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CD reviews: in search of unpredicatability

Stewart Oksenhorn

What would life be without a dose of the unexpected? While I appreciate the Robert Crays of the world, what really makes my days are the musicians who constantly – or at least occasionally – surprise you.Following are reviews of CDs that confounded my expectations, or lived up to my expectations of being unpredictable.Ozomatli, “Street Signs”produced by T-Ray and Ozomatli (Concord)Ozomatli was built out of a variety of elements. The multi-culti Los Angeles outfit blended hip-hop and barrio, funk and Afro-Cuban. But claiming to have been spurred by a greater awareness of the world that has come in the wake of 9/11, Ozo really stretches into the corners of the globe on “Street Signs.”They reach out for influences that are predictable – Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo, Latin jazz pianist Eddie Palmieri guest on the album – and far from predictable – the opening track “Believe” features French-Jewish gypsy string troupe Les Yeux Noir, the Prague Symphony and a sample of Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Sometimes the parts mix well: a rap by Jurassic 5’s Chali 2Na, Ozomatli’s original MC, on “Who’s to Blame,” layered over a melody titled “Egyptian Rhythm,” is an effective crossing of cultures. Too often, though, “Street Signs” relies solely on high energy and slick production. For all the sounds, guests and ideas, here, the album is strangely repetitious.

Wilco, “A ghost is born”produced by Wilco and Jim O’Rourke (Nonesuch)Wilco has become the poster band for radical unpredictability, as leader Jeff Tweedy steers the sound further and further from its alt-country roots. The band’s last album, 2002’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” was a masterpiece of shifting soundscapes, and expectations are high for “A ghost is born.”Tweedy doesn’t skimp on the surprises. The first few minutes of the first tune, “At Least That’s What You Said,” is barely audible piano and vocal, until it bursts into a pounding of instruments, with a lengthy, Neil Young-esque garage guitar solo. That lays the template for the rest of the album, which alternates periods of noise and near-silence, structure and chaos, classic rock and New Wave. Wilco ditches the electronics of its last album. They don’t need them. Tweedy is so outside the box that piano, guitar, harmonica and drums are turned into a universe of sound. Beyond that, Tweedy plays with the structure of pop music like no one since the Beatles. So a song like “Hummingbird” can be orchestral one moment, minimalist the next, straightahead rock another. For those who need a relatively easy listening experience, “A ghost is born” will be maddening. As soon as Tweedy and company lock into a catchy tune, you can expect them to distort or abandon it. For those who can think in less linear terms, this album is a sprawling epic. (And I’m not sure that “Less Than You Think,” a 15-minute track that includes some 12 minutes of a droning monotone, will appeal to either of those groups.) “A ghost is born” is not the masterpiece that was “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.” But no one will accuse Wilco of running out of ideas any time soon.Sonia Dada, “Test Pattern”

produced by Ron Schwartz, Erik Scott, Scott Steiner & Dan Pritzker (Calliope)Sonia Dada is a band that, as well as any, could rely on the fundamentals of music. All the Chicago-based soul-rock ensemble had to do was unleash its vocal section, led by the remarkable Mike Scott, and the sound was holy and beautiful. And that’s pretty much what the band did through its first five albums. The songs were always smart, and the arrangements solid, but the front lines were always manned by the singers.On “Test Pattern,” Sonia Dada reworks the mix. The first notes of the first track, “Moons of Jupiter,” echo Pakistani qawwali singing. Then comes a Middle Eastern string sound, over a programmed drum beat. Only then does Mike Scott’s voice kick in, and by now it is a complex and worldly music. The next track, “Saturday,” shows a similar desire to bring in new elements, featuring more Middle Eastern flourishes and a metallic, ambient rhythm. Chicago jazz icon Lester Bowie adds trumpet to the spiky collage, “Take Back.” There are strands everywhere of Sonia Dada’s more typical styles – gospel on “Temple,” soul on “Diggin’ On a Road” and straight-up roots rock on “Old Bones” – but they are consistently placed in a context of deconstruction and experimentation. The songs even give mixing credits (to Ron Schwartz, Ed Cherney and Scott Steiner on various tracks), something no past Sonia Dada ever did. But wisely, the band never loses sight of the importance of its singers. So while “Test Pattern” is a giant step forward, it is not much of a departure.Mutual Admiration Society, “Mutual Admiration Society”produced by Ethan Johns (Sugar Hill)Mutual Admiration Society is a collaboration between acoustic wanderers Nickel Creek and singer-songwriter Glen Phillips of the pop-rock band Toad the Wet Sprocket. Just what that would mean in musical terms, I had no idea.Now I know. “Mutual Admiration Society” – recorded way back in 2000 – is acoustic folkish rock. Almost all of the songs, and all the lead vocals, are by Phillips; Nickel Creek provides stylish, but very subtle backing.

I can think of at least one reason why this album was four years between recording and release: It’s entirely forgettable. The collaboration produces no flying sparks. Nickel Creek sounds tame, the songs are neither here nor there, and Phillips is a so-so singer in this hushed environment.J.J. Cale, “To Tulsa and Back”produced by David Teagarden and Mike Teaf (Sanctuary)As J.J. Cale is in his 60s, and has been doing the same laid-back, plain-as-Oklahoma-dirt blues rock for 40-plus years, one doesn’t expect to hear anything distinctly new from the singer-songwriter-guitarist. Throw in the fact that Cale went back to his native Tulsa and rounded up a bunch of old buddies from his bar-band days – none of them under 60 – to make this record, and breaking new ground would seem to be out of the question.And yet, “To Tulsa and Back” is a different kind of Cale. Not drastically different; the music is still that low-key mix of rock, blues and country. But “Chains of Love” is juiced up by a horn section and propelled by a driving drum beat. The lyrics to “The Problem” – “The man in charge has got to go/… The man in the street hasn’t got a clue” – could be read as the most political words Cale has ever sung. On “Rio,” Cale actually gets spicy, with Tex-Mex phrasings and a horn section that punctuates a mariachi rhythm. And “Motormouth” has Cale’s usual sly humor – the song moves along at a faster pace than Cale ever has before – and features some sharp fiddling. Finally, on the closer “Another Song,” Cale picks up the banjo – a feat that seem so surprising to Cale himself that the opening lyrics are, “Sitting round here, picking my banjo.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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