COOK'S CORNER 11: ALL THAT AND A SIDE OF SLAW

Air: Talkie Walkie
Air surrounds us. From their breathy presence on Sophia Coppola soundtracks to their tumbling atmospherics, they are a band hanging around in beatnik hidey-holes, shoe stores, and Amsterdam coffee shops. They manage that rare feat of being hip AND non-threatening. Earlier efforts have featured a score of guest vocalists but this time out the pair of tres plus odd canards step to the mic with a girlish or perhaps androgynous ESL (English as a Second Language) charm. Anyone who's ever enjoyed the way words change on a foreign tongue will appreciate the breathy earnestness of Godin and Dunckel. Despite all the bells and switches and pretty flashing lights, Air always manages to feel pastoral, the product of some cabin in the woods even if they recorded this in Paris. This bears a resemblance to their early singles collection, Premiers Symptomes, more than the previous two releases. For all the softness, this new one only makes sense once you hear it loud, bouncing around a high-ceiling room. Like their fantastic live shows, Air tends to expand if given the opportunity. Elements of Satie give moments a poignant minimalism. The only unfortunate thing is the clunky, dated drum machine rhythm throughout. They could use the loose-wristed pulse of say Can's Jaki Leibezeit or session swinger Brian Blade. As organic as the rest of their oeuvre feels, the drums come across like a tree using a cell phone. Still, a nice encapsulation of this Talkie Walkie mood is surfing on a rocket towards Georges Melies' winking lunar face.

Estradasphere: Quadropus
A broadcast by pirate angel radio, offshore signals pulling ships further out to sea, gypsy rambling dressed up as black clad street fighters... E-sphere are their own men with a peculiar call to prayer that's almost Sufi in its devotion (though worlds away from any orthodoxy). They play a high-caliber mix of Greek traditionals, Beach Boys, Iron Chef acapella, John Barry 007 magic, speed metal accents and classical dynamics. It can make you feel like you've eaten too many divergent cultures from a buffet but more often their ethnomusicology works. Not as out there as the Sun City Girls or polyrhthmically stiff as "global fusion," Estradasphere see things different than the rest of us. John Whooley's beat boxing and sensuous reed work ensure an abstract energy to everything he touches. And the others are no slouch, far stronger musicians than most of the pack vying for your attention today. Unique and that's about as good a compliment as I can muster.

The Slip and Nathan Moore: Surprise Me, Mister Davis
There's a sense of setting out on a journey as a needle crackles into the groove of a scratchy 78. A tub-thumping busker's riff falls out next from the oversize speaker cone and you crank the handle to keep this Edison medicine show rolling. There's no track listing near as I can tell, which is fitting. At their bright core, The Slip is all about the nature of song, what makes music whirr and click at a structural level. With that broad codex it leaves a wide spectrum available to them. Nathan Moore is a stirring foil, deep of throat and thought, a grumble that comes from eyes that see too much. Plenty here to make a body explore Moore's solo back catalog and his band ThaMuseMeant. Mister Davis has mazurkas with hand claps, a few gentle heartbreakers, acoustic real world marching tunes for small boys, some wild hazy droning white noise, stank nasty guitar, and voices raised in a disunified unity. The knotty instrumental aspect of The Slip is mostly absent, replaced by a Waits-ian Mardi Gras in your head. More than anything else this Surprise is about the joy of playing with wood and wires, being wholly present in the creative act, four guys doing all they can to make good music. They have succeeded admirably.

Mission Players: Live And Livin' It
Funk is not a wheel you necessarily want reinvented. It rolls just fine as it is. The Mission Players slap on some fresh treads and nice rims and cover ground like champs. The burners have wriggly synths and coda sections worthy of '60s Fillmore rockin' Santana. Mike Mulqueen's guitar lives in that rich pocket you hear musicians speak of. A nice growl to the vocals keeps things from being too nice. Ever spastastic sax man Jamison Smeltz blows the soul out of his horn like Maceo Parker with a little '40s road band accent from Illinois Jacquet. The zesty playing invigorates even a basic vamp like "Shine The Light." "Bliss" is summer radio fare like they don't make anymore with an especially nice vocal and Smeltz given it his City-To-City Gerry Rafferty best. Not overly complicated but worth a spin at your next stoned soul picnic.

Habib Koit and Bamada: Foly! Live Around The World
Hailing from Mali, Koite and his superb band carry you off on Kalimba feet, steel toes digging into the earth, covering great distances, moving as a blur as you try to out race the storm at your back. The harmonica and roots-of-the-blues patterns on this two-disc live release will feel vaguely familiar. This is roots music in the purest sense, the line from which many branches have grown. Koite's acoustic guitar has the daring-do of the Johns, Fahey and Renbourn respectively, and the drive of Australia's John Butler Trio. Abdoul Wahab Berthe's has a bass snap that'd turn Oteil Burbridge's head. Their facility for stretching pieces, finding new corners in old haunts, should appeal to jam fans. They celebrate and expand on the traditions of their homeland but enlivened by a curiosity for music from all the places they've visited. Like fellow Malian Ali Farka Toure, this has the characteristic of magic, a spell cast, a hypnopompic awareness of things just below the surface of consciousness.

4 AM: Sex, Darwinism and the Jungles of Hades
Rising from the homogenous blankness of Fresno, California is DJ 4 AM, a cerebral gift that reminds us that hip-hop is more than beats and bass lines, mics and dope rhymes. He delves into prickly emotional briar patches others prefer to tiptoe around; unemployment, tears, the struggles of one's parent, relationships put under the 'scope so we can see the bump of our own protons against the neutrons of others. Rain falls down and lulls us into a semi-somnambulant haze, softening us for the blow of his continual honesty. The care put into every track is obvious, tweaked until they say what he intended. Little asides after the titles on the track listing illuminate the mind behind the boards (i.e. "I've got your number for when I get a bit drunker"). Guest Devoya Mayo gives Dana Bryant a run for poetic goddess-hood on "This Girl" while elsewhere 4 AM encourages us to take five with a good black man and wash our hair in orange blossoms. 4 AM is the strangest hour, neither wholly night nor day. Those familiar with that time will recognize the scenery here. A brave, beautiful record.

Dengue Fever: self-titled
In 1996 a collection called Cambodian Rocks containing primitive, brilliant garage from Cambodia recorded between 1967-1971. The tracks were unlabeled, culled from random cassettes and LPs and offered up with a bootleggers glee. Over time a cult has grown around this set, so much so that this group of American hipsters has formed a group plying the same waters. Their singer, Chhom Nimol, is an émigré who sings in her native Kymer with the boys chiming in right along with her. It's all giddy great guns fun, a romp through exotic cities where go-go bars and black sedan chases abound. Beck veteran and member of the woefully slept on Action Figure Party David Ralicke swings on flute and sax, often riding the tide of farfisa abuser Ethan Holtzman. Bassist Senon Williams leaves behind the languid density of his playing with regular gig Radar Bros. (a true keeper for those who like it slow and deep) to bomp along with leg-tapping vigor. Experimental guitarist extraordinaire Trey Spruance (Mr. Bungle, Secret Chiefs 3) worked the boards and threw in a few smart notes here and there. Dengue Fever first hit most folk's consciousness with a brilliant version of Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" on the soundtrack of Matt Dillon's gritty petty crooks in Cambodia flick, City of Ghosts. This is the happy by-product of cultural mingling, the handshake across languages and differences and time.


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