A New Pop Diva?

RoxArt Inc.

Do you like power pop divas? The LA music industry is telling us that a sultry lass named Roxanna is the Next Big Thing. Maybe or maybe not, but she certainly has the pipes to carry it off.

Roxanna comes to us from Iran via Toronto and Los Angeles. She fled Iran when she was 11, worked as an RN in Toronto for a few years, and was encouraged to pursue music. Her debut album was produced by Hollywood’s Mark Portmann, who has also logged time with Celine Dion, Josh Groban, Barbra Streisand, and Christina Aguilera. That pretty much tells you where he’s coming from and, if any doubt lingers, Roxanna counts Olivia Newton-John and Julio Iglesias as among her influences. If you’re thinking big production, dramatic arrangements, and soaring crescendos, you’re spot on. In addition to sessions musicians, the Prague Orchestra adds its swelling strings to the project. For the media blitz preceding the album release, I was sent CD singles of “CloseYour Eyes,” a Portmann/Larry Robbins power ballad, and a throbbing cover of Lionel Ritchie’s “Hello.” Of the two, I liked “Hello” better because Roxanna built the song instead of jumping feet-first into an already over-the-top song.

I confess that this sort of material is not my musical beverage of choice. I tend to find all the one-name pop wonders–Shakira, BeyoncĂ©, Adele, Rihanna–to be interchangeable cups of generic pudding. I also find that the line between drama and melodrama is transgressed repeatedly and shamelessly. I like it when singers showcase the song, not pyrotechnics that remind me of how much I dislike American Idol. But I’d be the first to admit that music strikes people in different ways. If pop divas are your thing, you’ll probably like Roxanna. She has a glorious voice and does what she does exceedingly well. And, as I said, she has the chops to live up to the hype. See what you think and post your thoughts. –Rob Weir


The Dollymopps Take Us Back in Just the Wight Time

Wight Cockade
Wild Goose Studios 397
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If you’re sick of all things slick and heavily produced, here’s the antidote. The Dollymopps are a trio from Britain’s Isle of Wight who specialize in reviving old songs and singing them unaccompanied in three-part harmony. Their work is evocative of other English “old songs” revivalists such as The Watersons, the Copper Family, Young Tradition, and John Roberts and Tony Barrand; that is, an eclectic mix of a cappella songs that evoke sea shanties, village folk songs, the music hall, choral groups, and the early Folk Revival. The Dollymopps–the name comes from slang for normal respectable working girls that did occasional solicitation when money was needed–are built around the reedy tenor and soprano of Virgil and Dorana Philpott and the bottom bass of Justin Smith. Theirs is hand-cupped-to-the-ear full-throated singing–often in minor keys and frequently sporting unusual chord changes and unexpected harmonies.

Wight Cockade contains songs to tunes familiar to old songs fans but as the album title suggests, in versions favored on Wight, the English Channel island off England’s south-central coast. If, for example, “The Isle of Wight” sounds really familiar, it’s because it’s a 1916 version of a song sometimes sung as “Adieu, My Lovely Nancy.” For those who know little about the Isle of Wight—read, most North Americans–there are several Percy Goddard Stone (1856-1934) poems set to music, including the delightful “The Recruiting Sergeant.” To know Stone is to know about Wight; he was both a renowned dialect poet and a leading architect whose work remains scattered across the island. Every song on Wight Cockade is both a story within the song, and another of where the song came from. The latter is well told in the album’s succinct but informative notes. The songs include those culled from Lucy Broadwood (1858-1929), whose collections inspired the creation of Britain’s Folk-Song Society. Do you know the Isle of Wight because of Bob Dylan’s 1969 comeback concert? Draw a straight line from Broadwood to Dylan, as her work sparked the British Folk Revival, which inspired the American collectors who inspired the folk revivalists who inspired Dylan. (Got that? In other words, Dylan is Broadwood thrice removed.)

This is a deliciously old-fashioned album. It does, however, demand close listening and it’s not for all tastes. If you need your music processed, heavily backed, and coming at you with mirror balls at 128 beats per minute, steer clear of the shoals. This is music for peasant clothes, a peat fire, and a mug of real ale. Here's an example of their repertoire.–Rob Weir


Ka Provocative but Distancing

Svarassa Records
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File this one under the category of fascinating, but under realized. Shirish Korde is a genre-bending composer of symphonic music–think Phillip Glass with South Asian influences. Korde is also a music professor at Holy Cross whose works have been performed around the globe and is perhaps best known for his opera Phoolan Devi: The Bandit Queen. That work, like Ka, was developed with Boston Musica Visa, a group that melds chamber music, opera, theater and, in this case, Indian music. The term Ka comes from the Rig Veda and is a difficult-to-translate Sanskrit noun/pronoun that relates to creation and blurs the boundaries between who and what.

If that seems a bit dense to you, it’s emblematic of both this album’s provocative possibilities and its emotional distancing. It is a five-song cycle, though the term “song” is problematic as ka deemphasizes recognized language. It features soprano Deepti Navaratna, who is both a trained South Indian classical musician and a Harvard neuroscientist. Hers is a stunning voice, though much of what she produces is a vocalization array that aims at those parts of us that are primal and instinctual. They are also nearly impossible to comprehend. The music–arranged primarily for stringed instruments (mostly cello) and tabla–often sounds like the intersection between chant, opera, world music, and free form jazz. At is best it is so hypnotic that I suspect a live performance of Ka would be a transformative experience. Alas, we tend not to listen to CDs the same way in which we absorb concerts. Ka is meant an integrated musical experience. This means that the CD’s numerous quiet passages and silences often fail to provoke meditative reflection and simply seem empty. Likewise, keening vocals meant to tap into spiritual mysteries sound, when ripped from their context, sound like one of Yoko Ono’s odd departures.

None of this is to say that Ka is a bad composition. It might, in fact, be brilliant. But it also validates one of my long held axioms that not all great music should be recorded. Put the musicians on the stage, and barriers melt; remove the stage and mental walls can rise. The latter was my experience with Ka. If I might, it was too academic to be accessible.

Rob Weir