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If your father is an acclaimed and skilled musician like, say, Bob Dylan or even Steve Earle, it’s a given that your life will be a bit extraordinary, and you might discover some innate musical talents of your own. That’s true, at least, for Jakob Dylan and Justin Townes Earle.

Alternately, let’s imagine that you have a more average upbringing, but at a ripe young age you discover that you’re a whiz at the mandolin. You form a band with some other kids who can really play, and in short order you find yourselves with a platinum and gold album, a Grammy, and the respect of the most honored musicians in the biz. Might your Midas touch not extend to adulthood as you put the past on pause in pursuit of solo ventures? Well, this much is true for former Nickel Creek band member, Chris Thile, who has just released another knock-out album with his group, Punch Brothers.

Whether attributed to prodigy or progeny, fueled by inborn desire or eternal fire, these sons and "brothers" are each, in their own way, at the top of their game and releasing new material that’s making its own indelible mark.

201009_jakobdylanFirst off, let it be said that neither Dylan nor Earle were silver-spoon fed, and neither has received unearned praise for his efforts. The music clearly speaks for itself. Most will remember Jakob Dylan more for his fronting the ’90s rock band the Wallflowers than for his association with his father. In recent years, however, he’s carved an independent path, and in April he released his second solo album, Women and Country (256kbps MP3, Columbia/Amazon.com), which is stylistically and lyrically his best work to date. Produced by T Bone Burnett, the album features guitarist Marc Ribot, fiddler/mandolin player David Mansfield, and Neko Case and Kelly Hogan, who sing backup vocals on most tracks. For the album opener, "Nothing But the Whole Wide World," Dylan delivers his vocals without flair, near-spoken like a cowboy poet (even Case and Hogan, who can both wail, hold back and harmonize delicately), and despite the sparse vocals and accompaniment, the tune stands out as one of the best on the album. In fact, throughout the disc this minimalist style is righteously suited for the album’s recession/depression-era themes of hard work, hard times, and perseverance in spite of it all. Other standout tracks include "Lend a Hand" (very Tom Waits-ish) and the ghostly, echoing "We Don’t Live Here Anymore."

201009_justintownesYoung in years but aged in experience, Justin Townes Earle is quickly becoming an old pro, with his third album, Harlem River Blues (CD, BS 178) set to release September 14 on the Bloodshot Records label. The album is a much-anticipated follow-up to his critically acclaimed 2009 release, Midnight at the Movies. Earle’s nuanced lyrics can be delivered with a drifter’s southern drawl or flecked with breathless emotion; his gift for songwriting is clearly a skill inherited from his father, though it more closely emulates the likes of Hank Williams or his namesake, Townes Van Zandt. The hand-clapping, foot-tapping title track and opener kicks things off with a gospel choir chorus (which makes quite an entrance), and though the feeling rings of rebirth, the fine print reads of resignation. This is the Harlem River Blues, not baptism, after all. "Workin’ for the MTA" reworks the classic train song for modern times ("Daddy was a railroad man, but this ain’t my daddy’s train -- it’s cold in them tunnels today, mamma, workin’ for the MTA"). Co-produced by Earle and Skylar Wilson, the album features a supporting cast that includes Brian Owings on drums, Paul Niehaus (Calexico) on pedal steel guitar, Bryn Davies on upright bass, and Ketch Secor (Old Crow Medicine Show) on harmonica. This one’s got the current top spot on my Best of 2010 list.

201009_punchbrothersFinally, Punch Brothers’ latest, Antifogmatic (256kbps MP3, Nonesuch/Amazon.com), is a conundrum of genre gene-splicing. These guys aren’t gonna be pinned down any more than you can catch lightening in a bottle. Their quirky, catchy music will have you scratching your head at first, but you’ll soon be nodding along in absolute awe. Chris Thile, on mandolin and vocals, is joined by Gabe Witcher on fiddle, Chris Eldridge on guitar, Noam Pikelny on banjo, and Paul Kowert on upright bass. Based on instrumentation alone, you’d expect bluegrass, but what you hear is that and much more: theatrical, classical, orchestral, barbershop, roots, and detours everywhere from there. Imagination is an instrument in and of itself for this band, whose epic lyrics and weaving, wandering suites take the willing listener to fantasy realms beyond any place you can get to with your feet firmly planted on the ground. So start dancing! Begin with "Rye Whiskey," "Missy," and "This Is the Song (Good Luck)" to get a feel for the kind of tricks Punch Brothers bring to the their performance ring. Don’t try too hard to figure out their secret or catch their sleight of hand. Just enjoy the Antifog-magic. By the way, the "Deluxe" MP3 download of this album contains an additional five-song instrumental EP called All of This Is True.

I’m a lover of these sons and brothers!

201008_otistaylorTelarc International TEL-31849
Format: CD

Musical Performance ****
Sound Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

 

Otis Taylor’s blues incorporates many influences from different styles of music. He’s a formidable player of the guitar, mandolin, banjo, and harmonica, and his mission to introduce people to the African-American heritage of the banjo led him to record Recapturing the Banjo with Alvin Youngblood Hart, Corey Harris, Don Vappie, and Guy Davis. Clovis People, Vol 3 is his 11th release, and it’s an example of how a singer can remain true to the roots of the blues while revitalizing his music with a unique personal vision.

Stax Records STX-325025-02
Format: CD

Musical Performance ***
Sound Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ***

201008_midnightflyerBetween them, Steve Cropper and Felix Cavaliere have many years’ experience playing soul music, but Nudge It Up a Notch, their 2008 contribution to the resurrected Stax Records, was their first collaboration. Though the songs were strong, they were marred by too much compression in the mastering. Tom Hambridge helped produce Midnight Flyer, and the sound is a vast improvement, if perhaps a touch bland.

The songs aren’t quite as consistent as those on the duo’s debut, but there’s still plenty to like. Cavaliere is in great voice, and his performances on "I Can’t Stand It" (a duet with his daughter Aria) and "I Can’t Stand the Rain" are seminars in how to sing a soul tune. Steve Cropper’s solos are models of elegant understatement and feeling, and his rhythm guitar playing is the pulse that keeps things moving. The old-style backing vocals help ground the music in tradition, but on many tunes I found myself wishing Cavaliere had used traditional keyboards. "Early Morning Riser" and "I Can’t Stand It" derive a lot of their energy from his Hammond organ playing. The songs on Midnight Flyer take a few listens to grab you, but they’re well constructed by two old-time craftsmen, with assistance from Hambridge. How about a horn section next time?

NLQ/Whitehouse Records
Format: CD

Musical Performance ****
Sound Quality ***
Overall Enjoyment ****

201008_quarterThe Japanese have had a passion for American jazz since the 1950s, culminating in the erection of the New Latin Quarter club in Tokyo. Boasting 100 "hostesses," 40 employees, and 80 tables (300 patrons), the establishment became a crown jewel in the East, both for hearing jazz and, according to the program notes, for espionage and spying. One envisions a scene where a mobster is contracted to deliver illicit cargo while listening to Julie London. The artists who’ve played there constitute a who’s who of jazz, and their performances have been preserved. In 2007, 47 reel-to-reel tapes were discovered, and they’ll now be available on CD.

Rather than duplicating any particular evening, the CDs present excerpts from various sets. Volume 1 gets off to a relaxed, swinging start as Nat "King" Cole (1963) sings an impeccable, suave, and swinging version of "The Way You Look Tonight," followed by Nancy Wilson (1970) definitively vamping "The Man Who Got Away." Performances by Keely Smith, Chubby Checker, Louis Armstrong, Patti Page, Julie London, Bobby Troup, Sammy Davis Jr., The Mills Brothers, and the Harry James Orchestra fill out the disc. Page’s "What Is This Thing Called Love" (1962) is a revelation. I’d never thought of the "singing rage" as a jazz performer, but here’s proof that she could be just that. The disc finishes with Louis Armstrong doing a rousing version of "When the Saints Go Marchin’ In" (1961).

All of the cuts present previously unavailable recordings by music legends in their prime, and the recorded sound is mono and better than you might expect. We can look forward to additional volumes in a series that delivers real treasures for the jazz lover.

Rainbow Quartz Records TT 167
Format: CD

Musical Performance ****1/2
Sound Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

201008_gripweedsThe Grip Weeds have finally released their fifth disc, and it’s cause for celebration. Strange Change Machine roars to life on "Speed of Life" with an explosion of drum rolls by Kurt Reil, solidifying his standing as one of rock’s great timekeepers. The song’s Mellotron, throbbing guitar delays, ringing major seventh chords, and soaring harmonies are proof once again that the Grip Weeds belong in rock’s pantheon. Kristin Pinell and Rick Reil are a formidable two-guitar lineup, and the disc demonstrates that old-school guitar effects, real keyboards, and analog recording are the keys to great rock'n'roll.

Strange Change Machine contains more than 80 minutes of music over two discs, and there isn’t a dead moment on it, although I might have enjoyed a less obvious Todd Rundgren cover than "Hello, It’s Me." The amazing thing about the Grip Weeds is that the band can play such tough, no-holds-barred rock'n'roll, and still be subtle, elegant, and melodic. Strange Change Machine is also available as a two-LP set. I need to catch this band live.

On the Air 9654
Format: CD

Musical Performance ****
Sound Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

201008_leboLawrence Lebo is a disarming singer from California who defies categorization. Essentially a jazz vocalist, she incorporates elements of blues, western swing, and folk for a result that’s better identified with her own name than any particular genre. Much of the time Lebo partners with just one instrument, the double bass of Denny Croy, who some readers might know as a bassist for the Brian Setzer Orchestra. The two play and sing hand in glove, with impeccable pitch and undeniable nuance. I liked every song on this CD, but the blues tracks, including "Lawrence’s Working Girl Blues," "It’s Not the First Time," and a superb version of "Walking the Back Streets," got to me the most. In the jazz vein, I’d pick the anguished "I Should Care," again a duet with Croy, and to represent western swing, there’s "A Promise I Can Keep," a Lebo original that uses the largest group of instruments, including vibes and violin.

The recorded sound is honest and clean with good frequency and dynamic response. The bass is especially well recorded, and the balance between bass and voice in the duets couldn’t be better. So "Don’t Call Her Larry." Instead, call Lebo brilliant and refreshing.

201007_exileUniversal Music B0014130-02
Format: CD

Musical Performance *****
Sound Quality **1/2
Overall Enjoyment ***

 

When the Rolling Stones released Exile On Main Street in 1972, critical reception was lukewarm. Reviewing the album in Rolling Stone, Lenny Kaye wrote, "Exile On Main Street appears to take up where Sticky Fingers left off, with the Stones attempting to deal with their problems and once again slightly missing the mark." But fans disagreed, and Exile hit number one on the charts in both the US and the UK. It repeated that feat 38 years later, when Universal Music, the band's current label, issued this remixed (by Bob Clearmountain) and remastered (by Stephen Marcussen) version in May.

201007_footstepsEach of the discs highlighted in this month's "Select Sounds" weaves melodious chords of intrigue, mystery, and magic. Spanning the globe from African deserts to smoky cabarets and including French Acadian and gypsy caravan cultures, these albums are united by a nomadic spirit and rhythms that find roots in the universal language of music.

Documentary filmmaker and producer Kathi von Koerber's Footsteps in Africa project began as a feature-length film exploring the life, worldview and creativity of the nomadic Tuareg people of the Sahara desert. The film is set to debut at select festivals around the world later this year, but its trance- and dance-inducing soundtrack was released on June 1. Originating from ancient migratory tribes crossing desert lands from India to Africa and the Middle East, the Tuareg use music as a unifying force, often singing, dancing, and playing music for hours on end during communal gatherings. Taking authentic field recordings from several ceremonial and festival gatherings, Joshua Jacobs collaborated with DJs worldwide to turn these excerpts of Tuareg life into full-on dance floor-ready remixes. Persian-American composer, Jamshied Sharifi adds instrumental overdubs to eight of the disc's 14 tracks, offering an array of soundscapes for expansion by DJs like Nicodemus, DimmSummer, and Cheb i Sabbah. On "Open," the Bombay Dub Orchestra drops a percussive onslaught of djembe and hand drums over Morocco's Hassan Hakmoun's deep singing drone to create a heady, sonic vibe. Listening transports you to sand-strewn landscapes where hot desert winds whip ancient melodies into reborn remixes that sound at once old and new. Footsteps in Africa Soundtrack: Nomadic Remix (Kiahkeya 001) also serves a good cause, as 15 percent of profits go to the Nomadic Villagers Clean Water Awareness Fund, a collaborative charity established by the film's producers, the Indigenous Cultural Educational Center, and Tuareg leaders to improve wells and access to clean water for the people and musicians featured in the film and soundtrack.

201007_feufolletThe sub-Saharan spell is broken when Fuefollet's new disc begins. A raucous Cajun spirit is ushered in and, like stepping from a time machine, I imagine I've arrived in a rowdy jukejoint in the Bayou lands of Lafayette, Louisiana. En Couleurs (MUD 6503) is the new release from the youthful, highly skilled musicians in Feufollet, and it continues their tradition of respecting their Acadian forebearers while paving uncharted territory in the zydeco/Cajun genres. "Cajun pop" is how fiddler and accordion player Chris Stafford characterizes the sound, and while the album includes some traditional numbers, the originals take a divergent path that tingles with an exploratory freedom and freshness. Unusual instruments such as a digital autoharp, glockenspiels, and toy pianos mingle with the standard accordion, mandolin, fiddle, and guitar to create a unique sound that's clearly Cajun, but also vaguely indie pop. Opener "Au Fond Du Lac," written and beautifully sung by Anna Laura Edmiston, waltzes out of the gate with a pretty, lanky shuffle, telling a creole tale of love gone wrong. Short instrumental interludes, ranging from 29 seconds to just under two minutes, pepper the disc, segueing into longer lyrical ballads. There's an easy lilt to the songs and though much of the material deals with tales of woe, the foreign tongue and melodious accompaniment mask any tragic feel. En Couleurs arrives just a year after the band's last release, Cow Island Hop, and it brings a wealth of good new material. This prolific band continues to deliver their authentic and evolving sound to the masses; my only complaint with this one is that at 42 minutes, it's over too soon.

201007_fishtankFinally, Fishtank Ensemble ups the ante with Woman in Sin (FE 1003), one of the most eclectic and pleasant new surprises I've uncovered in some time. The four-piece band comprises a melting pot of creative talent with two Americans (vocalist Ursula Knudson and flamenco guitarist Doug Smolens), a Parisian violinist (Fabrice Martinez), and a Serbian-born upright bassist (Djordje Stijepovic). Knudson's coy vocals are one part Betty Boop, one part torch singer, and one part classically trained operatic, climbing octaves effortlessly. The music is inspired by Roma roots and includes Kurdish, Dutch, Transylvanian, and Serbian traditional songs, as well as originals rooted in those and similar cultures. First-rate musicianship harnesses the energetic thrust of the tunes, which the group renders rich with a Hot Club and theatrical flair. After just one listen, you'll find it hard to resist the urge to clap and shout "Opa! Opa!" in chorus. "Djordje's Rachenitza" showcases the awesome slap-bass talent of Stijepovic, and the seductive cover of Edie Cooley and Otis Blackwell's "Fever" is a sexy showstopper that lets Knudson's incredible vocals sizzle. The band apparently lives in Hollywood, CA, and travels to local gigs by means of a kitschy (but functional) mule-drawn gypsy wagon. After hearing their music, that isn't hard to believe. I'm continually inspired by people who can have this much fun making a living.

These disparate albums are unified by the quality and creativity of the music they contain. Hollywood gypsies, desert nomads, and young Cajun blood have all celebrated their unique cultural roots and generously inducted the rest of us into their folds. Opa!

201006_charlesConcord Records CRE-31669
Format: CD 

Musical Performance ****1/2
Sound Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

 

Ray Charles invented soul music in the 1950s, and he made country music his own for a while in the '60s, but he always kept his hand in jazz. When he was with Atlantic Records, where he made the great rhythm and blues sides that propelled him to stardom, he recorded a number of jazz albums, including two with vibraphonist Milt Jackson. When he left Atlantic in 1960 for ABC Records, one of his first projects was a big-band jazz album for Impulse!, the label's jazz subsidiary. Genius + Soul = Jazz was similar in conception and personnel to The Genius of Ray Charles, his 1959 recording for Atlantic. Both records alternated between Ralph Burns and Quincy Jones for the arrangements, and both employed members of Count Basie's orchestra for roughly half the tunes, the balance being played by a band composed of great session players.

Stockfisch SFR 357.4058.2
Format: Hybrid Stereo SACD

Musical Performance ***1/2
Sound Quality ****1/2
Overall Enjoyment ***1/2

201006_parisMany musicians have paid tribute to Paris, among them composers as disparate as Frederick Delius, George Gershwin, and Michel Legrand. Now German pianist Sebastian Sternal has added his two cents to the mix with a seven-track album inspired by different neighborhoods in the French capital. He has with him the other two members of his virtuoso trio, Sebastian Klose on upright bass and Axel Pape on drums and percussion, and for authenticity he's added French singer Anne-Marie Jean on three of the cuts. Thanks in no small part to splendid recorded sound, the shimmering, slightly dreamy rambling all goes down easily, but I didn't find it memorable five hours later. The lucid sound is a bit different from most piano-trio recordings in the way the instruments are placed in the sound field. The piano, usually in the center, is to the right; the drums are to the left; and the bass anchors the center, as does the vocalist on her numbers. But in the hands of master producer Günther Pahler, it works well.