DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid: Optometry
A beautifully intelligent hip-hop cocktail. By this, I mean the genre busting spirit that resides in the principles of great hip hop, that rough desire to find the groove of all things and to stimulate mind and body simultaneously. DJ Spooky assembled some of the avant jazz world’s superheroes for a serious work that understands the real value of collaboration. Pianist Matthew Shipp, drummer Guillermo E. Brown, sax and trumpet player Joe McPhee, and the gloriously right-on William Parker on bass have joined with Spooky to craft a sonic monster that feels like Pharoah Sanders’ Thembi on a shot of absinthe and a garbage bag full of nitrous. It’s the kind of record that makes you check your speakers to see if there’s something wrong with the stereo. It is another high point in the already rich Blue Series Continuum from Thirsty Ear Recordings. Like DJ Logic, Spooky is a texturalist who understands the potency of the subtle. Finally after a series of recordings that hinted at real brilliance he’s made a record that swings artfully from aggression to ambiance and back around to an ornate beauty that is at times as achingly lovely as anything I’ve ever laid ears on.

A drawing of a VW van parked next a pair of palm trees at sunset adorns the cover of Slackstring’s debut, a release that perfectly captures that late afternoon beach front malaise. It is the precise soundtrack for anyone opening a beer or burning one down when the work of it all is finally being set down for the day. Full of warmly wistful acoustic ditties, the whole album feels comfortable from the first listen. There’s a directness that’s refreshing. The music hasn’t been fussed with too much and the rough edges make it all the more dear to me in an industry increasingly obsessed with polish. A couple of instrumentals complicate things nicely and in their more tender moments Slackstring remind one of the bedroom pop of Elliott Smith’s Either/Or. At just a shade over a half-hour it’s one of those perfect records to put a wedge between you and the rest of your day. Like The Replacements’ Let It Be or Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, both classic half hour corkers, it lets us grieve the workaday disappointments and makes us guardedly hopeful for what tomorrow might bring.

Mood FoodHuman Zoo
Washes of reverb slap against a dark shore while a deep baritone whispers of spies and conspiracies and how “planet earth is on a crash course.” Mood Food has combined a straight up fusion record with Berlin-era David Bowie. I think they intend it as cautionary but instead it comes off as another embrace of gleaming nihilistic chic. They are solid musicians and their horn charts have the tasteful sophistication of late ‘70s Steely Dan. But the palette of sounds they are working with makes me think they’ve spent too much time with Weldon Irvine’s “Turkish Bath” and maybe a few Weather Report LP’s. It’s all fine but doesn’t push for much. Their lyrics are preachy and do little but point out what a drag the world is today. I don’t necessarily want a band to be prescriptive but I also don’t want music to bring me down. There’s more than enough in the world today that already does that.

Carlos Washington and the Amazing Giant People Ensemble – Much Love!
Washington has long been my favorite trumpet player to ever play in Karl Denson's Tiny Universe. Like some other great players who once traveled the Tiny Universe he’s moved on from a band that doesn’t always let their strongest soloists off the leash. With the Giant People he’s put together a song cycle deeply rooted in jazz and funk with a horn-centric vibe that’s tight and bold. Nice changes abound in all the compositions and the dynamics of the pieces range around wildly. At times the band has the glossy soul of the Brand New Heavies and then the next moment I’m reminded of hard burnin’ Woody Shaw. While the playing is immaculate, the compositions fall down a bit. Their intrinsic lightness just doesn’t stick in the mind very well. “Keep My Cool” with vocalist Fretrice Ewell hints that the Giant People might excel behind a great singer. An ill thought out attempt at modern trance, “Tekno Jam,” hints that they are still finding their legs. It may be some time before the identity of the group solidifies and in the meantime Much Love! provides some aural candy to tide over fans of Washington.

Bigfoot In ParisSuch A Taste
Despite a name that makes me think of a headline in the international edition of the Weekly World News, Bigfoot In Paris has the kind of wonderful pop feel they don’t make much anymore. There’s something very witty and arch about their whole approach that harkens back to East Side Story Squeeze or young Elvis Costello. At just five tracks it’s hard to know what else they might produce but this EP hints that they are serious about their songcraft and confident enough of their abilities to end things with a cover of Tom Waits’ Temptation that does the grizzled curmudgeon proud.

Jacob Fred Jazz OdysseyTelluride Is Acoustic
This is what I’ll play for my more timid friends next time I want to turn them onto the wonders of JFJO. It is a seduction that hides a potent musical heart. The acoustic setting sheds some of the prickly brilliance of the electric Jacob Fred and for a tune or two one can almost imagine jazz radio taking a liking to the boys. The opening cover of Wayne Shorter’s “Prince of Darkness” welcomes one in with a satanic charm befitting the tune. Behind the boards, bassist Reed Mathis gives the proceedings a clean, sharp clarity that truly captures the bubbling interplay of instruments at the heart of the trio’s sound. Brian Haas vacillates between poetic smoothness and fractured fairy tales on the ivories. His solos appear out of nowhere and unfold with an intimacy that is downright sensual. Drummer Jason Smart drops in to propel and complicate whatever his compatriots lay down. He possesses an instinct for flavoring the music without drawing attention to himself that hugely impresses me. Mathis' spotlight turn on “Son of Jah” once again shows why it’s impossible to reference him to any other bassist out there. He’s dedicated to creating his own language on the instrument and the hypnotically squiggled sonar of his playing on this version only highlights that he’s already come a long way towards that goal. What stands out besides the predictably brilliant musicianship is the overwhelming strength of their compositions. Jacob Fred is forging the next wave in jazz standards and most folks are just too dim to realize it. From the eerie pre-dawn mist of “Vernal Equinox” to the interstellar overdrive of “Son of Jah” to the stirring “Grub Ridge Stomp” that closes this disc, this is music of enduring strength and undisguised beauty. This is a limited release of only 500 copies so don’t expect them to stick around for long.

Neil Finn and Friends – Live At The St. James
Recorded over a week of concerts in April 2001, former Crowded House and Split Enz member Neil Finn has put together a Whitman’s Sampler of what he’s been up to while most people haven’t been paying attention. He’s joined in his native New Zealand by fellow songwriting cohorts Lisa Germano, Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam), Johnny Marr (The Smiths, The The) and brother Tim Finn for a collection of one terrific performance after another. Seriously, I kept thinking I’d hit a dud but there’s not a lemon in the bunch. Besides digging up a few chestnuts from his old bands Neil gives us the cream of his recent solo career including a humdinger of a take on “She Will Have Her Way” which is the highpoint of his post Crowded House work. What makes the guest spots different is that all them perform in Finn’s band as well as taking the spotlight. It’s a mutual appreciation society led by one of the finest voices in all of pop. In another time Neil Finn could have been another Bobby Darin or Mel Torme but instead he’s a tunesmith the likes of which radio doesn’t have time for anymore. Mores the pity since the new material is catchy yet full of meaty substance. Satisfying and soulfully nourishing, Live At The St. James is a great spot for the curious to jump on and a real treat for those that have been with him all along.

Chris RobinsonNew Earth Mud
No one could have wanted to like this more than me. After the duo acoustic shows earlier this year my hopes were sky high for the former Black Crowes solo debut. Rarely have I heard an album get it more wrong. From the arrangements to the sequencing to the too clean production it’s all a far cry from the charmingly candid, intimate tales within the songs. Robinson himself seems unsure in his vocal delivery as if he hadn’t quite gotten to know this music well before he went into the studio. The way these tunes matured after only a little touring compares very badly with the versions on the record, all put to tape early this year in Paris. A couple of genuine clunkers don’t help things. “Ride” and “Could You Really Love Me?” belong on some other record or better yet in the scrap pile of unreleased material that follows Robinson like a long black bag. None of collaborator Paul Stacey’s considerable guitar chops make it onto the record despite his role as co-producer and mixer. The few bright spots are “Barefoot By The Cherry Tree” and ”Katie Dear” which take a more delicate production hand and the thickly layered “Better Than The Sun” all of which hints at better paths not taken. What’s truly sad is New Earth Mud takes songs I love in their live setting and saps the pleasure from them. Like the past two Crowes releases this one will sit on the shelf while I search out shows from the current electric tour and hope for a better album one day.

Mas CabezaE = Mas Cabeza Squared
A fun frothy romp by some of the same hot cats who play with the wonderful Bitches Brew. It is the kind of disc you put on when you’ve thrown the windows open for a spring cleaning and instead end up dancing with your partner. Taking it’s cues from Irakere, Chucho Valdes’ solo work and Cuban Son (think Buena Vista Social Club), Mas Cabeza plays with intensity that’s not without a sense of humor. Certain spots drift into a Walter Wanderly lightness giving things a cheesy ’60 bossa nova feel but the bookends of the album hint at a Latin soundclash with dub that’s promising. Like Vivendo de Pao, another of San Francisco’s best kept secrets, Mas Cabeza grabs your hips and doesn’t forget about your head in the process.

The Johnson BrothersUno!
Nothing has made me play air guitar in 2002 like “Head Full Of Stars” which opens this EP. It’s the kind of song that never gets old despite dozens of spins. It’s one of those prized finds that one reserves for the best mix tapes. Recorded live in the studio, Uno! glows with the honeyed bombast of early Babys or Amorica period Black Crowes. Singer Aaron Pickering has serious swagger in his voice and paired with the cowbell driven funkiness of his bandmates it delivers a whomping punch. In just four tunes (and a lovely acoustic take of one song) these Brothers make me long to hear what they have to offer on stage and what a new full length disc might bring. They understand the simple power of strong songs, infectious slide guitar and clear-eyed rockin’. Color me curious about the future of these guys.

Dennis Cook
JamBase | San Francisco Bay Area
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[Published on: 12/9/02]

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