Tuesday, December 25, 2007
Compared with, say, the posthumously prolific Tupac Shakur, singer-songwriter Elliott Smith has had a relatively dignified afterlife. "New Moon," a two-disc collection of outtakes and demos issued last May, is only the second release since Smith died a likely suicide in 2003.
It offers a rough sketch of Smith's output from 1994-97, before his "Good Will Hunting" theme, "Miss Misery," brought an Oscar nomination and attendant amounts of woe and during the time he was doing some of his best work.
Many of the tracks here were recorded during sessions for "Elliott Smith" and the equally terrific "Either/Or." Some have made their way onto various compilations; most are relatively unheard. And virtually all are scuffed-up acoustic tracks, quavery and sad, presented in as close to their original state as possible.
"New Moon" seems almost like an actual, unreleased Elliott Smith album, without the patched-together, scrounged-from-the-vaults feel of many posthumous discs: The emotional territory is familiar (Smith wanted to find love, to score, to be left alone), the vocals are predictably whispery (despite plentiful overdubs), and most tracks sound as if they were recorded in a basement or a bedroom, which they sometimes were.
Some songs are fully realized, like a raw-nerve cover of Big Star's "Thirteen"; others are sketches, like the "Either/Or" outtake "Seen How Things Are Hard" (recorded on a four-track cassette), and an early version of "Miss Misery," still recognizable despite different wording that gave it, however briefly, an optimistic feel.
-- Allison Stewart
DOWNLOAD THESE:"Talking to Mary," "Thirteen," "Whatever (Folk Song in C)," "Seen How Things Are Hard"
Jazz singer Carol Sloane has been perennially underappreciated during her long, uncompromising career. She sings with a rare maturity and grace and has dozens of excellent recordings, yet she is little known outside a small circle of admirers.
Sloane has often recorded the music of Duke Ellington, including a full album in 1999 ("Romantic Ellington"), but her most recent effort reaches a deeper, more profound level. There are several up-tempo exceptions, but most of the 12 tracks on "Dearest Duke" are ballads that produce a delicate sense of intimacy. Sloane is supported only by Brad Hatfield's understated piano and the gentle fills of Ken Peplowski's clarinet and tenor saxophone. She doesn't scat a single note, yet her nuanced shifts in tempo and harmony -- not to mention her sultry, smoky voice -- possess the unmistakable feeling of jazz.
Sloane brings an almost literary sense of interpretation to a song's lyrics and can make a subtle vocal quaver in "I've Got It Bad and That Ain't Good" convey a plaintive undercurrent of pain. Her poignant phrasing and inflections in "Solitude" and "I Didn't Know About You" draw on such a deep well of experience that we don't hear the words so much as feel them.
At every turn in these familiar tunes, she discovers new colors and seams of meaning that we didn't know were there. This is the finest vocal album I've heard all year, and if Carol Sloane isn't America's greatest living jazz singer, then no one deserves the title.
-- Matt Schudel
DOWNLOAD THESE:"Solitude," "I've Got It Bad and That Ain't Good," "I Didn't Know About You," "Just a'Sittin' and a'Rockin'/All Too Soon"
THE ROOTS OF CHICHA:
PSYCHEDELIC CUMBIAS FROM PERU
Peru might not leap to mind as a breeding ground for '60s and '70s psychedelia. And yet as this ebullient 2007 compilation attests, when it came to mind-expanding music, the oil-boom cities of the Amazon could hold their own with countercultural havens from Salvador to San Francisco. Issued by Barb¿s Records, this set presents 17 examples of Western-inflected Chicha, an indigenous music that took Colombian, Cuban and Andean song forms and adapted them to the wah-wah guitar, Farfisa organ and Moog synthesizers of the then-current rock scene.
Among the mix of instrumental and vocal tracks here is Los Mirlos's "Sonido Amazonico," an atmospheric reverie that combines cumbia rhythms, Middle Eastern modalities and surf-style guitar. Juaneco y Su Combo's "Vacilando Con Ayahuesca" finds a female singer moaning over a spaghetti-western-style melody, while the group's "Ya Se Ha Muerto Mi Abuelo" has a garage-y feel reminiscent of the Sir Douglas Quintet.
Maybe the most out-of-left-field track on the album is "Para Elisa," Los Destellos' reimagining of Beethoven's "Fur Elise" as a brisk Andean ramble. As with ska and calypso bands before them, the seven combos featured here borrow from, and mingle, high and low culture in service of their freewheeling musical vision. Fans of the Tropicalia music of Brazil, especially the day-glo sounds of Os Mutantes and Rogerio Duprat, will likely find this collection revelatory.
-- Bill Friskics-Warren
DOWNLOAD THESE:"Sonido Amazonico," "Ya Se Ha Muerto Mi Abuelo," "Para Elise"
FOR LOVERS, DREAMERS & ME
Singer Alice Smith's album, "For Lovers, Dreamers & Me," with its sumptuous vocals and intriguing mixed bag of sounds, is one of the best debut discs of 2007. It was also one of the best debuts of 2006.
The album, first released by London's BBE Records, was remastered and rereleased by Epic this year, allowing Smith to share her four-octave range and multiform style with a wider audience.
While Smith's voice possesses a richness and depth usually associated with soul, "For Lovers, Dreamers & Me" doesn't quite fit that category.
The disc jumps between pop rock, traditional R&B, blues and a jumble of other music styles, and Smith always manages to tweak her distinct instrument just enough to fit whatever genre she's working in.
"Dream" begins as a sweet R&B expression of a desire for romance, but ends with wild vamping and Smith sounding a bit more desperate to find love. "Desert Song" is indie pop-leaning, and Smith nails that particular style of wistful vocals, minus the depressive edge. On the dub-influenced "Do I," Smith plays well with trippy sound effects. And over the laid-back funk groove of "Fake Is the New Real," she laments that we're "living in phony times" and subtly positions herself as the antidote to the music business artifice.
With the no-frills ballad "Secrets," she sings about the dangers of keeping her feelings bottled up: "I have trouble keeping things on the DL," she says. Here's hoping this album, like her feelings, will remain hidden no longer.
-- Sarah Godfrey
DOWNLOAD THESE: "Dream," "Desert Song," "Secrets"
EARLY SOUTHERN GUITAR SOUNDS
It's not just a lifetime of performance and research that places Mike Seeger in a unique position to trace early Southern guitar sounds. Access has something to do with it, too -- access to an extraordinary array of instruments. On his latest CD, the esteemed musician and folklorist takes full advantage of acoustic guitars large and small, handcrafted and factory-produced, made of exotic woods or sheet metal.
Even so, one needn't be a guitar-obsessive to enjoy this 28-track collection compiled by Seeger, co-founder of the New Lost City Ramblers (and Pete Seeger's half sibling). All that's required, really, is an appreciation of vintage folk and country music, for this compilation is as "rootsy" as contemporary recordings get.
Seeger's extensive liner notes are laced with insights, anecdotes and some speculation concerning how the guitar ultimately eclipsed the banjo's popularity in the South. (He's mindful of the contributions made by itinerant black guitarists, noting that blues recordings made in the 1920s "suggest many decades of creative development.") Yet Seeger's performances are instructive in their own right, beginning with "Wildwood Flower," a tribute to Maybelle Carter's profound flat-picking influence. Memorable tracks find Seeger nimbly fingerpicking his way through Sam McGee's "Buckdancer's Choice," using a Hawaiian-style Weissenborn guitar on "Guitar Rag" and playing a 12-string flat-top, Leadbelly style, on "After All Has Been Said and Done." In the end, all manner of guitars, techniques and tunings help make this survey as colorful as it is revealing.
-- Mike Joyce
DOWNLOAD THESE:"Wildwood Flower," "Buckdancer's Choice"