New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Month: May, 2012

Malian All-Stars Rally for Peace

Here’s JeConte & the Mali All-Stars with desert blues icons Khaira Arby and Vieux Farka Toure plus the great Bassekou Kouyate doing Le Monde pour la Paix (The World for Peace) from their forthcoming album Mali Blues for Peace. This is how it works in the third world. JeConte, about life after the latest coup: “I went by a big hotel to use the high speed internet and got trapped there for several days. I tried to escape numerous times, was threatened at gunpoint and had to escape out the back of the hotel in the middle of the night under very precarious circumstances.” They’ve set up a relief organization, SoulNow.org who deserve your support if you’re in a position to offer any.

Virgin with Eight Kids – For Free

Greta Getler and her clever all-star art-rock band the Universal Thump celebrate the komodo dragon who gave birth to 8 little komodo dragons via parthogenesis in a new free download, titled Flora. The backstory is that Gertler was enlisted to write this lushly orchestrated, coyly soaring art/disco/pop number for an Australian superstar who shall remain nameless. The song was rejected so Gertler decided to put it out herself, backed by Adam D Gold on drums, Jonathan Maron on bass, Pete Galub (who’s got a great new album himself coming out soon) on guitar, Barney McAll on organ, and an amazing horn section of J. Walter Hawkes, Sean Sonderegger and the Jazz Passengers’ Roy Nathanson. From the Universal Thump’s forthcoming double album; get it free here. You can also check out the video.

SOJA: New Jack Reggae, Oldschool Philosophy

“I wonder if you know what I’m saying when you sing along?” SOJA frontman Jacob Hemphill asks his audience during a rare lighthearted moment on the band’s new album, Strength to Survive. As much sarcasm as that line may have, it carries just as much sincerity. This is a deep record. The vernacular, the accents and the music are a lot different than they were when roots reggae was reaching critical mass in Jamaica around 1972, but the vibe is the same. The Rasta artists of that era were looking for philosophical and spiritual answers, not to mention solutions to the same mundane earth crisis problems that have only multiplied since then, and SOJA are the same. Most people think of reggae as lighthearted party music, and a lot of it is – and there’s nothing wrong with that – but this band goes deeper, not only lyrically, but also musically.

SOJA’s not-so-secret weapon is keyboardist Patrick O’Shea. The band’s sonic architect in the same way that Richard Wright was to Pink Floyd, he shifts between an endless, lustrous series of glimmering, echoing, twinkling, purring, soaring and swirling electric piano, organ and synth textures. Hemphill’s smart, thoughtful guitar playing echoes his lyrical sensibility: rather than assuming the lead, he takes a conversational role, with O’Shea in particular. Bassist Bobby Lee Jefferson and drummer Ryan Berty make a purist, fat yet strikingly stripped-down rhythm section that goes all the way back to rocksteady for its source; the harmonies of trumpeter Rafael Rodriguez and saxophonist Hellman Escorcia often add a potently plaintive, or anthemic, or triumphant edge, depending on the song.

There are many different grooves here. Among the slower ones, Slow Down examines the toll alienation takes on the spirit; Be With Me Now is a moody attempt to fend off an impending breakup that builds to a powerful, anthemic swell which the audience probably feeds off of at live shows. There’s the funky, faster Everything Changes, a trio of reggae-pop songs with 60s soul tinges, and a straight-up, catchy backbeat rock song that closes the album’s twelve tracks. But the best songs here are the serious ones. Gone Today ponders a carpe diem theme, synthesizer oscillating quizzically over its upbeat bounce, while It’s Not Too Late offers a hopeful message, with a tasty mix of blippy horns, twinkling keys and the album’s single guitar solo (which is a good one). Not Done Yet works an unexpectedly stripped-down groove with hints of jazz in the chords. The two strongest tracks here are both big, biting anthems: the first is the opening cut, Mentality, which calls out trouble spots all over the world, BP Oil poisoning the planet along with the war profiteers: “Forwards never, backwards ever,” Hemphill muses sarcastically. The other is the Peter Tosh-inspired, apocalyptic title track: “Does the dollar really matter when the whole world’s gone?” Hemphill asks, “Our world will recover in a billion years, but fuck it if we’re not here.” Words of wisdom from a band who deserve to be taken seriously. SOJA are on tour this summer and are likely to move a ton of these smartly and warmly produced albums at shows; the entire schedule is here.

Emel Mathlouthi Captures the Horrors of Fascism and the Thrill of Revolution

Fifty years ago, it was Americans who were writing some of the most powerful and resonant protest anthems and songs of freedom; a generation later, it was the British. Today, it’s the people of the Arabic-speaking world. To fail to acknowledge these artists at this moment, as their message of transformation and genuine hope spreads around the globe, would be the same as dismissing Bob Dylan in 1964 or the Clash in 1979. A star in France where she moved after leaving her native Tunisia, singer/guitarist Emel Mathlouthi became to last year’s Tunisian revolution what Warda was for the Algerians a half-century ago: a lightning rod, and a particularly fearless one. Mathlouthi’s album Kelmti Horra (Arabic for “Freedom of Speech”) is out recently worldwide from World Village Music – while the obvious audience is an Arabic-speaking one, it’s a riveting listen whether or not you understand the lyrics.

By any standard, Mathlouthi is an extraordinary singer, highly nuanced, evoking an intense tenderness yet often direct to the point of being confrontational. She cites both Dylan and Cheikh Imam as influences, and draws as much from American soul music and new wave rock like Siouxsie & the Banshees as she does from Arabic pop and classical styles, often layering her vocals into a mighty, ornate wall of harmonies. Behind her, violin and piano stand out stark and plaintive against murky low-register keyboard drones and the ominous boom or thud of a drum machine or percussion loop. This is haunted, exhausted, angry, bitter, wounded wartime music, with the inescapable message that if we continue to let the world be run by dictators and speculators, that choice is suicidal.

The album begins on a soul-infused but wary note with Houdou On (Calm), rising and then falling down into a nebulous interlude that she comes out of with an insistent intensity. Ma Ikit (Not Found) alternates a growling Marilyn Manson-ish synth bassline with an anguished, sweepingly anthemic minor-key melody. Rhythms here tend to be straight-up and closer to rock than the Middle East, whether the slow, stalking, Peter Gabriel-ish Stranger, with its stern chromatic riffage and Mathlouthi’s perfect English lyric, or the bittersweet, surprisingly delicate title track, a cautionary tale familiar to anyone watching his or her back while the spycams roll and the troops roll out.

Ya Tounes Ya Meskina (Poor Tunisia), the anthem that started the ball rolling, sets vocals that offer comfort rather than fueling the fires of rage, against a backdrop of ominous motorik synth, echoey syndrums and a string arrangement that’s absolutely majestic – it’s no surprise that this was such a hit. By contrast, Dhalem (Tyrant) is crushingly sarcastic, a faux lullaby with a creepy music box interpolated into its pleading, longing melody. And the epic Ethnia Twila (The Road Is Long) slowly and wistfully unwinds through constant tempo changes into a final crescendo of crowd noise and children chanting resolutely.

The single most gripping track here might be Dfina (Burial), a bitter Tunisian-flavored art-rock anthem that shifts between distant disillusion and raw, unhinged rage. The most pop-oriented one is Hinama (When), with its ominous post-new wave production and watery guitars. The album ends with another multi-part epic, Yezzi (Enough), shifting from a pensive folk rock-tinged intro as it reaches for freedom once and for all, resolute and indomitable. The album is best enjoyed as a whole – it’s hard to turn away once Mathlouthi hits her stride. There aren’t many albums that pack this kind of impact: simply one of 2012’s best, and probably destined for iconic status as both historical artifact and artistic achievement.

Emel Mathlouthi and her band play the Alliance Francaise, 55 E 59th St. in Manhattan on May 22, 2013 at 8 PM. Tickets and information are available here.

Who Are the Tiki Brothers?

The Tiki Brothers are a psychedelic surf rock band from Brooklyn. They’ve got a couple of Soundcloud pages worth of lo-fi live recordings, ostensibly at a concert on a barge, which sound like they were recorded on somebody’s phone. But in the age of mp3s, who cares? This band is great! They’ve taken a bunch of surf classics and a handful of 60s pop hits and stretched them out, jamband style, sometimes slowing them down a little, and the whole thing works like a charm. Sometimes it sounds like they have three guitars; other times a keyboard is definitely there in the mix along with the guitars and the rhythm section. The whole page is a good party mix, makes a great lunch-break playlist to put you in a good mood again after a bad morning at work, or if, say, you tend bar or you work in retail and you’re able to plug your phone into the PA, just click on the page and let it play.

What’s coolest about it is how imaginative the arrangements and the playing is: this isn’t a bunch of old farts phoning in covers of their favorite boomer radio hits. There’s a punkish Pipeline with wah guitar, a perfect example of a cheap effect making a huge difference. There’s also a jangly Mr. Moto with keyboards, an unexpectedly welcome (and purist) touch; a crisp and straight-up Hawaii 5-0; Secret Agent Man with the lead guitar playing cool Mexican harmonies instead of the usual lead line; and I Fought the Law done very, very close to the Bobby Fuller original rather than the Clash hit – you can practically see the ghost of Buddy Holly smiling overhead. The most expansive, jam-oriented stuff includes an almost woozy, laid-back Surf Rider; a hazy six-minute Summertime with a trumpet solo; an even hazier, Grateful Dead-tinged jam on Endless Summer; and a meandering House of the Rising Sun. The lo-fi audience recording leaves no room for lies: this is what they sound like live.

So who are these guys? There’s obviously a lot of talent here, considering how much effort and imagination went into reinventing these songs. Well…there’s a Facebook page for the band with a handful of photos, but nothing to indicate who’s who or does what, or even if the band is still together (they played a gig at Cafe Steinhof in Park Slope a couple of months ago). Of course, one possible solution would be to employ the face recognition technology that Facebook bought from the Mossad, but that would be nosy and evil. Is this the same outfit who put out a fusion jazz album about ten years ago? Could be: they’ve got the chops for it, even if it’s a completely different style of music. Watch this space for updates regarding possible future live New York area appearances by this mysterious band.

The Bombay Royale Takes Classic Bollywood Psychedelia to the Next Level

The heart of what the Bombay Royale plays on their new album You Me Bullets Love is surf music. But over the driving drums and ominously twanging guitars, the eleven-piece band from Melbourne, Australia has dramatic blasts of brass, lush woodwinds and strings, sitar, tabla and all sorts of vintage keyboards. Their songs are mostly original material inspired by the classic psychedelic sounds of 1960s Bollywood, along with a couple of vintage covers from that era. Some of this is such a vivid homage that it’s almost satirical how this band gets that sound down so cold; when they’re not romping through one chase scene after another, they’re slinking along on a psychedelic disco boudoir groove that appropriates American tropes from the 70s like woozy bass synth, maybe an Omnichord, an Arp or whatever the cheap pre-Casio keyboard du jour happened to be in India circa 1980. This isn’t a subtle record by a long shot but it’s an awful lot of fun.

James Bond organ and ominous low brass kick off the Henry Mancini-esque opening track, Monkey Fight Snake, which picks up steam with Bob Knob’s wicked hollowbody bass pulse, managing to boom yet also cut through like a scimitar. As with most of the tracks here, the guy/girl vocals of Shourav Bhattacharya and Parvyn Kaur Singh follow a predictable Bollywood dichotomy, debonair baritone smoothness versus coy, chirpy high soprano – Singh has a truly stratospheric range and really gets to air it out here. The title track, a prime example of the two pairing off, takes a raga melody, surfs it up and finallly sends it flying out on a lush bed of strings. The first of the covers, Jaan Pehechan Ho (from the 1965 film Gumnaam) maintains the Vampyros Lesbos/Electric Prunes-via-India vibe with Matt Vehl’s noir organ and Tom Martin’s reverb guitar; by contrast, the second, Sote Sote Adhi Raat works a suspensefully nocturnal disco vibe with a series of dubious synth settings that evoke vintage video games more than they do any instrument that was ever used in rock music.

From there the band takes their own stab at Hindi disco before splashing back into the surf with the cryptically titled Bobbywood, a somewhat more stripped-down arrangement (somewhat being a relative word here) with chromatic organ, punchy brass, a delicious and all-too-brief organ-and-sitar break and a very satisfying, darkly lush outro. Mahindra Death Ride turns out not to be horror surf but instead a sort of Indian take on go-go music with some lurid spy-movie guitar welded on. Oh Sajna – one of several co-writes by saxophonist/bandleader Andy Williamson – is a bracingly minor-key, anthemic surf-pop song, while Dacoit’s Choice offers a look at what P-Funk might have sounded like had they been Indian. The album winds up with Phone Baje Ne, slowly coalescing into hypnotic reggae lit up by a sweet trumpet solo over a catchy bass hook.

Is this campy? From an English-speaking perspective, not having any idea of what the Hindi or Bengali lyrics might mean, at least a little. Kitschy? Not really – the music has too much of an underlying unease and sometimes downright menace. Other than the obvious fans of old Bollywood spy movies, who is the audience for this? Anyone who’s into surf music, or the wooziest side of 60s psychedelia, or current-day American psychedelic revivalists like Dengue Fever or Chicha Libre, who’ve resurrected esoteric styles that originated in far-flung places like Cambodia or Peru. Isn’t it funny how so often cross-pollination often improves on the original sound? In a nutshell, that’s the Bombay Royale. Lucky fans in Sydney can see them play a swanky album launch party on June 10 at 7:30 at the Basement, 7 Macquarie Place, Circular Quay, NSW 2000: advance tix are $15.

Deep Noir with Ben Von Wildenhaus

Ben Von Wildenhaus, connoisseur of noir guitar, played Zebulon last night. It was a show worthy of Jim Campilongo, or Duke Levine, or Marc Ribot, all guitarists that Von Wildenhaus resembles. But while he pulls ideas from the depths of a seemingly bottomless pit of every lurid trick in the cinematic guitar playbook, his style is completely original. His website sardonically mentions from time to time that he plays “with a professional band;” last night that professional band was the usual effects (delay and a swollen river of reverb) plus a couple of loop pedals and what looked like a shortwave radio that he’d dial for drones, or for weirdly keening Dr. Dre-style pitches. Slowly building from a forlorn, forsakenly spacious wee-hours theme, from that point Von Wildenhaus would usually lay down a simple two or four-note bassline and then take his time filling in the blanks.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the show was that he didn’t simply add layers of melody until the loop was complete, as Jon Brion will do – there always seemed to be all kinds of improvisation going on. Once in awhile he’d take what seemed a split-second pause to pedal in or simply play a couple bars of a new riff after he’d had enough of the old one. He’d get the twangy effect of a tremolo bar by bending the neck of his Gibson SG ever so slightly, Campilongo style; when he wailed up and down on the strings, it wasn’t for a savage chord-chopping effect but for a flurry or a smear of chromatic morbidness. For the most part, he hung around the lowest, most resonant notes on the guitar, places where so many players fear to tread. This was the slow, Lynchian, angst-ridden set, populated with haunted spaghetti western vistas, rain-drenched cityscapes and sepulchral mariachi overtones in lieu of manic depressive, Mingus-esque chase scenes. Von Wildenhaus found the noir lurking at the surface of a popular Ethiopian riff that a million funk bands have appropriated but never take anywhere near that level of menace, took his time with a morose Middle Eastern passage that lurched apprehensively into a biting, stop-time tango in 7/8 and then an even murkier, echoey theme that sounded like 9/4 or could have been considerably more complicated. The unexpected acidity of one particular gypsy-infused turnaround echoed another darkly individualistic player, Jack Martin of the Dimestore Dance Band, who were scheduled to headline as a two-piece.

What’s more is that Von Wildenhaus got the crowd to shut up. While there were a lot of fans in the house, some obviously weren’t, including one particular ditz who went on and on about how her BBFFF-du-jour’s unsteady chair was “finicky” – she couldn’t come up with the right word, but, you know, what-evvvv. That those people stayed more or less silenced until the end bears witness to the haunting power of the music. What about Dimestore? For the 99%, everyone’s a slave to the trains and it was getting late. Looking forward to the next one, guys, hopefully with the full band.

A Dark Original Middle Eastern/Brazilian Hybrid

Here’s something for people who like brooding, intense, melancholy music: trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf is playing Drom on June 21 at 11 PM, doing some US dates in support of his recent album, Diagnostic. Maalouf’s background as a musician is eclectic to the extreme, encompassing Middle Eastern, western classical and jazz; he’s played with the great Lebanese composer Marcel Khalife, and on the lighter side, with Sting. Although trumpet is still central to the album, Maalouf also plays piano with a raw, plaintive style that often alludes to Erik Satie. For beats, Maalouf enlisted 17-piece Paris-based Brazilian batucada percussion troupe Zalinde to provide boomy, distant thunder. Taken together, the result is absolutely original and usually on the dark side: even a spacious solo piano piece for his young daughter is imbued with dread. Which might have something to do with his experience as a refugee from war in Beirut, growing up alienated in the tough cinderblock banlieu outside Paris, his father an acclaimed trumpeter in his own right.

Maalouf’s approach to the trumpet is the same as how he approaches music in general: nothing is off limits. He might rip into a Balkan tune with Arabic modalities over a Brazilian rhythm, segue out of an epic, cinematic Middle Eastern suite into garish heavy metal (a rare moment that actually doesn’t work very well here) or switch in a split-second from a slinky salsa groove to reggae, all of that over the distant boom of the batucada drums. He also switches up scales without any notice, an effect that he employs very powerfully to amp up the drama or unease factor. He’s the rare player who can solo for what feels like five minutes and at the end, you’re still left wanting more. The most energetic  tracks here are a couple of sirening, careening jajouka rock numbers – one that begins as a guitar boogie and then undergoes a very artful transformation. A pensive, low-key tune dedicated to Maalouf’s mom features a thoughtful, sympathetic interlude from French rapper Oxmo Puccino. Interestingly, the album’s most intense track is not one of the high-powered, crescendoing cinematic ones but the title cut, which juxtaposes wounded, absolutely depleted trumpet against a glittering backdrop of piano and marimba. Since much of the album is a one-man effort – sort of a vastly more moody, trumpet-driven counterpart to Daniel Bernard Roumain’s work – it’ll be interesting to see what kind of combo Maalouf brings to his Drom concert. And ostensibly he’s playing somewhere in Central Park as part of Make Music NY earlier in the day: if you hear pensive Arabic trumpet melodies wafting from behind the trees, it’s probably him.

Eastern European Wildness from Harmonia

Cleveland “trans-Balkan” band Harmonia’s new album Hidden Legacy has an oldschool, no-frills look. And prosaic titles like Romanian Ritual Dances and Ukrainian Mountain Music offer not the slightest hint of how intense and exhilarating the music is- although Moldavian Stomp does. If you want to do the Moldavian Stomp – which turns out to be a flute-driven dance number, similar to an English sailor’s hornpipe – head over to the back room at the Ukrainian National Home, through the restaurant at 140 Second Ave. just north of St. Mark’s, on May 19 around 8 to see the band, who will show you how. Some of the rustic, often haunting old melodies here sound like the roots of noir cabaret music, not to mention Chopin and Haydn. Cross-pollination seems to be everywhere, intentional or not. There’s a Ukrainian polka that could pass for Irish, and that whirlwind suite of biting Romanian dances which serve as a perfect illustration of the convergence of Balkan and traditional American roots music that Eva Salina Primack has championed recently. Alexander Fedoriouk’s plaintively resonant cimbalom and the split-second precision of the twin fiddles of Steven Greenman and Jozef Janis soar over the frequently lush backdrop of Walt Mahlovich’s accordion and bass from either Branislav Brinarsky or Ken Javor. It’s blue-collar party music from a community that still celebrates its roots – and there’s a lot to celebrate here, fifteen tracks’ worth .

Chanteuse Beata Begeniova adds a dramatic intensity on several of the tracks, especially In the High Pasture, a darkly lush anthem that would make a great rock song, and a surprisingly fresh remake of the old gypsy standard Djelem Djelem which they do as a tango. Fedoriouk’s most high-powered moment out of many is a lusciously suspenseful, anticipatory solo on a suite of songs from the Vojvodina region in Serbia, Benegiova taking the crescendo to its logical, powerful conclusion. Many of the tracks start out slowly with what sounds like an improvisational intro before locking into a groove in a split second and speeding off from there. Tempos switch in a split second, moody melodies employing brooding, bracing, often apprehensive chromatics, notably the tiptoeing, rather creepy Seven Step Hora (not to be confused with the twelve step one which is only played when liquor is not available). There are also a couple of long, slowly unwinding vocal-and-cimbalom ballads; the album ends with an absolutely ferocious series of dances from Hungary and then some furtively scurrying ones from the Ukraine. You want adrenaline? This album is for you.

Update: Harmonia is also doing a NYC show this month at Hungarian House, 213 E 82nd St. on May 18.

Haunting, Hypnotic Middle Eastern Sounds from Niyaz

In the era of the Arab Spring, it’s become clear that the people of the Middle East have not suffered gladly. As the revolution that spread from Tunisia, to Egypt, to Syria and Greece and soon these shores gains momentum, we owe a debt to its freedom fighters for jumpstarting the movement as it spreads around the world. Canadian ensemble Niyaz celebrate those heroes’ resilience – “Sumud” in Arabic – which is the title of the band’s hypnotically intense, melodically rich new album. The band’s multicultural viewpoint reflects its members’ diversity. Frontwoman/santoor player Azam Ali came to the United States as a refugee from India in 1985; multi-instrumentalist/composer Loga Ramin Torkian originally hails from Iran; keyboardist/drummer/effects wizard Carmen Rizzo is US-based. The rest of the group here includes Habib Meftah Boushehri on percussion and flute, Ulas Ozdemir on saz, Naser Musa on oud and Omer Avci on percussion. Rizzo’s signature sonic manipulation layers the organic textures of Torkian’s jangling, clanking, plunking lutes – rebab, saz, kamaan, djumbush, lafta and also guitar and viol – within a dense, chilly, endlessly echoing wash of drones, percussion loops wafting through the mix with a distant, muffled pulse. The effect is hypnotic, to say the least. The rhythms often give the songs a trip-hop or downtempo electronic lounge feel, albeit with dynamics which leave no doubt that this was created by musicians rather than by a computer.

Whether singing in Persian, Arabic or Turkish, Ali’s nuanced vocals span from longing, to rapturous beauty, to raw anguish: for those who don’t speak those languages, the cd booklet provides English translations. Most of the songs are new arrangements of traditional melodies, often with additional music by the band, which makes sense: in the countries where these tunes come from, improvisation rules. Ironically, the catchiest, most pop-oriented one here, Musa’s Rayat al Sumud (Palestine) is also the most lyrically intense: “No matter how many borders you create, no matter how many soldiers you line up, we will always fly the flag of resistance,” Ali sings in Arabic with a steely resolve. They follow that with another brisk anthem contrasting spiky lute textures with echoey, twinkling keyboards.

Many of the cuts here employ the haunting chromatics of the Arabic hijaz scale: a majestic Afghani folk song sung in Dari (a Persian dialect spoken there), whose message of peace has particular resonance these days; an almost imperceptibly crescendoing Persian love song; a steady, tiptoeing Kurdish tune and a duet by Ali and Torkian over a slinky Ethiopian-flavored triplet groove. A strolling, pulsing song by Ozdemir has echoes of gypsy rock; other songs here sound like an Iranian version of Portishead. The album ends with a gorgeous, longing Turkish epic that slowly comes together after a long, apprehensively crescendoing introduction. Sometimes solemn, sometimes soaring within Rizzo’s signature swirl, it’s the kind of album that sounds best late at night with the lights out.

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