Photo by Thron Ullberg
BRIAN WILSON, Gettin’ In Over My Head (Rhino) Though various highly professional musicians and engineers grabbed their mixing boards and rode Brian Wilson’s waves on this new collection of totally worthy songs, the album is, I’m relieved, not characterized by too much outer producerly interference and seems a fairly personal project of Wilson’s, who had the lion’s share of say in the writing, arrangement and production of the material. It’s about 80 percent pretty damn good songs, only somewhat wrecked and often immensely aided (on the glorious vocal harmonies) by big, shiny production values. And until Wilson finishes his much-anticipated reworked Smile — the one the cognoscenti will prick their ears for — we have this disc of recent and from-the-vaults stuff to keep us occupied. A star-studded affair (Elton John, Sir Paul Mac) that benefits only in a minor way from those guest appearances (Elton basically rewrites “Crocodile Rock” on the opening “How Could We Still Be Dancin’,” Paulie harmonizes sweetly, plucks acoustic quietly), the album is otherwise just loaded with tracks that rank with Wilson’s strongest of recent times. The lyrics — about peace and love and why can’t things be the way they used to be — are perfectly dumb and innocent, we could’ve predicted that, but listen to these harmonies of utter blindered genius, like massed barbershop quartets that’ve survived severe psychic meltdowns. I mean, these vocal sounds are really stunning (what he ought to do is an a cappella album, wouldn’t that be something?). Yes, Wilson needs his helpers, and he had good fortune in that respect on his excellent 1988 “comeback” record, Brian Wilson, for which he worked with smart people like Jeff Lynne, who zeroed in on Brian’s special gifts and helped him enhance them — rather than forcing him to fit a pop mold that would have made him uncomfortable. Let’s hope his Smile collaborators bear that in mind.
KLÈMENT JULIENNE, Panamerican (Disques Dreyfus) There are those crucial scenes in every Jess Franco movie where the swingin’ singles swivel their hips to the rinky-dink sounds of a bell-bottomed rock band or bossa nova combo, in a glitzy-grimy niteclub in deepest, darkest Istanbul; cut to even grainier stock footage of towering mosques and blowing palm trees. Meanwhile, onstage at the club two naked women with ratted hair simulate an erotic love act; a fat goateed man in shades and a fez nods. Then someone gets stabbed, and the English tourists’ holidays are spoiled. Well, this is the soundtrack for that, kinda rolled up in one big, greasy mid-’60s-’70s ball. In reality, there ain’t no Klèment Julienne; they’re a.k.a. the French programming-production-writing team of David Dahan and Joseph Guigui, and they, like many, many, many others, have a sick, sick jones for corndog lounge jazz and electronic programs weaving in and out of bossa nova, easy listening poopoo, samba, calypso, blues, electronic downbeats, blah, blah, blah. There are approximately 300 similar engineer-producer/DJs in Paris alone, with similar tastes in the mix & matchage of the best/worst of bygone eras. These guys notch it up a bit by bringing in a lot of Europe’s best young jazz musicians and vocalists (including noted Jamaican “roots man” Stanley Beckford), and the results are ultra-super-liteweight, oh-so functional and — well, that means that it’s either very good, or truly bad, and it’s getting harder to tell the difference.
JIMI TENOR, Beyond the Stars (Kitty-Yo) It says “file under jazz” on the cover, but . . . A rather uncategorizable thing this is, seriously sexy, sardonic and weird, wonderfully unhindered by trad jazz convention. Jimi Tenor is not his name, either; no, he’s a Finnish fella by the name of Lassi Lehto. He used to be in industrial bands in Finland, banging on oil drums and chanting and the like; he was a photographer of tourists at the Empire State Building for a brief while, made art films in New York and became a fashion designer; made a couple of excellent albums for Warp in the ’90s; I guess he still does all that to some extent, as well as traveling a lot. (Barcelona, etc.) One of those glamorous types. Anyway, he says his greatest skill is faking people out about his having talent. Which is interesting, because in fact he does make fabulous fake jazz–big band– soul-funk techno stuff where there’s that very rare point in which the fakery becomes so deep that something new comes out of it. Indeed, the loping, shimmering “Gamelavad,” a ravishingly pretty thing of oddly placed choral parts, gamelan and string synths, seems to have a scent to it, like myrrh. Tenor’s fakism is a way to sidestep clichés and think freshly about, among other things, how to arrange a big band, as if instead of You Just Don’t Do That, it’s Well, Let’s Give It a Try. Spike Jones and Sun Ra, Zappa and soft porn from the ’70s are referenced, and it’s all this and none of the above, and perhaps best of all, you find yourself asking that most musical question, “Who is this guy?” — always a good sign. If this music takes its original cues from American classic styles, fine. But perhaps it requires a non-American to play it right anymore.
JIM BLACK/ALASNOAXIS, Habyor (Winter & Winter) I harp on jazz sometimes because I think it has largely become so rule-bound and square as to be irrelevant, and completely untrue to its original values of creativity and spontaneity. But that’s not just me; a lot of young musicians, raised on rock, respecting jazz but not the jazz bible, apparently feel that way, too. So as long as we’re on the subject of modernizing jazz, no better place to be than within the music of drummer-composer Jim Black, the mainstay of the New York downtown scene who’s infected jazz with rock-aligned power and dynamics with such different thinkers as Laurie Anderson, Ellery Eskelin, Andrea Parkins, Tim Berne, Dave Douglas, Cuong Vu and Uri Caine. Black’s frequent collaborator is saxist/multi-instrumentalist Chris Speed, who joins him on this disc, along with guitarist Hilmar Jensson and deeeeep-toned bassist Skúli Sverrisson. Excellent batch of improv-accommodating tunes that range in tone and emotional heft from floaty Frissellisms to darker-hued and jagged free-jazz skull-prickles. Black’s pieces are, like some of the best of ’70s jazz-funk, ear-friendly but somehow not mainstream, and, written from a drummer’s point of view, usually not bound by melodic convention; his drumming is a way gratifying blend of jazz/new music intuition/complexity with a subtle but slamming rock heft. Somehow, too, this is a jazz-rock fusion that works from within a cooperative (even jam-band) framework, avoiding the obvious solo virtuosity that made so much jazz-rock of the ’70s-’80s sound so stupid, with an emphasis more on the one right note properly placed, or how to sparely accent the beats. For our infinitely complex times, I think Black’s music, which veers unruffled from pastel calm to dissonant hell, has very appropriately never-obvious emotional goals. Bonus: In these hard times, hard, loud, complex music is also a good value for your buck, ’cause it’s still revealing its secrets after 50 plays.