Album reviews: Nouvelle Vague’s “I Could Be Happy” and Laura Cheadle’s “Chill” EP

By Ernest Barteldes

I first discovered Nouvelle Vague about a decade ago, when someone handed me a copy of 2006’s Bande a Part, an album which contained very creative treatments of tunes like U2’s “Pride – In The Name of Love” in a a samba-bossa groove and Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself” in what could be described as a tongue-in-cheek dance feel.

I have followed them since even though I seem to miss them every time they perform Stateside, this year being no exception. I love the way they recreate the covers they record in a manner that is almost incomparable – tunes feel completely different than the original, and you don’t have that feeling of “why cover this one?” since they have that original feel even if the song is amazingly familiar.

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Such is the case of I Could Be Happy, the first to contain original material by Olivier Libaux and Marc Colin, the band’s longtime leaders. The Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated” is played in sleepy down tempo beat reminiscent of the Beatles’ “I’m Only Sleeping” that gives the lyrics new meaning – gone is the rebellious feel of the original and instead is that feeling of someone who simply doesn’t want to get out of bed. Also notable is Richard Bell’s “Love Comes in Spurts,” reinvented here as an electronic ballad that deeply contrasts with the original’s punk arrangement.

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Among the independent artists that get our attention, New Jersey-based Laura Cheadle is one of the most frequent – basically because she has great passion on a live setting, is a gifted songwriter and also because she is fortunate enough have a live band mostly formed by her family members – all gifted musicians in her own right.

Cheadle’s new (download-only) EP entitled Chill kicks off with “Conversations in My Mind,” a soul-tinged tune whose lyrics question the narrator’s judgments about her own life. It has a simple but catchy melodic groove and a nice hook that stays in your head for quite some time. Also notable is “See The World With Me,” a gentle ballad about living life beyond the everyday grind.

I also enjoyed the treatment she gave to the cover of the Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love.” While the original (which Phil Collins pretty much copies) was about warning young girls about falling in love too easily, her down-tempo version sends a different message: here is a love-worn woman who is about to give up on finding someone – anyone – but realizes that the best things in life take time even if it breaks your heart every single time.

Though I enjoy hear her on record, the best way to enjoy her music on a live format – those in New York can confirm what am talking about at Piano’s on April 15th – an awesome way to drown out those tax-day sorrows in anticipation of Easter Sunday – or Passover.  Or just another Sunday.

Music Reviews: Marisa Monte’s Colecao and David Feldman’s Horizonte: Two From Brazil

By Ernest Barteldes

Colecao

Marisa Monte

Universal Music

David Feldman

Horizonte

Self-released

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Marisa Monte is not what you would call a conventional performer – in spite of having a very successful career spanning almost three decades (yes, her debut was released in 1989), she was reportedly not too happy with the idea of releasing a collection of her greatest hits. However, since her contract with Universal Music (which merged with EMI in 2011) called for a compilation, the solution was to put together a selection of lesser-known tunes that either appeared as duets in other performers’ albums or in movie soundtracks – plus a handful that had never seen the light of day until then.

Being the perfectionist that Monte is, this is no hastily thrown-together compilation but a carefully curated tune selection. A couple of those tracks might be well-known to World Music fans, such her duet with David Byrne on the Jobim classic “Waters of March” that appeared on the first Red, Hot and Rio album in 1996 – it is a welcome update on the bossa nova compositions, filled with electronic sounds and the Afro-Brazilian percussion of Carlinhos Brown. Another is the gentle balad “Ilusion,” a bilingual (English/Portuguese duet with Mexican singer Julieta Venegas from the latter’s MTV Unplugged disc.

Among the highlights is “Nu Com a Minha Musica,” a Caetano Veloso composition originally featured on the criminally ignored Red, Hot & Rio 2, a celebration of the Tropicalia Generation led by Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Tom Ze and others. Also great is “Chuva No Mar,” a duet with Portuguese fado singer Carminho.

Because Monte is such a versatile singer, many fans don’t realize how good she is at belting out a traditional samba – in fact, she has done considerable effortsto record voices from samba, and “Volta Meu Amor” and “Dizem Que o Amor” are excellent examples of that – she loses herself in the music with zero pretension and emerges with very enjoyable moments.

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I first encountered the sounds of pianist David Feldman as part of the Brazilian side of Scott Feiner’s “Pandeiro Jazz” project (he recorded his second album of that concept with a band based in Rio). A few years later, he participated in drummer Duduka Da Fonseca’s contemporary-driven trio. In recent years I heard he’d been performing Stateside, but I didn’t have the chance to catch him live.

In spite of his English-sounding name, Feldman was born in Rio and lived in New York for a number of years following his graaduation from the New School of Jazz and Cotemporary Music until he returned to Brazil, where he has a solid career both as a bandleader and a sideman with the likes of Leny Andrade, Maria Rita and Leo Gandeldman, to name a few.

On “Horizonte,” Feldman showcases his bossa nova chops in tunes like “Tetê,” a gentle samba that evokes memories of mid-career Jobim with a touch of Dorival Caymmi, featuring guitarist Toninho Horta on guitar and vocals. “Esqueceram de Mim no Aeroporto,” however, goes into more contemporary direction. Marcio Bahia’s drums have rich polyrythms that complement Feldman’s groove in a perfect manner – bassist Andre Vasconcelos completes the backdrop with gusto with his bassline (plus an accomplished solo halfway through).

Ceu e Mar” follows a similar direction – a modern piece with clear influence from samba jazz, specially via the rhythm section, who keeps the feel in Rio even if Feldman takes the music somewhere else. “Sliding Ways,” on the other hand, sounds like a jazz homage to gafiera samba, the kind played in ballrooms in Brazil. Trombonist Raul de Souza guests, giving the tune a hummable feel rarely found in jazz albums these days.

Ernest’s Annual Christmas Music Roundup: Putumayo’s “Latin Christmas” and Bibi Ferreira’s “Natal em Familia”

By Ernest Barteldes

This is of course the time of year when you cannot walk into a store anywhere in the nation without hearing the familiar chimes of sleigh bells and the cheerful melodies of tunes like “The Christmas Song,” “O Holy Night,” “Winter Wonderland” (which I think does not qualify as a Christmas song in the first place)” to questionable hits like “Please Daddy Don’t Get Drunk” or “Last Christmas.”

It is also the time when everyone from Celine Dion to Ann-Margret attempt to give their own take on the music of the season – and it’s not only about artists desperate for the spotlight but many who don’t actually need it: for instance, all four Beatles released Christmas music during their solo careers (the worst being Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” and the best John’s “Merry Xmas – War Is Over”), and Queen did a Christmas single at the height of their fame (the dreadful “Thank God It’s Christmas”).

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As someone who writes about music, I am usually inundated with new Holiday-themed albums starting from as early as July (one year I got one before Memorial Day) but things were slower this time around – I guess the gods of music realized that my time has been a bit limited for this stuff, and from the ones I did get, here are two that I do highly recommend.

The first one is Putumayo Presents Latin Christmas, a highly enjoyable album because it doesn’t really sound like a Christmas album in the first place: it opens with a bossa version of “Joy to The World” performed by Arizona-based cover band Nossa Bossa Nova, a group that has adapted everything from the Rolling Stones to Bob Marley into bossas – some with pretty good results. My favorites, however, were the tunes that went completely outside the box. Poncho Sanchez offers a swinging n Afro-Cuban take on “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” that gets you immediately moving, while UK-based Dave Stephens offers a bolero-inflected instrumental take on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”

Also notable are “El Año Viejo,” a cumbia celebrating the birth of the new year and also Susie Antoli’s s “La Peregrinacion,” a gentle Argentinean ballad that narrates the biblical story in which Mary and Joseph tried to find a place to sleep at the end of their journey to Bethlehem.

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Bibi Ferreira is one of Brazil’s greatest living legends – at 94 years of age as of this writing, she is actively performing throughout the Americas and Europe while still finding time to go into the studio to record new music.

Natal em Familia” (originally released in Brazil in 2012) brings together many traditional mostly performed as duets. The album kicks off with “Sinos de Belém” (Jingle Bells) done in an American Gospel/jazz style featuring samba singer Alcione and plenty of improvised instrumental solos from her touring band. Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Estrada do Sol” is a bit unexpected for this album but it ultimately makes sense since the lyrics speak of hope for better days to come. “Um Novo Tempo” is a Marcos Valle/Paulo Sergio Valle/Nelson Motta composition that was for many years used as Globo TV’s Holiday theme, but here it receives a more serious treatment as a more devotional feel featuring the voices of Ferreira, Joyce Candido, Ana Cristina and Mayra Freitas.

There are a few throwaways – it’s hard to understand why anyone thought having Ferreira and former kiddie show host Xuxa Meneghel duet on “Vem Que Vai Chegando o Natal” (Santa Claus is Coming to Town) would be a good idea, and it’s pretty cringe-worthy even if it has a nice swinging jazz backbeat. Also the late Emilio Santiago;s vocal chops are under-used in the beautiful ballad “Feliz Natal” – he had such a great range but here is reduced to singing in unison with Ferreira.

Other notable tracks are Schubert’s “Oh Noite Santa” (Oh Holy Night) performed by opera singer Max Wilson and of course the beautiful duet that Ferreira and pop singer Ronnie Von do on Schubert’s Ave Maria – gives you goose bumps even after repeated hearings.

CD/DVD Review: George Fest

By Ernest Barteldes

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When I first heard about George Fest, I thought it was really great idea: bring together a new generation of rock performers (alongside a handful of more established ones) to take stabs at George Harrison’s canon to younger fans who might not even had been around when Harrison released his final hit records in the late 80s.

 

I recall receiving an e-mail from a publicist about the release of the concert film and CD from the 2014 tribute show in Los Angeles shorty before its release , but due to my workload at the time it kind of fell through the cracks and it only came back to my mind when I caught the end of the film on MTV – when the entire ensemble ran through The Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle with Care.” I was intrigued and ordered the box from the New York Public Library (no, I don’t do Netflix) and sat down to listen to it as soon as it came in.

It was a fun show to watch, but I felt that the musicians could have been a bit more inventive with the music.  After all, these were bands like The Flaming Lips (who took on “It’s All Too Much,” and oft-overlooked track from “Yellow Submarine”) and members of The Strokes, Heart, Spoon and other bands. However, with few exceptions they played most of the tunes a bit too closely to the original arrangements, sounding more like cover bands than they should have.

There were, however, some brilliant moments: San Francisco’s Black Rebel Motorcycle Club took on “The Art of Dying (from “All Things Must Pass”) and slowed it down, playing with distorted guitars and deadpan vocals that better translated the tune’s mood than Harrison’s overproduced version. Norah Jones (who also did “Something”) took advantage of the country feel of “Behind the Locked Door” to make the tune her own with a soulful vocal delivery and her own acoustic guitar accompaniment. The Cult’s Ian Astbury gives a chillingly beautiful take on “Be Here Now,” an obscure track from “Living in the Material World.”

The deeper cuts were the best surprise here – while standards like “My Sweet Lord” (with an honest delivery from Brian Wilson) and “Taxman” (by The Cold War Kids) were on the set list, we also got to hear seldom-heard tunes like “Savoy Truffle” (Dhani Harrison, who sounds and looks too much like his father) and “Any Road” (from George’s last album, “Brainwashed”). But there were a few missed opportunities – for instance, why have ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic do a straight version of “What is Life” when he could have amused us with “This Song is Just Six Words Long,”  his hilarious parody of “I’ve Got My Mind Set on You” instead?

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One could say such a rendition would offend hardcore George Harrison fans, but then again that was not even a Harrison composition in the first place, but a cover of an obscure track originally recorded in the early 60s by African-American R&B singer James Ray (go ahead, Google it).  The tune, incidentally, is also on the set, played by the numbers by The Killers’ Brandon Flowers.
I am not in any way going to say it is a bad album – it is nice to hear all these young artists take on this music of my favorite Beatle with such gusto, but as I have said earlier, I would have liked if more of them had tried to be more inventive with the tunes, just as George himself did whenever he played live. You pay tribute not by imitating but by reinventing the music – and giving it your own take.

Bluesy Christmas: Laura Cheadle’s “Ill Have a Blues Christmas” and Sheryl Crow’s “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”

By Ernest Barteldes

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Move over, “Santa Baby,” the song made famous by the late, great Eartha Kitt in which the singer hits on Santa Claus – you are not the sexiest Christmas song ever anymore. That title now belongs to Laura Cheadle‘s “Giving You Me For Christmas,” a driving blues with provocative lyrics about being ready to be unwrapped under the Christmas tree that is part of her  self-released “I’ll Have a Blues Christmas,” and album that blends original tunes with Holiday classics like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”  and “The First Noel.”

Other highlights of the disc include “Red Ain’t Everything,” which tells  Rudolph’s story from his own point of view, and a live rendition of “Here Comes Santa Claus” (there is no information of where it was recorded, but the audience sounds responsive and enthusiastic).  It is a strong disc thanks to the well-written arrangements and solid musical chemistry that Cheadle has with her family, who is present on every track.

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Speaking of blues, I recently discovered Sheryl Crow’s own Christmas record “Home for Christmas” (A&M), which is highly influenced by the sounds of Memphis. Recorded in the same era as her “100 Miles from Memphis,”  it contains mostly covers of classics like “White Christmas”  and “O Holy Night”  with a solid backing from a tight brass-heavy band featuring none other than Booker T (of the MGs), one of the key figures of the Memphis sound throughout the 1960s and 70s. I was surprised that I had never even heard about that disc for years – one of the last from her now-former label.

Among the best tracks are “The Christmas song,” played with a Jorge Benjor-like flavor. “Blue Christmas” has a nice backbeat focused on the rhythm section, great horn solos and of course Crow’s sultry voice. The inclusion of Crow’s “All Through the Night” (a track from ” 100 Miles from Memphis” ) seems a bit out of place on the collection, but it closes the album with a funky feel.

In Honor of B.B. King’s 90th Birthday: Live at The Regal

By Ernest Barteldes

On what would have been the late B.B. King’s 90th birthday, I tuned into Brazilian radio station Educadora FM (from Salvador, Bahia), which was doing a special broadcast in honor of  King, who passed away last May at the age of 89.

The record that the station chose to mark the date was Live at The Regal, an album recorded in Chicago in November 1964 and released the following year and became not only one of King’s most revered discs but also one of the most influential blues albums ever, cited by guitarists such as Eric Clapton and John Mayer, to name a few.

I was only able to hear part of the broadcast (I was on the Staten Island Ferry, which has a spotty WI-FI at times), but was immediately intrigued by it. I had certainly heard it before, but somehow it was not part of my personal collection – which I remedied as soon as I got a chance.

What we hear on Live at the Regal is B.B. King at top form playing songs that have since become classics. After a brief introduction, the album kicks off with “Every Day I Have the Blues” and going right into “Sweet Little Angel.”  The band behind him (rounded out by Leo Lauchie on bass,  Duke Jethro on piano,  Sonny Freeman on drums plus Bobby Forte and Johnny Board  on tenor saxophone) is sharp as ever, giving him the perfect backdrop for his unmistakable playing style. Songs like “Please Love Me”  and “Woke Up This Morning” have a fiery quality to them, and tunes like “How Blue Can You Get?”  have great response from the audience.

This was King’s first live album, which introduced him to larger audiences – he was already called “King of The Blues” back then, but the legend would grow as young folks discovered American blues across the pond via the likes of The Yardbirds and The Rolling Stones, who revered American blues even as many white Americans mostly ignored the genre.

The only thing that bothered me a bit was the sound editing – the ending of “Worry, Worry” is cut abruptly to give way to “Woke up This Morning,”  and the second introduction (which I assume to be the beginning of side B on the vinyl edition) jumps into “You Upset Me Baby”  – you can almost hear the click on the tape recorder.

I am hoping someone finds the source tapes to this recording (not at the Regal – the theater was demolished in 1973) and do a real nice remaster of this album – it certainly deserves it

Album Review: Craig Greenberg’s “Grand Loss & Legacy”

By Ernest Barteldes

I first met Craig Greenberg about three years ago at a rehearsal studio in Brooklyn.  We were both part of the backing band for Roger Greenawalt’s “Beatles Live on Ukulele” at The Brooklyn Bowl – an event I participated in for three years. At the time, I was pretty oblivious of the New York independent music scene since I’d spent most of my time covering jazz and world acts (to a degree that is still true – even today, more West Coast musicians reach out to me for coverage than folks closer to my own ZIP code – but I digress) and had a vague idea of who was taking part of it. As far as I could tell, these were some musically gifted Beatles enthusiasts who were willing to be part of a charitable event.

It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I realized that Greenberg was actually an accomplished singer-songwriter with great piano and guitar chops (I’ve seen posts about his ukulele, but I haven’t heard him playing that one yet). In fact, one of my proudest moments from the three Beatles events I participated in is a version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” in which I contributed bass and supporting vocals with Greenberg on lead vocals, Jeremiah Birnbaum on co-lead guitar and Greenawalt on uke – a the song came out great in spite of the fact that we only rehearsed it a couple of times.

In 2014 I heard Greenberg do his own music for the first time at his debut appearance at Joe’s Pub, which I reviewed for All About Jazz a few months ago – so it was natural that I wanted to listen to The Grand Loss and Legacy as soon as it came out – and let me tell you that his new tunes confirmed my initial good impression of his work as a songwriter.

I read reviews from other writers, and many make obvious comparisons between him and Billy Joel, which I completely disagree with. It’s too easy to pigeonhole a piano-playing rocker from New York to Joel, and I feel that even though Greenberg might have been influenced by him, he goes way farther than that.  What I like about him is his sense of humor towards the music and his jazz-like approach to his main instrument.

One of the highlight from the disc is “That Girl Is Wrong For You,” fast-tempo tune in which the narrator urges a friend to see that he is in a doomed relationship.  The friend spells it right out without any metaphors, making it clear that the woman will destroy his friend’s spirit and advising him to end it “before it’s too late.”  He makes a political statement on “Death on The Liberty Line” that makes a reference to the provisions of the Patriot Act (without mentioning it directly), warning of the dangers of giving up certain freedoms for the sake of fear. I enjoyed how guitarist Patrick Brennan contributed a Brian May-inspired guitar line that accompanies the vocal line and also the ominous-sounding solo towards the end of the track.

Another great moment comes with the uptempo “Weekend Holiday,” a story about a girl who dreams of stardom and once she makes to the top, she seems not to have achieved all of her dreams even though she has everyone at her feet – a cautionary tale about wanting a material life but lacking spiritual achievement.

Greenberg did a great job with this collection – the arrangements were carefully done (although I would have liked the guitars to stand out a little more) and the songs seem carefully crafted.  This is a guy ripe for discovery by a bigger audience – so catch him before he’s playing venues you can’t afford.

Listen to “That Girl Is Wrong For You” 

Visit his website http://craiggreenbergmusic.com/grandloss/