Contact from the Underground World of Redboy (Capitol 54243)
Robbie Robertson has always had a flair for musical Americana. When he was writing for the Band, he touched on such musical bedrock as blues, gospel and country; as a solo artist, he evoked both the dark, swampy aura of New Orleans and the dry, rambling spaces of the Southwest.
But it wasn't until he did the music for the television documentary "The Native Americans" that he began to explore an important part of his own musical roots. As a child in Canada, he spent summers on the Six Nations Reservation (his mother is of Mohawk descent) and heard a lot of Native American music, in addition to country and blues. As he grew older, that Native American culture remained a part of him -- but it wasn't as easy to express as his love for country and blues.
With "Contact from the Underground World of Redboy," Robertson finds a most unlikely solution. Its 10 songs draw from traditional Native American songs and chants, and it even uses Inuit throat singers on one song. The context Robertson has devised to hold these elements together isn't the roots-oriented rock he made with the Band, but the sample-and-loop aesthetic of London club music.
It may seem an unlikely combination, but the two fit together quite nicely. Because a lot of Native American music relies more on rhythm and repetition than on Western-style harmony, it's perfectly suited to the lean, groove-oriented approach of techno, ambient and dub. By using native chants and song fragments as core riffs, Robertson is able to respect his sources while still creating something that's entirely his own.
"The Sound Is Fading" is typical. It opens with eerie, ambient-style synths and builds its beat around a loop of Native American chants. Next, we hear a sample of a 1942 field recording of a Paiute Nation song sung by a 16-year-old girl. Robertson then plays with this melodic fragment, framing it with a slowly shifting bed of synths, drums and guitar. Its haunting, dreamlike sound recalls the rich, textural play of U2's "Pop" album -- no surprise, since the track was mixed by "Pop" producer Howie B -- while the use of the sampled vocal has more in common with the music of Deep Forest.
Robertson plays with these sounds in a number of ways. "In the Blood" has a strong dance component to its sound, what with the churning drums, rumbling bass and sampled vocal chants. But instead of making those elements the focus, as with "The Sound Is Fading," Robertson instead plays them as background, using them to propel the song's ominous, bluesy melody. Likewise, "Stomp Dance" incorporates a unity song performed by the Six Nations Women Singers, which Robertson folds into a song of his own, giving the piece a sound and feel similar to some of Peter Gabriel's African-oriented writing.
"Rattlebone," by contrast, is almost all groove and texture, with Robertson rapping much of the lyric over a dense bed of thumping rhythm, looped samples (including some amazing use of Inuit throat singing) and squalling guitar. It's by no means the same sort of songwriting as "In the Blood," but it's every bit as catchy.
There's more to "Contact" than mere groove, of course. "Peyote Healing," for example, is a song performed by two "roadmen" -- two healers from the Native American Church -- which Robertson fleshes out with reverb, a brief, mournful guitar solo and a wispy wash of keyboard color to create a calming oasis of sound. "Sacrifice," on the other hand, is anything but soothing, as Robertson weaves taped comments by jailed American Indian Movement leader Leonard Peltier into the song's bass-heavy pulse.
No matter how they're used, though, the Native American elements on this album seem to have totally reinvigorated Robertson's writing. Here's hoping he continues to mine this vein, so that he can get an even better grasp of his heritage and help us understand yet another aspect of musical America. ***1/2
Remember To Breathe (Elektra 62115)
Although Rebekah's age, voice and attitude are enough to make her seem like one more girl singer swept into the search for a new Alanis Morissette, the sound and sensibility she presents on "Remember To Breathe" is clearly her own. It isn't just that she has fresh ideas and a wonderful way with language, though that's more than enough to make "Sin So Well" instantly addictive; what really makes this album stand out from the pack is its musical range. From the buoyant, new-wave pulse of "Hey Genius" to the Joni Mitchell-gone-country flavor of "Be Your Own," Rebekah covers an enormous amount of ground, yet manages to make each song sound strikingly individual. Definitely a singer to watch. ***
The Chinese Album (Sire/Warner Bros. 46851)
Glam rockers have flirted with the Far East since the '70s, so it's hardly a shock that glam revivalists Spacehog would concoct something called "The Chinese Album." But instead of taking the usual route to glam exoticism, Spacehog filters its brash Bowie-isms through bass-heavy club beats ("One of These Days"), Kinks-style vaudeville ("Skylark") and lush, string-sweetened soundscapes (as on the Steely Dan-ish "Lucy's Shoe"). There's also plenty of standard glam-rock fare, too, such the brisk, Spiders From Mars-ish "Captain Freeman" and the swaggering "Goodbye Violet Race." Of course, what any of that has to do with China is impossible to guess, but hey -- it sure makes for great typography on the album cover! **
No Cats (Upright Records LR001)
Lee Rocker may assert there are "No Cats" on this album, but the former string bass player of the Stray Cats delivers 13 tunes mighty reminiscent of his former band's sound. With his rockabilly and new-wave roots planted firmly beneath him, Rocker delves into little new musical territory here. While a varied mix of blues and rock-driven numbers present him as a capable bassist and versatile singer, as on the smooth and easy "Shaky Town," much of his songwriting comes off too simplistic with grating, redundant guitar cuts, a la the dentist's drill, as in the pounding "Love Me Good" and abrasive "Movin' On." However predictable "No Cats" is, it does offer several toe-tappers with catchy riffs and rolling bass lines, as on the gentle strumming of ++ "Hard Rain," which easily could pass for a Stray Cats hit. Imagine that. **
Sound Museum (Elektra 61936)
Back when he was a third of Deee-Lite, Towa Tei seemed like just another DJ. On his own, however, Tei has proven one of the most eclectic producers in dance music. "Sound Museum" is typical, playing off everything from thumping jeep beats to blaring big-band brass. Although he has a fondness for found sounds, he never leans too hard on what he borrows, so the Bob James snippet sampled into "Time After Time" comes across as mere seasoning, not as the song's backbone. Best of all, there's room enough on the album to fit everyone from rapper Biz Markie to Britpop star Kylie Minogue to Japanese pop singer Akiko Yano, making his "Sound Museum" a must to visit. ***
Best Of (Windham Hill 01934-11245)
Ray Lynch's three new tracks on "Best Of" are disappointing compared with his better-known works from previous releases. "Ralph's Rhapsody" and "The Music of What Happens" are spirited, energetic selections annoyingly punctuated with guttural sampled vocal effects, while "Celestial Soda Pop Remix" might be too techno for many New Age devotees. Lynch is at his best when he combines synthesized and classical styles. "The Vanished Gardens of Cordoba" features glorious oboe, flute, piccolo, trumpet and violin interaction. The robust melodies of "Her Knees Deep in Your Mind" and "Kathleen's Song" are serenely mesmerizing and uplifting, while "The Temple" is sweetly meditative. Lynch's ease in blending synthesizers and symphonic instruments in the older works makes "Best Of" a soothing mix. **
Bang on a Can
Brian Eno: Music for Airports (Point 314 536 847)
It's amazing how many modern classical musicians seem to be closet art rock fans. How else could the new music collective Bang on a Can have assembled such a large ensemble for a project as unlikely as a performance of Brian Eno's "Music for Airports"? Intended as soothing background music for stressed-out travelers, the original "Music for Airports" was one of the earliest of his ambient albums and consisted mainly of vaporous, slow-moving keyboard textures. As re-arranged by Bang on a Can, the music's palette becomes broader and more detailed, with a greater range of color and texture. But given that close listening was never the point with these pieces, it's hard to understand why the group bothered. **
* = poor
** = fair
*** = good
Pub Date: 3/19/98