A Thing Called Divine Fits
Review: 3 stars (Out of 4)
I remain unsure of just what exactly makes something "indie rock." It no longer seems to refer to recordings released exclusively on independent labels with zero major label affiliation. If the Black Keys and Jack White's various guises are still indie rock, then they're fulfilling that role while signed to major conglomerates. So is indie rock a guitar sound? A certain "scuzziness" in the production department? A haircut? A badge to be worn with snarky pride by a card-carrying hipster?
Ah, to hell with all of it. It seems that indie rock is simply a slightly less annoying descriptive for "non-mainstream" rock than is the road-worn "alternative music." Let's leave it at that, and let this new indie-rock supergroup Divine Fits, comprising Spoon's Britt Daniel and Handsome Furs Dan Boeckner float or sink based on its own buoyancy.
It isn't surprising, considering the resumes of both men, that "A Thing Called Divine Fits" is, at the very least, consistently interesting, and during its highest peaks, downright fascinating. Naturally, it sounds a bit like both Spoon and Handsome Furs. But there are also elements of early Talking Heads, Television, Kraftwerk and Berlin-era Bowie on display.
Most tellingly, the album manages to blend Boeckner's more electronic-oriented tendencies with Daniel's sometimes cacophonous guitar-centric compositions, without coming off as the least bit schizophrenic.
"Flaggin' A Ride," for example, boasts a textured stutter of a guitar figure from Daniel over a chilly, clinical drum machine program and a taut bass line. The push-and-pull created by these seemingly incongruous elements grants the music a delicious tension. "Would That Not Be Nice" marries a '70s New Wave influence to an echo-laden lead vocal that sounds like it was tracked in an abandoned auto plant. "Civilian Stripes" boasts a quirky skittishness that marries the glorious sloppiness of Guided by Voices to a Tom Verlaine-esque vocal brimming with a mildly dorky sexual tension.
Whatever you need to call it, "A Thing Called Divine Fits" is an inspired creation. Fans of both Daniel and Boeckner will likely be more than satisfied with their musical coupling.
Chick Corea and ?Gary Burton
Review: 3 1/2 stars
Here is Chick Corea on the subject of playing with Gary Burton: "Throughout our 40 years of making music together, there has never been a downside with our duet. Each concert and each recording we have done has always been a great pleasure and a personal inspiration. This new set of duet music is no exception. Until this recording we never focused on standards' with our duet, but it was natural to do as these songs are from the era we grew up in."
You could, if you wanted, charge that up to the sort of cheery hype people are supposed to impart in disc notes or in publicity interviews or at public appearances where everyone is behaving with mannerly propriety. Which, if you ask me, would be letting mindless, cheerless cynicism do the work that your celebratory listening apparatus ought to be doing.
What has been blazingly self-evident from their very first ECM disc "Crystal Silence" is that very few modern jazz musicians have ever been more perfectly attuned to one another than Corea and Burton. A lot of that is due to the fact that both are natural collaborators with almost anyone and everyone so it stands to reason that when two great virtuosos who seem born to collaborate find each other, something Olympian indeed can result.
That's the case here on a disc where the word "standards" shouldn't be taken too far. Yes, it's true that "Can't We Be Friends," the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby" and "My Ship" are "standard" enough to have long lines of interpreters over the decades. And, sure, Tad Dameron's title bebop standard fits the word to a T. It was, in fact, something of an anthem during the bebop era and what Corea and Burton do is formidable.
But there's nothing all that standard about Monk's "Light Blue," Bill Evans' "Time Remembered" or Dave Brubeck's "Strange Meadow Lark" other than their sublimity within the oeuvre of three exalted and wholly idiosyncratic jazz composers.
These are spectacular jazz players who think so much alike that their ensemble discipline is close to chamber jazz perfection and their improvised phrases could, if left unfinished, be instantly picked up and finished by the other with only their different instruments telling you who was who.
The disc's finale is as non-standard as can be a version of Corea's "Mozart Goes Dancing" played with the Harlem String Quartet to announce a format they'll be touring with next year.
Chamber jazz doesn't come any finer than this.
Barber: An American Romantic
[Harmonia Mundi USA]
Review: 2 1/2 stars
Conspirare is Latin for "to breathe together" and this mixed Texas ensemble does give the impression of breathing together. The group is also noteworthy for its eclectic, sometimes wacky, repertoire. (They did a great job several years ago with Carly Simon's "Let The River Run.") As Conspirare's discs go this one is rather sober.?Samuel Barber could write wonderful melodies and his harmonies and orchestrations are arresting, but many of the songs here are grim and abstract. Even the themes are bleak. The songs include one about the death of a soldier; another about an environmentalist who was hanged; "The Virgin Martyrs" and the funereal "Let down the bars, O death." "The Coolin'," a romantic Irish poem, gets a pale setting and even "The Lovers," songs set to smoldering poems by Pablo Neruda, are so tepid and tuneless they sound pretentious and ludicrous. (I would squirm with embarrassment at a live performance to hear men singing solo, in clinical counterpoint: "Strip off your clothes strip off your clothes ...").
Even the Easter Chorale is more wondering than jubilant. The Agnus Dei is a choral arrangement of the famous Barber "Adagio" and the other famous piece is "Sure On This Shining Night." There is beauty here, I guess, but it is a quiet and diffuse beauty and your appreciation of it will depend on your personal taste. Conspirare sings gloriously, but it is a good thing the CD includes complete texts, because without them you are lost.
Mary Kunz Goldman
The Hidden Treasures of Taj Mahal 1969 1973
Review: 4 stars
Later this year, Columbia/Legacy will release the entire catalog of blues/folk legend Taj Mahal in remastered editions. To kick off the overhaul campaign, the label has released what turns out to be a wholly enthralling twin-disc collection of Taj rarities and unreleased goodies, in the form of "Hidden Treasures."
It turns out that the collection lives up to its name rather than compile some sort of arbitrary "best of" collection targeting folks who have likely already purchased this material in multiple formats, Columbia/Legacy instead dug deep.
Disc one comprises mostly rare studio recordings tracked by Mahal and a cast of superior supporting musicians. Disc two offers up the entirety of a live concert, tracked in April 1970, at the Royal Albert Hall in London. None of this stuff has been made available previously, though there have been rumors of the Albert Hall floating around in bootleg form for many a year.
The music is all born in the blues but eager to commingle with forms as varied as reggae, rock, Caribbean and African. Beautiful stuff. J. M.