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Music Review: Harry Manx & Kevin Breit – Strictly Whatever

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Harry Manx has spent years fusing eastern musical traditions with the blues, switching effortlessly between the conventional (guitars, harmonica, and banjo) and the decidedly different (the mohan veena, a 20-stringed instrument invented by Manx’ Indian spiritual mentor). Kevin Breit, the cerebral guitarist for the likes of Norah Jones—he’s also recorded with artists as diverse as Celine Dion and Lou Reed—can wring virtually any sound out of any stringed instrument. Here, he plays various guitars, lap slide, ukulele, mandolin, and electric sitar.

Together, the two are more than capable of musical weirdness, the kind of brainy music that’s quite simply beyond most audiences. But while there are fascinating sounds and aural textures scattered throughout Strictly Whatever, the duo’s second recorded collaboration, for the most part they remain firmly rooted, with the results being a delightful collection of rootsy tunes that appeal to both the heart and the intellect.

True, no one would mistake Breit’s aptly-named “Hippy Trippy” for an emotionally direct blues tune. But it does at least have a tune, though it’s more likely to evoke a carton from space than anything earthy. But the cover of Bobby Hebb’s “Sunny” that opens the disc is simple and straightforward, and it’s quite simply a great song.

Breit’s playful side re-emerges with the endearing “Little Ukelele,” but the bulk of his compositions adhere to more conventional structures and themes, while Manx, as usual, searches for Truth (with a capital ‘T’, if you please) and meaning. He’s responsible for the easygoing groove of “Mr. Lucky,” sounding a bit like a lost J.J. Cale tune, and the slightly spooky arrangement of “Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep” (from a poem by Mary Elizabeth Frye) which is possessed of both wisdom and grace, as is session closer “Carry My Tears Away.”

Other than percussionist Art Avalos, it’s just the two string wizards, contributing more or less equally to the playlist—Breit gets one extra credit—and alternating vocal duties, their voices a study on contrast but both equally effective.

Anyone with an interest in progressive folk/bluegrass/roots music will find this outing mesmerizing, with lots of quirks and otherworldly effects to stimulate the synapses. But it’s also an earthy, appealing set that, if not exactly the ideal soundtrack to a dance party, nonetheless sets the toes to tapping with catchy rhythms and insidious hooks that sink deeper with each listen.

Interesting stuff indeed, this one’s a little different but highly recommended.

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