Destinos (Huayucaltia Records)
The first time I listened to Destinos, I turned it up so loud that my neighbors actually asked me to turn it up higher. I'd waited impatiently for over two years, and I had to hear it the way it was meant to be heard, as if I were standing at the top of some ancient Andean volcano, looking out over wild, green mountains that bow gracefully before the clouds. I listened for the cries of animals, for the wind that blows the sultry land cool, for the Amazon rivers as they move helplessly toward the sea. I listened as intently as I did some 10 years ago, at the Comeback Inn in Venice, for the joy and the pain and the political urgency of Huayucaltia's nueva canción. My neighbors heard it, clear as day. I wasn't so sure.
It was Roque Dalton I was after, the Salvadoran poet's words sung so tenderly, so beautifully by Cindy Harding, accompanied by an earthy Latin American tapestry of Hernan Pinilla's panpipes, Afro-Peruvian drumming and Ciro Hurtado's intimate acoustic guitar.
I played it again, all original music and lyrics, some of which I had seen performed. Where was the blood of Victor Jara, the
exile of Inti-Illimani, the sweat of exploited peoples; where was the protest? There was jazz, flamenco, Middle Eastern, a little rock; there was a song, "Danza del Brujo," featuring Luis Perez, master of Mesoamerican shells, whistles, bells, who left the group eight years ago and went solo. Huayucaltia the group had nearly disappeared, its members having babies, taking degrees, teaching, working in different genres. They took the material planned for this album to Peru, fearful of what Peruvians might think, for it was respectful and somewhat indigenous, but it wasn't traditional. The Peruvians liked it. It was fresh.
And then I heard it -- a lovely, graceful, spiritual sound. It was there in the words of "Cantos del Corazón":
I'm not from here
I come from the Antilles
I come from beyond
I come from Parana
Look how vibrantly I dance, I jump
I am inspired by this region
I sing from my heart
This music was bittersweet, softer than the decade-old songs composed from within political movements, rooted more in the life experiences of Peruvian, Colombian and Argentine immigrants who settled in Los Angeles and evolved as musicians. It crossed borders, finding unity rather than war, love instead of torture, birth where death was. It was a welcome relief. I turned it up louder -- for the neighbors.
EAST RIVER PIPE
The Gasoline Age (Merge)
F.M. Cornog, a.k.a. East River Pipe, struggled for years with homelessness, addiction and crippling loneliness. Nowadays, he records eerie, mournfully melodic pop songs alone in his apartment. But despite traces of mental instability and emotional anguish in his work, Cornog's antecedents aren't '60s drug casualties who offered listeners a thrill ride through a private landscape of despair. At his best, Cornog translates his obsessions into simple and universal pop language, and that puts him in a league with rock's greatest brooding alchemists -- Bryan Ferry, say, or even John Lennon.
Cornog isn't that good, because his obsessions don't dissolve often or easily enough. Too many of his songs blur together into hazy washes of bleached-out guitar and lyrics about street loneliness; they're never less than affecting, but they can seem small. Most of Gasoline concerns night driving. The tone is more soulful, the lyrics permeated a bit more by the air outside Cornog's apartment. But a lot of it still drifts.
On each of his four full-length discs, though, Cornog has managed at least one transcendent moment, and Gasoline's lasts the entire nine minutes plus of "Atlantic City." The magic isn't in the riff structure, where the chords change as predictably and regularly as traffic signals. It's not in the slow, swaying beat. It's in the way the whole song suddenly rises out of itself, curls, and collapses over singer and listener alike, not during the confessional "Daddy beat me every day" line, nor the pitifully hopeful "Gonna make a million tonight," but on "Hey hey hey hey." (Glen Hirshberg)
Romance With the Unseen (Blue Note)
The clarinet has resurfaced in jazz almost entirely because of Don Byron, a virtuoso technician and an eclectic, colorful presenter/raconteur of progressive music. His discs have covered '30s small-ensemble pre-swing, postmodern jazz, klezmer, avant-garde Latin and old-school funk. Much to the chagrin of jazz fans, he has confined his straight-ahead playing to the occasional album cut, one hard-to-find live disc (No-Vibe Zone) and guest spots on other people's records.
Romance With the Unseen could be called Shut Up and Play the Clarinet. This is probably the first time Byron has played it conceptually safe. The disc looks harmless enough -- it's on Blue Note, the sidemen (drummer Jack
DeJohnette, bassist Drew Gress, guitar star Bill Frisell) are Big Jazz Names, and there's even a jazz standard (Herbie Hancock's "One Finger Snap"). Will Don Byron finally go into heavy rotation on KLON? Not likely. Despite Byron's outspoken "cultural activist" stance, the most incendiary thing about him is his composing and clarinet playing. His tone can be alternately warm or harsh, and his compositions are often full of rude surprises. So, though it appears he's making a "safe" jazz disc, it's the same Byron as always, unable to paint by numbers.
The sidemen are well-chosen. Frisell's playing hasn't been this exciting since 1994's This Land. Bassist Drew Gress is a delight, with an approach that's at
turns supportive and defiantly challenging to the soloist, wrapped in a rich tone. DeJohnette is at turns grooving, torrential or just plain smooth. Will Byron's Romance woo the huge numbers who've fallen for, say, Joshua Redman? Doubtful. But it does further his reputation as one of the most interesting, out-on-the-limb players of his generation. (Skip Heller)
Worried (Fat Possum)
Like the other discs Fat Possum puts out, Asie Payton's Worried is a bristly antidote to the slick fratboy Budweiser formalism that the blues in the mainstream has become. Woeful and desperate, this music sounds like a rusty switchblade held to the throat of encroaching problems. Working the Robert Johnson mythos, when Payton sings "Gonna grab me an arm fulla Greyhound, and ride just as far as I can" on the title track, you can feel all that longing and sorrow.
Playing on most tracks with just a drummer who sounds like his sticks are loosely duct-taped to his wrists, Payton knocks out versions of the Muddy Watersidentified staple "Can't Be Satisfied" along with the classic "All I Need Is You." As they did on R.L. Burnside's Come On In, the producers drop some horns, organ and the phat drums of blues legend Sam Carr onto "Worried Life" and "Nobody but You," underscoring the groove like a mother vibe at the core of the music. In "Asie's Jam" and the opening version of "I Love You," they throw in some techno/trip-hop sounds and beats, all of which are interesting and cool enough and will surely offend tight-assed blues purists everywhere. But these embellishments really are unnecessary, as is evident on "Please Tell Me You Love Me," where Asie's mournful, raggedy voice and clanking, scratchy guitar licks tell listeners as much as they'll ever need to know about the blues.
At 33 minutes and 30 seconds, Worried is a singular summing-up of the life of a real Mississippi bluesman. The picture on the back cover, with Payton playing his guitar (oblivious of the underwear drying on hangers behind him), says as much about how this music was made as does the music inside. It's a fitting blues irony that after making a scant two recordings for Fat Possum, Asie Payton died of a heart attack, perched on the same tractor where he spent a good deal of his 60 years. (Ralph Gorodetsky)
Malediction (Checkered Past)
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Moonlighting from his other band, Firewater, singer/
songwriter Paul Wallfisch fine-tuned his previous group (Paul Wallfisch & His Band) into the nocturnal luster of Botanica, keeping Ivan Knight on drums and adding Abby Travis on bass and background vocals. Then he lured in a few iconoclasts (including Love & Rockets' Daniel Ash, former Bad Seed Kid Congo Powers and ex-Blondie guitarist Frank Infante) to weave their mojo through the L.A.-based trio's debut album, Malediction, a sonic pornography of wit and lounge that prowls through the red-light district of rock.
From beautiful losers to fiendish friends in songs like "Big Thing" and "Simple Life," Botanica contemplates the agony and irony of it all in a catalog of tabloid narratives about dysfunction, dementia and doom, but dresses them up in dreamy melodies and languorous vocals that amuse and seduce with a sardonic slant and erotic sound. It's that twisted humor, underscored by an uninhibited tangle of unexpected instruments (note the handiwork of "America's tallest musical saw player, Mr. Bill Bingham" on "Middle of the Night," and the Middle Eastern invocation of Ray Davis' "Fancy") with sweetly nuanced arrangements, that moves Malediction beyond melancholy monologues. In delirious lieu of doom and gloom is lush beauty you can sink your teeth into -- the extra-fancy swank of "And Then I Met Her" (mixed, along with the title track, by Ash), the neo-noir raunch of "Dead Prophet," the atomic bop of "Big Big World" and the carnal incantation (produced by Travis) of "Fire," a grinding build of grooves and chorus that's the album's standout.
Though Malediction hits some potholes of monotonous sound (more a problem of overall architecture than of any individual track), it's a minor gripe when considering the rest of the album's aural gratification. Records this dark and wily just don't come along that often. (Madelynn Amalfitano)