Unmap [Jagjaguwar]

Ever thought that someone should capture the breaking of dawn in song? Well, Justin Vernon's new project band, Volcano Choir (which is a collaboration with the instrumental group, Collections of Colonies of Bees), succeeds in doing so with the gorgeous opening track, Husks and Shells. With a tentative acoustic guitar intro that suddenly shifts in confidence and resonance, the track lovingly captures the quiet gentleness of early morning.

Volcanic Choir feels like the most melodic period of Jim O'Rourke's experimentation (circa Eureka) fused with the Beach Boys in their most eccentric moment (circa Smiley Smile). Bon Iver's Justin Vernon matches that eccentricity. Just after his critical success with his debut, For Emma, Forever Ago (2007), going off with a project band release doesn't make conventional sense.

But I suppose the melodies are too good to pass. Having woodshedded this album since 2005, not getting it out would also have been criminal. The blending of the vocal and instrumental parts is often perfect. Just listen to Vernon's multi-tracked harmonies on Dote and how the instruments build to a crescendo. Or the robotic minimalism married to the craziest lyrics in Island, IS: "set your orbit/set your coffin/said its often/that your old fits/are your old tits/on your hard drive." Even the Billie Holiday nod in Mbira in the Morass is unexpected. Or the brief Beach Boys-type interlude in Cool Knowledge. Unmap refuses to read the road signs. It's an instinctive drive to melodic experimentation. (8) - Philip Cheah

Figure [TRUMN]

"The music that is recorded on the album, Figure, is made in the same style that I've been playing for over 10 years. Namely, it is a non-edited recording of an improvised expression played by connecting a volume pedal and delay processors to my bass guitar... The appearance of my set has hardly changed in over 10 years but the sound I play has slowly evolved its form. Some of the changes have occurred without my awareness and some were made intentionally."

So says Japanese experimental bassist Tamaru (also leader of the band, Installing), in notes to his second solo album, Figure. He's right, you know. It may sound meaningless to anyone walking by when you're hearing this album, but when you feel the vibration of the speaker cone and feel the bass sound humming into your body, it feels like you're in a sonic Jacuzzi, the sounds rippling across your body physically.

There are eight tracks on the album and what Tamaru seems to do is to build the drama of the bass sound. First track, Torso, sounds like a bunch of Gyuto Monks discovering the delay pedal. Plateau evokes the grandeur of a large, empty space and this sense of a black hole, of a supreme emptiness continues in Cathedral. But the meditation is finally disturbed by Thought where Tamaru's pulsating bass figure pierces the equilibrium. Finally, we wake up in a quiet Room. Recommended for all bass freaks and lovers of drone music. (7.5) - Philip Cheah


Nature Boy [Homeboy Music]

A favourite of Sonic Youth, who's recorded him on their Ecstatic Peace label, free jazz tenor sax player Arthur Doyle never got the recognition he deserved, even though he played with Sun Ra, Noah Howard and Milford Graves, before his debut album, Alabama Feeling, in 1978. Playing what he terms as "free jazz soul music" (yes, he played with Gladys Knight of the Pips in the late '60s), fans of Arthur Doyle can rejoice that this lost gem - a 30-minute free jazz reading of the jazz standard, Eden Ahbez's Nature Boy (which Nat King Cole made a number one hit in 1948) - has now been found and released.

Doyle's playing is largely influenced by the full-bodied tenor sax sound of John Coltrane but his anguished playing draws from Albert Ayler. From the start, Doyle disassembles the melody line of Nature Boy by playing the tune in one line and then tearing it apart in the next. Then the melody is abandoned altogether as the band lunges in furious frenzy grasping for inchoate joy. The melody reappears as a musical apparition here and there but Rashied Sinan's sinuous drumming creates a boiling cauldron of polyrhythm which swallows it up each time it appears. Charles Stephens' trombone provides the warmth to Doyle's fire, a cushion for the latter to lean against. In the 22nd minute, Doyle switches to flute and then back to sax for the final blow-out.

If Ayler's impassioned playing is akin to a cry to God, then Doyle's fiery feelings is a reminder of Nature Boy's lyric: "The greatest thing you'll ever learn/Is just to love and be loved in return". (8) - Philip Cheah

You can buy this CD-R release at the link below.


To Willie [Dead Oceans]

At the end of his last album Pride, Matthew Houck aka Phosphorescent, ended the album on the instrumental title track, a one-man cattle round-up with whoops and yodels while the music droned on. That should have prepared us for this, a trip into country music with a tribute album to Willie Nelson. But why would a challenging artiste such as Houck want to tackle genre?

His characteristic intricacies from hymn-like choirs to soul-searching singer-songwriting are thrust aside in favour of a backing band doing songs of drinking and heartbreak, in other words, classic country. Thankfully, Houck at least covers Nelson's key period in the '70s with three tracks from Phases and Stages (Nelson's 1974 classic cyclical heartbreak album) - Walkin', It's Not Supposed to Be That Way and Pick Up the Tempo. Then there is Can I Sleep in Your Arms (from the 1975 classic, Red Headed Stranger), the only track where Houck returns to his one-man overdubbed choir.

Both I Gotta Get Drunk (which kicks off his 1976 live album) and Reasons to Quit (Nelson's cover of Merle Haggard) are rendered with careless joy. But the nagging problem lingers. Nelson's work defied convention because his voice was so definitive. Houck's work doesn't depend on his voice and To Willie in fact labours too hard in being faithful to convention. (5) - Philip Cheah

Yosuga [Jagjaguwar]

What makes a band take four years off to make understated, some-say-boring music on their seventh album, Yosuga? I wondered that too until repeated listenings of opening track, Premonition, began to appeal. You can label them psychedelic folk, or psych pop rock or whatever but listen carefully and the reference is Red House Painters, especially those lazy wordless choruses. But that's not it either. What's really beautiful and difficult about Nagisa Ni Te (which means On the Beach, after the cult Neil Young album) is that they're singing to each other.

Their music is filled with so much love for each other. Mark Kozelek (of Red House Painters) may be singing to you in his dreamy voice but Shinji Shibayama and Masako Takeda are singing to themselves. Sample the lyric of Gathering of Stars: "From the sky and clouds glimmering on and on/Some old forgotten smiles are visiting/If I find them/I'll try to put them into words." Their music is a privileged visit to their dreams. But the gentle melodies are often underscored by savage passion, and this is where you hear the feedback buzz of the long guitar solos. With 13 tracks, it's best to approach this album at random entry points. If it's really zen inspiring music, then this album offers new insight as each fragment forms a larger picture. - (7) Philip Cheah

Waiting For The Sunrise [Secretly Canadian]

Recording for the ubiquitous Secretly Canadian label, David Vandervelde is really secretly David Bowie (circa Ziggy Stardust) and Marc Bolan, as a reborn 21st Century singer-songwriter. After last year's stunning The Moonstation House Band EP, Vandervelde's debut Waiting For the Sunrise, shows that all the promise he earlier showed has been well-kept.

The opening track, I Will Be Fine, will keep you happily on replay mode until you begin to wonder about the rest of the album the next day. The song's stirring melody and its airy lightness propels the tender wordplay: "I'm not a ghost/I'm your friendly neighbour/Nobody wants to be a stranger/Have me now or you can have me later." But surprise surprise, the rest of the album is just as good.

Besides the ringing melodies - California Breezes, Someone Like You - Vandervelde's soulfulness just shines through.  Who else would sneak in a protest song in a joyful album of love and love lost? Knowledge of Evil has the poignant question: "And this war they've been fighting/Since the ancient days/It'll never end/And I've taken my flag down/And you should too." Unlike the self-played EP, this album was recorded with Vandervelde's touring band, and it's a relief that they don't crowd his style. Vandervelde's belief in the groove of classic pop and rock is found in the words of Old Turns: "How long will it take us to listen to/The words of the old/And how long will it take them to understand/How old turns to new."

Once again we say - please Mr. DJ, play this record. (8.5) - Philip Cheah

Syd Barrett Tribute Compilation Album [Heart Lord Studio]

Aren't the Japanese the ultimate fans? The late leader of early Pink Floyd, Syd Barrett may have been weird, quirky and whimsical but he could never possibly imagine how much the Japanese loved him…for his craziness, of course.

Barrett wrote the quintessential riff-jamming track, Interstellar Overdrive. When you hear the fuzz-drenched version here, you are not prepared for a second version, the 25-minute live jam on CD 2 (yep, this is a double album). Not stopping there, Aural Fit, king of psychedelic noise in Tokyo, is so inspired that he writes Sea Slug, in the spirit of Interstellar Overdrive. The key Barrett chestnuts are here - See Emily Play and Arnold Layne (Pink Floyd's first single). But no Barrett tribute would be complete without Floyd's own tribute song to their late leader (who died July 7 2006), Shine On You Crazy Diamond. Here, T Aoki from psychedelic band, Up-Tight, does a heavily accented cover. The wildness, experimental anarchy and sheer noise are all here. The madcap is laughing alright. (7) - Philip Cheah

Click here to buy the album.

Shots [Jagjaguwar]

On their sophomore album, Vancouver's Ladyhawk bring back the link between Neil Young's Crazy Horse, late '80s grunge and the current sludge rock ala Black Mountain. The riff-heavy, blues-drenched and slacker-loose, wall-of-guitar sound makes the revival of classic rock a welcome look-back-in-anger. It starts off well enough with a tirade against GOD!! I Don't Always Know What You're Saying has singer Duffy Driediger screaming at the big guy for always being mysterious and inaccessible - "But I never see you…What you're saying, I don't always know." It's the best damned drunken anthem you can sing outside any church. But it's best with a fully-charged battery of guitars (by Darcy Hancock and Sean Hawryluk) and lots of bass-heavy drums (by Ryan Peters).

And the melodies keep on coming, because for a sludge rock band, Ladyhawk sure has neat tunes, with Driediger offering more angst - "I just want to feel something other than fear... I just want to taste something other than tears". Just to show that they can tackle drunken ballads, there is (I'll Be Your) Ashtray - "I'll be your ashtray if you need me/ 'Cause I only wanna feel you burning." The morose melancholia continues in Faces of Death, a slow-burning blues rock groove with the memorable refrain - "I know there's no such thing as endless love/ Only a joke told in very poor taste/ That somehow keeps cracking me up". Clocking in at 39 mins, it's quite clear that Ladyhawk has no time to waste. They cut their tunes tight, they rip through their solos, all done while high and a little pissed. Even God has no complaints. (7.5) - Philip Cheah

Phylactery Factory [Dead Oceans]

Casey Dienel's second album, but her first with a band moniker - White Hinterland - is a whimsical, chamber-driven mélange of both carefully-arranged and improvised pop. Carefully-arranged because of the use of instruments from Jordan Hudson's vibes (on Hometown Hooray) to Peter Broderick's accordion (Napoleon at Waterloo), and improvised because of Dienel's stream-of-consciousness lyrics. The album's opening track, The Destruction of the Art Deco House sets the tone with its wordy and precocious words but it's only when the words and music marry each other that the magic happens. The seven-minute Hometown Hooray, with its tale of a war casualty told with love and remorse, is carried by a gently rolling melodic cycle that turns you within its rhythmic coil. Or the sprightly Dreaming of the Plum Trees with its punchy piano and its strident melody that follows its "keeping-up-with-the-joneses" theme. Elsewhere, Dienel's words sound leaden and the charm dries up. Phylactery, the small leather boxes traditionally worn on the left arm and forehead by Jewish men when they pray, contains slips of scriptural passages, suggests Dienel's interest in words of truth. We are now awakened to an interesting new talent. (5) - Philip Cheah


Freedom Wind [Dead Oceans]


Unmistakably Beach Boys. This six-piece band from Charleston, South Carolina like that X-Men character, The Mimic, have the power to make perfect copies. But this is no covers band. Instead Freedom Wind is a brand new Beach Boys album from an alternate reality. So instead of Brian and the boys releasing Pet Sounds, what if Freedom Wind arrived in '66?

All the cool instrumental touches are here, right from the first track, Forever, which has that cool Ronettes' Be My Baby intro which Brian used on many of his singles. The main songwriter and singer is Jason Brewer who wrote or co-wrote all the 12 songs. Together with Jimmy Faust, Dave Ellis and Wally Reddington, the four harmonize just like the Beach Boys. Stefan Rogenmoser and Neil Thomas play keyboards and drums respectively.

Dont Forget The Sun captures the warmth of the sun with nice BB style bass and drums. While Lost My Head is another echo of the great Pet Sounds. Summer Air is this album's Pet Sounds instrumental. If You Go Now is as touching as Caroline No.

But because The Explorers Club hue so close to their inspiration, their tunes are like shadows of the originals and difficult to hold on to. You can barely recall the melodies once the CD stops.

The first single Do You Love Me? will street Apr 8 while the album is due May 20. It will be interesting to see whether The Explorers Club can take the next step to make a new Beach Boys album that doesn't borrow from the past but can predict how the band would have sounded if Brian did not have a breakdown. [7] - Michael Cheah


Pride [Dead Oceans]

With his third album, Pride, Matthew Houck aka Phosphorescent, has produced music that's too beautiful for today's charts. Who else would begin his album sounding like Robert Wyatt, on the woefully mournful A Picture of Our Torn Up Praise, and offer it as his first single. Music like this isn't meant to move units but to move your heart. As Houck sings: "I won't be breathing like you/ breathe into the light of day/I'll be in the yard/still taking pictures in the dark/of all our torn up praise." He continues with the hymn-like Be Dark Night, his one-man band of instruments transforming into a choir of multi-layered vocal overdubs. But it's on Wolves that his natural singer-songwriter self emerges. It's a confession of hurt and aggression to a lover who's left: "mama there's wolves in the house/mama I tried to put them out/and mama I know you're too wise/to wait till those wolves make nice."

Born in Alabama, Houck's a Southern man, with pundits hailing him as a Neil Young. Both make equally haunting music but Houck's use of a choral sound has an evangelical spiritual flavour that sets him apart. But they both share a penchant for darkness. The penultimate track, Cocaine Lights, which segues into the instrumental Pride, is a magnificent tour de force of musical and emotional impact that will leave you stunned and speechless. Here Houck manages to fuse a drug song and love lyric together (sort of like the Stones with Wild Horses): "in the darkness/after the cocaine lights/I will miss you/with no warning." But from the fourth minute till the end, Houck sounds as if he's doing a one-man cattle round-up with whoops and yodels while the music drones on. It's stirring, one-of-a-kind music. Nothing this good ever gets heard on the charts. (8) - Philip Cheah


The Hilversum Session [ESP Disk]

You can't imitate freedom. Simply because there's always a high price to pay for the real item. These European gigs for free jazz sax legend, Albert Ayler, might not have sounded so good had band member and bassist, Gary Peacock, not made it. Not having eaten for 15 days, Peacock had to be dragged out of bed just to catch the boat to Europe at the end of August, 1964. The other key element that makes this gig so precious is the addition of Don Cherry on cornet. Hearing this session is like hearing Ayler's groundbreaking debut, Spiritual Unity (1964), with one more member, the quietly forceful Don Cherry.

While no one can take the stage from Ayler when he starts honking, braying and snorting to the roof of any concert hall, Cherry punctuates him. Ayler by himself is like a conversation that's a stream of unconsciousness. Together with Cherry, Ayler gets to stop and reflect on what's he's just said. Murray too plays with great empathy sometimes propelling the group, at other times, just providing space for them to soar.

The Hilversum Session has been available previously through the Japanese and the Europeans but it's so good that it's a treat to have it available again. In many ways, this is also a companion piece to Vibrations (Freedom). While Vibrations was recorded on Sept 14 in a Copenhagen studio, the Hilversum Session took place, also in a studio, on Nov 9 in Holland. But the Hilversum Session sounds like a live recording compared to Vibrations. Just compare the two treatments of Ghosts, the Hilversum version is looser and Ayler clips the melody by rushing through it. Yet Vibrations was a one take affair and the track listing is exactly as it was recorded. Which just proves the brilliance of Ayler, he could be as tight or free-wheeling as he wanted. It was always about finding the centre and feeling of the sound. Hilversum also had the slower, sadder tracks beginning with the dirge-like Angels and ending with No Name.

1964 was the year the Beatles conquered America. It was also the year when Albert Ayler made his debut and his breakthrough and some of the fiercest music ever heard. It was also the time when Americans had no time for their own jazz musicians and when American free jazz instead conquered Europe. (8) - Philip Cheah

You can buy a copy here.


La Llave De Mi Corazón [EMI Latina]

The most important Dominican performer ever swoops through his usual playfield, dropping merengue here, bachata there, hints of rock but salsa everywhere. He even does a version of the title track in English (as "Music for My Soul") as a kind of starter kit. This is Guerra and his band, no attempt to "modernize" (and date) the sound with electronics with obvious benefit to such sweet-tempered songs as "Te contarán" and "Que me des tu cariño." Although not as great as Bachata Rosa, his 1990 album which is the Born to Run of contemporary Latin records, this is arguably his best, certainly his most confidently integrated, since then. - RRC


War Stories [Surrender All]

Functions as an alternative soundtrack to Michael Mann's Miami Vice movie. That's true both because its mix of thrilling rockers and ambient soundscapes would serve that functional purpose and because, like the film, each scene/song is beautiful and makes sense in itself yet the overall plot borders on nonexistence. Also like the film, the more attention you pay to War Stories the more you notice additional details and the way they serve each other. Heavy programming, live drums and bass, singers who coo and singers who shout, harmonium, synths, cello, bells, guitar attacks - what could be pointless eclecticism serves instead to flesh out the cohesive sonic vision of Unkle major domo James LaVelle. - RRC


Live at Cafe Montmartre 1966 [ESP Disk]

Documented six months before the recording of Symphony For Improvisers (Blue Note, Sept 1966), Don Cherry's quintet live at Cafe Montmartre in Copenhagen is valuable background listening for anyone keen to hear the band stretching out before a live audience. Famed for his forays into world music, this mid-'60s period is significant to reflect trumpeter Cherry's growing excitement at how well-received avant-garde jazz was to the world's audience than at home. This similar open-mindedness was found with fellow travellers in music, who formed this quintet, Argentinian saxophonist Gato Barbieri, German vibraphonist Karl Berger, Danish bassist Bo Stief and Italian drummer Aldo Romano. Excepting Romano and Stief, the others became part of Symphony for Improvisers.

Of note is the suite form that Cherry championed, free jazz style, with Complete Communion (Blue Note, 1965), his first recording as a leader. Following the advantages of the LP format, Cherry allows different thematic strands to be improvised into one long cohesive whole. As he explained: "We improvised from the flavour of the tune, from the mode, and the themes come back from time to time, so that it's definitely one thing and not eight." Or as Stief recalls of this date: "Don would conduct musically with his horn in the air, giving a lot of cues and sometimes go into tunes which we never planned to play. The band was always going from one tune to another - no stops in between - he would always cut solos when they were about to peak."

Hence as Cherry introduces Free Improvisation Music Now, the band dives into Nu Creative Love, one of the tunes that makes up the title suite of Symphony For Improvisers. Karl Berger's spacey vibes are a cool counterpoint to Barbieri's heated solos with Romano keeping the edges hard. In Complete Communion, Cherry probably surprises his band by leading them into an impromptu version of the pop hit, A Taste of Honey. This date shows him testing out ideas which would find final fruition on Symphony for Improvisers. It's one of the endearing features of Cherry's playing that even when he's far out, there's a fierce melodic touch to his playing. (7.5) - Philip Cheah

Note: Click here to order Don Cherry live at Cafe Montmartre.


My Ion Truss [Jagjaguwar]

There is a yearning intensity to Minus Story that is ultimately endearing and this fourth album is probably what the pundits have been betting on all along. Produced by John Congleton (Explosions In the Sky, The Polyphonic Spree), My Ion Truss is the band's first consciously studio effort. And it pays off. The brash rocking elements of their sound are shaped subtly where you can hear the other instruments in more depth thus enhancing their own brand of folky psychedelic pop-rock.

The first cut In Line is a moment in perfection. With an organ drone, it's the best anti-war dirge that you can hear in present times: "In line, in gallant times/Soldiers marching by/like stars explode and die/In line, the world in line/Satellites and it's marching by/Alive and dying." The lyric is brief but like a haiku, it lays out the history of warfare and the totality of the current wars without wasting words.

Just to remind you that they ARE a "rawk" band, they scream at you with Aaron, a slew of guitar riffs and even a saxophone thrown in for good measure during the free noise bridge. They don't let up on Stitch Me Up which begins acoustically but hits you fast and hard when it revs up.

Guitarist, keyboardist, vocalist and frontman, Jordan Geiger, has a high gentle voice that's perfect in bringing out the heartfelt lyrics. Originally a four-piece band from Missouri, the band has grown since it moved to Kansas, giving full bloom to their layered sound with drummer Nick Christus, bassist Brian Phillips, guitarists Andy Byers, Mark Sanders and Lucas Oswald (who also doubles upon keyboards).

There are many gems to recommend from this album. Among them are The Battle of Our Lives, a love song which can be read on another level: "They don't want to give you love/they just want to tell you lies/This is not the end/this is the battle of our lives/Tell me no lies!" Or the lovely Parachute where Geiger sings: "I want to feel the shape of your heart." Oh yeah! (8) - Philip Cheah


SC 100 [Secretly Canadian]


In the early '70s you could still find records such as Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway dueting on that immaculate pop classic, Where Is The Love, and it's right next to a seven-minute cut titled Mood where both artistes play acoustic and electric piano against each other. Such was the unpredictability and indulgence of the time. And don't we all miss it? So here we are in the 21st century and Secretly Canadian, a Bloomington, Indiana label, has been trying to bring it all back home for the last 11 years. On their belated 100th release, SC100, the Really American founder friends - Eric Weddle, Jonathan Cargill, and Ben and Chris Swanson, who formed the label in 1996, decided to ask their stable of acts to cover each other's songs over 18 tracks.

Of course, that's a recipe for disaster but it also desperately pushes the envelope. So no way is this a greatest hits package and most indie fans will be hard-pressed to find recognisable songs. But followers of the label will immediately recognise the moody styles of their heroes such as when the late Nikki Sudden tears into June Panic's See(ing) Double, or when Jason Molina (of Songs: Ohia) gives his melodic moody treatment of Nikki Sudden's The Last Bandit. Certain tracks just seep into your brain if you don't try too hard to get into this album, like Dave Fischoff's creepy cover of Damien Jurado's Abilene or Danielson's jaunty cover of Fischoff's Propaganda For A Comic Strip.

But the off-kilter hit single should be Jens Lekman's cover of Scout Niblett's Your Beat Kicks Back Like Death which has a repeated lyric that goes: "We're all gonna die but we don't know how and we don't know when." This is the song that people will remember when they look back at the Iraq-War era. The past has a habit of melting into the future. (7) - Philip Cheah


La Double Absence [Staubgold]

If ever there is an even balance of cultural worlds, then Austrian experimental band, Thilges, comes really close to it on La Double Absence, their second album. Featuring Arabic music set in an electronic experimental context, this is certainly not Arab lounge music. For a start, the oud playing by Asim Al-Chalabi is resonant, insinuating and entirely memorable. In addition, Chalabi had a hand in co-writing all the tracks with Thilges' Gammon and Nik Hummer. The radio single, Izdiucz, is an apt example where Chalabi's playing is a potent evocation of traditional Arabic scales. His quiet, gentle lead-ins increasing to rapid-fire dramatic plucking is a thrilling example of mysterious sensuality. The inclusion of Iranian vocalist, Zohreh Jooya, who specialises in Persian and Afghan music, lends more body to the music. The track, Ayn, shows how Thilges' other-worldly electronics and programming fills out the subtle textures that Chalabi plays. Formerly named Thilges 3, the band was also an experimental sound collective who produced sound installations and performance art.

La Double Absence is filled with complex rhythms. Izdiucz, which means the breaking of cultural barriers in Arabic, signifies the power of this album, where two cultures meet and are actually listening to each other. (8.5) - Philip Cheah

Click here to listen to Izdiucz Radio Edit (5.7MB).
Click here to order Thilges' La Double Absence.


Jinx [Staubgold]

Now that the Kammerflimmer Kollektief has been pared down to three members - Thomas Weber (guitar, electronics, piano), Heike Aumuller (harmonium, vocals, synths, percussion) and Johannes Frisch (double bass, percussion), the group's multi-dimensional textured sound has also been reduced. The jazz element only makes a cameo on one track when wind instruments are added.

Still, it's to the group's credit that their multi-faceted music is so recognisable. Played against their last album, Absencen (2005), their latest and sixth album, Jinx, has all their trademark signatures, the cantering double bass, the sweet almost-countrified pedal-steel guitar, the droning harmonium and ethnic instrumental details (such as the use of the Zimbabwean mbira) plus the hauntingly melodic piano.

Instead of the sputtering horn solos the last time around, harmonium player and percussionist, Heike Aumuller, gets vocal chores on Jinx, the title track and Both Eyes Tight Shut. Her wordless vocals are a kind of free scat, atonal and rhythmic. But the stand-out cut is Live at the Cactus Tree Motel. Here's where the most instruments are concentrated with three other friends joining in the jam. Yet it's Martin Siewert's pedal steel that seals in the sweetness of this piece. Even B J Cole would have been proud to be in on this one. Finally, it's a return to minimalism on Subnarkotisch where Thomas Weber's guitar grinds steadily in your subconscious.

For a band that loves old music so much - from Nina Simone, Judee Sill, Tim Buckley, Coltrane, Brotherhood of Breath to Alan Vega and Jeffrey Lee Pierce (remember their tribute to him on their last album?) - the Kammerflimmer Kollektief makes the future shimmer with sweetness and passion. (8.5) - Philip Cheah


The Moonstation House Band [Secretly Canadian]

Let's forget about all those Britpop bands because David Vandervelde (from Chicago) has an uncanny gift of resurrecting the swagger of '70s glam rock stars - Marc Bolan and David Bowie, right down to the slight tremble in his vocal.

Even the guitar riffing on track two's Jacket, sounds like a blowback to Bowie's album, Ziggy Stardust. But it's not imitation. The songs and the lyrics are his. And so's all the playing. At 19 years old, Vandervelde entered the studio of ex-Wilco multi-instrumentalist, Jay Bennett, and stayed there two years to play everything on this album. The only exceptions are three tracks with string arrangements from Brokeback Mountain soundtrack scorer, David Campbell.

Four tracks grab your throat quickly. Nothin' No revs up from your speakers like a rough noisy recording (and yes it is, this album has no studio sheen). Vandervelde quickly recounts his tale of double infidelity, a woman who cheats on both her boyfriend, and her lover: "When your boyfriend drove to meet you/You forgot to cover the bruises on your neck." Then the power of Jacket, the light-hearted fun of Wisdom From A Tree and the superbly catchy Can't See Your Face No More, that rushes by like a hot breeze.

If you think he's a one-trick pony, check out the country-ish murder ballad, Murder in Michigan: "I cannot remove the sand from my shoes/ I will not erase the scent of defeat." Or the closing wistful instrumental, Moonlight Instrumental.

Vandervelde is another reminder that pop songwriters today are still trying to find the guts from the past. This is certainly Number one with a bullet, and we look forward to the next album. (8) - Philip Cheah


Electronic Wind [Another Rolling Stone Record]

Shinobu Goto is probably Japan's, if not the world's, biggest Velvet Underground fan. He lives and breathes VU, and fronts his own band, Bike, playing VU covers and his originals.

Late last year, Shinobu released a compilation of Japanese bands, Warrior Heart Of The Velvet Underground (click here for the tracks), covering the Velvets and contributed Bike's own version of Sister Ray. Like that compilation, Electronic Wind, an EP of four songs, is not for sale but for free distribution to fans of the VU, and through the internet as an MP3 download, to anyone who's interested.

The internet has made it possible for fans of music to reach out to like-minded fans and to distribute homemade music directly, removing the record company and record shop from the distribution chain. D-I-Y recording on a home computer has made music-making much easier/cheaper as well.

The quality of the music hasn't suffered either. Electronic Wind has two tunes, with two versions each. The title track is a lovely VU-styled ballad while the other track are two versions of the VU's Sister Ray.

Electronic Wind Version One is the guitar version and is the song with lyrics in Japanese. Over a jangling riff, Shinobu sings/ talks the song's melancholic words. Version Two has the keyboards of Miho Goto leading the melody and stretches out the song's drifting atmosphere pass seven minutes. It mimics early VU's repetitive style, the groove becoming the main attraction.

Of the two versions of Sister Ray, Version Two is preferred for the nice long jam that displays Shinobu's guitar powers as well as the drum work of Jun Takano. Bike is a classic power trio sans a bass player replaced by Miho Goto's keyboards.

Shinobu Goto's Bike isn't out to conquer the world but to pay homage to their influence, the Velvet Underground. It is that deep love and sincerity you will admire and enjoy.
- The Little Chicken

Click here to download the album.


The Warrior Heart of the Velvet Underground [Another Rolling Stone Records]

Guitarist Sterling Morrison, of the legendary avant-rock band, Velvet Underground, died in 1995. He was, as Lou Reed, wrote: "the warrior heart of the Velvet Underground." This new double-disc compilation of Japanese bands covering Velvet songs since 1984, is as hard-core as you can get. Much of it treads the more avant experimental streak of the band. If you think how charming it was that Nico's vocal had a thick German accent, it makes a lot of sense to hear the Velvets in Japanese. Extreme fans will love hearing The Murder Mystery completely in Japanese, or to hear a strangely squeaky vocal of Sunday Morning which gets more endearing with each listening.

Shinobu Goto, the ultimate Japanese Velvet devotee, put together this compilation lovingly by including many of the varied and strange Japanese acts such as Hananojoe, Denki-ane, daisyblue and Eyescream I. But his own solo version of Sister Ray, with his insistently spiky acoustic guitar lead is faithful and moving. As the song goes, Shinobu couldn't hit it sideways but he sure hit something. A raw nerve, I think. Fans should also take note of the hidden bonus Sterling Morrison solo guitar track, an outtake from an '80s Spanish TV Documentary, Feedback. (8) - Philip Cheah

Click here to download the album.


The Besnard Lakes Are The Dark Horse (Jagjaguwar)

The Besnard Lakes are indeed the dark horse. Who else would compose an entire album of love songs to spies and undercover operatives? It's an interesting conceit since love (if you like Shakespeare) is full of intrigue. And You Lied to Me is about a married undercover agent who never told his spouse about his work, For Agent 13 compares love and war and has this classic line about romantic surveillance: "I'll write you a love song... I'll play it back every day." But what's really a nice twist is that the band, led by a husband and wife duo - Jace Lasek and Olga Goreas - pay homage to the master of American surrealism, David Lynch. While the comparisons to Brian Wilson and Roy Orbison have been made about the band's sound, what gives the music its eerie quality is the Lynch-like, Twin Peaks, Julee-Cruise aura.

Just check out Because Tonight. Band member, Nicole Lizee's string arrangements evokes not only a Lynchian dream but the nightmare lyrics of murder and mutilation. Besides Lizee, the rotating crew of band members includes post-rockers Chris Seligman (Stars) and Sophie Trudeau (Godspeed/Silver Mt Zion). And while the band's name does not inspire radio friendliness, their music, dense and layered, really insinuates itself into your brain. On Bedford and Grand sounds like a more clever version of Jefferson Starship's We Built This City while Cedric's War seems to even cop a synth riff from David Bowie's Heroes. There's lots of little clues in the music of The Besnard Lakes. And they all add up. (8) - Philip Cheah


Woke Myself Up [Jagjaguwar]

Much as I love singer-songwriter Julie Doiron, weeks of listening to her new Woke Myself Up, her sixth album, and the latest after two years, have not crept under my skin. Maybe the problem is that Doiron has woken herself up to her Canadian indie roots 15 years ago when she played with Eric's Trip, a folky psychedelic band that got signed to Sub Pop and that broke up in 1996. Woke Myself Up is produced by founding Eric's Trip member, Rick White, and features the band rocking on several tracks. So if you like an edgier Doiron, you will dig the title track, No More and Don't Wanna Be Liked by You. Doiron doesn't have a rich voice so she doesn't really need to rock out as much as to reach inward. Her ability to reach inside has always been her strength hence I Left Town is more classic Doiron, where she ruminates a difficult drive home to be back in the arms of her loved one. It's a simple, clever heartfelt lyric. If you haven't woken up to Doiron yet, then search out Goodnight Nobody (2004). That's her essential work. (6.5) - Philip Cheah


Concert For The Comet Kohoutek [ESP]
Unity [ESP]

'Twas a few nights before Christmas and while not a soul was stirring, the Kohoutek comet was about to blaze over the skies on Dec 26 1973. Outer spaceman, Sun Ra and his mighty free jazz Arkestra, assembled on Dec 22 to spread some goofy cheer even as the doomsayers predicted the world's end. And of course, Ra's joke is that Space is the Place! Who cares about the world's end?

He revamps his late '50s tune, Enlightenment, into a lyrical sing-a-long before blasting off into Love in Outer Space. On the 13-minute title track, Kohoutek, Ra is soloing in his element, playing synthesizer, alternating between sounds of buzzing circuitry to bass rumbles.

But it's Discipline 27 (Part 2) where Ra delivers one of his most soulful moments. The band grooves sweetly behind him as someone duets with June Tyson and asks: "If this is a planet of life, why are people dying here?"

If you ever wanted to know what a great lyricist Ra was, just check out the second-last verse: "Are you afraid? /What is it you want to know?/ Do you want to know where the universe came from? / I'll tell you/ At first there was nothing/ then nothing turned itself inside out and became something." Then the band launches into Space is the Place, the title track of the film he had just made with Bill Cunningham.

This concert survives from a mono recording that the concert's engineer had made. Ra himself swiped the concert tapes from ESP label's founder, Bernard Stollman. In that gesture, he epitomised his music as that of Kohoutek, a comet that blazed into view just once, a fleeting but highly-anticipated moment.

If Ra was the space prophet, Frank Wright, one of the key tenor sax players in the post-John-Coltrane period, was the Reverend. Like his inspiration, Albert Ayler, Wright believed that the spirit spoke through his music. There is no better proof of that than in the previously unreleased Unity album, a 1974 recording at the Moers concert in Germany.

Away from the gentler influence of his longtime alto-sax associate, Noah Howard, the posthumously titled pieces here entitled Unity are played with impassioned fury. Not only does Wright blow with furious grace sustaining his energy for long periods over the two near-half-hour tracks, Alan Silva displays his violin training in a remarkable arco-styled bass playing. Muhammad Ali (younger brother of Coltrane drummer, Rashied) blows the Germans away in his spirited drum solo at the end of the first set while pianist Bobby Few is flying away behind Wright providing the wings of melody.

Is it any coincidence that one of Frank Lloyd Wright's great architectural feats was the Unity Temple? Consider this as the other Wright's piece of sonic architecture. (8 for both) - Philip Cheah

Note: Visit ESP at to order the above albums.


Game Theory [Def Jam]

Before the year ends, we should remember False Media on The Roots' Game Theory which was released end August. It's one of the angriest things I've heard this year and a timely reminder that a lot of the hate in the last five years since 9/11 was inflamed by a media not looking for the truth. As the Roots say: "Sentence me to/Four more years thank you/I'm gonna make you feel/A little bit safer/because it ain't over/See that's how we get/Your fear to control you." The Bush re-election reference is clear and the song points out what a lot of commentators have said, that the worst governments today are using fear to get re-elected. It's the Roots theory of today's mess and it's an end game as seen on the cover artwork of the children's playing of the hangman's noose. Perhaps that's why they have opted for a sweeter sound this time around.

While Black Thought's lyrics are more hard hitting, the melodies help the message to cross over, from Don't Feel Right (the first single which attacks the system's failure to tackle poverty), Long Time (which actually features sweet soul from Philly music legend, Bunny Sigler but the lyrics recount Black Thought's tough childhood) to the ballad, Clock With No Hands. Even the sweet Livin' in a New World bleakly paints the increasing surveillance that Americans are subjected to - "they got high-powered lenses on the cameras outside/it ain't nowhere to run/they hear you when you're whispering so try to keep quiet."

And to add to the anguish the band feels about the world, the album ends with Can't Stop This, an eight-minute eulogy to the late hip-hop producer and Roots' friend, J-Dilla aka Jay Dee. As Roots' drummer ?uestlove notes: "In this day and age, I'm kind of noticing that nobody in urban music really has the balls to just stop partying for one second. I mean, partying is good and what not, and it's cool to get down, but I really think that 2006 called for a very serious record. This ain't the Debbie Downer record, or the political, save-the-world record, but this is definitely not the MC-based, battle-themed album that the Roots have been known for. This is our most serious record to date." (7.5) -Philip Cheah


Jukebox Buddha [Staubgold]

After last year's Buddha Machine loop box, China's electronic music pioneers, FM3 (Christiaan Virant and Zhang Jian), turned the world on to the idea of grooving to the Buddha (or ambient sutras at least). For Jukebox Buddha, 15 acts sat cross-legged (Oh really! - Ed.) to meditate on the possibilities of remixing the nine loops found on the original. The original comes in a transistor-like box (in a multitude of fashionable colours) with two batteries included to play the music. The Jukebox Buddha remix is a CD. Maybe it's just our karma.

It starts well with upcoming Chinese electronica artiste, Wang Fan who creates a Japanese-like chant which hums and buzzes in drone-like peace and disharmony at the same time. Then it leads into the Kammerflimmer Kollektief's more acoustic, melodic Gammler, Zen + Hahe Berge before Aki Honda throws you off again with electronic squelches in The Buddha in New York. Some are not so wonderful. Blixa Bargeld's electronically-treated bird call (a reincarnation no-brainer) and the not-too-funny BuddhaMachine Commercial by Jelinek/Pekler/Leichtmann. Or Adrian Sherwood and Doug Wimbush's slightly predictable Karma Cola.

But SunnO))) brings it back into focus with the truly meditative BP//Simple. And Sun City Girls' Dry Valley gives a more ethnographic reading of the source material. Will all this make you rush out to adopt a lotus position? Well, it might. After all, Alan Bishop did buy 24 Buddha Machines when he first saw them. (7) - Philip Cheah


The Eraser [XL]

Thom Yorke's solo album, The Eraser (away from Radiohead), proves that he makes up for much of the Radiohead sound in their later period, from Kid A (2000), Amnesiac (2001) and Hail to the Thief (2003). The Eraser is filled with bubbling electronics, sampled sounds and cut-ups. But the fact that Radiohead's seventh album is arriving shortly, the release of The Eraser suggests that Yorke had something to say. Most reviewers choose to see this album as a collection of love songs.

However, The Eraser is thematically more a continuation of Hail to the Thief. Note that when Hail to the Thief was released, the band's guitarist, Jonny Greenwood, denied that the album's title was a clear reference to George W Bush (the phrase was one that protestors chanted when he took office). But it was an unlikely point to believe, considering that the band's singer, Thom Yorke, was an active anti-war protestor in the weeks leading up to the war on Iraq.

On the cover artwork to The Eraser, an apocalyptic vision is drawn over a 10-panel unfolding CD sleeve. The world is shown as drowning in a flood. On the title track, the love song with an "Arab princess" takes on a malevolent meaning when the lovers' battle to erase each other from their hearts and minds, becomes a metaphor for the war on terror: "the more you try to erase me/ the more that I appear." On Analyse, Yorke warns us that "there's no time/There's no time to analyse." He repeats the warning on The Clock: "Time is running out for us" and perhaps in a warning to Bush and Blair: "You make believe that you are still in charge."

There is no ambiguity on Harrowdown Hill, a definite reference to the place where the dead body of Dr David Kelly, the weapons expert whose name was leaked to the media by Blair's chief spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, was found. Kelly had argued against the British claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. As Yorke sings: "Don't walk the plank like I did/You will be dispensed with/When you've become inconvenient." On a more defiant note, Yorke adds: "We think the same things at the same time/There are so many of us/So you can't count." Perhaps in the end, The Eraser is about the flood of humanity, the many voices that cannot be drowned. (7) - Philip Cheah

Making Gold [Rawbeat]


Elvis lives! So do The Beatles! Since the arrival of Klaatu, from Canada, in the late 70s, the Beatles have been a universal band. From Serbia, there is the Rubber Soul Project and from Germany (the former East no less), there is The But. Collectors will love their debut EP, Winston (2000) which includes a cover of Lennon's Help Me to Help Myself, released that same year as a bonus track on the Remastered Double Fantasy. Winston features a cover referencing the Let It Be album artwork. Making Gold is their album debut and it features all originals. Ripe for nostalgia fans, the band has imbibed their heroes so thoroughly that they even compose, arrange and play like them.

On Go On Calmly, the "shoop shoop" backing vocal recalls Come Together while the track becomes an experiment a la Revolution No.9. But the But's influences run the gamut even till the Fab Four's solo careers. So the title cut, Making Gold sounds like Lennon in his final years. As Dr Winston O'Boogie said on Help Me to Help Myself: "Well, I tried so hard to stay alive, but the angel of destruction keeps on hounding me, all around, but I know in my heart that we never really parted." (6) - Philip Cheah


Rather Ripped [Geffen]

Reviews that have been calling Sonic Youth's latest album, Rather Ripped, the best in their career are nuts. Perhaps it's best to view it as the band's piss take of their last major label contract album for Geffen. Rather Ripped is so accessible and (dare I say it?) fun that Geffen must be wondering why this contract shouldn't be renewed instantly. Either that or they are cursing the band for making them release their more esoteric albums - NYC Ghosts and Flowers (1999) or A Thousand Leaves (1998). But you see, Rather Ripped is simple for Sonic Youth to make. But their music exists in multi-dimensions. To enjoy the pop of this album, you also have to deal with their interest in the avant-garde (a la Goodbye 20th Century, 1999). This album perhaps puts into perspective their entry into a major label deal in the early '90s. The early fears that the band would sell out weren't borne out. Instead, they have tried to extend the palette of music listening. Unfortunately, their lone voice in major label land (like that of Patti Smith) is seldom heard in corporate boardrooms and on conformist radio playlists.

Rather Ripped is also perhaps in the mould of fellow-outlaw-major-label act, the Flaming Lips, who perform with anarchic but melodic accessibility. The outstanding example on this new album is the gentle burn of Incinerate with its liquid fiery guitar riffs which burn a hole in your brain. The idea of a love ballad as a torch song is fully flamed in bandleader, Thurston Moore's words: "I ripped your heart out from your chest/Replaced it with a grenade blast/Incinerate." The catchy tunes don't let up. In Do You Believe in Rapture? (the album's original working title), Moore sings of redemption while his guitar chimes a gentle tune while the rhythm section swells with discord. This is the general M.O. of this album, melodies which lead you into the swelling maelstrom - Reena, Jams Run Free, Turquoise Boy, The Neutral. And if you can't get enough of Moore's open-tune guitar, dig Pink Steam. The band plays for five minutes before Moore starts singing. Even at their most accessible, Sonic Youth challenges you to try ripping them off. (7) - Philip Cheah

Note: Diehard collectors' alert: the European edition has two bonus tracks.

Click here to listen to Sonic Youth playing songs from Rather Ripped live in Paris on April 19, 2006.


Fading Trails [Secretly Canadian]

Thank god Jason Molina has given up the idea of being as profilic as Guided By Voices. With this second album on his Magnolia Electric Co band moniker, Molina has also recently released a solo album titled Let Me Go, Let Me Go, Let Me Go.

If only we could.

Molina is still unshakeably prolific. Who else would ritually wake up at four in the morning and work till 11am...every day! Who else would leave aside the Songs: Ohia moniker after 10 years because "there's hundreds and hundreds of songs from those years that we don't even play anymore."

So now we have the new Fading Trails. And the opening track is titled (can you guess?) Don't Fade on Me. It's apparently a love song with Molina admonishing his lover not to fade on him. It's a tuneful, impassioned track as Molina sings: "Even Christ stayed till he ran out of time". In an odd sense, the song is also a reminder for Molina's memory not to fade on him and for our memory not to fade on his songs. That's quite the essential problem for Molina (and for the lo-fi guys before him). He's written so much, all with a firm sense of structure and form but little that stands out enough to sink into your brain. Besides the opening cut, Talk to Me Devil, Again, echoes in your mind but comparatively, in terms of clever turns of phrases, Mark Eitzel, takes him out for sheer observational sharpness, and Matthew Sweet can still bring out a tune better. Slot this into your car stereo. It still makes for pleasant long-distance driving. (6) - Philip Cheah


Until Death Comes [Secretly Canadian]


Frida Hyvonen is good but the hype could be misleading and ultimately disappointing. Touted as the new Swedish sensation, her debut Until Death Comes has secured US distribution. The comparisons come thick and fast from Carole King to Laura Nyro. She's basically a singer and her piano; and performs solo a la Nyro. So I went back and played my early Nyro demos. And sadly, Hyvonen doesn't come close. Where Nyro had soul, Hyvonen is pop. And her sound, even vocally, is trapped inside pop. That wild unfettered Nyro touch is best heard on You Never Got Me Right where she accuses her lover of having "a lack of taste." To her credit, her lyrics are powerful even if her vocals don't resonate, as on Djuna: "Last night when I was out I bought myself a drink/ Opened the memories and violence poured out." Interestingly, this album had funding from the Swedish Council of Cultural Affairs, and contains this intriguing lyric, which would never get funding in $ingapore nor get airplay here: "Once I was a serene teenaged child/ Once I felt your cock against my thigh/ You said you were a poet, man/ Your poetry wasn't obvious to me." (6) - Philip Cheah


Impeach My Bush [XL]

Peaches doesn't need to write a book titled: "How to Talk Dirty and Influence People." She sings it. Of course, folks who think that Peaches (aka Merrill Nisker) is a slut talking dirty are woefully wrong. On this cleverly titled album, Impeach My Bush, Peaches proclaims that war is the real pornography. As she sings on the album centrepiece, Fuck or Kill: "I rather fuck who I want than kill who I am told to." It's a wonderful statement because you can imagine all the Christian fundamentalist neo-cons who preach piously against abortion while blissfully supporting new wars getting upset about this.

And to prove it, the following tracks are in-yer-face sex songs. Tent in Your Pants puts it bluntly: "we are gonna wash that pole, scrub that pole baby." Or Slippery Dick's dirty talk: "Toss freaker/Floss tweaker/Sauce leaker/Moss shrieker". Comparatively, Madonna was a convent nun.

Peaches album (this is her third) makes you wonder whether she's run the course of her dirty talk. After all, the music and her electroclash beats don't seem to vary too much. This time round, fem rocker Joan Jett solos on You Love It while Queens Of The Stone Age's Josh Homme can be heard on Give 'er. Perhaps you can think of her as a one-woman Ramones.

As she says: "Well, disempowering is when you haven't made the decision yourself. Because, let's look at Madonna, too. She really played with it at the beginning and I wasn't really a big fan of Madonna. I didn't really get it... I don't really see it (being a female artiste) as sexed up and empowering. I just see it as empowering everything. Just go full on, you know? Like Iggy Pop or something like that just give it all of your 500 percent energy, everything."

If you don't like it, you can impeach (her) Bush! (7) - Philip Cheah


The Forest and the Sea [Staubgold]


What does being lost in a forest sound like? Electronic folkie John Burton aka Leafcutter John went to find out. His fourth album, The Forest and the Sea, was recorded in London's Epping forest, and the northern forests of Sweden. John's subject of being lost could be a progression of his previous album, The Housebound Spirit (2003), where he re-creates the aftershock of his experience of being mugged outside his home. The sense of alienation found inside a cramped house is now extended to an alien space in a forest. So in Maria in the Forest, disorientating sounds of horses galloping through a leafy ground, processed and found sounds and even an eerie mechanical drone fill up seven minutes, to tell you the album's story of two people who get lost and are forced to spend a night inside a forest. John's perfectionism is found on In the Morning where his piano was recorded in the middle of a forest at Silence studios, Sweden.

More important perhaps is that John's folk roots betray real songs amidst the various soundscapes. So Dream III has a haunting melody and a woefully hopeful lyric: "I can hold out just as long as you can/Many things I hold are the same as this/And I know it will come."


As the story unfolds, the pair find themselves near the sea and try to swim out. This leads to Seba, the other lovely melody on the album with a sort of erotic death scene: "Let me swim far below into you." On the final track, Now, the pair have passed on and reincarnated: "You are an animal." A strange story indeed. (7) - Philip Cheah


The Cellar Door Sessions [Columbia]

While this six-disc box set was released last year, it's been a difficult recording to find in $ingapore. Ironically, I finally found it as a discount item. Fans take note. This set is essential.

Released as part of the 60th birthday celebrations of pianist Keith Jarrett, this set is perhaps as much about Keith as it is about Miles. This is the first time that Jarrett is playing as the sole keyboard player in a Miles band.

A December club session in 1970, the Cellar Door gig was important for Jarrett because for three nights, he played the Fender Rhodes electric piano and electronic organ as the key lead player before guitarist John McLaughlin arrived on the fourth night. The fourth night sessions were released as part of Live Evil in 1971. But for three (never-before-released) nights, Jarrett was the glue between Miles, saxophonist Gary Bartz, drummer Jack DeJohnette, percussionist Airto Moreira and the incredible 19-year-old bassist, Michael Henderson, who was snatched by Miles from Stevie Wonder's band.

Cellar Door is also arguably Miles' last great small group before he started having guitar-oriented and percussion heavy bands. Jarrett's explanation is simple. Miles could never again find musicians who had a rich musical past. Jarrett particularly objects to bassist Marcus Miller's (who joined Miles' in 1981) observation that Miles wanted a funk band.

As he says in the liner notes: "Remember Marcus, that Miles went way back. His roots were not tenuous enough to accept less than everything he could get. Later of course he got cut off from his roots by an absence of players who could surprise him. Back in 1970, he was still in the middle, however controversially of jazz. If Jack, Gary, or I thought we were in a funk band, we would have been undernourished...

"The change that occurred in Miles' bands of this period actually began when Jack DeJohnette decided to leave to do his own thing. Miles pleaded with Jack to stay, at least through the European tour. He offered him more money. Hell, I even pleaded with Jack. Miles was losing his core of players whose grasp of jazz's improvising past motivated and pushed Miles to higher and higher ground."

Not only was Miles obsessed with the live sound (that's why each night was recorded) but he was nuts about the wah-wah pedal. Jarrett, McLaughlin and himself were all wired to the wah-wah effect. And as Bartz notes, sometimes the effect was that they were singing/speaking to each other. The wah-wah became a vocal effect.

But Miles is clearly enjoying himself and experimenting as well. The groove is what everyone is digging into. There are only seven different tracks here over six discs. The band is constantly jamming different versions of Joe Zawinul's Directions (from nine minutes to 19 minutes), Honky Tonk (which finally appeared on the Get Up With It album in 1975), Yesternow (from Jack Johnson, 1970), It's About That Time (from In A Silent Way,1969), Sanctuary (from Bitches Brew, 1970) and two new tracks Inamorata (heard on Live Evil, 1971) and What I Say.

Critics who panned this music at that time described it as soporific soloing. But it does catch fire even without McLaughlin's presence. Check out Inamorata on Disc 4, the final set before McLaughlin arrives. By the fourth minute, the players are burning up the groove. Miles and Bartz are urgently trading punctuating bursts while Henderson is playing his bass as a lead and duets with Jarrett's keyboards. Meanwhile, Moreira chimes in on bells from behind complementing DeJohnette's breathlessly furious drumming. Even when it seems to slow down, it seamlessly builds to another crescendo throughout its 15 minutes.

Miles was never to see the same calibre of players grouped together in his bands ever again. (9.5) - Philip Cheah

Of special note to the Cellar Door sessions is the inclusion of Brit guitarist John McLaughlin. He was much sought-after and was rather prolific during the late '60s jamming with everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Tony Williams and even with Miles band. Here's a nice short session with Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette, never before released.
Click here to download tracks.


At War With the Mystics [Warner Music]

Probably the best alternative band in the mainstream, The Flaming Lips have charmed critics and fans alike with their striking melodic hooks, bizarre humour and cosmic lyrics. After listening to it for several weeks since its release in April, there are many highlights. There's The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song with its social conscience lyric that sticks ("If you could blow up the world with a flick of a switch, would you do it?"), the Beach Boys' warmth of The Sound of Failure, with its satire of Britney-Spears' pop; plus a more cosmic Neil Young on My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion. The Lips fancy themselves as funkateers on Free Radicals, The Wizard Turns On and The W.A.N.D. but the real dope is still better found with Sly Stone or George Clinton. However, they really do excel on pop (the SpongeBob theme song confirms it) and best of all is Goin' On, which closes the album. This one sounds like the return of Todd Rundgren in Just One Victory. (7) - Philip Cheah

Need convincing? Sample the Flaming Lips performing songs from At War With The Mystics. Click here.


Absencen Remixed [Staubgold]

Having fallen in love with The Shimmering Collective otherwise known as Kammerflimmer Kollektief's Absencen album, it's really hard to fall in love again with this remix version. There are very few remix albums that overshadow its source material and this just isn't one of them.

This new KK remix album, featuring artistes such as David Last, Aoki Takamasa, Jan Jelinek and others, deflates the power of the original, reducing the sum of its parts to echoes. For example, Lichterloh, the stately opening track of Absencen, which unfolds its mystery subtly and gradually, sucking you into its ambient vortex irresistibly, is given an unwanted scat chant in the remix. Unstet, the Jeffrey Lee Pierce, tribute, has the lonesome pedal steel guitar isolated and echoed. But the waves of atmosphere, punctuated by Dietrich Foth's saxophone, Thomas Weber's slide guitar and Christopher Brunner's harmonica are all gone.

Absencen, the fifth album by the Kammerflimmer Kollektief was really one of the discoveries of late last year. It's the most engaging mix of influences that you can find which will demolish all genre boxes. Founded by multi-instrumentalist Thomas Weber in the late '90s, the band has truly evolved into a collective with, besides Foth and Brunner, Heike Aumuller on harmonium, Heike Wendelin on violin and Johannes Frisch on double bass.

What is startling about the band's music is that they have perfectly meshed acoustic and electronic music. You can imagine that you are listening to ambient electronic music (which is Weber's background) but if you listen closely, you start picking out all the various instrumental solos that are going on all the time. On Shibboleth for example, Foth and Helmut Dinkel are trading saxophone solos above a gentle synthesizer wash. The opening track Lichterloh begins gently but is disrupted surprisingly in its mid-section by free jazz.

Absencen means absence. It's an absence of a fixed consciousness. You can enter this album on any level and still find something, even a country groove with the Shenandoah tune on Unstet (the tribute for Gun Club's Jeffrey Lee Pierce).

The Kammerflimmer Kollektief deserve to be better known and its "absence" in the mainstream is yet another musical irony. (9.5 for the original) - Philip Cheah


Good For What Ails You: Music Of The Medicine Shows 1926-1937 [Old Hat]

Medicine shows, among the last vestiges of minstrelsy, featured both white and black acts in blackface and some of the most unforgettable songs in the whole pantheon of American music. Indispensable: I Heard The Voice Of A Pork Chop, Jim Jackson; Bring It With You When You Come, Cannon's Jug Stompers; Adam And Eve In The Garden, Bogus Ben Covington; He's In The Jailhouse Now, The Memphis Sheiks. - Rock & Rap Confidential

Song And Void Vol 1 [Non-Utopian]

Was singer-songwriter Richard McGraw ever a Catholic altar boy? His combination of Nick Cave's religiosity and Leonard Cohen's sensuality sure qualifies him. The gospel-tinged Butter Hill has McGraw declaring himself as the "holiest of them" and in the next verse, he confesses that he "loved her breast, her face and her laughter on Butter Hill."

McGraw's desperation is belied by a certain jauntiness and Natasha in High School is everything that you cannot hear in a pop song on radio today - wicked, original humour ("Then there was the kitchen pantries/ panties, flowered lovely for me"), an eccentric wit ("And all of the egos and the ids/laugh at all the stupid things I did") and real love ("And how could it be that/you'd give me your virginity/and I would let you go/on account of bad chemistry"). In a normal sane world, this would be number one with a bullet.

McGraw has taste. Butter Hill features Van-Morrison guitarist, John Platania. And he doesn't hide. After the songs, there is the void. Find Me Then, the third number after two rousing tracks, is a cry of defeat: "Oh dear lord I'm losing again/My body is tired so are these plans/I would like to buy a neck tie/For every dream I cannot defend". John Platania returns on Death Is Not Peace to whip up some drive into McGraw's hopelessness "I think I see a tunnel/I think I hear a train". The songs maintain their tenderness, anger, worry and desperate cries to God throughout. Recorded in 2004 in mostly single takes, mounting debt prevented its release until last month. In the pantheon of desperate, funny, loser singer-songwriters, please welcome Richard McGraw! (7.5) - Philip Cheah


Ladyhawk [Jagjaguwar]

Fans of rootsy, bluesy barroom rock will be mightily pleased that Canada is never short of finding the next Neil Young. They don't all exactly sound like him but have that same flair for relaxed groovy jamming with extended winding revved-up guitar solos. And often, it takes more of them to just make one of him. In the case of Ladyhawk (named after the band's predilection for birds and gals), it's four guys who took two years for this eponymous titled debut to be released next month.

The album, which is full of nice hooks embedded in seemingly drunken jams, begins with an understated stunner, 48 Hours, about the motives of a hostage-taker. Its mellow soft acoustic start belies the raging middle when the singer asks: "Was it the weight of the sky on a moonless midnight?" Then it ends quietly and abruptly with the observation: "Walk tall like a man's supposed to/Be a hero to a crowd of empty bottles/You broke your own heart but you can't always find another..."

Ladyhawk's ability to cut to the core is demonstrated in the campfire singalong (complete with handclaps!), My Old Jacknife. It's a paean to a handy object of emancipation - "every time they tie me down, I cut myself loose" - yet reveals the singer's desolation: "no one cares about me." Even the rocking Dugout, is really a plea for the singer's girlfriend to admit her feelings: "Even the person you love is turning away/ so tell me the truth of your heart".

The live feel of the band's playing is so perfectly captured that on the final track, New Joker, you can hear a bottle smashing. It's a perfect end to the long guitar solo before that, testament that the groove will prevail over any drunken stupor. (8) - Philip Cheah


Lord Let Me Be More Humble In The World [Gospel Friend]

The stray Peach tracks on gospel anthologies can't prepare you for the full bore impact of 24 sides in a row. With a voice as big as Mahalia Jackson's and a style that renders complex phrasing in a bradly Southern accent, the Peach ranks with the all-time gospel greats.

The Peach often fronted male quartets beginning in the early '40s, undoubtedly helping set the stage for the explosion of [disgracefully under-reissued] female groups that defines the Golden Age of Gospel. Her blues-accented Swing Low Sweet Chariot is a startling redefinition of one of the best-known spirituals and originals such as God Don't Never Change as well as takeoffs on Bible texts [Blessed Are The Poor In Spirit] mark this disc as a long-overdue introduction to a major artist. - Rock & Rap Confidential


Fireball [Skeeterbit/Emergent]

Although he's written number one hits for Garth Brooks and Brooks & Dunn, Camp the solo artist is much more of a high lonesome throwback. He's a dazzling instrumentalist and effective singer who is a country rocker not in the post-Eagles sense but going further back to the middle of the last century when country and rock hadn't yet taken separate paths. Highlights include the title track - reminiscent of the energy of Jerry Lee Lewis rushing where angels fear to tread - and Beagle Hound, which caused us to wonder how PETA feels about a love song to a dog that's used to hunt? - Rock & Rap Confidential


Embryonnck [Staubgold]

In 1966, the critic Susan Sontag, published her seminal book on criticism, Against Interpretation, where she argued that in the future, critics would have to learn to experience art instead of trying to excavate it. She could have been writing about the No Neck Blues Band, a collective of New York and Boston improvisers, formed in 1992 by, amongst others, multi-instrumentalist Keith Connolly and percussionist Dave Nuss.

In fact, the band believes so much in the musical experience that they shun interviews and they dislike being identified, a sharp contrast to the world of American and $ingapore Idols, where the music takes a backseat to glamour. In a rare interview early this year, an anonymous No-Neck member confirms the trancelike quality of their music: "It's like if you back further out into space, all of the sudden you perceive all these balls in space in motion, and if you plunge far in with a microscope, you're going to see the same thing. In that way, everything we do is the same. It's the same thing that we're doing every time. It's just that with the proximity that you have to a given album or a given listening experience, you're going to get a variety of sounds."

No Neck's off-world fusion spans various regions of ethnic music and is done within the frame of free jazz and improvisational music. For that reason, this CD's collaboration with German experimentalists, Embryo (led by Christian Buchard, ex-Amon Duul II), is long awaited. Buchard's late-'60s band, Amon Duul II were already incorporating world music into their progressive rock experiments. Embryo is the sum of Buchard's cataloguing of Middle Eastern, African and Asian styles.

For this album, Buchard dragged his sick drummer, Dieter Serfas, out of bed. As he recalls: "His drumming was like he knew everything. The No Neck Blues Band was flying with us around him. Little melodies we never had heard, different moods, rhythmic interplays, and in between the music making it was like we had been together all the time."

Wieder das erste Mal begins the album with a 10-minute-plus Middle Eastern jam with a female vocalist wailing throughout. Cool xylophones lead off the second track, Five Grams of the Widow, where tablas, string and wind instruments interplay around it. After Marja's Cat begins with what sounds like an amplification of a sheesha, with the sound of air bubbles blown through water. It's on track five, Die Farbe aus dem All, that the No Neck's free jazz spirit bursts through where the blowing becomes more frenzied and the percussion more frenetic. Das erste Mal ends the album with quiet bells and everyone plays small tunes to keep the jam flowing. Echoing the opening track, the female vocalist returns while one of the male members helps by mumbling along.

The whole album is a ritual experience in the form of a community jam. For once, you are not allowed to look at the credit list to see who plays what. There wasn't any on this advance disc. You are instead asked to empty yourself. From the embryo, nothing turned itself inside out. - (8) Philip Cheah

Note: Click here to download MP3


Power To The People: Public Enemy's Greatest Hits [Def Jam]


An obscure track by the late great LA rock band Downset starts out with the muttered threat/chant "Anger: hostility towards the opposition/ Anger: hostility towards the opposition". They probably had been listening to Public Enemy, which transformed mere discontent into revolutionary manifestos with the passion and skill to match their attitude. Chuck D, with a voice and delivery so authoritative that he made James Earl Jones sound tentative, found the perfect foil in Flavor Flav, while the music was irresistible on its own terms, dense and catchy as it veered between avant jazz and rock 'n' roll, massively sampling everything in between. Harry Allen, in concluding his liner notes, says: "Today... the matrix is deeper, more diabolical, more pernicious, and more invisible. Which is why, now, we need P.E. more than ever." - Rock & Rap Confidential


Happy In The Service of The Lord: 1949-1951 [Acrobat 2CD]

The expiration of European copyright, which lasts only 50 years, benefits gospel fans most of all right now, because the late '40s and early '50s were the music's true Golden Age. Even back then, no male quartet offered more thunderous testimony, rocked harder, swung more or crooned better. Plus, what other group, sacred or secular, had a transvestite lead vocalist? These two discs represent a profound bargain - US$13.98 from - Rock & Rap Confidential

Note: In the U.S. and countries that signed free trade agreements with the Americans, the copyright law stretches to 70 years.


Vision Festival 3 (2005, Arts for Art)/Underground Railroad [Atavistic, Unheard Music series]

I first heard of Joe McPhee in 2002 on Matthew Shipp's Optometry album. Then I bought the Atavistic label reissues of McPhee's earlier recordings from the ‘70s such as Nation Time (1970) and Trinity (1971) and realised that McPhee deserves to be celebrated more than he has. McPhee's vision as an artist is unshakeable. He began by following his heart and instincts and he still does to this day. Just check out his contribution to the Vision Festival 2005 (Arts For Art) with War Crimes and Battle Scars: Iraq by the Roy Campbell/Joe McPhee Quartet.

And then compare it against Underground Railroad, the title track of his debut album in 1969. The fury has not abated. And both tracks share a similar approach. Underground Railroad begins with furious drumming by Ernest Bostic which goes on for over six and a half minutes, before McPhee starts blowing. Then you hear free jazz giant Albert Ayler's spirit soaring high once again. The intensity and spiritual passion just flies in your face. On War Crimes and Battle Scars: Iraq, the track also begins with a long percussion intro before both Campbell (on trumpet) and McPhee (on soprano sax) come charging in.

What is rare about the Underground Railroad reissue (besides the fact that it was originally only a 500 LP edition) is that the bonus disc contains McPhee's first live performance on tenor saxophone six months before his debut recording. And the song subjects share the same anguish as his playing. Birmingham Sunday refers to a racist church bombing in 1963 where four black children were killed while Windy City Head Stompin' Blues reminds you of police brutality in the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention.

Is it any wonder then that Swiss pharmaceutical engineer Werner X. Uehlinger started the Hat Hut freejazz/ avant garde label in 1975, just to record McPhee? Even before that, McPhee's painter friend, Craig Johnson began the CJR label in 1969 just to release McPhee.

During the ‘80s, McPhee met experimental composer and accordionist, Pauline Oliveros, whose theories of "deep listening" influenced his instrumental and electronic techniques. He also read Edward de Bono's book Lateral Thinking: A Textbook of Creativity, which inspired McPhee to "think sideways" in his musical improvisation. This resulted in his concept of "Po Music." McPhee explains "Po Music" as a "process of provocation" which can be used to "move from one fixed set of ideas in an attempt to discover new ones."

Now more than 50 albums later, McPhee has kept the faith and the spirit of free playing. As much as you can love McPhee's fiery blowing, you will also adore his tender side in the ballad, Harriet (on Underground Railroad). Here the sweetness of McPhee's other influence, trumpeter Don Cherry, comes into play. He finds different textures, other surfaces to reflect and explore his love. (9) - Philip Cheah


Beautiful Losers (Singles and Compilation Tracks 1994-99) [Jagjaguwar]

Singer songwriter Simon Joyner's cult favourite, One for the Catholic Girls, is a Henry-Miller wet dream, not in the erotic sense but in the romance that Miller once felt before he realised that women had vaginas. Joyner describes the shy pain of following a girl to her home but not knowing how to make his presence felt. The innocence of his desire shines through in the words:

"I thought about the kid you knew but for me
And how he held onto that lock of your hair
He kept it tied up in a sad rubber band
In his dresser draw on the right side
Now he walks around with strands of you all over him
As if you were still spending the night"

Joyner loves words and while he comes across in all his lo-fi glory, his words are the joy to behold. His vocals are unadorned, earnest and ragged, the instrumentals are sparse and basic, all the more for his words to rise uncluttered to the top. As Joyner has said: "I think my use of the folk song has a lot to do with acknowledging that the music I'm most influenced by comes more directly from a lyric-driven tradition even if it is via the Velvet Underground or someone decidedly not folk. It comes from a tradition that puts an emphasis on telling the story in a certain way and that way comes down to us through folk and blues music...and the folk tradition and its use of conversational or natural speech and making poetry of that language is a good way to do that. I think this is what good writers do in fiction so it makes sense that it would be done in song as well."

Beginning in 1992, Joyner was so prolific that he now has 11 albums to his name. That makes this collection timely as Jagjaguwar has patiently collected all the tracks that Joyner has generously given to compilations and split CDs. Perhaps, it's also Joyner's hope that he will succeed through someone else's cover of his work. Many tracks have lovely hooks and melodies from Jeff Engel Rules (which has an unforgettable violin riff), Fearful Man to Milk (which sounds like something Violent Femmes would have done).

And don't be fooled by this album's downbeat title. As Joyner observed: "My music is oftentimes mistaken for miserable. That's a definite mistake and it's too bad I'm not distinguished from a lot of music that does seem to be about celebrating apathy or misery. Telling the truth about difficulties or bringing characters to a point where they make difficult decisions and change or unfortunately, don't change, is all celebratory, I think. If something is so sad or terrifying that you can taste adrenalin in your mouth or hear your heart beating all of a sudden, you have just been reminded how much you love living." On Burn Rubber, Joyner advises: "Get behind the wheel/Stay in front of the storm."

Joyner's predicament mirrors many artistes today. After 11 albums (this one makes 12), he still doesn't register on the mainstream radar. As he said: "What artist would want to be recognised by an industry that exists to shit on and strangle the artform he works within? The music industry is the same. It's not the '60s anymore. Major labels aren't putting out records like the Hampton Grease Band and the United States of America anymore. No one really concerned with growing and changing as an artist like Bob Dylan did, will be able to do that in this environment. So the only place to die is in obscurity if you ask me. That's the holy land." Amen. (7) - Philip Cheah


In This Life Together [Hidden Beach]

Conscious soul? Great stuff anyway, combining rough and smooth vocals by Fatin Danzler and Aja Graydon in an expression of a life where "it's too steaming hot to keep the kids inside/ No central air feels like I'm gonna die" gives way to shouts of "Danger! Turn it up!" and the sad refrain, "Now the ribs is gone/ And the sauce is too." But describing a complicated, impoverished, endangered life isn't the same thing as surrendering to it. Kindred survive by remembering that they are a family ["Who would I be if I didn't know you?" they croon] and by remembering that every once in a while it's a good idea to "sneak a freak in". Their Message To Marvin, an audacious attempt to update him on what's going on right now, feels like what it is: an homage to family elders. This is visionary music because it's grounded so beautifully in what's true about the everyday. - Rock & Rap Confidential


Solo Acoustic, Vol 1 [Inside Recordings]

Still a master sonic seducer, even with just his own guitar and piano. Not many artists could take their most familiar material and make it fresh and vital, even in front of audiences who know the words better than the singer does. Plus, for those who see him as overly earnest, his between-song patter confirms what we've long known: Jackson Browne is one hilarious motherfucker. - Rock & Rap Confidential


We The People [Cherry Tree/Interscope]

The most powerful and clearest minded rap-rock band, also the most politically conscious and ethnically diverse, which is not incidental. Screaming guitar tracks and occasional acoustic nuances profess the band's roots in Brazilian and Chilean music, the thunderously rocking hip-hop rhythms, careening raps, and slashing vocals their Yankee background. Revolutionary Beat, U.S. History and the haunting No More, all proclaim the band's commitment. Flipsyde is determined both to describe a world of danger, evil and wonder and to change that world and make it better. They're good enough to make you feel like you not only can but must help. - Rock & Rap Confidential


Cannonball In Europe [Blue Note]

In 1944 an American soldier named Joe Napoli wandered into the Belgian hamlet of Comblain-la-Tour after the Battle of the Bulge. Struck by his kind reception there, Napoli ultimately returned to stage an annual jazz festival to raise money for the town. In 1962, there were 42,000 people there in a driving rain, sitting through opening act Frankie Avalon to hear Cannonball's sextet. Their patience was certainly rewarded - the interplay of "P. Bouk" is as thrilling as the acrobatics of the X Games and Yusef Lateef's oboe work on Trouble In Mind pierces the heart at the same time that it heals it. - Rock & Rap Confidential


Charles Mingus Orchestra with Eric Dolphy, Bremen, April 16, 1964 [Ingo]

This release actually came out on a three-volume Italian bootleg vinyl label, Ingo. Last month, I managed to find the actual Volume One on vinyl in Berlin but I know it's practically impossible to track down volumes II and III. So it's a great service that jazz fan, Cary Wolfson, has collected all three albums into one handy double CD edition. There are several reasons to be excited. First, 1964 was the last year of saxophonist Eric Dolphy's life. Dolphy died on June 27 in Berlin. This gig took place on April 16 in Bremen. And it's amazing to hear him play brilliantly right till the end.

Click here for Philip Cheah's review.


Welcome to Jamrock [Tuff Gong]

The drive of the powers that be to render revolutionaries into harmless icons knows no bounds.

Damien Marley, Bob's youngest son, has had a massive summer-long hit with this album's title track, inspired by the 2001 documentary Life And Debt. Damien has been condemned in the Jamaican press for being too political and thus betraying his father's legacy! Damien embraces that legacy - sex and salvation, revolution and ruins, a burning hatred of the police - in full and expands it by seamlessly mixing and matching roots and dancehall sounds.

His live guests include Nas, Bounty Hunter, Bobby Brown, the Miami Symphony and Black Thought of the Roots; Bunny Wailer, Eek-A-Mouse and his father appear via samples. Even the relatively weakest element - the ballads - draw power from Damien's grainy voice while the rest of the tracks ascend toward heaven as swirls of pop rapture, gritty hip-hop and 30-plus years of Jamaican innovations compressed into an hour. A masterpiece. - RRC

Birthright [Hyena]

In which Ulmer and producer Vernon Reid combine to ignore their jazzbo status and create what amounts to a modern John Lee Hooker record. Shades of Olu Dara! - RRC

Hammond vs Drums [Gadfly]

Jimmy Smith meets Moby at Kurt Cobain's vacation home in Sweden. This could be the dawning of the grunge organ trio except there's no bass player. Or it could be the Stooges to Medeski, Martin and Wood's Rolling Stones. It's definitely the weirdest instrumental album in years. - RRC


The Road Leads Where It's Led [Reprise]

Six tracks from Dallas indie band who, like most, honors its roots. Difference is, these guys know what those roots are, from anguished indie rock to early krautrock, hair bands and U2 which, not by the way, also enables them to come up with truly original versions of songs by Dylan [Girl From The North Country] and Van Morrison [who could imagine even a bad cover of Astral Weeks, let alone one this good?]. What their semi-reverent decompositions of Money suggests is that the Machines know what being on a major label's all about, too. - Rock & Rap Confidential


Not in Our Name [Verve/Universal]

As with all Liberation Orchestra albums since the first one in 1969, bassist Charlie Haden reminds us that "The whole underlying theme is to communicate honest, human values, and in doing that to try to improve the quality of life." So it's music that takes centre stage. Not in Our Name reminds us that the world's public did not agree to the War on Iraq hence the numerous banners in Europe bearing the words of protest "Not in Our Name", which Haden witnessed while on tour. Thus Haden and pianist/arranger, Carla Bley have reclaimed anthemic American songs in Liberation-style settings. America the Beautiful, Lift Every Voice and Sing and Amazing Grace are all covered, alongside newer Americana such as Pat Metheny's This is Not America and Ornette Coleman's Skies of America, as a statement that people have a right to their own history.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is how to render the familiar unfamiliar. This is however a weakness of the album. While the playing is rich with strong performances from trumpeters Michael Rodriguez and Seneca Black, saxophonist Miguel Zenon and even tuba player Joe Daley, there is an element of vitality and surprise that's lacking. The spirit is still willing but the flesh? Who knows? This is Not America gets a reggaefied workout while Amazing Grace receives a New Orleans blues vamp. Ironically, a beautiful moment is the classical piece, Going Home (from the Largo of the New World Symphony) by Czech composer, Antonin Dvorak. And as one critic noted, the title track oddly reminds one of the soundtrack of Jacques Demy's The Young Girls of Rochefort. While Not In Our Name is perhaps the weakest of the four Liberation Orchestra releases, no memory is complete without it. (6.5) - Philip Cheah


Oh You're So Silent Jens [Secretly Canadian]

I was in a French record store last year when the store-owner played Jens Lekman's debut, When I Said I Wanted to Be Your Dog. I thought it sounded really familiar and when I guessed it as Magnetic Fields, the store-owner pulled out Jens Lekman. So here's Lekman's new album and here's my theory. Lekman comes from Sweden and he's your everyman singer-songwriter. He not only sounds like Magnetic Fields' Stephen Merritt but he also sounds like New Order's Bernard Sumner (if you add synth drums behind him as on Maple Leaves), Morrissey, Jonathan Richman (as on A Sweet Summer's Night on Hammer Hill's playful scat) and even Edwyn Collins. Depending on which generation you belong to, he sounds like whoever you are familiar with.

But Lekman manages to soar above the comparisons because he has a genuinely clever songwriting skill. Who else would have this lyric on the slow piano ballad, Sky Phenomenon: "I know I won't be accepted because I can't dance the funky chicken." Or the Morrissey-like self-pity of Black Cab, about someone who feels that he made a poor show of himself at a party, and takes it out on a taxi driver. This album celebrates Lekman's love of the '50s when singers released more singles than albums. This album collects the many singles that Lekman released last year. So how can something so old-fashioned be so modern? Lo-fi has brought it all back home again. (6.5) - Philip Cheah


Strings + Feedback [Staubgold]

Moving away from his previous two albums (Station to Station and last year's Nocturnes, False Dawns & Breakdowns) which sampled jazz, ambient experimentalist, Andrew Pekler's Strings + Feedback is another cinematic journey. This time, it's not "a random walk through the clear and mysterious air of a metropolis at midnight" as on his two previous albums, but a re-creation of a '50s low-budget science-fiction soundtrack. Working with sampled pianos and strings, Pekler modulates each sound to create rhythms, tension, melody and atmosphere. The album opens with P'luckd, a haunting melody of sensitive beauty. Before you know it, the strident strings of Ogonjok are plucking away in a rapid steady rhythm, the album's high point. Then Pekler shifts gear again and for the remaining seven tracks, he creates an ambience of brooding, unsolvable mystery through what sounds like archaic synthesisers and modulators (Mirrorise, Vor). Pekler's album is like the secrets of Forbidden Planet re-stated, and never so lovingly. (8) - Philip Cheah

Click here to download Andrew Pekler MP3.


Luc's Lantern [Thirsty Ear]

It's easy to dismiss bassist William Parker's recent Luc's Lantern as an unchallenging easy-listening experience especially if you consider his large free jazz canon. In many ways, Luc's Lantern is similar to albums such as Wayne Shorter's Native Dancer or Keith Jarrett's My Song, melodic outings by jazz adventurers.

Parker's efforts on this album centre on lyricism, melodic warmth and joyfulness. Just listen to Song For Tyler with its gentleness, its delicate balance between emotion and sentiment and its yearning melody. Yet his ability to generate vitality and tension sees him leading Evening Star Song, counterpointing pianist Eri Yamamoto's melodic voicings. On the title track, the trio, with drummer Michael Thompson, play as one frenzied swinging unit, each one battling for solo space. On the two tributes to legendary pianists, Jaki (Jaki Byard) and Bud in Alphaville (Bud Powell), the former swings with straight-ahead rhythms while the latter has a feverish bebop attack. Comparatively, some of Matthew Shipp's recent Blue Series releases have been on the dull side. But Parker has by far more unpredictability and subtlety to be written off. As he said: "Part of the idea of freedom is about being free to go where you want to go or follow the music where it wants to go. 'It has to be uptempo,' or 'It has to be avant-garde' - the only thing it has to be is itself. Once you get into that relationship with the music, then you're free to let it go where it wants to go." (7.5) - Philip Cheah


Kabell Years: 1971-1979 [Tzadik]

Back in the mid-70s, I used to buy a lot of vinyl records even by artistes I didn't know about. Record stores were closing as old buildings were being destroyed to build new malls. So there was a lot of music in Singapore going on sale. That's how my LP collection just mushroomed. I wasn't into jazz then but I bought lots, on instinct that I would turn to it one day.

Click here for Philip Cheah's review.


The Naïve Shaman [Jagjaguwar]

Electric noise folkie, Richard Youngs is a strange pleasure to savour. Leaving behind his more acoustic leanings since his fifth album, The Airs of the Ear (2003), an experimental noise element has crept into his work. The modal drone of his new album, The Naïve Shaman, fits the ritualistic atmosphere of his gurgling electronic minimalism (all constructed on his home computer). Youngs plays everything from guitars to a kazoo. In this five-song cycle, his intoned vocals invites us to sing along with him on the title track, Life on A Beam: "We were born on a laser beam, on a beam, on a beam, on a beam..." Every track - Illumined Land, Sonar in A Soul, Summer's Edge II, Once It Was Autumn - brings us back to a dreamtime, when we were making music in Syd Barrett's head. (7.5) Philip Cheah


Giving Up the Ghost [Secretly Canadian]

Eleven years ago, Jason McNeely's and Dan Matz's Windsor for the Derby were part of the emerging post-rock scene along with bands such as Stars of the Lid and Labradford. They aren't really post-rock anymore. On their new album, Giving Up the Ghost, they have structured the tracks to be heard like a vinyl record with five songs each for two sides. Side A reveals their post-punk leanings with the catchy Praise, almost a dead ringer for New Order while Shadows is like Joy Division without Ian Curtis. Side B showcases their acoustic bent (excepting the blistering Gathering) with the haunting heartbreak track, Giving Up, The Light is On and the gorgeous love ballad, Every Word You Ever Said. Windsor for the Derby is a private taste made for fans who wonder how far the bedroom recording aesthetic can go. (6.5) - Philip Cheah


A Night In Tunisia [Blue Note]

Dizzy Gillespie said that he didn't know what inspired him to write the title tune, but there's no way to separate what it means on this 1960 album from Dizzy's groundbreaking introduction of Latin flavor into jazz and from the growing identification of black America with Africa.

The eleven-minute explosion that asks us to imagine a "night in Tunisia" begins with Blakey on drums and everyone else on percussion. Showoff solos by Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter set up Blakey to take center stage and vice versa. It's like a slam dunk contest, only with a team trophy. The rest of the album is fine vintage Blakey, but you may need to rest a while before you listen to it. - Rock & Rap Confidential

Mellow Madness [Blue Note]

This 1970 jazz guitar record came out at a time when artists like Green were played on commercial FM radio alongside Earth, Wind & Fire and Stevie Wonder. Highlights include Cease The Bombing, a song of such languid beauty that you can only imagine that the bombing has ceased, and A Day In The Life, where, while Green is toying idly with the melody, horns jump in with such an effect that the tune becomes completely transformed. - Rock & Rap Confidential


Spiritual Unity [ESP Disk/Mono]

Moving on from a short-lived stint with the Bill Evans Trio in 1964, bassist Gary Peacock found himself with the Albert Ayler Trio in 1965. The Spiritual Unity album was the first recording for Bernard Stollman's ESP-Disk label. The contrast that Peacock must have found himself in couldn't be more startling. With Evans, the music was introverted and mental, and with Ayler, it was passionate and uninhibited. It was also primal, transcendental and revolutionary. It was completely the other extreme of what Evans was doing with the trio. If Evans music spoke to you, Ayler's spirit was screaming at you. Yet its centre was quiet. It had to be because all three players had to listen intently to each other to communicate as a unit. It was their spiritual unity. As Ayler said: "We weren't playing, we were listening to each other."

After the leaders of the new music such as Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor, Ayler belonged to the second wave and was influential on even Coltrane. Coltrane considered Ayler's Spiritual Unity as an influence on his album, Ascension (1965).

Ayler was at heart a melodic player and if you hear enough free jazz, you wonder why Ghosts (the opening and closing track of the album) isn't a Top 40 hit. Its marching melody is instantly recognisable and immediately infectious. Ayler played a hard plastic tenor saxophone and constantly stretched its sonic possibilities. On Spirits, it sounds like a violin. But what informs the fury of the music is Ayler's feeling for the blues and spirituals. Ayler used to say that his music was a cry of truth or a cry to God. Forty years on, it still is. (10 and more) - Philip Cheah


Pluck [Hapless Pedestrian Records]

Fans of The High Llamas who love the Beach Boys can now find another dreamy abstract hybrid pop band in CanBe, but this time fueled by punk. Self-released and mysterious, CanBe is CanBe, even if all the other musicians are listed. Sad Beautiful is a punk-pop song that drives on with smart lyrics. Anhedonia makes you think of the High Llamas drunk on the Beach Boys: "Emotion is just an pneumonia, there's no cure for anhedonia/ She can't believe it all turned out like this, you concur". CanBe's vocalist can be a little monotonous but they make up for it with deadsure lyrics and lovely pop tunes. But the master work is Rearrange Me, a long wistful lament that has a haunting melody and lyrics that show why CanBe can be more well-known: "I said to myself I might need to get out of this place/I'm losing myself not to mention the whole human race/ what price would you pay to be free/ This world doesn't change so I guess I'll just rearrange me/ I'm not sure that I came prepared to change all that I said/ There's no choice involved here 'cause soon enough we'll all be dead." It's as gently apocalyptic as CanBe. (6.5) - Philip Cheah

Note: Visit to order the album.


Out Of Exile [Interscope/Epic]

Audioslave tackles Springsteen's elemental blues question: "How do you live broken-hearted?" with a vision big enough to encompass the betrayed American, the jilted lover and the forgotten parent. Each song finds its own answers, but "Be Yourself" shows why the most popular cliche on the radio today may still be the best one. The spectrum of musical color produced by Audioslave calls to mind Hendrix. Album closer "The Curse" rings off with the kind of love that survives no matter what, the singer knowing he may not get there with you but wishing you Godspeed just the same. - Rock & Rap Confidential


Dog Eat Dog [Rockit Records]

Ten years ago, Gary Tanin of Xpensive Dogs was among one of those who relied purely on the internet to create music. Never meeting Japanese musician Toshiyuki Hiraoka, the two traded music files on the net to create the Dogs' debut release. The years have certainly honed Tanin's craft - the production is exquisite and the performance solid. The album opens promisingly. The instrumental title track, with its glimmering guitar, would do any surf movie proud. Hell, with its "this is the place" and "psycho killer" phrasing, and Flowers Grow, with its Latin rhythm, both recall the Talking Heads. However, it is tracks like Sacrifice, Pinochio and The World Has Gone Insane - with their bouncy beat, crafty wordplay and, not to mention, the album's all-star cast - that put the Dogs down the evolutionary path that included bands such as Was (Not Was). Now that Tanin has exorcised some of those ghosts that might have dogged him, perhaps he would like to consider a full-fledged surf album as his next project - after all, the man has a twang that just won't go away. (7) - Stephen Tan

Note: Visit to order the album.


Ride The Restless Wind [Bowstring Records]

A much more assured outing than his last album, Pledge of Allegiance (2004), Bob Frank's new Ride The Restless Wind goes down the countrified singer-songwriter road. It features a full band including fiddle player Gabe Witcher (who plays with Merle Haggard), multi-guitarist Jim Monahan and others who bring out the melodies in Frank's love songs. While one wishes that Frank's voice had that special spark to carry the songs to another level, the songs themselves, Cup of Wine and Within A Few Degrees, prove his future as a songwriter. (5) - Philip Cheah

Note: Visit to order the CD.


Live and Live Again [Epilogue Records]

Being a self-confessed non-power-pop fan, I can still tell you that power pop devotees will find that this new live, double-CD of the early '80s Seattle band, The Heaters, is pretty essential. For one, it shows the lineage of Seattle pop, from Paul Revere and the Raiders, a Northwest band in the '60s, to why a band like Nirvana in the '90s had such a strong sense of melody. Making their debut in the late '70s with the hit single, I Don't Like Your Face and then their debut album, Have An Idea, The Heaters displayed Beatles/Byrds-like harmonies with songwriting wit. My brain tends to go to sleep from too much melody but there is one track here that displays Seattle irreverence in all its glory. The song is Let's All Smoke. It's not commissioned by the Tobacco Association of America and there are no Marlboro references though the band namechecks (Humphrey) Bogart and (Lauren) Bacall. It's the closest to punk rock that The Heaters get to. It also explains why the first disc live dates from '78-'81 doesn't differ drastically from the second disc 2001 reformed gig. They still have their verve. (7) - Philip Cheah


Francis The Mute [Strummer/Universal]

Art rock is bullshit but it's bigger bullshit to claim that Mars volta makes art rock. They make the kind of dense, fertile rock popularized by, especially, the Who. Admittedly, they do it with fewer outbursts of three minute passion, but like the Who - and unlike Gentle Giant, Yes and their ilk - they play their dense compositions with a rock beat. Mars Volta's is deeply informed by the bandmember's Chicano roots. The only other art rock that has so much groove is probably P-Funk's. - Rock & Rap Confidential


The Aether Eater [Jagjaguwar]

Pleasant but uneventful, the space-age pop of Odawas' The Aether Eater (named after a Native American tribe) is a galactic opera of a journey across the universe. Of course, this would include a Neil-Young clone as one of the three Odawas members sounds like Young circa Buffalo Springfield and early period Young. It seems that After the Goldrush must really have had a sci-fi angle to it. Unfortunately, Odawas lack Young's lyrical edge and I must caution you against bothering to listen and read the lyrics to this album at the same time. Soundwise, much of the future was already recorded in the '60s. The Peter Thomas Orchestra from that era sounds more far out than anything here. And Song of Temptations is a pale approximation of Pink Floyd's Great Gig in the Sky. This is one cosmic album that is light years behind the times. (4) - Philip Cheah


It Was 40 Years Ago Today: A Tribute to the Beatles [Bullseye Records]

This double CD compilation of 50 Beatles cover versions by Canadian acts includes a track by track story of the songs by author Craig Cross (Beatles Discography: Minute-By-Minute, Hour-By-Hour, Day-By-Day). It's a loving tribute that unfortunately falls short of real inspiration. There are nice moments such as Al Kooper's smoking blues rock version of Eleanor Rigby or Cadence's funky Drive My Car, and Mean Mr Mustard's speed metal treatment by Receiver. But the rest of the set merely reminds you to return to the originals. Still, Cross' sleeve notes are a joy to read. It proves how great art is lifted out of the ordinary. The source material for much of these songs were just bits of life that the Fab Four found intriguing, from John's quarrel with Yoko that became Across the Universe to George's celebration of Eric Clapton's love for chocolate in Savoy Truffle. (6) - Philip Cheah


Palimpsest [Mego]

After months of listening to this on and off, it occurred to me to wonder whether Jimi Hendrix would have liked this non-spontaneous computer sound improvisation. And I think he would have said: "Now let's see whether we can play Voodoo Chile like this." Essentially, Yasunao Tone and Florian Hecker are sound experimentalists. Tone founded the Ongaku Group in 1960, which concentrated on improvised music and he began participating in the Fluxus movement in 1962. Hecker has been working in computer music since 1996. Last year, we reviewed his stunning computer music album, PV Trecks. His collaboration with Tone here is more conceptually amazing. Both artistes worked on the long title track, Palimpsest, by sending each other sound material. Tone's input was his creation of sound from drawing.

Using an old musical editing program, Sound Designer II, Tone would make drawings of Chinese characters to produce unknown sound waves. The result is an intense layering of sound by both artistes. No fun at all when you hear it on headphones, the music is intensely spatial and therefore needs to be heard spatially. It needs walls to bounce against and hopefully large and empty rooms for the effect of both sounds from both artistes to meet somewhere in the room. The final and fourth track is a huge blast of computer fuzz, done without a guitar fuzz box. Even Hendrix would have approved. (7.5) - Philip Cheah


Prisoners of Love: A Smattering of Scintillating Senescent Songs 1985-2003 [Matador]

From indie noise to sweet pop, Yo La Tengo found the depth of their work in And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out (2000). They then covered Sun Ra's Nuclear War brilliantly in an EP (2002) and showed off a mellow experimentalism in Summer Sun (2003). On Prisoners of Love, they take you back to their beginnings in 1985.

But instead of allowing you to hear their songs chronologically, they throw it all at you at once. Just to see what sticks in your brain. And here's what sticks - their penchant for ballads. They even close this collection with a cover of Sandy Denny's (remember her from Fairport Convention?) By the Time It Gets Dark. There are enough tunes here to make you realise that despite all their eclecticism, the band are really prisoners of love.

Fans of Yo La Tengo need not track down this release unless they can score the three-disc edition that features rare tracks. Non-fans will find this sampler intriguing for awhile and then realise that they are better off finding the complete albums. About the only value of this new compilation is the sampling of the numerous EPs that were released but are hard to find now. (6) - Philip Cheah


The System Has Failed [Sanctuary]

Though the album's cover [showing Bush, the Clintons, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice and others reckoning with death] suggests an overt political statement, the urgency of this album captures a world swirling in madness with very little hope for political clarity. The value Dave Mustaine most seems interested in here is the truth, which is why the lyric - "I say what you want to hear and not mean anything" - of the chime-laden Scorpion rings up an image of George W and all the other faces on the cover at the same time. - Rock & Rap Confidential


Songs From The Road Of Life [Beckaroo Records]

No More War is the first single from Beck Hobbs' Songs From The Road Of Life. It mounts a vigorous and thoughtful protest against Yankee Doodle militarism, and doesn't for a moment forget that it's a kickin' country tune. Let There Be Peace is dedicated to Hobb's fifth great-grandmother, Nacy Ward, Beloved Woman of the Cherokee.

In December, Hobbs emailed how she'd come to pen No More War. "Dene Anton and Benita Hill and I were sitting around, working on another song, CNN was on, talking about how we had lost another young soldier in the war on Iraq. We started talking about how many mothers all over the world had lost their sons, how many wives had lost their husbands, how many families had lost their dads and brothers, and the conversation naturally led to how, if all the women in the world would band together, we could put an end to all this senseless killing."

"I feel we've got to speak out," she says today. "There's strength in numbers." But Hobbs learned during campaign 2004 that numbers don't always equal justice. "I sang at every John Kerry fundraiser I could," she asserts before revealing, "I was scheduled to sing at a non-partisan Women Get Out the Vote night, but shortly before the event, I was told I could not sing No More War. So I pulled out. I couldn't believe it."

But when and where it is heard, No More War wins favorable notice. "We have gotten a lot of great response, especially in airplay overseas. Unfortunately, we don't have the big wheels turning behind us, and we are promoting this with a miniscule budget. There won't be a video, unless we can find the money. I am praying that this song will find its way into the hearts of the people, that this song will make a difference." - DC Larson, in Rock & Rap Confidential

[EDITOR'S NOTE: As of April 12, 2005, at least 1,546 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count. The breakdown of deaths by countries that supported the invasion of Iraq, 2003 - The British military has reported 86 deaths; Italy, 21; Ukraine, 18; Poland, 17; Spain, 11; Bulgaria, eight; Slovakia, three; Estonia, Thailand and the Netherlands, two each; and Denmark, El Salvador, Hungary, Kazakhstan and Latvia one death each. Since May 1, 2003, when President Bush declared that major combat operations in Iraq had ended, 1,408 U.S. military members have died, according to AP's count.]


Black Sheep Boy [Jagjaguwar]

If you can imagine a young Mark Eitzel of American Music Club, then Will Sheff of Okkervil River fits the bill. The melancholia, literary lyrics and tales of unrequited love all recall Eitzel's best work. Sheff however does not share Eitzel's boozy rambling and oceanic imagery.

Instead, there is a lot of sheep and you can blame this on '60s folkie, Tim Hardin. The title track, Black Sheep Boy is a Hardin song and provides the touchstone for the dark cycle of songs about romantic anguish. And yes, there is murder as well. On Black, the protagonist screams to his lover: "And if I could tear his throat, spill his blood between my jaws, and erase his name for good, don't you know that I would?" On For Real, the album's best rocker, which features deafening guitar chords, Sheff continues his murderous intent: "Some nights I thirst for real blood, for real knives, for real cries." It's a killer (pun intended) of a song, with explosive choruses and a firm melody.

But Sheff really excels on the quieter tracks. In Get Big, the protagonist is resigned to his lover's unfaithfulness. For effect, Sheff duets with Amy Annelle and the song becomes an argued dialogue, the stuff of heartbreak country. Think here of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. Michael Kapinus (of Magnolia Electric Co) marks his presence on A King and A Queen with his trumpet. It's Sheff at his witty best: "But the best thing for you would be queen..../I'd be pleased to post your decrees, to fall at your knees, to name all your streets and.../to lie by your side for sublime centuries (until we crumble to dust when we're crushed by a single sunbeam)."

Their previous and third album, Down the River of Golden Dreams (2002) woke the critics up for Sheff. It's time for the black sheep boy to come home. (7) - Philip Cheah


The Documentary [Aftermath]

Even better than the hype, this debut starts off joining forces with 50 Cent and Dre to call for all the Westside gangs to rise together. Then, on the Kayne West-produced Dream, Game summons the spirits of Biggie and Pac, Huey Newton and Martin Luther King, Marvin Gaye and Aaliyah, Jam Master Jay, Eazy E and Left-eye Lopez to inspire us because, as Jerry Butler croons, "I love you". Sure-footed and aurally stunning, Game's solid gangsta roots serve as a foundation for pulling the best of rap's heritage together, ending with the touching prayer of hope, Like Father, Like Son. - Rock & Rap Confidential


What Comes After The Blues [Secretly Canadian]

By now, the limited edition of Magnolia Electric Co's live album, Trials and Errors, has been sold out. But fret not, if you still want to hear that album's monster track, The Dark Don't Hide It, it's here again as a lead-off track and this time produced by Steve Albini. Albini, famous for his work with Nirvana, again shows his flair for capturing hard and soft sounds. In this case, the acoustic and electric elements of The Dark Don't Hide It are perfectly balanced. You can hear the electric guitars of bandleader Jason Molina and Jason Groth, the acoustic guitar of Jennie Benford and the steel guitar of Mike Brenner. It's a beautiful sonic curtain against which Molina's downbeat words are projected: "You said you only wanted friends for long enough to get rid of them."

In many ways, while Trials and Errors suggested Molina's move away from an idiosyncratic path to a more traditionalist one, What Comes After the Blues, shows a fascination for hillbilly country. Jennie Benford's countrified The Night Shift Lullaby has her on lead vocals, without Molina! As with Okkervil River, it looks like everyone is trying to find their own Emmylou Harris. The comparison of Benford and Harris isn't an overstatement. Just listen to her backing vocals on Leave the City.

Inspired by Hank Williams' I Saw the Light, the final three cuts - Northstar Blues, Hammer Down and I Can Not Have Seen the Light - form a triptych. Here, the electric band steps back and the acoustic country one moves front. In Northstar Blues, he laments: "How can I be the only one whose heart refuses to try/ No one should forgive me." In Hammer Down, he confides: "Sometimes I forget how I've always been sick and I don't have the will to keep fighting." Finally, on I Can Not Have Seen the Light, he tells us: "Every now and then it happens again/ is it the hurt or knowing that it hurts?" All three songs fixate on darkness and redemption. While Molina seems to be moving towards tradition, he at least keeps his heart firmly on his sleeve. (6.5) - Philip Cheah


Arular [XL Recordings]

When the Dead Kennedys recorded Holiday in Cambodia, they made a point of tourists having holidays in someone's hell. Sri Lankan wunderkind, Maya Arulpragasam, otherwise known as M.I.A., the latest in Asian dancehall and hip hop, has been accused of attaining pop stardom out of someone's hell too. In this case, it's global terrorism. Her album artwork and music video are littered with references to bombs and bullets. The single, Sunshowers, has a reference to the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation): "You want to win the war like the PLO/well don't surrender." But when you have neo-conservative governments that legislate for life support and the right to live and, on the other hand, wage pre-emptive war, then you know that M.I.A. is doing what art often does - mirror the world we live in.

Click here for the full review by Philip Cheah.


Hearts In Mind [New Door]

For an artist so late in her career, it is a remarkable achievement that Nanci Griffith is still capable of making important albums. While Hearts In Mind is not a masterpiece as her last studio album, Clock Without Hands (2001), it is still formidable. It's not an album that you can brush off easily. Even a generic song such as A Simple Life contains a strong lyric: "I don't want your wars/ to take my children." While the current war on Iraq is now all about winning hearts and minds, Griffith is saying that the warmongers don't have "hearts in mind." In short, they don't have concern and compassion in their minds.

Click here for the full review by Philip Cheah.


Choosing Death: The Original Soundtrack [Relapse]

This soundtrack to the book by Albert Mudrian is the most coherent presentation of death metal ever presented, a thrashing 20 tracks featuring Napalm Death, Cannibal Corpse, Pig Destroyer and a batch of other maniacs you likely never heard of and won't believe can be so tuneful. People have gone to prison for liking, let alone making, this music. This set makes it clear that death metal is defensible on merit, not just principle. Pick hits: Repulsion's Maggots In Your Coffin; Obituary's Slowly We Rot and Arch Enemy's We Will Rise. - RRC

Exploration [New West]

Sarah Lee Guthrie comes to our attention as the third generation of her family [Arlo's her father, Woody, her grandfather]. But she keeps that attention because she's got a great voice and uses it smartly. Johnny Irion, an American vet, adds rock 'n' roll kick without sacrificing folk smarts, and some excellent songs. The most notable is the haunting, haunted Gervais, which does its best to pull down the Confederate flag that flies on the statehouse lawn in Columbia, SC, Irion's hometown. - RRC


"Tant de belles choses" [Virgin]

So Many Beautiful Things is the translation of 61-year-old Francoise Hardy's latest album that arrived late in January 2005 in England. Most Asians remember her either for Only Friends, covered by both Tracy Huang and Rita Chao with The Quests, or All Over The World, a radio staple back in the '60s. Melancholic, world-weary and regretful over unrequited love, is how the Ye-Ye girl is best recalled.

Her life bears the mark of her shyness. Hardy hardly performed and never did a world tour. She married once and the result was a son. That experience over and done with, her quest was for romance. But while she has remained aloof, she has also made a lot of albums. So Many Beautiful Things picks up from her best album in the '70s, La Question, with acoustic guitars, gentle riffs and a hint of strings with a foreign flavor. In place of Etienne Daho, she has a trio of gifted talents on this album, producer Alain Lubrano and songwriters Perry Blake and Ben Christophers who offer her songs that are about questions.

Rita Chao with The Quests recorded Hardy's Only Friends.

The title track begins her quest for love and is about a dying woman reminiscing about life and love in a slow, moving ballad. So Many Beautiful Things is about having the grace to accept your fate and remember the life lived. Hardy celebrates this power of love over death. She says, "At my age, there are inevitably alarm bells which make conscious the sorrow that one can bring to people who love us while being sick or near death. I have been interested in spirituality for a long time, it is thus a way of expressing my faith in the afterlife."

A l'ombre de la lune [In The Shade Of The Moon] and Soir de gala [An Evening Reception] are about unrequited love. The latter offers this verse ("Laissons faner les roses, gardons les portes closes et restons-en là/ Leave the roses to fade/Close all the doors/And let's leave things there!"). When she was younger, love was about possession and eroticism. But now her position has shifted to love for love's sake, "L'amour est plus fort que la mort/ Love is even stronger than death."

The new perspective is further given space on Jardinier Benevole [Voluntary Gardener] where she says everybody is the architect of his own future, the gardener of his own garden.

Englishman Ben Christopher's La Folie ordinaire [The Ordinary Madness] moves the emotions closer to the edge. On the surface the song is about how couples slowly wilt, the fading of friendship, the building of walls. But it could also be her comment on "the ordinary madness"of our passivity in accepting the tragedy of war. Hardy has been outspoken against the Second Iraq War. In this song, she wants the walls of separation to fall and history to be remade and wants to be able to believe in it. It's a very strong song.

Of Irish songwriter Perry Blake's two contributions, Moments is the superior lyrically but So Many Things the more haunting in its haiku-like precision of our dissatisfaction. Our inability to love.

How could so many people be living just for this?
Moments of redemption, momentary bliss...

It's so strange
The things we wish for
The things we thought
We couldn't do without
It's so sad
The things we dreamed of
The things we thought
We couldn't live without

When asked what drives her creativity, Hardy says, "Let us speak rather about melancholy, romanticism, sentimentality which are the sources of inspiration of the majority of songs in general," as if to say the journey is the reward.

Of her peers in the French Ye-Ye scene, she alone remains active and commercially vital. Tant de belles choses took just a few weeks to be a Gold Record when it came out in France at the end of November.

When she started in the '60s, she was surrounded by the Rolling Stones and the pop elite. Some writers commented she was the female Mick Jagger. Bob Dylan asked to meet with Françoise Hardy when he came to Paris for a concert at the Olympia in 1966. On the cover of his LP "Another Side of Bob Dylan", released in 1964, he had already written a long poem "Some other kinds of songs", which included the following lines

for françoise hardy
at the seine's edge
a giant shadow
of notre dame
seeks t' grab my foot
sorbonne students
whirl by on thin bicycles
swirlin' lifelike colors of leather spin
the breeze yawns food
far from the bellies
of erhard meetin' johnson
piles of lovers
lay themselves on their books. boats.
old men
clothed in curly mustaches
float on the benches
blankets of tourists
in bright red nylon shirts
with straw hats of ambassadors...

Perhaps Dylan saw in Hardy a fellow traveller. Perhaps he was just enchanted by her. As David Bowie most certainly was: "I was for a very long time passionately in love with her, as I'm sure she's guessed. Every male in the world, and a number of females also were, and we all still are."

So Many Beautiful Things weaves its magic in its music. We are all enchanted. - The Little Chicken

Footnote: Francoise Hardy continues to record new music, Rita Chao and the Quests have stopped.


Trials & Errors [Secretly Canadian]

After listening to this album for three months, I must say that the original thrill has worn off. Which isn't to say that the Magnolia Electric Co isn't good but it's just that at best, they stimulate you to go back to the source, that is, Neil Young.

Recorded live just a few months after forming in 2003, Songs: Ohia mainman, Jason Molina, decided to retool his old band in favour of Magnolia Electric Co. They are essentially a four-piece with Pete Schreiner (from Panoply Academy) on drums, Mike Kapinus (from Okkervil River) on keyboards/trumpet and Jason Groth and Molina on guitars. The Molina and Groth twin-guitar attack is magnificent, at times with blazing sheets of sound, at other times, they weave in and out of each other's solo tapestries.

Click here for the full review by Philip Cheah.


MUZIK/Re-arranging the 20th Century [Enja]

Winner of the BBC Radio 3 Album of the Year for his 2003 release, Exile, Israeli jazz saxophonist (and former member of Ian Dury's Blockheads), Gilad Atzmon makes music to contemplate to. As Atzmon once wrote: "Jazz is a world view, an innovative form of resistance. For me, to play jazz is to fight the BBS (Bush, Blair and Sharon) world order, to aim towards liberation while knowing you may never get there, to fight the new American colonialism. To say what I believe in, to campaign for the liberation of my Palestinian and Iraqi brothers. To play jazz is to suggest an alternative reality, to reinvent myself, to be ready to do it till the bitter end."

Click here for the full review by Philip Cheah.


Kesto (234.48.4) [Mute]

After one month of listening to acoustic piano-based music courtesy of the late, great Bill Evans, I stumbled back to the Pan Sonic four-disc box set. Yes, I heard Kesto when I bought it last year, but hearing it after your ears have been tuned only to acoustic music, is like having liquid metal poured into your head. The pain is lacerating but the pleasure unbelievable.

Formed in 1992, Finnish duo, Mika Vainio and Ilpo Vaisanen were originally known as Panasonic. By 1998 and three albums later, the Japanese electronics giant forced a name change on them - Pan Sonic. Known for their garage sensibility, their equipment is cobbled together from spare parts and classic analogue machines, they have created a reputation for moody ambient pieces and experimental techno.

Last heard on 2001's Aaltopiiri album, the band's re-appearance on Kesto (meaning Endurance) could perhaps be a commemoration of their globetrotting years. They have done world tours to the point of exhaustion and this four-disc set seems to be an amalgamation of various influences, for example, Lines on Disc One is a tribute to Japanese noise guitar master, Keiji Haino.

Each disc presents a different mood. Disc One hammers home the industrial sound of Einsturzende Neubauten where found instruments are re-configured as found electronic synth parts. Mayhem I, II, and III leave no space in your brain unturned. Disc Two shows the debt Pan Sonic has to the early industrialists of the '70s, right down to a tribute to British industrial pioneers, Throbbing Gristle, on the track, Throbbing. But the spaces are opening up. Lighter atmospheric, computer beats appear on Light Transformer and on Groundfrost Being.

Disc Three is more expansive. Sewageworld begins with the sound of a toilet flush, after that, there is just an airy emptiness as if you are wandering down the sewer tunnels. Soon, you end up in Corridor, a seemingly white space until the white noise overwhelms you. It's quite clear by this time that Kesto isn't meant as a straightforward listening experience. It's meant to be an ongoing mystery, odd bits that you notice which are enjoyed at odd moments. Disc Four is a 61-minute ambient track called Radiation. You will finish listening to this album, positively glowing. (8) - Philip Cheah


The Sweetness of the Water [Thirsty Ear]

One of the masters of the muted trumpet since the '70s, Wadada Leo Smith is a perfect foil for Spring Heel Jack's fourth avant-jazz foray for the Thirsty Ear label. Filled with ambient-electronic passages by John Coxon and Ashley Wales (of Spring Heel Jack), Smith's subtle blowing sets the reflective tone of the opening tracks, Track Four and Quintet. It's only on cut three, Lata, that fellow avant reedsman, Evan Parker, gets a more frantic out-there sound on his saxophone on this brilliant gospel-tinged number. More reflective beauty awaits on Track One where Smith and Parker interject each other's meditation over Coxon's ghostly repeating piano riff. After the brilliant but cacophonous Masses (2000), the serene joy of The Sweetness of the Water, will leave many free jazz fans thirsting for more. (8) - Philip Cheah


Holy Ghost [Revenant]

Already a rarity, this nine-CD box set kept slipping out of my grasp as I travelled across Europe late last year in search of it. And yes, it is that definitive. Saxophonist Albert Ayler is one of the legends and leaders of free jazz. This box is bookended by his never-before-heard first and last recordings. Rare and unissued recordings from 1962 till his mysterious drowning in 1970 fill this set. Fans will weep just to hear the recording of Ayler playing at John Coltrane's funeral in 1967. There are many versions of Truth Is Marching In and Our Prayer included in this set but the funeral performance defines just why Free Jazz is so powerful. It's about the spirit and the feeling, lifting technique to an unimaginable plane. Free Jazz is about why technique fails when there is no spirit. It's why even Coltrane had his socks knocked off when he heard Ayler walk impromptu onstage at HIS concert and blow the roof off. It's why Ayler's song titles keep referring to spirits, prayer, truth and saints.

This is one guy who walks with the holy ghost. Inspired by spirituals, bugle calls, New Orleans marching bands, blues, swing and bebop, Ayler fused all these voices into a frantic cry for spiritual truth. Some would call that God. The final two CDs has Ayler interviewed by various magazines and radio programmes. In one, he defines jazz improvising as the cry of the oppressed, the sound of the suffering. He also recounted how audiences would flee from clubs after the band started playing. The truth always hurts. Albert Ayler had a lot of it. (9) - Philip Cheah


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