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Music Review: Indie Round-Up – J.J. Appleton, Gandalf Murphy, Gary Morgan and PanAmericana!

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J.J. Appleton, Black & White Matinee

Every so often a little jewel of a CD comes along. J.J. Appleton's new six-song disc falls short of full-length, but merits more than the foreshortened "EP" badge. At 24 golden minutes, it seems the perfect length.

It opens with its "single," an old-fashioned term that still means something, at least symbolically. "Today Today Today" is certainly a catchy pop nugget; so is the title track, which nods to 1950s rock-and-roll. Appleton does this sort of rosy-cheeked pop as well as anyone, wearing his Beatles influence (mostly John, a touch of George) not like a heavy cloak but more like a shimmering shirt.

A more soulful take on pop sweetness is "Coming Back Alone." Its loping, gospel-influenced piano groove and soaring melody remind me a lot of Kevin So. In the gentle ballad "You're Sweet On Him," a smooth, jazz-folk melody slithers atop a Brazilian-style acoustic guitar accompaniment. "Caledonia Road" with its dark-toned verses and burst-of-sunlight chorus resembles something by Van Morrison or Martin Sexton. But though the songs vary in style, Appleton's strong musical personality carries through.

Gandalf Murphy & the Slambovian Circus of Dreams, The Great Unravel

I caught this band live last year and they instantly became one of my favorite acts. "Funny, deep, psychedelic, lyrical, and rootsy," I called them. Their new disc does nothing to change that.

The 13-song set is put forth as a celebration of the connectedness of all things, but it's equally a beautiful complaint against injustice wherever it is found. In the titanic opening track, "Desire," songwriter Joziah Longo rails against "terrorizing strangers knocking downstairs at our door," but in the gorgeous "Tink (I Know It's You)," love wins out: "Now that I can see / You're still here with me / We can take the reins and beat this thing together… We can merge in time / with the Great Divine / and we can build a world for all the lost and lonely."

This is no "dull sublunary lovers' love" but a transcendence of injustice and pain by means of human contact. Cosmic stuff. There are excellent songs on the second half of the disc, too, notably the catchy "Everyone Has a Broken Heart" and the hypnotic "Light a Way." But quoting lyrics doesn't give a sense of the lush yet elemental arrangements of these songs or their womblike melodies. Listen to some and then see if you don't want to pick up this CD as soon as it comes out.

Gary Morgan and PanAmericana!, Felicidade

My first serious music gig was with a swing band, and I've loved big-band music ever since. Combine the depth and tonal variety of a full jazz orchestra with Brazilian beats and flavors, and you've got something quite delicious.

Gary Morgan's orchestrations – of his own tunes as well as those by Brazilian composers like Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Eça – range from propulsive to lyrical and everything in between. Adding French horns and Latin percussion to the standard saxes, brass, and rhythm section, Morgan creates masterful arrangements that rarely sound self-consciously virtuosic. Typically, every touch contributes to the musicality, even when bursts of brass power interrupt dreamy soundscapes, as in "Reflexos," or when he slows a bossa nova to a languid crawl in "Tudo Bem."

Besides "Tudo Bem," "Pedra Vermelha" is the second centerpiece of the set. Morgan orchestrated the existing arrangement by the composer, Itiberê Zwarg, whom Morgan is championing. It's a feathery, scintillating piece inspired by the Brazilian mountain of the title; judging from the jumpy music, Pedra Vermelha sounds like a place of bright waterfalls and scudding clouds. The piece even shades away from jazz and into a modern classical vein.  This dics's going right on my jazz shelf.

Hear samples and buy.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. He writes the blog Park Odyssey, for which he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City—over a thousand of them. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. By night he's a working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.