February Tunes: Julian Velard, Craig Price, The Khalifes, Kerri Louisa, Andy Chew

You've probably noticed that there aren't many pianists on the pop/folk music circuit. That is, of course, because of logistics–you can't exactly toss a Steinway into the back of your Honda. It's also about sound; true devotees know that electronic keyboards are poor substitutes. (I know one musician who says he'd rather starve than play a tinny Yamaha.) So let's devote a bit of space to a few keyboardists who tickle a lot of keys on the road.

Julian Velard recently released Live @ Pianos, an intriguing pastiche of selections and styles. Hey, why not head off the Billy Joel comparisons and do a killer cover of "My Life," but pare it with an original ("Do It Alone")? That one aside, Velard reminds me of Matt Nokoa in that he's a good vocalist and that his repertoire is one part hipster and one part showman. He's a native New Yorker, a background he (sort of) honors with "New York, I Love It WhenYou're Mean," a love/hate letter that captures the Big Apple's simultaneous allure and horror. There's also the semi-schmaltzy "Brooklyn Kind of Love," which sounds like the kind of standard an urbanized Willie Nelson would take on. Songs like "I Don't Know How to Drive" find Velard in a pop mood; others such as "24-Hour Flower Boy" and "Glad I Wasted all My Time" are more in the light jazz mode. I prefer less ostentatious music, but I loved, loved, loved Velard's cover of "Rainbow Connection," which is so sensitively done as to remind you that it doesn't matter if a frog croons a song that damn good. ★★★

I don't know if Craig W. Price is the pianist on his album Earth or not. About all I can tell you is that he's from Nebraska, sings a lot like Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, is a Christian artist, and that's there's lots piano on his release–mainly of the dripping rain variety. As befits praise songs, most of the album is contemplative, which is both a strength and weakness. The album has a soupy ambience that's good for musing upon life's mysteries, but I doubt you'll ever see these songs in a youth group songbook–not because they're too prayerful, but because they are low on musical hooks and sing-along possibilities. I liked Price's voice and lost myself a few times in dreamy instrumentation, but it was also hard at times to distinguish one song from the next. Check out "East West," which I see as the strongest track. Also check out the very religious "Rocks" to see if he's coming from where your head is located.★★ 

The piano figures prominently on the album Andalusia of Love by the father/sons trio of Marcel, Rami, and Bachar KhalifĂ©. This project is Marcel's brainchild. He is a Lebanese composer, oud player, and peace activist (2005 UNESCO Artist for Peace) with an interest in fusing Arabic and Western music. The piano is his instrument of choice for fusion and it's safe to say that his Julliard-educated son Rami knows his way around the keyboards. Younger brother Bachar also plays piano and electronic keyboards, plus various percussion instruments. For those who don't know, Andalusia is today a small section of southern Spain, but was once an Islamic kingdom (711-1212) that encompassed all of the Iberian Peninsula and parts of southern France. (Grenada didn't fall until 1492.) This is a sophisticated project that stitches classical music, jazz, folk, and Arabic melodies and vocal styles. You'll hear Spanish cadences in "Ouhibouki," crystalline highbrow/high keys on "Taratil," vocals evocative on North Africa on "Ana Li Habibi," and experimentation bordering on dissonance on "Yadaik." I'm quite taken with "Ya Habibi." which opens with soulful and morose vocals but whose percussion moves the piece into joyfulness evocative of belly dancing. ★★★★

In other musical news––

I recently ran across an album titled Bring the Rain by an Australian singer named Kerri Louisa. It's a sweet, occasionally poignant recording in a pop/folk vein. This record is a bare bones homespun recording with just Louisa on acoustic guitar, Jared Murti on bas, and Nathan Edgell on keyboards, electric guitar, and percussion. For me it's the kind of stripped-to-the-bone record that makes folk music more honest and compelling than pop. My favorite tracks were "Barren Place," "Bring Me," "Hard to Breathe," and "When She Smiles." The first is quite a song–a soft, sad country folk ditty that, at 7:20, takes its time in building to a lush climax and allows Edgell to ease us down with his sad piano notes. Louisa has the sense to follow with the string band ditty "Being Me," with its mountain music ambience." By contrast, "Hard to Breathe" uses quick notes and sharp, brief pauses to create catchy pop-laced folk. "When She Smiles" is sunny with finger-snapping cadences. Louisa is also an activist with Destiny Rescue, an organization seeking to end the use of children in the Asian sex trade industry. Good heart. Good musician. Check her out. ★★★

Acid folk has emerged as recognized subgenre and, like all such terms, is equal parts useful and deceptive. It is, however, the label I'd apply to most of From the Ruins by New Hampshire native Andy Chew. His is a  trippy album of ambience-drenched vocals amidst a musical swirl of acoustic guitar, bell-like tones, meditative cadences, background vocal textures, and cross cutting sounds. Chew's intent is to capture the cycles of the natural world and he admits that many of the tunes came from experiments with tunings and frequencies. The end result is music that, at its best, is trance-like in the way a good Grateful Dead jam can be, but also just as repetitive. Chew's arrangements emphasize mood and groove over hooks and articulated lyrics. Once we're inside his musical whirlpools, we snag bits and pieces of his lyrics like so much flotsam whizzing by us. At times he's as pensive as Tim Hardin or Nick Drake and perhaps as oblique. I liked this recording, but only in small doses at a time that kept the sameness at bay. Too much feels like a soundtrack for getting high. Maybe this is one of those releases for which single tracks are more satisfying. Go the NoiseTrade and try "Dark Forest," "Woven of Pine," and the title track.  ★★

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