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DISCS

Folk
If I Had a Song: The Songs of Pete Seeger, Volume 2
3 1/2 stars
Appleseed Recordings]
Holly Near, Arlo Guthrie, Ronnie Gilbert, Pete Seeger
HARP -- A Time to Sing!
3 stars
Appleseed Recordings]

Pete Seeger's music is timeless. And folk songs that have been spiritual sustenance to generations are always welcome, especially given the current climate of crisis.

Seeger, in his 80s, is a contemporary of Woody Guthrie and during the bleakly tense 1950s he twitted the Cold Warriors with satire and sting as a member of the Weavers. To this day, he personifies the sense of community and activism he helped forge in the '60s and succeeding decades. Seeger is a gentle man whose wit and wisdom is balm to the masses and a bomb to demagogues.

"If I Had a Song: The Songs of Pete Seeger, Volume 2" is the second such tribute for the long-traveled music of Seeger. Its 16 songs offer interesting and often compelling interpretations by a diverse crew of musicians that includes Moxy Fruvous, Dar Williams and Toshi Reagon, Steve Earle, Guardabarranco, John McCutcheon, Billy Bragg, John Wesley Harding, Jackson Browne, Corey Harris and Joan Baez -- and a few cameos by Mr. Seeger himself.

There are lots of standouts here and a few dispensables, such as the Bragg-Eliza Carthy version of "If I Had a Hammer."

In the plus column is Earle's chilling reading of "Walking Down Death Row" and its frantic bid to make sense of the nightmare in what little time remains. McCutcheon and Harris deliver funk and rap to worker rights in "Talking Union." Woody's kid, Arlo, joins old man Seeger for a jaunty and nostalgic ramble in "66 Highway Blues."

Eric Andersen is absolutely eerie and ethereal in "Snow, Snow" and its moribund message. Kim and Reggie Harris and Magpie join Seeger in the harmonically rich and hopeful "Old Devil Time."

Volume 2 is a truly worthy addition to Appleseed's catalog, a record label that carries the torch for contemporary folk and its predecessors. In the latter category is "HARP -- a Time to Sing!" a two-disc re-release of the landmark recordings of four concerts in 1984 featuring feminist Holly Near, Arlo Guthrie and ex-Weavers Ronnie Gilbert and Pete Seeger (initials of first names creating the acronym HARP).

The reissue is refreshing for its heaping helping of dialogue between songs, not only shedding light on the times but the magic atmosphere and magnetic rapport with the audience. Not so refreshing is the inclusion of 13 songs that, no doubt, were wisely excised from the original recording. Nevertheless, there's lots of color and storied folk among 26 songs. One of the best is '60s rebel Arlo's humorous take on the generation gap du jour in "Oh Mom."

"The Water Is Wide" is simply a gorgeous ballad. Other memorables include "Jacob's Ladder," "Mothers, Daughters, Wives" and a spirited rework of the cliche "Wimoweh (in the jungle --)."

-- Randy Rodda

Jazz
Brad Mehldau Trio
3 1/2 stars
Progression
Warner]

Question No. 1: Could it possibly be more ironic that, in a period of jazz stylistic stasis, jazz is as profusely stocked with magnificent pianists as it has ever been? Then again, maybe there's a direct relationship. Perhaps the astounding number of first-rate pianists -- especially under the age of 45 -- directly reflects the thoughtful, neo-classic, vaguely cerebral nature of so much of the best jazz at the moment (three qualities being, in general, those most often found among jazz pianists). In any case, Brad Mehldau, at 31, continues to make tremendous discs, both on his own (this two-disc live set from the Village Vanguard is Vol. 5, no less, of his "Art of the Trio" series) and with others (his recent recordings with Charles Lloyd and Billy Higgins were sublime). His work here is sensitive, exploratory, lyrical and powerful in a kind of "Bill Evans via Keith Jarrett" style. If he's not exactly Jarrett's equal, he is expansive and spellbinding on his own.

Question No. 2: Does Mehldau make these worthy discs just to be able to enclose within them the astonishing essays on modern aesthetic politics that serve as their liner notes? It's possible. The type on this particular set of notes is so small that you practically need a microscope to read it, but its reflections on music and politics are full of references to Foucault, Freud, Goethe and Isaiah Berlin and of such startling observations as: "Music is an ideological whore. She will play for any team." This is most assuredly a new kind of jazz musician -- supereducated and compulsively ruminative, a powerful citizen of the intellectual world rather than an alien ironically removed from it.

All in all, a formidable two-disc set if by no means the best in a remarkable ongoing series.

-- Jeff Simon

Rock
Charlatans UK
** 1/2
Wonderland
MCA/Universal]

On its seventh release, the Charlatans UK has successfully severed the remaining ties with the band that grooved out of the Brit pop scene more than a decade ago. Completely gone are the thick layers, the psychedelic rock, the often hypnotic grooves. The band is more controlled these days; songs are cleaner, leaner. Tim Burgess' vocals, once wispy, yet unaffecting, are nearly unrecognizable. Clear and precise, they only digress into a soulful falsetto. He's so tightly wound, for instance, in the carefully constructed "You're So Pretty, We're So Pretty," that you just want to shake him loose. But this new sound is by design; a style that better articulates the vulnerability expressed in his lyrics. It continues the group's evolution over the past few records; an evolution, that although it's been more miss than hit, is quite admirable in a climate where change isn't embraced by long-time fans. "Wonderland" does have its moments. "And if I Fall" is one of the warmer tracks, quite melodious and certainly welcomed. The ominous underlying tones of "Is it in You" gives the song an added boost. The lengthy "Bell and Butterfly" floats along, but it's with more of a cold, techno groove. Comparisons to the Rolling Stones are sure to resurface, especially after hearing "You're So Pretty," "A Man Needs to Be Told" and "Wake Up."

-- Toni Ruberto

Blues
Little Toby Walker
Little Toby Walker
3 stars
Toby Records]

If you love acoustic blues, then let me introduce you to Little Toby Walker. Tearing up a storm with Big Bill Broonzy's "Texas Tornado" or navigating Blind Willie McTell's "Savannah Mama," the Long Island postman is a finger-picking terror on his 1929 National steel guitar.

Delivering material that ranges from Bo Carter's salacious "All Around Man" to the ragtime rhythms of Scott Joplin, Walker (real name Kurt Frankle) brings a musicologist's passion to his art. Like bluesmen of the past, he is a guitarist, songwriter and storytelling man whose music is also drawn from folk, country and ragtime. He has made numerous field trips into the South to research and learn at the knee of legendary Mississippi Delta players like James "Son" Thomas.

Inspired by Robert Johnson's 1937 album, "King of the Delta Blues," Walker has been perfecting his blues guitar-playing since he was 17. "Full Figured Women" is an original that demonstrates he's learned his lessons well. Like Taj Mahal, Walker has a deep appreciation for the entire range of blues traditions. "Stack O Lee" is notable for its delicate Piedmont-style fingerpicking, while Tampa Red's "Boogie Woogie Dance" and Sonny Boy Williamson's "Born Blind" are shimmering examples of bottleneck playing.

The self-produced 17-song CD also includes an Irish fiddle medley, a traditional arrangement of "Catfish Blues" and even a bluesy version of Lieber and Stoller's "When She Wants Good Loving."

-- Jim Santella

Buffalo Wax
Jupiter Jefferson
Running Out of West

The full-band sound of Jupiter Jefferson is the work of only two men -- Aaron Armstrong (voice, guitar, bass, organ, harp, percussion) and Michael Farry (trap kit). Armstrong also wrote the songs and recorded, mixed and mastered the self-produced recording. That's quite a handful, but the duo pulls it off. It's a very personal recording -- not in the "my gal left me" mode but in a concern for the world. The recording's title, and the deep-seated philosophy of its lyrics, are based in the world's fascination with the West and all its riches and mysteries. These six songs deal with what happens when we "run out of the West." Recurrent themes of famine, sickness, pollution and suffering are thoughtfully explored throughout the musically dense recording in songs such as "West," "Poor" and "Boundless." (www.jupiterjefferson.com)
-- Toni Ruberto

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