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This article was published 3/1/2019 (379 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
In a Poem Unlimited (4AD)
U.S. Girls was an unfamiliar name before this album was released in February and avant-disco pop hits such as Pearly Gates or M.A.H. (Mad As Hell) began popping up on the playlists of NPR stations. Now the album itself appears on dozens of best of 2018 lists.
So, a quick primer –– U.S. Girls is the project of art school-educated American musician and producer Megan Remy, who married Toronto musician Slim Twig (a.k.a. Max Turnbull) and moved to the Great White North nearly a decade ago. In that time, Remy’s music has evolved from tape-loop experimentalism to earthier, groove-centred post-modern pop, courtesy of her willingness to collaborate with just about anyone and incorporate the best traits of others into her sounds.
On seven of this album’s nine songs (two of the 11 tracks are spoken-word snippets), Remy and her co-producer Steve Chahley work with the Cosmic Range, a psychedelic jazz-funk band that features Slim Twig. They have come up with songs best described as wolves in sheep’s clothing, since their upbeat fluidity belies the harsh nature of the lyrics, which condemn the lot of women in society (Velvet 4 Sale, Incidental Boogie), criticize modern politicians and capitalists (Mad As Hell, Rage of Plastics) and even imagine St. Peter as a sexual predator (Pearly Gates).
Remy’s two synth-pop tunes with Rich Morel, meanwhile, hint at her keys to living, with Rosebud pointing to self-awareness while Poem urges us to express ourselves freely. ★★★★
Stream these: Velvet 4 Sale, Pearly Gates, Poem
–– John Kendle
Songs for the King (Capitol)
If you were asked to define the differences between Elvis Presley, the king of rock ‘n’ roll and Glen Campbell it would likely be akin to describing the distinction between night and day.
For his part Campbell was a master player and became celebrated for his mellow versions of songwriter Jimmy Webb’s works. This recently unearthed set of tracks showcases Campbell and his recorded demonstration versions of songs that were intended for Presley to use a guide for his own recordings.
The differences between the two are staggering. Campbell was adept at mimicking Presley’s voice and does so with varying results on Easy Come Easy Go, Spinout and Clambake. If you are any kind of serious Elvis fan it becomes a bit of a challenge to not dislike Campbell’s tiresome affectations.
He was pitch-perfect in his delivery yet it’s abundantly clear once you hear these songs why Presley was the singer being pitched rather than the reverse. As a pure singer, Presley had few equals. The specific tone and timbre of his voice and his ability to evoke an undeniable soulfulness was unique for a white artist at the time.
Campbell, for his part, sounds like he is trying to work magic where there isn’t any. Where his delivery does work is on tracks like Magic Fire, Restless and I’ll Never Know a trio that were closer to his stylistic wheelhouse. We Call On Him is an interesting combination of Campbell and Presley singing "together" that by now could be exactly what is happening in the musical great beyond. ★★★
Stream these: Magic Fire, I Got Love
— Jeff Monk
John Daversa American Dreamers: Voices of Hope, Music of Freedom (BMF Jazz)
In some ways I feel impelled to review this album. It is at times poignant, angry, despairing and hopeful — sometimes all at once.
Trumpeter John Daversa has taken a group of American musicians who are also "Dreamers" — part of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), undocumented children who had a degree of safety in the U.S. before President Donald Trump cut the program. There are 700,000 of them, and they are in limbo, facing at least theoretical possibility of deportation.
This album features Dreamers who join the band and give brief intros: Caliph from Senegal, Juan Carlos from Mexico, Saba from Pakistan, who is in post-grad microbiology and speaks five languages, etc. They also play and sing. The effect is jazz with an emotionally moving subtext; accomplished young people who love America but are in danger of losing everything.
Daversa’s project works beautifully to expose a frightening reality while remaining clearly in a jazz context. There are pointed versions of America, and a Grammy nominated arrangement of Don’t Fence Me In, is both cheekily sarcastic and appropriate.
These DACA artists exemplify the contribution of the Dreamers — 90 per cent of whom are students. Here’s hoping they are around to perform on other albums. ★★★★
Stream these: Don’t Fence Me In, Deportee
— Keith Black
Arcadian Winds, Pedroia String Quartet with Yhasmin Valenzuela
Gentle Winds: Chamber Music of Samuel A Livingston (Navona)
This newer release offers a kinder, gentler recording of tonal chamber works by Samuel A. Livingston, inspired by international folk dances laden with asymmetrical meters, and performed by the Arcadian Winds and Pedroia String Quartet with guest clarinettist Yhasmin Valenzuela.
The notably self-taught American composer ably creates tightly knit contrapuntal textures during each of his four pieces, including title track Gentle Winds for flute, oboe, clarinet and horn that displays his clear polyphonic writing both natural and engaging.
The more darkly hewn The Old Man is Dancing, written in a minor tonality, sees the flute, clarinet and oboe taking turns passing thematic material among the ensemble, each line balanced against the whole punctuated with syncopated, dancelike rhythms.
The more rugged Call to the Mountains, influenced by Western film scores, features the flute, clarinet, oboe and bassoon responding to the siren call of the horn during the opening movement in this character-driven piece.
Finally, Quiet Summer Night scored for string quartet and clarinet features melodic lines performed by the less prominent second violin and viola that creates fuller, more egalitarian substance. ★★★ 1/2
— Holly Harris
Basement Beehive: The Girl Group Underground (Numero)
Chicago reissue label Numero Group is an expert unearther that specializes in bringing talented might-have-beens out from obscurity and into the light of day.
Rather than centre on a specific scene or individual artist (as with 2017’s fabulous Jackie Shane set), this double-disc collection with excellent liner notes by critic Jessica Hopper gathers 56 little-known girl groups from all over the U.S. in the pre-psychedelic 1960s.
It’s a treasure trove of swoony, energetic, lovelorn pop from black, white, and brown groups such as Toni & the Hearts, Judy & the Affections, and the Dreamliners that sing their hearts out but that never achieved the fame of the Shangri-Las or the Marvelettes.
Florida rock band the Belles sound positively punky on Come Back, and they turn a female gaze on the Van Morrison-penned Them hit Gloria with new lyrics about a cute guy named "Melvin."
Future soul star Lyn Collins is heard as a 14-year-old on Charles Pike & the Scholars’ Unlucky in Love. Bernadette Carroll tries her darnedest to get a new dance craze going on The Humpty Dump.
Basement Beehive is a high-haired, highly enjoyable alternative history of songs that sound like you must have heard them before but actually haven’t. ★★★ 1/2
Stream these: Comeback, The Humpty Dump
—Dan DeLuca, Philadelphia Inquirer