It's time for Tuesday Reviewsday, our weekly new music segment. Host A Martinez sits down with music journalist Steve Hochman to chat about what he's been listening to.
Artist: Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys
Songs: "Au Revoir Grand Mamou," "Madame Faillelle"
As you know, June is National Accordion Awareness Month. So today let’s be aware of Cajun accordion wizard Steve Riley. Hailing from — as the band name implies — the town of Mamou in the heart of the Louisiana prairies, Riley’s been expanding the musical traditions of the region’s cultures for 27 years now, with 14 Mamou Playboys albums and a basket of side projects and collaborations to show for it. And yet he still seems like a leader of a new generation, not part of the old guard. Part of that is how he’s always looking to try new approaches to the traditions, add new ideas and sounds, without ever leaving the metaphorical home.
Well, until now… metaphorically. The album title "Voyageurs" sets the tone, and the opening song makes it explicit, waving "Au Revoir a Grand Mamou" — good-bye to Grand Mamou. And off they go, Riley’s accordion leading the way, with Kevin Wimmer’s fiddle right behind. But just as key is the electric guitar of Sam Broussard — not standard in this music — spikes many of the tunes. The journey sweeps up funky Creole Zydeco, country swing, blazing rock, R&B-inspired Swamp Pop… Okay, so they never really go that far from home. The trip out of Grand Mamou is a grand tour of the music of Southern Louisiana, one of the richest lands for music you’ll find anywhere.
And in the course of it they pay homage to many who come before, while setting new tones for those still to come. The mix of styles owes a lot to generations of innovatores: Dennis McGee and Canray Fontenot (the fiddlers’ "Crapaud" and "Bernadette" are done here, respectively), Michael Doucet and his band BeauSoleil, to Cajun rocker Zachary Richard, Zydeco great Boozoo Chavis (with a version of "Boozoo’s Blues" here) and to the Ragin’ Cajun himself, Doug Kershaw, with whom Rile recently made a fiddle-accordion duet album that digs deep into the traditional Cajun repertoire. Meanwhile, the new comes in such collaborations as a co-write of a country-ish song by young Kelli Jones-Savoy of the rising-star band Feufollet.
If there’s a loose concept in the sequence, it’s echoed in a promo photo that on first glance evokes the colorful cover of the classic loose-concept album, the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But this scene is no arty contrivance. It’s just a photo of Cajun Mardi Gras revelers, in traditional costumes as they go house to house to score ingredients for the celebratory meal. That’s all in the grooves of "La Dance de Mardi Gras," a tune originated by the late fiddle great Dewey Balfa, one of the key figures in the ‘60s Cajun music revival, here kicking off with sounds of trotting hoofbeats and turning into a raucous chase.
But things really heat up when the band stretches out on the traditional "Madame Faillelle," a powerful Zydeco workout that ties together the companion Francophone Cajun and Creole cultures. Wherever these "Voyageurs" go, you know people will be dancing.
Artist: Melody Gardot
Album: "Currency of Man"
Songs: "Preacherman," "Same to You"
With her fourth album, Philadelphia singer Melody Gardot both breaks out of the dark mystique that's marked her career since her stunning 2008 debut album, and intensifies it. Check out the way the song "Preacherman" builds intensity in its layers of sounds — a full-on electric band behind her rather than the expected acoustic new-jazz — and waves of emotions in her words and the way she sings them. It’s as if she’s at once reaching out to us and pushing us away, retreating into her own shadowed world.
Those shadows are deep with her, though, embodied in her very name (straight out of a noir novel), her ever-present dark glasses and her subdued, dusky voice. The shades and the hushed sounds are manifestations of a key thing behind her art — a horrendous 2003 bike accident that left her, after a year of bed-ridden hospitalization, sensitive to light and sound. It shaped her music and her sense of self-in-the-world.
The promotional photos of Gardot with a determined look on her face and an electric guitar slung over her shoulder tell the story. The music, fashioned with Grammy-winning producer Larry Klein (Joni Mitchell, Herbie Hancock, as well as earlier Gardot albums among his many credits) draw on a wide range of jazz, R&B, pop and rock — opener "It Gonna Come" uses horns and strings like a classic Curtis Mayfield production, with Gardot understatedly calling to mind such profound artists as Nina Simone and Nancy Wilson in her tone and phrasing. That gives way to the chunky, low-register guitar tones on "Preacherman," her sultry vocals joined a couple of times by a haunting chorus. And "Morning Sun" breaks the darkness, somewhat, with a gospel-y sense of hope. It’s an exhilarating run, and that’s just the first three songs. And with the fourth, the drivingly powerful soul workout "Same to You," Gardot ups the ante further with a stance at once challenging and threatening, a baritone sax accenting the targeted barbs.
Throughout there’s a sense of an already impressive artist reaching for new things and as often as not surpassing the goals. As great as this record is, one can only imagine how forceful it his music will be in concert.
Artist: Richard Thompson
Songs: "She Never Could Resist a Winding Road," "No Peace, No End"
Opening Richard Thompson’s several-dozenth album, the lilting "She Never Could Resist a Winding Road" joins a long list of his vivid, bittersweet portraits of restless ramblers. It’s always hard to tell whether Thompson envies that free-spirit wanderlust or gazes sadly on a lost soul. It’s both, really, which gives this song a compelling quality as it builds from brittle folk delicacy to denser balladry.
For "Still," Thompson took steps to keep himself from a well-worn road, enlisting Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy to produce. While it’s still clearly recognizable as a Thompson album — to anyone who has heard any of his career starting with English folk-rock groundbreakers Fairport Convention in the ‘60s through his remarkably dynamic 2013 album Electric — Tweedy’s input brings some new twists and nuances to the sounds, both the folkier numbers and the all-out rockers.
Thompson’s estimable talents as a writer and guitarist and the combo of grace and power of his Electric Trio cohorts, bassist Taras Prodaniuk and drummer Michael Jerome, are always at the core, though. Tweedy plays a variety of instruments as well, but never imposes himself on the music. "Still" as such fits nicely alongside such Thompson classic as 1974’s I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight and 1982’s Shoot Out the Lights (both from his partnership with former wife Linda Thompson), without ever sounding like it’s looking back to past work.
In that light, there’s perhaps irony in the title’s two meanings — still as in a winking "still here" and as in "without movement." Even in the most subdued moments, there’s rarely stillness in Thompson’s songs, a trait Tweedy shares. That’s reflected throughout the album, with many shades of seekers and dreamers parading by.
One new thing here is an explicitly autobiographical element. Thompson, often cagey about such things, on "Beatnik Walking" recounts a trek in Europe when his son Jack, now a twentysomething and a musician himself, was just a baby in a papoose on dad’s back. It’s a lovely, touching scene. And on the closing "Guitar Heroes," Thompson — who’s guitar prowess is even greater than his songwriting talents — tells the tale of his own evolution on the instrument, working in licks by key role models Django Reinhardt, Les Paul, Chuck Berry, James Burton and English hotshot Hank Marvin (of the Shadows), each dexterously recreated down to the most subtle characteristics. It’s the song likely to get the most attention, but it’s his own, distinct playing that routinely makes jaws drop. Check out the solos and fills on "Long John Silver" and the intense "No Peace, No End." He can imitate all those great pickers, but not sure anyone could truly imitate him.