Monika Brodka: My 2017 Polish Music Discovery

By Ernest Barteldes

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Brodka (publicity)

Shortly before my last trip to Poland last September (where I attended a wedding and spent a few days exploring Chelm, I had a chat with one of my students and told her how much I admired the work of singers like Anna Maria Jopek and Ania Dąbrowska, and she recommended I check out Monika Brodka, who she described as “really innovative.”

I looked her up and learned that like Dąbrowska, she was an alumna of the popular “Idol” franchise, having won the competition during the 2004 season. She was quickly signed by Sony/BMG and made two very pop-friendly  discs (Album and Moje Piosenki, released in 2004 and 2006) under the production of Bogdan Kondracki (who also produced Dąbrowska’s first three albums).

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“Album” and “Moje Piosenki”

I found both albums at Chelm’s Empik in a two-in-one package labeled “Made in Poland,” apparently part of a series meant to promote the country’s pop-rock artists. Among my favorite tracks from those are a mellow cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “Let Me Make It through the Night” (from “Album) and “Glock” (from “Moje Piosenki”), which showcase her vocal potential and also her ability to make a song her own.

Although very enjoyable, neither album stands out – possibly because of Kondracki’s very mainstream sounding production that made them sound almost undistinguishable from Dąbrowska’s first two discs or anything else he touched during that era. Brodka’s albums were nevertheless well received and are still on regular rotation on Polish radio stations like RMF and Eska.

Brodka took a considerable break from making studio recordings and re-emerged in 2010 with Granda, (“Brawl”), an 11-song masterpiece which is incredibly different from anything she’d done before, with nods to electronica and jazz without losing touch with a more pop-rock feel. It is quite adventurous and goes into various directions. The title track is a punk-ish rocker with a pounding bass and some extraneous background sounds, while “Saute” seems to revisit the psychedelic era without sounding dated.

In between albums she released the EP LAX” (which is simply a reference to Los Angeles, where the tracks were recorded), which contained “Varsovie,” a haunting English-language ode to her adopted hometown.

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Clashes

2016’s “Clashes” took things to an even more experimental direction – since she is now signed to an independent label, she has more freedom to do what she wants without having to compromise to whatever the suits might want her to do.  I believe that she is aware of the shock value of the music and of course her looks – like performing with a shaved head.

“Clashes” is not easy listening – there are clear influences from Bjὄrk, the post-punk sounds of Patti Smith and others I have not been able to identify – it’s a disc that has to grow on you after repeated hearings.

Check out “Clashes” here

 

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My Polish Music Loot: Anna Maria Jopek, Monika Brodka and… The Beatles

By Ernest Barteldes

 

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Cover art for Brodka’s “Clashes”

Whenever we travel abroad, I always try to bring home some of the country’s local music, and I make a point of visiting local music stores and pick out some interesting albums not easily found in the US market or on download – so on our fourth trip to Poland (for a wedding – more on the travel blog) I made a stop at Chelm’s Empik  and picked out a few albums.

The quantity was not as high as in previous trips since we were in the country for just a few days and there were only a few titles I was thinking about – but there were a few discoveries that I am glad to have found just by browsing through the store.

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Cover art for Niebo by Anna Maria Jopek

Regular readers of this blog know that I am a big fan of Polish World Music singer Anna Maria Jopek, and that I have been slowly purchasing her full collection – in the last a few months I found many of her albums on Walmart.com (don’t ask me why they carry imported albums, but they do) but one that eluded me was Niebo (Universal, 2006), her tenth release in which she continued to branch out into different musical styles, moving away from her previous pop and jazz-inflected albums and into a more diverse sound.

On that online order I also included a DVD copy of the 1981 film “Blind Chance” (Pzypadek), whose plot shows the consequences of the main character making a train or not. According to critics, the film inspired both Sliding Doors (1998) and Run, Lola, Run (1998) in which separate scenarios influences the outcomes of one’s reality.

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Brodka’s Moje Piosenki cover art

A few days before the trip, one of my students at ASA told me about a young singer called Monika Brodka, a contestant – like Ania Dąbrowska before her – of her country’s version of Pop Idol.  I heard some of her clips on Youtube and decided to check out her albums once I got to Poland. On my first visit I picked up a 2-CD set of her two first albums, “Album,” and “Moj Piosenki” (both on Sony Music) – they’re both well-crafted pop albums, but since they were produced following her Idol win, they sound very similar to Dąbrowska’s first discs – after all,  they had the same producer (Bogdan Kondracki) and likely some of the same musicians.

 

What really got my attention was Clashes (2017), her fourth release – no longer constrained by big corporate labels but now with the independent PIAS Recordings, the album is incredibly personal and experimental with no songs in Polish – the music has a unique texture, and she explores the music in a fearless manner that embraces World, jazz and pop tendencies.

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My last music purchase there had zero to do with Polish music – it was actually the 2-disc 50th Anniversary edition of The Beatles‘ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I just decided to buy it there because the price was considerably lower than what I could find in the US. It was definitely worth it since I saved about $10 and this album has been on my list for a while – and upon hearing the new mix I was immediately blown away by the new mix, which enhances Ringo’s drumming and also has a more centered sound more similar to its original mono mix.

While I have ripped all the music to my iPhone, I haven’t had the chance to fully appreciate them in the little time I have had since purchasing them – but that time will eventually come – not soon enough.

 

Album reviews: Putumayo’s “Cuba Cuba,” Hendrik Meurkens & Roger Davidson’s “Oração Para Amanhã,” MUH Trio’s “Prague After Dark” and Anna Maria Jopek’s “Haiku”

by Ernest Barteldes

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On this Putumayo release, contemporary and more traditional Cuban music come together to form this comprehensive collection of the music of the country whose music has been a global reference in spite of the controversial political issues that have kept  both countries at odds for so long.

The collection opens with Soneros de Verdad’s “A Buena Vista,” a lively tribute to the success of the collective that has had reached global success, and sets the tone for the rest of the album. We delve in the past a bit with Al Valdes’ “Guajira,” an uptempo instrumental recorded in Peru in the mid-sixties that has since become legendary, showing strains of American jazz and other sounds that would later be explored by  groups like Irakere, which at one time featured Arturo Sandoval, Chucho Valdes and Paquito D’ Rivera (which sadly are not featured on this compilation, in band form or solo). Other highlights include a new rendition of “Chan Chan” – arguably Buena Vista Social Club’s best-known tune, and Jose Conde’s “Puente a Mi Gente,” a 2004 tune that reached out to his people on the island (he was born in Miami), hoping for a better connection between the US and his ancestral land.

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Pianist  Roger Davidson and German-born harmonica player/vibist Hendrik Meurkens both have a close relationship with the music of Brazil, and it’s a thrill to hear them coming together for “Oração Para Amanhã (Soundbrush), a live recording made at New York’s Zinc Bar featuring all-original music by Davidson. Backed by Eduardo Belo (bass) and Adriano Santos (drums), the disc kicks off with “September Samba,” an uptempo tune featuring Muerkens on vibes. Muerkens then goes to his harmonica to lead on “Sonho da Tarde,” a complex tune with a low-key feel .  “Oração Para Amanhã” is definitely a love letter to Brazil, and both musicians treat the music with the respect it deserves, using American jazz tendencies to enhance the sound, but never to take it away from where it belongs.

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“Prague After Dark” (JMood Records) came to me all the way from Italy via Facebook friend and pianist Roberto Magris. Recorded in The Czech Republic with his MUH Trio (Magris, Frantisek Uhlir: bass; Jaromir Helesic: drums), it is a highly enjoyable straight-ahead album featuring mostly original music penned by all three members of the trio. I particularly enjoyed “Nenazvana,” an uptempo tune by Uhlir with a samba feel that features an extended solo from its writer. Also notable are “Iraqi Blues,” which takes a more serious tone in what is mostly an upbeat album, and the inspired cover of “Love in Vain.” Make sure to check it out, it’s rare when music like this reaches the other side of the pond.

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Also hailing from Central Europe is Polish singer Anna Maria Jopek, whose Japanese-inspired “Haiku” (independently released) finally got to my hands. Originally released in 2013 alongside her Luso-inspired “Sobremesa” and her Polish folk song dedicated “Polanna” (it could be purchased as a box set as well, but I have never seen it in stores – and I looked hard during my last visit to Poland), it is a collaboration with pianist Makoto Ozone that delves both in more traditional music and pretty hard jazz.  It closes the trilogy well – it is a well-thought record that explores a lot of nuances between Polish and Japanese music – including the kind of jazz played in both countries these days. On an interview I conducted with her a few years back, she stated that “We recorded the “Haiku” album with a Polish-Japanese band lineup in just four hours, as if we were spirited.” Quite impressive results, I should say.

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 Review: Ania Dąbrowska’s Dla Naiwnych Marzycieli

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by Ernest Barteldes

 

As I have written in earlier posts, I stumbled into the music of Polish pop singer Ania Dąbrowska quite by accident – I was looking into something I can’t even remember and her name sort of popped up. I got curious and found out she is from Chełm, , the southern Polish city my wife also comes from.

During our recent visit to my wife’s homeland, we visited several stores looking for music to bring back home (sure, I could have used iTunes for some titles but prices for regular CDs are much better there), so during a stop at the local Empik  I picked up a few of Dabrowska’s first few releases and proceeded to check them out. I was impressed with how she seems to want to surprise listeners from time to time with interesting arrangements that include bass solos (she does play the instrument, but the liners don’t give us much information on that matter),  flutes and other instruments that you don’t often come across in pop albums.

After we came back home I purchased the MP3 version of her sixth release, Dla Naiwnych Marzycieli, and gave it a few spins.  Though I haven’t heard all of her albums yet, I can say this is arguably her best album yet. She has veered a bit from the retro feel of earlier efforts and embraced a more contemporary direction – that can be felt immediately on the opening track, “Nieprawda,” a keyboard-led reggae with a catchy hook that gets you moving from the start, and also on “Gdy Nic Nie Muszę,” a jazz-inflected tune led by brush drums, keyboards and woodwinds.

Other notable tracks include “Bez Chiebe,” an R&B-inspired ballad with multi-layered vocals and a nice guitar-centered arrangement and “I’m Trying to Fight It,” the sole English-language track on the disc, whose lyrics speak about the hardships of moving on after the end of a breakup. The piano-based title track has poignant vocals, and “Nie Patrzę” sounds like something that could be played in American Top 40 radio – but good.

The lead single on the album is the power ballad “W Głowie” – its accompanying video plays as  a short action movie in which she escapes a couple of assassins inside what seems to be a shopping mall parking lot with the help of a mysterious black man – most of her videos play like that, telling the story in an almost cinematic manner.

Dąbrowska is a singer worth checking out. She has clearly evolved since her early Polish Idol days (I read somewhere that she has appeared on her country’s version of The Voice as a judge, but I didn’t have a chance to see an episode while I was there). Her music is smart and quite engaging – even if like me, you don’t have a clue what she is singing about.

Single Review: Karar by Duke Guillaume

By Ernest Barteldes

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    “Karar” by Duke Guillaume

For those familiar with saxophonist and bandleader Duke Guillaume’s devotional work both as a solo artist and with The Metropolitan Big Band, this single is quite a departure. “Karar” seems to draw inspiration from the sonic mix more closely identified with South Florida, blending electronics with classic jazz and Latin-esque sensibilities (which probably explains the cover, which pictures the musician embracing the sun and the beach), tending to follow more a dance vibe than trying to sound too improvisational

While the main melody keeps on a straight dance beat, things get quite interesting in the chorus, where a Latin samba-reggae mood kicks in, taking you away from Florida and more into the streets of Bahia, where the Afro-inspired drums play as the crowds follow them through the narrow streets of the Historical District every Tuesday night. I also felt a bit of Puerto Rico’s reggaeton into the mix – a beat that has yet to be explored by jazz musicians.

You can check out the track below:

 

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.