Eva Salina, Arsen Petrosyan, Moken: Around the World in Music

Ever had that feeling that you need to see some other people? I get that feeling about music every now and again, especially when I flip on the radio and enter that vast sonic wasteland known as "American pop/rap/hip-hop." At that point I seek an aural overseas adventure to see what folks elsewhere are singing. Here are several journeys worth book and they won't cost you more than a buck a track.

My first offering is the glorious Eva Salina and you're not actually leaving the USA at all to experience the wonders of her Romani, Dutch, Jewish repertoire; she's a Californian. On her latest, Lema Lema (Vogiton Records), she features Balkan and Romani (Gypsy) songs from the repertoire of Serbia Romani legend Šaban Bajramović (1936-2008). If you don't know his music, you're hardly alone on this hemisphere, but let's just say it's the kind of mishmash you'd anticipate from traveling folk: village folk songs, hot jazz, keening vocals, bright brass, and an air of sauciness. And you'd better be an extraordinary singer to tackle this stuff, as its demands on the larynx are not for the easily winded. Believe me when I say that Ms. Salina is up to the challenge; hers is a voice for the ages. When she takes on "Boza Limunada," a mildly naughty song of a man looking for a fertile wife, Salina slams it with the brazenness of old-style Greek rebetika singers (many of whom were also prostitutes). If you think she's a muscular singer, wait until you get a load of the accordion (mostly by Peter Stan on this album). Salina is positively a brawny imp on "Hovani Romni," the story of a cuckold drowning his horns in booze. Her notes pulse out like she's a one-woman oompah-pah band. All of the songs tend to have tough themes, but Salina is so gifted she can make a song like "Koj Is Gola Roma" sound like a lyrical Italian folksong despite the fact its male protagonist endures beatings. Salina said she wanted to fuse lyricism with a splash of Bollywood–sounds weird, but works brilliantly! By contrast, her take on "Pijanica" feels like a van driven by a Balkans brass band dropped into a zocalo to jam with a mariachi ensemble. This is easily one of the year's finest albums and that's not just my opinion–Ms. Salina was recently the centerpiece of an NPR profile. No exaggeration is needed when hurling accolades at Eva Salina. Listen for yourself.

Let's stay in the same cultural ballpark for a moment. Arsen Petrosyan is an Armenian-born duduk musician. The duduk is a double-reed flute in the oboe and shawm family, though its sound is bolder and its tonal qualities more reminiscent of the clarinet. Petrosyan's Charentsyan (CD Baby) is a nice introduction to Armenia's national instrument. Much of the release can be described as mournful and formal in tone, though there are a few departures. "Hazar Ernek" has the vibe of a belly dance; "Javakki Shoror" casts impressions of a raw village folk tune—especially the call-and-response interplay with other instruments–though its hand percussion has similarities with Southeast Indian arrangements. Petrosyan is obviously a talented musician, but whether you'll fancy all nine tracks is a matter of individual taste. I'd recommend going to a site like SoundCloud and sampling to see what strikes your fancy. Something will.  

  Moken is from Cameroon, but now lives in Atlanta. His debut, Chapters of My Life (Bantu Records) is a pan-African look at his life thus far: from Africa to broke fashionista at a Detroit design school to a working musician. It's an odd little release in many ways and definitely not your average Afropop recording. He counts among his influences Van Morrison, Nina Simone, and Manu Dibango. It's hard to hear much Morrison on this record other than short rock riffs every now and then, as on "Wiating for the Day," the sunniest track in the collection, but Dibango and Simone are in evidence. Dibango is a Cameroonian saxophonist famed for fusing jazz, funk, and folk–and Chapters of My Life certainly has that vibe. "Ma Masse," for instance, is done in the style of a Senegalese mbalax, but in a more dramatic less danceable style than most mbalax offerings. Two songs, "Machine Man" and "Walkin Man" reference Moken's impoverished student days when he occasionally lived in his car. The second tune has a suitably robotic feel to mark a time in which his car left him stranded 10 miles from his destination. You can definitely hear Simone's influence in Moken, especially his preference for material that is sultry, soulful, and meditative. As in the case of Petroysan, though, I'd recommend you sample before you buy. My overall sense is that Chapters of My Life is an incomplete project with filler and a few songs short of completion. There is promise here, but the repertoire could use some work.

Rob Weir


Lawren Harris, Picasso and Magacities at Boston MFA


Three Art Exhibits Challenge How We See

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The Idea of the North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris (Closes June 12)
Pairing Picasso (Closes June 26)
Megacities of Asia (Closing July 17)

How and what do we see? Twentieth-century Modernism challenged the very presumption that governs computer interfaces: WYSIWYG. To Modernists, what you see is limited only by one's imagination. They excelled at eliminating extraneous detail to emphasize color, line, shape, and texture. In an odd way, though many of them rejected religious dogma, they were profoundly spiritual in that they sought the essence of their subjects. Three exhibits currently showing at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston superbly challenge how we see. Hurry though, as all three will close soon.

Did you know that the United States trades more with Canada than with China? How is it that we are so woefully ignorant of our northern neighbor? Lawren Harris (1885-1970) was part of a famed group of Canadian artists known as the Group of Seven that thrived between 1920 and 1933. All were fascinated by the Canadian landscape and sought ways to render it in deep ways. (My favorite was Emily Carr, though she was an associate and never a formal member.) If you know anything at all about Lawren Harris, you probably heard that actor/comedian/musician/art collector Steve Martin is a fan and that he co-curated the MFA exhibit.

Harris' great love was the Canadian Arctic, an often inhospitable place, but one whose stark landscape is a dramatic geometry of arcs, angles, blobs, and circles. And this is exactly how Harris painted it. It doesn't look "realistic" in the sense that Harris reduced it to shapes and colors, but that's the point. The Arctic made Harris feel as well as see, and he wanted others to do the same; he stopped signing his canvases so that viewers would look deeply into his subjects rather than dwelling upon the painter. As a painter, though, his biggest challenge in painting the far north was color, as in a lack thereof. His northern palette consisted mostly of blues, browns, and whites, though another virtue of the exhibit is that it challenges our perceptions of hues. Harris often accomplished this by doing exactly what Monet did with Rouen Cathedral: repeatedly paint the same subject under different light.

And, yes, those subjects held mystical qualities for Harris, though not in any conventional sense—Harris was a theosophist, a modern mash-up of ancient Greek ideas that sought eternal truths in nature. He was also a follower of the occultist Madame Blavatsky and engaged in séances. In other words, Harris thought the lines between the real and the spiritual were quite thin. Harris' work is often compared to that of American artists such as Arthur Dove and Rockwell Kent. Frankly, both were better artists than Harris, but Harris is well worth a look—a deep look. 

Pairing Picasso is one of my favorite concepts in modern curation: present just a few works and say something small and unique about them. (Anyone who has ever walked out of a Met blockbuster exhibit feeling bludgeoned knows exactly what I'm talking about!) This one has just eleven works, 4 pairings and a triple, showing Picasso's different treatment of the same subject. Of particular interest to me was Picasso's treatment of the formal portrait. Have you ever zipped through a museum filled with stiffly posed upper-class toffs? You gaze upon them, know that they cost a king's ransom, and perhaps even admire the craft of the artist, but in the back of your mind is this: "Who gives a damn about some rich old bastard/biddy trying to look regal?" (Confession: I've even sped through some of the galleries in the Rijksmuseum.) As it turns out, Picasso had the same thought! So what he did was explode the very notion of a formal portrait and let's just say that I'll linger over one of his far longer than I'll stare at any formal portrait not painted by either Rembrandt or Sargent. Another nice touch in the MFA exhibit is its pairing of two takes on the rape of the Sabine women—one in color and one in black and white. They are quite different in feel and I can't say which I prefer.  

 The last exhibit is postmodern. Megacities Asia is a look at cities of hitherto unknown population sizes. If you feel overwhelmed by New York City, consider that it's a relative piker at 18.5 million (if you add adjacent Newark and other New Jersey 'burbs). Tokyo is now said to be home to nearly 38 million, Delhi 25 million, and Shanghai 23 million. How do you make sense of such things? This exhibit is from young artists, many of whom you've never heard and may never again, but they do an interesting thing. As any photographer knows, when confronted with something so vast you can't capture it in the viewfinder, go small. Look for an intriguing detail or angle that portrays scale in ways that make sense. How about making a U-shaped walk-in box and showing skyscrapers, traffic, and architectural detail in 3-D but from any perspective other than straight on? Or making an assemblage of a bunch of traditional Chinese doorframes? Or commenting on the scale of consumer activity by stacking products that come in supernatural green? This works for me! Rob Weir



Dead Lovers, Me and Molly, Ashley Riley, Jess Ray

May 2016 Musical Roundup

If you're wondering where the good rock and roll has gone, try Europe. I just finished listening to Supernormal Superstar, the stunning debut of The Dead Lovers (Randm Records). Call this band what you'd get if you put an early 60s' girl group, Dick Dale, heavy metal, and punk in a blender and set if for "crush." The band is based in Berlin and is the brainchild of Bavarian-born vocalist Lula and singer/guitarist Wayne Jackson, an Englishman, and between them they create irreverent Euro-spunk. How about some surf guitar and coquettish 50s style vocals mixed with 21st century attitude in a song titled "Baby Fuck That." Or some buzzy metal power chords on "Freak Show," which has the darkness of early Black Sabbath. If you like irony, you could dance to "Kill Me," with its clipped and accented rhythms. The keyboards of Mickey Hardt, Oskar Allen's sweaty drumming, and Chris Lippert's bass round out the band. I'd call Lippert the band's anchor. His meaty bass hooks evoke 60s bands such as Savoy Brown, and his riff on "59Yardsis reminiscent of Norman Greenbaum's 1969 hit "Spirit in the Sky." Lula is sometimes compared to Marianne Faithfull. This is more for her vibe than her voice, but think Faithfull in her "Sister Morphine" days, her voice sweet and quavery but spiked with hints of danger. And if you think Jackson's only incidentally invoking surf music and rockabilliy, check out the band's official video for "Special K."   Is there such a thing as "fresh retro?" If not, The Dead Lovers just invented it.

Music makes for strange bedfellows. Declan McGarry hails from Winnipeg and was weaned on prairie folk (especially Neil Young), John Denver, and a bit of Tom Petty. Molly Stevens is from Macon, Georgia, and unless I miss my guess badly, she listened to a lot of gospel when she was a lass. Now the two of them are in Nashville as the duo Me and Molly and their EP You Rescue Me-downloadable from SoundCloud—is an excellent reason not to be cynical and assume the world doesn't need another Nashville duo. Molly's voice is a gem—one with the twang and nasality of Emmylou Harris, but with a husk that makes her a welcome relief from all those little-girl voices we get so sick of hearing. McGarry certainly has his Americana vocals down pat and the two of them make terrific harmonies. The title track is sweet with a bluegrass/folk feel, "Stay Baby Stay" is soulful, and both "Crazy When I Left" and "One to WalkAway" are country music for grown-ups. Add to this a penchant for straightforward lyrics that stick in your head: At the end of the day/It takes two to stay/And only one to walk away. Simple and to the point, just like this one: Say that you love me/Even if you don't/The truth is deceiving/I believe what I want/But I know what I know/And I damn sure know what I don't. Me and Molly are a hidden gem, one you should unearth.

A year ago I had never heard of the Illinois-born, Nashville-based Ashley Riley, but she's quickly becoming one of my favorites, and her latest, Through the Thin (Riled Up Records), is another winner. Riley is the sort of artist I label "hard soft," meaning she has an angelic voice, but she isn't afraid to air it. Listen to a track like "Never Think" and you can hear youth, but also growing sophistication in how she works within the arrangements to texture the piece and infuse it with moodiness. There's a splash of diva to her and she's at her best in indie-rock songs such as "Sing for Me," "Let Go," Out to Sea," and "Potion," but she's also branching out.  She's fragile on "Stay," but in ways that suggest she'll bleed but not break; on "This is Not," her voice is expressive but she lets the percussion, bass, and guitar add muscle. "This Town" is a sweet acoustic number, but "Misery" is slick, dark, and a bit torchy. Ms. Riley draws comparisons to Patty Griffin and Stevie Nicks—flattering, but a heavy burden for anyone to carry. Let's just say she's hitting her stride and we're happy to be walking along side her.

Jess Ray is another artist to watch, though she could use a repertoire with more punch than we hear on Sentimental Creatures (Jess Ray Music). My favorite track was "There's Still Time," a bluegrass-influenced tempo that has some jump to it. Much of the rest is designed to spotlight Ray's voice, a fine one to be sure, but selections such as "Kiss You," "Reserve," and "Runway" are sentimental and formulaic to the max. Think lots of swallowed air, oooh-oooh filler, 4/4 arrangements, and weak rhymes. Yet just when you're tempted to say, "Get back to me in a few years," she rips off a song like "Dimensions," which is quiet, mysterious, deeply personal, and drenched in genuine emotion. I'm not usually an advocate of single-track downloads, but you might want to poke around this album and harvest what whets your appetite.

Rob Weir