The good, the bad & the snuggly
I keep coming across the notion that a big reason the big music companies are doing such horrifically bad business is that there just isn’t much good music being made these days. I don’t buy that, and you shouldn’t either. A shortage of good music is the lamest of excuses for the perilous state of the record companies. I know. I get CDs by the bushel, and there is always more good music than time to listen to it. Sometimes it takes some digging to find the good stuff, as the record execs push the newer, bigger, younger, louder, trashier, flashier thing and leave the actual musicians to the tiny labels. Not to worry; I’m here to help. Get a listen to the following new releases. Except for the ones that I give bad reviews.The RH Factor, “Hard Groove” produced by Roy Hargrove (Verve)Trumpeter Roy Hargrove – the “RH” of the RH Factor – seems on a quest to prove he can excel at every subgenre of jazz there is. “Habana,” his Grammy-winning 1997 exploration of Cuban jazz (recorded under the name Crisol) might be my favorite jazz album ever. The Texas native’s two most recent CDs were “Directions in Music,” a collaboration with Herbie Hancock and Michael Brecker that reinterpreted the music of Miles Davis and John Coltrane; and “Moment to Moment,” a strings-laden collection of ballads and standards. Now, with his massive ensemble the RH Factor, Hargrove takes on the funk, and it’s no surprise that he handles it heroically. From the beginning of the opening track, “Hardgroove,” Hargrove’s groove is thick, smart and irresistible. “Hard Groove” bears a strong resemblance at times to D’Angelo’s soul masterpiece “Voodoo” – and not only on a cover of P-Funk’s “I’ll Stay,” featuring D’Angelo himself on vocals. Like “Voodoo,” which featured Hargrove as a sideman, “Hard Groove” finds its funkiness in the slow and sultry, making this perfect bedroom music. But “Hard Groove” is also more multidimensional than “Voodoo,” with a guest list rounded out by Erykah Badu, Common, Q-Tip and more.Hard groove goes down easyScrapomatic, “Scrapomatic” produced by John Snyder (Artists House)All I knew about Scrapomatic before hearing this debut CD was that it was a Brooklyn-based group whose singer, Mike Mattison, was the new singer for the Derek Trucks Band. So the only expectation I had was that “Scrapomatic” would be coming from some corner of the jam-band realm.Wrong. This is a surprise of the most pleasant order. Mattison and his mate, singer-guitarist Paul Olsen, went down to record in Louisiana, and came up with soul-drenched roots music, with touches of ’70s soft-rock and Louisiana blues, that eludes comparisons. There’s great range to the music: “Lovefreak” is a crawling Southern blues; “Bubble Gum Song” is soft, feel-good funk; and “I’ll Be Around,” a tender ballad which could be high school prom theme, comes out of left field. The only cover tune here is a gem: Mississippi John Hurt’s “Let the Mermaids Flirt With Me,” a song I was unfamiliar with. Mattison’s voice handles all of it. Not to be scrappedMike Marshall & Chris Thile, “Into the Cauldron” (Sugar Hill)Sean Watkins, “26 Miles” produced by Watkins (Sugar Hill)Chris Thile and Sean Watkins, mates in the standout acoustic group Nickel Creek, take wildly differing directions on their latest solo efforts.On “Into the Cauldron,” Thile teams up with fellow mandolin god Mike Marshall for an album of instrumental duets. The barely produced CD sounds like what you might hear if you could listen in on the two sitting alone in a room with their mandolins, jamming. At certain points mid-song, one or the other will shout out, “Yeah.” They run through material from Bach’s “Goldberg Variations (Var. #1)” to Charlie Parker’s “Scrapple From the Apple” to the traditional Celtic tune “Fisher’s Hornpipe,” and you don’t need to like classical, jazz or Celtic music to enjoy what they’re doing. Marshall and Thile are extraordinarily gifted pickers, but have as much of a feel for the heart of the music as for the technique. On “Fisher’s Hornpipe” and the Marshall original “Hey Ho!” the technique is astounding, but the overall effect is even more so. Where Thile goes the minimalist route, Watkins takes another path. “26 Miles” is a full production: 13 original songs, arrangements that include not only drums and bass but saxophone, keyboards and, courtesy of Watkins’ sister and Nickel Creek bandmate Sara, fiddle. The title track is Watkins alone, experimenting with drum samples; the closer, “Carousel,” features string quartet. Even with all the sounds, “26 Miles” reveals the interior-focused singer-songwriter in Watkins. Song after song looks Very Seriously at Watkins’ inner workings, and it becomes a little much very quickly. Representative lyrics: “I wish that I didn’t need to say that I didn’t bleed”; “I can’t stop this carousel/I’ve tried so long to no avail.” Enough, yes? Watkins has a lovely way with melody and is a heck of a guitarist; even the expansive instrumentation generally works. The few instrumental tracks here, especially “Chutes and Ladders,” show how good Watkins can sound when he shuts up and plays his guitar. For a look at Watkins that is not so much of a look inside Watkins, see his first solo CD, “Let It Fall.””Into the Cauldron”: Man, oh man, oh mandolin.”26 Miles”: Get over yourself, man. Damien Jurado, “Where shall you take me?” produced by Eric Fisher (Secretly Canadian)You want to do singer-songwriter stuff, do it like this. “Where shall you take me?” the fifth album by Seattlite Damien Jurado, echoes Neil Young’s “Harvest” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska” – acoustic folk-rock that captures the melancholia, gloom and even the terror of American life by peering into the heartland and seeing what’s there. Spare songs like “Window,” “Abilene” and “Bad Dreams” put Jurado in the company of Gillian Welch and Richard Bruckner, artists who can wring maximum emotion from the sparest sounds. Anywhere you say, DamienIbrahim Ferrer, “Buenos Hermanos” produced by Ry Cooder (World Circuit/Nonesuch)Ry Cooder, the American guitarist who has done so much for and with Cuban music, does it again. The name of septuagenarian singer Ibrahim Ferrer, a member of the Buena Vista Social Club, is on “Buenos Hermanos.” But Cooder is all over this CD, as producer, instrumentalist and driving force. He even contributes his son, drummer Joachim, to the proceedings. This is not to sell Ferrer, a great vocalist, short. But “Buenos Hermanos” – which translates to “good brothers” – is a band record. The wide-ranging cast includes pianist Chucho Valds, drummer Jim Keltner, accordionist Flaco Jimenez, bassist Orlando “Cachato” Lpez, the Blind Boys of Alabama, and many more. And Cooder is clearly the one marshaling the forces here. It is a far different recording than 1999’s plain-spoken “Buena Vista Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer” – also produced by Cooder – which sold 1.5 million copies. But it is even more enjoyable, with songs ancient and brand-new getting playful, soulful treatment.This is Cooder’s second major achievement of the first half of 2003. “Mambo Sinuendo” – which Cooder recorded with Manuel Galbn, who also appears on “Buenos Hermanos” – was already one of my favorite CDs of 2003. This ranks alongside it.Muy bueno, hermanos.Dan Bern and the IJBC, “Fleeting Days” produced by Wil Masisak (Messenger Records)I’m sure Dan Bern is sick of the Dylan comparisons by now; he’s been tagged as another new Dylan since his 1997 debut. And songs like “Eva” and “Jane,” from the new CD “Fleeting Days,” the Dylan comparisons will have to make room for Elvis Costello comparisons. Not that the Dylan parallels have faded away. The nightmarish country-rocker “Fly Away” – with Bern spitting out lines like “Who’s looking in my window?/I heard somebody caawff – is as Dylanesque (“Highway 61 Revisited”-era) as it gets. But if anybody should understand the tendency to use cultural icons as shorthand, it would be Bern. Bern has long made a habit of dropping names – “Fleeting Days” references Hemingway and Marc Cohn, Superman and Adam, Paul Simon and Simon’s “Graceland” – as touchstones.And now it’s time to drop the comparisons, and address Bern as the major and unique talent he is. “Fleeting Days” makes that easy. Like 2001’s “New American Language,” Bern’s latest moves beyond mere jokes, quirks and irony. “Fleeting Days” is rich with humor, ominous clouds, bitterness, obsessive romance and more. Bern has both a way with the quick phrase (“All these questions start to stick to me like cancer”) and the ability to make big-picture story songs like “Graceland,” a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Elvis that turns out to be a commentary on more than the King. As with “New American Language,” Bern moves beyond folk into full-throttle roots rock, and the sounds of “Fleeting Days” are as vital as the ideas.Also from Bern: last year’s “The Swastika E.P.,” a five-song release that opens with the political-minded, politically incorrect “Talkin’ Al Kida Blues.” Bern is on fireDaniel Lanois, “Shine” (Anti-)Daniel Lanois has made his name as rock’s top producer, having been behind essential albums by U2, Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Peter Gabriel and so on. And every once in a while, Lanois the singer and songwriter emerges to put his stamp on his own material. It’s not often: “Shine” is only his third album, and first since “For the Beauty of Wynona” 10 years ago.Lanois seems to be using the various production ideas he has gathered, though with a muted sensibility. The opening “I Love You,” with Emmylou Harris adding vocals, could be an outtake from Robbie Robertson’s “Storyville,” which Lanois, of course, produced. “Falling at Your Feet” practically is an outtake from U2’s “All That You Can’t Leave Behind”: Bono, who contributes vocals, co-wrote the song with Lanois during the “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” sessions. And there are transcendent moments where “Shine” sounds like just Lanois. Lanois whispers his way through the mesmerizing “As Tears Go By.” “Sometimes” is an example of melodic beauty. And Lanois uses the pedal steel guitar – what he calls his favorite instrument – to unique effect on two instrumental lullabies, “Transmitter” and “JJ Leaves LA.” By the end of “Shine,” Lanois might have put you to sleep – but with some very sweet dreams.Quietly, on his own, Lanois shines
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