December 15, 2006 – 1:02 am
And the best of the year continues:
The Little Willies – The Little Willies
Perhaps it’s only right that this record received mixed reviews — from the disparaging to the downright over-effusive. Had I known it was a Norah Jones record when I picked it up, I would have put it straight back down again. Personally, I love it — and I’m a Norahphobe.
For the sake of clarity, it’s only almost a Norah Jones album — and don’t let that put you off. It’s a band that was put together for a short series of informal barroom gigs featuring songs by Willie Nelson, Hank Williams and Kris Kristofferson, that ended up getting recorded and released.
In fact, this is where Norah Jones is at her best. The Blue Note pretentions of jazz credentials wasn’t convincing in any way, and she’s a much better fit here. But it will probably come as no surprise that she’s not what’s interesting about this record.
The Little Willies is a great ensemble act. They’re a band that sound great together — like they’ve known each other all their lives, and upbeat, swinging country music is just how they communicate.
Thankfully, Norah’s not singing lead on every track. In fact, playing piano and acting as the Emmylou Harris to guitarist Richard Julian’s Gram Parsons seems exactly what she does best.
‘Best of All Possible Worlds’ is a good-time, thigh-slapping, self-deprecating alcoholic’s song of good-natured resignation — and you can almost hear the saloon door swinging and the hard drinking gunslingers swaying to ‘I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive’.
As authentic as you probably want it to be, and completely without irony. You could do worse than spend a lost weekend on Bourbon with this as your soundtrack.
The Audience’s Listening – Cut Chemist
Okay, this nearly didn’t make the cut just because of that infuriating apostrophe in the title, but the former Jurassic 5 member’s album-length tribute to the fine art of turntablism is too good to let pedantry stand in the way of a recommendation.
In much the same way that Kid Koala constructs a narrative with scratches (as he does in Fender Bender on 2000′s superb Carpal Tunnel Syndrome), Cut Chemist enjoys a complex, smart and clearly delightful game with his collection of vinyl. He plays records like some people play hacky sack — with skill, dexterity, flair and a good-natured sense of humour.
I thought this was going to be too much to spread over a whole album, but repeated listens reveal that there is more than just a facility with turntable equipment going on here. Cut Chemist approaches song construction like a less po-faced DJ Shadow: he understands natural progression, the rise and fall of a well-crafted pop narrative and, most importantly, he invests his music with layers that warrant closer investigation.
Sample spotters will pick Astrud Gilberto and Laurie Anderson a mile off, and ex-commercial radio sound engineer nerds will be able to tell you exactly which sound effect records he’s found in his local bargain bins (that’s the glass break from Mike Harding’s BBC Sound Effects Vol 13: Death And Horror, if I’m not mistaken).
Best of all, like those paintings that draw attention to the brushstrokes, it’s the kind of turntablism that draws attention to the device through which the music is made. This is not ‘turntable seamlessly integrated as musical instrument’ — this is ‘turntable as machinery consisting of spinning platter plus dusty vinyl plus diamond tip plus dextrous hands at work’.
It’s funky, funny and beautiful. And maybe that gets you an apostrophe pass. Just this once.
Ali Farka Toure – Savane
Okay — now I’m just being predictable. This is going to be on everyone’s ‘Best of the Year’ list this year. He was a great bluesman (reputedly Africa’s best known guitarist), and this was his best album — recorded shortly before he died.
Born in Timbuktu, he was widely regarded as one of Mali’s finest cultural exports. To most Western ears, his music is not just ‘World Music’ (and honestly, what music isn’t?) — but actually other-worldly. There is an emotional expression in the blues of Toure that has no easy translation into any other musical form, and those of us not fully fluent in the language can only experience, but not fully explain.
I’m not sure I personally have the right vocabulary to describe this record to you. If I just say ‘masterpiece’, ‘entrancing’ and ‘simultaneously emotional and unsentimental’, will you just take my word for it and make sure you own it? Or at the very least, if we happen to run into each other, will you ask me to play it for you so I can show you what I mean? It really is wonderful.
Have a good weekend… the best of the year list continues on Monday.