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Anne Simoni “Minas Terra”

17 Nov, 2010 Alex Henderson

Brazil is the largest country in South America, and a country so huge is bound to have a wide variety of music.  Indeed, there are many different rhythms and musical styles to be found in Brazil, including samba, bossa nova, choro, forró, baião, axé, embolada, frevo, tropicália (also known as tropicalismo), maracatu and sertaneja (which is arguably the closest thing Brazil has to Mexican ranchera).  So if a vocalist is offering Brazilian pop, there are quite a few different possibilities when it comes to influences and inspirations. On Minas Terra, Brazilian singer/songwriter Anne Simoni brings a variety of influences to her MPB (which, in Portuguese, standards for música popular brasileira or Brazilian popular music).  During the course of this 41-minute CD, Simoni incorporates everything from samba on “Unidos da Lavra” and “Samba da Preguiça” to baião on “Papagaio” to bossa nova on “Back to Brazil” and the caressing “Espera.”  And there are American influences as well on this album; like so many MPB vocalists, Simoni’s music expresses influences by jazz, soul and funk.  Simoni’s funkiness on the more uptempo selections, however, is not in-your-face or an aggressive, but rather, a subtle, smooth, restrained funkiness.  She won’t shout to get one’s attention, although her use of understatement doesn’t prevent her from being expressive on charming tracks such as “Este Sentimento,” “Longe de Mim,” “Áquas de Cambuquira” and “Retrato da Cidade.”

Minas Terra was a very hands-on project for Simoni, a native of the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais who has lived in the United States since 1998.  In addition to producing Minas Terra, Simoni wrote or co-wrote all of the songs, played some guitar and helped with the mixing and arranging.  She obviously had a clear idea of what she wanted when she entered the studio.  Of course, taking a hands-on approach doesn’t mean much if an album’s material is weak or flawed, but Simoni’s material is consistently appealing whether she is writing in her native Portuguese or English.  Actually, only two of the CDs’s 11 tracks are in English, “Choose to Believe” and “Back to Brazil.”  When Simoni switches from Portuguese to English, her vocals do hint at the jazzy British R&B/pop singer Sade, but still sound Brazilian.  There are certainly plenty of Brazilian artists who can be cited as influences on this album.  As a vocalist, Simoni shows a fondness for Elis Regina, Maria Bethânia, Astrud Gilberto and Ana Carolina; as a songwriter, her inspirations include, among others, Nascimento, Ivan Lins, Djavan, Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso.

And as a producer, Simoni does herself a big favor by going for a more organic production style.  A little electronic programming is used here and there on Minas Terra, but Simoni is wise enough to avoid using it extensively.  Instead, she uses technology sparingly.  Traditional acoustic Brazilian instruments, in fact, are much more prominent than synthesizers or samplers, and the use of Brazilian instruments like the cavaquinho, the pandeiro and the cuíca not only add a lot to the album rhythmically, but they also help to give it a more natural and earthy type of sound.  Technology, one could say, is a side dish on Minas Terra but is far from the main course.

Simoni is not a groundbreaking singer/songwriter, but she is definitely an enjoyable and expressive one. Minas Terra is a consistently absorbing CD from this talented Minas Gerais native.

Reviewed by Alex Henderson
Rating: 4 Stars (out of 5)

Zulayka “Como un Angel/Like an Angel”

08 Nov, 2010 Alex Henderson

In recent years, Latin artists like Shakira, Ricky Martin, Mark Anthony and Jennifer López have crossed over to non-Hispanic, non-Spanish-speaking audiences in a major way.  They accomplished that not by abandoning the Spanish language, but by recording in English as well as in Spanish.  That bilingual approach may ultimately be the key to commercial success for Zulayka, who performs mostly in Spanish on her single, “Como un Ángel (Like an Angel),” but also includes some lyrics in English.  The Brooklyn-raised Puerto Rican vocalist, who now lives in San Diego, has a diverse musical background.  In addition to performing R&B and dance-pop, Zulayka has performed straight-ahead Latin music.  She is an ex-member of the group Conjunto Calle 4 Banda, which focused on the tropical side of Latin music with salsa, merengue and bachata, and released an album titled Estudiando Llegarémos (Studying, We Will Arrive) in 2000.  Zulayka has since become a solo artist, and her crossover instincts yield likable results on the exuberant, synth-driven “Como un Ángel (Like an Angel).”

This enjoyably funky single is dance-pop with elements of salsa, hip-hop and reggaetón.  A hybrid blend of dancehall reggae, hip-hop and Latin music, reggaetón has been especially popular among Caribbean Latinos (Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Cubans) since the 1990s. Reggaetón is really toasting (a type of chanting that reggae fans associate with Jamaican dancehall and its predecessor dubwise) more than rapping, and when Zulayka toasts in a reggaetón style on parts of “Como un Ángel (Like an Angel),” one hears hints of Ivy Queen (Puerto Rico’s leading female reggaetón star).  But toasting is only one of the things that Zulayka does as a vocalist on this single.  Actually, Zulayka favors three different vocal approaches on the same song: she sings, she toasts and she raps.  Zulayka sings and toasts en español but switches over to inglés for the rapped part, and the expressive vocalist sounds quite comfortable with all three.  Zulayka also sounds quite comfortable going from Spanish to English back to Spanish, which is a plus given her crossover leanings.

“Como un Ángel (Like an Angel)” isn’t an exceptional song, but it’s certainly an infectious, catchy, danceable one and could easily work well in a club setting.  Zulayka is worth keeping an eye on.

Review by Alex Henderson
Rating: 3 Stars (out of 5)

Peter Galperin “Perfect World Today”

03 Nov, 2010 Alex Henderson

The music world is full of recordings that strive for bigness in every way: big melodies, big hooks and choruses, big productions.  There is nothing wrong with that approach, but there is also something to be said for subtlety, restraint and understatement.  New York City-based singer/songwriter Peter Galperin (who is originally from the Pacific Northwest) demonstrates that he is fond of subtlety on his album Perfect World Today.  Musically and lyrically, as well as vocally, Galperin is so subtle and so understated that his work doesn’t necessarily jump out at the listener right away.  Someone who isn’t paying really close attention could easily allow this 29-minute, seven-song CD to quietly fade into the background.  But Perfect World Today is not meant to serve as background music, and the more one absorbs his work, the more obvious it becomes that Galperin is a clever lyricist with insightful and interesting things to say.

Galperin’s material is adult alternative pop-rock with elements of jazz and world music (including Latin, African and Caribbean music).  No one will mistake Galperin for a hardcore jazz vocalist such as Mark Murphy, Ian Shaw, Jon Hendricks or Kurt Elling.  Adult alternative is the CD’s dominant element, but the jazz influence is definitely there.  And arguably, the type of jazz that has affected his pop-rock the most is cool jazz, which is essentially a laid-back, relaxed, quietly introspective approach to bop.  Galperin, who produced and engineered this album in April 2010 and wrote all of the songs by himself, is equally laid-back and relaxed.  Even though he won’t shout, scream or yell to grab one’s attention, he gets his points across while singing about sexual enhancement products on “Brand New Gadget,” the search for quality coffee on “A Decent Cup” and the travel industry on “Wonders of the World.”

A dry sense of humor is one of his strongest assets.  On the overtly political “Action Figure Hero,” for example, he has a healthy laugh at the expense of so-called “neoconservatism” and U.S. foreign policy.  “Action Figure Hero” could have turned into an angry, in-your-face protest song, a la Public Enemy, Rage Against the Machine, and Ani DiFranco, but that isn’t Galperin’s style.  He would rather use mild sarcasm and his dry sense of humor to explain why he doesn’t think much of neocons or the U.S. military actions in developing countries.  Even though “Action Figure Hero” makes some of the same points that Rage Against the Machine made on their 1996 hit “Bulls on Parade,” he makes them in a totally different fashion.  The dry humor also prevails on “Wonders of the World” and “Perfect World Today,” a commentary on the blandness and sterility of American suburbia.

Galperin employs a Brazilian bossa nova beat on “Hey, Little One” and the dark, moody “You Know It’s Over,” which is about a romantic relationship that ends in violence.  “You Know It’s Over” isn’t jazz per se, but is a good example of how jazz can influence adult alternative pop-rock.  Bossa nova, of course, gained popularity in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when João Gilberto, Stan Getz, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Astrud Gilberto, Charlie Byrd and others combined cool jazz with Brazilian samba; Galperin is obviously well aware of that part of jazz history and Brazilian history, and he sees no reason why that history cannot influence someone with an adult alternative pop-rock orientation.  Nor does he hesitate to incorporate elements of Afro-Cuban salsa on “Action Figure Hero” and “Wonders of the World” or African pop (that is, pop from Sub-Saharan Africa rather than Arabic North Africa) on “A Decent Cup.”

Perfect World Today is a consistently appealing demonstration of Galperin’s skills as a singer/songwriter, and a completely worthy listen.

Review by Alex Henderson
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Carrie Armitage “The Legend of The Free”

25 Oct, 2010 Alex Henderson

Carrie Armitage is not a newcomer to the music world. Her first album, In Search of Simplicity, came out in 1996, and this Canadian singer/songwriter’s 14 years of recording have demonstrated that she is hard to pigeonhole. Stylistically, Armitage’s vocal-oriented recordings are comparable to Enya, Tori Amos, Lisa Gerrard (of Dead Can Dance fame), Beth Orton and Kate Bush. But Armitage, who plays piano and keyboards in addition to singing, producing and composing, has also recorded as an instrumentalist, offering ambient electronica exclusively on some of her previous albums.

So where does Armitage’s 2010 release, The Legend of the Free, fit in? This vocal-oriented outing is probably best described as adult alternative pop-rock with elements of ambient, new age, world music, classical, jazz and even R&B.  Although The Legend of the Free is by no means an R&B or straight-ahead jazz album in the strict sense, some of Armitage’s vocal phrasing does show some R&B and jazz influence, especially when she gets into wordless performances and hits the higher notes. Armitage has obviously absorbed some R&B and jazz along the way. In fact, her father was a jazz pianist/big band leader, and her mother was a jazz vocalist who sang in her father’s band. So even though Armitage is stylistically closer to Enya, Bush, and Amos than Erykah Badu or Jill Scott, that exposure to jazz and R&B has added a touch of funkiness to her work.

Being exposed to a wide variety of music along the way has clearly worked to Armitage’s creative advantage, and one of the impressive things about The Legend of the Free is her ability to incorporate all of those different influences without ever sounding unfocused or confused. The Legend of the Free never fails in focus, and shows how much Armitage has grown and developed as an artist since In Search of Simplicity. Although In Search of Simplicity was generally likable and had its moments, it was uneven. The Legend of the Free, in contrast, is a more consistent and confident-sounding album.

Armitage has long favored an ethereal approach, and her knack for ethereal melodies and harmonies is quite appropriate given the new age imagery that is plentiful on lush offerings such as “Peace Hope Trust Love,” “Looking Out on the World,” “This Special Place” and “An Eye to the Sky.” Most singer/songwriter albums stick to romantic themes, but on The Legend of the Free Armitage opts to sing about nature, ecology and the environment. Her environmental concerns make their presence felt on “A Warning Heeded: Lights in the Water,” “Commonality” and “Progress.” which asserts that technological or industrial “advancement” isn’t really a step forward when it is harmful to the planet.

One non-female artist who has been cited as an influence on Armitage is Peter Gabriel. He isn’t as obvious or as prominent an influence as the previously mentioned ladies, but Gabriel’s touch is present nonetheless, especially in the way Armitage incorporates elements of world music. Gabriel, too, like Armitage, has addressed environmental subjects, although Armitage’s lyrics are much more overtly new age-minded. Looking at The Legend of the Free from strictly a commercial standpoint, as opposed to an artistic/creative standpoint, the album probably would have had more mainstream appeal if Armitage had included some romantic lyrics along with all the new age subject matter. But even if one isn’t heavily into the new age ideology, The Legend of the Free is still enjoyable on a melodic level, a harmonic level and a rhythmic level.  This solid effort demonstrates that Armitage is deserving of greater exposure.

Review by Alex Henderson