Friday, June 27, 2008

Casual Listening Extra 6-27-08

Casual Listening


Gilberto Gil on Democracy Now

He’s been a musical innovator, a political prisoner, and is now Brazil’s minister of culture. Amy Goodman spends an hour with one of the most important figures in music today. You can find the show here.

Au – Verbs (folk)

Ry Cooder – I, Flathead (rock)

Big Blue Ball – Big Blue Ball (world)

Kutless – To Know That You’re Alive (rock)

Withered – Folie Circulaire (metal)

Amos Lee – Last Days at the Lodge (R&B)

Immortal Technique – The 3rd World (rap)

Given the ridiculous number of reviews already this week, I won’t be writing in detail about any of these. I’m not sure I’d spend money on Au, but it’s a big mind-opener. Ry Cooder is hit and miss space-rockabilly. Big Blue Ball is Peter Gabriel and friends, and is a broad mix of world beat. Kutless is Christian rock that really rocks. Withered is one of the most listenable black metal albums I’ve come across. Amos Lee is notable blues-folk in a Tracy Chapman vein and might have made the list on a slower week. Immortal Technique is revolutionist hip-hop, and whatever you think of his politics, there’s no doubting that he’s part of the minority of rap artists who believe in the power of words.

Killing Karma, Saturday, 11pm Elbo Room

Check out some cool alternative metal at the Elbo Room in Chicago on Saturday at 11pm. Give a shout to Francisco, and tell him Jeff sent you. Their MySpace page is here.

Casual Listening 6-27-08

Casual Listening

a review of cool new music

by Jeff Pinzino

June 27, 2008

* Niyaz – Nine Heavens (world)

Global goth with Indian and Persian flair (remember the oud lesson from last week?). Imagine a Bollywood film scored by Dead Can Dance, and you’ll be in Niyaz’ magic neighborhood. This is 21st century music for ecstatic dancing.

* Dr. John – City That Care Forgot (funk)

Masterful party-time New Orleans piano syncopations belie one of the most incisive political albums to come out of the Crescent City since the hurricane, even with the amount of art that’s been made in the wake of that catastrophe. Dr. John gives voice to a heavy anger that’s just below the surface for New Orleans residents, and amplifies it by connecting their sense of abandonment to similar government carelessness with the war in Iraq and the destruction of the environment. Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, and Ani DiFranco help make sure the vitriol is backed up by great-sounding songs.

* Crooked Still – Still Crooked (bluegrass)

A bluegrass-inspired lineup playing beautiful, non-traditional folk. You’ll hear fiddle and killer banjo rub shoulders with cello and expressive alto vocals and duets. For those still mourning the loss of Nickel Creek, Crooked Still is your rebound band.

* Watermelon Slim – No Paid Holidays (blues)

Watermelon Slim is one of the freshest voices in blues today, and this album shows he just keeps getting better. Screaming slide guitar and dastardly harmonica drive a blues-rock sound that brings the essence of the blues into unconventional jams. Add to this the absolutely transcendent acoustic track “This Traveling Life,” and you’ve got a must-hear blues album.

Sigur Rós – Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust (rock)

The dulcet, ethereal tones that have endeared this band to the indie scene are here, but jolted to life with a mix of songs that verge on peppy. The translated title captures a piece of it: “With a buzz in our ears we play endlessly.” Put away your Coldplay album, and try on something more…well…Icelandic.

Seun Kuti and Fela’s Egypt 80 – Seun Kuti and Fela’s Egypt 80 (world)

Big brass over driving percussion is the essence of Afrobeat, the influential jazz-pop form created by Fela Kuti, Seun’s father. Seun inherited the bandleader role in his dad’s band, and delivers a set of definitively thick grooves that would make Fela proud.

Eliza Carthy – Dreams of Breathing Underwater (rock)

Carthy brings a harder edge to the British folk-rock scene of which her parents were key figures a generation ago. Bold but tender vocals spin vivid ballads across a broad array of traditional and modern instruments, including violin, flute, electric guitar, and plenty of concertina accordion.

T-Model Ford – Jack Daniel Time (blues)

Just an old man with a guitar and a lifetime of hard living he channels into his music. Ford does blues standards plugged into an amp that sounds as old as he is, with a band that provides a minimum of adornment. If Lightnin’ Hopkins were still alive and making records, they’d sound a lot like this.

Be Your Own Pet – Get Dangerous (rock)

This EP consists of the three songs this band’s label thought were too edgy to put on BYOP’s latest album. Biting, punk-inspired tunes with gutsy female vocals and over-the-top vengeful lyrics that rewrite the yearbook on high school angst. I’d happily take these three songs over the full-length release.

In The Blog: Gilberto Gil on Democracy Now, Ry Cooder, Peter Gabriel’s new project, and many more.

* highly recommended

! highest recommendation

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Friday, June 20, 2008

Casual Listening Extra 6-20-08

Casual Listening


June 20, 2008

Coldplay -- Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends (rock)

What you'd expect from Coldplay, only moreso. Brian Eno's production blunts the soft edges even further, and makes it feel more swirly.

Judas Priest - Nostradamus (rock)

What you'd expect from Spinal Tap, only moreso. A nearly 2-hour metal opera tribute to the great prognosticator. More interesting for the novelty of the project than for the music.

The Briggs -- Come All You Madmen (rock)

The Briggs aren't afraid to wear their influences on their sleeves, and this time they're definitely wearing The Clash. Loud, political lyrics over solid guitar punk. They've got the sound right, and the songs are pretty good, too.

The Mannish Boys - The Supreme Genius of King Khan and the Shrines (blues)

Blues chameleons that echo several different areas of the music's evolution. In their skill and eclecticism, this group most closely resembles Rising Sons, the 60's blues band that launched both Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder. I wouldn't be surprised to be hearing similar accolades for these bluesmen in the years to come.

Dan Tyminski -- Wheels (bluegrass)

If you remember the Soggy Bottom Boys from "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" you'll know Dan Tyminski as the voice grafted onto George Clooney to sing "Man of Constant Sorrow." Tyminski is also know as the lead of Allison Krauss' backup band. his first solo album is Kraussian bluegrass, a slightly airbrushed version of string-band country.

In the blog this week: Coldplay, Judas Priest, The Briggs, The Mannish Boys, Dan Tyminsky

* highly recommended

! highest recommendation

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Casual Listening 6-20-08

Casual Listening

a review of cool new music

by Jeff Pinzino

June 20, 2008

* Kirsten Price - Guts & Garbage (R&B)

The frontwoman for this soul revue has a killer set of pipes. Great backup singers and strong beats give Price's sound a feel like a 21st century Aretha Franklin. Hot!

* Grupo Fantasma - Sonidos Gold (Latin)

The original spirit of salsa -- huge horns, lots of percussion, and a deep groove that the players stretch out in. Music with a funky edge that defies you to sit still.

Amos Hoffman - Evolution (world)

Mavrothi T. Kontanis - Sto Kafaseli Sokaki (world)

This week I've come across not one, but two great albums featuring the Middle Eastern lute instrument called the oud. It's got a more percussive, haunting sound that enhances a variety of folk music. Hoffman is Israeli, and his expressive, minor-key runs are supported by flute and tambourine, bringing together virtuosity and a heritage sound. Kontanis's arrangements of Greek-inspired tunes are supported with more spare arrangements, but are equally illuminating.

King Khan and the Shrines - The Supreme Genius of King Khan and the Shrines (rock)

A dose of Indian kitsch adds a crazy twist to a classic garage rock sound. Shouted lyrics, fuzzy guitars, saxophone, and occasionally spooky organ keep the power chords coming. Barely on the sane side of Screamin' Jay Hawkins.

In the blog this week: Coldplay, Judas Priest, The Briggs, The Mannish Boys, Dan Tyminski

* highly recommended

! highest recommendation

Check out the blog at . To subscribe or unsubscribe, or just to say hi, send an e-mail to

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Casual Listening Extra 6-13-08

Casual Listening


June 13, 2008

! Death Cab for Cutie – Narrow Stairs (rock)

A gorgeous album of bittersweet songs, painstakingly produced using instruments from electric organ to tabla. Boyishly naive vocals add an emotional lift. This one's topping the charts for a reason.

Concert Review -- Eighth Blackbird

Casual Listening

Concert Review

Eighth Blackbird, May 29 2009, Harris Theater, Chicago

"America's greatest living composer" was upstaged last week. The Chicago-based new music ensemble Eighth Blackbird gave two Midwest premieres of commissioned work: Steve Reich's "Double Sextet" and "Singing in the Dead of Night," a collaboration by the artistic visionaries behind the Bang on a Can collective. Despite a worthy and interesting piece by Reich, the younger group's choreographed opus took more risks and ultimately won the audience.

Although I'm a recent admirer of Reich (I started exploring his work in preparation for the review of "Daniel Variations" in this space two months ago), I'm willing to put him on the short list for the "greatest," a label he's been given by both the New York Times and the Village Voice. At its best, his work has rhythmic intensity, harmonic richness, and depth of meaning. Stylistically, he's a more interesting cousin to film score darling Phillip Glass -- employing repeated musical patterns that transform before your ears.

“Double Sextet” starts before the musicians do, the six performers having prerecorded themselves playing half of the piece. The live musicians enter playing the same instruments a few beats after the tape starts, and the interlock produces a dense, intricate sound.

The piece opens at a rhythmic gallop, alternating pairs and threes in zigzagging combinations. Piano and vibraphone drive the rhythm, while flute, clarinet, violin, and cello provide melodic contrast. The harmonies are shotgun clusters of tones connected by their forward momentum.

The second movement is signaled by the precipitous drop of the piano and vibes to half speed. The strings play elongated notes, and the live and recorded instruments seem to finish each others' sentences. The bow leaves the cello, the sound continues, and the bow eventually reconnects.

Equally abruptly we resume the gallop for movement three. The string and wind instruments shift back to more staccato patterns, and the whole charges on toward the conclusion. The final movement is a controlled cacophony of energy and motion, the musical equivalent of standing underneath high-tension power lines.

"Singing in the Dead of Night" is a collaboration between composers David Lang, Michael Gordon, and Julia Wolfe, with choreography by Susan Marshall. Lang, Gordon, and Wolfe are the musical heirs to Reich's brand of Minimalism, with Lang recently winning a Pulitzer for his compositions. Through founding Bang on a Can, a composers’ and musicians’ collective, the three are substantially responsible for new music's extreme makeover as a hipster art form. The name is suggestive of their aesthetic, which is less pretentious and more playful than one would expect for high art.

As one of the group's patrons explained to me, Marshall has created chore-ography, as in work. It's less about dancing than it is about the musicians keeping occupied in visually interesting ways.

The Prologue clusters the musicians in the center of the stage. A piccolo replaces the flute, and all of the musicians are playing in the higher registers of their instruments. Intentionally or unintentionally, the complex, repeating figures are a smooth musical transition from "Double Sextet," yet signal something unexpected on the way.

The cello opens "Episode 1" with a layer of sliding notes, giving a sound like an accelerating car shifting through the low gears. The other players wander to instruments placed around the stage. The pianist grabs an accordion, and one by one the string and wind players join the percussionist at a table with steel cans, pipes, and rods. The ensemble starts a pattern: car noises, a clang of cans, and a triumphant chord on the accordion. Eventually, the accordion is dropped and the piano returns, with three musicians on the bench, and one strumming the strings inside.

An amplified mat is placed centerstage for "Episode 2," and as the flute and clarinet play sustained tones, the ensemble loads one of the players arms with all of the percussion paraphernalia. It's only a matter of time before he loses his grip. The dramatic tension is rich, as he holds on longer than expected, not unlike the chef on the old Sesame Street clip that tumbles down the stairs with a double-armload of cream pies. The musician stacks all of the fallen percussion onto a cymbal, and as he prepares to cart it offstage, lets the cymbal tip, unloading another riot of clanging.

A dreamlike musical background begins "Episode 3." A table is placed over the sound mat, and buckets of sand are dumped on. Two musicians pull up chairs and lie their torsos across the table. Their bodies brush back and forth, causing the sand to fall. The music turns slowly from dream to nightmare, becoming chaotic and dissonant.

The Epilogue returns to the complexity of the prologue. Stage lights cast enormous shadows of the musicians on the back wall, and multiple lights create a visual interlock that matches that of the music.

Creativity is a matter of making new choices. Forty years ago, Steve Reich's choice of shifting repetition heralded a new generation of composition, and a piece like "Double Sextet" continues to explore the effects of that choice. Lang, Gordon, Wolfe, and Marshall add the choice of movement, and the musicians’ motion give a provocative new dimension to the work. Before the audience’s eyes, music evolves.

Casual Listening 6-13-08

Casual Listening

a review of cool new music

by Jeff Pinzino

Happy Birthday Casual Listening! Celebrating one year of great music

June 13, 2008

* N.E.R.D. – Seeing Sounds (rap)

N.E.R.D.'s uptempo hip hop/dance tracks are crackerjack: there's a surprise in every box. Wildly imaginative beats quote everything from classic jazz to electronic drum&bass. Brilliantly inventive and groovy

Jakob Dylan – Seeing Things (folk)

Simple acoustic songs that tell good stories. He's got a couple of ballads from a soldiers' point of view that imply the cost of war without preaching against it. His poetry is solid, and even if it's not quite the genius of his father, his singing voice is far more listenable.

Jim Shearer and Charlie Wood – The Memphis Hang (jazz)

Vocalese and tuba are rare enough in the jazz world, let alone to find them together. As odd a couple as that sounds, this album really works. Bebop classics such as Monk's "Well You Needn't" alternate with straight-up blues. Organ and drums keep thing swinging and let the featured soloists shine. More tuba solos than I think I've heard in the rest of my life combined.

Doug MacLeod – The Utrecht Sessions (blues)

Inspired acoustic blues in neo-traditional style. MacLeod isn't afraid to use his gospel-tinged shout and national steel guitar to try old things in new ways. Vital music, not museum pieces.

In The Blog: Concert Review: Eighth Blackbird; Death Cab for Cutie

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Thursday, June 5, 2008

Casual Listening Extra 6-6-08

Casual Listening


June 6, 2008

! Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes (rock)

Layered harmonies and expansive, psychedelic textures invoke the fey side of 60’s folk-rockers like Fairport Convention; Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young; and The Byrds. An opaque, haunting album that deserves all the critical praise it’s getting.

In The Heights (Original Cast Recording)

The next iteration of the stage musical, set way uptown from Broadway in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood. Infused with salsa and hip hop rhythms, it makes for interesting listening whether or not you’re familiar with the story. The play is up for a slew of Tony awards, and while it doesn’t have the musical depth of West Side Story, it may end up being a similarly iconic musical for a new generation.

Tim Hockenberry – Back In Your Arms (vocal)

If they remade Casablanca, Tim Hockenberry would be the house band at Rick’s Café. His gravelly baritone powerfully delivers this set of sentimental ballads. Recalls Tom Waits before he got really weird.

Mojomatics – Don’t Pretend That You Know Me (rock)

Classic-styled garage rock, meaning rough-hewn, blues-inspired guitars and shouted vocals with honking harmonica solos. The rock and roll equivalent of the summer popcorn blockbuster.

* highly recommended

! highest recommendation

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Casual Listening 6-6-08

Casual Listening

a review of cool new music

by Jeff Pinzino

Two weeks ago, I missed the Death Cab for Cutie release because of computer issues. After hearing it, I can testify that it’s really good, but don’t take my word for it. Listen to it, write up a paragraph, and send it to me. As penance for missing it the first time, I’ll print all the reviews I receive in the blog next week. Jeff’s reviews are at this week, including Fleet Foxes, In The Heights, Tim Hockenberry, and more. Meanwhile, this week’s column is from “Stump Pandora” winner Bob Palmer, a recent subscriber who has ridiculously good taste in music.

June 8, 2008

I’ve chosen to primarily write about some of my favorite albums that have come out since the beginning of 2007—most from long-time favorite musicians and a few from those who are new to me. If I had to describe my tastes, I would say I gravitate towards catchy tunes with heartfelt/meaningful lyrics and traditional but adventurous instrumentation. Most importantly, however, I connect to musicians who through their singing and/or playing communicate to me in what feels like their “own voice”. My favorite time to listen to music is late at night when I find it most easy to commune with the sounds!

Muhal Richard Abrams, Visions Towards Essence (Pi Recordings)

This is a record that requires more than casual listening, since Muhal Richard Abrams isn’t much interested in catchy tunes. With careful listening of these compositions, however, all sorts of beautiful melodies and rhythms will become apparent out of the seeming chaos of notes played during this solo piano concert.

Jorge Ben, Força Bruta (Dusty Groove)

This was originally released in 1970 by one of the musicians associated with the Tropicália movement in 1960s Brazil. In part a political movement celebrating both tradition and freedom, musically Tropicália was a mélange of bossa nova, rock and roll, Bahian folk music, African music, and Portuguese fado—a definition I stole from Wikipedia that I can’t improve upon. All you really need to know though is that there is great groove to be found here.

Sir Richard Bishop, While My Guitar Violently Bleeds (Locust Music)

On the opening track, Sir Richard Bishop plays 7 minutes of solo acoustic guitar fusing American primitive, flamenco and undoubtedly other styles that I don’t recognize and/or can’t name. The next song is 12 minutes of overdubbed electric guitar, feedback and other electronic noise that actually sounded good in the car during a recent late night drive south on I-55 through central Illinois. The 25-minute final track wonderfully integrates the characteristics of both pieces, with an emphasis on the former.

Robert Forster, The Evangelist (Yep Roc)

This is Robert Forster’s first solo album since the 2005 death of his partner in the Go-Betweens, Grant McLennan. This is power pop, but the power comes primarily from the delivery of the mostly somber lyrics and a restrained melodocism. One of the things I’ve always liked about Robert Forster is that he sounds exactly like the well-read, middle class Australian bohemian (now well into middle age) who can be both joyful and dour that he (apparently) is.

Joe Higgs, Life of Contradiction (Pressure Sounds)

Even without his own music, Joe Higgs would be justly celebrated for coaching the Bob Marley and the Wailers in harmonizing back when they were teenagers in Jamaica. Higgs only released a few albums during his lifetime before dying in 1999 at the age of 59. Just re-released, this album was recorded in 1972 and has only intermittently been available since. Many of these songs of struggle and hope imprinted themselves in my memory after just a few listens.

Michael Hurley, Ancestral Swamp (Gnomonsong Recordings)

Folkie, painter and comic book artist, Michael Hurley’s alter egos Boone and Jocko are two hipster wolves who are into road trips, red wine, women, and 8-track tapes. This 2007 album isn’t much different than the 15 or so other albums he has made during the last forty-plus years; Michael and some friends get together to play songs about simple pleasures, having the blues, and ramblin’.

Omme Kolsoum, La Diva II (EMI Music Arabia)

Omme Kolsoum (also spelled Umm Kulthum and seemingly endless other ways) is the Egyptian musician I picked that stumped Pandora in Jeff’s contest a few weeks ago. This is the CD that introduced me to her several years ago after I read that Bob Dylan had once said Omme Kolsoum was his favorite singer. Apparently Beatles-like in terms of her cultural impact in Egypt, her heyday was from the 1930’s through the 1960s. From what I’ve read, the lyrics range the gamut from adaptations of romantic love poetry to celebrating national independence. Coincidentally, NPR just did a story about her that you can listen to at

Danbert Norbacon and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, Library Book of the World (Bloodshot)

Leeds-bred Danbert Norbacon has a big, deep voice that he uses to sing about humanity being slowly murdered by multinational corporations and global warming. Chicago’s own Pine Valley Cosmonauts provide honky-tonk backing for the protest songs that work because the singer sounds genuinely angry. Thankfully, he’s got a sense of humor, too, and he even has a song about the pleasures about being in love with a pop song. Sample lyrics: “petro-dollars makes the world go round, but the arms trade tells it when to spin.”

Amy Rigby, 18 Again: An Anthology (Koch)

This compilation isn’t new, it was released in 2002, but I just listened to it again and wanted to write about it. Consisting mostly of songs released on three previous albums, Amy delivers great pop hooks and funny, poignant lyrics from the point of view of single mom who has her own rock band. Sample lyrics: “She's got her self esteem and the American dream but her chances of advancing are ten thousand to one.” Amy is still making great records, most recently Little Fugitive.

Lucinda Williams, West (Lost Highway)

Musically, this is perhaps Lucinda’s most heavily produced—dare I say L.A.-sounding—record. However, Lucinda’s voice and lyrics keep her folk and country roots in the forefront. Emotions and tempos run the gamut. In one song Lucinda sincerely hopes a former lover who “flew away like a little bird” is doing alright and in another she berates another former lover for not being able to give her an orgasm. A great collection of ballads and rockin’ tunes from Lucinda!

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