Sunday, December 13, 2009

Vijaya Anand: Dance, Raja, Dance

Okay, I have a weakness for Bollywood, but I am in no way an afficianando. When I lived in Brooklyn, and had cable for the only time in my life, I would watch Bollywood films in rapt fascination -- often having little idea of what was going on, but just as often fairly able to follow the archetypal and cliched storylines. What I LOVED, was the crazy, frenzied dancing and singing -- again, often in the most ludicrous narrative situations. "Dad died; let's dance!"

Vijaya Anand's contribution to Bollywood music is his use of everything except the kitchen sink (and I think I hear THAT in one of these cuts!). Don't like what you're hearing? Stick around for about 4 or 6 bars and it will change! I mean, his music changes more than mountain weather! In "Naane Maharaja" (I Am The Emperor), there's some calypso rhythms, jazz horns, old-timey banjos, dance-hall dub effects, a bit of techno-pop, violins scratching away like fiddles and weird sound effects, not to mention the South Indian drums! In about four minutes of madness!

I mean it, when I need to make a visitor smile, I put this cd on and it never fails. You cannot be sad and listen to this music. On the other hand, if you are not into it; if you do not just give yourself over to it, you will be sooooo irritated by this music!

This was one of the first releases on David Byrne's Luaka Bop label, and after 17 years, it still works its crazy rhythm charms!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The American Analog Set: set free

Formed in 1995, based in Austin, AmAnSet, as they are frequently referred to, has been called a 'drone-pop' band. There early sound was highly influenced by krautrock and post-rock and British shoe-gazer bands like Cocteau Twins, often featuring long instrumental passages. Over time, their songs became shorter and more pop-influenced. The band has released six full-length albums, four EPs, and several vinyl singles.

The group is led by singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Andrew Kenny. Additional members include, or have included, Lee Gillespie, Mark Smith, Craig McCaffrey, Tom Hoff, Lisa Roschmann, and Sean Ripple. Founding member Roschmann left the band in late 1999; Hoff and Ripple joined in early 2000 and McCaffery replaced Hoff in 2003.

In October 2005, rumors began spreading across the Internet that the group was on the verge of disbanding. The band quickly refuted such rumors, but added that they may not tour again due to their obligations with other projects. I've not heard anything about them since the release of Set Free in 2005. It was released in North America by Canadian label Arts & Crafts, and -- as you might expect -- I discovered it at Soundscapes, my favorite cd store in North America, on Bloor in Toronto.

This cd is perfect for sipping whiskey and hanging out as well as for driving (please, NOT at the same time!). The crisp percussive production, and the drone and soft whispery vocals get you to a good cruising speed and never lets up. There's a frisson that is caused by a lyric like:

"The boys are in a band together
the girls all fuckin' stand together"

from "Cook Kids Keep" made especially so by that soft, warm whisper of a voice!

Because of the drony quality of the music, we're not even looking for 'stand-outs' but with this cd, a full aural environment is created that soaks into you and you simply float in it. I LOVE this cd, but I can't tell you anything more specific about why. It's one of those cds with sounds that take you away, becoming a soundtrack to reveries and daydreams -- of things that happened long ago or maybe never. The Brazilians have a word for it; a kind of sweetbitter sadness.

The instrumental, "(Theme From) Everything Ends" features a melodica playing its melodic line over throbbing bass and that crisp drumming. An old Buddhist like me can take that title and run with it! Especially sweet is how it cuts right into "Sharp Briar." The last cut, "Fuck This.... I'm Leaving" reminds me of Brian Eno Before And After Science era. Despite it's title, it's sound and atmospheric influence continues long after the cd ends.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Haris Alexiou: Di Efchon

Haris Alexiou is one of Greece’s greatest contemporary singers. She’s been at it since the 70s. She was instrumental in reviving ‘Rebetika’ songs after the fall of the military junta in the mid-70s. Over the course of her career, she collaborated with many of Greece’s greatest composers, as well as others, including Paolo Conte.

Di Efchon (With Blessings) comes from 1992, and presents a new thrust in terms of more contemporary themes, and song forms. Alexiou’s voice is so strong, vibrant, and the melodies are passionately catchy. She brings deep warmth to the lyrics of Lina Nikolakopoulou, while her soaring high notes are never less than stunningly awesome. There’s little need to question why in Greece she earned the nickname “Haroula” (Little Grace). Here the songs blend Grecian folk (Dhimotica) with a contemporary approach (Smyrneika) reminiscent of Peter Gabriel’s work from the late 80s early 90s.

My sister married a Greek guy when I was four years old. My brother-in-law had a sister who, I thought, a real beauty, with raven black hair, and when she spoke – English or Greek – her voice had this earthy sensuousness that has ever since made Greek sound like sex to me! I think it’s the sibilant sounds that permeate the language, along with the slight slur on many of their consonants that sound a bit ‘drunken.’

There’s a lot of cheesy popular Greek music, but Haris Alexiou is one of those who is popular, and relevant. Whether one is interested in Greek pop, or merely curious about a woman who is an icon to her culture, Haris Alexiou is a singer who will move you with her powerful voice.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Akron/Family: Set 'Em Wild; Set 'Em Free

Just released this past Spring, Akron/Family’s latest follows their trajectory, with Set ‘Em Wild; Set ‘Em Free. The opening, “Everyone Is Guilty,” begins with an angular, muscular riff leading into a chant-like lyric. At times there’s a bit of a Captain Beefheart thing going on, along with classic hard rock riffing on top. It’s a strong opener for another great offering from this band, quickly becoming one of my favorites.

One thing, there definitely seems to be less overt Buddhist themes, but this doesn’t mean they’re any less obscure: “And you are not longer river to me/though your coursing remains/eager to acquaint me.” The vocals on “River” sound like They Might Be Giants, and even the melody sounds like it could have come from that band.

Perhaps more than any of their previous releases, each song sounds like it’s in a different genre and style, and yet the cd avoids sounding like a patchwork and is actually among their most consistent works.

I don’t know anyone personally who knows of this band, and if I were going to attempt to turn anyone on to them, it would be this release. Without becoming ‘mainstream,’ it is definitely their most accessible, Again this is not to say they’ve watered down their vision. What is most apparent is the expanded tonal palette. They’ve used horns before, in a free-form jazz way, but here they’re more pastoral, and cello and violin add an almost chamber sound at times.

I don’t know if the closer, “Last Year,” is autobiographical, or political, but its terse lyric: “Last year was a hard year/for such a long time/this year’s gonna be ours” bodes well for us fans!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Akron/Family and Angels of Light

It seems like every time I visit Toronto’s Soundscapes, Akron/Family has released a new cd. What we have with there here cd is 7 songs written and performed by Akron/Family, followed by another 5 songs credited to Angels of Light, which is Michael Gira backed by Akron/Family acting as his band, Angels of Light. And it is yet another wonderful offering of 'freak-rock-avant-folk!

There are alternating songs and moments of free-form sounding raucousness and tuneful, folk-like gems. Lyrics seem less overtly Buddhist, but more arcane, personal and at times obscure, and the jazz elements found on their previous outings are absent.

The ‘surprise’ here is the work with Michael Gira, beginning with a cover of Bob Dylan’s “I Pity The Poor Immigrant.” Gira’s work tends not to generally be so ‘straight’ as the treatment they give Dylan’s old chestnut here.

The rest of Gira’s tunes certainly do not feel out of place on an Akron/Family cd, though his lyrics tend to take a darker tone, even when singing of hope in “One For Hope.”

Gira, and now Akron/Family, are denizens of Brooklyn, not that that necessarily explains anything!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Akron/Family: Love Is Simple

Akron/Family’s second cd, Love Is Simple begins with a gentle acoustic guitar piece with the following lyric:

Every precious human being
Has been a precious parent to you.

What can be done,
What can we do,
What can be done,
What can we do, do
Do, do, do?

Go out and love, love, love, everyone.

Of course, this follows the Tibetan Buddhist teaching that over the long stretches of cosmic time, all beings have been – among other things – parents to us. So, due to their previous beneficence, we should love and honor all beings.

This being an Akron/Family cd, this little ditty is followed by the epic “Ed Is A Portal.” The sweetly lilting following tune, “Don’t Be Afraid, You’re Already Dead” has as it’s first verse, “Don’t be afraid, it’s only love./Love is simple.” If only! But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a catchy little ditty.

Overall, compared to their first outing, Meek Warrior there’s less the Sun Ra free-jazz anarchy, and more acid-folk with some early Mothers Of Invention sounding instrumental passages. A bit of Freak Out with more love and no cynicism. “There’s So Many Colors” is perhaps this cd’s standout in this regard, moving through more changes than a Bollywood song!

“Phenomena” reminds us that “Things are not what they seem to be./Nor are they otherwise./Some think rice is white/Some think it it brown.” A kind of explication of the empty nature of all phenomena, with a hint of humor.

Here’s another cd bought at Soundscapes in Toronto. And no, I am NOT in their employ! This one comes with the added bonus treat of a dvd of the band in performance. By the time I got through hearing this second cd from this band, they had earned a place high on my list of favorite bands. I hope someday to be able to see them, but I’m not sure what it might take to bring them to Tucson (though Japan’s Ghosts were here this year!).

Monday, November 9, 2009

Akron/Family: Meek Warrior

I know next to nothing about this band, but I cannot tell you how happy I am that they exist! I don’t know if I read a review of their first cd, Meek Warrior, while in Toronto, or if I just happened to listen to some cuts at one of the listening stations at (once again) my favorite indie cd store in North America, Soundscapes in Toronto on College, but I LOVED the disciplined anarchy that opens up the cd.

“Blessing Force” has only this line: “You want the blessing force, the blessing force,” which is chanted a few times during the 9:30 running time! Think Sun Ra and the Solar-Myth Arkestra as a free-form rock band (featuring an alto sax solo that would do Marshall Allan proud)! This is followed by a sweet folk (camp fire-side) rendition of the “Maha-Prajnaparamita Mantra” which ends the Mahayana Buddhist wisdom text, “The Heart of the Prajnaparamita Sutra:” “Gone, gone, gone beyond; Gone completely beyond.”

Following this, are several more mellow offerings with titles such as “The Meek Warrior,” “No Space In This Realm” and “Lightening Bolt of Compassion” which seems to have a Tibetan lyric. So, this along with the other song titles leads me to think they are either practicing Tibetan Buddhists OR at the very least heavily influenced by Tibetan Buddhism.

After another rocking free-for-all called “The Rider (Dolphin Song)” the cd ends with a slightly askew folk-gospel tune called “Love and Space” which again sounds very Vajrayana:

Lord, open my heart,
Lord, bring me near.
Lord, open my heart,
And make it into a mirror
To reflect the myriad
Colored lights of
Love and Space.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Hawk And A Hacksaw

This band from Albuquerque, New Mexico plays around in a variety of genres, including Mariachi, Klezmer, Balkan and Folk. Their first, self-titled, cd was featured as the soundtrack for the documentary Zizek! about the Slovenian cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek. It features a lot of ‘old-timey’ stride-like piano, noise effects and overt experimentation. Some of it evidences minimalism.

I’ve not heard their second cd, Darkness At Noon, released in 2005, but their third cd, The Way The Wind Blows from 2006 was actually the first one of theirs that I bought. It is on this cd that the Balkan influence becomes strong. In fact, Zach Condon of Beirut contributes to the fun, as does the Balkan brass band Fanfare Ciocarlia.

I bought it in Toronto, during the summer while teaching as part of the Moksha-Yoga teacher training. This was also the summer I was put up in the home of a French family who were vacationing back home. While in their home, I found the full 7-season box set of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. In one night, I watched the whole first season and was hooked! Upon my arrival home in Eugene, where we lived at the time, I ordered the full set for ourselves.

This past summer, back in Toronto for another Moksha-Yoga Teacher Training, I made my annual pilgrimage to Soundscapes on College Street. It is probably my favorite independent cd store in North America! I got A Hawk and A Hacksaw’s latest cd, Deliverance. The good news, is this is their strongest, most coherent offering yet. Still mainly Balkan, the dynamics and melodies are more varied and interesting. “The Man Who Sold His Beard” is worth the price of admittance itself!