Reviews of CDs from Mulatu Astatke, Sharam and Silversun Pickups

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


Mulatu Astatke and the Heliocentrics

"Inspiration Information" serves as one of the best arguments yet against practicing. This collaboration between vibraphonist Mulatu Astatke -- widely regarded as the father of Ethiopian jazz -- and the U.K.-based band the Heliocentrics came together after just a single rehearsal and performance. The results are fresh and forward-thinking, and funkiness always prevails.

A handful of Astatke's sensual, instrumentals were highlighted on the soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch's "Broken Flowers," and his contribution to the "Ethiopiques" compilation series is arguably the best. The Heliocentrics -- an eight-piece jazz-funk-psych-whatever collective-- bring a modern twist to his sound, but his unmistakable smoothness remains the album's calling card.

"Cha Cha" and "Esketa Dance" swing with a sultry authority. "Addis Black Widow" features an almost-break-beat rhythm, while the wah-wah guitar gives the song both a retro-psychedelic and futuristic feel. "Blue Nile" is most reminiscent of Astatke's older work, one of the few songs that doesn't ever take off, instead floating along on the strength of a tasteful and unobtrusive lead guitar line.

It's surprising that on this hastily arranged set there aren't more moments of meandering jamming. Instead, there's a tight focus throughout, with only a handful of "more fun to play than to listen to" moments. Since the recording of this album, Astatke and the Heliocentrics have teamed up for tour dates, suggesting that even better things could be in store. But it will be hard to top the inspired output of this early meeting.

-- David Malitz

DOWNLOAD THESE: "Esketa Dance," "Addis Black Widow," "Blue Nile"



A member of the famed local DJ-production duo Deep Dish, Sharam Tayebi has fashioned a debut solo disc that specializes in that same kind of accessible, occasionally campy electronica.

"Get Wild" is more reliant on its numerous samples and its ragtag band of novelty-heavy guest artists than it needs to be, but outside of a VH1 reality series, it may be the only time you'll ever find Diddy, Tommy Lee and "American Idol" '05 dropout Mario Vazquez in the same place.

"Get Wild" steers between user-friendly electro confections infused with elements of dub and house, and the harder, clubbier stuff. But its best moments flirt with mainstream pop: On "She Came Along," a nicely elastic, spaghetti-western-reminiscent track notable mostly for its heavy sampling of Patsy Cline's "Strange," Sharam teams with professional collaborator Kid Cudi, who, at this point, may pass from unknown to overexposed before his debut album ever gets released. British pop singer Daniel Bedingfield and his improbably high falsetto co-star on "The One," a throbbing exercise in Cher-evoking adult contemporary club pop.

Less flashy, equally satisfying appearances by frequent Deep Dish contributors Anousheh Khalili and Richard Morel give "Get Wild" the occasional feel of a lost Deep Dish recording.

Other guests are less welcome: Diddy shows up for "Patt With Diddy," which is essentially a reworking of Eddie Murphy's 1985 "Party All the Time." It's not as bad as it could have been, but even a virtual collaboration between Diddy and Murphy is destined for the repeat playlist in hell.

Sharam performs Saturday at Fur nightclub.

-- Allison Stewart

DOWNLOAD THESE: "She Came Along," "The One," "I Love the Way (That You're Breaking My Heart)"


Silversun Pickups

In this increasingly specialized era of music, when blogs and satellite radio make it possible for listeners to sink themselves into the smallest possible niche, the second album from Los Angeles quartet Silversun Pickups is something of a throwback -- a big and booming '90s-style alternative-rock record. There's bombast, overdriven guitars and some well-placed screaming vocals, allowing "Swoon" to inhabit that desolate region in between the lands of Nickelback and Arcade Fire.

The band isn't exactly coy about its main influence -- those SP initials aren't just a coincidence, are they? The machine-gun-like guitar and thick distortion that open "There's No Secrets This Year" are lifted almost exactly from the Smashing Pumpkins' playbook. When Brian Aubert brings the fuzz on his grooving riffs, it's the next best thing to being at the HFStival, circa 1996. He should be less tentative as a vocalist, though. His standard Gollumesque growl is the band's weakness, especially compared with moments when he lets loose an appealing howl. The Pickups could ratchet up the intensity overall. String-section interludes and spacey atmospherics are nice, but when a band excels at a sound rarely heard these days, it's easy to get greedy.

With a clearly established aesthetic, fine tuning is all that's required. This could be a band that brings folks out of their little corners and leads the alt-rock revival.

-- David Malitz

DOWNLOAD THESE: "There's No Secrets This Year," "It's Nice to Know You Work Alone," "Panic Switch"

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