In recent years, the world-beat chart has been so dominated by Celtic music that partisans of African, Asian and Middle Eastern styles have begun to grumble. Yet not all musical Celticists are cashing in on the success of Enya and "Riverdance" or catering to the nostalgia of now-affluent Irish Americans. Such performers as Jah Wobble, Baka Beyond and--as its name suggests--the Afro Celt Sound System have taken Celtic music on a wide-ranging search for rhythmic inspiration. This last group, a septet that appears Wednesday at the 9:30 club, explores both traditional non-Western sources and contemporary electronic ones.
On its second album, "Volume 2: Release" (Real World/Narada), the Afro Celt Sound System expands on its artful mingling of Irish melodies and West African rhythms. The album opens with "Release," in which group members N'Faly Kouyate and Iarla O'Lionaird trade vocals with guest singer Sinead O'Connor (who also performed on Jah Wobble's most commercial tune, "Visions of You"). The song begins with the sound of a drone and Moussa Sissokho's talking drum, but as the track concludes, the live beats yield to an electronic percussion pattern clearly derived from the work of Steve Reich. The minimalist composer's rippling rhythm owes much to Balinese gamelan music, which makes it another descendant of world music, but Reich's work has also inspired much British techno, ambient house and drum 'n' bass. While most of the Sound System's lyrics are in Gaelic, the band's producer-programmers, Simon Emmerson and Martin Russell, are keeping an ear open to the new international language of electronic club music.
That doesn't mean the group is interested in the stripped-down, overdrive thumping that herds trendy clubgoers onto dance floors worldwide; the band's taste in dance music runs more toward synthbeat-boosted Irish jigs such as "Lovers of Light" and "Big Cat." Emmerson and company do show an affinity, however, for slower, moodier electronic styles, incorporating the loping bass and heavy reverb of Jamaican dub into "Even in My Dreams" and the skittering off-beats of drum 'n' bass into "Riding the Waves."
The latter is lively enough for the dance floor, but most of the album has a melancholy air. That partly reflects the plaintive melodies characteristic of Irish ballads, but the music's mood may also have been altered by the unexpected death of the band's keyboardist, Jo Bruce, to whom the CD is dedicated. As translated in the CD booklet, O'Lionaird's lyrics celebrate such cosmic banalities as "the nature and character of daylight" and "the illuminated forest." Yet beneath its shimmering surface, "Volume 2: Release" has undertones that run deep and dark.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8161.)
Super Furry Animals
Although they owe more to the '80s Welsh-language/punk boom than to traditional Welsh folk music, Super Furry Animals also like to mix things up. The title of the eclectic Celtic quintet's third album (not counting "Out Spaced," a collection of single and EP tracks) is characteristic: "Guerrilla" (Flydaddy) announces the band as punning revolutionaries--or perhaps revolutionary punsters.
"We don't think about reason when we have a dream," explains singer-guitarist Gruff Rhys in "Night Vision," a song that depicts waiting in line outside a disco in geopolitical terms, and much of this album is a fever dream of punk, electronic and Caribbean elements. "Northern Lites" is a calypso romp that can't decide if it's a love song or a commentary on global warming, while "Wherever I Lay My Phone (That's My Home)" is an electro-dub chant about today's most fashionable consumer-electronics accessory.
Before the Animals began performing live, they experimented extensively with samplers and synthesizers, and the band members sometimes performed at raves; the two indie-label EPs the band made before signing with Creation, its British label, were also heavily electronic. So "Guerrilla" is a return to the band's earliest style, although the Animals are too jumpy simply to retrace familiar routes. The opening "Check It Out" is an abstract vamp based on a sample from '80s rapper Young MC, but it leads into the album's punkiest track, "Do or Die," a roaring injunction to claim the world. "The Teacher" puts a similar message to a pumping Tex-Mex beat: "And when I get home from school/ I'm gonna burn my books/ And when I get home from school/ I'm gonna write some hooks."
"We're living in a world of quicksand," notes "This Turning Tide," and this album's sudden shifts in style support that metaphor. Ballads follow rockers, clamorous flurries subvert traditional song structure and rousing choruses suddenly appear out of the electronic morass. What holds "Guerrilla" together is the band's spirit of good-natured absurdism. Whether chanting "S.F.A Okay" or jauntily warning listeners, "Don't go chewing in bed," the Animals have matched their chimerical sound with urgently nonsensical sentiments.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8162.)
One of the songs on Mad Pudding's "Grand Hotel" (Sliced Bread) is called "Celtic Funk Stew," but this Canadian sextet's recipe doesn't quite cohere. That's not for lack of ambition. The album ranges from traditional a cappella ballads, Scottish jigs and Brazilian dance tunes to Aaron Copland's "Hoedown" and a cover of Leonard Cohen's "First We Take Manhattan" that includes an instrumental break derived from Brahms. It's all well executed and frequently pleasant, but the band is most persuasive when sticking close to its Celtic roots. Mad Pudding does demonstrate that it can put all these things together, but not that it should.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8163.)