JEFFREY ST. CLAIR
Leyla McCalla: Vari-Colored Songs: a Tribute to Langston Hughes (Fat Possum, 2014)
Vari-Colored Songs is the mesmerizing debut album by cellist and vocalist Leyla McCalla. This acoustic blues record by a former member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops string band was partially funded by a Kickstarter campaign, which shows you both the enervated state of the current recording industry and the rich new possibilities of producing your own recordings for artists as gifted as McCalla (and even those who aren’t). McCalla was born in New York to parents who were recent immigrants from Haiti. She spent several years in Ghana as child, studied cello at NYU and then moved to New Orleans to work as a street performer, where she also absorbed the unique style of the Creole fiddlers. Her distinctive cello playing owes much to the great Canray Fontenot and his disciples. Vari-Colored Songs audaciously melds a backwoods Creole sound with several poems by Langston Hughes sung in McCalla’s richly textured voice, as if to sonically connect the deep origins of jazz in Haiti and New Orleans to the blooming of the Harlem renaissance. Though Vari-Colored Songs is a tribute to the past, the music sounds fresh and original, largely because of McCalla’s entrancing work on the cello. This is the stunning opening blast from a supremely talented young artist, whose future seems boundless.
Neneh Cherry: Blank Project (Smalltown Supersound, 2014)
Neneh Cherry was a musical prodigy and polymath. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. After all, her biological father, Amahdu Jah, was a tribal drummer from Sierra Leone, who was born in the bush country and ventured all the way to Sweden to study engineering, and her adopted father was Don Cherry, the avant-guard trumpeter. Neneh figuratively grew up on Ornette Coleman’s tour bus, soaking in the sounds and techniques some of the most free-playing (and thinking) musicians in the world. Her first single, “Stop the War,” was a denunciation of the Falklands War that seamlessly blended R&B, reggae and rap. She had just turned 18. She’s played in punk bands, experimented with dance beats, world music, hip hop and electronica, but always cutting against the grain, subtly shredding the conventions of those genres. Her innovative reworking of Cole Porter’s “Got You Under My Skin” still stands as one of the most profound musical statements about the AIDS crisis. Cherry’s new record, Blank Project, is something completely different. The sound is spare, the voice mature, a bit hardened and hauntingly intimate. Blank Project is Cherry’s first solo album since 1996. It was recorded in a mere five days and has the immediacy of a late-night jazz session. The songs are raw and personal and emotionally intense. The music is challenging and because of that the rewards deepen with each listening. Blank Project is a significant achievement by an artist who continues to evolve dramatically. It’s that very rare recording which makes you think and feel at the same time.
Little Roy: Battle for Seattle (Ark, 2011)
Little Roy, a legendary reggae musician in Jamaica, remains a somewhat obscure figure in the States. Perhaps this is because much of his music is so thoroughly saturated with the arcane symbology of Rastafarianism. He charted in Jamaica at the age of 13. By 15, he was headlining his own band, Little Roy and the Hippy Boys. His voice is bright and fluid, surfing across the choppy grooves of those early recordings. Over the decades, Little Roy has flirted with ska, dancehall and even R&B. But he has never strayed too far from the rootsy sound of the impoverished Witfield neighborhood of Kingston where he grew up in the 1950s while reggae was being created. Disgusted by the corruption of the recording industry, Little Roy was one of the first reggae musicians to seek total artistic and financial control over his music. It proved to be a shrewd move. Little Roy was one of the most talented songwriters on the Kingston scene and his revolutionary anthems, “Black Bird,” “Tribal War” and “Prophesy” were covered by dozens of artists and he actually reaped some of the money from those renditions. Battle for Seattle emerged in 2011 after a six-year recording hiatus. The album is a marvelous curiosity. Little Roy reinvents ten Nirvana songs, transforming them into his own signature brand of roots reggae. Shorn of Cobain’s hard-edged nihilism, “Come as You Are,” “Lithium,” “Polly” and “Heart-Shaped Box” are metamorphosed into shimmering songs of defiance and resistance. It’s apt. As a veteran of the Battle of Seattle in 1999, I can bear witness to the fact that the music blasting out boom boxes on the streets during that tear-gas drenched week was predominately reggae, from Marley and Tosh to Jimmy Cliff and Burning Spear. With this dazzling record, Little Roy looks back and moves forward at the same time, proving that even on the grittiest Northwest grunge sometimes a little sun must shine.
Jeffrey St. Clair, editor of CounterPunch, once played two-chord guitar in a Naptown garage band called The Empty Suits.
Cherry Glazerr, Haxel Princess, (Burger Records, 2014)
So Cal’s latest teenage rock sensation. Just as tasty as their name sounds.
Mike Watt, Hyphenated-Man, (Original Recordings Group, 2011)
San Pedro, California’s one and only. Mike is the epitome of punk. A true artist. This collection was released in 2011 but dates back to his days with the short-lived, yet legendary Minutemen. This is preferably listened to in short, loud bursts while reading Mike’s lively and insightful book, Mike Watt: On and Off Bass.
Joshua Frank is managing editor of CounterPunch.
Nadja: Queller (Essence Music, 2014)
It’s late winter – flu season; I’ve been stuck in the long waits at Canadian health clinics most of the week, listening to doom metal, counting my rosary beads until I hear the first robin of spring. Because what else are you supposed to do in hour three at the doctor’s office, aside from read a Bronte novel or chat pleasantly with the furiously impatient man from Montreal? First World Problems, I know.
Anyhow, a girl-boy duo out of Toronto, Nadja, has just released their eighteenth album in eleven years. They prefer to be described as “ambient doom.” If you like My Bloody Valentine and Slayer, you will dig this new record. In fact, their cover record, When I See, the Sun Always Shines on TV, included delicious renditions of the two former, as well as Elliott Smith and The Kids in the Hall.
Wolves in the Throne Room: Celestial Lineage (Southern Lord Records, 2011)
I’m also partial to Wolves in the Throne Room, a bunch of vegan farmers based in Olympia, Washington, who chant epic, black metal hymns with a devotional reverence for the truly spiritual cathedrals, no not Notre Dame or Chartres – the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest.
Kristin Kolb writes the Daydream Nation column for CounterPunch magazine.
White Lion: Big Game (Atlantic, 2010)
Dolly Parton: “Deportee“ (Sony, 1999)
Ann Nesby: In The Spirit (Shanachie, 2006)
Lee Ballinger co-edits Rock and Rap Confidential and writes about music and politics for CounterPunch magazine.
C. P. E. Bach, Lieder & Oden (CPO, 1998) and Sacred Songs (CPO, 2000)
Last weekend marked C. P. E. Bach’s three-hundredth birthday and his music was given much play on the radio, and in concert halls and churches around the world. In advance of the March 8th birthday, praise for his oeuvre even appeared on the editorial page of the Guardian newspaper. Though not as massive as the discography of his father, Johann Sebastian, that of C. P. E. has been growing exponentially over the last couple of decades as the tremendous depth and variety of his work becomes better understood and more widely appreciated. C. P. E. was most famous in his lifetime as a composer of keyboard music, producing not only quantities of banal stuff for the burgeoning market for lite fare consumed by bourgeois ladies, but also demanding music for connoisseurs spread across Europe from St. Petersburg to London. His symphonies and vocal works were admired by the likes of Haydn and Mozart. But for the anniversary week I’ve bypassed the celebrated keyboard works, stormy symphonies, and majestic choral music in favor of my top-ranked C. P. E. Bach discs, two samplings of his prodigious song output performed by the always-compelling baritone Klaus Mertens with sympathetic accompanist Ludger Rémy on the fortepiano. Long thought of as merely precursors to the nineteenth-century German Lied repertory populated with the masterpieces of Schubert and Schumann, these Bach songs are indeed more modest in size but lack nothing in the heartfelt sentiment and intense expression of the later works. In the warmly engaging performances of Mertens and Rémy, these disarmingly intimate, perfectly constructed songs speak to the modern listener as if directly from the eighteenth-century drawing room, which for all its differences to our own far less safely domestic lives still convinces one of the universality of the human emotions so memorably and eloquently captured here.
David Yearsley, author of “Bach’s Feet,” once played the world’s oldest piano and didn’t damage it … much.
KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY
Dinah Washington: Dinah! (Emarcy Records, 1956.)
Graham Nash: Songs for Beginners (Atlantic Records 1971.)
T.I.: Trouble Man: Heavy Is The Head (Grand Hustle Records, 2012.)
Kevin Gray’s latest book, Killing Trayvon, (co-edited with JoAnn Wypijewski and Jeffrey St. Clair) will be published by CounterPunch this spring.
Blitzen Trapper: Furr (Sub-Pop Records, 2008)
I started out listening to and considering sharing thoughts on folk/experimental/country group Blitzen Trapper’s latest album, VII which came out last fall. Though it’s a more than worthy offering, I found myself wanting to listen to the one that introduced me to this group a few years ago, Furr. The band puts on a sturdy live show; I saw them at a tiny place in Westport (Kansas City) a few summers ago—this simply solidified my affinity for the band as well as the songs on this particular album.There is something about Furr, sort of an organic pull that allows it tobe heard over and over without becoming stale. The title offering is apiece of ethereal storytelling, following a man, possibly a wolf (he moves between both worlds) as he grapples with natural laws and freedom. “And now my fur has turned to skin and I’ve been quickly ushered in—to a world that I confess I do not know. But I still dream of running careless through the snow. Through the howling winds that blow, across the ancient distant floe, to fill our bodies up with water till we know……” I confess this little lyrical snippet is just pure joy for me—I can’t even imagine how many times I’ve listened to this one. There’s something about the dual world, the seductive pull of nature and all that is clean and right. But there’s also grim, dark folk storytelling with songs like “Black River Killer”, the smoothest creep-out song you’ll ever comeacross. Delightful wordplay in this one, you’ll want to listen closely to these creative lyrics. And there’s a more straight-forward rock influence found in “God and Suicide”, yet another strong work. The elegant, extremely smart lyrics are the stand-out quality of this album, but this combined with a very palatable and fresh approach to folk/country (and abackbone of rock) make Furr an album I can’t quit listening to even if I try.
Kathleen Wallace writes about music and culture. She lives in the Midwest.
Grateful Dead: Anthem of the Sun.
The Dead’s second album with the original lineup plus Mickey Hart. It features mostly live tracks from shows circa 1967-1968 stitched together analog style. This album represents the Dead’s blues-acid rock beginnings quite well. The eleven minutes of Pigpen’s blues jam titled Alligator is raw, raucous and raunchy. I love it.
Rahsaan Roland Kirk: Domino.
1962 magic from the master reedsman. Still very early in his career, Kirk puts together some short (for jazz, anyhow) pieces that blast the soul. The 2000 CD reissue includes bonus tracks with Herbie Hancock, in addition to Kirk’s ensemble of Henry Duncan, Roy Haynes, Andrew Hill, Wynton Kelly, and Vernon Martin.
Stevie Wonder: Innervisions.
Stevie Wonder’s creativity was arguably peaking with this album. The funky soulfulness, portrayals of African-American life, and the subtly bitter take on US race and class made this album a key part of the 1970s soundtrack.
Ron Jacobs’ book on the Seventies, Daydream Sunset, will published by CounterPunch this summer.