Sound Check

Imagine for a moment what it would be like if the record industry's billion-dollar promotion budget was allocated on a musical, rather than a commercial, merit system. Jon Bon Jovi (a name that would cause people to scratch their heads and ask, "Who?") might be playing for the door at Emo's. Meanwhile, Blood Ulmer and Eugene Chadbourne would be splitting an amphitheater tour in between Letterman appearances. The world would be a better place.

But that's just another seasonal fantasy; the status quo prevailed again this year, which means another few thousand brilliant recordings fell through the cracks. Before they get permanently buried in the onslaught of 1997 releases, here are a few must haves to buy with what's left of your holiday bonus.

Various Artists, Gravikords, Whirlies & Pyrophones: Experimental Musical Instruments (Ellipsis Arts). From a label that specializes in the indigenous music of obscure global cultures comes a mind-blowing experience of intergalactic proportions. The instruments on this compilation, with such aptly oddball names as the trigon incantor, daxophone and surrogate kithara, cannot be described in terms of looks or sound. Nor can their inventors, a collection of visionary characters whose identities will forever remain as obscure as their music. Fortunately, the disc comes with a booklet replete with wild photos and fascinating biographical materials that give a clue as to who these people are and why they make and play the things they do.

The word experimental may conjure images of the weird, but the music on this disc has many more dimensions than just weird. The one-step-from-nature sounds of Sugar Belly's bamboo saxophone or Ward Hartenstein's clay marimba have an earthiness more soothing than any New Age massage tape. On the more whimsical side, Wendy Mae Chambers's "New York, New York," played on her hand-built car horn organ, somehow brings a meaning to the song that Sinatra never comprehended. Clara Rockmore's classical number on the theremin, which is played by waving one's hands in the air while the instrument detects their speed and position, has a sci-fi quality that twists the music one-half turn into a moebius adventure.

Of course, if you want weird, there is weird. Electronics avatar Qubais Reed Ghazala's composition featuring three of his incantors, erhu and R.A.P. (Readily Available Phonemes) makes it apparent that the millennium has already arrived. And Thomas Nunn's two "bugs" churn out a tune tailor-made for dismemberment nightmares.

This CD requires nothing more than an open mind to appreciate, which may restrict its audience enough to keep it from bursting to the top of the charts, but should still guarantee the widest audience the music will ever enjoy. How human are you? (*****)

Eileen Ivers, Wild Blue (Green Linnet). A monster fiddle talent, Ivers has produced yet another dynamic batch of instrumentals with a worldly group of session friends. Rooted in the Irish tradition, Ivers builds stock jigs and reels into multilayered creations that truly rock. More than on her previous releases, she unleashes her reckless side, abandoning proper fiddle decorum for the kinds of flourishes that bring condemnations from the pulpit. The tunes have a tightness and fluidity reserved for such top echelon Irish groups as the Bothy Band, though her explorations in jazz, blues and swing move her into another realm entirely. Her judicious use of percussion and organ, along with some superb guitar and flute playing, further expands the horizon to earth's edge. Ivers, whose hectic intercontinental itinerary is somehow reflected in her music, is perhaps the most in-demand Irish fiddler in America. This CD leaves no question as to why. (*****)

Various Artists, Honor (Daemon Records). Cause albums walk a fine line: If the artists' contributions have no relationship to the cause, the material has a curiously disconnected feel, like somebody's homemade favorite-songs-of-the-moment tape. On the other hand, good protest music is almost as hard to write as humor, and there's nothing more odious than getting bludgeoned by weak protest songs. Honor, a two-disc set benefiting the Honor the Earth Campaign on behalf of a coalition of Native American environmental groups, avoids both pitfalls. For one thing, a third of the tracks are performed by Native American groups whose music stands tall even next to such imposing contributors as Bonnie Raitt, Indigo Girls, Bruce Cockburn and Soul Asylum. For the uninitiated, they'll forever banish the misconception of indigenous music as all drums, chants and airy flutes. Overall, the tracks flow smoothly in a folk-rock vein, with spoken-word selections providing a tasty change of pace. And the mix of in-your-face songs with more gentle reminders allows breathing room while maintaining focus. That the simple purchase itself helps the cause becomes an added bonus instead of the reason to get the disc in the first place. (*****)

Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Matapedia (Hannibal). Have any singer/songwriters produced as many consistently powerful statements as Canadian sisters Kate and Anna McGarrigle? Decades after their music first crossed the border, the McGarrigles continue to write with a vengeance. Their slice-of-life observations, ever tinged with a wistful melancholy, have such maturity and wisdom that they make a compelling case for reincarnation. The title track, a story about an old beau of Kate's that dissolves into a flashback of their moment together, has that trademark McGarrigle simplicity embroidered with complex emotions. Other tracks have a cool and wintry feel. The lyrics speak so directly and their aim is so true that somehow even the saddest ode warms the heart. Still, light and fluffy the McGarrigles ain't. Like a true friend, they tell you what others won't, even if you don't want to hear it. In this case, though, you do. (****)

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