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David Mohai, “Calm Like a Bomb” Single (Rage Against the Machine cover)

29 Oct, 2014 Alice Neiley

I didn’t used to like cover songs at all.  In fact, when the Counting Crows came out with their cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” I simply couldn’t listen to it.  It lacked, at least to me, almost all the magic of the original except for the endlessly catchy melody.  It wasn’t until years later that I realized that at least 85% of an original song’s magic is…wait for it…originality—the special touch an artist brings, musically, lyrically, often both at once.  That, as it turns out, is also the magic of cover songs.  Counting Crows’ version of “Big Yellow Taxi” aims too closely to the original, yet, it just isn’t Joni, so the cover inevitably falls short.

David Mohai, on the other hand, has the fairy dust, and pumps his cover version of “Calm Like a Bomb,” originally by Rage Against the Machine, with both steak and sizzle.  As anyone who listens or has listened to Rage Against the Machine can almost hear its hard rock, heavy metal, rap fusion, nails-on-chalkboard-but-in-a-good-way sound as soon as the band name itself is uttered.  With their insightful and rant-like lyrics, RATM is known for making a statement, often political and/or cultural; however, the incredibly loud wall of sound that is their trademark barely allows for any awareness of the words at all.  This, of course, is one of the many ways in which David Mohai got the whole ‘cover’ thing right.

Mohai’s version of the tune opens into the lyrics immediately, arriving with light wind chime sounds, then mellow guitar chords and light snare drum.  The moment I heard the line “my word war returns to burn/like Baldwin home from Paris,” I realized two things:  1. the members of Rage Against the Machine are lyrical geniuses; 2. Mohai might be an even bigger genius, because who knew James Baldwin’s political writing and anger and sadness and loneliness were referenced in this tune, and who knew it could be done in just one line?  Mohai knew, that’s who, and he decided to lead us in slow and quiet, shocking the system like RATM does, but on the opposite side of the coin.

Though revealing the lyrics in this spoken-word manner seems to be at the crux of Mohai’s “Calm Like a Bomb,” the instrumentation doesn’t just make room for the words, it often enhances them.  As the song continues and the lyrics deepen further into their cultural commentary on America, the instruments become more involved, like echoes, responses to what’s being said.  The snare drums remain strikingly consistent, like a brainwashed army march, but the guitar talks back.  “Same bodies buried hungry but with different last names…”(and the guitar breaks from chords to improvisational picking), “There’s a bank There’s a church” (guitar chord), “a myth and a hearse/A mall and a loan/a child dead at birth” (guitar picking), “There’s a widow pig parrot/A rebel to tame/A whitehooded judge/A syringe and a vein” (string of guitar chord solos and picked improve), “and the riot be the rhyme of the unheard.”

This amazing call and response of spoken word and guitar continues throughout the song, and eventually the drums join in the commentary as well, especially as the lyrics continue to get more intense and call for more action from the listener (or, in this case, the instruments).  The drums, synthesizer keyboard, and guitar all join in, feeding off of each other on “Here’s a ditch full of bodies/Tha check for tha rent/There’s a tap, tha phone, tha silence of stone/Tha numb black screen/That be feelin’ like home/And tha riot be tha rhyme of tha unheard,” then they fade out almost completely, leaving a very light background drum on “What ya say, what ya say, what ya say, what?”  And of course, the instrumentals rush to respond in full along with the chorus “I’m calm like a bomb/ignite, ignite, ignite.”  The most brilliant moment of the instrument/lyric relationship, however, is on the line “There’s a right to obey/there’s a right to kill,” which, because of the fanning out of deep, full sound, as well as the words, presents itself as the true message of the song, and in the context of the song, the message of America.

Again, I began as a ‘cover song’ skeptic, and despite the numerous amazing ones, I always approach one artist’s attempt to make an already fabulous song their own with caution.  In the case of David Mohai, there’s no need.  He not only masters the impact of “Calm Like a Bomb,” but also enhances it, bringing to light a part of the song that wasn’t in focus in Rage Against the Machine’s original version.  The instrumentalists handle their work delicately, rather than forcefully, which shows off their talent and skill in a very different way than RATM shows theirs.  We hear what’s happening; we feel the conversation in the room.  Nothing is attacked; everything is responded to, the lyrics harsh, the background eerily calm.  It’s a splendid, powerful experience.  An uncovering rather than a ‘cover;’ a wake up.

 

 

Reviewer:  Alice Neiley
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Mykeljon and Groovexpress, Ukrainian Doll

22 Sep, 2014 Alice Neiley

Ukrainian Doll 8 Page CD Booklet Template.inddWhen the backbone style of a collaborative jazz group is said to be that of 1960s New York City, my expectations naturally shoot through the roof.  Then, when upon further description this jazz group clarifies that their ‘unique flavor’ is a fusion of smooth west coast instrumentation and Latin beats, my heart sinks.  It’s not that I don’t appreciate the ways in which traditional and Latin jazz illuminate each other, but their marriage can hardly be called unique—it’s played not only during fabulous summer block parties or outdoor stage concerts, but also in elevators and hotel lobbies.  Certain expressions of this genre transport all of my physical sensations into the intensely air conditioned memory of a grocery store line.
That being said, Mykeljon and his band, Groovexpress, are in a word, splendid, and somehow transform jazz with Latin ‘flavor’ into a fresh experience.  Their most recent album Ukrainian Doll is absolutely not for the grocery line, but rather a cross between Stevie Wonder instrumentals and Carlos Santana beats—in other words, music for the sensual of heart and skin.

Oh, and mind.  I’m surprised that Groovexpress independently released Ukrainian Doll, because of the catchy compositions, yes, but also the brilliant musicianship—that cultivated ability to both tighten into perfection and converse improvisationally is only available to musicians who have worked so long and hard with masters, that they’ve become masters themselves.  Frankly, I assumed that the members of Groovexpress were geniuses even before I read their bios, and when I discovered many of them have played with the likes of the John Ferraro, Steve Wiggins, Stevie Wonder, and Kenny Loggins, I knew for sure I was in the presence of greatness, a collaboration unlike most exhibited in modern day releases.

The constant use of traveling solos, primarily between Haggis on harmonica, Mykeljon on guitar, and Robert Kyle on saxophone, and the way the other two of the three instruments fade out almost completely when one is being showcased, allow the intricacies of bass, drums, and piano that make up the background to surface.  Also, the choice of which instruments open each track completely determines its pacing and vibe, the obviousness of which makes Ukrainian Doll notably diverse.    For example, “E Type Blues” and “High Heels” begin with thick combination of guitar, organ/piano, and drums, then are layered quickly with solo saxophone.  The prominent saxophone presence, whose solo is eventually passed to harmonica in both these tracks, creates an easy-listening vibe, but not without a little sexy attitude provided in the expression of the musicians on their instruments.

By contrast, “Pretty Thang,” though it also begins with a saxophone solo, the other instruments quickly join in and harmonically mirror what the sax plays, guitar and harmonica take the helm then, giving the track a distinctly 1960s-ish jazz-rock feel, very “Green Onions” and “Wipeout”-esque.

The tunes that flaunt harmonica as the first solo catapult the album from the 1960s to the 1980s, from more traditional jazz into the current musical diaspora that seems to effortlessly (whether effectively or not) combine genres:  old time blues riffs between guitar and harmonica in “No Way Home,” tinges of rock when the harmonica gives way to guitar and organ solos in “Foxy Brown,” and romantic 80s movie scene riffs between piano, guitar, harmonica, and light tambourine percussion in “I Say Praise” and “Tell Me Why.”

Regardless of genre, the musicians seem to read each other’s minds, hear with each other’s ears.  They move between attitudes, solos, and genre subtleties like water moves between fingers–seamlessly, with strength.  This connection is especially evident in the tracks that don’t kick start with a specific instrumental solo, but instead open with all the instruments at once–“Mi Bella Paola,” the title track “Ukrainian Doll,” and the last, very Spanish sounding track, which also attempts to further thicken the instrumentation with vocals, “You are My Fantasy.”   In equally distributing the weight among instruments, the playful, syncopated percussion can float up and shine, flourish, and transport us into a rare, unique version of Santana/jazz fusion.

No matter whether these tracks’ moods are determined opening soloists, traveling solos, or the tight harmonies of all the instruments working together, not one inch of the album feels muddled or confused, and the travels we’re taken on as listeners aren’t only to the west coast or South America or back to 1967, but are travels among the senses as well.  The whole of Groovexpress’s Ukrainian Doll pulses between that Latin sensuousness of skin, that blues, rock, traditional jazz sensuousness of heart, and the brilliance of each musician’s mind as it connects to that of his instrument and the one beside him.

Reviewed by Alice Neiley
Rating:  5 stars out of 5

Dre Mazzenga, Do Me Right

22 Aug, 2014 Alice Neiley

dremazzenga

 

Nothing makes me happier than soul music.  Really, nothing.  But it has to be good soul music.  Really, really good.  Since the era of Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, and the most recent Natalie Cole tunes, there’s been almost no one producing real, R&B soul.  It’s either backed up by synthesized instruments, infused with rap, or a collection of cover song, which I love, but still, I haven’t heard anything really innovative in that genre for a long time.   Even Lauryn Hill (technically hip hop), Joss Stone, and Lake Street Dive, the most brilliant jazzy funk soul combo bands in this modern age, don’t quite fit into the ‘soul music’ I’m talking about, not in that classic Motown sense.

So, needless to say, I’m beside myself with tingly excitement at the listening experience of Dre Mazzenga’s album Do Me Right.  It’s deep rocking soul music, with real instruments, an excellent effects keyboardist, as well as one who seems to know his way around the actual piano effect of the instrument, and a vocalist with meat and flavor to her voice, but also an astounding simplicity—not flashy, instead, quenching.  Though the band does stray from their tether to the soul genre I so desperately crave in this 2014 era, something in their sound, whether a vocal moment or a drum solo, catapults a little shoo-wop back into the track.

The ratio of fast paced, funky tunes to slower torch songs is literally 4 to 1, but because each of the upbeat tracks has a completely different personality, the word boredom doesn’t even exist, and the melancholy of the one gospel-routed piece doesn’t feel misplaced.

“Do Me Right,” the title track and first track on the album, appropriately kicks off with the repetitive, incessant organ lick often a staple of 70s R&B hits, soon joined by the sliding, light vibrato, deep throated heat of female vocals and back up singers.  I swear, I could see those back up singers moving side to side, snapping their fingers like the Supremes in back of Diana Ross, except with a much more skilled, funkier band spread along the stage—complete with electric blues guitar solos and increasingly layered keyboarded organ effects—transforming the familiar into the exciting.

This transformation turns out to be a trend in almost every song on Do Me Right. The beginning of “Love Makes a Woman” is so strikingly similar to Natalie Cole’s “This Will Be (an Everlasting Love),”at first I thought it was going to be a cover.  Until the guitars.  With those guitars entered a hue of blues that overcame the Cole idea entirely, but combined with the continuous Motown riff in the background and unfaltering vocal strength, the second track on the album is also successful in it’s new spin on ‘old soul’ music.

“Kiss Me” takes the album in a brief new direction, more toward modern, or at least 90s, R&B, particularly in the introductory guitar riff, the subsequent thick drum walls, solid guitar chords, and guitar solos, press at the doors of classic rock and hard Blues, completely away from Motown.  But those vocals, so Aretha-esque, but in an  ‘I can do any genre I want’ sort of way, keep the album tied to that era, even if only by a thread.

Though I very much enjoy “Kiss Me,” it is the most significantly purposeful departure from the classic soul genre the rest of the album seems to be based on, and the fact that “Bird in the Storm,” the only slow, melancholy track on the album, follows “Kiss Me,” is absolutely perfect placement, like Dre is cleansing the palate before reminding me the biggest reason why I love the album.  There’s something about piano and vocals all by their lonesome that makes my whole body heavy in the most wonderful, yearning sort of way, and “Bird in the Storm” is no exception.  Under the spell of this soulful tune full of gospel chords, I almost forget the album isn’t a single.  In its beauty, I almost forget about any other kind of music at all.   Thus the need for “Young Girls Game,” the last track on Do Me Right, the reminder, the packed punch a balance between edgy originality and one of the best music genres ever created—sweet soul music.

“Young Girl’s Game” begins heavily with drums and a rock like guitar riff, and teeters on the tightrope of the blues rock genre until the chorus, when the vocals, especially the pattern of the backup vocals, shoots an unmistakable Motown soul feel back into the album.

The album does become more blues-rocky as it progresses, with the exception of “Birds in the Storm,” mostly in the increasingly heavy emphasis on very skilled, but very crowded sounding electric guitar.  However, there’s something inherently old school that keeps reappearing, making my heart leap each time it arrives.  Apart from the excellent instrumentation, vocals, and capturing of an nostalgically idyllic musical era, Dre Mazzenga’s Do Me Right is additionally impressive because of its fluidity in and out of the blues rock genre with as much conviction as displayed in the earlier, more Motown-soul influenced tracks.  It’s rare for artists to be so adept at multiple genres and uses for instruments, and rarer still for an album to transition so flawlessly between them, and further to that, combine them in a completely interesting, innovative way, rather than what might too easily sound like mish mash.

In short, I’m in love with this album.  I’m in love with this mix of old and new. Like going on the hottest date imaginable with something I’ve been married to for years, I’m in love with soul music all over again, and I love its new, bright dress.

 

Reviewer:  Alice Neiley
Rating:  5 stars out of 5.

Wabi Sabi, Alive and Orjazmic Up in the Tin Roof

22 Aug, 2014 Alice Neiley

wabisabi
When I was 16, my eldest cousin, a professional photographer with bright orange sneakers, bought me a plane ticket out to San Francisco for my birthday to visit him.  When he picked me up from the airport, the band Fishbone was blaring from the speakers of his tiny beat up blue car.  It was the sound of relaxation, of vacation fun, of parties, yet the lyrics were often strangely serious, ironic, and/or extremely culturally relevant.  I can safely say it was one of the best car-music moments of my life, until I heard Wabi Sabi’s album, Alive and Orjazmic Up in the Tin Roof, and everything changed.  The best part is, the changing never seemed to end throughout the two disc, 15-track album, not even throughout one single track.

Alive and Orjazmic Up in the Tin Roof is dipped in jazz up to its earlobes, but tinged with reggae, Latin, soul, pop, and cultural/societal stories and warnings.  The first track, “Beliefs,” is the song that initially reminded me most of my experience hearing Fishbone for the first time—not because Wabi Sabi sounds like that Californian band at all really, but because of the uplifting feeling of possibility and importance it brings.  “Beliefs,” though it highlights the traditions of Santa Claus and religions revolving around Christ, and begins with the rock laced beats and instrumentals, those things turn out to be just openers.  Really, the song is about humanity, and eventually comes around to that subject in the second verse about life’s trajectory, and a more personal, simple, swing rhythm.

“The Fall” moves back into the more ordinary subject matter of relationships, and a more traditional pop rock/soul vibe.  Reminiscent of The Bare Naked Ladies and Martin Sexton, this track utilizes vocal harmonies and unexpected minor chords, which are especially pleasing on the ‘you’ of ‘it’s true I do want more from you.’  “Lady Lush” transitions perfectly from pop to more traditional musical traditions with its reggae lilt and lyrics full of important messages—in this case about alcoholism.  Next, “Move On,” still on the first disc and “You Ain’t Even on My Mind,” on the second disc, similarly use innovative guitar riffs and catchy rhythms, but are overpowered by intense blues influence both musically and lyrically:  keyboards, trumpet, saxophone, and melodies/messages of down-home moan-groan perfection.

Speaking further to the versatility of the album, “Rolling Along, structured like a merengue piece, “What’s Going On,” slightly jazzy, both toward the end of the first disc, and most of the tracks that make up the second disc spotlight the brass instruments and dip into be-bop jazz with “Song 4 Mother,” and experimental head bopping snazzy pop with “Apples,” and especially “Spida.” From the end of the first disc into the beginning (and mostly throughout) the second, Alive and Orjazmic Up in the Tin Roof slips out of the traditional realms of Latin or jazz, and into the more rowdy combination that defines Ska music.

What’s most extraordinary about the album, however, what ties it all together and opens the door to its golden core, is that it was recorded live at a restaurant called Tin Roof in Atlanta, Georgia. Like many exceptionally skilled jazz musicians, like those in Wabi Sabi, have discovered in the past, recording live and releasing it without studio revision is sometimes the only way to capture the real feeling of a band or artist’s music.  In the case of Wabi Sabi, the live recording at Tin Roof gives the whole album a scrappy quality, like your favorite, bright colored hoody, worn through at the sleeves.  This atmosphere also probably allowed for many more improvisational opportunities than a recording studio would have, making for an unusual, unpredictable time set up–perfect for an album that’s leaning toward a mainstream audience, but sweating all over mainstream itself in a fit of heart pumping groove.   While I can’t remember the last time I bought, or even listened to a full two disc album all the way through, Wabi Sabi brought the tradition back to life.  It does, in fact, change everything.  Just wait until your ears get a taste—you may not have the same ears afterward, but you’ll like your new ones better.

Reviewed by Alice Neiley
Rating:  5 stars out of 5.

 

Tim Gemmill, Road Songs

11 Aug, 2014 Alice Neiley

 

roadsongs_300x300 (3)Electronic music often gathers up so many bells and whistles in any given composition that the listener can barely find the center, the core mood, the melody, let alone their own center of gravity, or, more frankly, that clear, almost physical reason to keep listening that good music provides every time.  Of course, this is coming from a listener who doesn’t usually spend much time with electronic music, so perhaps others would say the opposite.  Regardless, Tim Gemmill, an emerging artist, recently released Road Songs, an unusually solid, soulful album, especially for the electro genre.  The tracks move between lengthy, synthesized epics, playful, funk ridden pieces, and pieces rooted in classical themes and West African instrumentation.  To say the least, it’s eclectic. To say the most, it’s a life and all its rhythms, it’s a heartbeat.

 

“Drone,” the first track on the album, is approximately 7 minutes long, and establishes both the feeling of a long journey, and the confidence it takes to see the beauty in the journey’s every moment.  It begins with strong, simple drum beats and a low drone of synthesizer.  Once the electronic piano arrives, the piece moves forward with melody and added percussion sounds, eventually layering with vocals that fill out the track completely.  The inclusion of these vocals and continuous montage of various drums and rhythms, primarily syncopation, sustain the piece in its originality and intrigue well past the 6 minute mark.

 

The heartbeat is not only established within each track, but also how they’re arranged in the context of the album as a whole.  Gemmill tends to place darker, more grounded songs as bookends to a few up tempo, jazzy pieces–as if to re-root the experience of his music after playful, possibly distracting detours.  “ZigZag,” “Proteus,” and “Pine Siskin” whisk the album into a listening world of funk and games:  “ZigZag” could be used as the music to Tetris, “Proteus” as the music in a futuristic dance club lit with the brightest of iPhone flashlights, and “Pine Siskin” as a time machine back to a different dance club, maybe one next door to where the Eurythmics or John Mellencamp were playing.  The use of synthesizers for impersonating instrumentation, but mainly for the quick shifts in tempo and characteristic rhythms, give each of these ‘party time’ songs the heartbeat of a specific atmosphere and/or era.

 

“Invention No. 13 in A Minor,” perfectly transitions the album from bursts of fun into a more refined, serious mode.  The piece is short, but it’s surprisingly beautiful, especially because it’s completely based on already existing classical works, particularly those of Bach.  Though it’s still heavy on synthesized, as it seems are all the tracks, “Invention No. 13″ combines the new with the traditional, giving the album a new edge, as well as an unexpected delicacy–it’s a refreshing invention indeed.

 

If “Invention No. 13 in A Minor” slowed our pulse just enough to rest, “Blues for Ralph,” jacks it up again, plunging the listener into a completely different universe–a pop to the jaw with a mournful knuckle.  It’s blues, but electro-blues, so it doesn’t feel too sorry for itself, but at the same time, works as the second transition deeper into the length and struggle of a long journey, the darker side of life, contrasting with the lightness of tracks like “ZigZag.”

 

We fully travel back into the darker side Road Songs with “Empire in Quest” and “Fugue,” by far the most mysterious tracks of the album, similar to “Drone,” but far more ghostly, and more interesting.  Minor chords and echo effects make each note bleed into the next–in “Empire,” each note itself doesn’t seem to follow any sort of sensical pattern in the ear, making the track all the more unnerving, “Fugue” erupts with beauty in its more melodic sadness.  Though there is one more taste of lightness, partying, and fun with “No Na Me,” a song based almost entirely on upbeat sets of chords played out in strong, wall-like unison, the album does come full circle by the last track.  “Red Valley” mirrors “Drone” in the same long toned, echoey, yet creatively melodic way; however, the addition of bongos blanket this closing track with an exotic feel, as well as an even more grounding feeling in the listener’s bones.

 

Contrary to my initial opinions of electronic music, Tim Gemmill gives the heart a jolt or two, tugging a few strings of longing and sorrow as well.  He’s obviously trying to open up the genre with a new wind, and in that endeavour especially, Road Songs is a success–each transition between songs perfectly timed, each shift in heartbeat earned.

Reviewed by Alice Neiley
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.