Utne Reader Music Reviews: January-February 2009

Dubtopia
A Town Called Addis
by Dub Colossus (RealWorld)

Once an obscure subset of reggae, the music known as dub has mutated into a remarkably broad category, with digital-age DJs applying its looping, backmasking, slice-and-dice aesthetic to all sorts of music, from punk to house to world. On A Town Called Addis, veteran British producer Nick Page–a.k.a. Dub Colossus–taps traditional Ethiopian sounds and state-of-the-art mixology to create a modern dub classic.

From the first bright horn bursts, psychedelic sound effects, pulsing groove, and honeyed vocals of “Azmari Dub,” the album grabs listeners’ attention with its hyper-defined sounds. It’s the exact opposite of a murky mix, tantalizing the ear with a Sgt. Pepper-like landscape of sonic doodads and textures while respecting the Ethiopian music at its core. Page creates spectacular settings for rustic instruments such as the messenqo one-string fiddle, the washint flute, and the kraar harp and unveils surprise talents including the singer Sintayehu Zenebe, whom Page has called “the Edith Piaf of Ethiopia.”

If the music at times resembles jazz, it’s the cosmic, far-out jazz of the Sun Ra Arkestra, and if it occasionally enters the Afrobeat realm, it’s the funky turf of the master, Fela Kuti. But the music owes perhaps its largest debt to dub innovators from Lee “Scratch” Perry to the Clash, who were mashing up music long before Pro Tools came along. Dub is no longer dismissed as the work of stoners who spent too long at the mixing board, but has come into its own as a vital form full of endless possibilities. Dub Colossus exploits them to their fullest. —Keith Goetzman

The Cohen Sister
Notes From The Village
by Anat Cohen (Anzic)

Anat Cohen is a vibrant, versatile composer and musician who’s been turning heads in the jazz world. Notes from the Village showcases the commanding expanse of her tunes and her knack for knowing how much force or playfulness to bring to bear on her instruments. The dulcet lowing of her bass clarinet meshes with pianist Jason Lindner’s misty cascade of notes on John Coltrane’s “After the Rain.” Her tenor sax is a fever dream, at once loud and distant, in the middle of “Lullaby for the Naïve Ones.” And her tootling licorice-stick revelry on the closing standard “Jitterbug Waltz”–coming right after a rendition of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”–provides especially sweet release. –Britt Robson

Fresh Folkways
City of Refuge
by Rachel Harrington (SkinnyDennis)

After her second child was stillborn in 2001, Rachel Harrington decided that life was too fragile to skip her dream of singing. Such beginnings often end with a whimper, but Harrington’s story turned out oh so well: City of Refuge, her second album, is a compelling and soulful update of traditional folk. Harrington’s voice is strong and thin, like the young Emmylou Harris’. Supporting musicians on the disc include fiddler Tim O’Brien and singer Pieta Brown, and that span–from bluegrass to folk depressive–captures her range. She has a knack, like Gillian Welch, for writing new tunes for the Carter Family songbook. –Joseph Hart

The Philosopher’s Tune
Melos
by Vassilis Tsabropoulos and Anja Lechner with U.T. Gandhi (ECM)

Existing somewhere on the continuum between classical, jazz, and metaphysics, Melos includes three compositions by G.I. Gurdjieff, the famous Greek-Armenian who’s better known as a philosopher than as a composer. The ascetic tone permeates all of Melos, which swells with a calm optimism in arrangements for piano, cello, and percussion. Pianist Vassilis Tsabropoulos composed all the other songs and plays them with a subtle intensity that recalls ECM labelmate Keith Jarrett. Cellist Anja Lechner buoys and augments his modal improvisations, while U.T. Gandhi provides a sublime rhythmic undercurrent. If transcendence is the goal, this is a fine soundtrack. –K.G.

Utne Reader Approved

More than just the first great record of 2009, Tchamantché by Malian singer Rokia Traoré (Nonesuch) is a vivid set of West African folk songs performed with haunting beauty and penetrating passion. –B.R.

Winterpills front man Philip Price has lost the fussy filigrees of his earlier songs, and a crisper, refined indie sound emerges on Central Chambers (Signature Sounds). The heartfelt introspection and creamy harmony remain. –J.H.

Mavis Staples has been singing about peace and justice for decades. On Live: Hope at the Hideout (Anti-), she delivers a supercharged concert of soul-drenched, political-minded music at a Chicago club. –K.G.

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