6/24/16

Maarja Nuut :Avant-Garde Fiddle from Estonia

MAARJA NUUT
Une Meeles
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Estonia is a Baltic nation that isn't Scandinavian, but has been controlled by Danes and Swedes (as well as Russia). At times its wild keening vocals sound Balkan, but they're not. At times, the exuberance of fiddlers such as Maarja Nuut sounds Finnish, though that's incidental and the only thing really Finnish about Estonians is that they share common language roots. Why the geography lesson? Because Maarja Nuut's music is hard to pin down; it will remind you of lots of things, without really being any of them. Especially given the fact that her tastes run more toward the avant-garde than the folk wellspring. Consider, for instance, a song titled "Kiik Tabab Kindaid," which translates "The Swing Wants Mittens." A lot of fiddle tunes have odd names, but this one personifies the swing, muses on marriage, and the composition unfolds beneath, then above, a field recording of humming cellphone cables. Nutt's strings squeal in resonance with the cables, then drop to a drone to accompany primal vocals. Memo: This is not for die-hard traditionalists.

At every step of the way Nuut challenges, pushes sonic borders, and at times begs the question: What is music? "Kargus" opens to a saw-like barrage of notes that reduce in volume and become something that sounds to my ear like a drone/triplet hybrid. Nutt this time uses a light melodic voice to add contrast. "Sammud" is a waltz, but one looped to body moment and the tune's namesake "Footsteps." Add some plucked notes and we hear scraping and tapping feet, a 1-2-3 cadence, and a lovely little melody all at once. The effect is hypnotic. It's oddly delicate, as opposed to the free-spirited and wilder feel of "Kuradipolka" ("The Devil's Polka").  It too has a repeating thread of notes, but these serve to fray the tune rather than unify it. High notes drift to the edge of our aural comfort zone and then the entire piece ends abruptly. Or would you prefer some unbridled village-like rapid-fire vocalizations and some clip-clop percussion? Check out "Hobusem√§ng" ("The Horse Game"), which apparently is a variation of a ritual game linked to casting spells. In other words, Maarja Nuut's music is a flight into places where reality, magic, experimentation, programming, and dreams collide–appropriate for a project whose Estonian title means "In the Hold of a Dream." Like most avant-garde projects, this one will confuse some listeners and induce wonder in others. Place me in the second camp. 

Here's a YouTube sampler of this unusual artist.

Rob Weir

6/23/16

Guns and Congress; Special Report

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Making America Safe:

What will it take?

The question has been on the lips of rational people even before Sandy Hook, and has turned into an angry finger-pointing scream since Orlando: What will it take to make America safe? You won't like the answer, but given that commonsense, community spirit, and basic decency jumped the shark decades ago, it seems pretty obvious: more bloodshed.

I don't mean another Orlando-style mass slaying; events such as that have become so routine that we're numb to them. The blood that will have to spill is that of Republican members of Congress and their loved ones. Let me be unambiguously clear. I am a man of peace. Not only do I not possess a firearm, I've never held or fired one. I do not advocate or condone violence against anyone. But if you ask me what it will take, my answer stands.

How can I say such a horrible thing? Because Republicans in Congress are so unspeakably out of touch with ordinary Americans as to reside in an alternate reality. They are content to take campaign contributions from the Nazi Rifle Association because America's mean streets are walled off from their gated communities. Violence is a mere abstraction and has largely been so since World War Two. Republicans don't care that you and your kids go to war abroad and return to battle at home, because they and theirs don't experience the consequences of those wars.

It's no leap of logic to connect foreign and domestic wars. Try to find the name of the last child of a member of Congress killed in combat. His name was Larry McDonald and he died in French Indochina in 1945. Looking for the last sitting U.S. Congressman killed in military action? Senator Edward Baker of Oregon, October of 1861 in Virginia, during the Civil War. Know how many sons of U.S. Senators served in a unit anywhere near combat during the Vietnam War? Just one, and his name was Albert Gore Jr. Dead or wounded? One. Representative's son suffered a leg wound.

No wonder members of Congress so blithely send your sons (and daughters) to dangerous places—it's not like it touches them. When George W. Bush managed to prove he is an absolute fool by starting a conflict even dumber than the Vietnam War, only seven members of Congress had children in the military and only Senator Tim Johnson (D, SD) had a son in a dangerous situation.

As for the war on American streets, cirrhosis of the liver is more likely to wipe out an NRA-funded Congressman than the bullets they'd put into gumball machines if the NRA commanded them to do so. Gabby Giffords was gunned down and survived in 2011, but who counts liberals like she? Prior to that, you have to go back to Senator John Stennis, shot twice by muggers in 1973, for the last attack on a Congressional member. The last member of Congress killed on American soil was Senator Robert Kennedy in 1968. Since then, two others have died abroad–Representative Larry McDonald (D, GA) was aboard a Korean Airlines flight shot down by the Soviets in 1983, and Representative Leo Ryan (D, CA) died in the Jonestown massacre in 1978.

The NRA doesn't like to talk about the fact that the politicians it buys are in greater danger from hunting with Dick Cheney than from anything happening outside their protective bubbles. And it surely doesn't want you to know about Representative Jackie Speir (D, CA) who was with Leo Ryan in 1978, and survived being shot. She's been a gun control advocate ever since. Of course, President Reagan took a bullet in 1981, but do Republicans tell you that he supported the Brady Bill, or that he embraced moderate gun control after leaving office? The NRA will never tell you that it supported California's new gun control law in 1967, after armed Black Panthers marched into the California legislature. Or that the signature on that law belongs to a Republican: Governor Ronald Reagan.

Read all about it on this blog. Republicans won't tell you any of this. They don't care. Why should they? It has nothing to do with Congressional members or their children. It sickens me to say it, but I suspect only one thing will make Congress care: the pain of loss.




6/22/16

Cameron Johnson, Brooke Annibale, Keith Sykes, The Baboons

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Looking for some gristle and muscle? Try Rogers, Arkansas-based Cameron Johnson, whose Stack Your Stones EP lifts a few boulders. He's a man with a rich baritone voice, an acoustic guitar, and flair for telling tales about people who may or may not be making bad decisions. Give him a percussionist, a bass player with the chops of Brad Berge, soulful backup singers like Angel Snow and Marcia Ware, and crank up the down-and-dirty. Berge's bass is so heavy on "Til I Can't Anymore" that it's like a bump-and-grind at a biker bar. "Crooked Bangs," which generated some online buzz, features  Johnson's wry commentary and sense of country rock blues. It's about a man hell-bent for a woman from whom he knows he ought to walk away. How about this line: She drinks like Hemingway on a Tuesday night. It begins with some off-kilter beats akin to a Suitcase Junket setup, and then evolves into something reminiscent of a 40s-style string combo. I was amazed by the diversity of the EP's six tracks. "On My Own" is rootsy, but  has muscular kitchen-sink jumps with a bit of everything thrown in the mix: drums that thump and crash, pulsing strings, gritty vocal, meaty bass lines…. But then there's "In The Winter Time," a sensitive love song in which his voice is a cross between John Gorka and Ari Hest; and "Too Long," with a folk rock groove √° la Jackson Browne. And Johnson must  get "Mannequin with aMegaphone" out there. It's the perfect song for desultory Election 2016, with cynicism oozing from every pore. He's like a bluesy, latter-day Rudy Vallee as he croons lines about mannequin-like mass-produced candidates. I'm totally stealing his line: You're playing us like we're the media's fool/Go ahead and talk all you want, but you ain't getting through. Right on, bro—but your music got through loud and clear.

Some singers make you quake and some make you ache; Brooke Annibale is one of the latter. This Nashville-based Pittsburgh native has released 4 LPs and 2 EPs since 2005 and NoiseTrade is offering a collection called Retrospective for those unfamiliar with her. You may have heard her and not realized you have, as some of her songs have ended up on TV soundtracks, including "Silence WorthBreaking," which was used on ABC's "Pretty Little Liars." Annibale has a light, classically pretty voice, which is to say she's not a diva who is going to make you bolt upright. "Silence Worth Breaking" unfolds to bell-like tones. It, like all her songs, is polished, atmospheric, and well crafted. The only open question is whether or not you like this sort of treatment. My tastes run simpler, and I found some of her songs bathed in too much production. Retrospective contains two versions of "Remind Me," the first from her latest studio album The Simple Fear (2015) in which her voice mostly ornaments a thick mix. Pleasant enough, but I found the live acoustic version to be more honest and personal. A lot of her songs are about being in or out of love, so I need to hear the emotion in the voice if you want me to believe lyrics such as: just stop/connecting every dot/gave it everything I've got/we were nothing like I thought. But this is, as stated, my preference. Give a listen and see what you think.

Does the name Keith Sykes ring a bell? He's a singer/songwriter, though the emphasis is heavier on the second. More than a hundred of his offerings have been recorded, from artists ranging from Rosanne Cash and George Thorogood to Jimmy Buffett. Do you know Buffett's "Coast of Marseilles?" That's one of Sykes' tunes, an acoustic version of which you can hear on his EP Songs From a Little Beach Town (KSM Entertainment). It's six good time, easy-living songs in the country/folk/blues spirit of artists such as Buffett, of whose Coral Reefer Band Sykes was once a member. The EP opens with "Come as You Are Beach Bar," a tribute to a dive allegedly somewhere on the coast of Texas, and ends with the tongue-in-cheek "Drive Myself  to Drinking." The latter is a hilarious idea: a jilted man decides to indulge in self-destructive behavior without actually becoming self-destructive: Gonna build me a bar in the back of my car/And drive myself to drinkin' but he's not planning on putting the key into the ignition!

There are legions of Latin dance bands and it's a buyers' market as most of them are pretty much the same. I had high hopes for Spanglish (Syncopated Sounds) by The Baboons. As the title suggests, there are Spanish and English offerings, as befits a band based in Miami (and not to be confused with the Belgian rock band of that name, or Baboon, a Texas R & R outfit). Spanglish hits high notes when guitarist Isaac Rodriguez cuts loose and the brass gets funky behind him. Were there more of this I'd be happier. Lead vocalist Majica has a strong voice as well, but too much of this release falls into the same sold/same old dance groove. If you want to dance, by all means buy this. Beware, though: in the car it seems more of a pedestrian stroll than a sweaty samba.

Rob Weir

6/20/16

The Chimes a Wondrous Work for Serious Readers

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THE CHIMES (2015/16)
Anna Smaill
Sceptre, 289 pages
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The Chimes is far more than an impressive debut; it’s a work of genius. Beware, this is serious literature. It’s a slim volume, but it’s neither an easy nor a breezy read. Anna Smaill, a New Zealand poet and classical violinist, dares to challenge readers and trusts they are smart enough to fill the voids. She also trusts them to do their homework, so don't expect to be spoon-fed. Unless you are well grounded in music theory, keep your smart phone handy with a dictionary bookmarked. Smaill establishes an alternative universe—a time-indeterminate dystopia—that reveals its details in clues and individual notes, not in fell swoops or hummable pop melodies.

If you’re wondering what’s up with the music references, ponder this question: Who says communication must be based upon printed or spoken words? The Chimes takes place in England, after an event known as Allbreaking, which might have extinguished society had not a mysterious cadre known as The Order vanquished mayhem and reinstituted its namesake social organization. The Order is robed and quasi-religious in its discipline, but with a twist: they are master musicians. As such, music has replaced written language, and solfege–look it up as you’ll need to know what it means—has become the primary form of communication. It has, in fact, become the only true way of obtaining information as each day is punctuated by The Chimes, a time in which music wafts across the land. The next day citizens awake with no memory of the past; they carry small bags filled with “memoryobjects,” personal tokens that give them just enough hints about their identities to function. What has happened? What is this new world like? How can a society based upon music sustain itself? Is something sinister about the official narrative ("onestory")?  

You’ll need to be patient. There are no Sherlock Holmes-like ah-ha summations. The story arc of this dramatic thriller is linked to two young men, charismatic Lucien and perplexed Simon, and its notes begin to take shape when Simon arrives in London after his parents’ deaths—presumably to apprentice himself to an instrument maker. Instead, he finds himself along the Thames with Lucien and three other “pactrunners” sifting through the river muck and running full bore through pitch-black drainage tunnels using solfege to locate themselves and find the way back to their shelter. What’s the purpose of this and who is “The Lady” constantly referenced? What does it matter if the next morning one doesn’t recall? But what if there are those with the ability to retain memories? Is that a good or a bad thing? And who says music has to be benign?

The Chimes has a bit of everything, except birds. (You’ll find out why there are no birds.) There are secret cadres, chases, mysteries, secrets, plots and subplots. I was, at times, reminded of The Name of the Rose in the way in which symbols are manipulated, how secret languages—musical in this case—convey meaning, and how each character’s motives are ambiguous and we can’t immediately tell if that’s because they are clueless or have ulterior agendas. There’s even a medieval ambience, if you can conjure one with dashes of Mad Max and The Navigator mixed in.

Smaill’s prose is nuanced, complex, and eloquent. I adored this book and was grateful for a work that stretched me. Many readers will feel lost for the first hundred pages or so, but think of The Chimes as you might a complicated jigsaw puzzle in which it takes time for images to emerge once the preliminary straight edges are locked in place. Once you finish the novel, the picture before you will be unlike any others you will assemble this reading year. One of the book’s subplots involves searching for silver and palladium, but my take is that The Chimes is pure gold.  Rob Weir