Saturday, December 15, 2018

James and the Transmission's technicolor vol. Giallo

When I listen to raging indie rock like this, it's not the sherbet between the courses. It's a return to my roots. After listening and reviewing a couple of Christmas albums yesterday I feel like I need to cleanse myself with something gritty. James and the Transmission is a hard rock outfit based in Los Angeles, my old home, and they have that pure power trio thing going in a big way, a little Foo Fighters on the surface but something darker and more psychedelic underneath. I like them because this new EP, Giallo, is both DIY and ambitious in scope.

That's hard to accomplish in just five songs, but Giallo is actually the second part of a project that started with Rojo, which was released earlier this year. Giovanni James and his brother Nico Miles and Antonio Argenis were kids growing up in the Inland Empire, one of my least favorite places on Earth, and much of the darkness in these songs comes from what they refer to as their hardscrabble upbringing. These aren't songs about the meaning of life, but rather details from their youth--especially about the boredom and complacency of the place we used to call "The 909." ("The 951" is the proper pejorative now, since the area code split.)

The lyrics are filled, of course, with angst of Generation Z, but lucid moments do pop out--such as when James points out "We're just the same as our parents/Just trying to manage our appearance" (in "Goodland") and "Why do you always seem to drink so much?/Why do I always seem to think you're gonna stop?" (in "Projectors"). When he sings "I didn't want to move here anyway," I can't help thinking about all those parents who moved their kids out of the city into places like the 909, only to drag those same problems in the trunks of their cars. (Ever see the film Next Friday? It's a goofy comedy, but it hits on those same issues that plague the outlying areas of LA.)

It's hard to get a clear picture from just five angry songs--it's actually just four, with a clean version of "Projectors" offered for airplay--which makes me believe that Rojo is required listening for the proper context. But James and the Transmission is a diamond in the rough, one that should probably avoid being plucked from the earth and gussied up--if they continue to explore these themes in future recordings and really talk about what's happening in the suburbs to these kids, they'll have performed an important service.

You can check out Giallo at their website.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Laura Dickinson 17's Auld Lang Syne

With a name like Auld Lang Syne, I assumed that this going to be an album for the afterparty and not the main event. But Laura Dickinson's holiday album is firm in its commitment to Christmas and this album's focus is on the more modern holiday repertoire performed in a big-budget extravaganza style. Dickinson is a music producer, singer, multi-instrumentalist and a vocal contractor--a term I'm not familiar with--so this project makes her seem like the Alan Parsons of big band jazz. Unlike Parsons, however, Dickinson's voice is front and center through these 11 songs, each one arranged by a different music industry professional.

The idea behind Auld Lang Syne, therefore, is complex. Dickinson's voice is a bit of a commodity in the entertainment world since her talents have been heard in films, TV shows and even video games. Her singing voice is unique, a light, sweet and ethereal entity that projects a lot of warmth. It's a bit delicate, something that comes through when she tries to really belt out a note and her appealing vulnerability seeps through. She can hit those impossibly high notes when necessarily, which at first sounds strange because so many of her jazz contemporaries are adamant about adding a little more heft and texture, a bit more growl. She, in contrast, is floating on the breeze.

As you move through these tracks, however, something might occur to you--what started off as a big band jazz Christmas album turns into something else, an omnibus of different approaches to holiday music. The title track, which concludes the album, borrows from Scottish folk music, as it probably should, and many of the other tracks are more aligned with musical theater than big band jazz. It's that first track, a medley of "Happy Holiday and "The Holiday Season," that tricks you with its nods to the Andrew Sisters and those rollicking TV Christmas specials from big stars that were so common just a few decades ago.

Auld Lang Syne is set on making a big impact, so this is another exciting holiday recording that will rev up the energy level at your family get-together. It is polished, slick and produced to the hilt, which may or may not complement your holiday theme, but it will make a big impression on your guests.

Jake Ehrenreich's A Treasury of Jewish Christmas Songs

I'm determined not to make the same mistake I made last year concerning Christmas releases. I had three holiday recordings sent to me last year, and through a series of mishaps they didn't appear in Part-Time Audiophile until a couple of days before Christmas. So the whole idea of buying these three CDs in time for the holidays was kind of shot. This year, however, I have exactly two holiday recordings for review. I received them a long time ago and quickly put them at the bottom of the pile--I thought wow, the holidays are a long way off. Today is December 14, and I need to get both reviews posted, so here we go.

The first holiday recording is Jake Ehrenreich's A Treasury of Jewish Christmas Songs, and if you know anything about the Great American Songbook you'll know that plenty of our most celebrated songwriters were indeed of the Jewish faith. In other words, this isn't a collection of songs that Jewish people sing on Christmas Day, because as far as I know there is no such thing. Ehrenreich, who is well-known for his Broadway performances, has teamed with Grammy-winning pianist and arranger Roger Kellaway to sing these well-known Christmas songs that were written, incidentally, by Jewish songwriters. (On a side note, Kellaway was nominated for an Oscar for the score of A Star Is Born--the 1976 version with Barbra Streisand.)

That means you get pretty straightforward, jazzy renditions of such tunes as "A Holly Jolly Christmas" (Johnny Marks), "Winter Wonderland" (Felix Bernard) and of course "White Christmas," which was written by Irving Berlin. Ehrenreich is accompanied by a simple, stripped down jazz trio consisting of Kellaway on piano, Dan Lutz on bass and Bruce Forman on guitar. (Kevin Winard supplies percussion on a few tracks.) This is a talented ensemble, however, and if you're a jazz fan looking for some musical respite while preserving the spirit of the occasion, I think this will be an enormous treat for you.

I like Ehrenreich's voice a lot--it's a tad gruff around the edges, so you aren't getting one of those dull crooners who try to evoke the gentlest of memories that will bore you into a long winter's nap. There's something in his delivery that reminds me of Burl Ives, an outgoing personality that fleshes out the emotions in these songs. He's obviously not as avuncular as Burl--this is a guy who can sing love songs and be quite convincing. But there's a warmth to his voice that is comforting without being bland.

If you're looking for something new to play on Christmas, this is a great choice. And remember that I'm a bit of a Scrooge when it comes to these recordings, so if I sound a little too objective here it's purely because I can't wait for December 26 to arrive. This is a first-class recording for you and your loved ones to enjoy.

The Deep End: Newvelle Records at Part-Time Audiophile

My latest Deep End music column for Part-Time Audiophile is now live. This one is about the stunning LP pressings from Newvelle Records in France, and how they are reviving subscription-based music services in 2018. You can read it here.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Somesh Mathur's Time Stood Still Now Live at Positive Feedback

My review of Somesh Mathur's amazing Time Stood Still is now live at Positive Feedback. You can read it here!

The BBB Featuring Bernie Dresel's Bern Bern Bern

I think I've figured something out about big band jazz: I tend to really like performances that are led by the drummer. I can say the same thing, and often do, about smaller ensembles, but there's something about a drummer leading a big band that just seems so dynamic and exciting. These drummers are leading by their rhythms, so I think they have to be extra expressive in the way they play. If you love drummers like I love drummers, you'll probably have a very favorable reaction to these types of performances.

Bernie Dresel has been doing this for a long time, and he's pretty well-known within the Los Angeles music scene, and not just in jazz. Bernie was the drummer for the Brian Setzer Orchestra for fourteen years, which means I've seen him perform live at least a couple of times. He's been the leader of The BBB, which stands for Bernin' Big Band, for the last couple of years. (That's right, the full title of this album is The Bernin' Big Band Featuring Bernie Dresel's Bern Bern Bern.) Perhaps that's also the reason why I responded so favorably to this album after just a few minutes of listening--Dresel has a classic rock and roll soul that carries over into these 14 tracks.

As I just mentioned in my Kenny Carr review yesterday, the intersection between rock and jazz can be very subtle. While Carr's excellent album uses this cross-referencing as a foundation, it's icing on the cake for The BBB. Bern Bern Bern is 95% big band jazz, played with confidence and swagger. That remaining 5% is overt such as the addition of a distorted electric guitar solo from Andrew Synowiec or a very steady rock beat from Dresel. Synowiec even gets to evoke Setzer on a couple of tracks, a homage to Dresel's roots perhaps--it's so satisfying to hear a rockabilly twang in the middle of a big band performance.

It's obvious this album is focused on one thing, and that's Bern. He's a magnificent drummer, fluid and blindingly fast when he needs to be. When I would see the Brian Setzer Orchestra perform, my initial reaction would always be this: "Man, I forget just how great Brian is on guitar." With this album, I feel the same way about Dresel's drumming. It's front and center, and it leads like a whirlwind.

Jason Kao Hwang and Burning Bridge's Blood

"Driving down on an unlit highway, my headlights flashed upon the bleeding carcass of a deer."

So begins the liner notes of Jason Kao Hwang's new album, Blood. Whenever I see Hwang's name attached to a musical project, I know it's going to be a challenge, I know it's going to be out there. Hwang, an avant-garde violinist, has crossed my path before with Sing House, which prompted me to conclude that "I'm still working on it. One day I may work it out in my mind, or I might just go back to my Dean Martin, Julie London and Harry Belafonte albums." He also performed on Michael Moss' Heli, a free jazz fever dream that I called "a daunting task, especially when you consider that most mainstream jazz fans might night make it through to the end."

Blood, performed with the Burning Bridge ensemble, starts off just as jagged, a series of sonic blasts and noises created by an interesting cross-section of instrumentation including cornet, flugelhorn, pipa, erhu, trombone, drums, bass and tuba. As you might imagine, this can be a fascinating cacophony. But it's also surprising in the way it eventually irons itself out and starts a cohesive narrative. Hwang's tale of roadkill is a starting point--the sudden and shocking image of that deer triggers something deeper in his soul and reminds him of his mother's "harrowing experiences in China during World War II." Hwang explains the connection like this: "Through Blood the violence of deeply held memories are not relived but transposed into our sound."

This is a heady idea, yes, but once we pass through the angry free jazz of "Breath Within the Bomb," the 12-minute opener, Hwang combines a classic jazz sound, equal parts free and be-bop, with the Chinese instrumentation. Here he shows that connection between the two worlds, the carcass of the present and the horrors of the past, all happening across vast chasms of time and space. These middle passages are taut and musical--the liner notes suggest a cinematic approach that can be easily digested by the listener.

Despite your reservations about exploring yet another free jazz nightmare, you could find Blood to be utterly absorbing--especially in the way it paints such vivid pictures. Hwang's story is sophisticated and expansive, the tale of his mother surviving a bomb blast in a pharmacy is juxtaposed with his sadness for two fellow jazz musicians, Americans who fought in Vietnam where "the magnitude of pain and sorrow that they endured is unimaginable." Blood, as the title implies, is as far from lighthearted as it gets. But it is fascinating in its cerebral approach, which is wrapped in a thoroughly accessible veneer.