‘Have a Little Faith’ a little bit of heaven
Here are reviews of new CDs by acts coming soon to a stage near you.The BellRays, “Have a Little Faith”produced by Robert Vennum(Cheap Lullaby)The name BellRays is designed to put you in mind of classic soul; think Dell Vikings, the Delfonics. The connection is a legitimate one – as long as you can stretch your definition of classic soul to include elements of garage punk, avant-rock and even a bit of Eastern India.On their latest CD, the Southern California quartet stakes a claim to being heirs to classic soul. The most obvious soul reference is Lisa Kekaula, a powerhouse vocalist who brings echoes of Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin, but modernized, along the lines of Macy Gray. But the soul track doesn’t end there. The guitars on “Have a Little Faith” are reminiscent of Motown’s Funk Brothers – that is, when they’re not thrashing away with punky power chords and metal-like licks. Further connecting the band to soul of old are the horn parts, and the fact that most of the tracks here are a brisk two-plus minutes. “Have a Little Faith” opens with the BellRays staying away from the harder noises, and the result is the slinky, irresistible “Tell the Lie.” The BellRays could probably win a big audience with an album full of such tracks, and they do return to the old-school ways on “Have a Little Faith in Me.” But they are up to something far more adventurous, as “Detroit Breakdown” really breaks away from Motown, with rapid-fire guitar and drums, and Kekaula showing her versatility by amping up the volume and thrash factor. They even show a jazz side on the beguiling “Lost Disciple.””Have a Little Faith” is the fifth CD by the BellRays, which makes me wonder where the heck I’ve been. This is in the running for my favorite CD of the year.The BellRays make their Aspen debut Saturday, July 1, at Belly Up.
Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint, “The River in Reverse”produced by Joe Henry(Verve Forecast)In 1970, Allen Toussaint released “On Your Way Down,” which became one of the New Orleans pianist’s signature tunes, covered by numerous artists. Thirty-six years later, the song has found perhaps its ideal use, as the leadoff track for “The River in Reverse,” a collaborative effort between Toussaint and Elvis Costello.”On Your Way Down” was a cautionary tale about certain comeuppance: “It’s high time you found/ The same people that you use on the way up, you might meet up on your way down,” goes the chorus. “The River in Reverse,” an album inspired by Hurricane Katrina and, even more so, the botched response, is all about comeuppance for corruption and incompetence. Costello – who, in his punk days, sang “I’m Not Angry” with a good bit of irony – is no longer cloaking his anger, nor sadness and disillusionment. “The River in Reverse” practically begs for god, Mother Earth, the damaged souls of New Orleans to rise up and smite the Bush administration and whoever else failed the flooded city.The album is a grab bag of songs – old Toussaint works, new tunes co-written by Costello and Toussaint. What kicked off the project, though, was the title track, penned by Costello himself for a benefit concert. The lyrics seem to beg for the Mississippi to flow upstream, knocking out the mansions on the hill rather than the lowest-lying residents: “I don’t see how it can get much worse / What do we have to do to send the river in reverse.” Nearly as withering is “Broken Promise Land,” and “The Sharpest Thorn,” almost certainly a direct stab at President Bush.The album gets some emotional balance from Toussaint’s older songs, especially the compassionate “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further?” and “Tears, Tears and More Tears,” which becomes an excellent vehicle for Costello’s punchy vocal style. With Toussaint on piano, and the four-piece Crescent City Horns on board, “The River in Reverse” has a gentle undertone of New Orleans vibe. But instead of rounding up a genuine New Orleans rhythm section – no doubt, easy to find and employ these days – Costello uses his band, the Imposters. A fine group, to be sure, but I can’t help wondering if this might have been even more remarkable is they had gone Big Easy all the way.Allen Toussaint headlines Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ Crescent City Swing benefit event July 22 at Aspen Highlands.
Matisyahu, “Youth”produced by Bill Laswell(Epic)That Matisyahu – born Matthew Miller – is a Hasidic reggae singer shouldn’t be so remarkable. Reggae is music of the spirit, devotion and consciousness, and has never been limited to one strain of religion. (Rastafarianism is more a way of life than the belief in a specific God.) As Matisyahu himself sings in “Dispatch the Troops,” “Many names for one G-d.” That idea is reflected in “Youth.” Matisyahu may take his inspiration from his religion, but unless you’re really dissecting the songs, Judaism itself doesn’t play a huge part in the music. Instead, “Youth” trades in the usual general principles of reggae. The title song looks to the young to rise up and lead; “Fire of Heaven/Altar of Earth” chops down false idols like money, pride and drugs.What makes Matisyahu the reggae singer of the moment is not so much the lyrics and their source, but his musical style, which mixes the quick jabs of rap with the rhythms of reggae. Not exactly a new idea, but he does it well here, especially on the sweet-sounding “Late Night in Zion,” and a studio version of “King Without a Crown,” the hip-hopping hit from the 2005 CD “Live at Stubb’s.” Matisyahu performs Sept. 4 at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Festival.The Gourds, “Heavy Ornamentals”produced by the Gourds and Michael Crow(Eleven-thirty)The Mammals, “Departure”produced by the Mammals and Max Feldman(Signature Sounds)After 10 years and nine albums, Austin, Texas, roots-rock kings the Gourds have managed a more difficult trick than tightening up their sound: they have remained as loose and unself-conscious as they were when they arrived. On “Heavy Ornamentals,” this translates to writing songs on ukelehe, celebrating the simple good life (“Plate of bacon and a banjo on my knee,” in “Burn the Honeysuckle”), and having lots of un-P.C. laughs (“My new roommate’s lesbian, she’s the best yet / Lay some rug down on my hardwood floor,” on “New Roomate”). Best of all is how gloriously slap-happy the sound is, as the five Gourds go out of their gourds swapping instruments and trying out zydeco, psychedelia, norteño and old-timey fiddle songs. If you can’t have the Band, the Gourds are a fine consolation prize.Compared to the Gourds, the Mammals – who actually come from Woodstock, N.Y., land of the Band – have a mannered and literate approach to roots-rock. Still, the folky five-piece conjures on “Departure” the same thing as the Gourds, and the Band: the wide-open possibilities still available in American roots music. Listening to “Departure” back-to-back with the Gourds, the Mammals comes off as a tad too serious, even as they cover Nirvana’s “Come As You Are.” Of course, they’ve only been around five years, and have plenty of time to lighten up. And their earnestness hasn’t prevented them from connecting to something deep and moving on “Departure.”The Gourds play the July Fourth Exravaganza in Carbondale’s Sopris Park. The Mammals play Sopris Park Sunday, July 9.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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