Soulsha, Tall Pines, Lucy Isabel, Moken and More

Soulsha, Carry It On

Score one for boldness. Soulsha is a band that blends Scottish grooves with funk and uses melody to serve rhythm. It is the brainchild of Elias Alexander (vocals, fiddle, Highland pipes) and Neil Pearlman (keys, accordion), both of whom are American but are well versed in Scottish and world music. As Alexander tells it, they had their minds blown during a trip to New Orleans and decided to form a Scottish funk fusion band. Their 8- sometimes 9-piece band includes Senegalese percussion artist Lamine TourĂ©, a kit drummer, a saxophonist, a trumpet player, guitars, and electric bass. The sometimes-9th member is none other than Galen Fraser, the son of Alasdair Fraser. Don't be fooled by track titles such as "Isle of Skye Reel" or "A'Ghirian," though. In each case you'll get blasts of brass, chunky bass lines, and talking drums to go with the bagpipes and fiddle. The band's normal MO is to lay down an accented funk groove and use it as the springboard for launching into energetic reels. As you'll quickly surmise, the reel is usually the Celtic club of choice for high energy stimuli; this is a jump-up-and-down-and-sweat kind of band. Check out the live performance of the aptly named "Rhythm's in the Melody." You'd not be wrong to think that Soulsha's also a rave band. Another in this spirit is "Fetchal (Let'sDance)." Listen to the inflections in Alexander's vocals on the title track and you'll think Paul Simon's Graceland album. It's not all gyration and jive. The most "Scottish" track is "Standing in the Water," with its grand and sweeping melody. "Beautiful Line" uses echo vocal effects, but it too ratchets down the pace. For the most part, though, TourĂ©, kit drummer Chris Southiere, and the rhythm section (Jake Galloway and Dylan Sherry) place their beats and pulses front and center, a flip of the usual Western pattern of melody first. Soulsha isn't the first band to fuse Celtic and African music­–Baka Beyond has been around since 1992 and the Afro Celt Sound System since 1995–but they are certainly a ray of light on the musical horizon. If you speak no Scots Gaelic, Soulsha is a play on the Gaelic soillse, which means, well, ray of light. ★★★★

The Tall Pines, Love is the Reason

With a name like The Tall Pines, you're probably thinking Appalachian bluegrass. If so, you are not even in the same ballpark. This power duo of Connie Lynn Petruk and Christmas Davies–yeah, that's his name–like to get down in the mud. Petruk's voice is sometimes compared to that of Bobbie Gentry and when they describe their own music as "shack-shakin,' foot-stompin' folk rock," they are not engaging in PR hyperbole.  They have recently dropped a new album titled Skeletons of Soul and have released a short NoiseTrade sampler of back material as an appetizer. "Boogie Pt. 1" is swamp rock with Davies putting on his best Dr. John growl. Petruk is a real force of nature. "Give It All You Got" is more than a song title. It's full of grit and soul and Petruka doesn't believe in letting any air linger in her lungs. She goes badass country rock in "Dirty Cousin," and gets retro in "Howl Me Your Heartache." The latter begins introspective, builds the pain, and takes you lower than low down. And, yeah, she howls! ★★★★

Lucy Isabel, Rambling Stranger

Lucy Isabel's 3rd release, Rambling Stranger, is aptly named. She's a Nashville artist by way of New Jersey and Yale–not your usual career arc. Her new songs often express dislocation. It opens with "How It Goes," a song so good I sort of wish she had saved it for mid-release as it's hard to get back to the energy and dynamism of this track. John Prentice kicks it off with booming, bold electric guitar (with a touch of slide). Then come the percussion, the bass groove, and Isabel's voice. When she croons, You want to be free/To be lonely with me you almost think that that the cur slipped out as the guitar wailed. Isabel changes the mood with the Appalachian influenced "Something New," but it too has a there/not there theme. In this case, she films herself against the off-season Jersey shore to enhance the mood of feeling split between homes past and the present. She gives us more desolation in "Lucky Stars." This stripped down song lets us hear the lovely ornaments in Isabel's voice. We also hear its expressiveness when she sings: I slept with my guitar/In my arms last night/ 'Cause I didn't to think/I was alone…. "Little Bird" is another (semi) sad song done in a quasi-bluegrass style. In this case, it's a tale of needing to leave the cage and spread her wings. Another one to explore is "False Prophet." No, it's not political, rather another song about disconnection: The way you look at me/It's clear to me/You don't understand. This one has a don't-piss-off-a-songwriter feel to it. Ms. Isabel is the real deal, so check her out. ★★★★

Moken, Missing Chapters

Moken Nunga is a Cameroonian immigrant now based in Atlanta after a stint in Detroit. Missing Chapters is a natural sequel to his 2016 release Chapters of My Life. He is hard to classify–the sort of artist to whom you're likely to gravitate instantly or not at all. His is the Africa-meets-the-West style that defines highlife music, but he crosses many other stylistic borders as well. His musical influences include African lions such as Francis Beby and Miriam Makeba, but also Western legends such as James Brown, Nat King Cole, and Van Morrison. The biggest influence of all is Nina Simone and this is evident in Moken's vocal technique of switching between his resonant baritone and falsetto tones. "Yen nin" translates as "look for life," and it's a dance tempo blend of highlife and Afropop whose melody lines are backed by saxophone, groove guitar, and thick bass lines. It contrasts with "Your Son is Rising," which has the sleepy feel of a Bayou ballad crossed with a gospel shout, and a crooner's sentimentality. We get a splash of Borderlands corrido in "Tequila Song " and the fiddle parts of "Mi Amor" work off the persistent percussion foundation to create something akin to an Afropop Roma mash. The song that will probably grab the most is "Machine Man." I am one of many who likes to quote one it's lines:  I became a machine, but with a human heart. In the video Moken sets the song in the broken streets of Detroit and lets that backdrop provide its own social commentary as Moken assumes the persona of a shaman singing the blues. The open question is whether Moken will be your cup of tea. In my view, he overdoes the deep-to-falsetto effect. I could also do with less melodrama. It raises the question of whether he crosses the line between musician and performance artist. But you should decide for yourself. Moken Nunga intrigues me, but to reiterate my first point, he is acquired taste. ★★★    

Short Takes

Let's hear it for World Peace, a new collection from the good folks at Putumayo World Music. It is exactly as advertised. Keb' Mo' gets the ball rolling with "Wake Up Everybody," and ain't it the truth? Jackson Browne weighs in with his Caribbean-flavored "It Is One," and Nina Simone (1933-2003) never let anyone off the hook. Her "IWish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free" is a reminder of what an enormous talent she was and how sad it is that this song could have been written yesterday. Other artists include: India Arie, Richard Bona, and David Broza and Wycleaf Jean.

I love living where I do, though it must be said that most of my town's street buskers are pretty terrible. When I was in Ontario recently I heard Luke Prosser singing on the street. He and a traveling buddy caught my ear and Luke sent me this link to his Mercy and Forgiveness CD. In my view, Prosser is more dynamic live, but for those looking for some for some good Christian music, this one is an honest telling of fall and redemption. https://lukeprosser.bandcamp.com/releases

Speaking of Christian music, I know a lot of people who won't go anywhere near it but think nothing of listening to Buddhist chants, Indian ragas, or Sufi praise music. If you've not heard Christian music lately, your POV is frozen in time. Jacob Everett Wallace is a Texas-based pastor, small business owner, and singer songwriter and the man has a great voice and writes meaningful songs. Sample his new EP Arrows and you'll see what I mean. No matter what you think, a song like "Human Condition" makes you think when he sings, We know what we want, but we don't know who we are. Jimmy Carter once (sort of) said the same thing. Wallace calls his style acoustic indie-rock. It sounds like folk to me, but no matter the label, material such as "Cold War" and "Skelton Army" unsettle complacency (in a good way).

Rob Weir

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