It's Tuesday Reviewsday time! This week music critic Steve Hochman and Justino Aguila, associate editor of Latin at Billboard Magazine, join Alex Cohen in studio with their favorite new music picks.
Notes: Presumably we don’t have to give you the background on Robert Plant. But if you need to Google him... we’ll wait.
Okay? So now that we’re up to speed, the full weight of this next statement will be appreciated:
"lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar", unwieldy title and all, is the best album Plant has made since…. well…. since he was in that li’l ol’ Zep band. And yes, that counts Raising Sand, his glorious, 2008 Grammy Best Album-winning collaboration with Alison Krauss and its just-as-good follow-up, Band of Joy, featuring his then-partner Patty Griffin. (Yes, a case could be made for 1994’s Unledded, the reunion with Zep cohort Jimmy Page. Though as good as those reworkings of their classic material were, it was a dip back into the old catalog, so we’ll give it an asterisk.)
How so, you ask? Well, not everyone may agree. Raising Sand and Band of Joy stand tall, monuments to an iconic artist still seeking new experiences and expression. But there’s a mannered quality to the music. And neither album utilizes the full range of music that Plant has embraced and absorbed in his explorations since he first emerged as rock’s Golden God some 45 years ago.
The new one does.
Take the very first track, “Little Maggie,” at its roots an Appalachia-via-Britain folk tune built around a spritely banjo and Plant’s unmistakable voice — more plaint than his old banshee wail. But before those things even kick in, there’s a bit of electronic beat-ambience and rough-hewn plucking that’s more African than Anglo-American, both of those intensifying later in the song in an ancient-modern dance of West African fiddle and surging, quasar-like electronic pulses. It’s a bracing mix, a visionary melange and a colorful musical portrayal/complement/enhancement of the somberly yearning lyrics that Plant so effectively understates, as if they were being sung to you, in confidence.
None of this will be a surprise to anyone who saw Plant touring over the last year with the band backing him here, the perfectly dubbed the Sensational Space Shifters. Core members of the band have been with him for years, pre-dating the Grammy recognition, crucially guitarist Justin Adams who has been instrumental in spurring and sharing Plant’s passion for incorporating global sounds, particularly West and North African, into his music. Adams also adds a variety of stringed and percussion instruments from several cultures, and gets credit for bringing in Gambian musician Juldeh Camara, whose ritti (a one-stringed fiddle) and kologo (an ancestor of the banjo) are secret weapons for much of this. But it’s a real, solid unit, with Liam “Skin” Tyson’s guitar and banjo, John Baggott’s keyboards and electronic atmospheres, Billy Fuller’s bass and Dave Smith’s drums swirling together hypnotically.
Shifting space, sensationally, is just what they did in the concerts, turning an assortment of treasures from his Zep and solo years plus some Delta and folk chestnuts into various shades of psychedelic African trance blues. This set of largely new material occasionally gets as explosive here as that could (the critical-mass fury of the closing “Arbaden/Maggie’s Baby,” most dramatically), but even the more somber passages sport a sort of contained combustion with no lack of heat and intensity, both musical and emotional.
“Embrace Another Fall” is one that has it all, an examination of loss, the end of something, a sense of disorienting transition with Plant at once pleading and accepting, the band drawing a line between “Kashmir” and North Africa and, well, an ever-shifting space of inner turmoil. Certainly many will interpret this as coming from his breakup with Griffin, with whom he’d been living in Austin, Texas in recent years. Could well be. But it’s really a realization of what he’d been working toward for some time now.
And you know what? That title is pretty apt. This is music that is at once a soothing, comforting lullaby and a full-out roar, from the very rare artist who is scaling new peaks this far into a career.
Notes: There is a growing consciousness in recent years about stateless people, or people whose “nationality” transcends, or ignores, official borders. And a good deal of that consciousness and awareness is coming from their music: The desert blues of West Africa’s Tuareg people, the vibrant folk and jazz of the Roma spanning from Rajasthan to Spain, the forceful ballads of the Kurds have all brought their respective cultures to the world.
Honduras’ Aurelio Martinez, more than anyone right now, represents Central America’s Garifuna culture, which is found in the region of his nation, Belize, Guatemala and other neighboring countries. Not only has he become the leaving figure in the vibrant music of his people, but a few years back he represented them in the Honduran government, one of the first people of African descent ever elected to the country’s National Congress.
The music on this album, produced by Belize star Ivan Duran and being released by Peter Gabriel’s Real World label, is not overtly political. It is, though, deeply cultural. The album title means “landing” in Garifuna, as in a place where one has landed, where a culture has landed, where it has grown — where it belongs. On the most personal, literal level for Martinez, that’s the boat landing in the tiny fishing village of Plaplaya on the Caribbean coast, where he grew up. There was no electricity, but there was much music, guitars and drums and singing that filled the nights and, in the process, kept alive culture that was losing ground in the encroachment of the modern world. The title song celebrates that with both nostalgic joy and a sharp eye for the hardships of that life.
Other songs are at turns funny, such as “Nari Golu (My Golden Tooth),” or desolate, with “Litun Weyu (Sad Day)” a song by young Belize Garifuna composer Shelton Petillo from the point of view of a young man in a hospital, forgotten by his family and friends. Overall there’s a sense of melancholy both cultural and individual, the latter there in the opening “Sañanaru (I Can’t Handle Her)” about a personal conflict. Through it all there’s a tropical lilt to the music, the energy that fuels the rump-shaking punta rhythms most popular in Garifuna music, as well as some ties to other Afro-Caribbean sounds (the quasi-rhumba of “Nando (Leonardo),” with the wooden clavé at the heart of the rhythm). But with “Funa Tugudirugo (Newborn Child),” the drums and guitars that are the core of Garifuna music are largely unadorned and Martinez — and we — are right there on the beach by the landing.
Garifuna, legend has it, has it origins in a 17th century wreck on St. Vincent Island of a slave ship coming from Africa. The survivors mixed with the indigenous people, and later their descendants were deported to Central America by the British colonizing the Caribbean. The language and culture spread through the region, evolving over generations and absorbing elements of French, English and Spanish presences. Throughout the region it had no official home, no official place.
In recent generations, though, a new sense of pride and identity has emerged. Young musician Andy Palacio became the central figure in this, tirelessly building on and promoting traditions with a modern perspective and mentoring others, including Martinez, both in music and politics. When Palacio died at just age 48 in 2008, Martinez left politics to focus on the music and culture. Much of his work has shown a large vision, an interest in the global stage as much as in his roots. His last album, 2011’s Laru Beya, also produced by Duran and on Real World, featured collaborations with Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour and Orchestra Baobab. This one keeps the lens on home. That focus makes it his best yet.
Notes: Diana Fuentes is classically trained and that versatility stands out in her new album Planeta Planetario.
The Cuban singer/songwriter, who has studied at schools like the National Art School of Cuba, performed for several years with the Afro-Cuban jazz group Sintesis, the band that went on to receive a Latin Grammy nomination for best contemporary tropical album. Then she began performing on her own.
Fuentes, who is married to Calle 13's Visitante, is now creating her own musical path with Planet Planetarium, which highlights her powerful voice in ballads and much more. The project takes on several musical themes and show’s her depth further in songs such as “Será Sol,” a cover from Carlos Varela.
A thoughtful songwriter, Fuentes’ strong writing abilities illustrate her tenure in music. Her ballad work is impressive and shows the artist's poetic side, one that also sheds light on causes and themes that are important to the entertainer.
Fuentes, who signed to Sony Music Latin last year, makes each song intimate by putting her life experiences into each composition. Visitante, also known as Eduardo Cabra, produced the album.
A career arc that’s approaching 20 years in the music business, Fuentes’ impressive career continues to grow and show her maturity as a singer/songwriter in music that is powerful, charming and compelling.
Artist: Francisca Valenzuela
Album: "Tajo Abierto"
Songs: "Prenderemos Fuego Al Cielo," "Siempre Eres Tu"
Notes: Francisca Valenzuela, the Chilean-American singer, returns with Tajo Abierto (Sliced Open), a new album of pop music that has bite, complexity and musically rich lyrics.
Valenzuela’s new music shows that the singer/songwriter continues to take her musical chops to new levels as the songstress goes deep in her writing and compositions, which grow with every verse in songs such as the single “Prenderemos Fuego Al Cielo” (We’ll Set the Sky on Fire).
The singer released her first album Muerdete la Lengua (Bite your Tongue) in 2007. In 2011, her second album, Buen Soldado (Good Solider) went gold in Chile. The current album has been released under Valenzuela’s own label, Frantastic Records.
"Siempre Eres Tu"
At a recent showcase in Los Angeles, Valenzuela mesmerized her fans with her music—compositions that resonate universally from a songwriter whose reach continues to expand and delight.
"Prenderemos Fuego al Cielo" has a strong pop approach and a retro feel; it is musically captivating and danceable. "Siempre Eres Tu," about a relationship, has a slower tempo that feels haunting with Valenzuela's smooth vocalization to match a chilling and killer piano accompaniment. The album, which also features an track in English ("Almost Superstars"), delivers.