Welcome once again to our irregular round up of the most interesting, odd and sometimes weird but always worth your valuable attention, new album releases. This week’s choices include the transcendental zither paeans of Laraaji and Brian Eno (a reissue on the Glitterbeat Records label); the return of the idiosyncratic fluctuating vocalist Joanna Newsom; the gospels re-tweaked and stripped of their hypocrisy according to African-American soul musician KukuKarim Nagi’s Egyptian musical cornucopia, humorously delivered and dispelling the Arab stereotype; the continuing Brian Wilson on a budget explorations of John Lane’s A Journey Of Giraffes; the avant-garde partnership of Faust’s Hans-Joachim Irmler and Einstrüzende Neubatan’s FM Einheit’s latest experiments in organ and percussion; the first and only anthology of Australian vibraphonist and jazz composer Alan Lee; and the withered broken-down Dylan-esque troubadour stories of Robert Chaney.

Joanna Newsom   ‘Drivers’   (Drag City)
23rd October 2015

Still just as quirky; still vocally untethered to convention but perhaps less attached to her velvety woven harp tapestries; Joanna Newsom returns after a five-year lull with a new sumptuous songbook, Drivers.

Depending on your views Newsom’s idiosyncratic vocal fluctuations are either interestingly beguiling or extremely off-putting (even grating). Quivering between warbled kooky phrasing and whimsical arias, Newsom ‘s voice can take some getting used to, especially as she never lets up on most of the tracks (some of these pushing on for seven-minutes or more). But it’s never a dull experience as she takes the listener on a tour of her Bohemian and renaissance style North American fairytale. Whoever the waltzing Pacific and Arctic charting 101st Lightbourne are and whatever the hell the quasi-Nordic sounding “Sapokaniken” means, Newsom not only creates stories but a language and flow all of our own.

The album’s central leitmotif is time, whether as a device to frame unrequited love or as an amorphous measure by which to experiment with, it appears throughout in a sweeping array of codices, laments and paeans. And musically, as on past albums, Newsom skips timelessly into the Baroque and Tudor courts. If that wasn’t bewildering enough, she also performs a dreamy veiled version of The Band’s country myth-making rock on a couple of tunes – especially on that waltzing 101st tale.

Questionably over-running its goodwill on occasion, and though subtly layered and played with swells and crescendos delivered with a light touch, there is little to endear those already turned-off with Newsom’s distinct style. Ambitious and impressive all the same with an array of not only orchestration but also dozens of keyboards and synths (including mellotrons and a Marxophone) beautifully pitched, Drivers moves the sound. It is however a congruous continuation and atelier of the acclaimed Ys.

Monolith Cocktail

Laraaji   ‘Ambient 3: Day Of Radiance’  (Glitterbeat Records)
23rd October 2015

‘I find that people are having a chance to listen to a variety of music I do and some of their eyes are opening to what they call the more spiritual side and some who thought they just liked the spiritual side are getting in touch with the artistic side, and the adventurous, expletory side of myself.’

Number one instrumental in heaven? Certainly a contender, the Day Of Radiance, a set of pulchritude paeans committed to tape at the dawn of the 80s, is touched inspirationally by the afflatus. Performed on the zither by the musical protégé turn stand-up comic, actor and dedicated student of Eastern spiritualism, Edward Larry Gordon, better known under the adopted moniker of Laraaji, and manipulated, crafted and produced by Brian Eno, this diaphanous suite was the third in a series of highly influential Ambient works.

Starting with Music For Airports, and going on to work with Harold Budd on the second volume The Plateaux Of Mirror, before in typical happenstance coming across one of Laraaji’s closed-eyed meditative performances in Washington Square Park, New York, Eno politely suggested that his third installment of ambient series should include the flickering, plucked majesty of the divine. Standing alone, almost out of step, Day Of Radiance isn’t wholly reliant on knowing any of these other Ambient collaborations and volumes. Though a joint venture, the spirit is Laraajis.

Broken into two sections, with the shimmering, ethereal waterfall of interlayering chimes and nuanced gorgeous fluctuating particles ‘The Dance #1-3’ and the transcendental peaceable, near nothingness, of ‘Meditation #1-2’, the album completely relies upon the nodes and interactions between each resonating stroked wave of dancing light and plucked notes to conjure up an evocative pure background to…well, meditate, reflect or just lose one’s self in. Despite its subtitles and ‘ambient’ titling, the first part is almost unrelenting as cascade after cascade leaves no gaps or spaces between those brilliant radiant waves. The blissful and harmonious impulses of chance that are either there or imagined by the listener are the real delight, as each new stroke overlies the next, the reverberations and interchanges creating angelic melodies. Superlatives don’t do it justice, but this is a truly Seraph beauty of an album.

Re-released off the back of a number of Laraaji performances – in fact he was in our very own new adoptive home of Glasgow last week with his sound yoga; part of a European Peace Gardens tour – Day Of Radiance follows on from the world music label of choice, Glitterbeat Records, recent unearthing of lesser known ambient classics. Last year they re-released Eno and Jon Hassell’s venture beyond the Fourth World Vol.1: Possible Musics, and look set to continue with this latest release. Enjoying a renaissance of late, the Los Angles-based Leaving Records is also re-releasing Laraaji’s work, with a trio of recordings including All In One Peace: Lotus Collage from 1978, Unicorns In Paradise from 1981, and from 1983 Connecting With The Inner Healer Through Music.

Time to reacquaint yourselves with a master of the new age and important figure in the uncharted world of ambient and transcendental music; a tranquil, meditative experience waits.

Monolith Cocktail - Kuku

Kuku   ‘Ballads & Blasphemy’   (Buda Musique)

Blessed not by anointed Gods but by the sun-kissed sweet soul of America and rhythms of his native Nigerian homeland, Kuku’s latest collection of songs is a peaceable, sensitive and attentive affair despite its provocative title.

Turning his back on religion at the age of 30, the former US soldier turn singer/songwriter, now living in Paris, has nonetheless found solace in the songs of the oppressed and with gospel music in particularly. To some extent using the spiritual evocations of these powerfully moving psalms and liturgies, Kuku has stripped away the church, temple and mosque and confronted the hypocrisy. Adopting an Agnostic stance but hardly inflaming cries of “blasphemy”, his sixth album neither discredits or pulls the very foundations of believe to the ground. Instead these ballads use a light touch to question unconditional worship, the conflicts it fuels and the disparities that continue to persist between the so-called ‘true followers who get a pass to heaven’ and the unbelievers who go straight to hell shtick.

The gospels according to Kuku –the “areligious gospel” as the LP’s subheading states – begin with the unmistakable drum rhythms of Afrrobeat progenitor and the late Fela Kuti stalwart, Tony Allen. Originally crossing paths at a mutual friend’s wedding, Allen and Kuku prove a congruous partnership (not only performing his legendary skills as a drummer but also in arranging a number of songs on the album) on the earthy, lilting – almost a lullaby – soothed vocal led ‘Wáya’, and on the gentle, shuffling ‘Owo’.

A kind of nocturnal spirit of New Orleans creeps onto the gospel blues of ‘Evil Doers’. Kuku enacts the musical equivalent of garlic, warding off “divine negligence”. With a lower more gravelly baritone he questions the very existence of evil and whether it’s just a cop-out. Those bewitching ‘Orleans vibes also appear on his Sreamin Jay Hawkins prowled take on the traditional gospel song ‘The Last Time’. Translated into French as ‘La Dernière Fois’, Kuku first heard this eulogy to mortality on an episode of True Blood – so moved to feature it, he added his stripped version to an already finished and mastered album. Flowing between his Yoruba roots, English and French, Kuku doesn’t just step in and out of dialects vocally but musically too; hinting as on the beautifully velvety crooned ‘Is It All A Game’ at a kind of 50s doo wop swing, and on the Misja Fitzgerald Michael featured closer ‘If There Is A Heaven’, moving towards plucked Mediterranean crossed with North African acoustic guitar lament.

At the heart of Ballads & Blasphemy lies honesty, and though religion pays a heavy toll, Kuku aims his criticisms at the politicians and authorities, which like their dogma driven counterparts offer little comfort in these traumatic, questionable and anxious times. Rather than wail uncontrollably or berate in anger, Kuku levels his protests in the most pleasant of fashions, his album a most harmonious experience.

Monolith Cocktail

Karim Nagi   ‘Detour Guide’
23rd October 2015

Dispelling stereotypes; putting right misconceptions; the maverick Egyptian musician, orator, DJ and lecturer in his homeland’s culture Karin Nagi seeks to confound critics and the ignorant alike with a humorous musical whirlwind “detour” through the social and geopolitics of the Middle East. Leaving aside his country’s contributions to the ancient Seven Wonders of the World, and the history of the Pharaohs, Nagi confronts a number of more pressing problems: namely mass migration, globalization and the Arab Spring. As he wryly notes on his latest album’s opening narrated ‘Your First Arab’, it’s almost as if the entire news hour is dedicated to them. In light of this and the, as it turned out precarious, events that led to a toppling of many regimes in the Fertile Crescent, those countries that have tenuously come out at the other end of the Arab Spring unscathed remain in a minority. Libya, and Syria, which has turned into a vacuum, plunging the entire region into the most complex civil and international war of attrition (used now as a front in a new proxy cold war between Europe, the USA and Russia) would be two of the worst examples however of what can go wrong. Hardly a smooth transaction of power, Egypt is functioning but still teetering, whilst other regimes look to solidify their tight grip with totalitarian terror.

With all this in mind and as a light-hearted response, Nagi attempts to spin out the positives and counter the West’s suspicions, unease, and in some quarter, hostility. The fetishized images of the noble Bedouin sheik, the kowtowing subordinate to the great white masters of antiquity and desert exploring hero, the belly dancing beauty of carnal esoteric knowledge and the shifty Bazaar trader peddling either magic carpets (more of that in a minute) or tat, appear everywhere in popular Western culture. And in some cases they certainly exist but on this unveiled cornucopia of delights these characters are brought up-to-date. Ribbed for example with adroit observational oration by Nagi, the gypsy caravan swaying ‘Oriental Magic Carpet’ song and the hypnotic ‘Reorientalism’ both take on the West’s fascination with the “Orient” catch-all term; used to denote anything from – and between – Morocco to Japan, and south of the European borders. Nagi turns these lazy clichés into a grand tour of the lands that gave birth to the Arabian fairytales of Ali Baba and The Forty Thieves.

Rebukes and misconception exist on both sides however, with a duo of observational meanders on the Disney-fied, streets paved with gold mirage of his native Egyptians and bedfellows; the ones tuned into the hype of the American dream, where opportunities are legion, the breaks awaiting every hardworking citizen of the world who makes it across the Atlantic. ‘Earn Learn Return’ puts paid to this with the augur of someone who’s lived it: “But even though it is democratic, it is not automatic. And not everyone succeeds in this diaspora. The competition is intense, competition for the highest positions, and for the welfare assistance.” Baladi TukTuk’ sees a reverse in fortunes, the disillusioned qualified immigrant “serving canned hummus” so fed up with his lot he returns back to Cairo; his diploma worthless in the USA, he finds solace and respect back on the streets of his hometown, doing up and running his “tuktuk” motor rickshaw taxi service.

Sauntering, sometimes in an entranced and in a whirling Dervish motion, Nagi channels a cacophony of sounds both ancestral and modern into his backtrack accompaniment. Cairo’s humid bustling streets, packed bazaars and deserts are evoked with the traditional instruments familiar to the region bending to the will and flow of Nagi’s prose. Already reimagining Arabic music with House and Trance beats under the Turbo Tabla nom de plume; Nagi strips back to a more authentic sound, harnessing both a number of percussive instruments and drums as well as the snake charmer’s flute. An exception to this is the R&B, Afrofuturist vibes like travail ‘Heart Full Of Cairo’; drifting and hazily wooed by the beguiling vocalist Pleasant Gehman. Lamentingly sad, this sensual homage to the Egyptian capital is the album’s most dreamy and sorrowful, though hints at a twinkly-eyed fuzzy warmth of return.

An ambitious undertaking – which we’re told will be performed out on the road from beginning to end – this unique, richly underscored, album is full of well-intentioned satire. Laying to rest a whole host of clichés but willing to take the mickey out of his own stereotypic fellow countrymen and women, the Detour Guide opens up and celebrates a multifaceted world.

A Journey Of Giraffes   ‘Sandy Point’

Still hooked on recreating a Pet Sounds era Beach Boys meets The High Llamas’ Cold And Bouncy soundtrack, John Lane takes his modest lo fi reappraisal into far more experimental climes on his latest album. Under the zoological A Journey Of Giraffes moniker, Lane has dared to dream bigger; recording his most ambitious work yet. His aquatically mysterious halcyon psych pop and surf noir project is stretched out, transmogrified and cut up into a number of, for the most part, concentrate segments. Brought together they amorphously paint a bigger picture.

As the introductory oration outlines, Sandy Point, through a series of sound collages, field recordings and minor d.i.y. Casio keyboard symphonies bring to musical life the sketches and meandering notes of a lighthouse keeper protagonist: solitary, carrying out his “dutiful” work, as the world around him loses itself in two world wars. Travailing the blueprint Beach Boys but this time adding dreamy hints of The Millennium, Harry Nilsson, the Flaming Lips and the Olivia Tremor Control to the feel, Lane goes further in creating some strange vibrations. Joined in his obscured ebbs and flowing narratives by a chorus of willing helpers on sound effects, dozing vocals and atmospherics duties, the abstract at times and woozy storytelling is piqued throughout with reference point sounds and familiarity.

Sweeping collages of both whimsical and plaintive moods allude to the songs titles, with ‘The Lunar Effects Of The Tide’ reaching the shoreline to the warning sounds of a ship’s foghorn, whilst ‘The Sea Monsters In Autumn’ is a suitable plunge into the murky depths and rain swept coves of a serpent’s lair – more Pete’s Dragon or Nessie than a raging ferocious beast of the deep by the sound of it.

Sandy Point is Lane’s most grandiose album project yet, even if it’s still delivered in hush, placid and lo fi tones.

Monolith Cocktail - Robert Chaney

Robert Chaney   ‘Cracked Picture Frames’
(Jagged Line Records)   
23rd October 2015

Despite his South Florida roots the tormented and lovesick troubadour Robert Chaney finds his solace in the shadows: Not for him the sunny disposition of the Florida Keys, Glades and party central Miami, Chaney is drawn instead towards the Southern Gothic literature of Cormac McCarthy and Carson McCullers and the new wave cinema of Truffaut and Goddard. Sparingly minimal with just the tremolo, reverb and resonance of an electric or acoustic guitar to keep him company, Chaney’s storytelling is more suited to the rustic bowls of the Mid West or Mexican border.

Learning much it seems from the doyens of the baby boomer American folk scene, Buffy Saint Marie (whom Chaney has supported live) and Bob Dylan, Chaney ‘s timeless maladies sound like a continuation of their good work. Imbued with John Wesley Harding era Dylan but sounding throughout his stark new album like a rural Jeff Buckley and Townes Van Zandt (and even a young Loudon Wainwright III), he traverses the blues, country and myths of the great American songbook -though steeped in that unmistakable atmosphere, Cracked Picture Frames was recorded in London at the Regal Lane studio.

Playing earnestly with the themes of redemption, tragedy and how to say, “I love you”, the songs on this album don’t so much suggest or say anything we haven’t heard before but they do sound honest for once. Harrowing and plaintive, the stories on this album all gently unfold with only the occasional upper peak counter wails as his cast often lose their great loves or lives. Bleakly following destiny in a modern retelling of the Long Black Veil type chain of events style lament, Chaney’s lovelorn protagonist is condemned (though this time serving a ten-year stretch rather than hung) whilst saving the name and reputation of his love tryst on ‘The Cyclist’, but re-imagined in the role of natural fauna and wildlife (a humming bird to a rose bush) on the lo fi springier country paean ‘Birds And Bees’, confessing strange metaphors pledges of love.

Darker allusions to abuse and the forgotten victims of tragic consequence are abound on the album’s Californian set ‘Corazones Amarillios’ and the starling series of sinful acts ‘The Ballad Of Edward And Lisa’. The first of these muses on the fading memories of a forgotten school bus crash – the driver ironically swerving to avoid a mother on the road but ending up in a ditch at the side of the road and killing his child passengers – whilst the second runs through the brutal abuses and murderous intents of a cast of religious hypocrites in unflinching condemnation.

Whilst many have walked this line over the decades, with a million Dylan fans unable to equal let alone improve or better their hero, Robert Chaney does considerably well, offering a sophisticated, sparse, adroit take on the continuing trials and tribulations (both mythically and real) of America: the toil hard won and isolated to the sound of just his battered, worn out guitar and voice.

Monolith Cocktail

FM Einheit + Irmler   ‘Bestandteil’  (Klangbad Records)
30th October 2015

Once again bringing together two of Germany’s most industrious avant-garde musicians, FM Einheit and Hans-Joachim Irmler, for another extemporized suite of experimental sound collages, the Bestandeil album follows on from the partnership’s last outing into (reasonably) uncharted waters, 2009’s No Apologies. Obviously both busy men, with the Einstrüzende Neubatan percussionist Einhart composing various signatures and compositions for radio, and Irmler, not only recording with a host of other artists/bands, but still bashing out music under his version of the Faust beast (it’s a complicated arrangement but in theory two versions of the indomitable Teutonic band exist simultaneously, with former comrades-in-arms Péron and ‘Zappi’ producing work under an alternative Faust banner).

Over the past three years however, they’ve met up at Irmler’s Faust studios, recording each of their eight finished articles of exploratory music over two day stretches. Constructing then deconstructing before once again reconstructing, both musicians explore the abstract relationship between percussion and the organ. Irmler for his part transduces his ominous, often foreboding, and unworldly keys through various creepy bestial and distorted effects, whilst Einheit, using the famous bass-spring he invented and first implemented so well on those Einstrüzende Neubatan albums he worked on, offers disjointed brushed drum breaks, scuttling percussive alien strangeness and left-over orchestral sound snippets.

Often evoking the daemonic and unseen – the opening ‘Reset’ features what sounds like something skeletal, slithering about in the subterranean – with long drawn out suffused ambient builds, the duo sometimes break out of the labyrinth or dystopian futurescapes to fashion Kosmiche style jazz and Howie B machination Hip Hop.

Whether enacting a modern scene of chaotic ‘Streetlife’ hustle bustle with Byzantine heralding horns, playing an ever increasingly abrasive eulogy organ progression in the gutted-out church of Popol Vuh on ‘M’, or swinging on a vine through the brass section of a MGM epic movie score with ‘The Taking’, the duo wonder into some unsuspecting places and moods: somehow all these “components” gel.

Bestandteil is a strange hybrid of ideas; a soundtrack for an array of shifting landscapes and stories that pushes the relationship between the artist’s chosen instruments. A modified world that still relies upon but changes the tone and sound of traditional instruments – the album also includes the piano, xylophone and various brass – this cut-up sound collage of ideas won’t break down any walls or cross many new boundaries, but will traverse some interesting ideas.

Monolith Cocktail

Alan Lee   ‘An Australian Jazz Anthology’  (Jazzman Records)
30th October 2015

It shouldn’t really come as a surprise that Australia turns out to have been a seething hotbed of jazz during the 60s and 70s – and for all I know, continues in that grand tradition. Remote true. Cut off perhaps from the jazz’s roots and homeland, and in many ways transmogrified by England and Europe, the down under scene nevertheless flourished unabated. You can hear it in the incredibly bright, attentive and often swinging interpretations of the classics by the vibraphonist and bandleader Alan Lee. Touching upon a whole host of developments and key movements within the jazz cannon, from modal to soul jazz and chamber, the adroit Lee (who could more or less turn his hand to any instrument) wooed and amazed audiences in both his native city Melbourne and Sydney. Fairly unknown, leaving only a scattering of recordings as arranger and leader during his golden years, a study of his work has only just been produced by the chroniclers of jazz music’s most sacred and obscure masters, Jazzman Records.

The first and only compilation then, An Australian Anthology compiles a worthy testament to the astonishing recordings he made during a brief 1973/74 timespan as a bandleader with The Alan Lee Jazz Quartet. From the first of two albums he recorded for Jazznote in ’73 and ‘74, there is the light-hearted deep modal version of ‘Love Song’ and blooming awakened floral riff on the hard bop and modern jazz trumpet genius Freddie Hubbard’s ‘Sunflower’. The second of this duo (recorded under the added band title of “And Friends”) The Smilor, lends a trio of tunes to the collection; including a seriously cool loose funky, soul jazz, opus of WAR’s ‘The World Is A Ghetto’, a louche 50s style cocktail bar crooned skipping ‘Flying Saucer’ and the coquettish slinky version of the Milt Jackson-penned ‘Enchanted Lady’.

Sandwiched in-between these two original albums, Lee made an extraordinary chamber/operatic suite for Bruce Clarke’s jazz sub label Cumquat Records. Fellow Australian jazz musician Clarke had worked with enough luminaries already (Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz) before producing this record. Creating an environment within which Lee could stretch his talented vibraphone skills and arranging further, the Gallery Concerts suite offers a tantalizing array of the most classy avant-garde and classical compositions. Lee takes on the enfant terrible of ballet, Igor Stravinsky’s – once thought highly inflammatory and controversial – Rites Of Spring; reimagining the ‘Dance Of The Adolescents’ as a fired-up maelstrom of percussion and organ; an electric jazz jam between Miles Davis and Sun Ra – may does it fly and bounce; a phenomenal cut and one of the best tracks off this whole compilation. Also from that sophisticated, and possibly his best, album there is the warbled grandiose version of the Brazilian composer Heitor Vila-Lobos’ ‘Bachianas Brasilieiras No.5’ and the teary-eyed aria ‘Bailero’, both featuring the quivering beatific vocals of Jeannie Lewis to evoke both South American vistas and heavenly realms.

As Lee himself put its, “What I want is the fire! Whether it’s John Coltrane’s Blues Minor from Africa Brass or Backwater Blues by Leadbelly, I want the emotion, the gut-wrenching pain, the cry from within!” No one can claim he hasn’t achieved that, his welcome anthology an emotional force of nature, absorbing all the best parts and musicianship of jazz music’s greats. Not just a revelation but also an essential addition to the library.

Words:  Dominic Valvona

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