonde Redhead moves away from the abrasive second-generation
no wave trio that sprung up more than 15 years ago. No one can sustain that
type of ruckus for that long and Penny
Sparkle
creates some heady dance music, blurring the lines between
instruments and production. Like 2007’s 23,
Alan Moulder mixed the final product, but production chores were handled by the
team of Van Rivers and The Subliminal Kid (Fever Ray, Massive Attack), who
really give the band a new coat of paint. Drum machine and synth bass usher in
“Here Sometimes” which, while disarming to longtime fans, still sounds fairly
enchanting. That same can be said for vocalist Kazu Mazino, who sounds pretty
and sweet here and throughout the album.

 

Once you
get accustomed to its sound, Penny
Sparkle
‘s dreamier moments, like guitars initially thought to be buried in
the mix, reveal themselves. But the songs all seem to reside around the same
mid-tempo area, making the album drag during one sitting.

 

DOWNLOAD: “My Plants are Dead,”
“Love or Prison” MIKE SHANLEY