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Endless Story

Kukuruza is a terrific bluegrass band from Russia fueled by the country-diva soprano of Irina Surina. They've been playing mostly Russian folk songs in this quintessentially American style since the mid-eighties. Listen to them, and the Urals seem neighbors to the Appalachians; what the heck was that cold war thing about, anyway?

But sprinkled among such songs as "Steppe" and "Hey, Freezing Frost!" (my favorite Russian folk song title) is some daring programming. Their 1992 album A Russian Country Bluegrass Band mixed covers of Offenbach (a really rousing "Can-Can"!) with Chuck Berry. Here, innocence betrayed them to a splendid end: unaware of the irony in a bluegrass version of "Johnny B. Goode", they produced a high-octane blend of mandolin (George Palmov) and fiddle (Sergei Mosolov) without which the world would be a poorer place, indeed.

Endless Story has its offbeat selections as well: a dubious cover of Leonard Cohen's "Bird on a Wire", and more successfully, "Landscape" (track 12) and "Dried Fig" (track 13), two contemporary Russian songs that sound like The Tractors got drunk with The Residents. But the hit is the irresistible "That's What I Like About You" (track 10): their energy, skill, and Surina's terrific voice come together for four minutes of sheer joy.

we need new animals

Classifying music is a sucker's game these days. I suppose it's the presence of clarinet, violin, and cello on we need new animals by the quartet Daau that seduced Sony into calling it "classical." They've ignored both the subversive presence of the accordion and the actual sounds encoded on the disc, which owe as much to classical as any other musical genre. Which is to say, not much.

No failure of nerve here; it's almost two minutes before these guys give your ear somewhere to alight, then "No Rule" (track 3) builds to a frenetic climax of Middle Eastern and gypsy rhythms. "Nix" (track 3) is even hotter, Zappa-like iconoclasm melding with the swing-band energy of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. And "Waltz Delire" (track 7) is mad, edgy -- the music box dancer on amphetamines.

This album is graced with several delightful guest appearances: Michael Brook adds his guitar and bass to the circus rhythms of "Oliphant" (track 6), and "Dip 'n Dodge" (track 9) features the rich, soft voice of Angelique Willkie (from Zap Mama), the perfect companion to Han Stubbe's snaky, sensual clarinet. From the shivering violin that starts it to the shimmering accordion that ends it, this song is a revelation. For that matter, so is Daau -- I can't wait to hear what they do next.

hologram crackers
Gideon Freudmann

You may think you know what one cello sounds like, but you can't possibly anticipate the rich textures you'll hear on Hologram Crackers, a wide-ranging, ear-opening collection of tunes for solo cello by Gideon Freudmann, a classically trained cellist wending his idiosyncratic, geeky, and humorous way through the musical landscape. I quote from his liner notes: "All selections... were recorded in one pass of the tape using digital delays and looping gear to create a dense, overdubbed sound, but without conventional multitracking."

Dispensing with convention is what the guy does, and delightfully. Hear, for example, the delicious dissonance in the sadly lyrical "blue moon" (track 7). Or the liquid, swing-oriented "robin hood changes his oil" (track 3). Or the dizzy, smiling "fish food" (track 16). The music is as offbeat as the titles. What a kick!


Life and Death in a Street Organ
Huub de Lange

In those too-rare moments when I look around to savor the impossible sweetness of my life, the soundtrack in my head has been Life and Death in a Street Organ. I just never knew it. Huub de Lange is a Dutch musician who composes by punching holes in cardboard to make organ-books. In this way, he incorporates the nostalgic tones of a mechanical street organ into a string quartet of live -- and talented -- violin, cello, and bass.

The organ, built in 1986, has two main stops: a drone and a violin-celest, the latter in particular a sure-fire tugger at the heartstrings. More to the point, this wonderful tool is in the hands of a master: how this music flows! And what emotional ground it covers, from the bittersweet remembrance of "Death of a Jester" (track 6) to the happy jigging of "Farmer's Dance" (track 10), or the dire bass and doleful cello underlying the bright "Little Bird" (track 11).

For all its emotionalism, the music has a cerebral side, too. Glass-like minimalism forms the bones of the title track (12), a perfect synthesis of heart and head.

La Cucina

In the midst of grey winter, a splash of sunshine on a silver platter! Nabumla pushes all my buttons: complex Latin rhythms, luscious melodies, accordion like a ribbon of spun sugar over the whole thrilling package. Accordionist and pianist Eliseo d'Agostino makes beautiful music -- muscular, original, joyful. (sigh) Sure wish the singer could sing.

The astonishing d'Agostino gets to show his stuff on the instrumental "runner" (track 5), a mad gallop that also showcases the considerable talents of guitarist Owain Clarke. I'd love to catch these guys live; I can see the crowd swaying to the infectious "buddhas (are we)" (track 2), in which Clarke plays a marimba as bright as a starry night atop a mountain, or the driving, danceable "l'americana" (track 7), a ballad of lust to equal any composed since the Dawn of Music.

Voices like this (three guys are credited with vocals, so it's impossible to know whom to blame) are not necessarily an impediment to a career as a pop singer, but this one is definitely on the discouraging side. Yet he can make it work, as he does in the spooky, moody "guy debord is sleeping" (track 6):

What a sandpaper mind you have
rubbing everybody up the wrong way...

I wrote about La Cucina's album La Chucheria last summer; they're an English band who produced three maddeningly undated albums sometime in the mid-nineties and vanished. This album is produced and mixed by Sabah Habas Mustapha, the nom de guerre of one of the loopier and more imaginative members of that loopy precursor of musical globalism, 3 Mustaphas 3. The off-beat sensibility that gave the world "Too Much Luggage" and "Soba Song" lives again. Hooray!


La Llorona

Mexican singer Lhasa da Sela has one of the most beautiful voices I've ever heard. Soft, smoky, at times almost sandy, it goes straight to the shiver center atop your spine. This delicious disc is a collaboration between Lhasa and French-Canadian multi-instrumentalist Yves Desrosiers, whose plays precise, crystalline Spanish guitar; soaring steel guitar; and lush, buttery accordion. (He's also credited with lap steel bass, banjo, percussion, and musical saw.)

But Lhasa's singing, at once passionate and cerebral, whole-hearted and nuanced, is the star. "El Desierto" (track 3) starts out with a distant desert wind; a steady, lulling gait; a whisper in your ear. The first hint of despair doesn't take long -- a tiny yet horrifying double-croak ends the first phrase. Then she cranks up the heat until, by the final, heart-rending verse, you can feel the desert sun beat on your nape.

In this barren world, love must bring pain. "Mi Vanidad" (track  10) nails it thus:

Ever since there's no pain
No on will suffer for love anymore
No one but me
I don't want to forget.

The emotional dynamic may be familiar, but the material, much credited "traditional", is fresh, wonderful stuff happily rescued from undeserved obscurity: "Los Peces" (track 6), for example, a delightful folk song in which Mary hangs the baby Jesus's wet diapers on a rosemary bush to dry, and the shrub responds by blossoming.

Memory Is an Elephant
tin hat trio

One plays accordion, pump organ, and toy piano.
One plays violin and viola.
One plays guitars, banjo, and mandolin.
The instruments alone get me even before I hear a note.

The notes are pretty darned wonderful, too. tin hat trio has an old-world beauty similar to 3 Leg Torso's and a quirkiness reminiscent of Cafe Noir (I love the idea of naming a song "uc irvine/uc davis"), but as this intriguing album makes clear, they have their own astute and original take, at once fresh and mature, on life, the universe, and music.

They're terrific musicians:
Rob Burger is one of the many people currently showing the world how subtle and delicious the accordion can be.
Carla Kihlstedt's strings sing in that heart-breakingly human voice that's the chief reason people swoon over violins.
Mark Orton plays guitar with delicate brilliance.

This disc of eleven original compositions -- most by the remarkable Orton -- starts strong and gets better and better: sweet melodies; rich, complex orchestration; a palette of styles ranging from jazzy and swingy to dark and cerebral. In "the would-be czarina" (track 7), a soft, plaintive violin is soon joined by a toy piano asking the same off-key question over and over. Then Orton plucks a few notes on his guitar and wham, the whole congeals into a song so coherent it's almost a story. It swells to the expected crescendo -- and the toy piano's back, lonely, insisting on its dissonant question.

My hands-down favorite, however, is the final track, Burger's sole composition, the lovely "thinuette." Has any song ever been so drenched in nostalgia?

Keep playing at your own risk.


una forma mas
Vocal Sampling

If you like Cuban music, you'll enjoy this sampler of Cuban musical styles from the 30s to the present: "son, boleros, guaracha, merengue, salsa, rumba, yoruba, and cha-cha-cha," the notes list. You may be amazed at how long it takes you to realize you're listening to six men sing.

As practiced by groups like The Bobs or Edlos or Bobby McFerrin, this sort of a capella tour de force underscores an oddball point of view. Vocal Sampling is content to sound just like what they're imitating: finger-snapping, hip-shaking Cuban popular music. "Not so much a choir as an orchestra," they describe themselves in the informative liner notes, "with typical Latin arrangements." Not that they take it completely straight -- now and then, the occasional rooster or chihuahua strays onto the stage. (On second thought, perhaps that is typical.)

Evidently, these guys started singing together as an after-school hobby, a fact that puts a new spin on U.S.-Cuba relations for me. Wallowing in the blessings of consumer culture, America's children get to hang at the mall or strafe aliens. The poor Cubans are reduced to creating art.

una forma mas transcends its humble ambitions; these guys are artists. "Congo Yambumba" (track 6) starts with vocal percussion that sounds, surprisingly, Indian. "Although all of us play at least one instrument," they tell us, "we prefer to sing these parts to achieve a lighter mood." And the mood is indeed light, from the joyous, airy title track (7) to the witty "Radio Reloj," with its snatches of pompous announcer, lugubrious Russian folk song, operatic tenor. Vocal Sampling now joins Radio Tarifa, Manhattan Transfer and others who've recently reminded us that the whistle and wheeze of tuning an old analog radio is yet another sound grown suddenly archaic under the digital onslaught.

heaven's dust

At last, a chance to enjoy swooping and soaring Celtic vocals without all that irritating deedly-deedly-dee. Instead, the talented quartet Ekova serve up Mediterranean timbres, dense polyrhythms, rich textures: Radio Tarifa meets mouth music, to a first approximation.

But God, as they say, is in the details. The versatile voice of Deirdre Dubois amazes: an angelic soprano on "Starlight in Daden" (track 1), she sounds staccato, throaty, Central Asian on "Temoine" (track 4). Whatever she's doing, she does it with conviction; hearing the sparse, aptly titled "In My Prime" (track 10) is like seeing someone jump off a cliff and fly.

And the instrumentalists can cook up a storm on their own. When "Le Nef des Fous" (track 8) was finally over and fading in my ears, I was breathing like someone wrestling a door shut against the wind.

After the last track, indulge your sated ears' need for silence. For, say, another 23 minutes or so.


the violence of amateurs
French TV

It was the cover from Zamla Mammas Manna that did it. I found it lurking in the fine print of the Wayside catalog. Any band with the acumen to include a Lars Hollmer piece sounded intriguing. I sent off for French TV, and how happy I am.

Mike Sary takes no prisoners. Three and a half minutes into nonstop frenetic jazz, complete with doorbell, when you hear what sounds like the seven dwarves chanting, you figure out the general philosophy: Let no rule remain unbent. Make no concessions. Hang tough for a 38-second march, complete with whistlers, and at last you're rewarded with (something like) structure. Suddenly you're dancing. More noodly interludes, more groovin', a voice interrupts to ask, "Are y'all ready for more music?" and "The Secret Life of Walter Riddle" (track 2) closes with a burst of surf guitar.

Except for the first, these tracks are long, eight minutes to over twenty; each piece gets time to romp all over the emotional landscape. "The Odessa Steps Sequence" (track 3), chaotic and challenging throughout, ends with a sunny few minutes of simple cheer. The cover of Lars Hollmer's "Joosan Lost" -- rapturously, the long track that ends the album -- leaves me gasping.

The liner notes are a witty and delightful change. "Mr. Sary," indulging in a fantasy of whirlwind fame and fortune,...

"...[tries] to pinpoint the the exact moment his long-cherished genre, Progressive Rock, had become the new decade's dominant musical trend....
Today, at least, he concluded that it was when Madonna, Whitney Houston, and Alanis Morissette released nearly identical twenty-minute epics about the universe (or something to that effect) complete with chorale-fugues and Mellotron breaks."

I can hardly wait.

The Lonesome Organist

More anarchic music. "The Lonesome Organist plays drums/percussion, organ/Leslie, harmonica/whistles/melodica, chord organ, chime piano, regular piano, acoustic/electric guitars, speed up guitars [sic], steel pan, tap shoes, bowed and struck saws, saxophone, samples, and vocals." And on three tracks, several of the above simultaneously. Lonesome indeed! He's got a great sense of ensemble.

As you'd expect from this resume, he's gone off in his own direction. Results are uneven, but never dull: sometimes he's a rock idol, with howling, scratchy, distant vocals reminiscent of The Residents or Tom Waits. Sometimes he's a yodeling cowboy, as in "All of Those Dirty Swine" (track 13), one of the brightest, happiest pieces of music ever recorded. Like Harry Partch, he makes liberal use of non-Western tunings, as in "Vibe Sequencer" (track 7), which he happily follows with the electronic spaghetti Western sound of "Fly on My Plate."


Kronos Quartet

The new release from the superb and prolific Kronos Quartet demonstrates their signature eclecticism, featuring well-chosen songs from Mexico, Turkey, Portugal, the Balkans, Iran, Lebanon, as well as a notable new composition by Terry Riley.

And then there's "Gloomy Sunday" (track 6, aka the Hungarian suicide song), played with such perfect poignancy you forget to breathe. I heard Kronos play this live about a year ago and sat there with the electricity coursing through my body, knowing that I would not be released until this album was. Here it is at last, and it's a treasure.

I am especially delighted with the choice of "Aaj Ki Raat" ("Tonight's the Night," track 3), my favorite song from Bollywood (as the Bombay film industry is known). That panting song is particularly suited to the throb of strings; to my delight, the arrangement sounds based on the avidly melodramatic rendering by Asha Bhosle (track 4 on an album of Indian film music entitled "Golden Voices from the Silver Screen," Vol. 3) instead of the relatively bland version by Najma. (Bhosle's version is utterly over the top, introduced with a breathless phone conversation climaxed by a thunderstorm.) It's typical of Kronos's intelligence that they see beyond all that to evoke the true drama within the heart of this song.

By the way, the quartet's changed cellists. I miss Joan Jeanrenaud but welcome the accomplished Jennifer Kulp.


Music for midnight, a friend called this -- an apt description. Dark and edgy, mixing scratches and sampling with strings, horns and Gibbons's eerie vocals, the eopnymous album by Portishead is brilliant. Beth Gibbons, Geoff Barrows, and Adrian Utley have more fresh ideas per minute than most of us manage in a year. In "Seven Months" (track 8), they play silence like an instrument. The hypnotic "Undenied" (track 3) uses a man repeating a word as another color of percussion. And the horn that starts about half a minute into "Mourning Air" (track 7) somehow attenuates rather than thickens Gibbons's already taut voice, until your own throat tightens in sympathy.

Rules are made to be broken, they say, and here I am breaking mine: there's nothing mongrelized about this music -- it's pure "alternative" (whatever that means). It just happens I can't get enough. Surely "Humming" (track 6) is one of the loveliest melodies to come out of rock since "Yesterday."


Maria de Buenos Aires
a tango operita by Astor Piazzolla

Maria de Buenos Aires, billed as a "tango operita," was Astor Piazzolla's attempt at creating a new genre. Combining instrumentals with narrated pieces as well as male and female solos, it is an unbearably romantic, tragically heart-breaking, basically incomprehensible story of love and lust, ghost and goblin, brothel and bandoneon.

Don't worry about it. The whore-goddess Maria represents the soul of the tango, okay? Just listen and swoon -- the composer of some of the world's most high-calorie melodies is at it again. In only one hearing, "Yo Soy Maria" ("I Am Maria," track 4) will etch itself so deeply into your brain that you will be able to play it secretly to yourself in meetings.

This new double CD from Teldec features on violin Gidon Kremer, whose Hommage a Piazzolla (1996, Nonesuch) was such a rich treat. The other performers match his conviction and proficiency; I particularly enjoy Per Arne Glorvigen on bandoneon. The throbbing voice of the narrator is the man who wrote the libretto, Horacio Ferrer.

Les Negresses Vertes

The former circus band from southern France discovers trance, marries brass with mellow. Les Negresses Vertes continues to surprise: this time, starting with "leila" (track 1), their intrepid spirit leads them to play spacey with synthesizers. Mercifully, however, they do not lapse into pleasant pap; their music continues to energize, not enervate. We go from deep forest to rave, thence to the hot plains of Andalusia, yet for all this ranging, fans would have no trouble picking Trabendo out of a police lineup of sound clips. This album sounds just like them -- rapier songs with edge and point.


"12 Golden Country Greats" and "Mollusk"

Ween is an odd band to get a handle on, as this pair of albums illustrates. 12 Golden Country Greats doesn't have a single Hank Williams hit on it -- they wrote all the songs -- but before the end, they've convinced you that they could've written every country song you ever heard, and then some. Everyone's here, from balladeering cowboy to lonesome trucker to sobbing drunk to repentant sinner. If you didn't listen to the words of the second track, it could almost be Ian Tyson -- but he never wrote anything as loopy as "Japanese Cowboy."

Ween plays with category with a tongue-in-cheek irony reminiscent of They Might Be Giants, but they sound a lot more pop, a lot slicker on the surface. And wow, can these guys write hooks! One of the most powerful viruses ever written, "Piss Up a Rope" (track 3) is more like a hookworm -- on a single hearing, it will work its way deep into your brain, forever to chase you through insomniac nights. It gets rough when you realize you're tapping your toes to a distressingly convincing depiction of good ol' country boy misogyny. It's what they call vicious satire: remember to breathe.

Just to keep you off balance, they follow this with the light, sweet love song, "I Don't Want to Leave You on the Farm." (In an effort to reconcile these two disparate views of life, a friend opined that track 4 is addressed to the singer's dog.)

Mollusk is a complete departure, and a paradox -- how can the album sound so idiosyncratic, and yet evoke The Bonzo Dog Band, The Residents, Tom Waits, and The Legendary Pink Dots? Ultimately, their essence defeats analysis, but among its constituent ingredients, I identify: outrageous lyrics, the aforementioned playful attitude toward category, and a unique balance of the visceral and cerebral.

Spring Waterfall
Foday Musa Suso and Philip Glass

This pleasure is track five on a curious CD from Germany called Jali Kunda, and it's aptly titled; the notes of Foday Musa Suso's delicate kora and Philip Glass's deliberative piano indeed cascade onto your upturned soul like drops of water in a sparkle of sunshine. What a sweet and happy piece this is! -- a seven-minute record of a picnic in Eden.

The other tracks are indigenous African pieces recommended for those who like it pure.


"Reves" and "YOSOY"
Cafe Tacuba

Cafe Tacuba, avant-garde rock group from Mexico, rewrites the contract between musician and listener: the notion of a consistent style flies out the window. Their new double CD, YOSOY and Reves, fuses elements of metal, trance, techno, and chamber music.

They challenge your expectations, they make statements. For example, all the tracks on Reves have numbers for names. Not the same as the track numbers -- that would not ask enough of you, the listener. (Allow me to demonstrate my undying devotion in other ways, guys; the descriptions below use track numbers.)

Track 1 warns you at the outset: do not expect this band to please you.
Track 2 gets into some techno timbres, a groovin' beat -- is it rave?
Track 4: Several minutes of sweet sadness are interrupted by harsh staccato samples, then a distant voice sings what could be a medieval melody.
Track 5: Aliens form an impromptu rock band and jam. Surfer dude aliens. For instruments, they're using transformers and things at an electrical substation.
Track 8: Cafe Tacuba is now a classical ensemble.
Track 9: Just kidding. They're a rock group again -- one who uses a lot of annoying samples.
Track 10: Back to the classical ensemble: violin sobs lush, overheated rhapsodies.
Track 11: cartoon music Carl Stalling would be proud of.
Track 12 ends the disc with a melting, lyrical Spanish guitar played with skill and authority.

YOSOY is more pop -- high-energy, fun stuff, danceable, and with terrific hooks. Some of it sounds like the early Beatles, laced with touches of Latin ballads, metal, bubble gum.... You get the idea.

Unfortunately, the only legible information in two jewelboxes is Warner's copyright statement. Hmm.

Trio Voronezh

Trio Voronezh, on the other hand, has delightfully informative liner notes. Valerie Petrushin plays the double bass balalaika; Vladimir Volochin plays the domra, a three-stringed short-necked lute; Sergei Teleshev plays the bajan, a chromatic accordion with chin-operated (!) registers.

The blessedly informative liner notes go on to say that these three started in 1993 playing the streets and subways of Germany, which must indeed be a wondrous place if hurrying commuters encounter such delights as this! Their choice of material does, in fact, suggest a background of trying to please an uncertain crowd -- Bach, Schubert, Mendelssohn. It's exquisitely done, though. Bach sounds as if he wrote for the domra; Schubert, for the accordion.


so la li
Sabah Habas Mustapha and the Jugala All-Stars

The eighties were enlivened by the appearance of 3 Mustaphas 3, a band purportedly smuggled into England in refrigerator boxes from someplace called Szegerely. Delightful and humorous, their music ranged over the globe, free to sing about anything in any style in half a dozen languages: "Soba Song," for example, a country-western tune in praise of Japanese buckwheat noodles.

One happy day in 1997, Sabah Habas Mustapha released Jalan Kopo, a compelling album exploring Sundanese (West Javan) music. so la li demonstrates anew his fascination with musical blends. SHM offers frameworks of country, rock, and blues for the Jugala All-Stars, "Bandung's finest," to play with. Richest are his collaborations with Ismet Ruchimat, such as "Rubi Chen" (track 2) and "Beber Layar" (track 10); hip-shakin' blues riffs ground the Indonesian flute, thus allow it to soar.

"Beautifonky" is the word the notes use to describe these insistent, danceable tunes aswirl with the colors and flavors of Indonesian timbres and tunings. Most delicious is the voice of Tati Ani Mogione; hear her exquisite melisma on "Geulis" (track 5) and "Seuri" (track 8).


Viruses, not songs, that's Sprawl -- the sort of thing that changes your entire sonic frame of reference the first time you hear it; ten minutes' exposure and you're changed, changed utterly, you can't imagine what anything sounded like before you heard this.

How do they do that?

And it's great to hear Lene Lovich again! Who else on earth writes anthems like "Natural Beauty" (track 7)?

I can't stop playing this. Over and over. When this wave passes, as someday it must, all memory of this season will be pickled in sweet harmony and acid ideas.

Zero Accidents on the Job
Luaka Bop's 10th anniversary album

It's hardly news that David Byrne has a fantastic hit rate with Luaka Bop, and this ten-year retrospective is just what I've been hoping for. "Steamy Hits" (disc 1) includes the all-time great guitar moment, Shoukichi Kina and Ry Cooder playing "Jing Jing," and "Aatavu Chanda" by the Indian musical director Vijaya Anand. Heaping splendor upon splendor, it also includes Cornershop, King Chango, Zap Mama, and Clinton. Whew!

"Slow Jams" (disc 2) has similarly great stuff -- Tom Ze, Silvio Rodriguez, Susana Baca, Los Van Van, and Mimi. Need to unwind after a long day? Pour a glass of wine, put on this disc.