The Morning Benders
3 stars (out of 4)
Led by singer, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Christopher Chu, Berkley, Calif.'s the Morning Benders enter the upper echelon of widescreen alt-pop with the sophomore effort "Big Echo."
The album's title is more than appropriate. "Big Echo" is drenched in enough glorious reverb to make even a My Morning Jacket recording sound decidedly dry by comparison. It's grandiose stuff, but it's never overwrought. The songs are the thing here, and Chu has written some winsome ones.
Fans of MGMT, Grizzly Bear -- whose Chris Taylor co-produced the album -- and pretty much anything that Dave Fridmann has produced will find "Big Echo's" opener "Excuses" to be a clarion call, as a pastiche of mellotron, organ, piano, guitars and lovingly tinkered with drum sounds coagulate around Chu's mildly whimsical vocal. You'll swear you've heard the song before, though you haven't -- a good sign that all concerned have hit upon something memorable.
From there on, the Morning Benders are off and running, bending an interesting array of gauzy sounds to their own collective will, and never failing to deliver a memorable vocal melody, strong chorus hook, interesting wrinkle in a chord progression, or dramatic fluctuation in the sonic material to keep the listener engaged.
All of this hits its peak and is stunningly encapsulated during "All Day Day Light," a song that might not have been out of place on the Flaming Lips' masterpiece "The Soft Bulletin," so heart-rending is its melodic content and so interesting its production.
"Big Echo" is a surprisingly mature effort for such a young band. On first listen, its surface appears placid and waveless, but spend time with the record and you'll find dangerous currents lurking just beneath. Buy this and play it loud.
-- Jeff Miers
3 1/2 stars
No one who caught Lionel Loueke in 2008 in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery's irreplaceable "Art of Jazz" concert series will be the slightest bit surprised by either the intimate fire or headlong creativity of this disc.
The West African guitarist has been one of the most exciting musicians in jazz since a jazz cabal of senior masters (including Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter) found itself competing on discovery about who had recorded with him first.
Even so, the most experienced jazz ears have still never heard anything even vaguely resembling Loueke's version of Wayne Shorter's "Nefertiti."
Loueke plays acoustic guitar, which puts the volume level of this amazing group (including the great young bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding) at little more than living room level. But, in its freedom, both melodic and rhythmic, it flies many miles away from its basis in the good cheer of Afro-pop and into territory that would have delighted some of the most free-form eclecticists ever to record for ECM (percussionist Egberto Gismonti, for instance, and the groups Oregon and Codona).
What the melodic beauty and chamber jazz intimacy of this music does is preserve how little you can predict about what's going to happen from bar to bar -- the sudden reshapings of tune structure or falsetto vocalises or the wild parings-down to just Spalding's bass and scat-chants or roaring lustiness of Ferenc Nemeth and Marcus Gilmore's drums.
One of the great jazz discs so far of 2010.
-- Jeff Simon
Garaj Mahal & Fareed Haque
3 1/2 stars
The struggle between technological innovation and artistic creativity has fueled the most interesting music since the advent of electronic instruments.
For every purist insisting that technology is the enemy, or at the very least, a beast to be tamed and housebroken, there are musicians who fearlessly embrace as many new innovations in electronic instrumentation as they can get their grubby little mitts on. Both sides of the argument have a point -- technological innovation has made it far too easy for nonmusicians to create "stuff that sounds an awful lot like music," and overreliance on gadgetry can often dehumanize performances. That said, new toys can open up new worlds of sound and expression, when placed in the right hands. Forcing the technology to bend to the will of the musician can yield incredible results.
The Moog Guitar is an amazing new instrument that blends the capabilities of legendary Moog synthesizers with the tonal and textural qualities of an electric guitar. It's an incredible instrument -- or at least, it sure sounds like one when Fareed Haque plays it. The things are going for more than three grand a pop, so the likelihood of yours truly laying claim to one is not high.
"Discovery" finds esteemed jazz/funk/Indian classical/rock guitarist Haque and his pals in Garaj Mahal teaming to explore the possibilities of the new instrument. Happily, the album doesn't come across as a "demo disc" designed to sell the listener on the merits of the Moog Guitar. It's a collection of atmospheric compositions, burning jazz-funk grooves, spacey electronic soundscapes, and Eastern-tinged rock workouts that still manages to celebrate the unique sonic possibilities of the new instrument.
This is "music geek" stuff, maybe, but if you happen to be one, you should explore "Discovery." It is more about the soul and the songs than the technology, and man certainly emerges triumphant over machine. But good lord, that Moog Guitar does sound amazing! ("Discovery" is available through iTunes and www.moogmusic.com.)
Performed by pianist Nelson Freire
[Decca Universal, two CDs]
All hail the wave of new Chopin releases, headed our way thanks to the Chopin year, now officially under way. The Brazilian-born Nelson Freire is leading the pack with a two-disc set of the Nocturnes.
A dreamy player, Freire wanders through the music, with lots of rubato and vast spaces of extreme quietude. There is a case to be made for playing it that way, and I do not think Chopin intended for us to listen to all these pieces end-to-end.
But I think Freire is better in music with more of a built-in backbone. His Beethoven is great. Always his playing has a lot of poetry, but I wish he brought that assertive approach to the Chopin.
-- Mary Kunz Goldman