December Music II: Divahn, Anthony Garcia, Mercy Bell, The Accidentals


I am a fan of Sephardic music for many reasons, not the least of which is that it’s often a pan-Middle Eastern/North African style whose roots lay in times in which Jews and Muslims were more tolerant of one another because they shared exile status. Divahn is a superb practitioner of Sephardic music and their newest album, Shalhevet (“Flame”) will light up your playlist. It is a US-based five-woman ensemble fronted by Galeet Dardashi, who is of Iranian heritage and comes from a famed musical family. She has an enormous voice adorned with many colors. Listen to the ululation in “Oseh Shalom,” which imbues a kaddish (prayer for peace in this context), or “Lecha Dodi,” a piece introduced by Elizabeth Pupo Walker’s Afro-Cuban hand drum solo. Were it not for her percussion and that of Sejal Kukadia’s tabla, you might think you were listening to an innovative jazz ensemble. That’s not far from the mark as several members have jazz backgrounds. This quintet surprises of many levels. “Bann Choshich” is a complex interweave of voices and instruments, and that’s a pretty neat trick given that the only melody instruments are Eleanor Norton’s cello and Megan Gould’s violin. “Ya’alah, Ya’allah” (Urdu for “Lord, Lord”) again displays Dardashi’s stentorian voice, though supplemented by harmonies reminiscent of Balkan singing. For pure fun, it’s hard to beat “Hamavdil,” a (sort of) round. Listen for the little breakout from Kukadia, whose Gatling gun scat-like interlude–in what I believe to be Gujarati–couldn’t be touched by modern rappers with a ten-foot ego.


Anthony Garcia
is an interesting guy. In addition to speaking five languages, he’s a musical polymath. I tend to sigh when I read PR material that says a performer draws inspiration from sources as diverse as Townes Van Zandt, Leonard Cohen, and Led Zeppelin. Though I might temper the last comparison a bit, Garcia strikes those chords–and a few more. Like maybe a Gothic vibe, as his new album Acres of Diamonds often has spooky undertones. Anybody who invokes Alfred Hitchcock–as Garcia does on “Santa Rosa–is dealing dark cards from the deck. It’s an unusual song adorned by Megan Berson’s emotionally enigmatic strings, some near-yodeling from Garcia, heavy guitar turnarounds, and evocations of waiting for the Boatman to carry him back to the land of the living. “Fire” evokes a “Western” song from the days before it was combined with country music. If you want to know where the Led Zep analogies come from, check out Garcia’s guitar work on “Apparitions,” and while you’re at it, notice some fine writing. As the title suggests, memory ghosts appear: Every voice I’ve ever heard and every face I’ve ever seen/Is hanging from the limbs of what they call the Mirror Tree. Garcia goes acoustic for the contemplative “The Wind,” followed by the more lush “Haunted Halls.” We also get some grunge-like jumpiness (“My Hands Are My Eyes”), something akin to a country power ballad (“For Your Love”), and a song that really does sound like something Cohen would have done (“Jane”). Garcia doesn’t quite connect with each of the masks he pulls on–the title track, oddly, is rather ordinary–but give him credit for having the courage to mix things up.


Mercy Bell
lives in Nashville, by way of California, Boston, and New York. Because she’s now in Music City reviewers are anxious to label her a country star and compare her to Linda Ronstadt, Brandi Carlile, and Sheryl Crow. Never mind that Crow isn’t a country star or that it’s not really fair to saddle someone with a Ronstadt tag. It’s not the only thing reviewers get wrong. She’s also been tagged as Mexican American, when she’s actually half Filipino. Want a label? How about a damn good singer songwriter who–despite titles like “Chocolate Milk and Whiskey” and “All the Good Cowboys”–is really more of a folk artist. The first thing one notices about Bell is the ease with which she sings. She can go big, as she does on her stunning autobiographical song “Black Dress,” but there is nothing forced about her, nor is there a need for vocal gymnastics. You can find most of the tracks from Mercy Bell, which came out in late 2019. I like Bell’s small lyrical twists that get to the heart of things: All the good cowboys know/There ain’t no good ‘ol home sweet home…. A dollar in the jukebox just to dance with you/Oh, but all it does is play the blues. I also liked her song “Skip to the Part” a lot, with the simple linking line where we’re together.  


NPR really likes The Accidentals, but I don’t share that enthusiasm–yet. This Michigan-based trio is fronted by Savannah Buist and Katie Larson. Between them, they bust out normal instruments such as guitars and strings, plus a few oddballs like musical saw, kazoo, and glockenspiel. Michael Druse sits in back and bangs the drums. The best song I heard was “Might AsWell Be Gold,” in which the trio turns folky with harmonies blending in pleasing ways. When they add rock elements, as they do on songs such as “Rollercoaster” or “Damascus Blades,” there’s nothing particularly distinctive about them. The louder volume also makes Buist’s and Larson’s voices sound too young for the material. Mostly, they sound like the kind of band I’d like to hear again in a few years with stronger material that integrates their potential versatility.


Rob Weir





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