Archive for October, 2009


From NPR’s A Blog Supreme.  Finally, someone has joined two things that I love: classic, 8-bit Nintendo and jazz.  Now if someone would just overdub Ride the Lightning over Contra…


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wailin jennys

The Wailin Jennys: Live at the Mauch Chunk Opera House

*another punkyjunk popmatters.com review*

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If it’s possible to wail while playing folk music, then Live at the Mauch Chunk Opera House demonstrates in several areas how to do so.  Recorded in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania in a vaudeville theater built in 1881, the dynamic new live album from Canadian sensations The Wailin’ Jennys serves up a variety of delectable roots music offerings, including blues, country, spirituals and folk – even with a little bit of jazz and bluegrass thrown in the mix.

Through a blend of covers, traditionals, and original tunes, the Jennys showcase a fine new lineup, classic roots instrumentation and their precisely crafted three-part harmonies.  Alto Heather Masse is the newcomer on upright bass, joining Nicky Mehta (guitar, drums, harmonica, ukulele) and Ruth Moody (guitar, banjo, accordion, bodhrán) alongside Jeremy Penner, who adds several tasteful flourishes of violin and mandolin and several burning solos throughout the disc.

A rollicking “Deeper Well” kicks off the disc with Mehta taking lead vocals.  It’s an intense track, with a haunting and searing violin solo splitting up the repeating dramatic, minor-key chorus.  The Jennys’ harmonies provide a dramatic foundation for the second track, an excellent a capella reading of Gershwin’s “Summertime”, a tune that has been recorded a thousand times but is brilliant here.

Mehta takes the lead vocal again on “Driving”, a swinging, mellow tale of a drive from Maine to upstate New York in pursuit of a lover.  Between Moody’s gentle banjo picking, the simple, sweet melody, fine violin/harmonica interplay and again, striking vocal harmonies, this track stands out as one of the finest on this release.

Unfortunately, it’s overshadowed by its successor, the traditional “Bold Riley” and the best track of the release.  Sure to leave many listeners misty-eyed and breathless, a beautifully bowed bass, accordion and violin provide the perfect backdrop to the angelic harmonies of Masse, Mehta and Moody.  There might only be four musicians onstage, but it sounds like a symphony.

Non-denominational spiritual (and Moody original) “Glory Bound” kicks off with a joyful, uplifting riff on banjo and doubled on violin, giving way to a simple, yet gorgeous “hallelujah” chorus, which is (not-often-on-live-recordings) enhanced by an audience sing-a-long, turning the Jenny’s three-part harmony into a full choral ensemble.

“Arlington” shifts the mood of the disc back to somber, with its magnificent minor-key melody and Mehta’s clear, bell-like vocals.  As the other Jennys join to create a rich, intoxicating harmony, Penner’s weeping violin gives the track a mournful quality.  A stunning take on folk blues legend Leadbelly’s “Bring Me Li’l Water Silvy” follows and finds the Jennys in a capella form again, caressing the simple melody with their sweet-as-honey harmonies, anchored by Masse’s impressive alto, which finds her at the depth and peak of her range in a single track.

The slow-dance sway of “One More Dollar” propels the set forward, with another outstanding violin solo from Penner.  “Racing With the Sun” is at once dark and playful, mysterious and bouncy and features fine interplay between the acoustic guitar, ukulele and the violin.  “Paint a Picture”, sung a capella, is short, sweet and stellar.

Although it’s not as strong as her other original on this release, “Arlington”, Mehta’s voice truly shines on “Begin”, an inspiring tune calling listeners to live in the moment – appropriate for a live release.  “Motherless Child” begins a capella and then echoes the stomp of set opener “Deeper Well”.  Rounding out the disc is “Calling All Angels” and “One Voice”, two fine tracks that provide an enjoyable and mellow cap to the evening.

The greatest vocal harmonies are both results of rigorous rehearsal and often times, the melding of the “right voices”.  There have been plenty of groups whose individual members didn’t possess particularly unique or impressive voices, but when they came together, a much more interesting voice was formed.  Within in the context of The Wailin’ Jennys’, each of the three principal members has impressive lead vocal takes, often accompanied by simple two-part harmonies – but the moments where the Jennys truly wail is when the three voices come together.

And in a live setting, free of overdubs, multiple takes and pitch-correction technology, the subtle shades and delicate nuances of the human voice are on display for all to hear, mistakes and all – but there are no vocal flaws here.  Equally perfect for sunny day, open highway cruises and reflective, late-night drives, Live at the Mauch Chunk Opera House proves that The Wailin’ Jennys are on top of their game and at the top of their field.


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Lester Young: Centennial Celebration

*another punkyjunk popmatters.com review*

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In the early 1940s, there were two ways of playing saxophone: like Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young. The subject of Centennial Celebration, Young—or “Pres”, as he was dubbed—once said, “A musician should know the lyrics of the songs he plays. That completes it.” The original hipster backed up his words with a rock-solid foundation built on some of the most invigorating and heavenly playing, heard clearly on this 10-track sampler of various sessions culled from the early-to-mid 1950s with a formidable cast of players: trumpeter Roy Eldridge, pianist Hank Jones, bassist Ray Brown, drummer Max Roach, pianist Oscar Peterson, and guitarist Herb Ellis.

A well-balanced disc, Centennial Celebration highlights the stylistic range which Young mastered effortlessly from the blues and swing of opener “Jumpin’ with Symphony Sid” to “Oh Lady, Be Good” to “Undecided” and “Lester Leaps In”, several of which are delivered at breakneck pace. Tender ballads “I Can’t Get Started” and “I Cover the Waterfront” showcase Young’s achingly beautiful and highly lyrical playing.

Although it focuses exclusively on his small-ensemble work during postwar years, Centennial Celebration still provides an immensely enjoyable summary of all there is to love about Lester Young: his blissful tone, his superb phrasing, and his seemingly endless open channel of improvisational ideas. It’s no wonder why Young earned his nickname from contemporary Billie Holiday, as his commanding authority of the tenor saxophone knew no equal, and he ushered in an entirely new approach to the instrument, one this disc should have new and curious listeners craving more and serving as a first-rate reminder to die-hard fans of his genius.

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Bringing the Heat


As my 17 readers know, I pretty much exclusively stick to music-related posts, with the occasional foray into other subject matter.  Today is one of those days.  Because of the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s story today about the battle over a baseball, which I briefly picked up on NPR on my way home last evening, I feel like I’ve gotta knock some mud off my cleats.  Here’s the long & the short of it, mixing the two sources:


Ryan Howard hit his 200th career home run on July 17, 2009 in a game versus the Florida Marlins, setting a record for the player to get to the benchmark quicker than any other in the game’s history.  A 12-year old Florida girl retrieved the ball from the stands.  A Marlins employee escorted the young girl to see a representative from the Phillies, who offered her some cotton candy and a Ryan Howard autographed baseball in exchange for the home-run ball that Howard wished to have returned for his trophy shelf, ball collection, etc.  A Florida lawyer, Norm Kent, files suit on behalf of the girl’s family against the Phillies, claiming they took advantage of the child (not having been accompanied by an adult) and should have given her something of equal value.  The ball is returned to the child.  And that’s where the story stands…


Catching a baseball – whether it’s a scorching foul-ball chopper down the first base line that hops and skips its way into the stands – or a triumphant, soaring home run – is an incredibly thrilling moment for anyone at a baseball game, and I’ll guess, probably even more so for a youngster.

I can recall so many near-misses trying to nab a game ball at Kauffman Stadium in my youth; a very small group of readers here might remember the particular tale of my close encounter with a Ken Griffey, Jr. foul ball that jetted right over our heads [even my 6’8″ father ducked] and into the rows behind us, subsequently breaking the finger of a woman who was pushed aside by an overzealous [and possibly intoxicated] fan who in his attempt to go for the ball, barreled over her and created quite a scene.

Second to the time a friend and I saw Sluggr [pictured here with a mother & child] throw a hot dog directly into someone’s gigantic stadium cup full of beer at a Royals game, the Griffey story will probably stand as my most vivid memory of a Major League Baseball game.  Or the time I was at the game when George Brett got his 3,000th hit.  Or Brian McRae’s first MLB at-bat, which resulted in a three-run triple.  Lest I digress…

In this case, I can completely understand the young fan’s rush of excitement to chase down the ball and hold it in her hands, slowly turning it over-and-round, inspecting its every stitch and scratch, smelling the dirt and resin, and feeling like you’ve just found buried treasure.  In fact, I might be a bit jealous, since I’ve yet to catch a ball at a game, although I have been on the kiss-cam before.

What I’m trying to grasp here are the elusive answers to a few questions:  Was the Phillies’ action to retrieve the ball unethical or manipulative?  Should the young girl keep the ball?  Or should it be returned to Howard, because of its personal significance to his career?  Regardless of whose hands in which the ball ends up, will it ultimately land on eBay?  Does a ball really matter that much to an athlete?  What is the true value of the ball?  Is it really worth “thousands,” as Kent puts it?   Or is it priceless?

I don’t know.  But I do know the edgy anticipation of opening a fresh pack of baseball cards, hoping to acquire that coveted addition to a collection, only to find a bunch of “common players” and a piece of crispy, cardboard-box gum; the sugary, dusty film left on hands and shirts from peanuts, Big League Chew and sunflower seeds; or the bitter disappointment of losing a little-league game and having to walk through the line afterwards to congratulate your nemesis [and the kid who you might end up going to school with next year] on a “good game.”  These are all fine recollections of what baseball was to me many, many years ago – but there’s something about the ball itself that is utterly mesmerizing.

Although he never made a career out of it [thanks a lot, knee surgeries], my older brother was one hell of a pitcher.  Always talented beyond his years, his intense efforts on the field that shone through in hundreds of nail-biting games will always sit [ahem] at the top of the mound of memories I have of baseball as a youngster.  I can remember my father yelling “BRING THE HEAT!!!” from the stands as my brother wound up another one of his sizzling fastballs that zipped by countless hitters, leaving their confidence bruised and battered.  Because I was never really the most athletic one of the three brothers [that much is clear], I always had to live vicariously through the shining moments of my brother’s glorious games from the mound.  And I relished in every minute of them.

Sometimes, when he wasn’t around, I’d sneak into his room [you know how siblings are growing up…”stay out of my room!!!!!”], pull out the squeaky, crunchy wicker basket that held all of his game balls, and marvel over the spherical symbols of his dominance of the diamond.  Each ball was branded with its own mark of significance: no-hitter; 10 strikeouts; championship game, etc.

To me, these were the true tokens of the game, the most real representations of what the contest meant, even better than baseball cards, sugar-loaded packets of gum – and in a grander sense, a multi-million dollar contract.  I found joy in grass stains, smelly ball caps, the heavy “thwack” of a fist pounding a glove, and the cold-to-the-touch comfort of an aluminum bat.

So what does all of this mean?  I’m not sure, because I haven’t quite grasped how I feel about the Phillies/Howard situation.  But I do know that I’ve got a great grip on what I love about the game.  Perhaps it’s time again for a lot of folks to revisit what it is that they love about it.  Tell me about yours.

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ORIGINAL POST: Samba Touré: Songhai Blues: Homage to Ali Farka Touré

*another punkyjunk popmatters.com review*

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Samba Touré‘s first release is an engaging journey through rich Malian musical traditions. Each track is a feast for the ears, with a blend of acoustic and electric guitar, sokou (traditional Malian violin), bass guitar, drums, gnoni (four-string guitar), flutes, and tamani (talking drum).  Often referred to as “desert blues”, the sounds heard on Songhai Blues: Homage to Ali Farka Touré are the direct ancestors of North American blues.

Ali Farka Touré—one the finest guitarists of all time, and a musical/cultural ambassador of Africa—gave Samba an opportunity to join his band for a 1997 tour, a move that solidified the younger guitarist’s passion to continue the musical mission started by his mentor.  Known by many as the “African John Lee Hooker”, Ali Farka Touré‘s distinctive technique, rhythmic approach, and ethereal vocals were indeed a match—or a mirror, perhaps—to the now-legendary sounds of the Mississippi bluesman.  Having not gained his true recognition until after his passing, Farka Touré‘s outstanding musical legacy is further cemented through Samba Touré‘s tribute, cycling through a variety of themes and messages found not only in Malian music, but in all of African musical traditions.

While paying tribute to Farka Touré in this disc, Samba Touré‘s opening guitar line on “Kairi Kairi” not only recalls the fluid single-note lines of his mentor, it also recalls one of the same themes popular in American blues music: warnings to other men about the perils of women, their deceitful ways, and the dangers of seduction.  The seriousness of the message can easily be heard in Touré‘s vocals, particularly in the call-and-response with his backing musicians. At points, it has the feel of a fired-up preacher, fervently delivering a sermon to his congregation, and the people are giving it right back. Halfway through the track, the tempo changes and takes on a more frenetic pace, amplifying the urgency of the message.

“Djanjo”, on the other hand, is sung from another perspective about women found in the blues, praising their beauty and charm—but also lamenting the challenges of winning their hearts.  It’s a much more exotic take on the “I love my baby, but she don’t love me” sentiment found in so many blues standards.  The backing musicians’ soulful repeating of the title line, sung in a simple harmony, provides a nice counterpoint to the sparring between the guitar and the sokou.  Musically and thematically, the cooler surface of this track is a brilliant juxtaposition to the fearful message of “Kairi Kairi”.

“Goye Kurya” carries another current found throughout the history of African music: the virtues of hard work.  Like the themes found in field hollers and work songs—direct descendants of African musical traditions—the idea that there is no reward without effort propels this track forward with a pounding drum beat and ecstatic vocals from both the leader as well as lines sung as a group chant.

“Anbafo” features exhilarating work on the sokou and, again, a group chant of the title line throughout the track, reiterating the song’s message of celebrating diversity in addition to preserving and celebrating traditions.  The hypnotic, repeating guitar figure in “Foda Diakaina”, which dances around the playful lines from the flute, is a fascinating musical conversation, providing a perfect aural representation of the song’s themes of the importance of listening within a family, and its ability to create stronger bonds.

“Bila”, which speaks to the same themes, picks up with a string-snapping guitar line and a reggae feel, complete with a pumping bass line and pulsating drums.  “Ali Farka”, a six-minute piece written in memory of Samba Touré‘s teacher, friend, and musical companion, is equally mournful as it is celebratory, properly closing out the disc.  The rhythms on Songhai Blues are intense and often difficult to follow—much like those of John Lee Hooker—but many of them are danceable.  Much of the disc has a festive, triumphant quality, with a prayerful and spiritual undercurrent.  The electric bass is the secret weapon here, its deep pulse weaving in and out of the tunes, giving them a danceable quality, making Graceland-era Paul Simon fans’ mouths water.

Touré‘s skillful guitar work on many of the tracks doesn’t cut through the mix—one has to concentrate in several areas to hear it.  Rather, it blends with the instruments—perhaps yet another reflection of the disc’s recurring themes: the merits of working together, the bonds of family, community, and communication.  This is music with a message, and that’s something worth talking about.

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