October Music Bag: Aysola, Clanton, Hartman and Ashton, The Sea The Sea, Russell and More

Anita Aysola, Beyond Our Dreams

Here's an artist for your watch list. Anita Aysola was raised in Michigan by Indian parents. I mean no disrespect when I call her music a scrumptious curry. She's based in Atlanta these days, where she's often billed as a jazz artist, but that's way too limiting. Check out "America," which is an honest song about a multicultural nation that is often more of a crazy quilt than a coherent landscape. There's nothing wrong with your device; Aysola uses a very cool go-stop-go sequence at the beginning. The song moves into a swaying, catchy melody but did you hear sitar and tabla in the deep background? Yes, you did.  The title track places Aysola behind jazz-influenced keyboards, but the song is also soulful and folky. And let's call "Bet on Us" a PoMo number, as in post-Motown. Some have compared Aysola to Nora Jones and Tori Amos, which is pretty nice company to keep, but even that doesn't quite capture her music unless you also toss some Nusrat Ali Khan. When I say curry, I mean it; her music has elements of Hindustani, jazz, blues, soul, and folk. Aysola definitely has the chops to bring all this to the table. ★★★★★

Sarah Clanton, Here We Are

Add Sarah Clanton to the watch-for list. She has drawn comparisons to Regina Spektor, with whom she shares vocal similarities, though I don't think Ms Spektor wields a cello, Clanton's musical weapon of choice. Clanton is a recovering Southern Baptist who wasn't allowed to partake of pop culture as a child. Let's just say that college expanded her world. Here We Are is a pop/classical fusion album with some jazz elements and a few other things thrown in for good measure. "Silver Lining," for instance, has cello- and percussion-driven grooves, but a bridge that has echoes of tango and surf pop. Clanton's voice, still young in the high ranges, powers its way to levels suggestive of where she'll land in a few years. "We Belong" is a hopeful song. She asks, Aren't we all looking for a place to belong, and wends her way to an I'm okay, you're okay conclusion. My favorite track is "Slow It Down." The opening cello notes are simple, but intriguing. Then come plinky keys and a song about holding onto precious moments. The effect is like falling in love during a gentle rain. Most of Clanton's songs are pared down to the ready-ready three-minute mark. I suspect she's about to make marks of her own. ★★★★

Courtney Hartman and Taylor Ashton, Been on Your Side

Courtney Hartman hails from Colorado, is a roots music veteran, and a member of the string band Della Mae. She has numerous other projects well, including one with her Brooklyn neighbor, Calgary native and banjo player Taylor Ashton. Been on Your Side is Appalachian-style music broken down to basics: guitar, banjo, and voices. The result is a toasted cheese sandwich of an album, and I mean that as a compliment. The title track is a litany of all the ways one friend has the other's back. Call it the nice twin to "Dead to Me," an old-style country swing in which the voices are one part duet and another part duel. There's also some mighty fine flat-picking from Ms. Hartman, who has an earned reputation for excellence in that particular skill. "Wayside" has the feel of two folks jamming on an Appalachian ballad on the front porch of some Blue Ridge cabin; "Which Will" is equally homespun, with Hartman's voice oozing emotion. Also stellar is "Meadowlark," whose melodic simplicity invokes innocence. Tight harmonies, quiet tones, and deliberate fragility make this album a perfect antidote to the noise and disharmony all around us. ★★★★

The Sea The Sea, From the Light (compilation album)

Until recently The Sea The Sea was billed as power pop duo. No more. The two-part harmonies of Chuck Costa and Mira Stanley is now three-part, courtesy of the addition of Cara May Gorman, plus Stephen Struss has joined the band to lend steady percussion that adds a bit of edge to the delicate vocals. Theirs is an indie pop sound and for once, the term "pop" is fairly appropriate; the arrangements are too lush and sonically thick for the "lyric-driven folk" label that used to be thrown at them. Lots of people are talking about the song "Bang Bang Bang," an appropriately named track with bang-bang-bang bass and percussion lines lead-ins to vocals and harmonies that sound simultaneously fresh and early 60s retro. "Everybody" captures the Zeitgeist. It's lyrically simple, yet profound—a litany of how our commonality still results in disconnect: Everybody's wrong/And everybody knows it… Everybody's got a stone/And everybody throws it. Now my confession: I've seen this band three times and have come away impressed; yet I don't love them. It's hard not to be enchanted with the lovely harmonies, yet the music often feels distant, as if the simple things get lost in all the ornaments. My personal favorites are the ones that are less complex. "Take That" is sweet, melodic, and acoustic, "Ricochet" is a delicate dance between angelic vocals and Costa's crystalline electric guitar; and "From the Light" is hand claps, drum sticks slapping the rims, and ambience. This Troy, New York ensemble is attracting notice,  but I'd like to see more depth beneath the pretty veneers. In short, I'd like to be blown away, not just be impressed. Having said that, this band has a high ceiling. ★★★  

Liam Russell, Outro/Intro (compilation EP)

With his warm tenor, Liam Russell is never going to be confused with Leon! This Canadian-born, Nashville-based singer/songwriter is about to drop a new release titled No Contest and has made available five acoustic tracks on Noisetrade . The acoustic mode favors him, though he's also done some straight up rock and folk-rock. Russell—who first recorded under the name Liam Russell-Titcomb—has been around since 2005, but his musical output has gaps, as he's also a working actor who did a stint on TV's Wild Roses. Check out some of his back catalogue material. The guitar parts in "Angeline" are reminiscent in mood of Donovan, though the song is quite different. "Cicada" has a cool cadence that frames his warm vocals and gives it a deliberate feel appropriate for a song about waiting for a summertime relationship to blossom anew. "West" is an ensemble piece with a more plaintive feel.  ★★★

Minco Eggersman, Theodoor Borger and Mathias Eick, UNIFONY

You'd think an indie songwriter and film composer (Eggersman), a celebrated music engineer (Borger), an acclaimed Norwegian trumpeter, plus two guys who've mixed sound for rock royalty from Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin to Queen and David Bowie, would produce a jazz album worthy of the stated goal of creating "sweeping cinematic tracks." You'd be wrong. This overhyped project is more like the maligned California jazz that you hear in waiting rooms because it's so innocuous. Eick is clearly a talented horn player, but his light never shines through because the material lacks spark. Nothing misfires on this record, nor could it; no chances were taken. UNIFONY is pleasant enough, but you won't remember much of anything once it finishes. Maybe this "collaborative" project had too many cooks in the kitchen, but I don't know a nice way of saying this: the music bored me.  

Jim Roberts, The Tao of Time

Jim Roberts is a percussionist and peace activist, has far-ranging musical tastes, and isn't afraid to jump into experimental waters. It's  impossible to classify Tao of Time, which is equal parts tuneful, museful, and boomful. You'll hear a reggae-influenced cover of Iggy Pop's "The Passenger," a tolling bells Zen-like take of Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues," a jazz-meets-New Wave and R & B mash on "Soul Power," a chant-like touch on the title track, and spoken word meditations of peace, love, and misunderstanding. And, of course, there are also drum solos. It doesn't always work. ys. Percussionists often forget that what's exciting on stage is just repetitive out of context, and Roberts falls prey to this. He's an amazing drummer, but how many solos do you want if you're not watching the man with the sticks? He will make some listeners uncomfortable with his views on religion; he's spiritual, but thinks all religious systems are false. And, depending on your point of view, his raps on peace, nature, and meaning will be either inspiring or New Age naïve. I give him great credit for taking the kind of chances for which I've derided others for avoiding. The Tao of Time is an interesting concept album, the likes of which are seldom made any more. My only squawk is that it's ultimately so eclectic that it lacks a discernible identity.  At this writing there were no available videos. Go to this site to hear tracks.  ★★★

Alright Alright, Nearby

Alright Alright is the Denver-based husband/wife duo of Seth and China Kent, plus guests. Theirs is an alt-folk/Americana sound in which vocals are immersed in echoing piano and/or atmospheric guitar. My favorite song is "Little Girls, Little Birds," which is really about how "little girls get older," and things that shape the woman waiting to emerge. It's also a dose of wistful sorrow for what gets lost along the way. The Kents are sometimes classified as Christian music and make no attempt to hide their faith. Sometimes, as in "Luckiest Girl in America," they stray into material that is sweetly nostalgic and, perhaps, naïve. I view it as a love letter to the America that used to be and a plea for return, but that's my spin. Several songs have a harder edge, like "By the Bed," which is about a life snuffed out by a single moment of rage. There's also a cover of the Nanci Griffith/James Hooker song "Gulf Coast Highway," in which the innocent sound stands in contrast to the lyrics. I find Alright Alright a promising project, but one that could use a signature sound and more attention to production. For instance, China's lighter voice sometimes disappears in keyboard ornaments and reverb guitar. Their melodies are tight, but lack spark. The talent is there, but the arrangements don't yet make me want to insert exclamation marks into the duo's handle. ★★½ 


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