Saxophonist/keyboard-player/composer Ilhan Ersahin, the "organizer" of the albums, set out to explore and extend the dissemination of musical styles and cultures over thousands of years to the present. He has done this by journeying to Europe, Asia and South America to create a trilogy of albums based in three geographical and cultural centres, employing "a shifting configuration of personnel and instrumentation". The result is as close as I've heard to a musical distillation of all that is interesting about truly cosmopolitan, truly urban 21st-century locales, whilst avoiding sentimentality and "world music" clichés.
Istanbul opens with "Dreamland", in which Pink Floyd meets temple singing meets street bazaar meets blues dance meets underground dance club. If you think that shouldn't work, I think you'd be right. It shouldn't. But it does. It has to be heard to be believed. "Striptease in Istanbul" is a fusion of trance, dance, trip-hop, dub, ambient and something else. The "something else" was partly defined for me by my charming lunch companion last week who, having been left in my car for a few minutes with the track "Hoppola" playing, announced, "I don't know what that woman is singing about, but it's filthy."
The female vocals on the album are reminiscent of – and easily as good as – Bjork's, but with an added sensuality and soulfulness, employed to great effect on the track "Istanbul Can Be Dub". "Watching Me Watching You", with its slightly unnerving speech samples had me racking my brains for the source of my feeling of déjà vu, and finally took me back to the opening of Kate Bush's "Waking the Witch".
Copenhagen delivers global eclecticism with a more Western, rock-based flavour, which is less to my taste, but still with the same level of quality, and may well be more accessible and appealing to the mainstream US and European markets as well as those drawn to Indie and avant-garde sounds. The opening track, "U and I" manages to reconcile bitter, cynical lyricism with stadium rock, reggae, and experimental pop. "Under the Sun", with its languid female vocals and haunting melodic hooks is reminiscent of the Stranglers in the later, more reflective phase. "Beauty" occupies the interface between Portishead and Tricky, reconciling the ethereal qualities of the former with the harsh lyrical realities and more brutal bass-lines of the latter. NYC is a triumph of unlikely fusions. Think the soundtracks to Twin Peaks in harmony with back-alley blues and reggae; become confused; listen to the track; become enlightened.
Brasil takes the best that the Brazilian pop tradition has to offer – great dance beats and beautiful melodic hooks – and shows you where it came from and where it's heading. "Dolar a Dolar", which concludes the album, marries West African rhythms with tech loops, salsa, jazz, dance, and rap with accomplished close-harmony male vocals. Like the album as a whole, this produces offspring showing just how contemporary urban music and ancient cultures that have migrated and populated nations and cultures are related, and just how they are forging new, youthful and experimental identities.
The trilogy overall gives the impression of revealing ancient musical and poetic sources in a cutting edge style. Some bands spend months in the studio and in production, building layer upon layer of sound to get something approximating to the level of vibrancy and complexity which Wax Poetic delivers with apparent ease and raw immediacy. This is what happens when the pop-star retires for the evening, or passes out, and the real musicians jam.
It is clear from this trilogy that Ilhan Ersahin is an incredibly talented songwriter and a generous collaborative musician. He has co-written Norah Jones' new single "Thinking About You" from her album Not Too Late, which was initially intended as a Wax Poetic song, and is the result of a long-standing collaborative relationship between the two artists dating to when Ersahin was signed to Atlantic.
Wax Poetic will tour this summer. If you are lucky enough to be able to attend one of their concerts, I strongly recommend you do so. Based on these albums, I cannot fault them.
July 1st The Yard , Gowanus Canal, Brooklyn
July 2-6th Nublu, NYC
July 7th Montreal Festival