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Staff Picks Format: Music CD

Airbow by Maria Kalaniemi & Sven Ahlbäck []

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What is Finnish button accordion music, anyway? If you like Sharon Shannon, you’ll love Maria Kalaniemi.

She’s virtuosic, soulful and versatile. On this album she teams up with Swedish fiddler and scholar of folk music Sven Ahlbäck for a selection of traditional Scandinavian tunes and original compositions. They are both technically brilliant and have a wonderful synergy together. Johan Hedin joins them on nyckelharpa (Swedish keyed fiddle) and Swedish singer Susanne Rosenberg is featured on a few tunes. The music is spare, gorgeous, with a haunting energy that’s both ancient and contemporary. This is great listening for fans of Nordic or Celtic folk, fiddle tunes, or the undeservedly-maligned accordion.

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Zombie by Fela Kuti []

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Devoted followers of Fela Kuti include ?uestlove, Jay Z, David Byrne, Baaba Maal, Ginger Baker and Vampire Weekend. In recent years, Knitting Factory Records has been a key player in creating what one might call a revival… or better yet, a “Fela-bration” to honor the late Afrobeat star. Album reissues, magazine features, curated boxed sets, a documentary and even a Broadway show have been unleashed upon us adoring fans within the last couple of years. Our wallets are sad, but ears have never been happier.
The best way to describe Afrobeat to those unfamiliar is vocal based song with influences in jazz, funk and African highlife music. The reissued Zombie cd contains four such (lengthy) tunes with Fela’s excellent musicianship and commanding vocals. Chanted call and response singing, frenetic, pulsating rhythms, stellar percussion, a deep brass sound and an electricity (that no words can do justice) fill the album as well.
Zombie, like many of Fela’s albums, is a packed with a strong political message. The cover depicts the artist performing in concert with a juxtaposition of faceless, Nigerian soldiers meant to look like zombies. This 1977 release was a massive hit, but its radical lyrics and the mentioned cover art angered government officials. As a result, an attack was ordered on Fela’s commune. Sadly, he was severely beaten and his grandmother was tossed out of a window and would later pass away due to the injury. Fela Kuti lived on though and did not stop letting his voice be heard until his death in 1997.

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Into the Lime by The New Mendicants []

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The New Mendicants are Joe Pernice, Norman Blake and Mike Belitksy. Pernice and Belitsky, Pernice Brothers alumn and current Toronto residents, met Blake (Teenage Fanclub) at a London gig back in 2000. About a decade later, Norman sent Joe a message: “Back in Canada at the end of next week. Want to be friends?”

Into the Lime‘s initial collaborative spark came care of submitting music for a film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s book A Long Way Down. Despite the novel’s dark subject matter, the album is a sweet sounding, almost like a modern day Everly Brothers record. Clever songwriting and close, two-part harmony are present throughout. Pernice takes many of the leads. He’s an American (once residing in Northampton, MA!) who tries to sound like a Brit. Blake’s pure, high harmonies are coming from a Scotsman maybe hoping one day to be a Byrd. The album is the perfect blending of voices and styles. The friendship and enthusiasm for this side project is clearly audible on the recording.

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Three Solo Pieces by Lubomyr Melnyk []

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Ukrainian-Canadian composer Lubomyr Melnyk is positive that he’s the fastest pianist in the business. A boast from his website reads: “in exactly 60 minutes, Melnyk sustained an average speed of over 13 notes per second in each hand, yielding a remarkable total of 93,650 INDIVIDUAL notes.”
Despite Melnyk’s dexterity and technique, listening to Three Solo Pieces feels nothing like a frantic, fast paced album. Rather, this “Continuous Music” recording, which is filled with seamless melody and overtones, is a rich, mysterious and ethereal experience. Relying on a constant sustain pedal, this modern classical album is both cacophonous and soothing. Quite the feat and quite the recording.

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Bach Unaccompanied Cello Suites by J.S. Bach; performed on double bass by Edgar Meyer []

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This is one of the most amazing CDs I have ever heard.  Edgar Meyer is a musician’s musician who is in high demand in the classical, folk and bluegrass worlds.  He has partnered with the likes of Yo-Yo Ma, Joshua Bell,  Bela Fleck and Mark O’Connor, and he composed a violin concerto for Hilary Hahn.  Here he partners with Johann Sebastian Bach in a new interpretation of the suites for solo cello with a much deeper voice.  He solves the technical problems of the bass — larger reach and slower-speaking strings, for example — with a technical mastery that is just mind-boggling. But this is not just virtuosic fireworks.  The bass sings under his fingers.  And you can hear the 30 years of practice and love for the repertoire in this recording.  Meyer is right up there with Casals on my shelf.

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Made In California by The Beach Boys []

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Wow.

New paragraph: this Beach Boys box is something to behold. Set up like a high school yearbook with large glossy photographs, interviews, articles and fake advertisements, Made In California is a thing of beauty. We flip to the last page and we see six cds filled to the max with hits, album cuts, rarities, outtakes and live versions. The set commemorates 50 years of Beach Boysdom from Brian’s “Surfin’” demo right up to their 2012 single “That’s Why God Made the Radio”.

Made In California has enough newly unearthed material for completests, music scholars and other varying degrees of nerd. It is also consistent in high standards so it doesn’t feel too overwhelming for someone who is just discovering that this group isn’t a band that only sings about surfing and cars. You need not have to comb through sub-par tracks.

Obviously, the genius Brian Wilson is at the forefront of the productions here. We truly realize how special the body of work he had produced and see the heights of creative genius and musical innovation. Wilson can safely be put alongside Gershwin, Copland and Ellington in the Hall of Great American Composers (this building does not exist). His baby brothers shine as well; Dennis, the drummer/rebellious middle child, is represented with a multitude of brilliant heart-aching ballads (mostly unreleased until now) and Carl, the finest singer of the lot, is clearly the soul of the Beach Boys. The latter comment becomes evident as you make your way through the recordings… trust me on this.

If you’re familiar with their catalog, look out these newly issued gems “Sail Plane Song”, “Sound of Free”, “California Feelin’”, “You’re Still A Mystery” and “Where Is She?”. For those unfamiliar to the Beach Boys, how I envy you to be able to experience hearing this wonderful music for the first time.

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Simon & Garkfunkel: The Columbia Studio Recordings 1964-1970 by Simon & Garfunkel []

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Simon & Garfunkel never felt like a singles band to me. Sure, there’s the massive, mega-hits: “Mrs. Robinson”, “The Sound of Silence”, “The Boxer”, “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, “Cecelia”, etc., but Paul Simon’s songwriting abilities were never simply tunnel visioned to the radio dial. All five of Paul & Artie’s studio albums are classics that are meant to be heard front to back and then back to front again. With the Columbia Studio Recordings boxed set, we can hear every song, every angelic harmony, every sweet acoustic guitar move and every perfect arrangement.

Six or seven years is not a whole lot time in the grand scheme of things, but Simon & Garfunkel made it count with their prolific run as Columbia Records recording artists.

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A Glimpse Inside The Mind of Charles Swan III by Liam Hayes []

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Recently I was discussing Roman Coppola’s A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III, a film that a mere 27% of Rotten Tomatoes voters enjoyed (thus proving my hypothesis that 73% of the population is completely nuts). In any event, I closed out my mini-review mentioning Liam Hayes’s “brilliant score”. Well, ask and ye shall receive! Forbes now owns the soundtrack. Thanks, Genie!

Coppola learned of Liam Hayes through his cast member/cousin, Jason Schwartzman. Hayes, a Chicago resident, has been releasing soulful/ 1970’s-ish style/indie-rockish music since the early 1990’s. The songs are hooky with a sometimes classic, “Philadelphia sound” arrangement. On top, his voice could be likened to the tenor of a Mr. John Lennon.

The affinity for 70’s sounds (pianos, tasteful synthesizers, horns) work perfectly with Charles Swan’s groovy universe; a marriage made in heaven. Many of the songs were pulled from Hayes’s back catalog as a solo artist and also from his tenure in the group Plush. “A Glimpse Inside”, almost the film’s theme, was written especially for the picture and here we can listen for Hayes’s tremendous vocal range. Another highlight is “So Much Music”, an anthem discussing the undying spirit of a musician. Hopefully Hayes is good on this sentiment because he’s a truly talented artist.

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The Third Eye Centre by Belle & Sebastian []

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The Scottish pop group Belle & Sebastian are rather prolific. Along with releasing several albums over the course of their nearly two decade career, the band has also put out several ep’s (i.e. short albums) and non-album track singles. The compilation The Third Eye Centre gathers up interesting ep tracks and b-sides spanning 2003 to 2010.

In this collection, we see the wide range of influence and also the musical versatility Belle & Sebastian possesses. They bounce from perfect pop song to ballad to Bossa Nova to disco to country & western and then back to perfect pop song again.

Singer/songwriters Stuart Murdoch, Stevie Jackson and Sarah Martin provide backstory forall of the tracks in the beautiful attached booklet with this small boxed set. It’s baffling that songs such as “Last Trip”, “Long Black Scarf” or “Blues Eyes of a Millionaire” were cast aside and not included on the band’s albums from the 2000’s. The Third Eye Centre is a really fun, diverse collection that has also enough consistency to make it work as a proper album.

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Longtime Companion by Sonny & the Sunsets []

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Step one after a break up is to write and record a country album. San Francisco native Sonny Smith has followed this guide, only he’s unexpectedly added a little bounce, shuffle and humor. I saw Sonny & the Sunsets on the Longtime Companion tour at Flywheel in Easthampton, MA and he played a number of songs from this record alongside his usual catchy, sometimes surfy, melodic fair. He also took off his pants.

Smith’s deadpan delivery over the groovy “I See the Void” had me sold on his version of country music. He and the Sunsets played a mini set of their hip take of twang with nods to Buck Owens, The Flying Burrito Brothers (the self-titled number takes me to that “Hot Burrito no. 2″ place with steady soul bass over a simple chord change) and even a little Beachwood Sparks.

For a record dealing with heartbreak and separation, Sonny & the Sunsets offer the listener an enjoyable experience and while forging new ground within a classic genre.

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Kisses on the Bottom by Paul McCartney []

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It’s been an awfully long time since Macca has been discussed on the Forbes Library staff picks blog.  So, here I am to recommend a romantic offering from the melodious, ex-Beatle. Kisses on the Bottom, Paul’s tribute to the music he heard around the house as a boy, is a marvelous collection of standards with two originals tacked on for good measure.  Diana Krall, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, Robert Hurst, John Pizzarelli and Karriem Riggins are among the many fine musicians who make up McCartney’s backing band.

The title comes from a lyric from the opening tune, “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” by Fats Waller.  The introduction’s syncopated piano line, upright bass and brushes on the drum kit, set the tone for this swinging affair.  Recorded at the famed Capitol Studios on Hollywood and Vine, Paul, singing with Nat King Cole’s microphone, taps into the crooning spirit of yesteryear.

Highlights include “It’s Only a Paper Moon”, “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive”, “My Valentine” (a Paul original), “The Inchworm”… well, I recommend ’em all!

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Headquarters by the Monkees []

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To earn the Monkees the right to play on their own records, Michael Nesmith’s fist had punch a wall accompanied with the threat “that could’ve been your face”.  Thankfully the powers that be relented because Headquarters, the band’s third release, is possibly their  most unified, spirited effort.

And now a bit about the personnel… Nesmith handles much of the guitar duties, the classically trained Peter Tork plays keyboards, guitars, basses and banjos, Mickey Dolenz sits behind the drum kit and dabbles on the guitar and Davy Jones shakes a mean tambourine and maraca.  All four sing.  Producer Chip Talyor plays the occasional bass.

Michael Nesmith, asserting himself as the band’s most prolific songwriter, contributes the twangiest of tunes including “Sunny Girlfriend” and “You Just May Be the One”. Peter Tork writes “For Pete’s Sake”, the groovy number that became the track which rolled over the end credits of the band’s television program.  Davy tackles the Hildebrand/Keller number “Early Morning Blues and Green” replete with Wurlitzer electric piano and a wild, distorted organ.  Mickey Dolenz sings and writes the psychedelic “Randy Scouse Git” (included on most Monkees “best of” compilations), a song that was inspired by the band’s trip to London and hanging out with the original Fab Four.

Headquarters sounds like a band working together trying to find their sound.  It’s garage, it’s pop, it’s joyful.

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