Utne Reader Music Reviews: May – June 2008

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Reincarnationof the Cool
Various Artists
Miles . . . from India (Times Square)
Miles Davis has been canonized and commodified as much as any artist in jazz history–there’s probably a Hee Haw for Miles record out there somewhere. So it’s a pleasant shock to report that Miles . . . from India does for Davis what Davis occasionally did for jazz: puts a faithful yet beguilingly innovative twist on a long-cherished but sometimes too-familiar form of artistry.

The concept is to mash up classic Miles (Bitches Brew and Kind of Blue lead the parade with three tracks apiece) with distinguished members of his past ensembles and prominent classical and jazz musicians from India. Thus, “All Blues” from Kind of Blue opens with 95 seconds of sinuous sitar from Ravi Chary before bassist Ron Carter and drummer Jimmy Cobb kick-start the beat and dual saxophonists Gary Bartz and Rudresh Mahanthappa state the recognizably toe-tapping theme. And on “So What,” it’s a thrill to hear a trio of Indian percussionists sing harmonies over non-African-styled polyrhythms before Chick Corea lays out the song’s gorgeous, pacific chords as bassist Carter provides the undertow.

The execution of this synthesis is brilliant, owing in part to superb arrangements by longtime Miles champion Bob Belden (who supervised re-issues of the trumpeter’s material on Columbia/Legacy). Its fitting finale is the lone new tune, the title track by the man whose work best embodies the intersection of Miles and India, guitarist John McLaughlin, playing alongside mandolinist U. Shrinivas for some string-driven bliss. –Britt Robson

Kris Delmhorst
ShotgunSinger(Signature Sounds)
Delmhorst is a veteran of the Northeast folk scene, where she has distinguished herself by virtue of her misty, blissed-out voice and commanding stage presence. To create Shotgun Singer she holed up in a cabin with a passel of instruments. So what did she discover out in her wilderness? An amazing and risky new sound that pushes her toward alt-folk (like Winterpills, with whom she is touring). A few of the songs miss the mark (too-cheesy electronic drums). But as a collection, these moody, textured songs make a powerful impression. Delmhorst rightly puts her silky voice front and center in the arrangements. It feels almost wrong to listen, as if our noses are pressed against the window of her shack. –Joseph Hart

The Felice Brothers
The Felice Brothers (Team Love)
A quartet of shaggy northerners from the Catskills, the Felice Brothers play folk-country songs about hard times and hard living. But this isn’t just another album that reduces country music to instrumentation and drawling affect. The Felices know the sounds of Nashville and New Orleans; they understand that American music is mostly about melody and rhythm. The band’s stirring tunes and beats cover a lot of ground, while its more-energetic-than-precise performance–complete with shout-along choruses–ties the set together. This joviality infects the lyrics, too: Songs about poverty, substance abuse, murder, and miscellaneous desperation benefit from gallows humor, wordplay, and caricature. Ian Felice’s husky and forceful singing propels the whole thing forward. The Felice Brothers invert the alt-country norm by combining careful songcraft with carefree execution. –Steve Thorngate

Robert Forster
The Evangelist (Yep Roc)
Robert Forster, best known for cofounding the ’80s Australian jangle-pop band the Go-Betweens, has aged into a remarkably well-rounded tunesmith in his solo career. “Demon Days,” which he wrote with longtime songwriting foil Grant McLennan shortly before McLennan died, is slow, lugubrious, and uneasy, the sort of song that sounds maudlin if it doesn’t match your mood but powerfully affecting if it does. “Let Your Light In, Babe,” on the other hand, bounces along merrily, with ooh-oohing backup singers and a nonironic use of “babe.” Overall, though, The Evangelist exudes melancholy, even when it’s couched in chiming melodies, and Forster seems to thrive on this vibe. He admits as much on the gorgeously reflective “Pandanus”: “I love the shades of nightfall, the faded blues and grays.” –Keith Goetzman

Steven Bernstein
Diaspora Suite(Tzadik)
After refashioning traditional Jewish melodies into popular American music styles for three albums in his Diaspora series, innovative trumpeter Steven Bernstein reaches into the history of his musical consciousness to tell the story of Jacob’s 12 sons on Diaspora Suite. As good and evil battle for power, instruments become characters in the narrative. An army of klezmer-tinged horn lines meets Nels Cline’s guitar; Ben Goldberg’s lone clarinet winds through otherworldly echoes and tweaked circle-dance rhythms; an orchestral climax of fluttering horns and manic drums heightens the drama. Bernstein’s fierce knack for musical storytelling coupled with his band’s improvisational spirit and diverse repertoire of influences make this the highlight of the series. –Jennifer Odell

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