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.
Artist: Sxip Shirey
Album: A Bottle of Whiskey and a Handful of Bees
Songs: Woman of Constant Sorrow and Cinnamon Stick
Sxip Shirey is a bit, well, different. To start, he spells his name "Sxip" — it’s pronounced "Skip."
An accomplished composer and performer on a number of things (multi-instrumentalist seems an insufficient term), the New Yorker has built a distinct log of credits from brash Amanda Palmer and her Dresden Dolls to the Boston Pops, with others including Reggie Watts, co-founding the Luminescent Orchetrii, composing for a short film by Neil Gaiman and a mini-opera for the English National Opera and "The Gauntlet," a choir performance in which the audience members walk between two rows of singers. This album was made while he was touring for two years as performer, composer and musical director of the theatrical circus-arts show LIMBO. Its surreal depiction of that nomadic artistic life could be called a modern folk, perhaps.
But in that regard it is also, well, different. Here "folk" means guest appearances on several songs by Rhiannon Giddens, who as part of the folk-based Carolina Chocolate Drops collaborated with Shirey’s Luminescent outfit. One of the songs she sings here is "Woman of Constant Sorrow," a re-gendered reworking of the Appalachian standard "Man of Constant Sorrow." The electronics — and an electronically controlled bells contraption — that are key to the setting for her vocals? As we said, modern folk music.
Then there’s the modern R&B side of it, on the frisky/sultry "Cinnamon Stick," one of several songs featuring soul singer Xavier. But then, that’s folk music too.
Those are just starting points for Shirey’s sonic explorations, though, which also lead to the whimsical experimental chamber music in "The Land Whale Choir Sinks the Albert Hall" (the title is pretty descriptive) as well as to "Bach, Stevie Wonder and Janelle Monae." The latter also features Giddens singing "In my head I hear these records play, if you see me smiling it’s Bach, Stevie Wonder and Janell Monea," which is something of a mission statement. Well, both of those are something of mission statements. He has many missions, it seems. But no matter what he’s doing, or how many things he’s combining, there’s a deft hand at work, as well as a nimble musical vision that makes it unlike anything else. That’s his x-factor.
Artist: Miles Mosley
Songs: Young Lion and Abraham
Miles Mosley’s "Uprising" is only 44 minutes long, but in many ways every bit as epic as Kamasi Washington’s sprawling three-hour jazz excursion, which was of course titled "Epic." It’s a pertinent comparison since upright bassist and singer Mosley was a key figure on "Epic," and this new album features much the same ensemble, including Washington himself on tenor sax. For that matter, Mosley’s band, the West Coast Get Down, is the core of the "Epic" outfit, and this album is at the very least a companion work.
That’s a lot to live up to — and "Uprising" rises to the occasion. But there are some significant differences aside from just the length. Where "Epic" was mostly about the music (though there were some vocal choruses) in its extended explorations, this is an album of songs, as much about the words as the music, though there’s no skimping on the latter. Rather, the words and music combine for tandem explosions of power and depth.
This is aspirational, inspirational soul-jazz harking back to some of the great anthems of the ‘60s and ‘70s, the full jazz colorations of the charts giving a signature to these songs, many shaped by a fiery fight for social justice. Curtis Mayfield, the Isley Brothers, the Staples Singers, Bill Withers among others come to mind. Maybe Grandmaster Flash and Public Enemy, too, in some ways. But also Charles Mingus and Archie Schepp, Pharaoh Sanders and Max Roach, for a start. And while there’s nothing reggae about this, it’s probably no coincidence that the album’s title was also used by Bob Marley for one of his forceful sets.
"Ima take this five-minute song and make one thing real clear," sings Mosley in the chest-thumping opener "Young Lion," his bass taking on the characteristics of a fuzz-tone guitars, with Brandon Coleman’s churning organ, Tony Austin’s roiling percussion and blazing horns all blasting away in a big funky stew. "I’m rock steady, walk tall, ain’t nothin’ wrong with a know it all."
Then he goes Old Testament with "Abraham," singing "Call me Abraham, straight from the mountains of Jerusalem," the boast turning both manic ("Because I’m a little 51/50") and sexy ("I lay your body down in style"). But like the know-it-all line in "Young Lion," he uses the platform to promote exceptionalism: "Mediocrity is everywhere, but not here." It’s not idle chatter.
A little later he looks at the complicated relationship many have with his city: "I won’t let L.A. bring you down," he promises in "L.A. Bring You Down" as the ensemble shifts from strings-backed somber strength to full soul assertion, leading to a big gospel-y bridge.
It’s all mixed up in the best ways, the playful and the serious, the striding and the sensual, the political and the personal, the complexities and contrasts carried out in the music— horns, strings, piano, guitar, drums — and Mosley’s bedrock bass — all working in concert for a massive, compelling ensemble sound. Solos happen, including Mosley taking flight in some bursts with his instrument run through some sort of effect or another.
And then on the last song, "Fire," cascading strings and horn sections pushed by thunderous drum roils bring things to a forceful, inspiring close, so tantalizing and tasty that you may find yourself wishing that it did keep going to epic length.
Artist: Debashish Bhattacharya
Album: Hawaii to Calcutta: A Tribute to Tau Moe
Songs: Kaua I Ka Huahua`i (Hawaiian War Chant) and The Dance Of Nai'a At Oahu Shore
It was a stressful 2016, so you could probably use a Hawaii vacation about now. Or rather than Waikiki, how about Calcutta? There’s more of a link than you might imagine, at least musically speaking.
That link came courtesy of one Tau Moe, a Samoa-born and Hawaii-raised star of the Hawaiian slide guitar styles that proliferated in the first half of the 20th century. In the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s he toured regularly through eastern and southern Asia, finding particularly welcoming ears in Calcutta, where the quarter-tones and glissandi of his slide style fit nicely along the melisma of Indian classical music.
This is not a chapter explored in the recent Oxford American story about the myths and realities of the influence Hawaiian slide guitar had on the blues of the American south. But the six-string slide guitar took hold there and one found its way into the hands of Debashish Bhattacharya when he was just three, and within a year he was performing as an ultra-young prodigy, the start of a career that has seen him as an innovator applying various musical sensibilities to Indian classical music (and vice-versa) and even inventing his own array of instruments combining aspects of slide guitar and Indian instruments. His many recordings are filled with delightful surprises, musical twists and virtuosity.
With this new album, he honors Moe, to whom he owes his initial, and continued, inspirations — and whom he met on a Hawaii trip in 2004, not long before Moe died at age 96. The music here leans more to the Indian side of things, alaaps and rags with the guitar backed by burbling tabla and drones, the Hawaiian elements being perhaps more impressionistic than literal, but making for sparkling evocations on such excursions as "Playful Melina on Diamond Head" and the specifically dedicated, stately "Papa Tau (A Tribute to Papa Tau Moe)."
But mixed in are some direct island nods, including interpretations of the standards "Aloha ‘Oe" and "Kaua I Ka Huahua’i" — better known, if inaccurately, as the "Hawaiian War Chant." Here and there Battacharya finds a way to bring out at least the feelings, and sometimes the sounds, of both at once, such as on "The Dance Of Nai'a At Oahu Shore." It’s like sitting on the beach, watching the waves tickle the sand, eating poi curry. Okay, maybe not the last part.