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. (****)

The Albion Band, Rise Up Like the Sun (Hannibal). Less well known than its contemporaries Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, the Albion Band nevertheless played a key role in the development of the British folk-rock movement. The nine-piece group was formed in 1977 by bassist Ashley Hutchings as an outgrowth of other Albion configurations, and included once-and-future Fairporters Dave Mattacks, Simon Nicol and Ric Sanders. Originally released in 1978, Rise Up Like the Sun took advantage of the extra muscle provided by twin drummers and guitars to create an especially lush and powerful sound. True to the form, much of the material applies topical themes and electrified arrangements to traditional melodies, but the band advanced the concept with new blendings and twistings. Two Richard Thompson songs have their typical magnetic appeal, and Thompson throws in a cameo vocal along with some other surprise guests. The re-released CD includes four previously unissued tracks that will only add to the Albion legacy. (*****)

Tim O'Brien, Red on Blonde (Sugar Hill). Tribute albums are another potential hazard on the CD buyer's road map. If the tribute versions don't measure up to the originals, as they often don't, the point is lost. That's not a problem with Red on Blonde: Tim O'Brien takes advantage of his clear tenor and Bob Dylan's rough musical edges to craft entirely fresh covers of 13 Dylan songs. Fun may not be an operative word in the annals of Dylanology, but O'Brien adds a dose of it here. Run through a bluegrass/old-time filter, some of the selections are drawn from the classics ("Maggie's Farm," "Tombstone Blues"), but others (such as "Father of Night" from New Morning) may not even tickle the memory banks. They all lend themselves well to the grassy treatment, and the few numbers where Dylan's loaded vocals are missed ("Subterranean Homesick Blues" in particular) are redeemed by the great playing of O'Brien and bluegrass champs Scott Nygard, Mark Schatz and Jerry Douglas. The ass-kickingly cool old-time version of "Oxford Town" is alone worth the investment. (****)

Harry "The Hipster" Gibson, Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy's Ovaltine? (Delmark). Though he made his name in the 1940s as a novelty artist specializing in songs about sex and drugs, Harry "The Hipster" Gibson was actually an accomplished jazz pianist who hung with the legends of bebop in New York when that music was at its zenith. But entertaining was his thing, and he somehow survived into the 1990s with most of his skills and all his attitude intact. The ten studio tracks from a 1989 session capture the Hipster's flair with the pen and swingy piano style ("Get Hip to Shirley MacLaine" deserves to be bronzed). The six live cuts recorded 13 years earlier in some California bar called the Icehouse demonstrate his talent for working the crowd. Backed by an anonymous but very electric blues band, Gibson rocks the house. (****)

Various Artists, The Mexican Revolution (Arhoolie). Only Arhoolie could issue a four-CD set of corridos about the Mexican Revolution; much of the 59-song, four-hour box is drawn from Arhoolie head honcho Chris Strachwitz's personal collection of 78s. Like their cousin, the calypso, corridos are song-stories that touch on important issues of the day, performed by many of the culture's greatest musicians. Part comprehensive history lesson and part just-plain-terrific music, the set should be required listening for anyone interested in Mexico and the revolution that transformed it. It should be required reading, too -- the 178-page booklet includes transcriptions of the lyrics in English and Spanish as well as a few pages of context. Like many archival recordings, the music is tough to take in large doses, but modern enhancement techniques work miracles, and in installments it's riveting. (****)

I.K. Dairo and His Blue Spots, Definitive Dairo (Xenophile). The name I.K. Dairo may resonate only among Afropop fans on this side of the Atlantic, but in Nigeria, the juju legend carries such weight that when he died this year, every musician in the country refrained from playing live for the duration of his five-day wake. This collection of songs, recorded in a single 1971 session, captures Dairo and his band at their peak. Like many African musicians, Dairo was inclined to incorporate global sounds into his mix long before world music was a marketable concept, and elements of Cuban rumba and other styles often creep into the structure. Dairo's sound centered on the talking drum, which, unlike most African band leaders, he played himself, and long talking drum passages give a real insight into the speech quality. The traditional Yoruba rhythms, sweet response harmonies and smooth guitar work are all present as well. (****)

-- Bob Burtman

***** Undiscovered genius
**** Unfamiliar savant
*** Recognizable smart guy
** Familiar fool
* Ubiquitous idiot


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