Almost ten years ago I went searching for an African American folk band.  I was looking for alternatives, in general, to my existing diet of Metal, Hip Hop, and Lounge.  I’d been into Bluegrass for a while, but mostly the much older stuff and while there was a lot of it to take in, I didn’t find the variety I was looking for.  This led me on a much longer quest and into a much deeper rabbit hole that included Zydeco, and Folk.  Eventually, I came across a band called “The Carolina Chocolate Drops”, a folk band from North Carolina.  At the time they only had one album, and it ended up saving my quest for new music. Rhiannon Giddens is one of the founding members of the group” who, in 2010 won a Grammy for their album “Genuine Negro Jig”. 

They have since produced 7 albums and a few of their members have even gone on to have successful solo careers, Giddens being among them.  When I came across her other album, released earlier this year, “Songs of our Native Daughters” I admit I didn’t make the connection between her and The Chocolate Drops, right away.  Nevertheless, I was blown away by her voice and skills with a banjo.  When I heard she had another album coming out, I scoured the internet to see if I could hear a bit of it and I finally found it in March on NPR’s “First Listen” 

“There is no other” is her latest album and a statement about the otherizing of marginalized groups and it meshes with Giddens’ apparent vision.  One of the great things about the messages in this album is the concentric layers of it that seem to be present in both the vocals and the instrumentals. By incorporating musical styles from around the world, she is drawing a clear commonality among all people, with music. It was interesting to hear that banjo at the top of all the arrangements and I was amazed to hear how well it blended with the other instruments, further enhancing Giddens’ message and reinforcing in my mind how rare of a talent she possesses. 

But the whole point of the album for us was Giddens’ sublime voice and preternatural gift with the banjo and the viola.  There was an American folk and country feel with beautiful Mediterranean instrumentals running beneath it all.  The addition of these instruments was no doubt the work of her collaborator on the album Francesco Turrisi, a multi-instrumental Jazz musician.  I was particularly pleased because Giddens' journey and growth as a musician is so clearly mapped in her work.  By engaging with other forms of music and attempting such an ambitious melding of musical styles and origins, it was clear she wanted to deliver something entirely new.  And she did.  The album is out on May 3rd and it is highly recommended.

As stated above, the album in its entirety is available to listen to on NPR here.  And once again, I can’t stress enough how important it is for you to support these artists by going to iTunes or whichever platform you prefer and paying to download the album. 

The early 90s were heady times for me, a young college student.  I was like a lot of kids my age in that my friends and I were always at some show downtown. Between punk and hardcore shows, Ska and metal, there were very few weekends that we weren’t in some mosh pit or chilling in some basement club drinking beers.  I and my group of friends were fanatics when it came to the music we loved.  This was before the days of iTunes and Spotify so we were always in the record stores on the prowl for more of what we wanted or anything that sounded like it.  The one thing I felt made us different, was the types of music we were into.  I can’t say for sure, because I didn’t have access to everyone’s CD collection at the time.  But suffice it to say, there are times I felt different because of what I listened to.

It started with a music appreciation class in college.  My friend had gotten turned on to Yitzak Perlman’s performance of “Four Seasons”.  I was already into Berlioz and was exploring some of the experimental stuff like Diamanda Galas and Kitaro.  Whenever we came across something new we’d hang out at each other’s places, smoke cigarettes, and pot, drink beer and play the hell out of the flavor of the month.

Over the next couple of years, my taste in music expanded and matured.  I had another friend who was into music but didn’t really go to shows.  One day he invited me over to his place after classes.  He wanted to share something he’d come across.  He put the cd into the player and it changed my perception of classical music forever.   It was moody, unassuming, minimal, but beautiful.  It was Henryk Gorecki.

This friend and I had already bonded over a shared love of Portishead and the dark vocals of Beth Gibbons.  The introduction of this obscure classical composer added another level of music appreciation to our friendship and a new layer of complexity to our tastes.  Little did I know that these two artists in common would one day intersect.

40 years after the initial North American release of Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony, the Polish National Radio Symphony released “The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”, with Portishead’s Beth Gibbons performing vocals.

When I heard last year that one of my favorite female vocalists was going to be singing one of my all-time favorite symphonies, I was both elated and skeptical.  While I love Gibbons’ voice, I was somewhat doubtful about her ability to successfully perform in such a disparate setting, especially when you consider the challenge posed by Gibbon’s inability to read music or speak Polish.  There are many opera singers that don’t speak the language in which they are required to sing. And if Gibbons, along with her Portishead band mates can produce “Dummy” without her being able to read music, I was more than willing to give this a chance.

I LOVE the 1995 release of this Symphony.  It introduced me to a world of classical music beyond Vivaldi and Scriabin.  But in listening to this new version I’ve come to understand that Beth Gibbons was born for this performance.  Her vocals could be described as forlorn, longing, perhaps even sorrowful.  Despite the linguistic challenges, Gibbons delivers a performance that would have made Gorecki lament her absence for the original 1976 recording were he still alive.  This is an album worth checking out.  You can listen to most of it and watch a live performance on Youtube.  However, as usual, I am going to recommend you support this recording by purchasing the entire thing.  At 11 dollars it’s well worth the price.

   I was a fan of Karen O since her days as the vocalist for The Yeah Yeah Yeahs.  Though I have to admit that a lot of their stuff was very hit or miss for me.   Regardless of how I may have felt about a particular style, I’ve always remained a fan of Karen’s voice. I often get excited when an artist does something so different from previous work and after hearing a sample of the title track in January and heard the dramatic shift in singing style, my interest was piqued, but I reserved judgment.  I reserved judgment all the way through the first 4 minutes of the title track “Lux Prima”.      Midwaythrough “Lux Prima” Karen O’s vocals kick in.  It was strongly reminiscent of Air’s “Le Femme D’argent”.  Not because I found it derivative, but because it evoked a sense of excitement that I hadn’t experienced about an album of this type since “Moon Safari”.  In fact, there were many aspects of this album that reminded me of Blue States as well.  Both groups mixed ethereal and dreamy music, bass lines, and female vocals to make evocative albums.  Where those albums injected vocals into their music sporadically, for Lux Prima, it was the point.  And it was incredible.   

   To say I am a fan of Danger Mouse would be inaccurate.  I’ve followed his work, mostly because I’m always curious to see how he influences the artists he works with.  He definitely has a style and a signature without being repetitive.  You can always feel his presence in the collaborations he participates in.  It might be more accurate to call me a student of his.  If you aren’t familiar with his work, he first gained notoriety with his mashup of The Beatles “White Album” and Jay-Z's “Black Album”, appropriately titled “Grey Album”.  Since then, he has worked with Beck, U2, and more recently The Black Keys (whose album we will be reviewing).    The collaboration was announced several years ago, and apparently first conceived after Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton had just finished working on Beck’s “Modern Guilt” in 2008.  According to Karen, she’d drunk dialed Burton from Europe to tell him they should “work together”.  Some have said that the album wandered, or that it lacked direction. 

   Karen O’s admission in an interview with Rolling Stone, that they “didn’t plan anything before going into the studio.”, would seem to support this.  I disagree with the critics.  I found Danger Mouse’s contribution to the album tied the whole thing together quite nicely.  There was no doubt from the time that the collaboration was announced (nearly ten years ago) that there was an experimental component to it.  And I think anyone listening to it, should make room in their minds for that.    If you are looking for a Yeah Yeah Yeahs album with a little Danger Mouse stink on it, this is not the album for you.  But if you are looking for two artists taking each other, and their listeners to a place they haven’t been before, you’re in luck.  You can find tracks from the album on Youtube, starting with the title track here.  I recommend having a listen before deciding if you want to buy.  However, if you like the album I suggest you support the artist by buying it.