Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Anthony Wilson dazzles with his take on Brazillian jazz

What a joy it is to be in possession of Campo Belo, the latest album from jazz guitar genius Anthony Wilson. Wilson has always had an affinity and connection for Brazil and for the many styles of South American jazz, and he now aims to bring that sound to an American audience.

Wilson shuttled down to Sao Paolo and collaborated with a fine trio of Brazilian musicians - Andre Mehmari, Edu Ribeiro, & Guto Wirtti - and the time and care invested in this record really shows. The result is music that is very fluffy, vibrant and carefree, and has the potential to light up an evening with great company. Campo Belo is as warm as the sunshine on your face, as tasty as a wad of cotton candy, and as authentic as a stroll down the streets of old Rio.

Wilson kicks off this collection with the album's title track, which manages to mix many of his signature emotions all into one track."Campo Belo" is an extended suite that feels like it's on it's way to somewhere -  as if it has some grand point that has to be made. The piano clangs in the background while Wilson deliberately produces every note, making sure not one of them is wasted. About five minutes in the track changes pace, however, and becomes mellow and free flowing like a lively party.

"March to March" is an attempt to expound upon a particular mood or atmosphere; in this case it could be the perfect background for a relaxed evening with friends. The light, easygoing piano work will carry you away to pleasant times.

Other highlights include "Edu," which features stimulating interplay between the piano and guitar. But most notable is the accordion, which gives the track a festive, springlike atmosphere. Before the end, "Edu" tosses some curveballs by mixing in some slightly more dramatic passages before coming back down to earth.

This paves the way for the real highlight of the album, "After the Flood," which noticeably cranks up the intensity. With its sweet guitar leads it's very energetic and ear grabbing. And there are a multitude of slick interludes and breakdowns that are complimented perfectly by the ting-ting-tang of the cymbals in the background.

Of course, there are many more laid back moments on the album, including the elegant and breathtaking "Etna," which could serve as background music to an evening on the balcony of some luxurious hotel overlooking the city, with drink in hand.

And then there is "Transitron," the closer, which sounds like nothing else on the album. It opens with wild arrangement of guitars and pianos, while the snare rolls signal chaos in the background. After about two minutes the song settles into an ominous groove. It ripples with a certain type of energy not found anywhere else on the album, making "Transitron" a clear highlight.

I was not familiar with Anthony Wilson's works up to this point, but I admire the way he is able to cultivate a particular mood and promote awareness of this wonderful type of jazz. So grab your best buddy and be sure to tip your martini waiter well, because Campo Belo will provide you with the soundtrack to kick up your feet.

Score: 81/100

Friday, November 18, 2011

Ghost to a Ghost delivers cheap thrills, little substance

Hank III has finally cast off Curb's shackles.

The heir to one of country's music's greatest legacies has gained many a supporter by giving a stiff middle finger to the Music Row syndicate. Hank has always been about presenting himself as a tough guy, a rebel and redneck. If half the tales he tells of his drinking and drugging are true, he could veritably put most rock stars to shame.

Hank became very critical of Curb Records in the latter stages of his tenure with them. So now that he's on his own label, has Hank finally produced the magnum opus he's been promising?

Ghost to a Ghost/Guttertown dual album assault certainly has been billed as such, but it's going to be tough to label this as Hank's masterwork. The country based Ghost to a Ghost is musically fine, and Hank is as bold and crude as he has ever been, but perhaps not quite as clever. A good chunk of the album sees Hank spewing the same tired material - that he's a broken down rebel just looking for a good time. This wouldn't be a big deal for many artists, but you don't listen to Hank for his music. You come to hear what he has to say.

The first two tracks - "Guttertown" and "Day by Day" are very similar to one another in thematic content and delivery. Both feature catchy, foot tapping beats but are a bit repetitive. "Ridin' the Wave" shows off a bit of his Assjack/heavy metal influence as it is a bit more hard nosed and aggressive than anything else on the album, while still mixing in a predominant country influence.

"Ghost to a Ghost" also features Hank's patented sense of wit and attitude, but more often than not it misses the mark here. The biggest offender is "Don't You Wanna," which sounds as if Hank wrote it in the bathroom of a greasy trucker's bar in 20 minutes. In broad daylight. The result? It's laughably juvenile and sophomoric, a stark contrast to previous efforts where he's often been slightly more tongue in cheek when it comes to his crudeness.

Ironically, the best songs on the album aren't even by Hank himself. Midway through the album, he sings a duet with Ray Lawrence Jr., preforming two of his songs. They provide an awesome dose of old school country. There are no shenanigans, just a display of raw emotion as the two reflect on love gone bad.

Also noteworthy is "Trooper's Chaos," a song about dog hunting. The main hook features a dog barking in rhythym to the music. I'm not sure that works so well, but I do dig the old timey sounding banjo in the background and I give Hank props for trying out a slightly unique concept.

"The Devil's Movin' In" showcases Hank at his dreariest and most mournful, while "Cunt of a Bitch" tells the bawdy tale of a scandalous women who seduces men then knocks them out and steals their wallets. It all concludes with the waltz like title track and album closer.

Ghost to a Ghost is vast improvement over Hank's lifeless 2010 effort, The Rebel Within, and is a lively, listenable disc with its fair share of catchy tunes. However, you won't see any of the political, pissed of Hank; this album is fairly repetitive in terms of subject matter and doesn't seem to deliver a great deal of thought or imagination. It's good enough if you're in the mood for mindless rebel outlaw tunes, but will be a let down for anyone who wanted to see Hank do something more than simply toe the party line.

Score: 77/100

Guttertown evokes images of an old fashioned gutter stomp

Now this gets a bit more interesting.

The first half of Hank3's double album, Ghost to a Ghost, is the much more accessible of the two and is basically business as usual for Shelton. But those of us who know Hank know he's always had an experiential side, and the second disc, Guttertown, tosses away the rule book. Hank aims to recreate the historical musical traditions of the Deep South, but does it in his own zany way. Much of Guttertown is authentic, much of it is oddball, some of it is even unsettling. But it will provoke a reaction from you in one way or another.

It's immediately obvious that one of the album's key strengths is its ability to set a mood. The opener, "Goin' to Guttertown," begins with 3 minutes of crickets chirping until Hank's mournful voice comes in and introduces the core concept of Guttertown.  He's backed up by a chorus of wild animals screeching, chirping, and buzzing in the background in a wild cacophony.

When Guttertown is at its most lively, it resembles an old fashioned backwater bayou stomp. There is a large emphasis on Cajun music that permeates many of the songs.

One of those is "Getto Stomp," which delivers an ode to drinking in Guttertown, and "Musha's," which lights the room ablaze with its accordion play while also eliciting energizing Cajun shrieks and shouts from Shelton himself. If that's not enough, he also mixes a little French into some of these tracks to give it even more of an authentic feel. Parlez vous francais?

But it doesn't take long to get the sense that all is not well in Guttertown. It's is a desolate, forlorn place where few souls dare to linger; the sensation quickly washes over you. Consider the sense of apprehension in "The Dirt Road," or the almost-a-funeral-dirge that is "The Low Line."

Hank also packs in a number of noise tracks that delivers a dark mood. Some of them are pretty innocent, like "Chord of the Organ," which consists mainly of simple sustain notes on an organ. But "It's Goin' Down" is slightly more sinister, which features the sound of an iron gate blowing and rattling in the distance. "The Round" sounds something like a cross between a squeaking iron machine and a chicken clucking, with the sounds of children's voices eventually coming into the foreground.

What adds to the creepy factor on many of these noise songs is that everything sounds like it's happening off in the distance, so you can't get a complete read on what is going on. But perhaps most disturbing is "Trooper's Chaos," which consists mostly of agonized dog howls. Later on, a series of voices come in that sound almost demonic.

Outside that, most songs have a backwater country feel. "I Promised" and "Move Them Songs" are a pair of tracks featureing Eddie Pleasant and both prominently feature stripped back arrangements and a very tinny audio quality,as if they were playing out of an old timey radio. "I'll Be Gone" boasts a loud cajun accordion with banjos and fiddles galore, along with a vocal performance rough enough to make a cat hiss.

But it's not all gravy. At times Hank gets a bit too cutesy and avant-garde for his own good. There's a run of mood songs in the album's second half that drone on and really go nowhere. It starts with "Trooper's Chaos," which then fades into the dreadful "Chaos Queen," a rough display of bellowing vocals over a forlon organ. Overall it's a mess.

Then you get "Thunderpain," with its thunderclaps and a vocal style similar to the track before it. If you listen closely you can tell the vocals on a few of these songs are meant to be a take on old time Southern soul, but the way Hank sings makes it slightly hard to tell.

But two of the best tracks are collaborations. They work brilliantly because his guests are every bit as oddball as Hank.

First up is "Fadin' Moon" with Tom Waits. Music Row country is often known for sentimental, pitch perfect ballads between people like Alison Krauss and Brad Paisley or somebody. "Fadin' Moon" spits directly in the face of all that. It's a can of cajun kickass; it's a bastardized version of a duet, as Hank's piercing howls are complimented in spectacular fashion by Tom's indecipherable grizzled growls.

One of Guttertown's big accomplishments is bringing the soul back into country that the Nashville syndicate ripped out, and "Fadin' Moon" serves as one of the chief examples of that.

Before the album ends, Hank throws one more left turn at you. Oddly enough, there's no real hint of country on the closer, "With the Ship." In fact, with its quirky melody and lyrics, and it's general goofball style, it would fit in much better on a Les Claypool album than on Guttertown.

But that's Les's loss and Hank's gain, because "With the Ship" is one of the most kickass songs you'll hear this year. It's a song about, well, going down with a sinking ship, and the duo concoct as many ways as they can of saying it. Coupled with a catchy drum beat, you're likely to find yourself repeatedly humming the melody to this one.

Guttertown is, without a doubt, a unique album, and not one you're like to immediately get into. I considered this album a throwaway on first listen, but unlike Ghost to a Ghost this disc takes time and effort to be able to reap its rewards. It isn't perfect; there are some moments that are not really experimental. They're just plain stupid. But Hank has opted for a gritty depiction of the Old South, and like it or love it, there's one thing you can't deny: Guttertown is a place that you don't ever want to go.

Score: 79/100