We say: The international Norah Jones? Or the world music Ambien?
When Bebel Gilberto sprung onto the world music scene at the beginning of this decade, she became a star on several continents and her songs got remixed by the likes of Thievery Corporation.
On that debut album and the follow-up, the award nominations were frequent and she seemed to show up on on movie and TV soundtracks on a regular basis. So for a while she has seemed poised to become a Brazilian Norah Jones or the next Diana Krall. The songs are hooky enough to get onto "adult contemporary" radio stations, but different enough to be hip background music in a boutique hotel or coffee shop.
Unfortunately, this long-awaited third release is one mellllowwww album: breathy bedroom vocals, downtempo songs with sparse instrumentation, and about as much energy as a beach bum after six caipirinhas. Party music this is not.
"Bring back the Love," is the obvious bid for radio play: it's mostly sung in English, has some help from Brazilian Girls, and is upbeat in a Sade sort of way. "Cacada" also moves along at a healthy clip and will likely be the tune that gets remixed and put on a dozen compilations. "Tranquilo" starts off cranking like a Samba dance song, then backs off and gets, well, tranquilo.
Otherwise, this is inoffensive mood music for winding down to bedtime. Even the cover of Cole Porter's obsessive "Night and Day" comes across as nice background music for snuggling by the fireplace, no angst required. The album will probably sell millions and be sitting in the CD collection of many a baby boomer by year's end, but don't pick this up if you liked the upbeat songs on her previous albums more than the slow dance contenders. (Or follow the iTunes or eMusic links at the right and pick your tracksâ€¦)
Slavic Soul Party!
We say: Loud! Crazy! What the...?!
When a band puts an exclamation mark after the word "party" in their name, they had better be really good, really energetic, or just plain loud. I'm not well-versed enough in Slavic music to know if they're really good, but they do pass the test on the second two points.
Slavic Soul Party is the kind of band I'd love to see at a wedding. I just wouldn't want it to be my wedding. Imagine an accordion player and a bunch of brass players--including one or two with a tuba--blasting away on some crazy songs that sound like a bunch of Romanians and Yugoslavians playing Jewish Klezmer music. I got more than a few odd looks playing this one in the car with the windows open.
Once you get used to it, this is fun and infectious music, though it probably loses something without the feel of seeing them live. The band's leader, Matt Moran, says this is typically music that would be live, unamplified, and mobile. In some of the cultures where it originated, the band would follow the wedding ceremony as it unfolds, starting at the alter and ending up at the reception party. Loud and mobile, with no amps required.
This is no band digging for purity, however, putting out something to go in historic archives. The now-New Yorkers mash up whatever works musically for the nine-piece band, whether it comes from the Balkans or not. Anyone playing "spot the influence" will hear Mexican "Norte" music, Bavarian polka music, and more than a bit of New Orleans. A collision, yes, but a fun one that forges ahead with its own unique sound, no matter who or what is in the way.
Putumayo Presents: Gypsy Groove
We say: Eastern Europeans get ProTools and turn out Gypsy dance music
If you like your ethnic music to be a little less in your face, Putumayo's Gypsy Groove collection is just the ticket. Combining traditional Roma-influenced and Klezmer songs with dance grooves works surprisingly well. The artists here certainly know how to get a crowd moving, but they do it without abandoning the past: many of the tracks are derived from traditional folk songs or melodies.
The second track, by Shantel, isn't far off of what Slavic Soul Party is throwing down, with a gypsy brass band just getting a slight remix and a thumping bass line. Most of the others throw in more from the sampler sink though, including the "Like that uh, ummm" woman's voice that Shantel remixes in with the Amsterdam Klezmer Band. Karen Gafurdjanov is from Uzbekistan, but "Yor Uzga" sounds like a distant take on Punjabi music for a Bollywood soundtrack. (Hey, the Roma did supposedly migrate up from Rajastan long agoâ€¦) Other tracks sound like a Turkish pop song with a twist, a song Nick Cave might have sung had he been born in Hungary, or some Israeli New Yorkers applying Klezner music to an infectious beat.
This is one of those compilations that needs a few listens to grow on you, requiring a twist of the ears a bit to the left to get it. With one of the bands (Luminescent Orchestrii) calling themselves a "Gypsy tango klezmer punk acoustic string band," it's a sign that this takes a little extra effort to appreciate, pumping beats or not. Around the third or fourth time through though, it starts to click. If this is what's playing in the right clubs of Budapest and Prague these days, a round of pilsners on me to whoever can be my guide next time I'm in town!
We say: Ibiza is to tango as Germany is to gauchos
Like a store brand cola or a Christian rock band, Tango Jointz mixes the right ingredients, but something just doesn't taste quite right. The elements are all in place: lots of accordian, melancholy vocals, and some electronic beats to bring it up to date. But it never quites lives up to the standard set by Gotan Project or Bojofondo Tango Club.
Yeah, I know Gotan Project is from Paris, so in theory a DJ born in Germany who got famous in Ibiza (Claus Zundel) should not automatically be dismissed because he doesn't have tango in his blood. So I tried hard over repeated listens to enjoy it--I normally love this stuff--but it doesn't stand out from the many other artists mining this same territory.
At times the album does shine. The song I kept coming back to was the hauntingly beautiful jazz standout "Alone Together," an "homage to Chet Baker" with added accordian accompaniment--nice. A similar nod to Miles Davis is also good. Throughout the disc, in fact, the best tracks are the ones where a guest--either alive or dead--takes the lead. A few feature artists who are already famous in Buenos Aires lend some authenticity, including Ricardito Reveira and Bellma Cespedes. Two tracks feature the long-dead Astor Piazzolla, but on "Libertango" Zundel seems to be showing his age: the cheesy synth riffs accompanying the classy Piazzolla sound like they came straight off a Deep Forest or Enigma album, circa 1993. Ditto for "The Gaucho's Pain," which could actually be a Deep Forest song.
On the surface, this album is fine for the uninitiated and nowhere does it disrespect the culture or the form. But like a supposedly in-depth travel story written by someone who only spent a weekend in a city, it's missing some depth.
This month's music reviews were written by editor Tim Leffel, who spent seven years working for RCA Records before discovering that devoting his life to promoting lousy music was not so glamorous after all. He is author of Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune and is co–author of Hip–Hop, Inc.: Success Strategies of the Rap Moguls.
Bebel Gilberto at eMusic
Exotic Musical Instruments Handmade by NOVICA Artists Around the World
Hear a Slavic Soul Party Podcast (free)