Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Hot Club Of San Francisco - Bohemian Maestro: Django Reinhardt And Impressionists

The Hot Club Of San Francisco has chosen sixteen tracks from Django Reinhardt and others who may have inspired him for their latest CD entitled Bohemian Maestro: Django Reinhardt And The Impressionists. Good choices for the band as its roots lie in the Django Gypsy tradition. Led by Paul Mehling, (guitar/banjo) for over twenty years The Hot Club has put out ten previous albums and is making their debut on Azica Records with this tribute to the master.

Jean “Django” Reinhardt (Django means “I awake” in Romani) is known for his gypsy swing style of guitar and banjo work. What makes him unique is the fact that due to extensive injuries by fire Django lost the use of two of his fingers on his left hand (the third and fourth) and is said to have played his solos with only two fingers, using the paralyzed two for chord work. Playing a string instrument is difficult enough as it is, but Django pulled it off with his injuries and gave birth to a very unique sound.

Filled with string bass, violin, banjo, rhythm and lead guitars, the Django sound is rounded out by piano, theremin, and at times various wind instruments (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn), provided by the all-female Aeros Quintet. Django can jump with tunes like “Vendredi 13,” slow down and swing a bit with “Diminushing Blackness,” mellow out on “Nympheas” and get somber with the moody “Bolero.” “Diminushing Blackness” and “Bolero” have very dark tones to them especially “Bolero” with its heavily strummed, plodding guitar, tricky solos, and sad, weeping violin. An instant favorite. The other two Django tracks are the sweet “Messe/Improvisation” and “Improvisation No.3,” which is sad and dark one minute then bouncy the next and back to gloomy.

The Hot Club also covers three tunes by Claude Debussy. A short excerpt of “Pour l’egyptienne” continues the moody darkness of the weeping violin along with jangled guitar work and then reprise of the same title. Third by Debussy is the equally sad yet sweet “Clair De Lune,” one gets the feeling of a lost love in the moonlight as the guitar gently strums and picks over the quiet violin.

Also included is a well-known waltz by Francis Poulenc, “Les Chemins De L’Amour;” a slow tune that fits right in with the other selections, offering more of the same quiet violin and guitar work done in waltz time and movement. On the other hand, there is Jelly Roll Morton’s “The Pearls” that jumps and swings with its lead banjo, peppy rhythm guitar, and solid, playful bass plucks.

Not to be left out of the mix The Hot Club has chimed in with three tracks of their own songs to match and rival the masters they adore so much. “Le Surdoue” is a jumpin’ ditty that kicks off the disc and gets you moving, laying the ground work for what is to come. The song flies at its open with guitar work, slows a bit in the center to let the violin sing, and gives way to the plunks of the bass as it pushes the song forward setting up track two. “Le Jongleur” pops with jumpy, jangled guitar, banjo strums, and singing, sweet violin as the bass thumps on behind them all, giving off a hint of the somber, moody tunes to come. “Waltz For M.C. Escher” is a slow and moody piece that brings all the elements together and adds the creepy, smooth theremin to the mix.

The Hot Club Of San Francisco: Bohemian Maestro: Django Reinhardt And The Impressionists is a fine introduction to both The Hot Club and Django (and friends) for those who don’t know much on the gypsy jazz of the ‘20s and ‘30s. For those familiar with the works of both, this CD will be a welcome addition to the collection as it is a fine album, filled with many wonderful songs that are easy to listen to over and over again as the CD clocks in at just about an hour. The moody tunes set next to the up-tempo jumps are beautifully placed and push the pace of the disc making a very enjoyable listen.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Brighton Port Authority: I Think We’re Gonna Need A Bigger Boat

Written by Fantasma el Rey

Hitting the streets with beats and grooves long thought lost in a seaport warehouse is The Brighton Port Authority’s long-awaited CD release, I Think We’re Gonna Need A Bigger Boat. Better known as The BPA and recorded under the creative watch of Norman Cook in collaboration with many unique vocalists, these long-lost gems are finally revealed to the public. So join me and uncover just who and what are The BPA.

The story goes that in the 1970s a young Norman Cook recorded these tracks to tape with his mysterious jam band backing various lead vocalists in their portside studio. Rumors of the tapes and the band itself circulated for years until a box containing the tapes was finally found confirming their existence. With some work the tapes where cleaned up and put out on CD.

Then there is the real story of The BPA which is Cook, better known as Fat Boy Slim, put this thing together with the help and vocal assistance of a few of his talented friends. Together they managed to kick out some very danceable jams for the pop/electronica/indie/dance crowd to move and groove to.

The twelve tracks on I Think… move along at a quick pace, laying the beats down in a very enjoyable time of 43 minutes. The time is perfect for those of us that prefer our dance music fix not to last hours on end in marathon rave fashion. The track order is also laid out well. As any good DJ can, Cook has arranged the songs in an order that picks you up with solid up-tempo beats and rhythms while letting you chill and groove to the more mellow tunes. A truly good mix.

Iggy Pop lends his peculiar vocals to the ‘60s soul stomp “He’s Frank (Slight Return),” which leads off the disc with heavy drums and bass supported by funky lead guitars and handclaps. Heading right into “Dirty Sheets” with Pete York on vocals and slowing the pace down a bit, none of the beat is lost and distorted murky-sounding guitar work is added. From there it’s a seamless trip back to solid dance grooves with odd chord-bending guitar sounds and layered vocals by Connan Mockasin while blurred and blended horns twist behind.

And the cycle begins again with another ‘60s-sounding track. This time with Ashley Beedle providing the voice to the heavy island rhythm, ska overload that is “Should I Stay Or Should I Blow.” The disc slows once more with “Island” and bumps it pace back up with “Local Town,” the former featuring Justin Robertson, the latter Jamie T.

The ladies take the next two tunes. Emmy The Great gently leads “Seattle” with her sweet voice. The tune that is laid back yet jumps when the time is right, never overpowering Emmy’s vocals. Martha Wainwright’s dominates “Spade” in a way that has you digging her voice as the ska rhythm keeps you nodding your head and swaying with the beat. The two gentle voices supplied by these ladies add two more highlights to a strong album, carrying the middle section of the CD.

Not that this disc has a weak section as it rounds out with Simon Thornton’s dreamy “Superman,” Cagedbaby’s sublime “Superlover,” David Byrne (that’s right from Talking Heads) and Dizzee Rascal’s horn-filled dance explosion “Toe Jam.” “Toe Jam” is all Byrne as his vocals, like Iggy’s, are noticeable and are controlled by their delivery. And so it goes as the album closes with Olly Hite taking vocals on “So It Goes,” a keyboard-laden track that’s mellow and groovy and ends the CD perfectly, leaving your head bobbing.

I’m not one for too much electro/dance stuff of the Fatboy Slim nature but The BPA I enjoyed and I Think We’re Gonna Need A Bigger Boat is a disc I’ll be spinning for awhile. My favorite tracks will surly find their way to frequent my play list.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Van Morrison: Astral Weeks - Live At The Hollywood Bowl.

Written by Musgo Del Jefe

I write about movies. That's where I feel most at home. I've always loved the great directors. The ones that put their stamp on their films. The ones that tell stories that transcend the screen - that stick with you for years. But when a director makes a great film, he doesn't get a chance to remake it forty years later. It's that fact that brought me to Van Morrison's Astral Weeks: Live At The Hollywood Bowl.

Van Morrison's 1968 release, Astral Weeks has made just about every list of Top Albums Of All-Time that I've seen. I first encountered the album in my late teens as a budding fiction writer. I found the stream of consciousness feel of the lyrics drew me in. The combination of pop, jazz, and blues influences of the music held my rapt attention. The songs did not necessarily tell a coherent story as much as all revolve symbolically around love and the relationship of our desires to greater ideals of heaven. These amazing lyrics were written and sung by a very talented 23-year-old.

The same year, 1968, Stanley Kubrick released his most important work, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Also considered one of the most important films of all-time, 2001 also draws upon almost a stream of consciousness visual storytelling. Sounds and images (especially classical music) are used in telling a story in ways that were also groundbreaking at the time. The 40-year-old, Kubrick, used science fiction to symbolically discuss our humanity and our relationships with technology, Nature, and God. By 2008, Kubrick had passed away and he did not have the ability to remake his film with the knowledge he had gained in the past forty years.

In 2008, Van Morrison played for two nights at the Hollywood Bowl (November 7 and 8), working with a orchestral string section, and performed the entire Astral Weeks album. My fascination is with the interpretation of these groundbreaking songs over the forty years. Van Morrison has the luxury of looking back at the compositions and the lyrics from the perspective of a 63-year-old man. Simply singing the lyrics as written and playing the music as it is on the album would bring a different interpretation in itself. Like any crafty artist, Van Morrison used the opportunity to make 40-year-old lyrics seem like they were written this morning. The arrangements extend the jazz and blues themes of the original album.

"Astral Weeks - I Believe I've Transcended" tells you exactly what this album means after forty years. Easily my favorite song on this release. The lyrics and music meander like a wandering stream. The tempo rises and falls, continually rising to a new level. Transcended is the perfect word for what the 63-year-old man sees when he sings about love. The lyric "I believe I've transcended" is a new one repeated at the end of the song and it sounds like the ending of a gospel song.

"Beside You" is a love song about being spiritually together with you child. The song of hope in your 20s is a song of wise, melancholy in your 60s. The mournful strings make this a richer, fuller song.

"Slim Slow Slider - I Start Breaking Down" is the last song on the album, that's now placed as the third track. I always recall this as one of the more bluesy pieces on the original album. He stretches it out here, really playing up the jazz and blues angle of the piece. The additional lyrics of "I Start Breaking Down" clears up the symbolic theme of drug abuse. The music reflects chorus.

"Sweet Thing," my favorite song off the original album, is almost flipped on its head here. This song has the most evocative lyrics on the album. It's got beautiful symbolism of love as a blooming garden. The song envisions a future of growing old together - "You shall take me strongly in your arms again / And I will not remember that I ever felt pain." Sung with a swelling string section, instead of being a song about future love, it feels like an ode to a lost love that he'll be reunited with in Heaven. The meaning remains but the vision is even more poignant here.

"The Way Young Lovers Do" was my least favorite song on the original album and remains so here. Lyrically obtuse and musically the basic jazz arrangement just doesn't do anything for me - especially following the brilliance of "Sweet Thing."

"Cypress Avenue - You Came Walking Down" is both about Belfast and a mystical city. The progression of the song through Van Morrison's vision and impressionistic memories feels much deeper sung from the distance of forty years. There's a rhythm to the lyrics that is transcendent, much like "Astral Weeks." The urge to get back to a young love is so much more heartfelt here. The same lyrics feel so fresh here - this song may be the most improved over the years.

"Ballerina" is one of Van Morrison's best love songs. It doesn't sound much different than it did originally. That's not a bad thing.

"Madame George" is a short story in itself. Also, one to meander, not in a hurry to get anywhere, the song picks you up and just floats you along for almost ten minutes. I don't know if I even could summarize the story. But you feel like you are just watching humanity, plain and simple. And the feeling is of acceptance and love for everyone. It's a high concept and I'm amazed by how easily he pulls it off. It benefits from the beautiful string section in the live version.

"Listen To The Lion - The Lion Speaks" is a bonus song not originally from Astral Weeks. It was played as an encore to the concert. Following the celebration of humanity in "Madame George", this song is all about the internal search for one's Soul. It is the culmination of the transcendence started at the beginning of the set. Van Morrison finds the lion in himself as he approaches Heaven. A very deep concept that finds a comfortable home here.

"Common One" is the only truly disappointing track on the album. Not because it isn't a superb Van Morrison song. But mainly because I want the album to end with "Listen To The Lion."

I'd like to think that Stanley Kubrick would have been able to sit down behind the director's chair and tell the same story of 2001 but with the knowledge of a man in his 80s and tell an even deeper story that would open up even more thematic elements to the viewer. Van Morrison found the perfect outlet for his work. Not simply a rerelease, performing the songs again gives them even more soul than they did in 1968. There's a freedom to his voice that fills you up - like going to church - you feel deep inside. It's simple. It's transcendent.

Mike Gordon: The Green Sparrow

Written by Fumo Verde

While Phish was on hiatus, Mike Gordon has been running strong. The Green Sparrow is Gordon’s second solo album which came out in the summer of 2008 and contains ten original songs. It finds him joined by friends like former band mate Trey Anastasio, Bill Kreutzmann from the Grateful Dead, and Chuck Leavell from the Allman Brothers Band. Backed by guitarist Scott Murawski, keyboardist Tom Cleary, drummer Todd Isler, and percussionist Craig Myers, The Green Sparrow comes off smooth with a soothing vibe and easy beat to kick back to. Gordon is fine wordsmith and knows how to put together a good album.

I was told by my buddy Abe to listen to “Andelmans’ Yard” first. It has a very Phish feel to it with its dancing bass line and the “quick note playing” guitar riffs. “I forgot my problems or so it seems/ I was able to leave them in another dream./ But I got my friends and we’re running hard/ A few feet beneath the fallen leaves in the Andelmans’ yard” A song about digging tunnels in your old neighborhood may sound quirky but it lays down the images of suburban life with houses that look all the same and nicely kept lawns and hedges. “Radar Blip” which has a funky bass line and groovy drumbeat follows it. The keyboards break in and then recede, giving this tune a trippy ‘70s vibe as a brass section fills in at certain points and gives the song a sweet big band boost.

“Further Down” has to be one of my favorites on this CD. Opening up with the drum line broken by a grand guitar strum, the song runs like a well-oiled machine. The guitar work is amazing and opens the door for the song to take off. “I’m trying to dig further down/ I’m hoping to scrape across the lip of your buried crown./ I’m finding the way you live to be unsound/ But I’m still trying to dig further down”. If radio deejays are looking for a track good enough for public airwaves, “Further Down” should be that song. “Another Door” opens the CD and it too starts with Gordon’s funky bass style. The drums drive the tune as the guitar and keyboards ramble along giving the song a “feel good” vibe.

The Green Sparrow has this vibe throughout the whole album and though Gordon makes each song different he never looses sight of what he intends to bring out in the music. For Phish fans and lovers of easy-going music, it has that sweet sound and it shows the continuous growth of Gordon’s musical talents. Those who dig this kind of hippie jive will be down with this album.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Justice: A Cross the Universe

Written by Sombra Blanca

If your rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, like mine, can only be lived vicariously, the Justice documentary A Cross the Universe packs in a few years’ worth. Despite the fact the documentary’s subjects, Frenchmen Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay, don’t play rock ‘n’ roll at all, at least not in the traditional sense.

Whether their brand of banging electronic house music is “the new rock ‘n’ roll,” as one fan proclaims, I’ll defer to others. But A Cross the Universe, a summary of their three-week North American tour in early 2008, reveals enough antics to rival the legends of any hesher hero.

At 64 minutes (shorter than the accompanying audio CD in the two-disc set), Filmmakers Romain Gavras and So-Me haven’t the time to delve into the duo’s history, why they make music, or any other biographical sketches. A little airport confusion, a stock shot of a plane in the air, and the film is off, fueled by the frenzied, over-the-top music from Justice’s first and only full album so far, Cross. (Not the word but the symbol, kind of like what Prince did).

Naturally a documentary about touring is going to include some live footage of the shows, and the directors include plenty of it, or at least a generous amount of fan footage. Crowd surfing in every clip, crazy costumes among the concertgoers, hands in the air as if they didn’t care, and an almost painful amount of strobe lights. Seriously. I understand the intent is to match the “thump-thump-thump” of the beat, but how their uninspired lighting tech avoided seizures, I have no idea. The lighting is the main reason it’s a good thing A Cross the Universe isn’t a straight live show.

If I had a gripe about the live footage, it would be that the close-up crowd shots dominated any clips of Augé and de Rosnay actually “playing” their instruments, even if it would horrify purists by showing a couple of CD players among other equipment. And especially because one of the gigs, the 2008 Coachella Festival, was purportedly their first performance with a live PA setup. It would’ve been nice to see trial-and-error (or success) footage from that show alone.

Instead, the directors never let the film linger too long in any one moment, and constantly flip back and forth between on- and off-stage. The duo, their tour manager Bouchon, and other members of the entourage find themselves in a hotel room filled with pantily clad ladies one night, watching a marriage on another night, and peppered along the with way with arrests, celebrities, and bottles both emptied and broken on purpose.

The chaos that follows Augé and de Rosnay is usually sorted out by Bouchon, who throughout the film aligns himself more with the American way of life with an increasing obsession with guns. He keeps one at his hip, takes others to firing ranges, and even argues with locals about gun rights. At the suggestion he carry a shoulder holster, for example, Bouchon without a hint of humor says “This is not a movie, man; this is the real life.”

The filmmakers also lucked out with the selection of Roger (no last name given) as the group’s bus driver. A baritone-voiced Christian who fills his cell phone with pictures and aims to break the Guiness record for the lowest musical note, Roger’s southern drawl brings a bit of calm to the Justice storm, both through interviews and the occasional narration.

If Augé and de Rosnay adhere to similar Christian beliefs or behavior, as the rumor goes, A Cross the Universe leaves the question murky at best. At worst, it would be seen by some god-fearin’ folk as an abomination. Whether the directors — also friends of Justice — intentionally left drug use out of the final cut, or if it just didn’t happen, we don’t know. But there’s plenty of alcohol passed around and consumed most often (in the film, anyway) by Augé. He’s also the one caught on camera the most with the ladies, including a couple of tour bus rendezvous. Yes, they ritually kiss a cross before walking on stage, and yes, their stage design includes a cross tucked between (unplugged) sets of Marshall amps, but even though their music thumps, it doesn’t appear they’re thumping bibles.

While the documentary is frenetic, funny and at times just strange, the audio disc from San Francisco in the set is a bit of a disappointment. At first I wondered if the crowd was just “that loud” to be picked up so well through the soundboard. But it turns out the crowd really is that loud for one of two reasons, depending on who you ask: either the crowd noise was boosted in the final mix of the show, or the show was recorded with several microphones around the stage.

I subscribe to the former theory, because although the music gets muddy at times, it still bumps quite clear through most of the disc. Microphones, it seems, would’ve lowered the audio quality to the level of a cell phone YouTube clip. And the adage about “really being there” fits with the effect of hearing the crowd lose it every time Justice drops the beat and follows the group through every twist and turn, bleep, and blurp.

The nearly three minutes of only crowd noise that starts the disc probably could’ve been trimmed, but from there the duo slams through “Genesis” and “Phantom” before working through an altered four-minute version of their biggest hit so far, “D.A.N.C.E.” Augé and de Rosnay continue to pound out “Waters of Nazareth,” “Stress,” and a goosebump-inducing run through “We Are Your Friends” along with the other cuts from Cross, before finishing the encore with their take on a Metallica classic, “Master of Puppets” (there’s that rock again).

I love this music, and I’m happy to have it, especially until I have the chance to see Justice live myself. But by the end, even I found the need to turn it down just a little. The eardrum-challenging sound of the music itself, along with the crowd, approaches white noise instead of wonderful noise. Rather than bumping up the bass, I felt more like lowering the treble. Still, considering that on its own, Justice’s music has a raw, haphazard sort of feel to it. Maybe the mixing was a conscious decision to avoid a sound too polished. And with a crowd as enthusiastic as this one, they deserve some credit too, I suppose.

All in all, between the crazy antics of the documentary and the balls-out live show, A Cross the Universe is a safe bet if you haven’t thrust your devil horns up in a while.