Chris Schutz + Tourists, Gemini
There's a lot more to Chris Schutz's sound than the Radiohead-like thrumming bass and plaintive single-note guitar pinches of "White Lady," the opening track on his debut disc. Schutz's voice comes at you as if from a cave beneath your feet and somehow says "postmodern," but the simple fact that you're hearing a good song keeps you listening. Next comes "Spinning Wheel" with its fast pop pulse and organ-heavy wall of sound, clocking in at under 2 minutes 20 seconds, and the folky, vaguely tropical "Continental Drifter" which reads like a cross between the Drifters (title no accident?) and the Mamas and the Papas.
Other songwriting styles and beats drift through the rest of the disc: a swirl of reggae-soul, south of the border trumpets, country-western swagger, a Squeeze-like jauntiness. Slightly muted, echoey production sweeps through everything, reflecting Schutz's use of analog equipment and his 60s-influenced aesthetic. The latter is evident in titles like "Tripping the Bit" and "So High" with its not one but two deceptively simple two-chord hooks alternating with chunky, Kinks-like surprise changes and completely unexpected sax solo.
All tied together by Schutz's honeyed voice and the vintage sounds he and his band prefer, the disc closes with a contemplative acoustic number and a power ballad that sounds like Roy Orbison meeting the Beatles. Like many of the songs, they each bear an unexpected change or two. And that's what this excellent album – definitely one of the top pop debuts of the year – is all about: solid but dreamy pop that does much more than just float by.
Easter Monkeys, Splendor of Sorrow
Easter Monkeys ravaged Cleveland in the early 1980s with drug-addled, slightly psychedelic punk rock. Their album Splendor of Sorrow has been re-released, nicely remastered, and packaged with extras including live tracks and a concert DVD that will definitely please fans. Despite the bleary vocals and anything-goes sensibility, this foursome could play, and this is quite a fun listen if you're in the right mood: loose, goofy, unjaded. It may have helped, in my case, that I never heard of the band before and knew nothing about them except what's in the liner notes, which are themselves thirteen years old.
I have been to several Cleveland rock clubs, though. Even played in a few. I've seen American Splendor. And it does all make a stinky kind of sense. This rocking, jangling, funny music, of a type I don't normally listen to, has grown on me. Like mold in a damp underground club.
Various Artists, Jazz Around the World from Putumayo World Music
Ahhhh… everything's OK. Feels like it anyway.
Must be a Putumayo CD in the stereo.
This time around it's Jazz Around the World, featuring artists from all over (but especially Africa and Europe) performing or at least touching on America's classical music: jazz. Appropriately enough it starts out with Montreal's Chantal Chamberland singing "La Mer" in the original French, her husky alto preparing us for a journey through worlds of cool. Flecks of neo-soul dot the almost disturbingly unthreatening vocal and guitar stylings of Cameroon's Blick Bassy. Djelli Moussa Diawara, who hails from Guinea, applies his kora skills to a Cuban tune as part of the Kora Jazz Trio. Mexico-based group Sherele jazzes up traditional klezmer. Artists better known in the West are represented too: Hugh Masekela teams with singer Malaika and a South African chorus for "Open the Door," which crosses gospel with Afropop. (It's a bit of a stretch to call this particular number "jazz.") And fusion legend Billy Cobham appears with the Cuban group Asere.
Putumayo discs are always likable and almost always relaxing; but some of the choices on this one feel, if anything, excessively safe. Nonetheless it's certainly a pleasant listen and would make a fine stocking stuffer for most world music or jazz fans.
Tom White, Voices from Corn Mountain – Instrumental Music Featuring the Hammered Dulcimer
While Putumayo travels the world in search of music that's both exotic and pleasant to Western ears, your intrepid reviewer has to drive only a few hours north of New York City to work with producer, recording engineer, and multi-instrumentalist Tom White, who kindly gave me a copy of his recent CD. The disc is loaded with instrumental pieces featuring the hammered dulcimer, one of the many instruments of which he is a master. (Tom also plays guitar, fiddle, mandolin, tin whistle, flutes, two different banjos, concertina, and percussion, and that's just on this one CD.) The tunes are a mix of traditional Celtic dances and originals. Email Tom at wizmak at a-oh-ell dot com for information on ordering a copy of this beautiful and unusual recording.