Archive for the ‘Roots Music from Out There’ category

Kaia Kater: Grenades

October 30, 2018

Grenades is the third album by Toronto-based singer Kaia Kater. Both of her previous albums were reviewed here and the second, Nine Pin, was one of my favourite albums of 2016. On that album Kater sang a mix of originals and traditional songs from North America, her speciality being her banjo playing and her emerging talent as an interpreter of Appalachian songs and music.

With Grenades she rightly doesn’t rest on her laurels but instead delivers an album quite different from previous recordings. The sound is very accessible and almost lush at times as she surrounds herself with a small band of musicians and the lap steel of Christine Bougie is prominent on several tracks. Kater adds acoustic guitar to her familiar banjo skills and nearly all the songs are her original compositions. The album is produced by Erin Costelo.

What sets this apart most of all is the thread running through the songs which all have poetic lyrics and an underlying connection to Kater’s upbringing and heritage with musical influences evident from Quebec, the Caribbean, and Appalachia. The themes are concerned with personal identity, memory and discovery and they form part of a journey that Kater made between her home in Canada and her roots on the island of Grenada where her father was born.

In the album’s booklet she writes: “My father’s story of immigration was omnipresent in my childhood, in his teachings and counsel. He was quiet but firm in insisting that I had a warm and vibrant home and a plethora of family far from Canada’s wintry grasp. Yet like many people, I have felt alone and out of place for most of my life, stumbling forward blind and rootless. I wrote Grenades to trace the life line from my palm and trace the way home.”

In addition to the eleven songs there are three brief narrative interludes in which Deno Hurst, her father, speaks of the complex situation in Grenada that led to his arrival in Canada as a very young political refugee. In one he speaks of the sheer terror posed by the invading American forces and it’s an oddly chilling reminder of what Okinawans must have felt when American military power landed on Okinawa in 1945.

Despite its serious themes this isn’t a difficult album at all. Kater has grown as a songwriter and creates the most gorgeously melodic choruses, as on ‘Canyonland’. She sings in French and English on a traditional Grenadian melody for which she has written new words, and completely unaccompanied on another song, ‘Hydrants’. There are a couple of slow soulful songs, a masterly title track and there’s ‘Meridian Ground’ which contains lines reminiscent of some of Paul Simon’s best storytelling – “My auntie died in a one room house on the top road / With the candles cold and a smile upon her face”.

Grenades marks Kaia Kater’s continuing development as singer, musician and songwriter. It will make you want to learn more about Grenada but is first and foremost just a great listen.

Grenades is released by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.

www.folkways.si.edu

www.kaiakater.com

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Trad.Attack!: Kullakarva

October 16, 2018

It’s easy to forget that Trad.Attack! are a trio and not a big band. Last weekend the Estonians won over their audience at Sakurazaka Theatre in Naha with an astonishing display of virtuosity on the final concert of their Japan tour. With all acoustic instruments they filled the hall with glorious sounds and pulsating rhythms at times reminiscent of a rock band.

It wasn’t just their singing and musicianship that impressed. The trio managed the remarkable feat of totally engaging the Okinawan crowd with traditional songs sung in the unfamiliar Estonian language. That they succeeded so well says a lot about their great openness, friendly attitude and willingness to learn about and engage with Okinawan culture.

Kullakarva (Shimmer Gold) is their second and latest album. It was recorded last year and is now receiving a very welcome first release in Japan. Many of the songs and instrumentals from their concert in Okinawa are included on the album.

The trio comprise Sandra Vabarna on Estonian bagpipes, jew’s harp, zither and a variety of whistles; Jaimar Vabarna who plays 12-string acoustic guitar; and Tõnu Tubli on drums, zither and glockenspiel. All three share vocals. Crucially, some of the songs sample archival recordings of the traditional singers of the past and these include Jaimar Vabarna’s great-grandmother.

Technology that might have been thought of as the enemy of traditional song is used here to bring the old singers back to life by allowing these recordings of their voices to be listened to by new audiences around the world and in new and often thrilling musical settings. Trad.Attack! also add new music and arrangements to traditional folk songs as well as composing their own originals. It’s impossible to see the join.

The album’s opening track ‘Talgo’ (Working Bee) sets the tone with an energetic work song not unlike some of those found in Okinawan music. ‘Kabala’ verges on rock but is, in fact, based on a traditional song and melody. ‘Imepuu’ (Magic Tree) is another that uses archival vocal recordings and it drives along into what appears to be a hard rock workout until Sandra Varbarna’s bagpipes come in and lift us into another dimension. They can be gentle too and ‘Sade’ (Spark) is an original instrumental of spellbinding beauty.

Kullakarva is simply a wonderful album. It is also worth mentioning that the CD version of the album is extremely well packaged and contains information in Estonian, English and Japanese. The Trad.Attack! website is exemplary too with many videos of the band and information in no less than seven different languages. It stands as an example to those in Okinawa of how to promote music overseas.

Kullakarva (Shimmer Gold) is released in Japan by Meta Company.

www.metacompany.jp

https://tradattack.ee

Geoffrey Keezer Trio: On My Way To You

August 8, 2018

American pianist and composer Geoffrey Keezer has a strong connection with Okinawa. In 2007 he joined Yaeyama singer and sanshin player Yasukatsu Oshima to record an album of Okinawan songs in a New York jazz setting that has since become a classic collaboration. Keezer had been a fan of Okinawan music for some time before that and his trio recorded the Sadao China composition ‘Koikugari Bushi’ two years before his meeting with Oshima.

Sadly for us, Keezer has not returned to Okinawan music but the door is always open for the possibility in the future. What he has done is to build on his already high reputation in the jazz world with more recordings and live shows. On My Way To You is a new album on which he plays piano and keyboards together with his working trio (Mike Pope on bass and Lee Pearson on drums) plus guest singer Gillian Margot.

The album’s ten tracks are a mix of songs and jazz arrangements, mostly of well-known pieces but also three brand new originals. What makes it different is the wide range of sources that Keezer’s inventive trio draw on. These include Thelonious Monk (‘Brilliant Corners’) and Stevie Wonder (‘These Three Words’) as well as Jimi Hendrix, Jerome Kern, and Michel Legrand.

Most satisfying of all is the closing track which manages to successfully combine and reimagine John Lennon’s ‘Across the Universe’ and ‘Give Peace a Chance’. Meanwhile Gillian Margot’s soulful contribution elsewhere adds even more variety and she provides some fine vocals on the five songs including Ewan MacColl’s much loved ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’.

On My Way To You is out now on MarKeez Records.

www.geoffreykeezer.com

Olivia Chaney: Shelter

July 12, 2018

Sadness, poignancy, clarity, and elegance are just some of the words that spring to mind on listening to the new album Shelter from England’s Olivia Chaney. This is her second solo album and it follows 2015’s The Longest River. Chaney has been busy touring and recording ever since signing with American label Nonesuch and her releases have included a foray into folk-rock last year with The Decemberists under the banner Offa Rex. That and her previous solo album were both reviewed here.

Shelter shines with the clarity of Chaney’s lovely voice but she is also a multi-instrumentalist and the ten songs that make up the album are notable also for her accompaniments on guitar, piano, harmonium, electric dobro and pump organ. There is nothing cluttered or unnecessary and the only other significant musical contribution is from Jordan Hunt on violin. The album was produced by Thomas Bartlett and recorded in New York.

The sound is nothing like her folk-rock collaboration and there are no folk songs this time. Instead eight of the compositions are Chaney’s own. The others are Henry Purcell’s ‘O Solitude’ and the Tex Ritter country song ‘Long Time Gone’ also popularised by the Everly Brothers. The former shows off Chaney’s classical training and the latter her eclectic taste. However, they are sideshows compared to the more important bulk of the album which is built around her excellent original songs.

The album opens very strongly with the songs ‘Shelter’ and ‘Dragonfly’ – Chaney playing guitar on the first and piano on the second. ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’ cleverly weaves the refrain from the traditional Irish song ‘Molly Malone’ into its coda. Perhaps best of all is ‘Roman Holiday’ with its insistently catchy piano and its lyrical beginning: “Love is on this balcony / Naked, where I rest my feet / We roam Roman ruins / Swifts, swallows, swoop and screech.”

Her poetic lyrics are carefully constructed and could stand alone but are at the same time always economical and precise. We aren’t going to rock the house and annoy the neighbours with this thoughtful album but that is clearly not the intention. The overriding feeling conveyed – to return to the beginning – is one of poignancy but there are other subtle underlying moods too. With Shelter she has created her most satisfying work to date.

Shelter is released by Nonesuch Records.

www.oliviachaney.com

Hedy West: From Granmaw and Me

April 16, 2018

Hedy West was one of the greatest of all Appalachian singers and banjo players. She died in 2005 at the age of 67 after a lengthy career with much time spent away from her roots which were in the hill country of northern Georgia. After making two albums in America in the early 1960s and gaining a reputation as a leading light of the folk revival, she moved to England where she stayed for seven years performing regularly and releasing more albums before moving on to Germany in the 1970s and then a final return to America.

West was from a background of poor hill farmers and was about as authentic a traditional singer as could be imagined which set her apart from the more city based contemporaries of her generation such as Joan Baez and Judy Collins. Despite being ‘the real thing’ her albums gradually went out of print and by the time of her premature death she had become neglected and in danger of being forgotten.

This all began to change when three albums recorded in the UK for Topic Records were released again in 2011 as the double CD Ballads and Songs from the Appalachians.  The release (reviewed on this blog) won the fRoots award that year for best re-release/compilation and helped spark a renewed interest in her work which led to her two American albums being re-released on CD soon afterwards.

Now that her reputation is being rightly restored comes the release of this short album  From Granmaw and Me – a  collection of songs she learned from her grandmother Lillie Mulkey West (hence the title). The album is previously unreleased and contains some of her last recordings. Granmaw was a great influence on the young Hedy who was always learning songs from her family, and her grandmother not only chose the selections but also narrates as we hear her voice between some of the songs.

This could have been an unwanted intrusion but turns out to be quite the opposite. In fact the use of these spoken recordings only enhances the atmosphere rather than detracts from it and this strangely puts it much in line with work being done by contemporary revivalists such as Anna & Elizabeth with their sampling of voices from the past.

The song selection is diverse and although we’re treated to some of Hedy West’s gloriously rhythmic banjo playing – especially on ‘Sally Carter’ – there is also the addition of some guitar and fiddle by Tracy Schwarz (of New Lost City Ramblers fame) and harmony vocals from his wife Eloise. The opening track ‘Lil’ Old Mountain Shack’  is co-written by Hedy West and her father while all other songs are traditional. Outstanding among many are ‘Two Sisters’ (part of which evolved into Bob Dylan’s ‘Percy’s Song’) and the gospel song ‘The Uncloudy Day’

From Granmaw and Me is released by Fledg’ling Records.

www.fledglingrecords.co.uk

Anna & Elizabeth: The Invisible Comes to Us

March 29, 2018

The Invisible Comes to Us is the third album by Anna & Elizabeth who have been championed by this blog for a long time. The two have a special love for Appalachian mountain music and Elizabeth LaPrelle is the finest living traditional ballad singer bar none. It has been three years since their last album and this new release takes their exploration of old songs into groundbreaking new territory.

With their feet still firmly in this world the partnership moves forward to embrace some pioneering experimental arrangements. Multi-instrumentalist Anna Roberts-Gevalt recently immersed herself in the Brooklyn avant-garde community and this is co-produced by her and Benjamin Lazar Davis. As a result many of the songs are presented with hints of woodwind, brass, synths and new technologies that subtly complement but never overwhelm the stories being told.

In the sleeve notes the duo writes: “These are songs we first heard in small archives in our home states, Vermont and Virginia. Recordings made in living rooms and kitchens, of songs learned in childhood. The characters, and the landscapes they occupied, grew rich in our minds. This record grew out of the desire to show you the world we saw in these songs.”

Among many standout tracks are ‘Black Eyed Susan’ and the old Vermont hymn ‘Mother in the Graveyard’ which find the pair on relatively familiar ground. The superb ‘By the Shore’ with its jazzy opening backdrop and Anna’s overlapping vocals even has echoes of Brecht and Weil not to mention Laurie Anderson. It was experimental enough to disturb my cat who normally takes no notice of the many sounds that waft around our home.

Anna & Elizabeth have done a wonderful job of reimagining these songs for a modern audience and most of all they have made a sublimely enjoyable album. Folk song contains universal truths and though the times may change the same concerns continually engage us. This is strikingly brought home in the words of the song ‘Jeano and Jeanette’ that opens the album and also closes it with a crackly fragment of a recording from Margaret Shipman whose voice speaks to us from the past:

“If I were Queen of France or still better Pope of Rome / I’d have no fighting men abroad nor weeping maids at home / All the world should be at peace and the right should be the might / I’d have all that made the quarrelling the only ones to fight.”

Anna & Elizabeth are currently touring the East Coast of the USA and their final date is in New York City on 23rd April with guests Jim White, Susan Alcorn and Benjamin Lazar Davis. Then in May they tour the UK and Ireland ending with dates in Sheffield (15th) and London (16th).

The Invisible Comes to Us is released on 30th March by Smithsonian Folkways.

www.annaandelizabeth.com

Laybricks: People People : We’re All Diamonds

February 13, 2018

People People : We’re All Diamonds is the new album by Korean alternative rock duo Laybricks who are based in Seoul. The band has already released a five track EP that was reviewed here after their performance at last year’s Trans Asia Music Meeting Showcase in Naha. Now they are back with an album and another visit to Okinawa where they played two sets at last weekend’s Sakurazaka Asylum festival.

Once again all songs are written by singer and electric guitarist Kwangmin Seo. On stage he is accompanied only by Hyejin Yu on drums but for this album there is also the addition of some bass, piano and strings as well as extra backing vocalists. It makes for a slightly fuller and more polished sound than before but without losing any of the essence of their bright shiny music.

Kwangmin Seo’s songwriting is as catchy and strong as ever and the lyrics are sometimes in Korean, sometimes in English, and often in a mix of the two languages. There are plenty of big engaging melodies and positive upbeat sentiments. The song ‘Ocean’ finds them in their most distinctive Laybricks sound but it isn’t all high energy and on a couple of songs they play acoustic guitars as on the reflective final track ‘Life’.

Laybricks are best seen live and their life-affirming music is sung with great passion by Kwangmin Seo alongside superbly skilful and energetic drumming from the remarkable Hyejin Yu.  The only slight disappointment is that the album is so short at barely half an hour. Let’s hope they continue on their upward path and that we don’t have to wait too long for another visit to Okinawa.

People People : We’re All Diamonds is released by Laybricks and distributed by West Bridge Entertainment.

https://www.laybricksmusic.com/