7/29/16

July Album of the Month from Siama Matuzungidi

SIAMA MATUZUNGIDI
Rivers—From the Congo to the Mississippi
* * * * *

Siama Matuzungidi was a soukous legend in his homeland, the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1970s and early 1980s. The former Zaire is, alas, a troubled land and Matuzungidi and lots of other musicians fled. He landed in Minneapolis in the 1990s, via Uganda, Dubai, and Japan. Our gain; Africa's loss.

For those unfamiliar with soukous, it's a popular form of dance music sometimes called the "African rumba," as it appears to be one of the few musical types that migrated from the Caribbean ­to Africa rather than vice versa. Like Cuban son, which inspired it in the 1930s, soukous makes judicious use of bright brass and it's good party music. That's the musical history side of things, but Rivers is far more than an African lilt grafted to a Latin beat; in fact, this album shows Matuzungidi experimenting with various styles. True to its subtitle, we indeed hear music inspired by the Congo–try "Sisili," or "Malembe"–but also tunes whose roots lay along the Mississippi River that runs through his adopted home. For the most part, though–as we hear in the bluesy " Ndombolo" and "Mpevo–" think the Mississippi considerably south of Minnesota. The latter song is one of several tracks that feature trumpet from Bobby Marks that will make you jump, and bass and piano lines that would be more at home in, say, Memphis than Minneapolis.

Matuzungidi's vocals invite adjectives such as "silky," spirited," and "sunny. Given that most of the songs are in African languages, I've no idea what he's singing most of the time, but most of it felt joyous, so I hope I wasn't grooving to somebody's pain. You'll have trouble standing still to "Jungle Zombie," its solid dance grooves muscled up by bold brass. The brass serves to give heft to a hypnotic melody line from which departures spin. The overall effect of the song is like being bathed in a warm river with a strong current pulling you downstream. It's a good metaphor for an album that often delivers you to unexpected places. Matuzungidi's guitar and Tony Axtell's bass set the melody for most of the tunes, but you'll hear lots of instruments you probably don't associate with Congolese music: concert flute and piano (Brian Ziemniak), a full drum kit (Greg Schutte), and cello (Jacqueline Ultan), for instance. The most surprising of all is the veena playing of Nirmala Rajasekar. Let's add the Ganges to our list of rivers; the veena is a lute-like instrument that is the likely ancestor of the sitar and whose sound it resembles. It is often called a "Carnatic veena" and is used throughout southern India in "classical" music  that is often religious in nature. I think Matuzgungidi's references are more secular on "Maisha Mazuri." It has a little bit of everything in its robust mix: cymbal-crashing percussion, guitar and piano arpeggios, and a veena lead that would do a rock musician proud. Add to this Matuzungidi's vocals, which on this track are as sexy as Barry White but with ten times more energy. If Matuzungidi hasn't surprised you enough, he rounds off the album with "Yolanda," a sophisticated and moody tune that owes a debt to moody jazz.

This is certainly one of the year's finest albums. Check it out. By the way, Matuzungidi's Website promises there is track information in the CD. I got a download, so those who buy the CD can read the liner notes and let me know how far off base I am in some of my assumptions!

Rob Weir

7/27/16

Vietnam Era Novel Dove is a Turkey

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DOVE (2016)
M. H. Slater
Daytime Moon Publisher, 530 pp.
*  

Abbie Hoffman famously remarked, "If you can remember the Sixties, you weren't there." His was a jesting reference to the use of mind-altering drugs, but in a more profound way he was correct. Each era has an essence that that takes careful research to recreate. One cannot capture an era's vibe simply by ticking off the boxes of events that occurred during the period. This is a problem in M(elanie) H. Salter's Dove. She's too young to have been there and she's also Australian. The latter is not a deal-breaker, though it does explain minor errors–such as locating Ohio State University in Athens, OH instead of Columbus. Getting the vibe wrong is a more serious problem.

The novel is set in 1970, the year that Andy, a young man from Alabama, gets his draft notice. Andy and his girlfriend Heather decide to flee for Canada. They assume the identities of characters from a book they both love: Jack Kerouac's Dharma Bums, with Andy becoming "Japhy" and Heather emerging as "Ray." That's not a bad choice—The Dharma Bums often held the same reverence for college-age folks in 1970 as A Catcher in the Rye for those coming of age a decade earlier. But right away we have a problem: student deferments weren't curtailed until 1971. There was no reason for Japhy to split instead of going to college as planned. Am I being too picky? Does the novel work if we just change the zero to a one? Nope! If we do that, then Salter can't have her on-the-road characters wend their way to Kent State in time for the massacre. (Are we okay with mixing real people and fictional characters at Kent? It makes me queasy, given that one she mentions is a relative by marriage.) Nor can she show how profoundly Ray is affected by the death of Janis, Jimi, and Jim.

The problems get worse. Kerouac is just the tip of the simpatico iceberg for Japhy and Ray; their real bond is rooted in the songs of James Lee Stanley. They know all of his songs and Salter prints lyrics that putatively tie to the book's plot. Except there is no way two kids from Alabama are singing the songs of the Philadelphia-based Stanley in 1970; he didn't record until 1973. Yet Stanley is the spiritual anchor–and a character to boot–largely because Salter loves his music, met him, and thinks he's terrific. (I'll grant that last one.) He shows up in a USO-like concert in Vietnam and that never happened either; Stanley was in college, which is where Japhy should have been. This is to say that the two major motivations for our protagonists are convenient, but ahistorical contrivances.

There's also an intellectual trivialization present in the book. I'll concede that lots of young people jumped on the hippie wannabe bandwagon, but there is a serious lack of what used to be called "analysis"–a 60s' buzzword–among the book's characters. Ray is aggressive and Japhy is more passive, but as Dylan observed, "You don't have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing." Is it conceivable that two hippies would accept a ride from three ripped, clean-cut guys and that Ray would argue with them and announce that Japhy was a draft dodger? Only if you are applying a force-fit to an implausible plot. And things stray further when Ray and Japhy link up with white hippie chick Lauren and her African American boyfriend Leaf. We get the obligatory visit to a Canadian commune before Japhy re-crosses the border, is arrested, jailed, and sentenced: to join the US Army and go to Vietnam. So tick off the trauma in 'Nam box as well.

Lots of guys mused over the consequences of draft dodging. Read Tim O'Brien. They thought about it–a lot and deeply. Japhy apparently had little analysis other than desire for self-preservation and thoughts of Ray. He can adjust–and he's fine with that. How shallow! But it's more believable than life on the home front. Shall we toss in a little free love? Pregnancies and uncertain fatherhood?  A love triad? Identity transference during sex? Do you believe for a second that a white girl and her black lover could openly cavort about small-town Alabama in 1970? Let me answer the last one: No flippin' way! 

I don't insist on 100% historical accuracy in creative works, but Dove is a turkey fattened on clich├ęs, a Wikipedia view of history, and melodrama. This Vietnam War-era novel is strictly 4F.  Rob Weir

7/25/16

Mary Chapin Carpenter, Kyle Cox, Brooks Dixon, Ben Sollee, Louise Goffin

If you know the expression "You had me at hello," you know exactly how I felt when I listened to The Things We are Made Of, the newest recording (#14!) by Mary Chapin Carpenter. At 58, Carpenter knows about loss, the importance of memory, and the difference between shallow frippery and things that matter. It's been a long time since I've heard a record that opens with a better song than "Something Tamed Something Wild," a song destined to become a classic. It also offers perspectives that only a mature performer like Carpenter can offer. A young writer shouldn't even try a line such as: "I'm staring down the great big lonesome/As I'm listening for the dwindling of time/What else is there but the echoes of your heart/Something tamed something wild." Nor would we believe them if they sang, "So the things that matter to me now/Are different from the past/I care less about arrival/ Than just being in the path/Of some light carved out of nothing/The way it feels when the universe has smiled." Yes, folks, it's that kind of record­–a masterpiece of adult wisdom burnished by experience. Carpenter sings in a much lower register these days and her tones befit the introspection of her material. Later in the album Carpenter asks, "From departure to arrival what does it mean to travel," and we know she's asking us to ponder things much deeper than being on the road. Check out the cool bass lines to "Between the Wars" and the way in which they frame fragile vocals, quiet guitar, and understated percussion. Add superb arrangements to Carpenter's lyrical and vocal excellence. If it sounds as if I'm gushing over this album, guilty as charged and I seek no mercy.

Kyle Cox offers (mostly) acoustic country with an occasional early 60s-pop vibe woven in. How to tell someone is a country singer: he compares his love for his wife as comparable to a "Trusty Ol' Pair of Boots." (My suburban-bred wife would not be amused!) The Texas-bred, Nashville-based Cox offers a fine EP titled Kyle Cox Trio and Friends, which is exactly as advertised: a five-track sampler of personal songs about the things that he values: love, friends, and family. He celebrates all three in "Richest Man Alive," and one can only applaud his contentment. I really liked the diversity of this short effort. "The One Left Behind" has the aforementioned echoes of early 60s pop, "Just Outta Reach" has catchy hooks, and "The Artist," though not gloomy, has the feel of a classic country weepy, complete with wailing pedal steel.

Brooks Dixon offers a James Taylor-like vibe on Weather the Storm and not just because one of his best songs is a love song to the Tar Heel State titled "Carolina Queen." Like Taylor, Dixon's repertoire falls into the crevice where pop, folk, jazz, and white blues tumble together and express themselves as non-taxing good-time songs. The title track, for instance, has decided Tayloresque cadences, tackles a potentially dicey situation, and turns it into sunny optimism. "Smile" also evokes Taylor in the way in which Dixon applies vocals to cascading notes to give the song a strong tongue-twisting staccato feel. Several songs feature brassy rhythm section interludes that give a bit of bite to Dixon's warm voice. The only downside is that Dixon's repertoire could benefit from a few signature tunes and sharper hooks, though. I enjoyed this record while I was listening, but the tunes faded quickly.

Ben Sollee must have raised a bit of money for his latest project, Live at Studio EM2 as it's far more polished than anything he has done in the past. That's a mixed blessing, though. Sollee is a cellist/singer with the soul of a pop star—call his style "cello-bop." "Forgotten" is typical of his approach; it's either hip or overdone, depending upon your taste, a song with the feel of Paul Simon shooting syllables through a Gatling gun. "Pretend" has a contemporary metro vibe, with Sollee's vocals the calming center of a full band production in which his cello becomes the lead percussion instrument. My favorite track was "Steeples," a nice balance of growly cello and caffeinated frenzy. 

Louise Goffin has been recording since 1979, but I have to admit I've paid scant attention to the offspring of one of music's most famous couples: Gerry Goffin and Carole King. Maybe that's okay; a new collection titled The Essential Louise Goffin underwhelmed me. It has great production values and the name alone means you get to share the mic with luminaries such as Jakob Dylan ("Take a Giant Step") or the Cyanide Social Club ("Devil's Door"). But once we wipe the stardust from our face, we're left with fairly standard pop and a voice that's mid-range. Her cover of mom's "You Make Me Feel Like a NaturalWoman" sent me back to King's Tapestry and the difference is that of ordinary versus sublime. 

Rob Weir