Thursday, October 9, 2003
On The Wayfaring Strangers' latest release, This Train, the band's acoustic music luminaries do something many bluegrass artists have attempted over the years with limited success: reveal the sophisticated jazz harmonics lying dormant in most Appalachian songs.
Rather than merely affixing jazz beats on bluegrass changes, Matt Glaser (the group's music director) has written arrangements that typically contain discreet elements, often venturing from decidedly traditional bluegrass romps to modern atonal jazz measures. Laslo Gardony's piano calisthenics usually leads the charge into the Chick Corea-infused improvisational sections, with Matt Glaser's violin and Tony Trischka's banjo handling the Bill Monroe hoedown references.
Were it not for a trio of talented vocalists, however, Glaser's arrangements would not be so utterly successful. Ruth Ungar, Tracy Bonham, and Aoife O'Donovan (who at 20 is destined for stardom) float freely, matching the band's stylistic hairpin turns. At times the smoky sensual intonations, especially noticeable with O'Donovan's phrasings on "When You Go Walking After Midnight," reference jazz and folk in a way pleasingly similar to Norah Jones' stylistic forays.
The music patently transcends boundaries, ending up in its own ineffable place.
Fourteen new Dylan titles, re-mastered into audiophile heaven (the original CD takes of these recordings were, to be charitable, poor), which one actually sounds the best of the batch? This one, recorded in Nashville, with ultra-pro back-up, Dylan's alarming foray into "country."
At the time of its release, this was considered heresy. Instead of his pinched, nasal drawling whine, Bobby sings in a deep resonant baritone, offers up a pure love song sans bile as hit single ("Lay, Lady, Lay") and duets with a bonafide legend, the late, great Johnny Cash. Nary a protest nor biblical allusion to be seen.
It's testimony to his genius as songwriter that he could make the leap to Nashvile song-tinker so easily. The hit is a classic, "Tonight, I'll Be Staying Here With You" should have been, and the throwaway honky tonkers like "Country Pie" and "Nashville Skyline Rag" are loose and warm. The sound is a pleasant, carefully-mastered simmer as well, the deep velvetine texture of the original vinyl captured digitally (for once). Get 'em all, start with this one.
Beat the Donkey
What a multiplicity of voices! What blood pumping vigor! Life, babies, that's what Cyro Baptista's new 10-person percussion ensemble, Beat the Donkey, is all about. Their name is taken from a Brazilian expression relating to getting something going. If you want the mule to move you have to slap that ass.
The guitars, some by endlessly tasty Marc Ribot, have a metallic roar similar to Eddie Hazel's work in Funkadelic, and they make a swell counterpoint to the beat barrage. One minute they're working a hazy, burbling Tropicalia full of playful vocalese, then they unexpectedly dissolve into a robot-falling-down-the-stairs clatter. Their debut ignores easy categories and plows ahead on a course that encompasses violence and beauty in expansive, ever shifting soundscapes. It's a fine sign that the 53-year-old Baptista has finally gotten around to leading his own unit after years of toiling behind his percussion kit for Paul Simon, Trey Anastasio, John Zorn and others. It makes for the most vibrant avant-garde release in recent memory.