Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Shuffle Off #2: Mellow out, dude

A few weeks ago I was feeling a wee bit stressed out for various reasons, and thought it might be nice to fill the car CD player with relaxing music. It was also kinda cold, as I recall, so I went for sounds from warm climes. Here's the rundown:

1. Various artists, Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Masters: Instrumental Collection. Picked this up in a giveaway bin at a past job around the time it came out in 1995; I tend to pull it out every few years and give it a spin or two, think to myself how pleasant it is, then put it back. Certainly does the trick in terms of calming jangled nerves, although in larger doses it's a bit too slack for my taste, so I actually took this out of the rotation first. I attribute the slight Muzak-y tendency to the fact that the label, Dancing Cat, is a subsidiary of Windham Hill. The only names I recognize on the lineup are Keola Beamer and Sonny Chillingworth, although I admit that I know next to nothing about the genre.

2. Kaouding Cissoko, Kora Revolution. Another freebie, and another disc that I play once or twice every few years. (Confession time: what first caught my eye was the cover art, and, believe it or not, the typography. 'Cuz I'm weird like that.) Interestingly, I tend to think of this as an instrumental album, but it turns out there are vocals all over it (the lyrics of which are translated and contextualized in the detailed CD booklet). That's a testament to the power of the kora playing here, which is incredibly lovely even if I don't get the "revolution" part. Cissoko has appeared on albums by Baba Maal and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and if you like those guys, odds are good you'll enjoy this.

3. Various artists, Putumayo presents Cape Verde. I'm going to assume that if you know any musician from this series of islands off the coast of Senegal, it's Cesaria Evora. (If you don't know her stuff, better get busy.) Evora has one track here, but there are eleven other performers as well, and just about all of them sound fine in my book. Putumayo compilations can be hit-or-miss, but this seems pretty solid, steering clear of the label's Easy Listening for Sipping Espresso and/or Shopping tendency.

4. João Gilberto, João voz e violão. A really strong (if too-brief) collection of songs, most of which Gilberto has recorded elsewhere. The twist here, which I'll attribute to producer/protege Caetano Veloso, is that the sound is totally stripped down--nothing but JG's super-quiet voice and unaugmented guitar. Of the three or four Gilberto albums I've heard, this is an excellent starting point. Unlike discs 1-3 above and #5 below, I play this one fairly often; in fact, it took up residency near the bedroom CD player for about two or three years as a quiet-time staple.

5. Caetano Veloso, Orfeu. Speaking of Caetano, here he is in soundtrack-composer mode, creating new music for a remake of Black Orpheus, alongside covers of songs from the original. Some of this is orchestral instrumentals, some features vocals, and the range of tempos and textures is all over the map. I wouldn't recommend this as an introduction to Veloso, but it has many interesting moments. (Bonus: handsome booklet, with lyrics in both Portuguese and English plus stills from the movie that make me want to see it someday soon.)

6. Voodoo Child/Moby, The End of Everything. Sure, people give Moby a hard time for his ambient/instrumental projects (hell, some people give him a hard time just for being Moby), but I happen to like this a great deal: it's fairly low-key, with some majestic moments now and then, the whole of it bearing real emotional weight. I had this on as background as a party once and at least two people bought copies the next day. My only beef: what's the point of having a pseudonym if you're going to announce who you are on the album cover? So much for the anonymity of electronic music. (This being a Moby album, there is one of his characteristic mini-essay rants in the booklet, though it's mighty short and can be summed up in its final line: "Animals are not ours to eat, wear, or experiment on.")

Friday, February 01, 2008

Shuffle Off #1: Synthetic sounds redux

I have no shortage of ideas for recurring features for this blog; my only problem is making the time to make them happen. So I'm gonna strike while the iron is hot and launch one mere hours after it occurred to me. Inspired very indirectly by this popular garden-blog ritual/meme and by the way some people include what they're "Currently Listening To" in forums and blog posts, I thought it would be fun to share with you what's in heavy rotation on my car's 6-disc CD changer every now and then.

Ever since we got this car with such a ludicrous amount of audio options (there is also a plug for an iPod), I've been having fun curating various combinations of albums: an all-Paul Simon set, all-Van-the-Man, all-Janis, all-Radiohead ... and then some looser ideas, like a mishmash of indie-rock and earlier Americana (Matt Pond, My Morning Jacket, Music from Big Pink, etc.) and later a tribute to psychedelia (Hendrix, Big Brother & the Holding Co., etc.). Then I hit "shuffle" and let the fun begin.

At the moment, I'm on an electronic music kick (I hate the term "electronica"--much prefer "synthetic," since that's the general feel of the stuff) for the first time in years, prompted in part by listening to that Burial album all sorts of unlikely people seem to love (me, I'm finding it kind of repetitive and annoying) and an Autechre EP I'd been looking for for years and finally found used in a Toronto record store. So I decided to pull out a semi-random colleccion of stuff I acquired about 10 years ago (can it be? yikes!) when I discovered that instrumental electronic music was ideal accompaniment for writing, proofreading, driving to work, and all sorts of other mundane activities.

So here's what's in the car as of the beginning of February 2008:

1. Autechre, Gantz Graf. This duo is still probably tied with Aphex Twin as my all-time favorite purveyors of unlistenable noise. And I mean that as a high compliment; they have a brilliant (and frequently quite witty) way of balancing rhythm and chaos, although this particular EP dates from the height of their mostly-chaos period. I find myself fast-forwarding through the 3 tracks when one of them pops up--only to discover that it sounds almost exactly the same in fast-forward as it does at regular speed! (Value added: the flip side of the disc contains a trio of nice videos. But I'm not really sure this was worth the $13 Canadian I shelled out, since it's basically a glorified single.)

2. Kosheen, Resist. Bought this used shortly after it came out in 2001 on the strength of the single, "Hide U," and the freaky Natural History Museum cover art. I was fairly disappointed with most of the other 15 tracks and put it aside for years, but now it's turning out to be the standout of the current shuffle mix. I don't normally care for vocals in drum-and-bass-y stuff--to me the deathknell of the synthetic non-revolution of the late 90s was the widespread addition of singers and/or samples of singers--but I gotta say, Kosheen's Sian Evans has a fine voice, and the lyrics are a bit less silly/disposable than most in the genre.

3. Land of the Loops, Bundle of Joy. If you ask me, this is one of the great lost albums of the 1990s, ripe for rediscovery 20 years from now. One-man-band Alan Sutherland put together a wonderful collection of catchy melodies, weird sound bites, lovely ballads, and brief snippets that sound less like filler than like connective tissue. Secret weapons: guest vocalists Heather Lewis, Simone Ashby, and Meadie Ballenger. So, yeah, maybe I'm not as anti-singers-in-synthetic-music as I think I am. But only when they sound this good.

4. Howie B., Turn the Dark Off. Mr. B was the go-to guy for U2 and other rockers who wanted to dip their toes in synthetic music for a while there. Witness the spoken-word cameos by Robbie Robertson here, sounding nothing like his Band incarnation and a lot like a cross between Laurie Anderson and David Byrne.

5. Freaky Chakra vs. Single Cell Orchestra. I either paid a buck for this or got it for free, and I've always enjoyed it, although a friend of mine heard two minutes of it once and said it gave her a headache.

6. Aphrodite, Aphrodite. Another free or buck find, and a good illustration of what I was just saying about how annoying I find vocalists in this kind of music. Oh, no, wait: the only thing more annoying than singers in drum-and-bass? Rappers in drum-and-bass. That was the death knell.