Friday, August 31, 2012

Scrapomatic "Scrapomatic" (4*)

Don’t be fooled by the 25 October 2011 release date in the iTunes Store and the Lancia Media Factory label, Scrapomatic is, as far as Hughesy can make out, a repackaging on the Minnesota duo’s first album, released around ten years ago and resequenced here.

Formed in Minneapolis after Harvard graduate with a degree in American literature Mike Mattison met University of Minnesota music composition student Paul Olsen at a P-Funk concert in 1994, Scrapomatic started relocated to New York, where, you’d imagine, there’d be a bit more work for a quality voice and guitar duo.

Given the fact Scrapomatic were working the same New York singer-songwriter circuit as Nora Jones they must have impressed somebody, since the debut album was recorded in Louisiana with an impressive collection of studio players. They mightn’t be household names, but drummer Johnny Vidacovich’s credits include Bobby McFerrin, Stanton Moore, Willy DeVille, Johnny Adams, Professor Longhair, James Booker and Mose Allison. On bass, Bob Sunda is a thirty-year veteran who’s backed Mose Allison, Charlie Byrd, Elvin Bishop, Gatemouth Brown, and Junior Wells and while keyboard player Larry Sieberth may have relocated from New Orleans to New York he picked up seven gigs at the 2012 Jazzfest.

With material by Scrapomatic (there’s a cover of Mississippi John Hurt's Let the Mermaids Flirt With Me), arrangements by Larry Sieberth and a studio outfit with substantial chops the result is a tasty dozen tracks that sound comfortably in the soft soul, blues derived end of the spectrum with some tasteful New Orleans elements thrown into the mix.

A careful listen, however, reveals things aren’t quite as straightforward as they appear on the surface. There’s a lyrical slant that probably comes from Mattison’s background in literature. Mattison can definitely write, as evidenced by Midnight in Harlem on the Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Revelator, though these efforts come from considerably earlier in his career, and he could probably sing the phone book with a reasonable degree of soul.

Nothing hereabouts goes anywhere near over the top sonically, which when you think about it is hardly surprising given the vocalist plus a dude on guitar modus operandi on live gigs around this time, but if you’re inclined towards well-crafted tuneful music with a bit of lyrical depth, Scrapomatic is well worth sampling.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Leonard Cohen "Songs from the Road" (4* for the Cohen fan, 3.5 otherwise)

Having already shelled out for the Live in London DVD I wasn't that keen on repeating the exercise when this compilation from Leonard's recent world tour appeared. After all, with the whole of a show that didn't seem to have varied much over the three year span you probably don't need too much more.

So I thought. That copy is on DVD, and I've been ethical about copying files to the hard drive and importing the audio into iTunes, so when Old Ideas appeared on the scene and I wanted to check how Going Home would line up with the material that was being used in the stage act I was handing over the dosh for this twelve track compilation of live performances from the 2008 and 2009 legs of the tour.

While you could interpret this as another exercise in padding out Leonard's retirement funds, those who have seen the show will know what to expect, and the listener might be inclined to question how you could reduce two and a half years of extensive touring (from Canada in May 2008 through to Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas in December 2010) to a round dozen tracks on this CD/DVD combo.

The easiest shot would, of course, probably have lobbed into the fan’s collection via Live in London, so you’re not going to be looking for a repeat of a setlist that doesn’t seem to have varied much.

Don’t believe me? Here’s the first show, from the Capitol Theater in Moncton, New Brunswick on 23 May 2008:

Dance Me To The End Of Love, The Future, Ain't No Cure For Love, Bird On The Wire, Everybody Knows, In My Secret Life, Who By Fire, Anthem, Tower Of Song, Suzanne, Gypsy Wife, Boogie Street, Hallelujah, Democracy, I'm Your Man, A Thousand Kisses Deep, Take This Waltz
Encores: Heart With No Companion, So Long, Marianne, First We Take Manhattan, That Don't Make It Junk, Closing Time, I Tried to Leave You

And the last, from Caesar’s Palace on 11 December 2010:
Dance Me To The End Of Love, The Future, Ain't No Cure For Love, Bird On The Wire, Everybody Knows, In My Secret Life, Who By Fire, Darkness, Born In Chains, Democracy, 
Chelsea Hotel #2, Waiting For The Miracle, Anthem, Passin' Through, Tower Of Song, Suzanne, A Singer Must Die, Sisters Of Mercy, The Gypsy Wife, The Partisan, Boogie Street, Hallelujah, I'm Your Man, A Thousand Kisses Deep, Take This Waltz
Encores: So Long, Marianne, First We Take Manhattan, Famous Blue Raincoat, If It Be Your Will, Closing Time, I Tried To Leave You

Not a whole lot of difference, is there?

Actually, given a show that had been thoroughly rehearsed and buffed before the opening gig you wouldn’t expect there’d be a whole lot different about the performances either.

So how the heck do you do it?

The answer lies in Cohen’s post-concert routine. Within about ninety seconds of the end of I Tried To Leave You (with a bit of variation according to the actual venue’s backstage configuration) Cohen, accompanied by his tour manager and producer Ed Sanders will be in the limo heading back to the hotel. As a rule he won’t even mention the show (and, on the basis of what appears above, why would he?)

But along the way there’s going to be the occasional night when something out of the ordinary happens.

According to the story, the twelve tracks here represent nights when something out of the ordinary did, as it turned out, happen. Without the video footage, of course, it’s hard to define what made these dozen performances special, but research indicates Lover, Lover, Lover was played in front of a fifty-thousand-strong Tel Aviv crowd in September 2009, while Hallelujah (from the Coachella Festival in California in April 2009) was performed in front of the entire crowd at a festival where multiple stages are the go and had been in operation until just before Leonard hit the stage. There’s an indication of the crowd size towards the end of the audio, and one presumes there’d be more evidence on the DVD version.

The London O2 Arena show on 13 November 2008 that provides That Don’t Make It Junk and Famous Blue Raincoat would, I guess, be another big crowd spectacular.

In the end, really, it doesn’t matter. If you’re a fan you’ll more than likely be happy to have these tracks packed away along with everything else in your Leonard Cohen playlist (or whatever) and what’s on offer here differs from the studio versions (well, after forty years you’re not going to be reprising the 1969 Songs From a Room version of Bird on the Wire are you?)

One for the fans and completists? Definitely. There are plenty of fans out there, many with completist tendencies and an artist who doesn’t have a huge back catalogue.

And for everyone else? Worth a listen. At least...

Teddy Thompson "Bella" (4*)

1998’s going back a ways, but a listen to Celtschmerz, the live compilation from a Richard Thompson tour of the U.K. and you’ll notice a rather fine tenor hitting the harmonies on a couple of songs from the Richard & Linda era, not quite as high as the female range would go, but intertwining with Thompson’s voice the way you find genetically related singers often manage, and a glance at the sleeve notes would reveal the individual in question is one Teddy Thompson, son of Richard and Linda and no slouch in the vocal department.

On that recording he hit the spaces his mum used to fill in a manner that suggested a voice worth following and over the intervening decade plus Teddy Thompson has quietly gone about releasing five albums, four of ‘em original material, with a bracket of country covers (Upfront & Down Low) in the middle.

So, five albums into a career you’d expect things to be more or less set in place. Thompson writes with a quirky wit (it’s a very English sensibility on display here) and delivers jaunty melodies with an archly raised eyebrow here and there.

Take, for example, the album opener Looking for a Girl. Yes, your narrator is, in fact, out on the hunt for a partner and lists the qualities his ideal woman should possess (including the ability to recognise the signals when it’s time to knock the relationship on the head). It’s a want ad from the Personal column, but you can’t help thinking, given his expressed attitude, this bloke isn’t in for a whole lot of joy.

And from there it’s obvious that this dude does, in fact have his share of woman troubles. There are the ones he lusts after but are unattainable (The One I Can’t Have), the ones he can’t escape from (The Next One), the ones he’s lost along the way (Delilah), the ones he had but gave him the flick (Take Me Back Again), and the ones he can’t figure out (Tell Me What You Want, a romance gone wrong duet a la Mickey and Sylvia with Jenni Mulduar).

Produced by David Kahne (Tony Bennett, Paul Macartney, The Strokes, Regina Spektor, Wilco) who also contributed guitar and keyboard parts and string arrangements, and backed by Thompson's road band and a few guests (predictably including a certain Richard Thompson) Bella delivers a classy package that reflects a few obvious influences (with Roy Orbison being a prime factor in the blend). It’s the work of a craftsman who can blend his influences into a melancholy package delivered by a bloke who can definitely sing (given the genetics involved you’d be expecting that to be the case, wouldn’t you?)

We knew he could sing as far back as Persuasion on his Dad’s Action Packed: The Best Of The Capitol Years compilation and the aforementioned Celtschmerz but Bella indicated he’s not just a bloke with a rather good voice. Impressive, and I’ll be watching for the next one.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Johnny Sansone "The Lord Is Waiting the Devil Is Too" (4*)

Here's one firmly in the less is more school of record production. Recorded live in the studio, with a very basic lineup (Sansone on chromatic and diatonic harmonicas and vocals, producer Anders Osborne on guitar with Galactic drummer Stanton Moore pounding the skins), The Lord Is Waiting the Devil Is Too apparently comes in the wake of a broken marriage and delivers some of the best overdriven blues I’ve heard in quite a while.

The pattern’s set from the start of Sinking Ship, four minutes of impassioned vocals, great globs of overamped harp and a guitar riff that probably doesn’t move out of the red zone on the old VU meters. The harp-dominant instrumental Corn Whiskey repeats the formula, though with the guitar dropped down in the mix, and gives a thematic intro to the gritty vocal on Down, with its meet me at the bottom because that’s where I’m gone chorus, and the issues related to homelessness that get done over in the darkly moody Invisible, with the backing dropped right back and Sansone’s voice and harp front and centre.

The casual listener isn’t, of course, going to know how much real life is reflected in the lyrical content, but there’s no doubt what we've got here is the sound of a man howling his anger, despair and frustration and blowing the hell out of the harp to vent just a little bit more. The side men are locked right into the same mode, Moore’s drums pounding away in the introduction to Johnny And Janie, a tale of betrayal and love gone down the gurgler with Osborne rumbling away down below.

Requests to Forget about You Know Who and questions like Where’s Your Heart? slot into that breakup scenario well, while The Lord Is Waiting the Devil Is Too comes across as a timely reminder that you need to make the right choice when decision time rolls around.

And since the protagonist has no intention of remaining in the vicinity Without Love, it seems fairly logical the final track should be titled Leavin’ and closes things out with a not quite slow drag instrumental. Last time around on my way out the door sort of territory.

In the wake of three and a half million well I woke up this mornings, the album serves as a reminder that heartache and inner turmoil were, after all, the wellsprings the blues came from. Sansone’s delivery, a gritty, stripped down, straight from the heart yowl of anguish, the stripped-down trio format producer Osborne apparently insisted on, and the live in the studio approach combine to deliver something that isn’t exactly easy listening but works just fine with the volume cranked and a therapeutic beverage at hand.

And the harp work, while it’s not quite Magic Dick on the lickin’ stick (the J. Geils Band’s harp man has long been Hughesy’s yardstick of harmonica virtuosity) is tasty enough to have me eyeing Sansone’s back catalogue, which definitely seems worth investigating.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Arnaldo Antunes, Toumani Diabaté & Edgard Scandurra "A Curva Da Cintura" (4*)

With this release it’s just about official. Following Kulanjan and Afrocubism, his collaborations with Ali Farka Toure, and his own work, solo or with the Symmetric Orchestra, Toumani Diabaté is another name on Hughesy’s buy anything this dude appears on list.

That’s because, on the evidence to date, Toumani Diabaté isn’t just a master of the kora, that West African cross between harp and lute, he’s also a master collaborator when it comes to cross-cultural musical experiments. As such, I can’t help comparing him to Robert Randolph, who’s probably my favourite sit in and jam instrumentalist. That may sound like a big call, but cast the peepers over this bit of YouTubeage from the Los Lobos Live at the Fillmore DVD. I’ve also seen him sit in with the Allman Brothers as well (though the footage doesn’t seem to have crept onto YouTube), and while he’s capable of taking a stinging lead with the best of them, the rest of the time you can see him looking for a spot where he can sneak a lick in, and when he does it’s managed with taste and dexterity.

Playing the much harder to amplify kora, of course, Toumani doesn’t get the chance to sling in stinging lead breaks, but through everything I’ve heard him collaborating on he manages to sneak things into the mix in much the same way as Mr Randolph. One suspects peer group recognition of this ability has a lot to do with frequent invitations to collaborate.

This time around, however, it seems to have been Toumani doing the inviting. After collaborating with Sao Paulo alternative rocker, songwriter, poet and artist Arnaldo Antunes and guitarist Edgard Scandurra at the 2010 Back2Black festival in Brazil, he invited the pair to record with him in Mali. They arrived in Bamako in April 2011 with a collection of songs they had written, and the result, once they’d got together with Diabaté and a selection of other Malian musicians, is an Afro-Brazilian fusion that doesn’t work in quite the same way as Kulanjan or Afrocubism.

Where those other collaborations brought traditional material from both sides of the fence and blurred them in together, here we’re looking at new territory as the Brazilian vibe is set against a different backdrop rather than taking a bit of samba and slipping it in among the Africanisms. We’re looking, in effect, at a Brazilian record with added tonality through the kora and balafon though there’s a reworking of Diabate's Kaira, and African vocals and instrumentation come to the fore on Ir, Mao.

Now, given the fact that the lyrics are in Portuguese, you’re not going to get a whole lot out of the words, so it’s probably best to treat the whole exercise as a soundscape, and while things are a little uneven, veering between fairly straightforward melodies and complex fills, laid back ballads and rocking psychedelia as Toumani's son Sidiki whacks his kora through a wah wah pedal.

The key elements on the Brazilian side of the soundscape are, predictably, Antunes’ voice and Scandurra’s guitar work (in both acoustic and electric modes) while the father and son kora combo, the vocals of Zoumana Tereta, Fode Lassana Diabaté’s balafon and Zoumana Tereta’s soku fiddle add the African light and shade. The result is an interesting listening experience that mightn’t be everyone’s cup of tea but will ensure I’ll be lining to hand over the readies when a new project with Toumani Diabaté’s name in the credits appears on the market.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Laura Marling "A Creature I Don't Know" (4.5*)

Taking a peek around the intertubes the way you do when you're listening to something impressive by someone you don't know a whole lot about I noticed there seems to be a degree of surprise about the quality of a third album coming from a twenty-one year old. It's not as if there's a law against relatively young singer-songwriters turning out quality product, so I suspect there's a bit of reverse ageism kicking in there.

Young writers aren't, presumably, supposed to be this good, though I fail to see why that should be the case. Richard Thompson, I should remind the reader, wrote Meet on the Ledge at the ripe old age of seventeen, and over the years there have been plenty of classy writers and performers who’ve risen to prominence at a relatively young age.

Since I haven’t heard Alas, I Cannot Swim or I Speak Because I Can I can’t comment on development, but given Marling’s background (Mum’s a music teacher, Dad used to run a recording studio, she’s the youngest of three sisters and you’d assume that having learnt guitar at an early age) she’d be coming from a music-rich environment. Add the fact that she is an avid reader and you’ve got a background likely to produce something of substance provided there’s a bit of creative imagination lurking there as well.

Over the last few years of my teaching career the whole language approach to teaching literacy stressed the importance of providing a text-rich environment so that children are exposed to a large quantity of quality text and become literate almost by osmosis rather than through explicit instruction in the rules and conventions of literature. I had my doubts about this concept as a general principle but accepted in the right conditions it could deliver impressive results that you wouldn’t be able to achieve through other approaches.

Based on her family background and a few listens to A Creature I Don’t Know I suspect we’re looking at the musical equivalent of deep childhood immersion in quality content followed by a relocation to London at the ripe old age of 16 where immediate absorption into the acoustic, tradition-tinged new folk scene (Mumford & Sons and Noah & the Whale created a situation where there was plenty to explore for a kid who’d grown up in an environment where exploration and synthesis was probably encouraged.

For someone who never “got” Joni Mitchell, the fact that I got into the album more or less from the start of The Muse might come as a surprise, but there’s a certain arch charm, a wry sense of detachment to some of this stuff that doesn’t fit with recollections of Ms Mitchell stuff that had her filed under Nothing of interest here forty years ago. On the basis of A Creature I Don’t Know it might be time to re-dip the toe in the Mitchell oeuvre...

But back to The Muse, which shuffles along as Marling introduces The Beast, a recurring character representing one side to her personality, in an unsettling rambling narrative driven onwards by wire brush drums and a plunky banjo over a cello and double bass driven hook that delivers a tumbling, swirling ragtime shuffle..

She follows it with I Was Just a Card, three and a half minutes of stop-start interaction between horns, strings and delicate guitar, Don't Ask Me Why, about looking for answers in unsavoury places and Salinas, a portrait of her mother set in John Steinbeck’s hometown that builds up with ripples of melody and sharp-tongued as the beasts roar in the background and the narrator speculates whether she’ll ever see heaven again.

Starting with just Marling and her guitar, the album’s centrepiece, The Beast, clocking in at just under six minutes, delivers a devastating analysis of the ways love transforms itself into confusion, deception, anger and confusion and is followed by Night After Night which is an excursion into Leonard Cohen Famous Blue Raincoat territory, acoustic guitar and an eerily calm and measured voice delivering lyrics about love gone sour and sanctuaries that turn out to be minefields.

With the album’s themes firmly set in place, My Friends and Rest in the Bed continue the exploration before the album’s other tour de force, Sophia starts as a not-quite lullaby with  the narrator despatching a former lover (where I have been lately is no concern of yours), invokes the ancient goddess of wisdom, and builds slowly into anthemic proportions with a churning chorus.

That rousing chorus flows into sea shanty territory for the album proper’s closer All My Rage, which wraps proceedings up tidily with a lilting Celtic melody and a rousing chorus, but as you’d expect in the days of bonus tracks tacked on to the end, there’s an excursion into the Tuscan hills on Flicker and Fail, which works well enough as an extra but doesn’t really add anything much to the main proceedings.

So from here the question is where next? There’s enough on offer here to justify going back to investigate those earlier titles, though that’s not necessarily a priority at the moment given other avenues that also need investigating.

The appearance of a follow-up, on the other hand, will probably prompt an immediate purchase.