Back to the Future with Natacha Atlas

NATACHA ATLAS & the Mazeeka Ensemble
Ana Hina
World Village 450005

This album evokes a 1940s movies set in Middle East in which dodgy characters haunt the smoky shadows of a dark souq. Picture Natacha Atlas as the singer whose voice slices through the blue cigarette pall. Her material is culled from film scores, traditional sources, and the back catalogue of famed Lebanese singer Fairuz. Covering Fairuz is akin to a French chanteuse trying to do Edith Piaf and would be a vain attempt for most, but not for Atlas. Her undulating wails could wake the dead, and she has the range of an operatic soprano. Her supple and multi-colored voice also allows for bold experiments, such as a North African take on a “Black is the Color,” and a Frido Kahlo poem set to music that’s one part Mexico and two parts Morocco. All is backed by a gloriously retro orchestra.


Still a Contender

Nobody Left to Crown
Verve Forecast B0011631-02

After opening Woodstock and recording twenty-eight albums, sixty-seven-year-old Richie Havens could rest on his laurels. Instead, he’s released a Grammy-worthy record. Havens is in superb voice, his trademark gravel now smoother, mellower, and sweeter. But time has not dulled his roar. In “Say It Isn’t So” Havens expresses incredulity of being suckered into another “war without end.” If you miss the point, he follows with a brilliant acoustic cover of The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” If you’re waiting to be led to glory, Havens insists there’s “nobody left to crown” and that “scoundrels rule the roost.” And the slave master in “Fates” sounds a lot like Dubya. Havens still wails on his open-tuned Guild like a man-possessed, but his mature singing is a clinic in how to be soulful and poignant without being histrionic.


Name That Genre!

Home Sweet Home
Manivette Records 274-1600

And now for something completely different…. Moussu T are a quartet from Marseilles who sing in French, English, and Occitan and that’s just the tip of a very eclectic iceberg. The opening track, “La cabussada” leads you to think this is a sea song ensemble along the lines of Cabestan, but I can assure you it’s the only thing on the album whose genre is identifiable. If you took a jug band, a swing group, some stride jazz, a dash of blues, some over-the-top music hall, the soundtrack from a 1940s Loony Tunes cartoon, and some refugees from Spike Jones’s band, and tossed them into a blender, you might get something approaching Moussu T. This one will have you smiling from start to finish; just don’t try to figure out what it is.


It Takes a Village

The Imagined Village
Real World Records W147

Since the dawning of the industrial age ethnomusicologists have bemoaned the disappearance of traditional villages and the “authentic” culture that went with it. Those villages were more romantic than real in the first place, so what if we just moved on? Could one then re-imagine village music in ways relevant for contemporary society? That’s the challenge brilliantly taken up by English artists who cut their teeth on traditional music—such as Billy Bragg, Martin Carthy, The Copper Family, and The Watersons—and those who dabble in contemporary idioms such as Transglobal Underground, Afro Celt Sound System, and Sheila Chandra. Why not a hip-hop version of “Tamlyn,” a Bollywood rendition of “Cold Haily Rainy Night,” a funk-laced “Acres of Ground,” or an electric jug band country dance tune? Why not indeed! This is the most original thing to come out of the folk music community in years.


Signature 2014

, Mark Erelli’s seventh album, captures blue-collar America in ways not heard since early John Gorka and John Cougar Mellencamp. You’ll also hear echoes of fellow Boston-area songwriters. On “Baltimore” he rocks out and hits high notes reminiscent of Ellis Paul, while “Man of the Family” has the gospel-meets-urban-reality feel of Vance Gilbert. Erelli might be evocative, but he’s never derivative. Both “Hope Dies Last” and “Five Beer Moon” are masterful probes of how Everyman rockets between deep cynicism and cautious optimism. “Shadowland” and “Volunteers” are worthy additions to the ever-growing Iraq-as-worthless-sinkhole oeuvre. Heavy yields to soft on “Once,” a melodic take on how love happens when we feel it instead of analyzing it. Good messages—just call this a great album and enjoy.


Searching for Americana

‘Round My Door
Threshold 089

The “Americana” label is often appropriated by those who think “folk” isn’t commercially viable, or don’t want to be associated with the right-wing ├╝ber nationalism of “Country.” Done properly, though, Americana evokes the American character through nostalgic looks at the rural past, common man tropes, and regional diversity. To hear it at its best, check out ‘Round My Door. From the opening reinterpretation of “Pastures of Plenty” to the concluding grunge-on-the-rails “Hell on Wheels,” Dana and Sue Robinson introduce us to farmers, hobos, and workaday folk in the Appalachians, across the prairie, and up to Spokane. Dana’s warm voice, poetic lyrics, and solid guitar work blend perfectly with Sue’s claw hammer banjo, piano, and vocal harmonies. Under any category this is one of the year’s finest releases.


MLB Preview American League West

Los Angeles Angels (who aren’t from Los Angeles):

This team won over a hundred games lat year, but they faltered badly (again!) in the playoffs and lost Mark Teixeira, Francisco Rodriquez, and Jon Garland in offseason. They won’t win a hundred this year, even in a weak division.

Strengths: Even without Garland, John Lackey, Kelvim Escobar, Joe Saunders, and Ervin Santana give them a deep rotation. The bullpen setup hurlers—Scot Shields, Justin Spier, Jose Arredondo, etc.—are talented and effective. Chone Figgins (3B) can fly; Vladimir Guerrero can’t, but he is one of the most fearsome hitters in the game.

Weaknesses: Until Santana becomes the ace he should be this is a staff full of 3-4 guys. It also includes Jered Weaver, well on his way to being as big a disappointment as brother Jeff. Kendry Morales must replace Teixeira, but he could use more seasoning. The Angels better hope that Tori Hunter can still track down balls because in an outfield with Guerrero and Bobby Abreu he’ll be chasing a lot of balls in the gaps. There isn’t much pop in this lineup either.

Oakland Athletics:

If the As young pitchers mature fast, they could steal this division. If they don’t the Athletics will be dead last and Matt Holiday will be trade bait.

Strengths: Matt Holliday, Jason Giambi, Jack Cust, and Eric Chavez give the As a scary middle of the lineup. Look for Giambi to have a big year away from the New York boo birds. If Bobby Crosby (SS) can regain his form, Oakland should put up some numbers.

Weaknesses: After Justin Duchscherer, the pitching staff is four question marks. The closer is Brad Ziegler. Who? Other than Holliday, the outfield isn’t very strong.

Seattle Mariners:

How can a team with pitchers such as Felix Hernandez, Erik Bedard, Brandon Morrow, Jarrod Washburn, and Carlos Silva have been so wretched in 2008? Oh yeah; look at the lineup.

Strengths: The starting pitching is simply too talented to falter two years in a row. Ichiro will get on base several hundred times during the season. When he’s on first you might as well concede second. Adrian Beltre (3B) is never going to justify his contract, but he’s serviceable.

Weaknesses: How do you feel about Roy Corcoran as a closer? Russell Branyan as a DH? This team needs to rebuild its lineup, so why waste resources on the injury-ravaged and aged Ken Griffey, Jr.? Neither infield nor outfield impresses, and the Mariners will again be scoring-challenged.

Texas Rangers:

What a screwy organization. They’ve got a five-time All Star at short in Michael Young and they want him to move to third to make way for a rookie? And where does that leave young Travis Metcalf, who had a good year at third?

Strengths: Young, DH Hank Blalock, Josh Hamilton (OF), and Ian Kinsler (2B) anchor a lineup that can put up crooked numbers. The Rangers wisely kept both their young catchers (Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Taylor Teagarden); in the midsummer heat they’ll need both. Look also for pitcher Brandon McCarthy to fulfill his promise.

Weaknesses: As always, pitchers meltdown under the hot Texas sun. They’re looking at Kris Benson and that says a lot, but it wouldn’t be the worst idea to insert someone like him or Kason Gabbard and try a six-man rotation. The problem is that after Kevin Millwood there’s a big drop in talent. Frank Francisco is the designated closer. I doubt it.


1. Angels—Proven pitching should get them to the playoffs.
2. Athletics—The dark horse if the Angels slip.
3. Mariners—The pitching is talented; the lineup is pitiful.
4. Rangers— They’ll win the 10-8 games, but lose when they don’t put up big numbers.