Studio magic proving elusive for String Cheese
June 30, 2005
Paying tribute to the melting pot that is this grand old country of ours, and the fact that things are so hectic in these parts that I can’t focus on any one thing for more than six minutes at a time, herewith are reviews of CDs from as many different categories of music as I can think of.String Cheese Incident, “One Step Closer”produced by Malcolm Burn (SCI Fidelity Records)Some day, some way, Colorado jam-band String Cheese Incident will figure it out in the studio. This is not that day or that way. String Cheese brings in yet another accomplished producer in Malcolm Burn, who has worked as super-producer Daniel Lanois’ right-hand man on albums by Bob Dylan and Emmylou Harris. They recorded close to home, at a friend’s Front Range ranch.It doesn’t add up to a cohesive sound, not to mention a good album. On stage, the band uses its diversity of interests – bluegrass, funk, electronica – to good advantage. On “One Step Closer,” it’s a confused jumble of noises. The potentially good “Sometimes a River” is marred by an overbearing production; the lack of vocal strength is apparent on guitarist Billy Nershi’s otherwise lovely “Big Compromise.” Most of the album is in the vein of “Until the Music’s Over,” a big wad of styles with no definite direction.On the positive side, “One Step Closer” is better than String Cheese’s last two albums. Meaning they are one step closer to a worthwhile studio product.Los Super 7, “Heard It on the X”produced by Charlie Sexton, Rick Clark & Dan Goodman (Telarc)Los Super 7 started out as a Tex-Mex supergroup, featuring members of Los Lobos, accordionist Flaco Jimeñez and singers Raul Malo, Ruben Ramos and Rick Trevino. But since its 1998 debut, it has become more of an idea, shifting personnel for its second recording, 2001’s “Canto,” and even more radically for “Heard It on the X,” which rounds up guests Lyle Lovett, Delbert McClinton, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and even full-on gringo John Hiatt. Also joining the posse is co-producer Charlie Sexton, guitarist from Bob Dylan’s band.The music has shifted, too. It’s still distinctively border rock, but with Lovett, Hiatt and the like, there’s more diversity, with Texas swing, rock and blues brought in. Still, it remains a very good idea. Lovett shines on the peppy “My Window Faces the South”; “Let Her Dance,” with vocalist Joe Ely, is a shot of Buddy Holly-type rock ‘n’ roll; and the title song, borrowed from ZZ Top, is a slightly psychedelic brew that mixes everything pretty wonderfully.
Sharon Isbin with the New York Philharmonicconducted by José Serebrierproduced by Tobias Lehmann (Warner Classics)Sometimes it seems like the classical music world is dead set on fossilizing. When Sharon Isbin performed as soloist with the New York Philharmonic in June 2004, it was the first appearance by a guitar soloist with the orchestra since the ’70s. And this is the first N.Y. Phil recording with a guitarist.Consider this wall broken down. Performing well-chosen selections from the Latin realm – 20th-century concertos by Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo, Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos and Mexican Manuel Ponce – Isbin and the Philharmonic find depths of emotion. The pairing of guitar and orchestra sounds exotic but pure. And any problems of hearing the solo instrument are not present here, even on Isbin’s most intimate passages.Sharon Isbin performs an Aspen Music Festival recital Aug. 6 at Harris Hall, part of the Postcards from Latin America mini-festival.Katy Kosins, “Vintage”(Mahogany Jazz/Lightyear)The title should serve as a warning to those looking for a more cutting-edge vocal jazz album. This ain’t that. But singer Katy Kosins distinguishes herself by her choice of material. These are not the standard standards – no Gershwin, no Cole Porter. And certainly no Bob Dylan, the favorite of female singers looking to update the standards repertoire. Instead, Kosins digs deeper for “Tomorrow Is Another Day” and “Nice Girls Don’t Stay for Breakfast,” songs that haven’t been done again and again. Her idea of covering Sinatra is a version of Nancy’s “These Boots Were Made for Walking.” The arrangements aren’t revelatory, but are given thought by a hip band, featuring bassist Reuben Rogers (who appeared in Aspen last week with Dianne Reeves), drummer Eric Harland and keyboardist/arranger Aaron Goldberg.
Alison Brown, “Stolen Moments”produced by Garry West & Brown(Compass Records)Banjoist Alison Brown takes a joyful ride through Americana – and Irelanda – on “Stolen Moments.” While giving a jazzy flair to all sorts of material – Simon & Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound,” Hendrix’s “Angel,” and a flock of Irish-leaning original tunes – there remains a strong flavor of the roots of American string music. Indigo Girls Amy Ray and Emily Saliers give a nice, downbeat touch to “Homeward Bound,” and guests like mandolinists Mike Marshall and Sam Bush, low whistler Seamus Egan and fiddler Stuart Duncan give life to distinctive Brown instrumentals like “Carrowkeel” and “Musette for a Palindrome.” Brown continues to emerge as one of the more distinctive newgrass voices.Arthur Lee Land, “Dragonfly”produced by Wendy Waldman (Perfect Groove)Chicago-bred, Boulder-based singer-guitarist Arthur Lee Land, during a tour of West Africa in 2001, hit upon the concept of Afrograss, a synthesis of African percussion and folk/bluegrass sounds. Land first toured Afrograss as a solo act, using looping technology to create a full band sound. I can’t imagine how that might have worked, but on “Dragonfly,” Land has plenty of assistance. Fiddler/percussionist Joe Craven from the David Grisman Quintet, drummer Michael Travis of String Cheese Incident and banjoist Herb Pederson all contribute. The album is extremely good; Land’s slightly raggedy voice fits in with the acoustic instruments. But I hear only hints of bluegrass, and virtually no African influence. It’s actually better than the Afrograss concept suggests. Land is coming up with his own acoustic rock sound, at its best on the title track.John Hammond, “In Your Arms Again”produced by John and Marla Hammond (Back Porch)Bluesman John Hammond has been playing the same brand of the blues – the Delta variety, based on acoustic slide guitar and harmonica – since the days when such music became widely popular in the early ’60s. Somehow Hammond keeps finding new tricks to try, and fresh ways to deliver the music. In 2001 it was “Wicked Grin,” a stunning tribute to Tom Waits. In 2003, Hammond tried songwriting for the very first time, penning “Slick Crown Vic” for “Ready for Love,” an album produced by Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo.
On “In Your Arms Again,” Hammond writes two more songs, the title track and “Come to Find Out.” Both are decent, but Hammond undermines, if that word can be used here, his own writing by taking other people’s creations and turning them into Delta gold. Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman,” Howling Wolf’s “I’m Leaving You” and Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” all get the treatment here, as Hammond once again revives the ancient acoustic blues.Dropkick Murphys, “The Warrior Code”produced by Ken Casey & David Bianco(Hellcat Records)If the Aspen Writers’ Foundation had thrown a musical event during their recent Irish-focused Summer Words Literary Festival, it would have been neat for them to have booked the Dropkick Murphys. Thematically, the band would have fit in perfectly; though from Boston, they are as Irish as the day is long, from the surnames (Casey, Lynch, Kelly) to the sounds. Well, some of the sounds.But I have a feeling the participating writers have a different aesthetic sense than the Dropkick Murphys, who play rapid-fire punk. Beneath the musical attack on “The Warrior Code,” however, are stories any Irishman could appreciate: the title song is about Massachusetts boxer Micky Ward; “The Green Fields of France” pays tribute to a soldier who died a hundred years ago, fighting for a “cause” in a way that resonates today.Terence Blanchard, “Flow”produced by Herbie Hancock (Blue Note)Terence Blanchard continues to dance on the edge between straightahead acoustic jazz and electric fusion; he’s credited on “Flow” with trumpet and synth programming. It’s a beguiling mix, and at its best “Flow” comes off as the righteous heir to Miles Davis’ early experiments with linear compositions and electronic sounds. It’s always interesting music, and the twists and turns from moody electronics (“Flow, Part I”) to more-crafted acoustic tunes (“Wandering Wonder”) make the whole a roller-coaster ride.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org