Each year the music industry trots out thousands of new and reissued compact discs.
Most you never hear of, much less hear. Less than 10 percent generate much radio station airplay, sales or chart presence. In an industry that looks for the instant bottom-line gratification of mega-million sellers, a lot of music drops out of sight quickly.
Let’s take a closer look at a dozen of the many overlooked CDs released last year. Neko Case, Blacklisted, Bloodshot
If singers such as Faith Hill and Shania Twain are a glass of white zin, Neko Case is a shot of whiskey, straight up, no chaser. Case, a former punk rocker, has one of the finest, most natural country voices in music today. Her voice is imbued with the heartache and longing that taps right into country’s deepest roots. It’s lean, spare and has a punk aesthetic. She’s much closer to the soul of Tammy and Kitty and Patsy and Loretta than Faith or Shania. Blacklisted evokes latter-day Johnny Cash (his Rick Rubin-produced work). The Carters. Dolly. The mountains. Thrilling, chilling, moody and unforgettable. Janah, World That Surrounds You, Rattlesby
This rock band knows how to fully integrate world music with rock without compromising either. "Oil on My Head" is particularly impressive with its Middle Eastern-Latin-rock blend. Instruments such as tablas and dumbeks swirl and guitars scream and the ethnic and rock percussion drives with passion. The band employs an arena-rock big sound that is majestic and soars. A surprising, rich album. Tom Tom Club, Live at the Clubhouse, iMusic
This hook-happy, groove-intensive group led by ex-Talking Heads Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz has been sampled by rappers and TV ads. Their sunny, organic and infectious rhythms defy your feet to stand still. This live set works beautifully on the strengths of a powerful show and a potent list of tunes. The act’s best-known song, "Genius of Love," gets an extended version here that rivals (as do several tunes here) their studio versions. Especially strong is the band’s take on the sublime "Holy Water," the edgy "Punk Lolita" and deft covers of Hot Chocolate’s "You Sexy Thing," a striking take on? & the Mysterians’ "96 Tears" and a soulful move on the Al Green/Talking Heads hit "Take Me to the River." Farzad, Mirror of Emotions, Amity
The violin can be a very emotional instrument, and the classically trained Farzad utilizes this quality to great effect on Mirror of Emotions. A native of Iran, he integrates Middle Eastern folk music, some Latin touches (he is the former musical director of the National Symphony Orchestra of Ecuador) and jazz sensibility into a remarkably cohesive musical adventure. Relaxing, yet stimulating, Farzad wrote most of the album’s tunes. He works here with guitarist Louie Shelton (Barbra Streisand, Marvin Gaye); the collaboration shines on rhythmic "La Dadiva." Farzad, an exile because of his Bahai faith (his uncle was executed by the government), now lives in New Mexico. A lovely, moving work. Jimmy Scott, But Beautiful, Milestone Jazz singer Jimmy Scott has built a career on being overlooked. He’s had his moments (including a fine documentary) and some sublime albums. The idiosyncratic singer packs more emotion into a song than an army of Whitneys, Mariahs and Justins. The 76-year-old Scott’s voice (which was altered by a childhood disease) at times recalls Billie Holiday in her glorious decline. A little patience may be needed to acclimate your ears to his voice, but the rewards are many. This elegant group of standards — "You Don’t Know What Love Is," " Please Send Me Someone to Love, "" I’ll Be Seeing You" — packs a wallop. Especially strong: the Dinah Washington classic "This Bitter Earth" and the moving "Take My Hand, Precious Lord." The sublime music features Renee Rosnes, Wynton Marsalis and Joe Beck. Floetry, Floetic, Dreamworks This appealing duo has enjoyed success on the R&B charts, but this album — which fuses spoken word and soul music in a sort of Lauryn Hill, India. Arie and Marvin Gaye kind of way — hasn’t found its way to the pop audience. The duo’s groove is way cool, stepping into that hard-to-define area that might be best described as modern retro. London-born, Philadelphia-based singer-songwriter Marsha Ambrosius and emcee-songwriter Natalie Stewart wrote "Butterflies," which was recorded by Michael Jackson. Tuneful, playful, sexy, soulful. If you like India. Arie, this will also be very appealing. Wah!, Opium, Wah! Music Wah!, the yoga chant singer who performed in Little Rock in 2002, has made a bold step.
Instead of love songs to the divine, she is singing velvety, rhythmic songs of love and life. Working with musicians from the bands of Macy Gray and Alanis Morrisette, Wah! ’s new music is soulful in a contemporary R&B way. The new songs are steeped in personal experience and conveyed with a sultriness that her chant CDs only hint at. Her superb voice rises to the new setting with inspiring emotional directness and soulfulness. The CD is available at Wah! ’s Web site, www. wahmusic. com, by phone at (888) 398-9642 or (800) 862-7232. Kim Richey, Rise, Lost Highway
Even in her most overproduced Nashville recordings, Kim Richey was always a voice to be reckoned with. All she needed was time and the right songs and right label. All of that finally came together on Rise, her first album for Lost Highway. Superb songs, a rootsy atmosphere that supports her rich, expressive voice and a crack producer (Bill Bottrell of Shelby Lynne and Sheryl Crow fame) makes this Americana-esque CD a powerhouse. The tunes include the foreboding "Without You" and the Pete Droge collaboration "Electric Green." Folk, country and bluesy. Jorma Kaukonen, Blue Country Heart, Columbia
The former Jefferson Airplane guitarist turns old timey country, blues and bluegrass picker on this warm, engaging set. Kaukonen taps classics such as the Delmore Brothers’ "Blue Rainroad Train" and "Blues Stay Away from Me," Jimmie Rodgers’ "Waiting for a Train" and more. Stellar musical support from Sam Bush (mandolin, fiddle), Jerry Douglas (dobro), Bela Fleck (banjo) and Byron House (bass) makes this sparkle from start to finish. Kaukonen says the project was a dream he’s had for several years. It’s a dream come true for him and music lovers. The sound is so present and alive you’d swear they’re pickin’ in your home. Tift Merritt, Bramble Rose, Lost Highway
A hit in the Americana circles, Tift Merritt’s smart Bramble Rose (like Kim Richey’s latest) is the kind of album that shows how good country-imbued records can be. There are times she echoes traces of Emmylou Harris; and like Harris, her voice is imbued with emotion and conviction. The songs are intelligent and well crafted, the music a sort of countryrock, alt. country vibe. Confident and assured, Merritt’s debut should also appeal to fans of Lucinda Williams. Not a slouch song in the bunch; highlights include "Trouble Over Me," " Virginia, No One Can Warn You, "the title track and the aching" Are You Still in Love With Me?" David Baerwald, Here Comes the New Folk Underground, Lost Highway
David Baerwald was part of the pop group David + David, which had the 1986 hit "Welcome to the Boomtown." He also played a role in Sheryl Crow’s debut album and has worked on albums for Jewel, Waylon Jennings, Fishbone and many others. But this is nothing like any of those; the music is a rootsy, catchy blend of country-rock, alt. country, bluegrass and a hint of soul. Very retro in its vibe, it sometimes suggests a hint of the Hooters. Lyrically, it strolls into territories Baerwald has described as "songs about embattled optimism." Baerwald calls his style "insurgent American music." Tunes like "The Crash," " Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down, "" If" and "Hellbound Train" help make this a most welcome return. Hot Club of Cowtown, Ghost Train, Hightone
This is one hot club that way too many country fans don’t know about. The foundation for this trio’s sound is the music of guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli as the Hot Club of France and the western swing of Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys. Elana Fremerman (violin, vocals), Whit Smith (guitar, vocals) and Jake Erwin (bass) offer a spirit of fun and superior musicianship. They now rely less on classics and more on their superb originals on this major leap forward. Amid classics such as "You Took Advantage of Me" and "Cherokee Shuffle," the Austin-based trio offers the bouncy "Forget-Me-Nots" and the dark "It Starts with Me." Easily their best work and a shining promise of a band hitting its creative stride.
©Copyright 2003, The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (AR, USA)
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