Tuesday, March 11, 2008


Recapturing The Banjo, Otis Taylor
Once upon a time, African slaves brought the xalam, a lute-like instrument, with them to the West Indies. From there, this instrument made its way to America sometime in the 17th Century and evolved into the banjo. Black Americans dominated banjo picking until minstrel shows appropriated it after the Civil War. By the turn of the century, the advent of blues and jazz triggered the migration of black musicians to the guitar and piano and away from the instrument that was increasingly seen as an avatar of racism. Now, bluesman Otis Taylor – who plays what he calls “trance blues” has gathered several colleagues to, in the words of the CD title, recapture the banjo. And recapture it they do with a set of traditional folk blues (plus a standout rendition of “Hey Joe”) and original compositions with titles such as “Ten Million Slaves” and “A Prophet’s Mission.” Luckily, Recapturing is no one’s thesis project. Instead, it has an intimate, front porch feel typified by a hospitable reading of Gus Cannon’s “Walk Right In” and the conversational “Bow-Legged Charlie.” Keb Mo's "The Way It Goes" closes the CD with a plaintive, fatalistic farewell. One of the top releases of 2008.

Warpaint, The Black Crowes
Hernando, The North Mississippi All Stars
Is Warpaint the album you’ve been waiting 30 years for the Rolling Stones to make? Slide guitarist Luther Dickinson gives Chris and Rich Robinson their Keith Richards, and they make the most of him: For the most part, Dickinson lays in wait behind Chris Robinson’s vocals, augmenting them while occasionally stepping forth with a blistering lead. Along the way, the Robinsons cherry-pick from the Stones with the same √©lan with which the Stones plundered the blues. A great mix of rockers, blues, ballads, and even a country weeper…Meanwhile, Dickinson’s own band, The North Mississippi All Stars, continues to grow in leaps and bounds. Foregoing the gaggle of guests that usually stud their albums, this time the All Stars stand on their own six feet. The result is a formidable extension of power trio rock in the tradition of Cream and ZZ Top. While Dickinson may not have the chops (yet, anyway) of fellow Southerners Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks, he knows how to integrate his slide guitar into the band’s sound, playing with intent and style.

Traveling, Steve Poltz
A Canadian Catholic grows up in San Diego and lives to tell the story. Poltz laces his idiosyncratic world view with good humor, wistful tunes, and a wide range of commentary that encompasses everything from the war in Iraq to saving the seventh game of the World Series for the San Diego Padres. After opening the CD with a (somewhat) hopeful “I Think She Likes Me,” he warns that “the rains are fallin’ and nobody’s listening.” This sets the stage for big questions (“What Would Ghandi Do?”) and small memories, like the boyhood worry that becoming an American means not being a Catholic anymore. It’s admittedly a clich√©, but Steve Poltz’ Traveling is what you’d call “infectious.”

Block Ice and Propane, Erik Friedlander
Improvisations and compositions for solo cello inspired by summer-long trips in the Friedlander family camper, "...a thin-shelled box sitting on top of a 1966 Chevrolet pickup truck." Now, before you dismiss Block Ice and Propane as too NPR, believe me when I say that these are in fact beautiful and breathtaking improvisations and compositions that you’ll listen to again and again. So handsomely produced that you can hear Friendlander’s fingers and bow hitting the strings. Highly recommended.

Real Emotional Trash, Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks
An unabashed valentine to Sixties psychedelia, replete with quavery vocals and marvelous guitar workouts. The beat accelerates and decelerates; weird digressions appear and resolve themselves like a viscous fog suddenly clearing to reveal a gorgeous blue sky. Malkmus fronts a great band that treats the material thoughtfully, led by Malkmus’ stirring guitar and anchored by Janet Weiss’ (late of Slater-Kinney) drum kit. A must for guitar fans and unreconstructed hippies and neo-hippies who wonder why the hell no one makes music why they used to.


Renegade Eye said...

This post reminds me of something that could be chronicalled on the that great radio show on NPR American Roots/

John Hayes said...

Sounds like a very cool record. I'm really looking forward to catching the Bela Fleck documentary, "Throw Down Your Heart," in which he takes the banjo back to Africa.

John Hayes said...

Sounds like a very cool record. I'm really looking forward to catching the Bela Fleck documentary, "Throw Down Your Heart," in which he takes the banjo back to Africa.