Staff Picks CDs for April & May

Many of our staff are keen music listeners, and we’ve rounded up their favourite music discoveries of April & May. There’s plenty of variety, reflecting the diversity of our CD collection here at Wellington City Libraries & a myriad of different tastes. We hope you find something you haven’t come across before!

Cover imageBetty Wright : the movie / Betty Wright and The Roots.
First album in 10 years from Miami Soul stalwart Betty Wright, better known in more recent years for mentoring/guiding Joss Stone’s debut The Soul Sessions. Wright had already been working on new material, but a chance meeting of S Curve records head Steve Greenberg & ?uestlove of The Roots lead to The Roots collaborating with Wright on the project. The album is all the better for using real instruments instead of the programming that sinks most contemporary R&B, as they surround her voice with an organic mix of great sounds; a contemporary feel on one track, evoking the classic 70’s soul sound the next, creating a similar flavour to some of Aretha’s late period Arista albums like ‘A Rose is still a rose’. Wright’s voice has deepened since her early work but she sounds better than ever. Definitely worth a listen. (Mark)

Cover imageSelections from Road atlas, 1998-2011.
Calexico have released eight CDs on their own label ‘Our Soil, Our Strength’. Quite distinct from their major releases, these albums served sometimes to make available studio demos and projects that didn’t make it to other albums, live recordings or other experiments and are obtainable only through the band’s website or from live gigs. This CD is a compilation of standout tracks from those obscure releases and, surprisingly, given the disparate nature of the original recordings, holds together very well as a cohesive album. I should mention the second track ‘Waitomo’, which features a metronomic VU style drumbeat, stylistically unusual for Calexico. Upon reading the cover notes I discovered this track is ‘dedicated to the NZ music scene’ – way to go Calexico! (John)

Cover imageThe best of conscious roots.
The double disc edition, couldn’t get any better than this, the likes of Katchafire, The Black Seeds, Trinity Roots, Cornerstone Roots, Fat Freddy’s Drop, Tiki Taane, House of Shem, 1814, and many more packed into one double disc CD. 30 songs in all. Disc 1, reflects on people and society, disc 2, drawing from life and experiences. And in keeping with the philosophy of the series from all 5 volumes, we have a mix of established and emerging artists. There are 18 tracks from the first 5 volumes and 12 tracks from emerging artists not featured before. It’s showcasing 100% NZ Music, keeping it NZ Real rather than hanging off overseas musical trends and influences — we’re keeping it Kiwi! “The Best” brings together highlights from all 5 volumes and ‘Yes we do have them all in our collection’. And last but by no means least, I should also acknowledge the beautiful sleeve art painting of Benita Tahuri from ‘NRG Rising’ (Disc 1, track 1 ‘Rua Kenana’) whose moko kauae graces the cover of this CD. ‘Ataahua’ (Ethel)

Cover imageBespoke.
Too often ‘upbeat’ can mean vacuous, fortunately that is definitely not the case for LA producer Daedelus’ latest CD released by the esteemed London based Ninja Tune label. The beats are dense and superbly crafted, drawing from a dizzyingly wide variety of electronic music sub-genres, but what really brings this album alive is the presence of no less than seven guest vocalists, including Inara George and Busdriver. The vast, disparate ocean of influences Daedelus draws from could have resulted in an abstract mess but he manages to expertly distil the sound down to a personal and highly appealing party and beyond sound for 2020. (John)

Cover imageWeather.
Ever since her debut in 1993, which showed off her funky bass play and cool vocal, Meshell Ndegeocell has been one of the most innovative artists. Her uncompromising, refusing-to-be-categorised spirit created some fantastic music, and this latest album produced by Joe Henry proves again that she is a rare, truly artistic musician. If you know Ndegeocello and Henry, you would expect they are a great match, and they are. Although the album was recorded in only five days, it’s gorgeous and the quality of music is exceptional. It’s very personal, intimate music led by Ndegeocello’s dark, husky yet emotional voice. There are some grooves but they are dominated by subtle subdued ambient tones. However, Henry’s production gives an impressive texture and depth, and Ndegeocello’s luscious passion quietly emerges from this ascetic but gorgeous soundscape. The best album since Bitter. (Shinji)

Cover imageAn empty bliss beyond this world / The Caretaker.
The Caretaker is the ongoing project of James Leyland Kirby who explores a very strange sound world. Rest assured that you have never heard anything quite like this – the closest reference point would be William Basinski’s ‘Disintegration Loops’. Sampling and looping pre war 78’s, he creates spectral, haunting atmospheres that hang in the air like ghosts. The 1930’s waltzes complete with static and 78rpm crackles evoke an era long gone glimpsed through a technological prism. This is sedate and chilling ambient music and an oddly prescient soundtrack to the crumbling of the myth of progress. (John)

Cover imageJulie is her name ; Julie is her name, vol. 2.
The 1950s produced a group of female singers that came to be associated with what was called ‘The cool school’ of 1950s jazz: Anita O’Day, Chris Connor, June Christy, Helen Merrill & others. While Connor & Christy followed O’Day, in that they were all vocalists with Stan Kenton’s big band before embarking on solo careers, Julie London’s background was different. By 1955 London, after an early career as a model & actress, was a 30 year old divorcee with two children, who liked to go out to Jazz ‘supper’ clubs. It was there she caught the attention of pianist/composer Bobby Troup who heard her singing at an after-party & decided that he had to record her. She recorded 4 tracks backed by Troup’s trio & eventually secured a deal with Liberty records, with whom she went on to record over 30 albums over the next 15 years. While some would say London was more of a ‘pop’ singer than a pure jazz singer, she did record a lot of albums in a jazz context & the two albums on this compilation fit that bill. ‘Julie Is Her Name’ recorded in 1955, features Barney Kessel on guitar and Ray Leatherwood on bass, while it’s sequel ‘Julie Is Her Name, Vol. 2’ recorded in 1958, features Howard Roberts on guitar and Red Mitchell on bass. London referred to herself as having a ‘thimbleful of a voice’ but much like Chet Baker she was able to use a limited range to her advantage and had an instinctive grasp of the melancholy nature of whatever song she was singing. Many singers who came after her imitated her delivery, especially with ballads (Diana Krall comes to mind) and while they were often technically better vocalists, their style was merely a pale imitation of the magic London had. (Mark)

Cover imagesPower, corruption & lies covered.
Mojo magazine has featured a long series of compilation CDs, and this recent one is a standout. New Order’s 1983 release – Power, Corruption & Lies – was the record on which they established the New Order sound as opposed to “that band that used to be Joy Division”, and here the entire album plus the accompanying Blue Monday 12” are recreated by an excellent range of contemporary bands. Personal standouts are the Tarwater version of ‘We All Stand’ and Biosphere’s smooth and sleek, and dare I say courageous, 2012 update of the classic ‘Blue Monday’. (John)

Cover imageMoods & modes.
One of the most important figures in the German jazz scene today, the trombonist Nils Wogram is still relatively young (born 1972) but a master of its field. He is leading numerous projects (Nils Wogram Nostalgia Trio, Root 70 etc.) and has been very active throughout Europe. One of his core works, the duo with the Russian born pianist Simon Nabatov has been long established. Both players are classically trained and technically impeccable, which is proved in this, their fifth effort. The music they create here is based on simple melodies but flowing, ever-changing varieties. As the title indicates, they develop the music by following or changing the form, and their duality is marvellous. Wogram’s clear, smooth tone and Nabatov’s lucid strong touch are wonderful interacted together as well as separately. The duo of trombone and piano is rare, but they display tireless conversations by doing simple things right, and make it a brilliant contemporary jazz and beyond. A winner of the 2011 ECHO award (German version of the Grammy). (Shinji)

Cover imageDemons.
The Cowboy Junkies’ most recent releases are the ‘Nomad Series’, which consists of four CDs, each representing a different sound project. ‘Demons’ (Vol. 2 in the series) is a tribute to alt. country singer, songwriter Vic Chesnutt, who took his own life in 2009. This selection of Chestnutt’s dark songs is a great introduction to the late singer’s haunted world, the themes of which are complemented perfectly by Margo Timmins lovely plaintive voice. If, as for me, Cowboy Junkies had wandered too close to the middle of the road and fallen off your radar, then this CD offers a wonderful re-acquaintance. Full of dark irony, pain and ragged fire this is a great alt-country record. (John)

Cover imageYokohama / Aki Takase ; Louis Sclavis.
Making duo albums can be challenging but that’s what Berlin resident and Japanese jazz pianist, Aki Takase, has focused on in recent years. She has issued six duo albums during the last decade with prominent European musicians including the pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach and the drummer Han Bennik — and this disc with French clarinet virtuoso, Louis Sclavis is probably the most satisfying one. Both players are extremely versatile — Takase recorded tribute albums for completely different artists (Fats Waller and Ornette Coleman), and Sclavis has exquisite recordings for ECM, but some avant-garde outings as well on his discography. This album is a showcase of these two veterans’ masterful virtuosities, and of abilities for listening to and comprehending their counterparts. It is evident that they have abundant musical vocabularies and are drawing on a huge variety of music: Monk, Dolhy, Coltrane, modern classical music, and above all, great Jimmy Giuffre Trio LINK (with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow). Takase uses a prepared piano on a few tunes which brings an intriguing effect, and in reply, Sclavis changes clarinet to bass-clarinet and soprano sax. The hues of music are so diverse. A masterful improvisation fiesta. (Shinji)

Cover imageBlack sands : remixed.
Bonobo’s Black Sands was a welcome return to form after a couple of patchy releases following 2000’s wonderful Animal Magic. This remix compilation expands upon the original versions across a wide variety of styles and pretty much presents a showcase of all that is good in the current downbeat Electronica scene. From the gorgeous ambience of Duke Dumont’s ‘Grains Of Sand’ reconstruction of the title track to the Dubstep inspired Bank’s remix of ‘The Keeper’ this is a great introduction to Bonobo and a good taster of contemporary lush and chilled electronic music. (John)

Cover imageWeightless / Becca Stevens Band.
She was Bjork when I first encountered Becca Stevens. New York’s jazz alto saxophonist, Travis Sullivan lead a unique big band called ‘Bjorkestra’ to play Bjork’s tunes which he arranged into jazz, and the singer in this band was Becca Stevens. There is not much similarity between Bjork and Becca Stevens as a singer, but Stevens took on this important and daunting role and did a superb job. She portrayed Bjork’s vocals faithfully but avoided being too heavy or complicated. That naturalness impressed me. In fact, she is an in-demand singer in the New York jazz scene today. She is a jazz singer but not your typical jazz singer, and this, her second album, is not a jazz album at all. It sounds more like a folkie singer-songwriter album with jazzy harmonies. She and her three male bandmates play acoustic instruments such as guitar, charango, ukulele, and accordion, and craft a cosy handmade sound. Their organic but painstaking chorus is also characteristic on this album. The album includes interesting covers of The Smiths, Seal, Animal Collective and Iron & Wine, but is very much a low-key affair. She is true to herself rather than aiming at something sensational — which is endearing. (Shinji)

Cover imageDiversions vol. 1 : the songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons : live from the Union Chapel, London / The Unthanks.
I was lucky enough to see The Unthank sisters (their real surname) at Womad a few years ago and was instantly charmed by their sincerity and rosy-cheeked wholesomeness. They are prominent in the current British folk scene and here apply their delicate and accomplished folk and chamber pop sensibilities to two contemporary songwriters, wonderfully and subtly re-contextualizing songs of both Antony & The Johnsons and UK indie godfather, Robert Wyatt. This is a lovely low key recording (you can hear the occasional bus passing outside) of an intimate live concert. (John)

Cover imageThe lion’s roar.
Getting a lot of press at the moment ‘First Aid Kit’ are a group comprising two sisters from Sweden, Johanna and Klara Söderberg – sort of a Swedish version of US sister duo The Pierces. Whereas The Pierces have a more polished vocal sound, drawing influences from 70s AM pop, First Aid Kit are clearly part of the current ‘Nu-Folk’ movement influenced by the likes of Joanna Newsom & The Fleet Foxes (they even covered the Fleet Foxes ‘Tiger Mountain Peasant Song’ on the re-release of their first EP ‘Drunken Trees’). The songwriting on ‘The Lion’s roar’ is an improvement on their first full length album The big black & the blue, and while it sonically starts to sound a bit samey after a while, their soaring harmonies on the stand out tracks make it a worthwhile listen for anyone into the current folk resurgence. (Mark)

Cover imageHits are for squares.
A great idea for a compilation – get a selection of musicians, actors and celebs – including Thom Yorke, Catherine Keener and Beck – to choose their all time favourite Sonic Youth song. The result is a well sequenced career overview which features songs from pretty much every stage of the band’s 30 year history. It is remarkable just how well the tracks sit alongside each other with ‘World Looks Red’ from the bands 1983 debut album Confusion Is Sex sounding great alongside their cover version of Karen Carpenter’s ‘Superstar’ or “Rain On Tin’ from 2002’s Murray Street. A fine retrospective for fans and a great intro for those new to the band. (John)

Cover imageDark eyes / Tomasz Stanko Quintet.
Polish Trumpet player Stanko has been a force in European Jazz since he began playing in the 1960’s, winning the very first European Jazz Prize in 2002. His 90s alliance with the ECM label produced some of his best work and for his latest CD he formed a new quintet of piano/bass/drums & guitar. Frequently compared to Miles Davis for the tone of his playing & his use of space and silence, ‘Dark Eyes’ sees him finding new layers of melancholy shade & mood with his compositions, and Danish guitarist Jakob Bro adds some different touches to Stanko’s usual Quartet palette. Some of the songs from this CD featured prominently in the Jazz themed soundtrack of the recent TV show ‘Homeland.’ Recommended. (Mark)