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Slippin’ & Slidin’

Adventures in Mutations

By Sandy Carter

 

This month’s reviews feature artists who make music that owes little or no loyalty to genre purity. Though their sound may be based in a particular musical idiom, their creative vision mutates so many musical elements that their style becomes singular. While this sort of groundbreaking presents endless problems for marketing, music listeners willing to follow music into new territory will be awakened to sounds inspired by truly iconoclastic muse.

 

Tricky, Angels With Dirty Faces (Island)

As a founder of the mongrel sound known as trip-hop, England’s Tricky (aka Adrian Thaws) set the standard for spooky sonic montages reflecting the dread and decay of modern urban landscapes. Angels With Dirty Faces, like Maxinquaye (1995) and Pre-Millennium Tension (1996), offers a dense blend of sounds and images that are quite disturbing. Deep throbbing beats stutter and stop, studio and human-made noises rumble and clatter, and Tricky’s gravelly rasp and ghostly whispers deliver the news. The big difference here is that Tricky now wants to speak directly to his old neighborhood. Mourning, critiquing, and abandoning the gangsta life, he is intent on pushing on toward some manner of redemption. Another gem from an urban guerrilla master.

 

Ozomatli (Almo Sounds)

LA’s Ozomatli proudly proclaim “no limitations, no boundaries” on their very inclusive, very unorthodox Afro-Latin groove fusion. The multiracial, 11-member ensemble takes its name from the Aztec god of dance and appropriately builds its tunes out of a churning weave of rhythms culled from salsa, funk, jazz, cumbia, meringue, rock, and hip-hop. The group’s instrumentation includes everything from turntables, tablas, and sitar to horns and bajo sexto (a Mexican guitar). Throw in some rhymes about peace and justice, racism and war and you’ve got the soundtrack to a progressive world dance party for the 21st century.

 

Mekons, Me (Quarterstick/ Touch And Go)

For more than two decades the socialist-minded Mekons have been playing a rough and woozy mix of punk and C&W as a backdrop to their unrelenting critique of late 20th century capitalism. Along the way, they’ve made brilliant records such as Fear And Whiskey (1985), Rock And Roll (1989) and The Curse Of The Mekons (1991), but their decided lack of pop ambition insures them status in the margins of the mass market. The Mekons, however, for all their commercial oneryness, do strive for accessible, populist-oriented sound. Their latest release is a case in point. Eschewing their familiar honky tonk sound for a more of-the-moment beat and studio driven ambiance, Me delivers a critical meditation on sex, love, and consumption that is thoroughly catchy, smart, and empathetic.

 

The Klezmatics/Chava Alberstein, The Well (Xenophile)

The leftish Jewish-American roots music band The Klezmatics have moved to the forefront of the current klezmer revival by creating an ingenious mix of Eastern European Jewish traditions with modern strains of jazz, rock, and world influences. The result is an expansive, soul-charging sound that ranges through eerie tormented reflections, frenetic dance grooves, irreverent satire, and tender, melodic songs of love and hope. Since the band was formed in 1986, four acclaimed albums and global touring has brought them an international audience and in recent years the group has collaborated with musicians as varied as Itzhak Perlman, Jane Sieberry, Ben Folds Five, and John Zorn.

Now, on The Well, The Klezmatics are joined with the great Israeli singer Chava Alberstein to perform another album of innovative Jewish music drawing from the poetry of some of the 20th century’s most notable Yiddish poets. Often called the “The First Lady Of Israeli Song,” Chava Alberstein has recorded over 40 albums embracing folk and pop sounds from around the world. Inspired by interviews with Yiddish poets and the Eastern European Jewish literature, drama, and music destroyed by the Holocaust, the Polish-born Alberstein decided to enlist The Klezmatics in helping her place Yiddish verse in a program of songs. With producer Ben Mink (known for his work with k.d. lang) also aboard, the collaboration proves a natural fit. The Klezmatics’ arrangements are, as usual, inventive and diverse. Alberstein, often in wondrous exchanges with Klezmatics’ vocalist Lorin Sklamberg, renders these tales of love and loneliness with profound humanity.

 

Los Super Seven (RCA)

Thanks to the “crossover” success of groups like Los Lobos and Texas Tornadoes, Mexican music is beginning to sound cool to Anglo ears. With that in mind a Mexican-American all-star band known as Los Super Seven has come together to push musical and cultural understanding a bit further. Featuring David Hildalgo and Cesar Rosas of Los Lobos, Tex-Mex veterans Freddy Fender and Flaco Jimenez, country singer Rick Trevino, Tejano vocalist Ruben Ramos, and maverick country rocker Joe Ely, Los Super Seven are out to celebrate and throw some light on the roots of Mexican music. Holding mostly to traditional Mexican songs, the 13-track set moves through a range of styles and moods reflecting the sorrows and joys of different generations and cultures. The one non-Mexican tune, however, Joe Ely’s borderized version of Woody Guthrie’s “Plane Wreck At Los Gatos (Deportee),” makes it clear that this multicultural journey has also been filled with conflict and exploitation. These passionate, yearning sounds are about struggle and resilience in the face of heavy odds.

 

Emmylou Harris, Spyboy (Eminent)

On her masterful 1996 album, Wrecking Ball, Emmylou Harris jolted her country neo-traditionalist sound in favor of the stark, murky atmospheres supplied by producer Daniel Lanois. It was a daring move with a healthy artistic payoff and, understandably, she is in no hurry to return to the comfortable niche she carved out in the first two decades of her career. Although her current live album revisits some better known material from her past, she has assembled a band and a sound that thoroughly shatters expectations tied to her old style roots country persona. With a trio of powerhouse players including offbeat country guitarist Buddy Miller, drummer virtuoso Brian Blade, and Neville Brothers bassist Darryl Johnson weaving extended solos and polyrhythmic brilliance around her sweet and rough soprano, Harris has discovered a new hard-edged style that elevates her expressiveness to another level. The delicate beauty of her voice remains, but anger, toughness, and rebellion have come more to the fore. A bold and successful stretch for a woman making some of the most exciting music of her life.

 

Sun Ra, Space Is The Place (Impulse/GRP)

Although outlandish views and behavior loom large in the life of keyboardist/composer Sun Ra (1914-1993), his enduring legacy in jazz rests on the strength of his music. Full of whimsy, otherworldly nonsense, and outrageous silliness, Sun Ra was, nonetheless, a creator of a remarkable Black American music linked to blues, gospel, early New Orleans jazz, swing, bop, R&B and all manner of avant-garde. For a good introductory sampler to Sun Ra’s intergalactic “hits” try out the recently reissued Space Is The Place, first released in 1973. With gooney Space Ethnic Voices calling out flight instructions before a big band launch into free space and tunes such as “We Travel The Spaceways,” “Calling Planet Earth,” and “Rocket Number Nine,” this one is both great fun and relatively accessible. To those who want explicit social relevance in their music, this album turns on the theme of Black exploitation with Sun Ra cast in the role of cosmic liberator. Amazing music from one of the most influential and maligned innovators of modern jazz.

 

Rancid, Life Won’t Wait (Epitaph)

Only three years have passed since the release of Rancid’s breakthrough album “...And Out Come The Wolves,” but conventional music industry wisdom now seems to have it that punk and hard rock sounds are all but dead. Evidently, Rancid could care less. Though their latest record, Life Won’t Wait, draws sounds and inspiration from ska, reggae, and blues, the dirty fury of guitars and drums leave no doubt that the band is still carrying the torch for punk. For skeptics who fear the effects of big-time success on ideology, singer/writer/guitar thrashers Tim Armstrong and Lars Fredriksen lay-out some very clear-headed diatribes against capitalism while openly proclaiming their mission to “revolutionize the way you think.” Which is not to say the group is standing still. Recorded in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Jamaica, Life Won’t Wait has an adventurous, multicolored, world-aware sensibility that has few precedents in the fast and lean world of purist punk. On a more personal level, the band is also showing some changes. Allowing a couple of soft-hearted love ditties into the set, Rancid gives their fans a glimpse of the three-dimensional humanity that lays behind the raging anthems and tough street rebel front. If this sounds a little too Clash-like, not to worry. This is 1998 and Rancid is finding ways to extend a legacy, not copy it.

 

Lauryn Hill, The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill (Ruffhouse/Columbia)

Though the harder side of the hip-hop music world is stuck in a holding pattern, the fusion of singing and rhyming, beats and melodies, live playing and sampling heard on groundbreaking recordings by D’Angelo, The Fugees, Erykah Badu, Mary J. Blige, and Wyclef Jean keeps opening up new areas of musicality and emotionalism. Without a doubt the most stunning 1998 release in this loosely defined style is Fugees vocalist Lauryn Hill’s solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Utilizing arrangements constructed out of deep-dubbed reggae, visceral hip-hop, funk, and sweet soul, Hill, as self-producer, provides backdrops that are raw, elegant, and innovative. But what really raises this release several notches above the field, is Hill’s words and voice.

Whether she is singing or rhyming, Hill is capable of evoking soothing tenderness, deep wells of hurt and white heat rage. All these emotions are on display in Miseducation, as she unloads troubled reflections on the state of the world, hip-hop mercenaries, pop stardom, love, loss, and motherhood. It’s a lot to feel and a lot to think about. But Lauryn Hill is out to make music that matters. With some fresh codes for rule breaking and a very full political/personal agenda, she’s done just that.                <S>Z