Utne Reader Music Reviews: September-October 2008

Virtual Soul
Various Artists
Soul Sides, Volumes One and Two (Zealous)
For song swappers who insist that digital playlists lack the blood and guts it takes to whittle a stack of vinyl into an old-school mix tape, these two highlight reels from the MP3 audio blog Soul Sides (www.soul-sides.com) are a revelation. Just like those great homemade cassettes you have since packed away with the tear-stained yearbook, music critic and blogger Oliver Wang’s two-CD collection proves that, when it comes to mixology, it’s all about the soul.

The first three songs on Volume One, which flashes through five decades in 14 tracks, set the bar: Charles May’s tightly wound “Keep My Baby Warm,” where piano and electric bass race for the ass-quaking bottom; Clarence Reid’s “Masterpiece,” all tongue-and-cheek braggadocio and full-body funk; and Lee Moses’ decidedly Southern, brass-hued seducer, “Time and Place.”

Unlike the tastemakers brewing up corporate compilations to sell with your morning java, Wang, who writes for the likes of the Village Voice and Vibe, just decided to throw together a few “desert island” favorites. Bottom line be damned, he pairs gentle reminders like Linda Lyndell’s “What a Man” and Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “Lovin’ You” with surprises like Donny Hathaway’s closing-time take on John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” and the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra’s rendition of “Che Che Cole” on Volume Two, which hangs its sweaty headphones on 13 once-forgotten covers. –David Schimke

Tim Fite
Fair Ain’t Fair
With Tim Fite, there’s no tepid response: Either you love his funky, elliptical hip-hop performance art or you hate it. Either way, you’re probably taking him too seriously. After all, the guy looks and behaves like a chubby Pee-wee Herman. The truth is that Fite is a deeply engaging (dare we say it?) experimental rock composer–a minor character in a pantheon that includes artists like Frank Zappa and Patti Smith. His latest disc, which weaves sampled music over a foundation of drums recorded in his former high school, provides ample evidence. There’s plenty of doofy performance-play, some catchy pop hooks, and a playful reinterpretation of hip-hop, all grafted onto a unique, antiestablishment take on American culture. –Joseph Hart

Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band
Season of Changes
An unfortunate misconception about jazz is that it’s always best heard at night, in a smoky downtown club, with a martini in hand. Drummer Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band play jazz that conjures not midnight ennui but morning wonder: music to be alive to. Season of Changes has a rustic character that comes in part from its incorporation of gospel, folk, and soul flourishes, but also from its sense of ease and embrace of open space. Blade airs out these compositions as if he’s flinging open the windows on a lakeside cottage, and his bandmates follow his lead with unfettered, joyous playing that doesn’t defy jazz convention so much as exist blissfully unaware of it. –Keith Goetzman

Carried to Dust (Quarterstick)
Calexico has made an indie-rock career out of mining the Southwestern United States for music that conjures the desolation and drama of vast desertscapes. While Carried to Dust holds many songs that refine this theme to perfection, the album’s great strength is its frequent departure from type. “The News About William” builds to an emotive swell that recalls Simon and Garfunkel’s “To Emily, Wherever I May Find Her.” “Writer’s Minor Holiday” proffers angular, upbeat art rock à la the New Pornographers, and “Man Made Lake” contains a positively scorching guitar solo. These bold sounds prove that Calexico is not simply an Ennio Morricone tribute band, and by mixing up the mood they enhance the dark, subtle beauty of those sun-baked desert songs. –K.G.

Lydia Mendoza
The Best of Lydia Mendoza
If you’ve never experienced the earthy and delicate sounds of Tejano music, or the expressive voice of its queen, Lydia Mendoza, then this 17-song sampler will school you in the style that has captivated millions of fans since its 1930s heyday. The Spanish-language Tejano tradition of southern Texas can be traced in part to Mexico, but like all American folk music, it’s an admixture, with clear elements of cowboy ballads and slave songs. Mendoza, wildly popular with her audience, sings husky renditions that give an aching voice to tales of lost and/or jealous love. She often sings backed by a small orchestra, but the best tracks capture her alone with a 12-string guitar: spare and emotionally haunting arrangements with the authenticity, soul, and melodiousness that are the hallmarks of the best American folk music. –J.H.

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