Semipop Life: Magical-realist mystery tour
Meridian Brothers, Celestine Ukwu, the Beths, the Front Bottoms, and more!
Meridian Brothers & El Grupo Renacimiento
Main and sometimes only Meridian Brother Eblis Álvarez has always gone the extra mile for his concepts, this time making a magical-realist documentary about the “B-salsa” band El Grupo Renacimiento, who had been hiding out in a church somewhere north of Bogotá for a few decades before Álvarez rediscovered them. Singer Artemio Morelia, who doesn’t exist, describes the group’s 45-year history through to COVID and the opening of the sixth seal of the Apocalypse, leaving it unclear whether he actually was transformed into a robot once or if that was just a lyric. There are clear musical and subject matter differences between the band’s old material, like the very ’70s anti-nuke “Bomba Atomica” whose chorus tails off like Slim Pickens falling out of a B-52, and the songs dating from their comeback, like the Nuyorican-flavored “La Policía” (no N.W.A., El Grupo denounces dirty cops almost tenderly.) The meticulousness here, down to the harmony vocals featuring differing singers all of whom are Álvarez, makes this the Meridian Brothers album I’ve found the easiest to get into, yet his weirdness remains unmuted, both in ideas and in sonics like the oddly fetching sighs on “Triste son”. As far as potted histories of Latin American recorded music accompanied by animated narratives that genially water down Gárcia Márquez go, about as catchy as the Encanto soundtrack, and deeper.
Grade: A MINUS (“Triste son”, “La Policía”, “Bomba Atómica”)
Quatuor Ébène: ’Round Midnight
Three works presented by the most jocular pomo string foursome in the Paris burbs, sometimes augmented by an extra viola and cello. Dutilleux’s 1976 Ainsi la Nuit is one of the French composer’s most acclaimed works: based around a single uncanny chord, it deploys cool sound effects and the usual mainline modernist tricks to fudge the boundary between tonality and atonality. Group cellist Raphaël Merlin’s Night Bridge goofs on various nocturnal popular classics, including the title track and a “Stella by Starlight” that if it doesn’t swing at least knows soul exists, binding them to each other and to the surrounding works with Merlin’s “parentheses”: his bridge from “Moon River” to “Night and Day” is notably clever. Last up, there’s Schönberg’s infamous Verklärte Nacht, considered immoral by fin de siècle Vienna. Though I’m not qualified to evaluate how this compares to the hundred other recordings of the work, it sounds sage to me: the shock value of Schoenberg’s “nonexistent chord” may have worn off, but they sneak it up on you to make you think huh, that is a bit strange.
Grade: A MINUS (Night Bridge VIII: On Stella by Starlight, Night Bridge VI: On Night and Day, Verklärte Nacht I: Sehr langsam)
Celestine Ukwu: No Condition Is Permanent
Best known for 1971’s much-compiled “Igede”, singer/bandleader Ukwu brought a thoughtfulness to Igbo highlife during his short career. Of the five tracks here, representing a decent percentage of his complete works, at least two have long been available in good digital sound: “Onwunwa”, from his landmark album True Philosophy (aka Igede), and the steel guitar stretch-out “Okwukwe Na Ncheckwube”, on Soundway’s Nigeria Special. Then there’s “Ejina Uwa Nya Isi” (“Do not gloat over worldly possessions”), which opens with a charming part played by who knows which of Ukwu’s many guitarists before settling into a Cuban rhythm that the percussionists seem to insist was Igbo in the first place, and the devotional “Ilo Abu Chi” (“Emnity is no god”.) To finish, there’s 1973’s English-language “Tomorrow Is So Uncertain”, a masterpiece rivaling “Igede” itself, with a tinkly vibraphone set against a near-avant horn while Ukwu preaches serenity in unpredictable times. He died in a 1977 car crash aged 37; as he sings here, “this world continues without you.”
Grade: A MINUS (“Tomorrow Is So Uncertain”, “Okwukwe Na Ncheckwube”, “Ejina Uwa Nya Isi”)
Folk and Great Tunes from Siberia and Far East
You don’t need two-and-a-quarter hours of this stuff when truly great tunes are as unguaranteeable in the Tuvan and Altai Republics as in any region. But the pleasures here are bountiful. Disc one alone includes Yat-Kha’s throat-sung bass croak suddenly deciding to strive for the heavens; New Asia’s not-far-from-Gypsy-punk party that reminds you where the jaw’s harp came from; Ulger with something that sounds like “Ring of Fire” with high overtones instead of low grace notes; Dmitry Paramonov paddling an old folk song down the Mother Volga for nine minutes; UUTAi telling a “Legend About Ancient Fight” via animal sound effects; the Sretenie Ensemble and their youth group’s hyperenthused circular harmonies and foot-stomping; and Gubernator turning oohs and aahs into a party rock floor-filler, albeit with those high harmonics floating around yet again. I put these and others on an hour-long playlist that’s now my preferred way of digesting this music. Still, displaying the vast variety of cultures and sounds within the Russian Federation is part of the point too. So sometimes I play the whole damn thing to remind myself that Russia is more than one guy at a long table.
Grade: A MINUS (“Kazhanda-daa Olbes-le Bis”, “Po matushke po Volge”, “Derevenskie Tancy”)
The Beths: Expert in a Dying Field
Where their dying field is rock, haha, oh wait Christgau already said that, albeit less jokingly. Well, they and we aren’t kidding about the “expert” part: thank a variety of New Zealand government-funded arts agencies for keeping them musicking through the pandemic, resulting in their song construction becoming a little sturdier and their guitars getting a lot more efficient (and louder.) “Silence Is Golden”, which could’ve been a CMJ number one in another era, shows their skill at using gaps for dramatic effect, though my favorite example is the brief break before “at the scene of the crime” leads into the chorus of “Head in the Clouds”. In comparison, the improvement in the lyrics of Elizabeth Stokes (the alpha Beth) is less important, but it’s there: the words and singing are imbued with a newfound confidence, regardless of whether the world—her emotional world, and also, you know, the world—is disintegrating or whether new possibilities are coalescing in front of her eyes.
Grade: A MINUS (“Silence Is Golden”, “Head in the Clouds”, “Expert in a Dying Field”)
The Front Bottoms: Theresa EP
On this third in a series of EPs remaking recordings from before they had a production budget and before Brian Sella learned how to sing badly well, the songs they revive fit their current personas and skills very well. As committed to oversharing as he was in 2009, Sella always had a sense of humor about it—he’s just learned to make it more apparent. Including the pre-Front Bottoms “The Bongo Song” means his lifelong friend Mat Uychich, having become perhaps song-rock’s best trap drummer who doesn’t have a lucrative sideline in crank calls, has to drag an old instrument out of storage; suffice to say he’s adept. The main subject is Sella’s tortured decision-making process: he’s been agonizing over dyeing his hair then getting the same haircut for five albums now. For him, not changing, like not growing up, is a conscious choice, and one that he invites you to sing and count and la-la-la along to.
Grade: A MINUS (“More Than It Hurts You”, “The Bongo Song”, “The Winds”)
Teno Afrika: Amapiano Selections (2020)
Another Awesome Tapes from Africa selection that leans to the most exciting genre in the world’s artsy side, called by some of its practitioners “Harvard amapiano”, a name that might induce groans from Western weird noise fans at public universities. A somewhat dry start is soon compensated for by early-twenties Pretorian T. Afrika’s sense of drama and ability to set up a story with very simple elements before piling on the krayzee stuff. The sheer variety of synth colors on display is impressive, most so when “Conka” pits a willful artisanal squiggle against a three-tone motif; the squiggle loses, multiple times, and single-finger exercises fill its place. Other featured commotions include expressions of mild surprise, is-that-a-goat-or-a-hiccup, and various ’90s operating system failures, yet South African electronica’s characteristic warmth pervades the whole. Plus, whether in the Ivy League or at more modest institutions, the amapiano Donk is always around.
Grade: A MINUS (“Lerato La Bass”, “Smooth Criminal”, “Conka”)
Jean-Christophe Groffe & thélème: Josquin des Prez: Baisiez moy
The majority of this is standard well-executed four-part Renaissance chanson with lute, highlighted by Julien Freymuth’s otherworldly countertenor (I wonder if he speaks like an ordinary guy.) The draw for non-specialists is the occasional batshit additional instrumentation by Ludovic van Hellemont. He plays fluent Fender Rhodes on “Ri(cerca)da”, making a case for Josquin as the originator of yacht rock (caravel rock?) Even better, he pulls out something which sounds like a theremin but which Google says is an ondes Martenot; either way, it’s mysterious and lovely, as if the soap-opera pastoral scene of “Bergerette savoisienne” was being watched by aliens hanging on to the shepherdess’s every word. The sole lifeless track is the aimless synth dirge: no need for that in either the sixteenth or twenty-first centuries.
Grade: A MINUS (“Bergerette savoisienne”, “Qui belles amours a”, “Guillaume se va chauffer/El grillo”)
Sowal Diabi: From Kabul to Bamako
Mamani Keïta, the hardest-working queen of world fusion, is the headliner on this record (not to be confused with the 2019 compilation De Kaboul à Bamako; Keïta was on that one too.) Other vital contributions are made by performers from, well, read the title, though note that all roads go through Paris, home of dub/Ethio-jazz fans Arat Kilo, who provide the musical base. Main singers Keïta and Azeri-Iranian(-French) Aïda Nosrat handle the range of material well between them, while tablas and various west Asian lutes are woven into the fabric without sounding gratuitous. Only the impatient might start mumbling “pick one thing and get really good at it” (rich coming from me, I know) during the back half, though they’d have several quite good options to choose from.
Grade: B PLUS (“Kera Kera”, “Ecoute le Ney”, “Dalila”)
A step up in consistency from The Longest April: every song has thought-through lyrics and chords, and singer Wade Derden is much more comfortable. While I’m not sure how much of the words are his and how much are by guitarist/cardiologist to the stars (and by stars I mean rock critics) Cam Patterson, “Jail App” in particular is very clever and I’m confident Derden’s graduate thesis on Southern masculinity must’ve been good. The rhythm section marches along in an inexorable old school way—it’s refreshing for those of us who’ve almost forgotten what it sounds like to hear a human being hitting a snare in a room of normal dimensions—and the occasional flugel- and other horns are a colorful touch. As a pop guy, I wouldn’t mind a few more shiny moments, a few more overdubs, one really kickass guitar solo. But with a closer as open-hearted as “Sweet Rims”, about sweet rims (and Southern masculinity), reservations melt away.
Grade: B PLUS (“Sweet Rims”, “Jail App”, “Hey Zola”)
Zoh Amba: O, Sun
Her first departure from Kingsport, TN saw her ditch the conservatory for Vedanta centers; her second has led to her becoming this year’s breakout sax player, distilling the last 60 years of spiritual avant-jazz into a blend that shows a remarkable sense of individuality from someone who’s 22. From the opening “Hymn to the Divine Mother” she lays out a tone of her own, soulful in the manner of predecessors like Ayler and her mentor David Murray, with a hint of sourness to suit the times. She’s mastered enough standard free jazz squawks and tricks to go blow for blow with John Zorn on “Holy Din”, while still leaving plenty of room for future exploration in her lower register. This isn’t a tip-top record—the quartet meanders at times (bandleading is a skill to be acquired too.) But it’s easy to see why everyone who’s ever played a gig in a New York loft is excited.
Grade: B PLUS (“Hymn to the Divine Mother”, “Holy Din”, “Northern Path”)
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