Music Review

Jon Brion: The Canal Room, NYC

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The word "genius" is severely overused, but if Jon Brion hasn’t earned it, no one has. He composes movie scores, produces records, plays every instrument that you can imagine (he’s contributed notable guest performances to records by Beck and Elliott Smith), and has released an album of original material. His talent is enviably flexible, but everything that he does bears the mark of his original and distinctive sensibility; his work is always marked by a lush, ornate, retro atmosphere, catchy riffs played on antique instruments, and a delicate balance between wit and sadness. It's the sort of music that makes you feel nostalgic the first time you hear it. Whether you know it or not, you've heard Brion play, and you may be an unconscious fan. Read more »

Shemekia Copeland: The Soul Truth (Alligator)

Shemekia CopelandShemekia Copeland, daughter of bluesman Johnny Copeland, followed in her father’s footsteps for her first few albums, but with this release she’s slid into the adjacent genre on the musical spectrum: Southern soul. The disc is produced by Stax-Volt legend Steve Cropper of Booker T & the MGs (kids, if you haven’t heard of him, at least you’ve probably seen him in the Blues Brothers: he’s the guitarist), who also plays on all but one track. Add the Muscle Shoals Horns on seven of the eleven tracks, plus keyboards (especially organ) from Felix Cavaliere (Rascals) Chuck Leavell, etc., a rock-solid rhythm section anchored by Steve Potts or Chester Thompson on drums, plus Copeland herself, and there’s soul oozing from every track. This was a direction Copeland was already moving in, so it’s no surprise. Read more »

McCoy Tyner: Passion Dance (Milestone)

Passion DanceThis was the first McCoy Tyner album I bought, on the recommendation of my friend Josh Bloch, a couple decades ago when I was just starting to explore jazz beyond the superstars. I’d heard Tyner playing on recordings with one of those superstars, of course (John Coltrane), but his style had changed since then. Well, this recording (with bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams on two of its five tracks) from a Tokyo festival on July 28, 1978 certainly convinced me of his merits away from the older context.

The album opens with the trio on “Moment’s Notice,” a Coltrane tune played with explosive energy. Read more »

My Morning Jacket: Z (Ato/BMG)

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The songs that My Morning Jacket create, set against lush pastoral backdrops, have always been infused with something beautiful and serious and notoriously impossible to categorize. Their earlier full-length recordings, Tennessee Fire and At Dawn -- this reviewer is an avid fan of both -- were songs hung loosely, then held together in a delicate fashion by Jim James's reverberating vocals, the yearning poetry within each song, and the band's ability to extend songs into instrumental meanderings without losing their structural integrity. And while this latest release -- Z (ATO/RCA/BMG) -- is certainly a well-made rock record and may please some with its smoothed-out production and electronic dabblings, it's an unfortunate step down from the band's earlier sensitivity. No poetry and whiskey here, rather a washboard approach to the songwriting and sound that doesn't do the band proper justice. Read more »

Bill Evans: The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961 (Riverside)

EvansWhen I reviewed the most recent Paul Motian Trio album awhile back here on CultureCatch.com, while putting his career in context I of course made reference to his time in the Bill Evans Trio, especially the edition with bassist Scott LaFaro. And now here comes a three-CD set compiling everything extant from their peak moment: June 25, 1961, "live," just ten days before the tragic death of LaFaro in a car crash. Read more »

Bob Dylan: No Direction Home: The Soundtrack (Columbia Legacy)

dylanThis is the soundtrack to the new Martin Scorsese film, just shown on PBS, that focuses on Dylan’s rise to fame. With some slight adjustments, Columbia has turned it into Volume 7 of its Bootleg Series of Dylan rarities; which it fits well since all but two of its tracks are previously unreleased (at least officially; bootleg collectors will be familiar with much – although not all – of what’s here).

Disc one is acoustic performances, mostly solo, including recordings made before Dylan moved to New York. It reaches all the way back to 1959 for what’s called “most likely the first original song recorded by” Dylan, “When I Got Troubles,” fascinating for the way Dylan sings in a sweeter, less cutting voice. Read more »

Portastatic: Bright Ideas (Merge)

PortastaticSuperchunk frontman/Merge head honcho Mac McCaughan reactivates his side project for another perky album of power pop a la Big Star (and acolytes such as The Apples in Stereo, the Elephant 6 scene, etc.). The chiming, jangling guitar sound (plus melodica on one track!) and stuffy-headed vocals mostly stick to the charmingly sunny side of things, although there’s sometimes a hint of more serious things in Mac’s lyrics. Anyone who’s a fan of chirpy, melodic indie-pop can put this on repeat play and be happily entertained for hours. - Steve Holtje Read more »

Do The Chicken Dance!

little_freddie_kingLittle Freddie King: You Don't Know What I Know (Fat Possum)

More kick-ass juke-joint blues from the folks at Fat Possum!

Yeah, Little Freddie King is 65-years old but sings with the glee of a teenager - try not to grin while "Chicken Dance" is playing. Not that King doesn't sing about some pretty adult situations, such as the fact that he has a bullet lodged next to his spine from when his wife shot him during a quarrel. Read more »

Jazz's Holy Grail!

monkThelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane: At Carnegie Hall (Blue Note)

There's a lot of hype for this recently unearthed (at the Library of Congress) Voice of America tape of two short sets as part of a November 29, 1957 benefit. It may sound like exaggeration. But not when you hear the music. Background: Thelonious Monk was one of the harmonic architects of bebop, yet never fully a bopper himself, too original and rhythmically idiosyncratic to fit into what became sleekly formulized.

Read more »

Austerity Styles

lamentateArvo Pärt: Lamentate (ECM)

Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (born in 1935; he turned 70 on Sept. 11) has found considerable success with his austere style. After first gaining notice as a Serialist composer incorporating stylistic collage, he took two sabbaticals, partly because the Soviet government approved of neither his Serial tendencies nor his religiousity, partly to rethink his style. Starting in 1976, he pioneered a lean, meditative style he dubbed Tintinnabuli (think of lots of bells chiming). Read more »

Von Iva: Live at Cake Shop, NYC, 14th September 2005

VON IVASome people still think that rock and roll is a boys’ game. Women have always made rock music, but they’re often stereotyped, trivialized, or badly marketed while they’re doing their best work, and quickly forgotten when they leave the public eye. There are a few moments that stand out in this history, however, moments when women have created songs or performances so transcendently rock that they can’t be forgotten. My personal list includes Joan Jett singing “You Don’t Own Me,” Patti Smith singing “Gloria,” Tori Amos grinding on her piano bench while snapping, “So you can make me cum, it doesn’t make you Jesus,” and Kathleen Hanna working the stage topless, with “slut” scrawled across her chest. Read more »

Jagged Dancing

mark_stewart.jpgMark Stewart: Kiss the Future (Soul Jazz)

One critic called his music "Polemical noise-funk with a hip-hop reggae feel," which certainly covers a fair amount of territory but still can't encompass all of Mark Stewart's facets. He's been largely ignored in the U.S.; proudly English culture, in-your-face politics, and British dance music are all hard enough sells, but combining all three guarantees a low profile on this side of the Atlantic. Read more »

Charles Gayle: Shout! (Clean Feed)

Shout!The saga of Charles Gayle is a long and winding tale full of highs and lows. The fluctuations are mostly not in quality (he has made just two subpar albums out of twenty-two he's led from 1988 on), but in media and record label attention to his talents. He was a big story in the '90s (well, on the NYC avant-jazz scene), often with weekly gigs at the Knitting Factory, but then he became dissatisfied with his approach and began experimenting, musically and in terms of presentation, withdrawing from regular performance while he did so. In recent years, he has been working on combining the precision of bebop with the intensity of free jazz. Read more »

Gary Higgins: Red Hash (Drag City)

Red HashWe have been flooded with reissues of “forgotten psychedelic classics” in the past few years. Some of them are good, lots of them are fun, and many demonstrate why they were forgotten. Few are classics. Now here comes Drag City, a Chicago label more associated with the current alt-rock scene, surprisingly touting this extremely obscure 1973 psych-folk album by a New England hippie, Gary Higgins. Even more surprisingly, this IS a classic.

So how could the folks at Radioactive have missed it?!? One reason, perhaps, is that the only overtly psychedelic musical touches – really pretty mild – are a few keyboard riffs spiced by Terry Fenton with pitch slides (“It Didn’t Take Too Long”) and some creative organ registrations (check out the tinkling notes on “Stable the Spuds”). Read more »

Jenny Lin: Preludes to a Revolution

Jenny LinAn intelligently constructed program, especially if it's based on a compelling concept, is almost as important to a recital album as the quality of the playing. Jenny Lin, one of the finest classical pianists in New York (and that's saying something), has a winning concept here. As Luca Sabbatini, the author of the program notes, writes, "small forms -- preludes, etudes, nocturnes, poems, character pieces, etc. --  often served their creators as a space which fairly encouraged aesthetic revolutions and other breaches of convention..." Listening to this mostly chronological program from beginning to end, one hears the piano's vocabulary expand radically over the space of 17 years. Read more »

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