If you don't have the time to keep up with the latest in new music, we've got the perfect solution for you: Tuesday Reviewsday. Every week our music experts come by to talk about the best new tunes in one short segment. This week, music journalist Steve Hochman joins host A Martinez with his top picks.
Album: "Adore Life"
Songs: "Evil," "Adore"
The arrival three years ago of Savages, four young women from London, heralded something new. Or, really, something new made from something old, specifically the sounds of England circa 1980 — some early Siouxsie and the Banshees, some Public Image Ltd., some Joy Division, at least for a start, all refreshed with fire and passion on a debut album "Silence Yourself." With this follow-up they don’t reinvent their reinvention, but they have refined and revved it up.
You don’t even have to hear a note to get the idea. Just look at the cover photo, a stark black-and-white photo of a raised woman’s fist, tightly clenched, with three heavy rings. Guitarist Gemma Thompson’s power chords kicking off opening song "The Answer" carry that same sense, soon joined by singer Jehnny Beth repeating the lines "If you don’t love me, don’t love anybody" with the same obsessive intensity, with Ayse Hassan’s bass and Fay Milton’s drums soon piling in with claustrophobic fury. Probably a good idea to take a deep breath before dropping the needle on this one.
But just when it seems you, or they, might suffocate from the tension, the tone lifts with the next song. Not that it’s light and happy — it is titled "Evil," after all. But here’s where these Savages start to show the extent of sophistication growing in the music. Over a galloping rhythm, Beth (real name Camille Berthomier, and born and raised in France, not England) explores some possibilities of, yes, love, with some open ended musings. When she sings "Don’t try to change," her dramatic tones slashed by Thompson’s guitar lines, she’s neither compliant nor caustic, but is expressing real affection for whoever the object of the comment may be.
Throughout the album, Savages traverses the range of emotions suggested by these tracks, sometimes wildly and abruptly. The song titles alone suggest that it’s just all too much to take in at times — "Sad Person," "Slowing Down the World," "I Need Something New," "Surrender."
But the range, and maturity, of the music gives the sense that they’ve got it all under control, that it’s a quest being embraced as an adventure. It also makes it clear that they’ve handled the acclaim that accompanied the debut with grace and spirit, rising to the challenge to keep growing, keep exploring, keep moving forward. The key song is one of the most austere and atmospheric, the quasi-title track, "Adore." It’s Hamlet by way of Ronnie Spector, existential musing as Beth wonders the extent to which "to adore life" is a human quality. Toward the end of the song, the instruments back away some and she sings "I adore life" a handful of times, at first with some sadness, then with confident certainty, before adding "You adore life" to the mantra, the music swelling to full glory to match the grand conclusion.
Artist: Bill Frisell
Album: "When You Wish Upon a Star"
Songs: "Psycho Pt. 1," "You Only Live Twice"
Let’s go to the movies! Better yet, let’s go with Bill Frisell. We don’t even need a screen. The images the guitarist and his cohorts, including vocalist Petra Haden, conjure are vivid runs through some of the greatest cinematic experiences. "To Kill a Mockingbird," "Psycho," "The Godfather," "Once Upon a Time in the West," "Breakfast at Tiffany’s," "Pinocchio," they’re all here. That’s right: Norman Bates and Jiminy Cricket, together again!
Well, more specifically, of course, music from those films, the works of such masters as Bernard Hermann, Ennio Morricone, Elmer Bernstein and Henry Mancini. The interpretations of scores and songs alike prove make up one of Frisell’s most engaging and accomplished albums, and that’s saying a lot given the considerable accomplishments in his decades-long career. It’s also a lot of fun.
Bill Frisell has some of the nimblest fingers in music, applied to electric guitar with such dazzling skill that it can be easy to overlook his great taste as a player, and with such taste that at times the skills can be obscured. Those are both compliments. And complements. But as such, it can be, well, hard to put a finger on exactly what it is he does, not least because he does it over such a wide range of music in such a vast wealth of styles, from out-there avant-garde to lilting country. From California surf to Liverpool Lennon. Ostensibly he’s a jazz player, but that’s more a term of convenience than accuracy. At the moment, he can be heard shining on a new album from veteran jazz sax and flute player Charles Lloyd, as well as a soon-to-be-released tour de force from Americana star Lucinda Williams.
Here, with his small, tight group, he manages to evoke the full technicolor world of movie music. That’s tribute to his cohorts, in particular viola player Eyvind Kang and Petra Haden. The latter, the daughter of the late bassist Charlie Haden, with whom Frisell collaborated in the past, has done her own all-vocals renditions of film music in the past, and here offers both wordless lines in some of the score extracts and sultry renditions of some of the songs. She never tried to compete with or imitate the original singers’ versions, but celebrates the spirit with distinction. That says a lot when it’s such well-known and well-covered fare as "Moon River" and the album’s Disney-favorite title song. Best of all might be the Bond theme "You Only Live Twice," done with pure love and no irony. And that goes for the whole album, even a couple of TV-Western ringers, the rousing "Bonanza" and the album’s fitting closer, the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans theme song, "Happy Trails."
Artist: RAM 6
Album: "Manman m se Ginen"
Songs: "Koulou Koulou," "Mprai Domi Nan Simitiye"
No secret that some of the most boisterous, life-affirming music comes from the most challenging lives. So no need to recount the earthquakes, floods and various political and economic devastations that have marked Haiti’s history as we listen to the percolating rhythms and chanted vocals propelling the sixth album (and first studio recording in a decade) from the outfit known as RAM, one of the top modern acts in Port-au-Prince. This is a street party, a celebration, blaring horns and electric guitars powering the way.
The band name comes from the initials of Richard A. Morse, the act’s founder and guiding force, and the album title references the Haitian vodou sensibilities passed down from his mother, a well-known Haitian folk singer. Morse grew up in New York, though, and became part of the heady art scene. But in the ‘80s he developed an interest in his cultural/musical roots and moved to Haiti, met his wife-to-be, singer and dancer Lunise, and formed a band. Unlike many in the world music realm, rather than reach out to international artists, his goal was to bring some international sensibilities to Haitians, so whiles using Kreyol for the band’s language, he drew on African highlife guitar, American funk and rock, European dance to create a distinctive, energetic style. Of course, all of those elements have strong cultural ties to Haiti’s colonial history, so it’s not like it was a forced fit.
Some of the core elements might be familiar to alt-rock fans via Arcade Fire, whose Regine Chassagne is also of Haitian heritage. That band made Haiti a focus of cultural and charitable efforts after the 2010 earthquake, and then brought Haitian musicians into its music both on the "Reflektor" album and tour, to great effect. RAM takes the music to different places, though. The skittering electric guitar streaming through "Koulou Koulou" is straight from modern West Africa, the ancestral home of so many Haitians, descended from those kidnapped for the slaving trade, but with words derived from prayers associated with the time of the revolution that brought about Haiti’s independence around the turn of the 19th century. The fruits, and troubles, of that independence all come into play in "Mprai Domi Nan Simitiye," with rara horns and guitar power-chords leading a dance through Port-au-Prince to honor the spirits of death, sex, birth. Yeah, just that stuff. Life, fully affirmed.