Utne Reader Music Reviews: March-April 2009

Pop Transcendence
Noble Beast by Andrew Bird (Fat Possum)

Multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird aims squarely at the pleasure center of the bookish indie set. His several acclaimed albums of postmodern chamber pop highlight his nimble playing and the warm electronics of his frequent collaborator, the drummer and producer Martin Dosh.

Only a team as visionary as Bird and Dosh would strive to fix what isn’t broken and transcend this winning formula, as they have with Noble Beast, where suitelike song structures, instrumental interludes, and audacious lyrical constructions build and soar but never topple into excess.

“Masterswarm” begins with a minor-key acoustic prelude to a joyously orchestrated tango of violin flourishes and handclaps. Bird’s whistling and tremolo guitar splice the mood of Strictly Ballroom with that of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The arrangement employs addition, then subtraction, as the song’s instrumentation is gradually pared away until only the crushed bits of Dosh’s rhythm loop remain.

Indeed, Noble Beast‘s most successful moments are its most percussive and experimental, evenly blending Bird’s meticulous performances and Dosh’s manipulated grooves. Lugubrious pitch-shifted drums lumber across “Souverian”; the canter and shuffle of “Not a Robot, but a Ghost” ultimately careens into a spooky, swirling meltdown of queasy violin and bowed bass.

Bird’s favorite instrument is probably the English language itself. He’s still unable to resist a geeky portmanteau (“Anonanimal”), a smirking pun (“Fitz & Dizzyspells”), even the occasional palindrome. But we should be grateful he’s transcending pop clichés. You can get away with plenty of too-clever-by-half lyrical stunts if they’re buttressed by such brilliant arrangements and beguiling melodies. –Jake Mohan

Clinging to Mope
Trails of the Lonely (Parts I & III) by the Lost Brothers (Bird Dog)

The heart of the Lost Brothers is two voices and two acoustic guitars charting a wholesome path through often not-so-wholesome themes of heartache–forsaking true love to “try every toy on the shelf,” mourning the murder of a beloved prostitute, begging forgiveness from an unconvinced sweetheart. “Fallen,” a hit and
a pleasure, is an egg-on-my-face lament set to a languorous swing beat with a piano chirping somewhere in the room and a cello walking up and down the chorus. The lyrics feel familiar, almost bland sometimes, but there’s a rich, ruddy ore buried in these songs that makes them novel and profound. –Ty Otis

A Twist on Tradition
Watts by Jeff “Tain” Watts (Dark Key)

The “Marsalis mafia” of young musical neoconservatives who took jazz by storm in the ’80s keep making vibrant, piquant music that both challenges and enriches tradition. (If only the political neocons had half as much sense and historical scholarship.) On Watts, drummer “Tain” Watts delivers original compositions that variously enable saxophonist Branford Marsalis and trumpeter Terence Blanchard to joust over rugged post-bop and revel in their New Orleans heritage. Watts is a creatively turbulent timekeeper who pays heed to the tom-tom and bass drums as much as to the cymbals and snares. He turns himself up in the mix and completes the quartet with stentorian superbassist Christian McBride as a worthy rhythmic foil. –Britt Robson

Rustling Up Roots
River of Time by Jorma Kaukonen (Red House)

As a cofounder of Jefferson Airplane, Jorma Kaukonen saw Haight-Ashbury up close and personal. River of Time shows him to be less an acid casualty than a wizened craftsman, however, and this wonderfully intimate, hand-sewn quilt of blues, country, and other roots music chestnuts and originals is geared more for a winter snuggle than for a summer of love. Covers of Merle Haggard and the Grateful Dead pale in comparison to the loving strings and vocal incantations Kaukonen uses to call forth the bucolic spirituality of his mentor, the Reverend Gary Davis, on “There’s a Bright Side Somewhere,” and Mississippi John Hurt, on “Preachin’ on the Old Campground.” Kaukonen captures the essence of this music without being mawkish or flippant, instinctively nestling into the right blend of modesty and authority. –B.R.

Utne Reader Approved

What happens when a German-born trumpeter collaborates with a Senegalese singer and player of the kora, a gourd guitar? In the case of Sira(ObliqSound) by Ablaye Cissoko and Volker Goetze, magic strikes and a rare cross-cultural gem is created.

On Ray Guns are not Just the Future (Blue Note), the party-girl/synth-geek duo the Bird and the Bee deliver quirky lounge ballads, awkwardly charming dance-floor invitations, even a paean to David Lee Roth. Sexy and infectiously catchy pop.

Parish Bar (Compass) by Jeb Loy Nichols captures the loose-limbed versatility of a guy who grows his own food on a Welsh farm, makes woodcuts in honor of heroes like hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa, and isn’t afraid to mate country and disco.

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