Take Two contributor Steve Hochman stops by with his selections of new music to refresh anyone’s playlist.
Here are his picks:
Album: “What Now”
We kick off this week with an ode to radio. An odd ode, but an endearing one. And that’s pretty much a concise description of the makers of this song, “Radio,” the Durham, North Carolina-based duo that calls itself Sylvan Esso. That was certainly a first impression of the act when it opened for Tune-Yards a few years ago — homemade electro-pop with tall gawky Nicholas Sanborn operating the machinery and Amelia Meath singing and, well, dancing of a sort. It was hard not to be charmed.
But then, at some point, if one was paying attention, there was a probing poetry to the songs, real artistry and depth inside the shabby geniality, which also marked the 2014 debut album, “Sylvan Esso.” (Even the name has a nice naiveté: Sylvan coming from a sprite in a video game they both played, Esso simply being a musical sound.)
“What Now,” the second album, builds on that with some added sophistication but without losing the shabbiness. Opener “Sound” starts with a crackling, like a scratchy record or electronic static, the glorious patina of analog audio. Soon that is joined by Meath’s muffled voice, gradually becoming more clear, more distinct, until at the end it’s just her voice, alone, singing, “All you feel is sound.” It’s a theme through the album, in addition to “Sound” and “Radio,” there’s a particularly bouncy song called, well, “Song.” There’s a gee-whiz sense of wonder to it all, as if sound and songs carry all the mysteries of life if you only listen. Heck, “Radio” is as much about sex, and somewhat explicit at that, as it is about the music on the airwaves.
And with life, of course, there’s death. Yet, the song “Die Young” also has a kind of innocence to it. “I was gonna die young,” Meath sings, then almost sadly examining reasons to live. Well, one reason in particular: “Had it all planned out before you met me, I had a plan you ruined it completely.”
She sounds kinda sad about having to “contend with the living blues,” but reassures us, “Oh, I don’t mind, I’ve got the fire.” Yup, even with that, oddly endearing.
As with much great music, much great art, there is something disorienting about the music of Argentina’s electro-pop shapeshifter Juana Molina.
It’s very thoughtful of her, in the English translations of the Spanish lyrics accompanying the album, to provide a compass reference for something that is literally disorienting to some of us, particularly those of us who speak a different language, come from a different culture and, to the point, a different half of the globe. With the translation of the lyrics to the song “Al Oueste (In the West)” she includes a footnote to a line referencing an expectation of sunshine through a north-facing window: “*in the southern hemisphere, the sun peaks out in the north.”
Of course, for those of us not proficient in Spanish, it might be a moot point as we wouldn’t have caught the reference in the first place. But it underscores the point that there’s plenty else to keep one off balance in this album. And as with the misplaced sun, it’s often things you might not realize are unsettling until you are in the middle of them.
One of Molina’s favored musical tools is repetition, with musical phrases and patterns on loops that often seem incomplete or fragmentary. It like something’s missing, and perhaps in going over it all again and again it will somehow continue on to completion — but never does. Even in the course of the full songs these elements remain in sketch state, understated in a way that can be slightly unsettling, but just enough so that it holds our attention, draws us in, as if we need to find lost pieces of the puzzle, but can’t. Over that she sings in a way also understated, reserved, a little breathy in a way that tilts between guarded and intimate, between conversation and confession, between curiosity and claustrophobia.
She also finds a nice balance of acoustic and electronic. “Los pies helados (Frozen Feet)” favors the former with its loop of a short guitar figure as its spine over which it takes on layers of voice and percussion. “A00 B01,” as the name might suggest, takes a digital approach in its hallucinatory tone.
It’s an approach that Molina — who came to fame as a popular, provocative Argentine TV sketch comedy star in the 1980s and ‘90s— has perfected over the course of now seven albums in the past 22 years. It’s a process of subtraction, of elimination, of bringing things to their bare bones. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that bones are central to the album artwork and the visuals in the video teaser that preceded the album release — bones with blinking eyes, bones in clothes. It’s both amusing and disturbing.
So, in that context, one of the most jarring, unsettling, disorienting moments comes from something that ought to be the opposite: “An unexpected clarity came over me,” she sings in “Sin Dones (No Attributes).” It’s something of a be-careful-what-you-wish-for moment. A what-do-I-do-with-this revelation. It’s also fleeting. Which may be the point. One gets the impression that maybe in her mid-50s, as she looks to her future, the last thing she wants is to have all the pieces in place, to have the answers, that not having questions to explore is the most fearful thing she could imagine.
We spent so much of 2016 mourning the many great music figures who passed away that we may have neglected to properly celebrate those still with us with landmark legacies. One of those is salsa and Latin jazz giant Eddie Palmieri, who marked his 80th birthday in December by inviting a bunch of friends to help make a new album. Among them were such notable proteges and acolytes as New Orleans saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr., bass innovator Marcus Miller, jazz guitarist David Spinozza and funk drummer Bernard Purdie, as well as past and present regulars of Palmieri’s standards-setting bands, including Havana-born violinist Alfredo de la Fe (who played with Palmieri in the early 1970s) and New York/Puerto Rico congero Little Johnny Rivero.
The album title, “Sabaduría,” means “Wisdom,” which while a well-earned accolade makes it sound like a somber affair. It’s anything but. Save for the mid-set “Life,” a reflective solo Palmieri piano interlude, this is a rollicking affair, encompassing the full range of the maestro’s more than 60 years in the business — everything from classic salsa to modern funk, New York sophistication to New Orleans strut, small-combo conversations to big-ensemble workouts.
Opener “Cuerdas y Tumbao” — cuerdas means “strings,” tumbao denotes a sexy rhythm or sway — kicks it off with roiling percussion (including timbales, of course, by Venezuela native Luisito Quintero) over which Palmieri’s piano and de la Fe’s violin (the strings) take fanciful flight. Miller, Purdie and Spinozza team as a fluid unit on the jazz-funk title song. Harrison brings in different sides of his hometown taking a lead role on the tropical jazz of “Augustine Parish” and the boisterous “The Uprising,” with its side-trip to a Mardi Gras parade. Eddie Palmieri turned 80? A parade seems the least we could do.
Here's Palmieri and band at Lincoln Center honoring his 80th birthday: