Great Music: Mendilow, Pietrini, Kibel, TMBG, Whitney, Heath, Speed Bumps

Here are a few offerings from last year that got crowded out at holiday time. Think of them as like finding an overlooked chocolate bar, not leftover fruitcake.

The Guy Mendilow Ensemble devotes itself to Ladino music, that is the songs and traditions of the Sephardic Jews. Mendilow has four shows devoted to Sephardic music, including the recent Music from the Forgotten Kingdom. The music is forgotten because Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal in 1492, the very year Columbus sailed to the New World. I scarcely have words to tell you what a beautiful album this is—at turns sad and celebratory, formal and joyful, and always mystical, magical, and soaked in the brine of history. The ensemble blurs the lines between classical and folk music in ways that old Nonesuch albums used to place medieval court and village music cheek by jowl. Start with the "Una Noche Al Borde De La Mar" video, which opens with a two-minute real-time animated drawing before cutting to the stunning vocals of Sofia Tosello and truly haunting violin backing. Then try "Hermanas Riena Y Cautiva (Sisters, Queen and Captive)" with its distinct medieval feel. Then sample "La Galana Y La Mar," which is simpler but pure and beautiful, the woodwinds transporting us to an otherworldly place. This is, simply, a transcendent album. ★★★★★ 
Milwaukee Magazine dubbed the Zack Pietrini Band as the city's top ensemble in its 2017 wrap-up. Can't say that I've heard all the bands out there, but Pietrini would turn heads anywhere. Holding onto Ghosts is the quintet's fifth release. File it under Americana and, as readers know, I find that a mighty broad category. Pietrini's blend is part country, part rock, and a splash of folk. Pietrini has a smooth voice, but there's some back of the throat spit in it that adds an edge. The songs also reflect that edge, most of which are musings about misplaced hope, lost love, and trying to make it as an artist. The bring-on-the-weeping pedal steel of "Learning the Hard Way" could be at home in Nashville and the title says it all. Its flipside is "Dance," a slice of rockabilly that sketches one of those moments in which a joyous dancer lets itall go and lives a lifetime in a single evening. For the folksier side, try"Get Out," which is mostly acoustic guitar, melodic keys and a message that's both hopeful and cautionary.★★★★

If you've never before heard Seth Kibel you might think he's a Ragin' Cajun, not a Maryland-based klezmer, swing, and jazz artist. Actually, he's something of a musical polymath with a sense of humor on full display in Seth Kibel Presents: Songs of Snark and Despair. The album's ten songs were written in response to the 2016 election and the title track is a lighthearted musing on (among other things) what people such as John Lennon or Woody Guthrie would have made of our current conundrum, whereas all he "can do is write songs of snark and despair." Kibel plays clarinet, flute, and sax on the album, but he often surrounds himself with wet-lipped robust tubas and trombones that throw off the vibe of a New Orleans street band that's decided to party through the apocalypse. Donald Trump, Paul Ryan, and the GOP in general are the bad guys in most of the songs but in a, well, snarky way. Kibel invites folks from across the spectrum to add their voices and instruments to his offbeat mix. Black Betty (Jenny Langer) gives a soulful no-holds-barred survey of the history of racism on "240 Years," an amazing change-the-frame song with just enough dark humor to blunt its nasty edges. It's gift-wrapped in a sort of "Ride Your Pony"-like funky envelope. Trump takes it on the chin (again) in the klezmer/Dixieland blended "Stalin's Revenge," and Damon Foreman leads the reggae-laced "Misplaced Priorities." White liberals don't get off the hook either. There is, for example, "White Guilt," with its sneaky double satire—lyrical content and an appropriated bossa nova arrangement. For pure snark there's "Unfriend," simple advice for the Facebook generation and its stuck-in-angst luxury problems. Funny stuff and so good-natured you often laugh at the stiletto in your neck. ★★★★

What can I tell you about They Might Be Giants that hasn't already been written? They've been around since 1982, so you know the Lincoln, Massachusetts duo do unconventional things, like mix John Flansburgh's guitar with John Linnell's accordion and saxophone. You probably know they have gold records, a platinum or two, and some Grammys. Depending on your tastes, they are either experimental or just plain zany. To me, zany is a good thing and TMBG is also a hit in children's music of the warp-'em-while-they're-young (and teach 'em cool stuff) school. But maybe you didn't know that since they're dropping a new album this month, they put out a free NoiseTrade sampler in November. It's called Up to Date and contains back catalogue material spotlighting TMBG's signature quirkiness, self-deprecating humor, and sometimes-poignant observations. It's loud, brash, and irreverent in a post-New Wave, post-punk, post folk manner. What else can one say about a sampler whose tracks include "All the LazyBoyfriends," "Let Me Tell You about My Operation," "I LoveYou for Psychological Reasons," and "Say Nice Things about Detroit?" But check out the 2013 song "Black Ops" and you'll see a more serious pink side of Flansburgh and Linnell. ★★★★

The Wild Unrest is a dark and lean folk project from Beth Whitney, who cooked up some of her material in the deep woods of Washington State, where she and her husband lived for a time and where, at her admission, she struggled with postpartum depression. You can hear anguish in "Shadows of a Man," but in songs like "Raven" and its reflections of the Native American past, it's clear she also tapped into some ancient wisdom. "Tides Are forSirens" captures Whitney in a somewhat lighter mood; the song is reflective, but also sweet and pretty. I won't lie, though. This is an album that grows on you rather than grabbing you by collar and making you pay attention. Like many healing albums, it can be so personal that it feels distant. Take your time. Let it breathe. ★★★tides are for sirens

If you're looking for some rock n' roll, here are a few worth investigating. Want it loud and crunchy? Try Jason Heath and the Greedy Souls whose But There's Nowhere to Go takes a highly critical look at all that's gone busted and wrong in the USA: corruption, greed, loss of national identity, the 2016 election…. No punches are pulled in songs like "South of Babylon," in which Heath sings in a voice that's a cross between being soaked in whiskey and gargling with razor blades: John Wayne’s dead, but his guns are drawn/bodies are scattered on the White House lawn. In "In Love with My Gun" he sings: I’m Miss America’s favorite son/I got bloody red hands I was born with a gun/It’s a dirty job honey but it’s gotta be done’/Got stars and stripes in my eyes/And I’m in love with my gun. Yeah, he's a pissed off dude, as you'll also hear on tracks such as "Postcards from the Hanging," "Ballad of the Brown Bomber," and Here Comes My Savior" (and he doesn't mean Jesus). This is where straight up rock meets grunge, punk, and alternative. ★★★★

The Speed Bumps fall into the "indie" rock cubbyhole, which, in their case, is folk-rock with occasional dollops of country. "How Do We Work it Out" is shimmery, despite its theme of a relationship about to supernova. This Ohio Rust Belt quintet makes no bones about its debt to Nick Drake and Paul Simon and the aforementioned song would easily fit into Simon's urbane repertoire. "In the Moment" is gentler and folksier still. Smooth, good harmonies, and changes of pace make their Love is War EP a winner. ★★★★

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