Some More Music

After posting my favorite album list, I thought of several other musicians whom I came across this year and really enjoyed or noticed for one reason or another, but didn’t put on my favorite list for the sake of symmetry (top-ten is cleaner-looking than top-thirteen and a half).

First off: a new record label specializing in East European bands; its nom de plure is, appropriately enough, EastBlok Music. They only have a few bands signed as of yet, and only a handful of those are available here in the States as of yet. Included in the later category is the Hungarian band Little Cow: the only band in my music library, so far, with the word “cow” in their name. According to EastBlok’s website, Little Cow- in Hungarian- was the year’s improbable smash hit, with their- equally improbably titled- single Cyber Boy (on their album I’m In Love With Every Lady). You can’t make this sort of thing up. Little Cow’s sound is fun indie-pop with a smattering of traditional instruments for backing, with odd mouth-music (noises? Musical vocalizations?) bouncing around alongside as well. The title track starts out fairly slow and melodic, but builds to almost frantic energy levels at the end; the weird vocalizations in the background pulsing right along.

I’ve also gotten to listen to another group put out by EastBlok, called Shukar Collective, based out of Romania. On their 2007 album Rromatek they mix Roma trad sounds and samples with down-beats and trance, and while they’re not the only trad/electronica fusion to operate in the Balkans arena (German artist Shantel also released a Balkan-infused electronica album this year), the Collective does a good job balancing modern electronic synth and sampling with the music of traditional instruments and singing. The quality is a little mixed- some of the tracks drag along a little- but overall Rromatek is a well-executed project.

And while we’re on the subject of ethnic fusion music, I can’t forget Brooklyn-based hip-hopper and all-around mensch SoCalled, who released Ghettoblaster this year, the follow-up to his great 2005 project The SoCalled Seder. I’ve only downloaded two tracks (and saw a music video from the album on WorldLink TV), but they’re both pretty kosher. Oy. Music like this could easily be schmaltzy kitsch, but SoCalled knows how to pull it off without inducing wincing. His delivery could be more effective, but I mean how many Yiddish hip-hop tracks are you going to find?

Finally, moving back to the orbit of more normal music, one of my favorite new bands this year is a group from Southern California, Delta Spirit- but you wouldn’t know it from listening to them. They sing songs about New Orleans, social justice, life and death, with a driving up-beat Americana sound that has nothing ironic or droll about it. I first heard them play as an opening act at a concert in New Orleans; a couple months ago they played at Hattiesburg’s own Thirsty Hippo, delivering up some wonderfully blazing harmonicas and funky percussion among other things. Good solid stuff.

My Ten Favorite Albums From 2007

In any given year a lot of very good music is recorded and released for sale, all over the world. A very small percentage of it makes it into my hands. And while I listen to all sorts of music, a brief perusal of my iTunes library will reveal that folk, traditional, and alt-country are pretty dominant; likewise, the following list is pretty heavy in those categories. All of which means my range as a music critic is fairly restricted. So, with those caveats out of the way, here are my ten favorite new albums of 2007, arranged in alphabetical order:

1. A Hawk And A Hacksaw And The Hun Hangár Ensemble: A Hawk And A Hacksaw And The Hun Hangár Ensemble. I reviewed this wonderful EP-length album a while back here, and my praise still stands. While I’m not aware of any free legal tracks available online for download, you can download and watch two performances by A Hawk And A Hacksaw at the excellent French website Take-Away Shows.

2. Andrew Bird: Armchair Apocalypse: There are very few songwriters out there who can pull off such sheer verbal cleverness with grace like Andrew Bird. And even fewer songwriters can whistle as prodigiously as Mr. Bird. Armchair Apocalypse is Andrew Bird at his best. It also contains the only song I’ve ever heard that has as its subject the ancient Scythians, and also manages to references the Thracians and Macedonians.


3. The Arcade Fire: Neon Bible: The New York Times did a write-up on The Arcade Fire for crying out loud, as have countless other people, so I don’t really need to pile on any further. A good album, if not a great one.

Neon Bible (another Take-Away Show)

4. Iron and Wine: The Shepherd’s Dog: A superbly beautiful album, with some songs that are reminiscent of Sam Bean’s previous, more mellow work. Most of the songs however are a marked departure from that mellowness, in favour of a more up-beat, wider-ranging, more deeply textured music, with influences pulled from all over the world (without, however, sounding kitschy).

5. The National: Boxer: Another endlessly lauded album, but still very good. Where Iron and Wine has “gone electric,” The National this year eased off all the lurching around and yelling, and instead turned out a moving, lovely album.

Fake Empire

6. Okkervil River: The Stage Names: Hyper-literate alt-folk (for example: mandolin-driven songs about Beat poet John Berryman) done very well. While treading the dangerous ground of self-reference and ironic allusion The Stage Names still manages to be sincere and not simply (yet another) exercise in insider irony by indie rockers with mandolins and accordions. I saw Okkervil River perform in New Orleans a couple months ago and can report that they are as good live as recorded.

Our Life Is Not a Movie Or Maybe

7. Robert Plant and Alison Krauss: Raising Sand: I just got a hold of this album, so I’ve yet to give it a good thorough listen. From what I’ve listened to so far though it’s excellent: Alison Krauss has long been a fine musician, but on this album she has gone beyond her previous work, with a richer, well-matured sound. Robert Plant’s not too bad on here either.

8. Southeast Engine: A Wheel Within A Wheel: A band I came across this year for the first time, Southeast Engine is an alt-country (with plenty of rock driving things along) flavored outfit from Athens, OH, and while comparable to Wilco among others, these guys have their own distinct take on Americana. They also deal with issues of Christian faith, and take delight in Biblical allusions and themes. “Oh God, Let Me Back In,” a meditation and prayer of repentance, is particularly moving.

 Quit While You’re Ahead

9. Various Artists: Songs Of Defiance – Music Of Chechnya And The North Caucasus: This is, so far as I know, the only currently available recording of Chechnyan traditional music out there. According to a write-up in the Times, it was actually recorded outside of Chechnya, due to the less than ideal conditions inside the region at present. The producer instead looked up Chechnyan artists scattered around Russia and the Caucasus region to give a sampling of traditional music from the troubled break-away province. The results are wonderful. The most sublime tracks on the album are delivered by Cherim Nakhushev who sings with an incredibly emotional, plaintive voice that sent chills down my back the first time I listened to him.

10. Wilco: Sky Blue Sky: Not Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, to be sure, but still quite good, and still Wilco, just with less static and weird noise. Instead, Jeff Tweedy keeps the raspy vocals and throws in some introspective, mellow ballads, but lets in a lot more sunshine and bright guitars and general happiness. The songs are certainly simpler, both lyrically and musically, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. This is the sort of album you want to have playing on a summer day while driving with the windows down.

What Light

In Review

First, new music out of the Balkans: A Hawk and a Hacksaw and the Hun Hangár Ensemble, in a self-titled EP released a few weeks ago, downloadable here. A Hawk and a Hacksaw is mostly the project of Jeremy Barnes, drummer for the indie-wunderband Neutral Milk Hotel, and later sometimes drummer for Bright Eyes. These days Mr Barnes is making Balkan-inspired music, often in collaboration with folk musicians from the Balkans themselves. And that is a very good thing. On this album AHAAHS is joined by an assembly of Hungarian musicians, who draw upon both traditional sounds from the Balkan peninsula and upon more modern currents. The fusion of the various elements works beautifully, without being forced or otherwise contrived- not an easy thing to achieve in the world of international musical collaboration. Violins, bagpipes, brass, and some other strings whirl and whisper and crash over the series of eight tracks. Despite the EP’s brevity, it feels fuller and longer than those eight tracks would lead you to believe.

A couple weeks ago a friend recommended a Danish movie I had not heard of, After the Wedding, which was in the running for last year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Film. In brief, the film unfolds around a Danish expatriate Jacob who runs an orphanage in India, but is summoned back to Denmark at the behest of a wealthy businessman, Jorgen, interested in financing the orphanage and Jacob’s various other projects in India. Jorgen will only give Jabob the money under the condition he comes to Denmark. While there, Jorgen invites Jacob to the wedding of his daughter, where Jacob meets Jorgen’s wife- a wife who, as the viewer quickly discovers, had a presence much earlier in Jacob’s life. The story develops and unfolds from there, and in so doing, not only turns around some stereotyped roles- Jorgen is far from being the typical greedy egotistical businessman, and Jacob is not simply an idealistic aid worker- and raises some rather difficult questions about responsibility and the possibility and morality of directing other people’s lives. But besides these issues, the film is very well done, both in terms of acting and its masterful and often very lovely cinematography. It makes a very worthy addition to anyone’s collection, particularly if yours, like mine, is rather low on Danish-language films…

Book, Film, & Music

Some stuff I’ve had the pleasure to peruse lately:

Monastic Visions: Wall Paintings in the Monastery of St. Antony at the Red Sea: The Monastery of St. Antony was established upon the site St. Antony, the venerable Father of Monasticism, lived upon his withdrawl to the Inner Desert; both his tomb and the cave he inhabited are preserved there. Very early in its history a little oddly domed church was built, which still stands at the core of the monastery complex- which has survived all manner of travails down through the centuries. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the monks commissioned wall paintings, which over time were heavily obscured by smoke and grit buildup, and some less than artful overpaints. Recently, however, a team of art conservationists, working in sync with the monastery, restored these wall paintings. Part of the project included the publication of this book, which is a real jewel (though out of my price range at present; I merely checked it out of a library). Besides the numerous photos of and commentary on the incredible iconography, the book also details the history of the monastery, includes an essay on the role of icons in Orthodox life by one of the monks at St. Antony’s, and an essay on the role of the monastery in contemporary Coptic Orthodox life in Egypt. The writers approach the monastery and its icons not as mere artifacts to be looked at but as part of an onging tradition of spiritual life, for both the monks themselves and the wider Coptic Church.

Turtles Can Fly: This film by Kurdish-Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi had been recommended to me some time ago; I only lately got around to purchasing and viewing it. Set in a village on the Iraq-Turkey border in Kurdistan, the film opens with a visually stunning- and quite comic- scene of Kurdish villagers hoisting aloft TV antennas, trying to get information on the impending war between the US and Iraq. In the midst of this scramble for news is an orphaned refugee boy nicknamed Satellite, after his knack for manipulating information technology. The story revolves primarily around his experience within a war torn society on the verge of yet another conflict. Thus the narrative view is that of a child and his fellow refugee companions (many of whom he has organized into brigades to collect and sell land mines). It would be easy enough for such a film to falter in sentimentalism, but Ghobadi carefully avoids both sentimentalizing and propogandizing. Instead, the pervasive impact of war is, in turns, brutally and hauntingly portrayed- though actual combat scenes only enter in flashbacks. Despite a very limited budget and less than optimal conditions- it is the first film made in Iraq after Hussein’s overthrow by the US- the cinematography is excellent, and the story’s development and movement works very well, with only a few detours and misplaced pieces. In all, Turtles Can Fly is a superb, emotionally challenging and rewarding work.

Amassakoul: Southern Saharan folk music meets Mississippi blues. The second album by the group Tinariwen, hailing from the southern edge of the Sahara in Mali, the group- composed of musicians from the traditionally nomadic Touareg people- roll out some simply incredible music, that is at once set in the traditional music of the Touareg and the electric guitar riffs of the blues. Chorus repitions and a smattering of traditional instruments join some pretty rousing electric guitar work in what comes out as a very nearly seamless ‘fusion’ of styles and influences. The musicians that make up Tinariwen spent some time in training camps run by Khadafi, then fought in a rebellion against the government of Mali, before settling for peace and playing music full time. They were eventually discovered by a French band and through a series of events ended up on the world stage. Great stuff- my favorite album right now.

I have to mention in closing a somewhat similar group, Afrissippi, which I got to see perform live a few months back in Hattiesburg. Taking a similar tack of style fusion, the band formed after Guelel Kumba moved from his native Senegal to North Mississippi, met some area musicians, and started playing with them. The result is a blend of West African trad and North Mississippi hill-country blues. Some really fine and surprisingly beautiful, even sublime music.

Traditional Afghan Music

Here are a couple of nice sites pertaining to different aspects of traditional music from Afghanistan, which, before its descent into mass chaos and warfare in the waning days of the Cold War, was home to vibrant traditions of music reflecting the nation’s ethnic and cultural diversity.

The Afghan Music Project is the result of efforts by two Berkeley students to collect recording of traditional musicians in the post-Taliban Afghanistan; their site includes a nice video detailing their project.

Music in the Afghan North is a collection of material collected before the Soviet invasion and subsequent destruction of much traditional culture- first by the Soviets (folk ballads and such can be quite subversive of international socialism) and later by the Taliban. The music quality here is naturally somewhat lo-fi, but some of the pieces are quite enjoyable and accessible, besides their cultural and historical significance.

Traditional Music & Tsarist Russia (In Colour)

The website of the Freer and Sackler Galleries has a fine little collection of podcasts for download of several different sorts of Asian traditional music, including a fine Palestinian ensemble performing traditional Arabic music that I’m listening to right now. They also have a collection of folk stories, and some curatorial commentary.

:: Freer and Sackler Galleries Podcasts :: 

Via Arts & Letters, a magnificent collection of photographs by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii of Tsarist Russia, rendered into colour. I particularly love the material from Central Asia, which Russia had gradually absorbed through the later half of the nineteenth century. Below is a photo of Jewish children and their teacher in Samarkand.