Statler: Well, it was good.
Waldorf: Ah, it was very bad.
Statler: Well, it was average.
Waldorf: Ah, it was in the middle there.
Statler: Ah, it wasn’t that great.
Waldorf: I kind of liked it.”
-‘The Muppet Show’.
I’m Mark, the Music & Film Specialist at Wellington City Libraries (I also run the Libraries’ Wellington Music Facebook page). Every month my colleague Neil and I cast our eye over the new material we have been buying for the Music collection at our CBD Te Awe library. We pick out some interesting titles across a range of music genres, and try to limit our reviews to a few lines only. Can we encapsulate an entire album in just a couple of lines? [Ed. This is probably unlikely at this point]. Do we actually know anything about new music? Or, are we just too old to understand what most of this is banging on about? [Ed. This is more than likely]. Read on to find out…
Éthiopiques. 21, Piano solo / Guèbrou, Tsegué-Maryam
Mark: In the January issue of Uncut there was feature write-up for a Vinyl only archival release by Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, an Ethiopian piano playing Nun. We had nothing from her in our collection, so we decided to track down the original 2006 CD from the Éthiopiques series. So while this is not a new CD persee, since she passed away at the age of 99 on March 26th, it seemed fitting to include amongst our reviews. Her fascinating life plays out like a Hollywood movie: a society upbringing saw her studying Violin at a Swiss boarding school, singing & performing for Emperor Haile Selassie, becoming a prisoner of war on an Italian Island during WW2, declining a place at London’s Royal College of Music to take holy orders at age 21 and live in a convent, ultimately returning to her music and in 2017 becoming the subject of a BBC Radio 4 documentary called The Honky Tonk Nun. Her piano playing is fascinating, ultimately too stylistically diverse to fit comfortably in the Ethio-jazz tradition, as she melds classical, improvisational jazz, Mississippi Delta, ragtime, religious music and minimalist techniques, into a rich and truly unique voice that tells the story of her own life.
Neil: This is an album of solo piano pieces composed and played by Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, a high-born Ethiopian woman who left her privileged life to become a nun in the nation’s Orthodox Church. She was educated and classically trained in Europe, and you can hear those American and European colonial influences in these works. But that is only a small part of the story, as her own Ethiopian musical heritage is also very much to the fore here. The music is unique. There is an emotional lyricism and depth to the pieces, as well as a strong sense of melody, and you can also detect elements of jazz and blues. Consisting mostly of material originally released in 1960s and 70s, this ethereal compilation holds all these elements seemingly effortlessly in a form that is both fluid and structured.
A tribute to Ryuichi Sakamoto : to the moon and back
Mark: This tribute CD, that was released towards the end of last year, was actually part of last month’s additions to the collection. However, since it was announced that Ryuichi Sakamoto had also sadly passed away earlier this month we thought we would include it here. From his work in Yellow Magic Orchestra as well as solo albums and film scores, he was a hugely influential figure within electronic music to scores of musicians across generations and genres. This collection of songs from Sakamoto’s vast catalogue are reworked and remodelled by contemporary artists and previous collaborators. While some are more experimental (Thundercat’s reworking of Thousand Knives), others expand on the original textures of the pieces, capturing their essence while suffusing them with additional emotional shadings of danger, melancholy and reflection.
Neil: The recent passing of Ryuichi Sakamoto brought into sharp focus what an amazing and versatile artist he was. He was at home in so many musical spheres, and totally unafraid to explore throughout his musical career. This album of remodelled tracks, released before his passing, is a fitting tribute that touches on many strands of his music, a complex and multi-layered album with a range of musical giants reimagining some of his works. Some of these compilations, whilst well meaning, are a bit patchy, but not this one. Each track is a valuable piece in its own right. I was particularly happy to hear a remodelled track from his Revenant soundtrack. A great entry point to the rich and varied musical world of one of our greatest musicians.
Songbook / Lazy Eyes
Mark: This Australian band have been around for 7 or so years, but ‘Songbook’ is their debut full length album, following a couple of EPs from 2020. This is classic psych-rock, not that much removed from it’s 60s influences, as well as the looming musical presence of previous Australian acts who have reworked this style for a modern audiences (Tame Impala etc). It all seems a bit overly familiar at first, as they hit all the major touch-points of the genre, with freaky guitars, noodling baselines, woozy affected vocals and vintage synth swirls. However the second half of the album features more proggy elements, ambient touches and straight up ballads, suggesting they have many more musical directions to explore after this.
Neil: Sydney psychedelic rock band Lazy Eyes don’t hide their influences. Quite the contrary, they wear them proudly on their musical sleeves, as the influence of bands like Pond, Tame Impala and King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard is clear to hear. That said, whilst this album is firmly in the modern psychedelic rock sphere it also shows the bands ambitions to widen their sonic palette. There are touches that remind the listener of the French band Air, and even rubber soul era Beatles. A band in evolution, and a great Gen Z take on psychedelic rock that is sure to please fans of the genre.
Curyman / Rogê
Mark: Rogê is Roger José Cury, a Brazilian musician now based in Los Angeles. Relatively unknown outside of Brazil, where he had 10-year residency at the downtown Rio samba club Carioca da Gema and composed the theme for Rio’s 2016 Olympics, this album has been critically acclaimed as his international breakthrough, following a relocation to the US. Lovely, warm, Brazilian rhythms, nylon-stringed acoustic guitars and emotional husky vocals, funky sambas and bossas, super catchy melodies, lovely backing vocals, this really has everything. Legendary Brazilian arranger Arthur Verocai was apparently convinced to come out of retirement to provide the string arrangements, which really are beautiful. No doubt this will be one of the best Brazilian releases of the year.
Neil: Brazilian singer songwriter Rogê has taken a long time to make it into the international music spotlight, as it is twenty years since the release of his debut album. It is a bit of a surprise, as the Rio samba star’s gently funky and soul influenced take on Brazilian music is instantly approachable, infectiously upbeat and enjoyable, and he has been a major star in his home country for a long time. The album is a sunny, uplifting, heart-warming and exuberant release. A sonic ray of tropical sun to chase away any winter blues.
On & on / James, José
Mark: American jazz singer, José James, who combines jazz, soul, drum’n’bass, spoken word and hip hop is back with a new album celebrating the work of iconic soul singer Erykah Badu, following on from albums that celebrated Billie Holiday in 2015 and Bill Withers in 2018. He has a very smooth and mellow voice but this is not easy listening persee, as his spiritual takes on these tracks dig deep into the universal truths within, flipping the songs to a male perspective with empathy and sensitivity. Improvisational, complex, moody; an album reflecting the growth of jazz to seek out new cannons from within other genres, opening up the music of both audiences.
Neil: ‘On & on’ is a set of seven covers from Erykah Badu impressive catalogue by José James. However, the album is far from a conventional covers album. Instead, José rightly regards the songs as part of the classic soul canon and justifiably reimagines them in his own unique light. As such, there are several aspects to the tracks, such as urban cool jazz and contemporary smooth soul R&B, not to mention blues and gospel. Overall, it is pretty laid back, but it also has real deep depth to the pieces, as his voice conveys truth and emotion and feeling. Reportedly after rehearsing, each track was done as a one track with elements added later. The cover sleeve photo clearly points to José intentions, as it is a direct homage to Alice Coltrane’s deeply spiritual musical Journey To Satchidananda.Whilst sounding very different from this album, the connections between the two in approach are clear. Surely another best of 2023 contender.
Pacific breeze. 3, Japanese city pop, AOR and boogie 1975-1987
Mark: . Japan’s late 70s/80s economic boom saw it become the world’s second largest economy, and also coincided with a technological revolution in the way music was recorded and listened to. All of which led to a sophisticated class of young urban Japanese and the rise of City Pop, a loosely defined form of Japanese pop music that drew its inspiration from R&B, Jazz and emerging Western music trends from funk to lounge and yacht rock. Once incredibly obscure, the rise of anime, YouTube channels, and now Tik-Tok has seen it re-emerge as a minor cult. Light In The Attic has been curating this phenomenon with their acclaimed ‘Pacific Breeze’ series of releases, bringing together a fantastic amount of music that previously has never been released outside of Japan. This is the 3rd volume in the series, an endlessly fascinating compilation of the smooth and funky, the cheesy and the sincere, the loungy and the electronic, presenting a strange and compelling reflection of Western styles subsumed and refracted into something new. Brilliant stuff.
Neil: As the title so succinctly states, this is a collection of Japanese city pop, AOR and boogie from the 70’s and 80’s. So, let’s unpack that a little. It’s a collection that speaks very clearly of its time of creation, especially when it comes to the production and the types of Synths and Drum machines employed. The tracks are bubbly, effervescent, and slightly unusual if you are more familiar with the western equivalents going on at the time, though there are lots of points of crossover. The tracks are largely groovetastic and feature such genres as disco, boogie funk, R&B, techno pop, and this era in Japan even spawned its own genre vaporwave. The cover art perfectly evokes the albums contents. A very different and unusual listen.
False Lankum / Lankum
Mark: Dublin folk radicals return with their fourth album, following on from 2019’s acclaimed The livelong day, in which they teamed up with Black Midi producer John “Spud” Murphy and won the Choice Music Prize (Ireland’s equivalent of the UK’s Mercury prize) for the album of the year. ‘False Lankum’ moves further from the traditional folk sound of their first couple of albums, expanding on ‘The livelong day’s’ dark drone-like atmospherics to create a dense, album comprised of two originals, seven folk tracks and three improvised pieces. Quiet, fragile pieces shift into foreboding laments, and then into funereal howls into the abyss. The album evokes a cinematic crawl through decades of folk references into a modern heart of darkness, with a cycle of songs about life, work, love, family, friends, and death. At 70 minutes it can feel like a heavy emotional journey, but as an artistic statement it has been compared to everything from ‘Ok Computer’ to Sunn O))), to late period Scott Walker.
Neil: Lankum’s fourth album is a deep-rooted gothic folk outing. The album is a very long way from conventional mainstream folk music. It is anchored in a melancholic, mysterious, harmonic centre that the band uses to lull its listeners into a false calm, before throwing them headfirst into a maelstrom of sound. It’s an exciting, intense and powerful listen, and whilst they are a folk band, they are at the experimental cutting edge of this genre. This album could quite easily have been done as a heavy-duty drone piece, such are its sensibilities and power.
Oh me oh my / Holley, Lonnie
Mark: Lonnie Holley is a well known artist working in found-object sculptures, paintings, and installations, who started to perform improvised, free-flowing music in the 2010s. This led to touring with musicians like Bill Callahan, Deerhunter, and Animal Collective, along with collaborative projects including 2018’s politically charged MITH and 2021’s Broken Mirror: A Selfie Reflection, with Matthew E. White. His latest album has been acclaimed as a career high-point. Produced by Jacknife Lee and featuring guest appearances from Michael Stipe, Sharon Van Etten, and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, it’s a musical autobiography that takes you on a frenetic and, at times, harrowing journey through his poverty-ridden background, exorcising plenty of trauma along the way. But this album also celebrates the blessing of life, and the triumph of spirit and will over circumstances. The big name producer and guests don’t actually shift this into any kind of ‘commercial’ mainstream framework, rather the added instrumentation and musical textures just focus and reshape his somewhat impressionistic style into more structured forms. A powerful and emotionally resonant album, whose themes linger long after the music ends.
Neil: Lonnie Holley was born into extreme poverty, and spent some of his childhood in the infamous Mount Meigs community juvenile correctional facility. Even now, at 73, he is still haunted by the abuse, torture and terror he experienced there. This past and pain informs ‘Oh me oh my’, but whilst this album is a deeply moving and emotional work, it is also both an experimental and approachable album that is ultimately a testament to the human spirits ability to survive. It defies classification in the best possible of ways, as Lonnie Holley uses his own musical language throughout. There are some elements of free jazz, and Sun Ra and Doctor John occasionally came to mind if you need pointers. A remarkable album that has a deeply personal and spiritual aspect to it. Quite extraordinary!