Here's a scenario that repeats itself once if not several times a year. A pop star releases an album, one that contains a super-catchy single. Despite the continuing decline of CD sales, this artist's record sells millions of copies. Meanwhile, musicians "obviously" far more deserving are left to create their sonics in relative obscurity. For some reason (Okay, no doubt many reasons), pop music "non-fans" are incensed by this.
Why? Does it really matter if Justin Timberlake's Futuresex/Lovesounds makes its way into four million hands while almost nobody has ever heard of Sean Noonan? Hey, my ears don't care, why should yours? We can hope for a widening of interests in the general listening public but that's just not likely to happen. Like change within governments, listening habits tend to put up with incremental shifts only.
It’s interesting though, how very different musics can find their way into seemingly innocuous trends. Just look at the Norah Jones phenomenon. A cursory listen to her music can yield the simplified result of: smooth, laid-back, female balladeer. A more focused look though, reveals country, jazz, blues, and r&b influences. It's enough to make a person think that just maybe the listening public is smarter than we realize. But is that public forward-thinking enough to sign on with an album that incorporates elements of Irish music, jazz, and music of various Middle Eastern and African nations? For Sean Noonan's sake, let's hope so.
Noonan's band Brewed By Noon — originally comprised of Noonan on drums, Thierno Camara (vocals/bass), and guitarists Jon Madof and Aram Bajakian — was expanded for the Stories To Tell sessions to include vocalists Susan McKeown, Abdoulaye Diabaté, and Dawn Padmore, Jim Pugliese (percussion), Mat Maneri (violin), and guitarist Marc Ribot. I'll be honest here that I'm often very skeptical of bands employing a large cast of guest musicians. It seems as though group chemistry can suffer despite the higher sum total of musicianship. Well, that was a needless concern here. In fact, it would have been difficult to pull off this melange of styles without moving beyond the original group core.
So what does all of this sound like? At times, like Ali Farka Touré-meets-Ornette Coleman's Prime Time, though you have to substitute Marc Ribot for Bern Nix. This characterization is particularly evident on songs like "Connection" and "Esspi." That groove is not the only style here. The shifty shuffle of "NY" surprises by breaking into full-on joyous noisemaking. In direct contrast is "Pineapple," a love song that's full of slow burning funk. This is again offset by the volcanic "Scabies," with Ribot leading the way with plenty of blistering 6-string abuse.
Sean Noonan states in the promotional material that he wants to "…continue to learn more about my Gaelic roots and brew them with West African improvisation." "Noonbrews" perfectly illustrates that concept. Billed as an Irish/Malian duet, vocalist Susan McKeown is featured early on until Abdoulaye Diabaté takes over. By that time the music has accelerated from its initial lilting tempo to an aggressive and sinister guitar-reliant fusion — all of which drops away to reveal one last acapella vocal line. Amazing stuff.
Now, for the four million or so Justin Timberlake CD owners, a take home assignment: get yourself a copy of Stories To Tell and play "Urban Mbalax" immediately after "SexyBack." Nice, eh?
Stories To Tell owners? You do the same.