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Austin Chronicle Record Reviews

FEBRUARY 23, 1999: 

URI CAINE

Blue Wail (Winter & Winter)

It's both appropriate and ironic that Blue Wail, jazz pianist Uri Caine's third release for Winter & Winter, opens and closes with two almost-lyrical takes (for him, anyway) on Fats Waller's "Honeysuckle Rose." Appropriate because the 70-year-old jazz standard has been a woodshedder's dream ever since Charlie Parker got ahold of it in the Forties, and Blue Wail wails like nothing if not woodshedding. Caine's furiously "inside" improv on a set of nine of his own compositions, played in trio format (James Genus, bass, Ralph Peterson Jr., drums) is fairly awe-inspiring, "Digature of the Line" and "Stain" in particular. Unfortunately, "Honeysuckle Rose" is also one of the only compositions on Blue Wail that distinguishes itself melodically; short on melody, short on this memory. This was noticeable on both of Caine's otherwise exceptional albums for Verve's JMT imprint (where the pianist first started working with producer/auteur Stefan Winter), 1993's Sphere Music and '95's Toys, but the Philly-born-and-bred musician side-stepped the issue with his two albums for W&W, last year's classically leaning Primal Light: Gustav Mahler and Wagner e Venezia, both excellent. On Blue Wail only the spry melody of "Bones Don't Cry" signals recognition after repeated plays. Caine wails alright, but maybe he needs to stop and smell the "Honeysuckle Rose[s]." (Uri Caine accompanies Don Byron at the Bates Recital Hall, Saturday, February 20.)

2 stars -- Raoul Hernandez



DINO SALUZZI/ROSAMUNDE QUARTETT

Kultrum (ECM New Series)

Subtitled "music for bandoneon and string quartet," Kultrum is the product of a two-year collaboration between the adventurous Dino Saluzzi and the like-minded Rosamunde Quartett. Their goal was to stretch past classical and folk traditions to forge something unique. Mission accomplished. The hour's worth of improvised compositions are performed like stately court music, yet sparse and malleable enough to initiate a yet-to-be-named genre. Credit goes to composer Dino Saluzzi who architected the eight pieces with moods from his native Argentina and work with tango master Astor Piazzolla, while infusing his own cosmopolitan experience with those outside the tango idiom. Saluzzi's instrument, the bandoneon, is a 88-note button squeezebox that migrated to Argentina with the Germans who brought it, which makes it appropriate that the flawless accompaniment he receives comes from the Munich-based Rosamunde quartet: violist Helmut Nicolai, violoncellist Anja Lechner, and violinists Andreas Reiner and Simon Fordham. All five are well-versed in when not to play, letting notes breathe and dissipate, as in "Miserere," which one could easily imagine Piazzolla and Kronos Quartet interpreting, or the moody but not indulgent "El Apriete." With repeated listening Kultrum may convert new listeners, but its ardent abstract tango futura will hit harder with the South American and/or Western classical set.

3 stars -- David Lynch



THE CHIEFTAINS

Tears of Stone (RCA Victor)

EILEEN IVERS

Crossing the Bridge (Sony Classical)

The Chieftains have decided to become Ireland's most famous back-up band. The irony is that the band, formed to preserve the Emerald Isle's traditional music, has spent their last few albums reshaping and veering from that form with guest stars; think Mick Jagger on Long Black Veil, or Galician piper Carlos Nunez on Santiago. Their latest, Tears of Stone, posits the boys with the girls, as female vocalists are featured, and it certainly is an impressive list: Loreena McKennitt, Sinead O'Connor, Bonnie Raitt, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Joan Osborne, Joni Mitchell, Natalie Merchant, and even Oscar-winning actress Brenda Fricker. Fiddlers Natalie McMaster and Eileen Ivers are on tap, and the inclusion of traditional songs like "Danny Boy" ensure that even Granny in Kilkenny would be pleased. Ivers, who toured with Lord of the Dance, is another player not afraid to push the Gaelic envelope with her own fusion-style album, Crossing the Bridge, but there's only a couple of songs on here that wouldn't benefit from a more traditional arrangement. The title track is a blunt statement of the Bronx-born Ivers' mission as she contrasts her fiddle over hip-hop tracks and little jazzy trumpet for an effect that's too scattered to be effective. Despite the frantic helter-skelter of Crossing the Bridge, Iver's solo version of "Nearer My God to Thee" is exactly the sort of heart-wrenching tune you want but don't really expect, and redeems what is otherwise a well-meaning hurly-burly. Ivers delivers, but make sure she's bringing what you want.

(Tears of Stone) 2.5 stars

(Crossing the Bridge) 2 stars-- Margaret Moser



FATBOY SLIM

You've Come a Long Way, Baby (AstralWerks)

"Check it out now, the funk soul brother." Seems everybody's heard the song, but no one knows who does it. Hear it? It's in the handjive prom scene of She's All That and the preview for Mike Judge's new flick, Office Space. As one of 1998's hottest club songs, it's destined to be one of 1999's most annoying. It's catchy: from its Boston-baked WBCN radio lead-in to the sexy sampled baritone of Lord Finesse. What's catchier are its slappy Big Beat trapset loops and chinky-chanky slurpy surf licks recalling timeless one-hit rave-ups like Cliff Noble's "The Horse" or more topically, Smash Mouth's "Walking on the Sun." The new single, "Praise You," recently all over Entertainment Tonight, has a sexy, saunter through the park, "Grazing in the Grass," kind of feel. And the moody "Right Here, Right Now" is featured in an Oldsmobile (!) car commercial. It's the Nineties, baby, and art gets sucked up for product placement even before it hits the streets. Despite its frightening, mass-market pedigree and inevitable overkill, however, this disc works, skipping merrily with ease from genre to genre, much like the man who tweaks its knobs. Norman Cook, the boy behind Slim and previous plastered pop projects like Beats International and Freakpower, began his charmed life as a Brit-hit Housemartin an entire shelf-life ago. He has certainly come a long way.

4 stars -- Kate X Messer



PETER WOLF

Fool's Parade (Mercury)

Peter Wolf probably knows the value of name recognition. His 1996 album, Long Line, was a masterfully full-blown collage of R&B, soul, pop, and rock, which nobody heard thanks to the fact that without J. Geils, the band he once fronted with much success, Wolf can't get arrested. On Fool's Parade, the Beantown boy resigns himself to this fact and with the opening track "Long Way Back" (with its explicit allusion to his last outing) pays tribute to himself for his own unrequited perseverance. The album wallows more than its predecessor ("Anything At All," "All Torn Up"), but not in self pity. Wolf deluges himself in his own past for the purpose of coming to terms with his own regrets and failings. With this focused introspection coupled with some straight-up, badass, deliberate soul, Wolf has again created something worthwhile, something inspired. Fool's Paradedoesn't kick so much as it moves very patiently and evenly with the occasional flurry of restless energy, culminating with a scorching cover of the near-classic "I'd Rather Be Blind, Crippled, and Crazy" and the most apropos lyric: "I'm tired of you messin' up my time/ You do your thing, let me do mine."

3.5 stars -- Michael Bertin



BLACK CROWES

By Your Side (Columbia/American)

There's been a lot of talk that By Your Side is the Black Crowes' long-anticipated "comeback" or "return to form." And in many ways it is: It's heavy, unyielding, and very, very Shake Your Moneymaker. But that By Your Side is such an unapologetically rock & roll album shouldn't be surprising; Sho' Nuff, the 1998 box set that collected the band's first four albums, proved, if nothing else, that they've been more consistent than their reputation might lead you to believe. In fact, the only bummer in the bunch happens to be their last effort, Three Snakes and One Charm, but even then, revisitation reveals that while it's sketchy and underwritten, it wasn't nearly as psychedelic, Southern, or overwrought as its accompanying tours. Somehow, the Crowes' live reputation for jam-oriented worthlessness has crossed over into their recorded reputation. Which is exactly that type of confusion that ultimately makes By Your Side such a success; in the band's make-or-break desperation to repair their image with a heavier and more straightforward album, the Atlanta institution has yielded their most immediately likable and catchy set of songs to date. Better yet, frontman Chris Robinson's phrasing is sharper than ever and his songwriting is starting to sound more and more like the Black Crowes, and less and less like stolen Stones. Go ahead, call it a comeback, but it's really just a great example of grace under fire.

3.5 stars -- Andy Langer



THE DAMNATIONS TX

Half Mad Moon (Sire)

This is a great album. Simple as that. Great songs, great hooks, great harmonies. Great sequencing. Production (with the band) and mixing by John Croslin, a man capturing the best sounds from the best bands in Austin, terrific: clean, crisp, true. You can hear every strum, every pluck of Rob Bernard's banjo -- the taut snap of the snare drum. And yet there's really only one sound on Half Mad Moon, the Damnations TX's major label debut: the sound of two sisters sharing one voice. Though Deborah Kelly and Amy Boone trade lead vocal chores from one song to the next -- Deborah taking a turn, Amy singing the next -- if you're not familiar with which is which, you'll end up hearing just one voice (the liner notes don't differentiate who sings what). Which is probably just as well, given that the sisters' harmonies come together like refrigerator and magnet. It's especially noticeable on the sole tune neither one sings lead on, Bernard's raspy "Finger the Pie." When D&A chime in behind Bernard with "someone's gotta finger the pie," you realize how inextricably linked their voices really are. Comparisons have been made to the Carter Family, and even their modern descendants Freakwater, but really, Deborah and Amy's voices come together in much sweeter harmony. It's beautiful, really. Just beautiful.

4 stars -- Raoul Hernandez



GEOFF MULDAUR

The Secret Handshake (Hightone)

On "Got to Find Blind Lemon -- Part One," Geoff Muldaur tells a wistful story of his failed attempt to find and clean Blind Lemon Jefferson's grave. It's not only a good song, it's a fitting image, and Blind Lemon isn't the only ghost Muldaur is chasing on The Secret Handshake, a smart collection of old-style gospel and blues straight from Muldaur's youth. Muldaur's dealing in essentials here, and he does so carefully; his interpretations are traditional without being fusty, coolly crafted without being overwrought. What emerges is a soulful and respectful catalog of American roots and an album that was obviously a labor of love for Muldaur. Still, it fails to ignite. You can't fault the song selection, which is uncommonly strong, or the musicianship, which ranges from the exquisite to the just plain good (and includes a lot of local talent, notably Stephen Bruton), or the production, which is imaginative but not intrusive. What keeps this album from catching fire are the limits of Muldaur's voice, which sounds fine when he keeps it loose ("Wild Ox Moan," "Blind Lemon"), but plays thin when stretched to the gospel heights ("I Believe I'll Go Back Home," "Someday Baby"). Muldaur's voice works often enough to make The Secret Handshake a good album, but not often enough to make it a great one.

3 stars -- Jay Hardwig



SAM PREKOP

(Thrill Jockey)

Out in front of The Sea and Cake, Sam Prekop is surrounded by an all-star lineup of Chicago's underground music scene in John McEntire, Archer Prewitt, and Eric Claridge. His lighter-than-helium vocals and pensive guitar touch are bolstered by the rolling melodies of his band's songs and anchored by strong percussive accompaniment on vibes and drums. On his first solo effort, Prekop's support is no less strong or noteworthy, including both Prewitt and McEntire, but the momentum is reigned in, the touch a little lighter. The album is built on soft restraint, as bossa nova rhythms and Prekop's airy, angelic voice merge on the opening track "Showrooms" and blend imperceptibly into the next song and the next, and on and on through slow and tender songs flavored with violin and cornet to a number of beautiful instrumentals made of piano and guitar. McEntire's production work (which he also does for another of his own bands, Tortoise) is apparent on more experimental and meandering numbers like "Faces and People" and "So Shy" (the only song that sounds like The Sea and Cake), but as evidenced in the latter of the two, the real beauty of Sam Prekop's music lies in his voice, his guitar, and the delicate mood they create together.

3.5 stars -- Christopher Hess



IRAKERE

Yemaya (Blue Note)

Founded about 25 years ago, Cuba's Irakere may be better than ever. Listening to this band seamlessly blend elements from U.S. music into their hybrid style, one would never know there was a communication break between the two nations. The jazz component seems at least as important in the band's music as the Afro-Cuban. "La Explosion," for example, is based on the chord progression of "Love for Sale," while the R&B-styled "San Francisco" is a prime example of Latin funk. The title tune, on the other hand, has been touched by Yoruba concepts. There's terrific solo work throughout the album, and composer/pianist Chucho Valdez is phenomenal, sometimes playing extremely long, complex phrases at incredible speed. His style has roots in many places, e.g. the work of his father, Bebo Valdez, a man who fused Cuban and jazz styles around 1950, and McCoy Tyner, but he's been his own man for years. Trumpeter Mario Fernandez solos impressively, drawing on Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard, and both alto saxophonist Cesar Lopez and tenorman Alfredo Thompson, technically accomplished, inventive players, also exhibit the influence of Sixties jazzmen. Guitarist Carlos Emilio Morales demonstrates his brilliance and versatility here: His work on "La Explosion" has a post-boppish quality, but on "Son Montuno" he demonstrates that he's listened to rock guitarists. The Cuban musical scene is one of the most exciting in the world today; it's a shame we don't have more access to it.

4 stars -- Harvey Pekar


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