Category Archives: CD Reviews

Songs From The Back Porch

Jolie Holland

Escondida (Anti 6692, 2004)

Thankfully the transition from lo-fi spare room demo to recording studio hasn’t
harmed the sound or spirit of Jolie Holland’s work.

was a rare and mysteriously compelling release that relied, for
some of its charm at least, on the surroundings in which it was made. The
clarity of this new one enhances rather than detracts from the seductive
qualities of the former and ensures the intimacy of her singing is still the
CD’s prime focus. Her unforced phrasing and wonderful accent are captured intact
and deliver the songs in a way that is, perhaps, unique.

If anything Escondida has an even more charming and inviting sound
with some subtle additions and colors being brought to songs that still sound as
though they might have been conceived on a mythical back porch somewhere. She
takes in jazz, blues, folk and country influences and mixes then easily. It is
also difficult at times to tell which are originals and which come from a well
worn tradition. To her credit most of the songs are her own.

The resigned blues inflections on ‘Poor Girl’ couple effectively with minimal
slide and acoustic guitar and, eerily, her vocals echo the otherworldly voice of
Canned Heat’s Al Wilson. This is evident too on ‘Lil’ Missy where she bends the
notes in the same plaintive way. That track also benefits from an unfussy
trumpet solo, just one of the complementary colorings to be found here.

There is more subtle brass on ‘Old Fashion Morphine’ where she mingles the blues
and the spiritual. The latter element also infuses ‘Amen’, a traveling love song
with only muted piano, more of which accompanies her on ‘Damn Shame’, which is
graced by poetic lines like – ‘the smell of burnt exhaust drifts into the bar,
it’s midnight in California, it’s high noon where you are’

The chords on ‘Goodbye California’ must have appeared on many a tune out of
Nashville but here the words manage to be removed from country cliché whilst
referring to age old notions of moving on. A weirdly compelling mixture, the
song declaims and swaggers through its spirited farewells aided by more of that
liquid slide guitar. And she is equally at home on the British trad song ‘Mad
Tom Of Bedlam’ where she has nothing more than brushed drums to support her
hectic vocals. It’s combinations like these that make Jolie Holland worth much
more than a cursory listen.

It is a real joy to hear this music especially in an age of bland
manufactured female singers. She has her own track to follow in her own way. She
is the real thing and I look forward to hearing where she ends up next.

Buy Escondida.


Melting Melodies: Hijas Del Sol

Hijas Del Sol - Kottó
Hijas Del Sol – Kottó
Hijas Del Sol

Kottó (Nubenegra/Intuition, 1998) & Kchaba (Nubenegra/Intuition, 2000)

Both of these recordings, Kottó and Kchaba, by EG (Equatorial Guinea) duo, Las
Hijas del Sol  are a few years old now. Kottó (released in 1998) features vocalists, Piruchi Apo and Paloma Loribo (an aunt and niece) in a predominately acoustic environment with plenty of Afro-Cuban rhythms, western instruments such as clarinet, accordion, double bass, cello, violin, Cuban tres, and some electric guitar. Plenty of room exists for the duo to perform their elaborate vocal harmonies and the end result is a vibrant and joyful recording. The same producer Alberto Gambino and engineer Hugo Westerdahl came on board for the 2000 release, Kchaba, but sadly, this CD is weighed down by electric guitar effects and technical prowess compliments of the production teams egos.

Fortunately, the vocalists extraordinary talent and humility salvages this recording to an extent.I read a bit of background on Las Hijas in a very short chapter on the music of Equatorial Guinea that appears in Rough Guides to World Music (Volume 1). It isn’t for lack of interest that the African country’s musical output comprised a short chapter. I believe that the international community would find the indigenous music of EG to be quite stunning, but this former Spanish colony, like many other African nations suffers from repressive government and lack of support for its local music community. Las Hijas and many of their musical compatriots live outside of Madrid in a small suburb the EG community dubs Malabo Dos (Malabo is the capital of Equatorial Guinea). And you can hear about this community and even the Spanish hot climate in Las Hijas’ lyrics. You will also hear about various tribal traditions of EG as well as, Las Hijas native tongue, Bubi, mixed in with a fusion of western and Afro-Caribbean sounds.

Kottó fascinates me in the same way as the Italian vocal group Faraualla’s recordings. Lately, I have found myself drawn to various vocal traditions from around the world and I have fallen in love with a cappella singing. Las Hijas strike a balance between a cappella and accompanied songs.

When I listen to Kottó, I can hear the women vocalists’ immense pleasure in explore in their singing craft. They offer traditional fare as well as, a couple of reggae tunes (titular track and Hoéo) and Sipólo resembles Cuban son with its mix of piano, Afro-Cuban percussion. The calypso-like La Despedida features bottles, bass, jungle sounds and African drums.

My favorite tracks are the a cappella, E Riwèé (with open-throat singing that recalls the music of the Balkans and Eastern Europe), Tóli Kópé, another a cappella song with a tempo change that falls at the song’s half way point, and Experiencia that features Mónica Campillo’s dreamy clarinet solos.

While some of the elements from Kottó, including the Afro-Cuban percussion, lush vocal harmonies and exotic appeal appear once again on the 2000 CD, Kchaba, this album is uneven at best. It starts off on the right note with the duo singing the short a cappella song, O Botyibi and Hue and M-30 also highlight the duo’s vocal skills and ethnicity. The country western tune, El
Viajero distracts from the flow of this recording. However, the most noticeable flaws on this otherwise intriguing CD are the guitar-heavy funk song , Grito Libre dedicated to the late Afro-Beat Fela Kuti and the drum & bass, La Princesa Perdida which sounds like a pop song wafting through a shopping mall. Sibolló puts the album back on solid ground and sports a nice balance between guitar and vocals. The a cappella E ria e nta highlights what this duo does best and Alale returns to Afro-Cuban/Caribbean fare.

I highly recommend Kottó, but I have reservations about Kchaba. However, this duo is charming and their vocal talent appears limitless so picking up both CDs might not be such a bad idea for listeners who don’t mind the tracks taking a sharp left turn now and again. Personally, I feel that Kottó offers a more pleasurable listening experience that Kchaba. I think the artists that appear on the cover of the CD and not somebody’s dream of building a wall of guitar sounds should be the producer’s primary focus. But that is just one person’s opinion.


Monica Salmaso: the other voice of Brazil

Monica Salmaso - Voadeira
Monica Salmaso – Voadeira
Monica Salmaso

Voadeira (Blue Jackel/Lightyear/WEA)

Chanteuse Monica Salmaso comes from a country that bursts with musical talent. Most fans of world music can name at least one Brazilian performer, from the bossa nova, Brazilian jazz, samba or electronica fusion genres. However, a huge gap lies between talented breathy singers who lay down vocal tracks for the latest electronica craze and true artistry. True artistry often steers clear of the latest trends, leans heavily on varying cultural influences and explores more complicated musical repertoire. These musicians both educate and entertain their audiences.

Ziriguiboom recording artists, Cibelle and Bebel Gilberto certainly have popular appeal, mainly because they take the safest route by appealing to dance club audiences. Obviously a need for dance music exists, especially in the holiday-making Brazil and beyond. However, I find myself drawn to the more earthy sounds of guitarist Celso Fonseca, Bahian vocalistVirginia Rodrigues  and the Paulista newcomer, Monica Salmaso, whose sincere and understated singing abilities exudes true artistry.

The uncompromising Salmaso won’t become an overnight sensation in either Brazil or the US. She spent over a decade building her vocal talent and her repertoire that consists of Brazilian folk, indigenous, Afro-Sambas and more contemporary fare. Salmaso has released two solo CDs, her debut, Trampolin and her second release, Voadeira, both which have attracted critical kudos.

Born in Sao Paulo in 1971, Monica Salmaso’s original intention was to become a journalist, but taking vocal lessons to help her relax changed the course of her life. In 1989, a friend introduced her to theater director Gabriel Villela who was searching for a young singer for his work titled, Congregation of Love.

Salmaso took the role of Veronica singing Gregorian chants and stayed with the role for a year. After that, she worked in the competitive Sao Paulo club scene, singing with various projects and winning awards. In 1995 she began pursuing a solo career and joined up with virtuoso guitarist Paulo Bellinati to record Afro-Sambas. This partnership eventually led to the recording Trampolin, which was produced by record label owner and bassist Rodolfo Stroeter. That project in is an intriguing story in itself.

In 1999, Monica emerged the winner of the Premio Visa de MPB Vocal Edition (contest). She was one of 1,247 applicants that competed for the prestigious honor and she walked away with a one album recording contract, the equivalent of $21,000 and a new Volkswagen. The 28-year old mezzo soprano finally rose above obscurity and her meticulous attention to detail, her instinctive vocal talent and humility would be appreciated by a wider audience, even if popular appeal still alluded her.

Her second CD Voadeira offers a pleasurable listening experience with its moody repertoire ranging from sad celebrations, (Fatima Guedes’ Silenciosa and Vinicius De Morais/Chico Buarque’s Valsinha), to the up tempo carnival samba, Ilu-Aye (Cabana and Norival Reis). The moody selection of material recalls guitarist Celso Fonseca’s seductive interpretations of Brazilian classics and Monica’s pure honeyed vocals mirror that of Virginia Rodrigues. However, the sisterhood that exists between Salmaso and Rodrigues goes much deeper. Both performers successfully marry Afro-Brazilian music with European instruments with the main focus on vocals. And the vocalists both exude a spiritual element in their music that is laced with purity and a great deal of reverence. They sing for the joy of it and this comes through in every breath, every nuance, the intonation, phrasing and all the other elements that separate mediocre from luminous singing.

The CD features 15 songs, by well-known Brazilian composers and are embellished by an array of exceptionally talented musicians including, guitarist Paulo Bellinati who shows up on Silenciosa and other musicians returning from the Trampolin CD. The stripped down songs feature various instruments, such as acoustic bass, percussion, clarinet, violin, accordion, piano and guitar which merely frame Monica’s vocals. A swirl of accordion or a flourish of clarinet presents itself, then fades into a backdrop of light percussion, piano or guitar. This results in a seductive allure like a sunny beach tucked away behind the more tourists-friendly Brazil many have come to know.

The songs drip elegance and are incredibly sophisticated and it is because of this that Voadeira and its vocalist Monica Salmaso catch listeners off-guard. Her vocal talent, although seemingly subtle on first listen, soon reveal its true strength which is akin to the strength of a silent stalking lioness and not the showy roaring lion. Thankfully, there is room in the world for both fanciful Brazilian pop and true artistry. It’s just a matter of educating the public into distinguishing between the two.


Ever Steady

Monty Alexander with Ernest Ranglin – Rocksteady
Monty Alexander with Ernest Ranglin

Rocksteady(Telarc CD 83581, 2004)

Two longstanding icons of Jamaican popular music, pianist Monty Alexander and guitarist Ernest Ranglin, have been edifying–as opposed to blurring–the lines between jazz and reggae for decades. Both were already veteran players by the dawn of the ska era and both continue to infuse the island vibe into their work. They’ve both branched out as well, including Alexander’s application of his extensive skills to straight ahead jazz and classic American songs and Ranglin launching into some fruitful explorations of African music. But it’s back to the foundation on this collaboration, resulting in a nearly perfect fit all around.

The pieces the two reinterpret instrumental-style are Jamaican classics by virtue of being milestones in roots and culture (Burning
‘s “Marcus Garvey,” the Congos’ “Row Fisherman”), successful well beyond their country of origin (Dave and Ansell Collins’ “Double Barrel,” Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites,”) or possessing a mystical quality reggae listeners know and love (Augustus Pablo’s “East of the River Nile”).

On each track Alexander (who shines on both piano and melodica) and Ranglin manage to keep familiarity intact while still getting in their licks as soloists and superb navigators of the groove. A tightly locked drums and bass backbone and rhythm guitar chug consistently bespeak reggae, notwithstanding the fact that the bass is acoustic and the drummer throwing down as many jazz tricks as reggae ones.

The sole vocal cut is Toots and the Maytals’ ever-dependable “Pressure Drop” sung by Toots himself, wielding his pipes in the same quietly masterful way the rest of the disc delivers. Well, not quite all the rest.

Only the last cut, Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” doesn’t measure up. The instrumental version here is done with too much reverence and not enough fire, simpering where it should simmer. It’s okay as a kind of afterthought, but best ignored in favor of the flawlessly pulsing arrangements and solid playing that
came before.

Buy Rocksteady.


The Agenda for Century 21 is the home of desperado rockers The Used Johnnys. Being sickened and horrified about the situation in Iraq, the group banded together around a camp fire; vowing to write and produce a protest song that kicks “the system” back in to touch.

We sang, we ranted, we scoured the Internet for our “masters’ voices” and we came
up with this! An “Apocalypse Now” mix of political out takes, dark cynicism and
a hope that this will one day all en
d.”The Used Johnnys encourage anyone to to log on to their Web site and use this material. “We will gladly supply CD audio copies to any interested parties willing to broadcast this type of satirical anti war protest material,” says Johnny. “So far we have logged over 1000 downloads since the anniversary of the start of war in Iraq.”


DJ Nightshade’s Arafunk

Various Artists, mixed by DJ Nightshade

AraFunk, The Sound of Arabia (E-Magine Entertainment, 2003)

This is the latest E-Magine Entertainment  release in The Sound of series. AraFunk, The Sound of Arabia,  mixed by DJ Nightshade is a stimulating compilation which includes some of the hottest and most renowned Middle Eastern dance tracks from the charts around the world. DJ Nightshade, known for his Arabic Fusion style and his numerous residences around the country, has put together an outstanding collection. He uses modern Arabic and Turkish tracks and mixes them with classic American funk & disco beats. DJ Nightshade calls it “AraFunk”.

Track Listings:

1. Move Your Belly – Said Mrad

2. Y Rayah –

Rachid Taha

3. Ya Albi –

4. Kabahat – Serdar Ortac

5. Kaliyon Ka Chaman – Bappi Lahiri (remix)

6. I’m Diggin You – Sat-R-Day (Stellio Ragga mix)

7. Mas Papaya – Sidestepper

8. Mundian To Bach Ke – Panjabi MC

9. Akli Fiha – Cheb Tarik

10. If I Were A Rich Girl – Tara

11. Egyptian Drummer – RLP/Hossam

12. Disturb – Said Mrad

13. Chicky – Oojami

14. Sikidim (Hepsi Senin Mi?) – Tarkan

15. Parisien Du Nord –


Mares Profundos

Virgínia Rodrigues

Mares Profundos  (Natasha Records/Deutsche Grammophon/Universal Music B000091-02, 2004)

Virginia Rodrigues possesses a voice so evocative it personifies the very heart and the richness of Brazilian music. Fans of Rodrigues’s Nos and sambas will enjoy her latest offering, Mares Profundos on Natasha Records. Teaming up again with Caetano Veloso (he produced her first CD) as artistic director, Rodrigues casts a magical spell over a collection Afro-sambas by legendary duo of composer Baden Powell and lyricist Vinícius de Moraes (with another track teaming up Powell with Paulo César Pinheiro).

Rodrigues’s voice charms the very soul of sadness from tracks Tristeza E Solidão, Consolação and Canto de Iemanjá. Canto de Pedra Preta, Lapinha and Labareda (featuring Caetano Veloso) are light-hearted romps through the complex musical fabric of the Afro-samba of Bahia, drawing heavily on the African rhythms. These interpretations are instilled with a sophisticated elegance, due in large part of Rodrigues’s vocals and some smart orchestration. It goes without saying that teaming up the likes of Caetano Veloso and Virgínia Rodrigues makes for a first-class performance.

Fans will also appreciate the CD booklet. It contains some stunning photos of Rodrigues and scenic shots, as well as the lyrics and some history about Baden Powell, Vinícius de Moraes and the origins of the Afro-samba.


Intimate Sketches

Jolie Holland

Catalpa (Anti/Epitaph 6691-2)

One of the most attractive sounds on the first Be Good Tanyas CD was Jolie
Holland’s voice, whether providing harmonies or featuring more prominently on
‘Lakes Of Pontchartrain’ and ‘The Littlest Birds’. The distinctive way she could
phrase a line coupled with her Houston, Texas accent added something special to
an album that already had plenty to offer.

Not surprisingly, her solo CD has been garnering a good deal of praise from
all sorts of people, like Tom Waits, as well as most of the music press. So I
tried to turn my ears away from the hyperbole when listening. Then, rightly or
not, I went straight to her solo rendition of ‘The Littlest Birds’, hoping it
might at least get close to the BGT version. I needn’t have worried. It is
obviously a more spare reading with just her voice and guitar but it is still
beguiling. What it misses in the swing of the original it makes up for in
casual, low-key charm. Throughout the CD what is particularly appealing is the fact that she
sounds as though she sings these songs because she enjoys them, whether they’re
her own or someone else’s. ‘All The Morning Birds’ for example, features the
refreshing purity and clarity of her singing – and whistling – as it follows a
wonderfully meandering melody. The whole thing just radiates her ease and
pleasure in performing and this is easily conveyed to the listener.

Her voice is more strident on ‘Black Hand Blues’ which isn’t one of her
own, but is eminently suited to her unforced and natural phrasing. I’m certain
that in another era she could have been one of those blues singers who were able
to send shivers down the most unmoving of spines with her chill delivery. At
some distance from that is her setting of Yeats’ poem ‘Wandering Angus’ which
also features the embellishing textures of Brian Miller’s electric guitar
bringing a clear and spacious dimension to the piece. Her ‘Demon Lover improv’
is really a snatch from ‘House Carpenter’ woven into an instrumental feature. A
tantalizing snippet of another chilling song from the tradition.

Apparently as part of her self taught approach she learned some of Syd
Barrett’s songs, which may seem a strange choice. Actually, aside from her
borrowing from his ‘Jugband Blues’ she does manage to re-create a hint of that
strangely intimate quality that especially haunts Barrett’s first solo album.
Play either of these CDs late at night and that intimacy does become truly
spooky but equally compelling.

There is something of the ingénue about this music too, as though she was
literally unaware of what effect the songs might have. She even alludes to this
in her notes, calling the album a ‘rough sketch’ which was never actually
intended for a wide audience. Whatever, I hope that she can retain some of this
feel on future work because this album is something quite rare and engaging and
doesn’t need too much polish. It seems the hype got it right this time.



William Eaton Ensemble – Sparks and Embers
William Eaton Ensemble

Sparks and Embers (Canyon Records CR 7061, 2003)

“File under new age” states the fine print on the back of this double CD set, and since it would be a bit baffling to put something like “file under semi-improvised inventive acoustic fusion music that happens to have a meditative quality to it,” I guess we’ll have to go with easy categorization.

William Eaton has been a builder and player of stringed instruments for over 30 years. Several of his wonderful hybrid creations, including the predominant lyraharp guitar, are heard here. Ably assisted by violinist Allen Ames, percussionist Will Clipman, vocalist/bassist/flutist Mary Redhouse and flutist Claudia Tulip, the sound emerges as a kind of global chamber music.

There’s a recurring Native American feel (not surprising, since Canyon Records is primarily a Native American music label) brought about by the dreamlike flutes and Redhouse’s otherworldly tribal vocalizations, but this music goes wherever the talent and vision of the participants can take it.

Though jazz, folk, classical, African and other territories are passed through, the focus is never easily foreseeable and thus consistently interesting. Call it mellow, laid back, low key or anything of the sort. It’s got a beauty all its own, ranging in tone from warm and inviting to borderline eerie. At over two hours long it may be a bit much to listen to in one sitting, so dole it out however you see fit. But do put it on your list of gotta-gets if you like music that both relaxes and challenges.

The sonic sweep and swing of Eaton’s axes (including some electric guitar injections) are both foundation and guiding force, and the cleverly flowing embellishments of the ensemble keep time and space steady just as often as they mess with them.

Apart from previous William Eaton Ensemble albums on Canyon, Eaton has had a hand in several other noteworthy releases for the label. The trio discs on which he performs with Clipman and Native flute master R. Carlos Nakai are recommended along with one in which the three are joined by Tibetan flutist Nawang Khechog.

Sparks and Embers is an ample and enjoyable addition to the body of work of this uniquely fine musician.


British Fusion


The Lost Broadcasts
1968-72 (Hux Records 049, 2004)

I’ve never been able to make up my mind about Pentangle. were they a unique
fusion quintet brimming with virtuosity or an entity seemingly designed by
committee, all those influences pulling in different directions? Sometimes they
gelled and at other times they sounded a bit awkward, as though the effort of
unifying the diversity was too much.

This double CD unearths recordings made for various BBC broadcasts tracing
the arc of their commercial success and appeal up to work which appeared on the
recently re-released Solomon’s Seal, their final album. It shows a band
incorporating blues, traditional folk and elements of jazz as well as original
compositions. Some have worn better than others but it is a fair representation
of the band on good form.

Jacqui McShee had a voice of almost unparalleled purity and her performance
on some of the material was peerless. ‘Let No Man Steal Your Thyme’ and ‘The
Cuckoo’ are excellent examples of the clarity and strength of her delivery. Even
the much anthologised ‘Light Flight’ has lasted well, mainly thanks to her
impeccable voice. She sounds less at home on the Furey Lewis blues, ‘Turn Your
Money Green’ and some of the shared vocals with Bert Jansch. He was and is a
fine guitarist but I find his voice monotonous and dirge-like. He may have
provided a contrast to McShee but it was one I could live without.

On the second CD they perform a version of one of my favourites, ‘Lyke Wake
Dirge’ which still sends shivers down the spine. This spare treatment of the
ballad was one of their most successful, giving due prominence to the menace of
the lyrics whilst embellishing them with the right amount of instrumental colour.
By comparison, ‘Reynardine’ is a little lifeless though that may be due to
Jansch’s voice again. When McShee sings ‘Hunting Song’ they sound much better
and the presence of Danny Thompson’s bass and Terry Cos’s glockenspiel
underscores the wonderful vocal.

Not surprisingly some material sounds cluttered and muddy, ‘Name Of The
Game’, for example, but that could be due to the age of the tapes and the
recording techniques of the day. In all, these two CDs capture the band as a
balanced unit, fusing their diverse influences cohesively.