Share this article

print logo

Listening Post: Future Islands, Bob Dylan tribute, Avi Avital, Dinara Alieva, Hafez Nazeri, Oran Etkin and ‘Working Man’s Poet’


Future Islands, “Singles” (4AD). A recent performance on David Letterman’s show certainly grabbed some attention for this Baltimore synth-based trio. Frontman Samuel T. Herring turned Future Islands’ appearance into four minutes of riveting performance art, strutting about the stage like the unholy product of a union between Tom Waits and Klaus Nomi. Heck, even Letterman appeared to be blown away by Herring’s junkyard androgyny and commanding presence. It was almost enough to make you forget the power of Future Islands’ music itself. Almost. But not quite. “Singles” is a beautifully bizarre collection, with Herring’s scratchy, whiskey-soaked low tenor and tendency to overdramatize ably matched by achingly melodic synthesized set pieces long on melody and refreshingly minimalist in construction. Fans of the Blue Nile and Ultravox, line up. This is some creepily compelling stuff, and with each listen, it gains a little bit more command over your soul. Modern electro-pop doesn’t get much better. ∆∆∆½ (Jeff Miers)


Various Artists,A Tribute to Bob Dylan in the ’80s: Volume One” (ATO). There are more than enough reasons to dismiss the majority of Bob Dylan’s output in the ’80s. I will list only a few of the most obvious. First, there’s the whole “God thing” – Dylan was a born-again Christian for a while there, and he was both uber-crotchety and way up in everybody’s face about it. One felt like saying “Um, no, but thanks for asking” and gently closing the front door. Then there was the whole production thing – most of Dylan’s ’80s releases were shoddily produced, the obvious exception being the best of the bunch, the Daniel Lanois-helmed masterpiece “Oh Mercy”. Finally, there was the fact that even Dylan himself seemed to be offended by the material, to the point where he sounded at once bored and insulted by the proceedings. It’s usually not a good thing for the artist to be only mildly interested in the material. However, as is usually the case, the distance afforded by time’s passage now allows us a fresh perspective on this period in Dylan’s creative life. And guess what? If we make it past the barking dogs in the driveway, the house itself is kinda comfy and inviting. Especially when someone else is housesitting, which is the case with this surprisingly awesome collection of alternative and indie rock luminaries getting their ’80s Bob on. There are no duds here, which is really saying something, when you consider that many of the songs are culled from dismal albums like “Shot of Love,” “Knocked Out Loaded” and “Empire Burlesque.” Standouts included Built to Spill’s definitive take on the brilliant “Jokerman,” Craig Finn of the Hold Steady’s rescue job on “Sweetheart Like You,” Marco Benevento’s transcendent “Every Grain of Sand,” and Glen Hansard’s slow and stately “Pressing On.” But, to borrow a title from a much later Dylan song, it’s all good. ∆∆∆∆ (Jeff Miers)


Avi Avital, “Between Worlds” (Deutsche Grammophon). You have to smile, hearing Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances played on mandolin, accompanied by accordion and harp. That’s what mandolin virtuoso Avi Avital means about being between worlds. (Though the Romanian Folk Dances do sound quite at home on the mandolin, which sort of stands in for a balalaika.) Avital has great sidemen, led by Richard Galliano on accordion. They are warm and witty and unconventional – sort of like Buffalo’s Skiffle Minstrels, I thought now and then. only with a more Eastern European slant. They trade witty duets in a Piazzolla piece and fill a traditional Bulgarian dance with an infectious joy. The music tends to gather speed, gradually, like the music you hear at the Greek Festival. The mood grows more reflective with Ernest Bloch’s “Nigun” and a traditional Welsh melody, “Hen Ferghetan,” which begins with extreme delicacy and features Catrin Finch on harp. The thread that holds this disc together is that all the composers represented – also including Manuel de Falla and Hector Villa-Lobos – were all inspired by folk music. Avital and his friends help you see why. ΩΩΩ½ (Mary Kunz Goldman)


Dinara Alieva, “Pace, mio Dio...” With the Czech National Symphony Orchestra, Marcello Rota, conductor (Delos). Alieva is one of the singers from Russia’s Bolshoi Opera being featured at this summer’s Lincoln Center Festival, along with Cate Blanchett and other stars. Her diverse repertoire ranges from Johann Strauss to the folk songs of her native Azerbaijan to, of course, the Italian masters. Here she sings arias mostly from operas by Puccini, Verdi, Leoncavallo. While there are no surprises, there is a surprise in that the liner notes are very good, not only giving you the texts but placing them in the contexts of the opera and orienting the newcomer to what to listen for. This is rare. Singers are always singing the aria “Ebben? Ne andro” from Catalani’s “La Wally,” and no one ever goes out of the way to explain it. Alieva’s voice is a pleasure, strong and flexible with just the right hint of darkness, and a great sensitivity of phrasing. She is stunning in how she picks dazzling high notes out of the air and holds them with no apparent effort. The able conductor is Marcello Rota, the nephew of the great movie composer (“Romeo and Juliet,” “The Godfather”) Nino Rota. ∆∆∆½ (M.K.G.)


Hafez Nazeri, “Rumi Symphony, Project Untold” Performed by Nazeri and the Rumi Instrumental Ensemble and various artists including cellist Matt Haimovitz, violist Phil Neubauer and percussionists Glen Velez and Zakir Hussain under Nazeri’s direction (Sony Classical). How’s this for musical ambition? What the great Iranian composer and vocalist and instrumentalist wants to do with his Rumi Symphony Project, he says, is “spark a musical fusion so convincing and so different that it demands a new name.” It incorporates “the singular voice of the Persian mystical poet Rumi with the harmonic structure of Western Symphonic music, signaling the integration of distinct musical traditions into a new form and identity, a new beginning.” Nazeri has sold out Carnegie Hall with his music, and when you hear the power and beauty of what he is trying to do here (which is way beyond previous Eastern/Western musics by, say, Ravi Shankar) you’ll have no confusion why. I wish there were translations of Rumi’s poetry in the notes, but it’s marvelous, no matter. ΩΩΩΩ (Jeff Simon)


Various Artists, “Working Man’s Poet” (Red). “If wishes were horses,” goes the old folk saying, “beggars would ride.” Merle Haggard could have written that – on a very good day. This tribute to the poet laureate of “outlaw country” wants to be a great tribute to Merle Haggard, but a lot of beggars aren’t going to ride tonight. It knows the songs to sing and the right lyrics to make for a perfect portrait – of a successful country singer who, when he was 31, had “no place to go when it’s over” so “tonight I kick the footlights out again and walk away without a curtain call.” And, on another song, of a guy whose “bottle let me down.” And, on another, of turning “21 in prison doing life without parole” despite the fact that “mama tried to raise me better.” And on a couple others, worrying about turning down a dicey evening’s companion in “makeup and faded blue jeans” and, making the domestic offering to a spouse “let’s chase each other around the room tonight.” But for all the authenticity of the songs, the singers – many major names among them – diminish themselves in Haggard’s song world – and that, sadly, includes his son Ben doing “Sing Me Back Home” and “Mama Tried.” Garth Brooks, Toby Keith and Jason Aldean not only have the star reputations, but a lot of this tribute’s substitute for conviction. Unfortunately, James Wesley’s version of “The Fightin’ Side of Me” from 1970 is so deep in self-righteous anachronism that it diminishes Haggard too. The working man’s poet was indeed no stranger to writing songs from the wrong side of the bottle. ΩΩ½ (J.S.)


Oran Etkin, “Gathering Light” (Motema.) Oran Etkin is a clarinet and bass clarinet player from Israel who considers Louis Armstrong “my main inspiration to explore and love music” and who adopted the late, great Yusef Lateef as a mentor and, accordingly, has become a kind of committed jazz internationalist whose “tours” of other continents are constant enough to qualify, with other musicians, as “residences” there (in that he resembles the great Brooklyn/Moroccan composer pianist Randy Weston.) This disc, according to Etkin, was inspired by tours in Indonesia, China, Japan, Israel and Europe – so much so that when he decided to put his sultry and unique version of “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” into the band’s book, he was in the South of China. His band on the disc is fascinating – Etkin on his clarinets (occasionally saxophone), Ben Allison on bass, the great Lionel Loueke on guitar and vocals and Curtis Fowlkes on trombone. It’s a wildly eclectic disc, with Indonesian, Israeli and Japanese folk songs, songs written for children and originals by Etkin dedicated to his touring alter ego “Tony” who “once we get to our destination … has a tendency to get in trouble, always running into the street market, trying all the foods.” A gifted, brilliant,playful and extremely unusual jazz musician. ΩΩΩ (J.S.)