Music is mysterious. Psychologists say we literally need music in our lives and have shown how the brain responds to tonal stimuli. Musical taste remains an unknown. Maybe it's where nurture trumps nature, but who knows? Why does a Bach fugue induce yawns, whereas an old Beatles tune makes me grin like a Cheshire cat? Every devotee thinks of his or her tastes as "refined" and views those who don't agree as "barbarians," but such judgments are deceits. In that spirit, here are a few recent projects that fall into the amorphous category of "specialized tastes."
Collaborative concept albums are tricky. I liked Songs of Separation (Navigator), but I didn't love it, though it includes many personal favorites: Eliza Carthy, Hazel Askew, Mary Macmaster, and the glorious Karine Polwart, about whom I only half jest I'd pay attention if she were singing binomial equations. I adored her take on an old song reworked as "Echo Mocks the Cornrake." The album's central idea is that the Scottish isle of Eigg is a metaphor for Scotland's two poles—to be independent or to be "British." The musicians seek to transpose the fragment-versus-unify dichotomy to deeper themes of personal, community, global, spiritual, and cultural imaginings through a mix of traditional and original songs in English and Gaelic. I enjoyed Hannah Read's sensitive treatment of Robert Burns' "It Was A' for Our Rightfu' King," Askew's arrangement of two waulking (women's work) songs, Hannah James' "Poor Man's Lamentation," and Macmasters' gorgeous take on "Over the Border." I am less certain of songs that opt for faintly boogie-woogie, jazz, or 1930s echoes and, I must admit that occasionally the all-female group singing made me long for more tonal coloration. It must also be said that some of the larger themes that this talented crew—which also includes Jenn Butterworth, Jenny Hill, Kate Young, and Rowan Rheingans– sought to highlight were probably more poignant in discussion than in music. This is certainly a CD worth considering, but there are some cracks in the Eigg. (Bad pun—it's actually pronounced something closer to Ā'-keyah'.)
Abrazo: The Havana Sessions (Parma Recordings) emerged from the partial restoration of relations between the United States and Cuba. It brings together musicians, conductors, and composers from both lands on an album whose major strength and weakness is its diversity. Jazz has long been a Caribbean staple, so naturally this double CD contains a lot of it: small combo projects marshaled by folks such as Mel Mobley, Juan Manuel Ceruto, and Bunny Beck, as well as big band material in the spirit of Buena Vista Social Club led by Timothy Lee Miller, Don Bowyer, and others. What we don't expect to hear is Roger Bourland-led madrigal singing, a Michael Murray choral project inspired by 9/11, or a burlesque shepherded by John Carollo. My take is that the project is overly ambitious and could have usefully been two separate releases. But, then again, this is based on the fact that, although I appreciate the complexity of jazz, there are forms of it I don't actually like—especially small combo efforts, which often strike me as incoherent look-at-me virtuosity. On the other hand, I was thrilled by the vocals and adore madrigals so much that it felt like a slog through really boring stuff to get to the singing. My taste, for sure, and I wonder how many jazz devotees would feel the opposite. Is this a case of too many irons in the fire?
On the subject of jazz, a lot of experimental efforts also leave me with mixed feelings, which is pretty much my take on Archipelago by Melody Parker. Ms. Parker is a young singer who calls her music "chamber pop," by which (I think) she means a pottage of experimental and improvisational music leavened with evocations of other eras. I found the album to be interesting in places, but meandering overall. "Love" comes off as music that's a mash of what you'd get from a jazz club, post-punk attitude, and sounds from a Bobo hipster café; and "The Prophet and the Prof" is a cross between girl groups and a '30s film song. Parker likes to mix things. The title track opens with a colliery brass band prelude, but segues to carnivalesque departures; "Everything to Sing About" has blue notes piano, but then subsumes them and Parker's voice in a thicker mix. About Parker's voice: It's your call whether it's unique, or just odd. At times she's close to Betty Boop territory; at others, cool and torchy. I prefer the latter, which is why my favorite tracks were those with less going on, such as "Vertigone" and "Upon theDune."
Did you enjoy the music of Cabaret? Are you ready to stretch yourself even more? Rescued Treasure from Berlin's Semer Ensemble (Gema) definitely falls into the specialized tastes hodgepodge, as it highlights Jewish music of the Weimar Republic. The 1920s were a golden age for Jewish music in Germany and, of course, we know of the horrors looming on the horizon. The title is apt; much of what we hear has been lost or mostly forgotten for 80+ years. The material spans a bit of everything: arias, Russian folk songs, cantor singing, Yiddish theater, cabaret… and much of it is showy and sometimes schmaltzy. It's a live performance from Berlin's Maxim Gorky Theater, but being able to dip in and out enhanced my appreciation, though I suspect I would find an entire evening of this music to be too much. Samples here.
If you think the last one is specialized, check out Hungarian Noir (Piranha), which devotes 12 tracks to the same song, "The Gloomy Sunday." It has been covered by scores of singers, but was penned by Rezsó Seress in 1933, and has long been known as the "Hungarian suicide song." The artists on this collection seek to make us think about it a bit differently, but it remains doleful and dirge-like no matter who performs it. The most famous rendition, included on the release, came from Billie Holiday. We also , get a global look: Mozambique's Wazimbo, Cuba's Domingo Sombrio, Colombia's Bambarabanda, the Spanish guitar rendition of Triste Domingo, a Ukrainian take from Chango Spasiuk, a rap version from GOG, and (naturally) a Hungarian take by Pál Kalmár. What's the Esperanto word for "melancholy?" Is this a gutsy release, or an exercise in redundancy? Probably both. Samples here.
Few genres of music are as lampooned as New Age. At its best it is hypnotic and transportive; at its worst, it's the musical equivalent of refrigerated Maypo. For me the, The Breath, Carry Your Kin (Real World Records) lacked sparkle because it's in the middle of the hypnotic-versus-Maypo spectrum. There is little doubt that Irish-born Ríoghnach Connolly is a skilled singer, or that her band mates—guitarist Stuart McCallum, drummer Luke Flowers, pianist John Ellis–are equally talented. As the title suggests, though, much of this album consists of loops, vocalizations, sound effects, and breath exercises. When Connolly turns her attention to serious topics such as feminism, colonialism, or the life cycle, the form in which she wraps these issues encourages listeners to drift rather than focus. I'm sure there are many who will find this release relaxing and quietly powerful, but I found myself thinking of Enya, Clannad, and Órla Fallon, who cover this terrain with more flair. Click here for three videos.