Staff Picks: Music
I wasn’t a huge fan of Vampire Weekend before the release of their third album but I have to admit, I think they’ve hit on something special with their newest, Modern Vampires of the City. Their music is still as erudite and as catchy as ever, but where their early output came across as precious and affected, the new tunes exhibit an abundance of creative skill, lyrical depth and narrative complexity. One of the best albums of 2013, get your ears on it.
Modern Vampires of the city
“If you go out searching for jewels and treasures elsewhere, you're liable to miss the acres of riches that lie beneath your feet.”—Bryan Cohen
Today’s buried treasure from the Friends Bookstore is a tasty musical offering by David Sylvian, Dead Bees on a Cake, released in 1999. If you’re not already familiar with Sylvian’s work, give his material a listen. Who to compare him to? His voice draws an obvious similarity to Bryan Ferry, but musically, Sylvian is more muted and much more diverse; closer say to a Peter Gabriel or a Daniel Lanois—dark, mysterious at times, but rich and deeply moving.
Sylvian is an excellent songwriter who typically surrounds himself with contemporary musical heavyweights. Bees, however, follows a series of more upbeat “prog-ish” collaborations with Robert Fripp, so a musical departure seems somewhat inevitable. Bees has a slightly more jazzy, worldbeat feel than its predecessors—very much in the same vein as the later period recordings by Talk Talk. Guest musicians, though few this time, include jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, composer and pianist Ryuichi Sakamoto, and a brief appearance by Steve Tibbetts. Sylvian’s discography calls this release “openly celebratory in nature… documenting an eventful and transformative period in his life.”
Thanks once again, Friends – a good find, indeed!
Consider this little series my own version of “Flea Market Finds,” an ongoing report of the latest bargains unearthed in the lower level of Central Library. What a treasure we have (quite literally) in the Friends Bookstore. When you can grab high quality books, music, and movies for little more than pocket change, life is good. And all the proceeds go to a great cause, too. So shop often; you never know what you’ll find. And stay tuned… I’ll let you know what I find!
Dead Bees on a Cake by David Sylvian
Just when it seems that we need some good news the most, this will warm your heart. Yesterday, NPR blogger Anastasia Tsioulcas caught my attention with a post about the Landfill Harmonic: An Orchestra Built from Trash. Through the efforts of a music instructor and a local craftsman, a group of hardworking kids in Paraguay have formed an orchestra using instruments made with materials gathered from beneath their very feet – literally.
The village of Cateura is a slum built on top of a landfill, where many of the locals make their living by collecting and reselling garbage. In a town where “a violin costs more than a house,” a group of students have formed an orchestra and are learning to play music. Orchestra director Favio Chavez works with a local craftsman who fashions violins, violas, flutes, trumpets and guitars out of discarded trash; oil drums, tin cans, spoons, bottle caps, you name it. Now this might sound like the makings of a bad circus band (no offense against circus music) but the result is nothing short of breathtaking.
The group is currently documenting their work in a yet-to-be released film; a short trailer for it was posted a month ago on YouTube and has already collected nearly half-a-million views. The film opens with a quote from Chavez, saying “The world sends us garbage. We send back music.” In addition to the video, the group has set up a Facebook page to help spread the word about the orchestra.
In a world where we generate a ton of solid waste per capita every fifteen months (and that’s just in America) while school budgets get slashed beyond recognition, it’s refreshing to see what can be accomplished if the will is there.
Here’s an extended version of their story. It’s fascinating, watch it…
Landfill Harmonic Orchestra
Master musician and composer Ravi Shankar died yesterday at the age of 92. The iconic sitar player achieved worldwide fame during his long musical career, but remained a humble and dedicated student of music throughout his long life. Remember the life and music of Ravi Shankar through these KPL titles:
Ravi Shankar in portrait – DVD
The Very Best of Ravi Shankar – CD
Rare and Glorious – CD
Chants of India - CD
Raga @ fast track - CD
My Music, My Life by Ravi Shankar
Rare and glorious
When the summer comes around and the weather turns hot, it just feels right to listen to music from a sultry part of the world. For me the music of Cuba just sounds perfect on a hot and humid summer day, and I can be instantly transported to Havana where the sweltering heat is perfectly normal; but really, I just love it any time of year and KPL has a great selection of Cuban music to choose from. If you are new to the music of Cuba or a fan wishing to expand your knowledge, KPL is sure to have something that will interest you. A great place to start is with The Rough Guide to the Music of Cuba which offers a good sampling of the various flavors of Cuban music. For many, myself included, their first real exposure to the rich history of Cuban music came in 1997 from Ry Cooder and the Buena Vista Social Club and it remains one of my favorites and a fantastic collection of musicians and tunes. Check out the group live at Carnegie Hall! A Buena Vista Social Club member and one of the giants of Cuban music is Ibrahim Ferrer and KPL has a good selection of his recordings that any fan of Cuban music should check out. Another standout of the KPL collection is the album Afrocubism that highlights the African influences on the music. Explore Cuban music even further with Cuban Counterpoint: history of the son montuno or Machito & his Afro Cuban Orchestra and discover even more with a music search for word or phrase = Cuba.
Buena Vista Social Club at Carnegie Hall
If you lived in Kalamazoo during the 1970s and listened to WIDR (WMU campus radio) you undoubtedly heard a lot of Gil Scott-Heron – like others I’m sure, that was my first exposure to this highly influential musician and poet. Scott-Heron is often described as “the godfather of rap” for his sharply pointed spoken word infused jazz and soul. In his 1970 single “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” his deep soulful voice—accompanied only by a steady drum beat—brought life the hot-button issue of racial inequality; not as a radical street preacher but as an articulate street-smart professor (he held a master’s degree in creative writing). His words were riveting and immediate. “The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox in four parts without commercial interruptions. The revolution will not give you sex appeal. The revolution will not make you look five pounds thinner, because the revolution will not be televised, Brother.”
He collaborated with many of the jazz heavyweights of his time – Brian Jackson, Ron Carter, Hubert Laws to name a few and his influence is acknowledged by a generation of artists, from Kanye West and Public Enemy to Eminem. His work touched on a variety of social and political issues, including addiction (“The Bottle” - 1974), slavery (“Rivers of My Fathers” - 1973) and racial oppression (“Johannesburg” - 1976). In 1979, he joined other high profile artists in Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE) and contributed “We Almost Lost Detroit,” a poignant reminder of a close-by nuclear near-disaster in 1972.
In 2010, Scott-Heron released his fifteenth studio album, I’m New Here, to great critical acclaim. A track called “Where Did The Night Go” is highlighted here. Gil Scott-Heron passed away last Friday in New York after a brief illness. He was 62.
Swedish songsmith Jens Lekman writes with an oddball flare yet pens some of contemporary music’s most bubbly and accessible songs. Lekman’s English delivery springs from a rich baritone that echoes the work of Stephin Merritt and Jonathan Richman, both of whom, Lekman borrows from liberally when constructing his use of deadpan phrasing and droll tales about life’s follies and love’s pitfalls. The songs draw their influence from a wide range of sources including early 70’s soul, strings-laden baroque pop, and Mexican folk music while tossing in the occasional sample. His 2007 release Night Falls Over Kortedala is truly an internationally inspired work fused together in such a way as to be seamlessly perfect. Fans of Magnetic Fields, Belle and Sebastian, 70’s Motown and The Modern Lovers will enjoy Lekman’s sunny gems.
Night Falls Over Kortedala
I was not terribly impressed with the musical output from 2009, but after compiling my Top Ten CDs from 2010 I discovered a bunch more that were better than most of last year’s list.
Since I could only offer ten selections for the official KPL Top Ten page, I present ten more great CDs from the past twelve months.
11. Lady Killer by Cee Lo Green
12. Body Talk Pts. 1 & 2 by Robyn
13. Adrift by The Red Sea Pedestrians
14. Majesty Shredding by Superchunk
15. Of The Blue Colour of the Sky by OK Go
16. The Guitar Song by Jamey Johnson
17. Transference by Spoon
18. I Learned the Hard Way by Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings
19. Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine by Various
20. Maya by M.I.A.
The Malian duo Amadou & Mariam have been in nearly constant rotation on my ipod and home stereo since I became aware of their music with the 2005 release of Dimanche a Bamako. I knew little of the couple’s inspiring story then, but responded immediately to the music they create. Singer Mariam Doumbia and guitarist/vocalist Amadou Bagayokothan, who are both blind, met at the Institute for Young Blind People in Bamako, the capital of Mali, 30 years ago and have been making amazing and infectious music ever since. Already huge stars in West Africa and Europe; in recent years Amadou & Mariam have gained a large following in the indie rock world where they have become a show stealing staple at large festivals, which has helped spread their popularity across the glode. The duo’s latest title, Welcome to Mali, has received almost universal, and I would say very well deserved, critical acclaim and I can't stop listening to it. Even without the faintest clue as to what the lyrics of the songs are saying (the couple sings primarily in French), it is easy to hear why the global spread of Amadou & Mariam's hypnotic sound cannot be stopped.
Welcome to Mali
Kalamazoo’s annual Island Festival always features some of the finest reggae acts in the world. This year’s festival features a very special performance – Saturday night, Jamaica’s legendary roots reggae harmony trio Culture takes the festival stage. Creators of dozens of brilliant singles and long players since their formation in the 1970’s, they would be hailed as legends even if they’d never released anything beyond their very first LP, Two Sevens Clash, widely considered one of reggae’s true masterworks.
Culture’s lead vocalist Joseph Hill wrote the title track after having a vision of the year 1977 being a year of judgment on Earth (based on prophecies made by Marcus Garvey). A devout Rastafarian (along with his fellow band mates), Hill translated his vision of apocalypse into a song which became a massive hit in his home country in the early part of ‘77. So profound was its effect on listeners that, on July 7th, 1977 – the day of all sevens clashing - many Jamaican businesses stayed closed, and residents refused to leave their homes for fear of being swept up in the coming apocalypse. Though the infectious bounce of the song’s groove and its joyous musical hooks might strike non-believers as running counter to the subject matter, the celebratory sound really underscores the message of liberation that followers of Rastafari believe will come at the world’s end. That mixture of devotional lyricism and upbeat music and rhythm flows throughout every song included on the album.
Though Joseph Hill has passed on, his son Kenyatta has taken his place as Culture’s lead vocalist, alongside original harmony vocalists Albert Walker and Telford Nelson. Kenyatta has proven to be as dynamic a stage presence as his father, so Culture’s legacy will surely continue to grow, even as Two Sevens Clash has already guaranteed their place in the pantheon of reggae greats.
Two Sevens Clash