Posts Tagged ‘folk’

Given a recording as intimate and exhilarating as Martha Johnson’s SOLO ONE, the last thing you’d expect as an entry point to a review of this truly fine new album (and compact disc) of songs in a variety of styles is the production.

Nevertheless, as Johnson’s first collection for grown-ups apart from Martha and the Muffins demonstrates, a great popular music collection – the kind that makes those “best” lists – can result when the performance, the strength of the songwriting and the production are all in balance.

In other words, while the production shouldn’t overpower the strength of the performance and the songwriting, but neither should it leave a recording seeming dry, flat and listless.
While Johnson’s new release is, as we’ve said, intimate, there is a whole lot (pardon my informality) of production here. There are all kinds of tones and effects here and they are used with such precision as little touches and enhancements that glean like little stars across the breadth of this collection.

This may seem hard to grasp but effects and synthetic or enhanced tones here act very much like sophisticated, coordinated stage lighting – not necesarily an over-the-top lighting extravaganza but something more subtle and ingenious.

Now let me get this out of the way: Martha Johnson has always been associated with stellar production. Three of Martha & the Muffins eight LPs (the band formed in Toronto in 1977 and had a worldwide hit with “Echo Beach” in 1980) helped cement the reputation of young producer Daniel Lanois.

SOLO One is something is something special, however. In the liner notes, Johnson credits producer Ray Dillard for helping her record “the style, sentiment and flow of emotion” she hoped for when he agreed to become involved. Johnson clearly was thinking of the production integrally.

Johnson and Mark Gane also share some of the production credit and all three engineered and mixed the music.

There is simply no tiring of listening to this disc. The depth and texture of the music overall is part of the reason. So is the strength, quality and sincerity of Johnson’s vocals and the instrumentation.

Also, several styles are represented – great for “strum-along” listeners, by the way.

A trio of folk acoustic songs with Ron Sexsmith strumming and singing backing vocals highlight the collection. “See Saw Eyes” has a 70s country rock feel – I’m thinking Poco, America, etc. But there is more going on here. Nasal and throaty simultaneously, Sexsmith’s voice, and his “sons of the prairie dogs” strum (my words – try not to think about them) become a sort of velvet glove for Johnson’s supple, clear and shall I say slender vocal, by that meaning she’s singing powerfully without turning up the volume.

It’s a very poignant song … sometimes it’s the ones that are a little sad that make the biggest impression.

Did I mention effects? Mark Gane, whose guitar work offers more than the word “component” could ever describe – uses effects you might associate more with – well, America, as we’ve noted, but also Badfinger, etc. – than with folk music on this disc – is wonderful on this cut as on others … so interesting in the context.

You know — the percussion on this track is simply Dillard and tambourine and maracas. Astonishing. And the reverb is as thick as tapioca pudding. It works wonderfully.

“Show Me How” occupies a similar electro-acoustic environment with the addition of Don Bray on Hawaiian baritone slide top guitar and Fergus Marsh on electric upright bass. It’s lovely. A sophisticated love song, it occupies a sort of 60s niche I sort of want to call “Canyon” — which I seem to have managed to do.

Adding Max Dyer’s cello to the small combo of Johnson, Sexsmith and Dillard (on cajon) brings a rewarding lushness to this “Canyon” segment of the album in “I Wouldn’t Change a Day.” This song brings the sort of 1960s Mexican/Southwest found on Bob Dylan’s Desire album, among many, many others. It’s the conviction behind the singing, however, that shines through this group of tunes, however. A lesser performance might have left us only with the experience of something vaguely quaint. No such danger here.

We’re talking about production yet we’ve only mentioned the most accessible, least challenging and most nearly acoustic tracks – in other words, we’ve got CBC and NPR covered, but we have to move on to the disc’s crowning glory which is an adult-oriented rock sleeper in here: “Coming Through the Green.”

Come down a road lined in sugar
where the water and the sky are one
painted clouds with silver linings …

Now not everyone is going to immediately grasp what the “green” is and precisely what is coming through it. It’s best left like that. That’s part of the beauty of the skill of Johnson and certain other lyricists – their diction is very precise and only appears to be vague at times.

Still it seems this is somewhere I have always been
Coming through the green

There is what seems to be a vast array of tones on this track but we could probably break it down to a short description – some wah on Gane’s guitar as he pops little string-dampened riffs reminiscent of Mark Knopfler’s most familiar work, his glockenspiel playing at the end of the cut, the particular way the drum kit (Dillard) is recorded and the cymbal hits, the echo and perhaps some heavy filter effects on the kitchen chorus.

Echoes merge the end of this delicious tune into a true sound canvas that is the collection’s most challenging number, “No Man’s Land,” a tune which prompts the listener to consider certain questions about things which may seem, on the surface to be ambiguous. There’s some gravitas here, to be sure, and the painterly application of sound to represent emotion, discovery, identity, takes us places.

It’s funny how those “little” things like the way the drum rolls are recorded on “Remembrance Day” to sound more ominous, more imposing, as if to suggest martial drums on a battlefield, contribute so much to the success of this album. There is the almost sitar-like, brief guitar solo, a guitar made to rumble. And consider the lines of poetry:

It’s all so delicate, so delicate to me

Before the river turned to ice,
for just a moment we had it right

My faith escapes me still I pray

There is much more to this collection. Let listeners discover entry points of their own. For myself it’s a recording in which every sound – and there are quite a few of them — seems directed at certain emotional centers. I could almost call it a “sonic alphabet of emotions.”

There is an understanding of musical space – that voids, both tonally and rhythmically – carry emotional content. For example, there seems to be way more “room” in this music than, say, in a representative Beck album, although both artists explore with tones, effects, rhythms, etc. Comparisons are almost always awkward, of course. Artists have different concerns and different approaches and the finished products reflect them.

The listener would be well served to check out SOLO ONE and perhaps to further explore the work of Martha Johnson and her allies.

Website — Martha Johnson music

Young Ezra Martinez joins Mom and Dad (far left) onstage at Caffé Lena. Photo by Joseph Deuel.

Fishtank Ensemble
Caffe Lena, Sunday, August 7

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY – The thing to remember about the great cultural cities of the world is that they do not merely showcase local talent — generally abundant – but they attract the best international players.

So … we’re in a Paris or Berlin nightclub but we’re rapt in attention to a sort of jazz quartet – stand-up bass, violin, guitar, vocalist/percussionist, etc. — from someplace else, right?

This merely describes the setting, however, as Fishtank Ensemble instantly transformed Caffé Lena, Sunday, August 7.

The magic the quartet (Ursula Knudson, Fabrice Martinez, Douglas Smolens, Djordje Stiepovic) brought — that comes from another “someplace else” which cannot be described in terms of geography. Rather try and imagine something picked from a garden among the stars.

This is not a quartet which simply and dutifully recreates the gypsy-jazz associated with the 1920s. We’ve seen that here before. Rather, Fishtank Ensemble explores cabaret, Latin American, 1920s American swing, ragtime, Dixie, and Harlem nightclub, Central European and even Middle Eastern folk music to come up with something new and irresistible.

Ursula Knudson is so effective across such a range of vocal techniques that I find it difficult to describe: In ragtime tunes she might use this very dramatic kitty-cat jazz voice … sometimes echoing Billie Holliday a bit … but she is so quick with her delivery over so many syllables that it seems like she has actually become not another singer but another sort of being.

“After You’ve Gone,” offers this style of singing. It’s just a “you’re gonna miss me” lyric; you know the story. The singing, though, that’s a whole ‘nutha thing.

There’s one among the native Californian’s many voices that is such a wonder … well it’s like … you reach out to pick that flower and somehow you bring back the whole garden.

I won’t describe it any more than that. Better you discover it yourself and best if you do in concert. Knudson echoes this rare voicing with a certain musical instrument. Some listeners might find it difficult, without looking, to guess whether she is singing or using the instrument. This is a very interesting and playful thing.

The vocal effect is an accent and crescendo in the title cut on the most recent of the group’s recordings, Woman in Sin, a tune very much in the style of Stefan Grapelli but with a rapid-fire vocal suggesting … I hardly dare say this … sexual frustration. The persona Knudson creates has a lot to say. When she completes the line, “I’ve been waiting … I’m so sick of that game,” she steps her voice up a scale to that … special crescendo.

The bass leads the band in echoing that scale, preceding solos by violin, then guitar, finally bass before the last verse, which ends with a bit of humor: “With the passion of a crowbar I’ll set you free,” a gentler, hushed crescendo … and laughter. Witchy laughter. Not quirky but … Circe. And sort of like the way Joni Mitchell used it on “Carrie.”

As if to illustrate the similarities, Knudson uses the instrument at the beginning of the very next tune on the CD, “Espagnolette.” She ends the song with her vocal equivalent.

I’ve always been pleased to hear the modern Eddie Cooley-Otis Blackwell standard, “Fever,” whether it’s in a local alley or wherever. I haven’t heard anything like the way Knudson did it Sunday evening accompanied only by Stijepovic on bass. Oh the way she times and understates the title word in a clipped, almost comical manner … that does remind me of one well-known contemporary cabaret-style singer.

The rest is about the texture of the voice. There’s some kind of catlike creature in there. I’m sure of it.

This voice also sang the original ragtime tune, “CouCou” also. There was even a bit of purring. On the recorded version, some conscientious techniques – including the sort of distant way the violin was captured – create a 1920s feel.
When she’s singing a Spanish-style tune, there’s a different creature. She actually sounds Spanish; her whole attitude, the way she projects herself, takes on a different stance. I think she changes the way she breathes. Really.

When she’s not jazzing it up and singing what you might call “straight ahead” – sometimes in duet with Stijepovic – she’s very solid. There’s a lot of strength there, probably a lot of training, a lot of listening to old recordings, and a great deal of control.

Her performance was totally entrancing and yet, true to the tradition of the jazz quartet – she never took away from the integrity of the quartet and the singular talents of its members.

The slap bass of Stijepovic drives this music along, but not simply as an underpinning, but a featured instrument out front. This is far removed from the more pedestrian folk duo, trio, or string band with a bass guitar at the back. He plays with great speed through changes of both tempo and changes in key that marks Fishtank Ensemble music, particularly in the pieces that combine Central European folk with an American jazz sound.

There’s a great deal of visual appeal to a standup bass that you don’t get with a bass guitar – but you can see everything that’s going on so the player must be brilliant, elegant, and extremely nimble in jazz – it’s just much more demanding and intense than the early rockabilly music that many Americans would associate with the instrument.

On some occasions Stijepovic bowed the instrument … late in the show, tiny young Ezra Martinez surprised the audience by joining him to duet on the same instrument. Just another delightful moment in a very exciting show.

Douglas Smolens is an interesting and singular guitarist who manages to apply the “wah” pedal to the acoustic jumbo guitar at times, something that offers a distinctive tone. That is a little detail. The larger story is that this guitar provides the unifying texture that makes the combo sound larger than it is … and this requires quite a lot of rhythmic sense as well as the ability to both solo and harmonize with the instrument.

In this combo the guitar is the hub, central to the integrity of the overall sound. It’s not hard to imagine the combo without it … at times it would work but at others, the music would sound a little thin or “folky” at the very best or even a little strange.

Fabrice Martinez may be the best jazz violinist in the world — I am not qualified to say. He also has a special surprise technique that I will not spoil here. I should say that, in addition to mastering the “Hot Club” style of Grapelli, he has managed to master every other style as well. Most of the time he seems to be just flying along atop this wonderfully synchronous and very playful ensemble. One could imagine him tackling chamber music or seated in a symphony orchestra as well but this is really the sweetest sort of acoustic music for a summer night.

What combos like Fishtank Ensemble do is not so much about individual songs (many of which the group members write and co-write) … it’s about a whole show, an experience. So to dwell on individual tunes is misleading in a review. Suffice to add that there are some very beautiful melodies – like Pena Andaluz – in the ‘tank. Yet the quartet’s performance at Caffé Lena music never became overly … florid … or sentimental. Fishtank Ensemble is keeping the music that inspired both great classical composers and modern jazz artists fresh and alive.

Sideline: Packaging (with thumb-wheel for your interactive enjoyment) for the Woman in Sin CD designed by G. Carr ( … groovy!


Big time concert – no charge

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY – Want something to get excited about? Sirsy is doing a free Sunday concert from 8-ish to about 11 every Sunday night in August at Putnam Den, 63A Putnam Street (which is one block East of Broadway) – across from the library. You can sit under the tent or dance in the parking lot.

That means, basically, all ages can attend and most likely have a very good, close-enough view outside of the bar perimeter.

Or you can … do headstands at the foot of the stage.

Melanie Krahmer and Richard Libutti – a.k.a. Sirsy – have a song on the radio, “If She Knew What She Wants,” are working out material for a follow-up to the recent Revolution CD, and have other dates in the region.

Still they found a way to pull out all the stops August 7 as they performed their own material and covered Tom Petty, Fleetwood Mac and others.

Rich appears to be way more comfortable than anyone should have the right to be on that Rickenbacker guitar.

Melanie Krahmer is … she’s a force of nature, singing with a powerful and supple voice as she simultaneously plays the drums. Her songs are very strong, very solid and yet she handles ballads like “Landslide” beautifully. I would have no problem hearing “Waiting for Rain” at least once a week from now on. Perhaps it’s because there’s this little … well I want to call it a hilltop … in the melody that makes it rather unique and bright. Even though it’s — lyrically speaking – a sad tune indeed.

There are other originals you might like even more.
If I made a personal top-40 … it would always be on the chart as it has been for some time now. Always and forever.
And they’ve got … more songs.

Now … this is a duo, not a circus, but … watching them perform is never dull. It’s riveting and sometimes surprising. More please.