MUSIC REVIEWS: Tunng, Tristen, Barry Manilow, The Twees, CFCF, The Entrance Band, Fredrik, Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds, Bassekou Kouyate
Tunng’s new album “…And Then We Saw Land” sort of pulled a fast one on me. I was lured in by the sequenced synth and reverberating piano interplay during the first lovely half minute of lead-off track “Hustle,” and when the dry, folky picked acoustic guitar joined in the fun, I thought “Ok, this could be interesting.” But when the vocals entered, it struck me, “Ohhh, it’s one of these.”
There’s been a lot of folk-meets-electronic music over the years, as if we all should marvel at the juxtaposition of acoustic instruments with synthesizers. But it’s not so incredible. Not when all the songs feature the same predictable rhythms, with a dry, lower male voice, and the more angelic female vocal accompaniment, all wrapped together to sound nice and cozy, maybe even with some innocent child-like sing-along moments. It actually reminds me a bit of Belle and Sebastian.
It’s not all an obvious synth/acoustic bath; the more organic “It Breaks” is a standout track in that sense. Despite the fact that there are some decent vocal interplays and nice touches here and there, especially the warped-sounding, rising backing vocals that usher in the chorus of “Don’t Look Down or Back,” another highlight, most of the songs are largely bland affairs, and I found my interest waning as the album progressed, making it harder to pick anything out.
In the end it’s another case of not-horrible-but-not-that-special-and-mostly-forgettable. Maybe if there were something more unique injected into the formula I’d have more to say about “…And Then We Saw Land.” But there isn’t, so I don’t, so I won’t.
It’s title epitomizing the content of the album, these five songs clocking in at 15 min flat is the kind of symmetry I can appreciate in an album. Tour EP shows off this talented group’s country western roots while succeeding very well in bringing something new to the mix. Tristen succeeds at including vibrant orchestral arrangement, and a lovely soft sensibility that pervades the EP with lighthearted refrains and symphonic ballads. These seemingly disparate styles blend together the main instruments of the act well and form a solid ground for future growth.
Amazing lyrics and an impressively infectious scope of tone, the lead vocals mesh so well with the adroit country guitar and soulfully deep cello. Capering about in pulsing present style of a country western meets classical, the five tracks are very distinct, though some hold common thread. While tour shows off the group’s talents, the EP’s first pair of songs are perhaps the best.
“Eager for Your Love,” a simply beautiful example of what this act’s capabilities are and my far out in front favorite offering, falls among these. Very compelling from this wonderful beginning, the album’s middle has a surprising twist of beauty as well with “Wicked Heart.” The track proceeds at the stormy slow pace of the cello, while a masterfully played piano acts as the glue that cements this achingly sung arrangement.
Finishing strong, Tristen’s light, witty and joyful western sound inspired by a blending of style was familiar to me, yet refreshing. With music so simple and clean, they are unique as nothing gets in the way of the music and the album exhibits this well. Though I didn’t click with all of the tracks, the majority were quite fun and I’m really looking forward to seeing this group’s full length offering.
Really, who can you trust with your heart other then Barry Manilow? His latest, The Greatest Love Songs Of All Time, features some of the best known tunes about the heart, and Barry gives it his usual well-appointed approach.
Opening with the Gershwins’ “Love Is Here To Say,” Barry’s strong pipes roll over a big orchestra, while “The Look Of Love” has Barry’s breathy voice over a Bossa Nova lushness. But by “I Only Have Eyes For You” the production has changed, featuring a “Fender Rhodes”-sounding piano and a tight snare over those strings.
“I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” has a nice 40’s-flavor with guitar and piano, but that damn orchestra comes a little too forward again as the song progresses. “We’ve Only Just Begun” is a surprise for Carpenters fan like me, showing Barry’s voice masterfully as “Nevertheless” with just its 3-part harmony and acoustic guitar is simply a perfect version; it’s my fave here.
“Love Me Tender” has strong and perfect key changes. “It Could Happen To You,” “You Made Me Love You,” and “How Deep Is The Ocean?” round out the collection and “When You Were Sixteen” ends the entire set, again showcasing Barry’s perfect vocals.
Though it could be argued that, in some instances, Barry singing to an obvious female love interest might be a bit odd, and the ‘Vegas-ness’ of the arrangements often times overshadow the man’s amazing talent (and I’d like to hear B.M. writing some new tunes too). Nonetheless, Barry Manilow delivers like the legend he is on The Greatest Love Songs Of All Time.
Take any band you heard at a party, garage, basement or prom in a movie and you will get what The Twees display on Lessons To Connect. The band is heavy on rhythm with vocals in a perpetually steady tone. The album doesn’t sound top-notch studio recorded, but it doesn’t need to. There is an authentic, rustic vibe to what could be an all-American band. Guitar riffs dominate every track reminding me of groovy, seventies music. It took me a couple of rounds to really start enjoying the sounds off Lessons To Connect. The edges are rough but it’s nothing to let it stop you. I think any up and coming band would be inspired by listening to The Twees. They are the prime example of average Joe’s taking what they have and pushing it to the max.
Every part instrumental electo-pop/soul, where soft muted tones yield a vast soundscape encompassing quite passionately pop, ambient, jazz and urban swing, the album Continent is highly pleasurable, chill, yet at times, dance beat and always sturdy and steady enough to be meticulously genius and loveable. With endearing bounces of bass and percussion, the bright overall creative arc of keys and wicked guitar trysts; it is hard to not recognize the quality of musicianship here. Shoulder shrugging beat heavy tunes move nicely against stilted yet funktified keyboard solos. Almost dizzying and hypnotic, Montreal native, Matt Silver, who is CFCF, incorporates a whole host of beautifully constructed harmonies and soul grooves so magnificently. At times the bass line stomps through at other times with a futuristic jolt such as on, “Big Love,” a remake of Fleetwood Mac’s tune. Other times, a sensual pulsating mid-tempo dance ode flatters the listener on, “Invitation to Love.” Ultimately romantic and bass driven, this is the definitive dim the lights and sway, sex swagger track, reminiscent of old school eighties soul when music felt more dimensional and complex. The movement of keys moves like vocals. Matt Silver is the mastermind behind this sound that is yesteryear yet uniquely now. The nostalgic newness of Continent never bores but always satiates.
They look like they could have been yanked from this year’s cast of Hair, but the Entrance Band’s music sounds more like something the 1968 cast would have been entranced by, perhaps from behind beaded curtains, in smoke-filled rooms, staring mesmerized at their lava lamps.
The Entrance Band’s self-titled album is full of groovy guitar riffs by frontman Guy Blakeslee. Add in some hard-hitting drums from Derek James and bass from Paz Lenchantin, previously from Zwan (which was fronted by Smashing Pumpkin’s Billy Corgan), and you get a far-out sound reminiscent of the stoner rock from that counterculture era we all adore.
The best parts of the album are when the hippy dippy trippy sound of the Los Angeles trio jamming on their instruments isn’t overshadowed by Blakeslee’s vocals. He’s a much better guitarist than singer.
Although the musicians do well to blend their sounds together like macramé, the lyrics at times are lacking. There are laughably simple lines, like in “Lookout!”: “Walking on the wrong side of the street. You’re walking on the wrong side of the street. Someone will knock you off your feet when you’re walking on the wrong side of the street.”
“M.L.K.” is super-catchy, light and likable. It really is an ode to Martin Luther King, Jr., as well, and a good tune with a good message that can’t be a bad combo. The rest of the songs on the album are a bit more ominous, but all swim with psychedelic sound.
Trilogi, the new album by the Swedish band Fredrik is a washed-out travelogue full of ambient samples, warm, strummy acoustic guitar loops, muffled industrial percussion and unassuming wisps of vocals floating in and around gentle grooves. Unlike their more earthbound and melodically catchy 2008 debut Na Na Ni, Trilogi is much more ethereal, sometimes to a fault. A formula begins to emerge: Start with a strange but familiar sound like an old typewriter sampled, add a nylon stringed arpeggio, throw in an orchestral element or two and stir some oohs and nah-nah’s into the mix. It happens at least five times too often. The ooh’s in particular become grating and begin to feel like a substitute for a point of view. But with lyrics like “Hide your teeth from the footsteps on the floor,” perhaps the wordless vocalizing isn’t such a bad idea.
There is a pastoral quality to this “folktronica.” One can imagine Trilogi helping Scandinavian citizens get through the endless twilight of the Polar Nights. At their best, in songs like the strong opener “vinterbarn,” the spaghetti-western influenced whistler, “vanmyren” and the melodic “viska,” (what’s with the lower case titles guys?) Fredrik create icy, primitive and occasionally spooky soundscapes. Too often, however, they come across as precious and noncommittal, more interested in setting the stage than putting on a show.
The Dave Matthews Band is known for their expansive catalog of phenomenal live performances. Here, Dave goes back to his acoustic roots with long-time friend and performer Tim Reynolds, for a 3-night run at Planet Hollywood’s Theater for the Performing Arts in Las Vegas. As far as recorded acoustic performances, the duo performed twice previously for 1999’s Live at Luther College and 2007’s Live at Radio City. As usual, this two-disc set includes many DMB hits, Dave’s solo work, Tim’s originals and a random cover, but what’s notable about Live in Las Vegas is it marks the first time songs from Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King were performed live and acoustic by Matthews and Reynolds.
Disc one opens up with a flawlessly executed “Eh Hee,” followed by the live hit “Dancing Nancies,” which surprisingly didn’t invoke any cheering when Dave stated the first “Could I have been…” This was the first of several instances where I wondered if these Vegas fans were for real, or if they, too, jumped on the Dave bandwagon after the popularity of Big Whiskey. Reynolds would go on to play an original called “Kundalini Bonfire,” while Dave performed solo songs “Oh” and “Stay or Leave,” as well as an appropriate version of “Christmas Song” (as the show was in mid-December). Highlights in this disc unexpectedly lay in DMB’s newer songs, which I have to say I now prefer acoustic over any studio or (dare I say) live version. “Squirm” gave me chills while “Alligator Pie” sounded like the blues song it is when toned down by Dave and Tim. “Lying in the Hands of God” also sounded much more like a love song when stripped down. After “Grace is Gone” when Dave stated “I’m a little out of my mind tonight, so I apologize,” him and Tim did an excellent version of “an itty bitty song” called “Loving Wings.” This song as of now is only present on Live at the Gorge and Live Trax Volume 2, so this was indeed a treat.
Disc two begins with personal favorite “Bartender,” followed by an interesting instrumental version of cover “Kashmir,” done by Reynolds. “So Damn Lucky” follows, with a head-whirling outro of Dave howling, “amazing what a minute can do…” Another highlight of this entire album is disc two’s “Little Red Bird,” which is a bonus track from the Big Whiskey album. Many have probably never heard this song, but it’s a rare treat and definitely an underrated gem. Dave and Tim finish out disc two with “Save Me,” “Typical Situation,” “Sister,” and “Two Step.”
At one point after “So Damn Lucky,” Dave mentions how he’s played with tons of amazing musicians, but he’s never met or played with anyone quite like Reynolds. We agree, Dave. Keep these acoustic jams coming.
Bassekou Kouyate, often called the Prince of Strings, has defined and redefined the way the world sees and hears the ngoni, a string instrument made of wood, animal skins pulled taut, and assorted filament. The progenitor of the American banjo, the shape and expression of the ngoni is familiar to Kouyate who has played the instrument since age 12; his heritage being that of the griots, notable musicians and storytellers of West African communities.
In the 1980s, a teen-aged Bassekou Kouyate challenged tradition and literally elevated the on-stage presence of the ngoni when he raised a strap over his shoulder, boldly stood up, and walked forward, front and center. Conventional musicians questioned Kouyate’s decision to place the ngoni at the focus of musical performance by standing up, a mode of playing previously reserved for acoustic and electric guitars. One spark led to another and soon Kouyate formed Ngoni Ba, a quartet of the eponymous instrument.
In their latest album, I Speak Fula, Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba craft twelve musical tracks that display instrumental versatility and technical dexterity. From the dizzying plucks of “Musow,” an homage to women, to the deliberate undulations of the ngoni in “Falani,” Kouyate’s latest release layers tradition with modernity. In “Jamana Be Diya,” the illustrative voices of Kasse Mady Diabate and Toumani Diabate weave a narrative of unity and harmony with lyrics like, “Let’s all be as one. Can’t you see that Americans united to vote Obama into power? If we join hands, our country will go forward.” Years later, in the same way he elevated the ngoni, Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba’s I Speak Fula is bridging gaps and raising a generation of acceptance, openness, and compassion.