It's time for Tuesday Reviewsday, our weekly new music segment. This week music journalist Steve Hochman joins Alex Cohen with a list of new songs from some artists who've been around for a while.
Album: Two Universes
Songs: "Tired of Your Tears," "Questions sans résponses"
Notes: A centerpiece of young Louisiana band Feufollet's live sets in recent years has been turning Eno's '70s art-rock chestnut "Baby's On Fire" into a Cajun two-step. The funny thing is they do it without really changing the song much — other than singing in French and adding accordion and fiddle. It's something of an in-joke that only a small handful of fans get, but it shows both musical wit and ambitious vision. There's nothing quite as startlingly radical on the group's new album, the followup to 2010's "En Couleurs," which earned a Grammy nomination for best zydeco or cajun album. But the imaginative spirit and daring is evident throughout, even if in more subtle ways.
Much of this comes from accordion and guitar player Chris Stafford, who co-founded the band with fellow Lafayette Cajun music prodigies more than 15 years ago, before he'd even turned 10 (the band’s name means "wisp" or "little flame"). Watching the band evolve, both in music and lineup, through and beyond the members' teen years in appearances at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival has been thrilling. While Cajun music has been the core, all along there's been a spirit of invention and originality with a wide range of tastes and influences brought in, with Stafford as the musically voracious catalyst.
Here, though, he hands most of the songwriting and singing role to newer member Kelli Jones-Savoy, a Cajun by marriage but coming from more of an Appalachian folk background. Singing largely in English, Jones-Savoy brings a touch of twang to the band, heard alluringly on the opening "Tired of Your Tears." It's not Taylor Swift, let alone Tammy Wynette. But it might well appeal to fans of either.
It’s also not Cajun legends the Balfa Brothers or BeauSoleil. But they’ve hardly abandoned the traditions — "Cette Fois," for one example, is right in the Cajun mode and will get dancers two-stepping in the dance halls. With the creative ways of expanding on and re-envisioning that, Feufollet cinches its spot at the forefront of a new generation of Acadiana artists at once honoring their traditions and extending its scope.
As such, throughout the album, the music lives up to the title. Stafford sings "Pris Dans la Vie Farouche," a '50s-ish Waltz written by bassist Philippe Billeaudeaux in the style of the region's classic swamp-pop (a two-worlds approach of an earlier generation), followed by another romantic waltz, Stafford's "Early Dawn," with more of an alt-Americana feel.
The thing is, they're not crossing back and forth between the two universes, but bringing them together as one. More than just two universes, really. It's a regular string theory going on here, all working nicely together on the album’s glorious closing song, the cosmically quizzical "Questions sans résponses" — "Questions Without Answers."
Album: The Fourth Light
Songs: "Tam e Eshq." "Man Haramam"
Notes: Can the poetry and inspiration of 8th century Sufi mystic Rabia Al Barsi be made relevant today? You bet it can, in the hands of Niyaz, the always-compelling project of married couple Azam Ali and Loga Torkian, long-time L.A. residents who relocated to Montreal a few years ago.
Mixing ancient and modern is Niyaz's specialty. In this, its fourth album, it's been refined into slinky tracks deftly weaving modern electronics through melodies, rhythms and instrumentations derived from various Islamic cultural traditions, centered on their own Persian roots.
In the same way, they weave the image of Rabia, credited as the first female Sufi mystic, with the issues facing women around the world today. Little survives of her words, but her influence is felt through the ages, including being cited through generations of those who came after, though her work and role is often marginalized in the patrician world of religious orthodoxy, just as she suffered great hardships of poverty and slavery in her life.
Crucially, as they balance the old and new, they also balance the message with the art. They are honoring a poet, after all, not a polemicist, and there’s a poetic quality to both the words (even if we can't understand them) and the music. The translations reveal them not so much about women's struggles, but about love and the meaning of love — the sorrows of wont and of separation, the suppression and oppression of one’s love, and supreme aspirations to love, in the tradition of the Sufi poets, love both earthly and spiritual. That much of it has a solid beat somehow makes it more so.
Ali's singing, as always in Niyaz and her many other ventures, are masterful both in technique and emotional resonance. And here she adds the electronic programming to her role, taking over for former member Carmen Rizzo and at all turns enhancing and illuminating Torkian's virtuosity on a wide variety of traditional and modern instruments.
Many of the songs were written by the two, including the very traditional-oriented "Tam e Eshq (The Taste of Love)" and the seductively somber "Man Haramam (I Am Sin)." Others come from folk and classical sources: Opener "Sabza Ba Naz (The Triumph of Love)" is from an Afghan folks song. "Yek Nazar (A Single Glance)." is based on two folk songs from the Khorassan region of Iran. "Eyvallah Shahim (Truth)" is by Turkish composer Arif Sag, and some of the album was recorded in Istanbul with local musicians.
Niyaz, it says in the liner notes, is committed "to creating music with a deep social message aimed at uniting people from different cultural and religious backgrounds through out shared humanity." A lofty, noble goal, certainly. Channeling that into compelling art, though, is a neat trick that they pull off elegantly.
Niyaz will perform at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles on May 28.
Artist: The Sonics
Album: This Is the Sonics
Songs: "Bad Betty," "The Hard Way"
Notes: The most furiously, relentlessly rockin' show I've seen in the last few years was by a group of guys in their 60s and 70s. Not the Rolling Stones. Not Neil Young & Crazy Horse, though they all comported themselves credibly. No, this is the Sonics — which happens to be the title of the Tacoma band's new album, its first since 1967, and a full 50 years after its debut album in the prime of the garage-rock era.
The current incarnation includes three original members — singer-keyboardist Jerry Roslie, guitarist Larry Parypa and sax honker Rob Lind, who first started playing together in 1960 — joined by bassist Freddie Dennis and powerhouse drummer Dusty Watson, a little younger but veterans of this kind of music. The originals have aged well and so has the sound, made to last from the rough and tumble northwest circuit in which it was forged five decades ago. That durability was already evident when their '60s recording "Have Love Will Travel" turned up in a car commercial a couple of years ago with its unbeatable fuzzed-up charge. And while they never had a hit — even as such Northwest peers as the Kingsmen ("Louie, Louie") and Paul Revere & the Raiders became radio staples — in the intervening years, Sonics recordings of "Psycho" and "Strychnine" became cherished templates for several generations of punks, grungers and garage-rockers.
That’s still there in abundance on the new album, recorded pretty much live in, as they put it, "earth-shaking mono" by producer Jim Diamond, who'd helped shape the sound of Jack White and the White Stripes, the earth-shakers of the more recent neo-garage movement. But judging from how they sounded in concert of late, Diamond didn't have to do anything other than get it on tape.
As in the past, a good portion of the songs are rock and R&B covers — "I Don’t Need No Doctor," Willie Dixon's "You Can’t Judge a Book By the Cover," Hank Ballard's "Little Sister," among them, all played with rough-shod, break-neck urgency. One of the highlights, though, is a new original, "Bad Betty," co-written by Lind. And maybe the most delightful surprise is the frantic, barb-edged version of the Kinks' "The Hard Way," harder than Ray Davies and band ever played in their prime. Oddly, this is from the Kinks' '70s concept album era (Schoolboys in Disgrace), not its '60s garage-rock heyday. It just goes to show that not only is garage-rock timeless, it's ageless.
The Sonics will be at downtown Los Angeles' Regent Theatre on May 9.