CD reviews: Beirut, Joy Kills Sorrow, ‘Oh Brother’ deluxe
September 29, 2011
produced by Griffin Rodriguez and Zach Condon (Pompeii)It’s official: Zach Condon holds the record for most regional influences and references of any musician ever. Condon was raised in Santa Fe and Virginia, and traveled as a teenager in Europe, where he gravitated toward Balkan folk music. Back in New Mexico, he studied Portuguese before forming a band that he named Beirut, and releasing a debut album titled “Gulag Orkestar,” which featured the songs “Postcards from Italy,” “Rhineland (Heartland)” and “Bratislava.” Condon cites French-language singers Serge Gainsbourg and Jacques Brel as primary influences.On “The Rip Tide” (released on Condon’s Pompeii Records), all those places and influences are blended to the point where the music doesn’t sound exactly French, or Portuguese, or, as it is often categorized, as Balkan folk. It sounds like elegant contemporary pop, with exotic flourishes (trumpet, accordion, ukulele, harpsichord); a wide, cinematic scope but also a sense of restraint; a sophisticated and meditative rhythmic sense; and Condon’s dramatic voice, which sounds as it has lived a lot more than the 25 years Condon has actually been around. And of course, there are the places: song titles include “East Harlem,” “Santa Fe,” and “Goshen,” which was a Biblical village.
produced by Sam Kassirer (Signature Sounds)The current prominence of bluegrass and other string-oriented styles may owe a lot to the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack, but let’s not forget that the sisters had much to do with that success. The three best tracks on “O Brother” were “Down to the River to Pray,” “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby” and “I’ll Fly Away,” done by, in various combinations, Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch.It’s one of the many things to love about the string-music realm, how equal-opportunity it is, gender-wise. (Racially, not so much. Which is to say, not at all.) Krauss is the biggest-selling bluegrasser ever, and the success of Welch and Harris, as well as Abigail Washburn, Rhonda Vincent and others, has opened up room for younger women to dream big. And these aren’t just girls with pretty voices who let the men do the heavy picking behind them: Sarah Jarosz, probably the brightest young talent in the field, is an exceptional mandolinist. The fast-rising Colorado band Elephant Revival is centered around Bonnie Paine, who plays washboard and percussion, and also features Bridget Law on fiddle. Former Aspenite Bella Betts is turning heads with her mandolin skills (and the fact that she just turned 11).Add to the list Joy Kills Sorrow, whose lead singer (and cellist) is Emma Beaton, and whose principal songwriter (and bassist/keyboardist) is Bridget Kearney. On “This Unknown Science,” their second album, the Boston quintet balances sophistication, playfulness and a determination to take the songs outside the standard bluegrass structures. The album has unmistakable feminine qualities: not till the middle of the fifth song, “New Man,” does the tempo approach high-octane bluegrass; Beaton’s voice is gentle and high; and Kearney’s lyrics come from highly personal places.
produced by T Bone Burnett (Lost Highway)Speaking of “O Brother,” the 10th anniversary of the soundtrack is commemorated with a two-disc deluxe edition. Disc one is the original soundtrack, remastered, and the old-time songs sound as good and timeless as ever. Disc two features alternate takes of songs that were in the movie, but not on the album. But some of these alternate takes come with a twist – they are recorded by different artists than those who appeared on the soundtrack. The Kossoy Sisters, with Erik Darling, perform “I’ll Fly Away” as a companion to the Alison Krauss & Gillian Welch version; Alan O’Bryant does his take on “You Are My Sunshine,” where Norman Blake did the soundtrack version.Despite the movie tie-in and the clever marketing, the “O Brother” phenomenon started with excellent music. The deluxe edition offers more of a very good thing. firstname.lastname@example.org