Ronnie Wood’s I Feel Like Playing

7.5 out of 10: A solid release from an elder statesman of the rocking world

Ronnie Wood, the perpetual sideman, has nonetheless already released six solo records to go along with his latest, I Feel Like Playing, which yet again demonstrates what seems so unlikely: Ronnie can actually sing. Sure, there aren’t any lilting melodies to trip him up, but Wood’s gnarled, rich voice feels like aged scotch whiskey, the warm, woody spirit this album of bluesy rock and roll evokes from beginning to end.

Wood wrote ten of the eleven songs on I Feel Like Playing, and no doubt his writing method differs little to how teenagers in garage bands the world over have always written songs: stick down a riff, get the rest of the band to follow and mash together some words. There’s a big difference in Wood’s case, however: he’s been churning out riffs since time immemorial, and the hamfisted lyrics on songs such as Lucky Man, Fancy Pants and 100% go by unnoticed next to the sound of rock and roll so professionally distilled.

Although I Feel Like Playing features a whole bunch of musicians who, ironically, end up as Wood’s sidemen, you’d never know that the likes of Flea, Eddie Vedder, Billy Gibbons, Kris Kristofferson and Bobby Womack are playing. Except for a bunch of stylish Slash solos on about half the tracks and the luscious Bernard Fowler vocals on the duets I Gotta See and the stand-out Forever, this is a Wood record through and through — and all the better for it.

I Feel Like Playing is a million miles from the edgy new thing; it’s stodgy, square and solid, the kind of thing you can rely on. That’s almost an insult in the world of rock and roll, but not everything needs to be revolutionary, and not everything is nearly as good as this solid Ronnie Wood release.

Misinterprotato and The Gentle War

8 out of 10: A fine, inventive jazz record

A brilliant Coltrane record is still a brilliant Coltrane record. The music hasn’t changed; what the kids are to listening to has. Jazz used to be the “noise” kids listened to that their parents couldn’t understand. Now jazz is the “noise” that parents listen to that their kids can’t understand.

It’s unlikely then that Misinterprotato, a Brisbane piano, bass and drums trio, are ever going to lock in a place on Triple J’s Hottest 100. Despite a number of their songs featuring nods to modern-day indie rock, The Gentle War is still a jazz album – and refreshingly so. It’s energetic, full of movement and rhythmically inventive, a far cry from the staid version of jazz that befouls the genre’s reputation. What impresses most is the album’s constant play — no drum beat settles without textural fills, no bass pattern remains on repeat, the piano doesn’t just vamp over a chord. Even on the slower numbers, the instruments feed off each other, guide each other.

Wrestle is perhaps the standout, a song that highlights the band’s strengths: a masterly control of dynamics, piano that is both melodically and rhythmically appealing, and Pat Marchisella’s sublime bass, which, just like Mingus’s, is sometimes aggressive, always majestic.

Generally speaking, the album is best when the band works more as an ensemble. Sync and especially Tailgater demonstrate how well Misinterprotato can create so much of interest to the ear, the instruments interweaving rambunctiously across ebbing and flowing passages. Time buttresses the same point from the opposite direction: it’s mostly a solo piano piece that fails to fire without the band’s inventive interplay.

The Gentle War is a fantastic record — a happy change from what the litany of guitar, bass and drum rock trios are offering around the traps, and far more interesting to boot.

Endless Boogie’s Full House Head

1 out of 10: Rock and roll never sounded so dull

Three major chords on a Gibson gold top still haven’t gotten old. Amped up to eleven, the pummeling sound of rollicking guitars remains a primal joy, the riff still the lynchpin of bonerattling rock-and-roll abandon.

No doubt Endless Boogie, who named themselves after a John Lee Hooker record, frequently intoxicate themselves on rock’s sonic ambrosia. Formed in New York, the foursome have kept stars well away from their eyes and devoted themselves purely to swampy-blues riff construction, completely unconcerned with whatever might be hip and only bothering to grace a stage when invited.

Such devotion, which would ordinarily hold a band in good stead, has  nonetheless come at the expense of considering the listening public and writing anything resembling a song. Full House Head is seventy-seven minutes of aimless riffage and teenage-boy-in-a-bedroom noodling broken up into eight “songs”, the music’s lacklustre repetitiveness inducing boredom rather than hypnotising. Every now and again, the monotony is interrupted by Paul Major’s inconsequential rasping; every now and again, the monotony doesn’t sound so bad in comparison. Hardly anything has changed since their first album of two years ago, and one would think that a band so lacking in ambition will never change their ways.

All in all, Endless Boogie are like the bird that wishes the air away thinking it a hindrance to flying faster and higher, only to discover, tragically, that without air there is no flight. Divorced of any kind of structure, divorced of any kind of build up or tension, Full House Head relentlessly meanders, an album lost on a limitless plain, no heights, no troughs — no nothing really.

Mike Patton’s Mondo Cane

7.5 out of 10: The music of Italy’s past beautifully recreated and updated even if Patton could do with a bit more sincerity

Mike Patton’s muse leads him down musical byways long left fallen by the wayside. He’s an aural adventurer, as intrepid as Magellan, and on this occasion fateful crosswinds have blown him towards Italy.

Bologna was Patton’s home whilst married to his Italian bride, and, amongst other things, his time there had him speaking Italian fluently and falling in love with what amounts to Italy’s golden oldies from the 50s and 60s. Mondo Cane, a mildly profane Italian saying that means more or less “the world’s gone to the dogs”, is Patton’s paean to these songs. He gathers together a 40-piece orchestra to faultlessly recreate their lush musical backdrops and a 15-strong band to add a more modern and Pattonesque touch to proceedings. And although the band sometimes overdoes the modern and zany, the orchestra is a stunning thrill ride, the violins swelling the melodies of Ore D’Amore and Senza Fine to dizzy heights, and songs such as 20 Km Al Giorno and Deep Down positively swing.

These songs, however, show up Patton’s one overriding weakness: while he’s capable of singing pretty much anything, Patton is an arch-ironist, more at home singing pastiches and experimenting sonically than with any kind of sincere conveying of emotion. In this, he shares company with the likes of Frank Zappa and Ween, encyclopaedic experimenters who never seem to be taking anything at all seriously despite how much they love music. The songs on Mondo Cane, though, are overdramatic and emotional — and they’re meant to be sung that way. L’Uomo Che Non Sapeva Amare translates to “The Man Who Didn’t Know How to Love”, and the way Patton sings, you begin to wonder if it mightn’t be autobiographical.

Nevertheless, the arrangements and orchestrations are so delightful, the melodies so memorable, that Mondo Cane is a triumph. Like Loveage and Peeping Tom, the product of this Mondo Cane project is an album that people who aren’t Patton fanboys can still love, even if the radio dial on these antipodean shores has never before heard the likes of it.

Betty Lavette’s Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook

6 out 10: Professional covers from a professional soul singer

Most every black performer of the 60s and 70s covered a song made famous by someone white at one stage or another, and, with the exception of Nina Simone, most every black performer sounded awkward singing songs that were unsuited to their voices. So many missteps in the past make an album of British rock songs sung by the seasoned soul singer Bettye Lavette seem positively ghastly, but, to her credit, Lavette makes every one of these songs her own.

Lavette had never heard any of the original versions of the songs on Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook before recording them, not even I Wish You Were Here, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood or Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me. Without years of admiration weighing her down, Lavette has been able to interpret these songs freely, transforming each and every one of these relatively traditional rock songs into prime soul and funk.

Such free turns from the originals are always of interest, but interest soon wanes as one discovers that many of the very elements that made these songs great are lost in the process. On The Beatles’ The Word, there’s no innocent glee; on The Rolling Stones’ Salt of the Earth, there’s no cracked, common-man singing that evokes working-class solidarity. Instead, everything is turned over to the soul-101 treadmill, Lavette’s exceptional rasp nonetheless a genre cliche.

Lavette’s approach does, however, work well on songs that have dated poorly. Shorn of their awful production, Led Zeppelin’s All My Love and George Harrison’s Isn’t It A Pity shimmer more brightly with their freshly-applied soul sheen. Overall, though, while Lavette reconfirms her status as a true soul professional, she fails to make any great impression despite how adeptly she interprets material made in a foreign style.

Duke Ellington on the Whole World Going Oriental

Duke Ellington went rock and began taking on musical influences from around the world on his ridiculously good The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse. Not only is the album a landmark of reinvention, it begins with a startlingly mad and entertaining Duke monologue, one so good I’ve transcribed it for posterity below:

This is really this chinoiserie. Last year, we, about this time, we premiered a new suite titled The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse. And of course the title was inspired by a statement made by a Mr. Marshall McLuhan of the University of Toronto. Mr. McLuhan says that the whole world is going oriental and that no one will be able to retain his or her identity, not even the orientals. And of course, we travel around the world, a lot, and in the last five or six years we too have noticed this thing to be true. So as a result, we have done a sort of a thing, a parallel or something, and we’d like to play a little piece of it for you.

In this particular segment, ladies and gentlemen, we have adjusted our perspective to that of the kangaroo and the didgeridoo. This automatically throws us either down under and/or out back, and from that point of view it’s most improbable that anyone will ever know exactly who is enjoying the shadow of whom.

Harold Ashby has been inducted into the responsibility and the obligation of possibly scraping off a tiny bit of the charisma of his chinoiserie, immediately after our piano player has completed his rikki-tikki.

Mulatu Astatke @ The Forum, 2nd May 2010

8 out of 10: A master finally receiving his dues

It’s an unlikely story: one of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival’s biggest drawcards is Mulatu Astatke, a 67-year-old Ethiopian jazz musician whose superb compositions had sunk into obscurity after civil war and famine engulfed his homeland with the Derg’s disastrous rise to power in 1974. Ever so justly, a volume of the French-produced Ethiopiques series devoted to his classic recordings and the Jim Jarmusch film Broken Flowers paved the way for his journey to Melbourne’s shores and the long-due recognition of his status as a musician of the highest order.

Astatke’s compositions are sexy, atmospheric, smooth, melding Latin rhythms and jazz arrangements with traditional Ethiopian music. His melodies slither snake-like across sumptuous beds of sparse, hypnotic funk, and if one were ever to be sipping martinis and smoking hookahs in a steamy harem on the trail of a two-bit hustler, no doubt it would be Astatke supplying the musical backdrop.

Recent years have been busy musically for Astatke. He’s collaborated with the Heliocentrics and the Either/Orchestra as well as releasing an album of mostly original material just this year. And at the Forum tonight, he plays for the first time with Australia’s own purveyors of music from around the world, the Black Jesus Experience.

Astatke takes centre stage in traditional Ethiopian dress. Softly spoken, he unassumingly introduces each song before stepping back behind the vibraphone or some percussion and playing. Astatke allows his compositions be the primary focus, eschewing overlong solos and any trace of self-indulgence so that his melodies and harmonies, which sound so naturally distinctive to an ear raised on Western music, effortlessly beguile the audience.

Detracting from the performance, however, is a too-loud horn section. When the trumpet and two saxophones are blown in concert, the sound overpowers the rest of the delicately arranged music, bludgeoning what else is being played rather than blending with it. The Black Jesus Experience is not as tight as one would like to begin with either. As the night goes on, though, the band does grow into the music, and by the time Astatke turns to his more upbeat numbers, compositions such as Yegelie Tezeta and Sabye positively shine.

Tonight, Astatke reconfirms his place in the musical pantheon. Such heavenly music makes you think the Rastafarians might have been half-right after all: an incarnation of the divine was born in Ethiopia, even if it wasn’t Emperor Haile Selassie as they suppose.

A Chat with Bebel Gilberto

This decade is set to be Brazil’s. Brazil’s economy is going gangbusters, the country will probably win the World Cup this year before holding the next one in 2014, and the Olympics will be Rio de Janeiro’s in 2016. Now’s the time to get to speed on the South American powerhouse — particularly so on the musical front, as the sound of samba and bossa nova becomes the soundtrack of the coming years.

Of the current crop of Brazilian musicians, Bebel Gilberto best represents the past and the future of what is referred to as MPB, or Musica Popular Brasileira, the catch-all term for any popular music from Brazil that draws primarily from the country’s own musical traditions. Embedded in Bebel’s bloodlines are the particular melodies and rhythms of Brazil — her father, João Gilberto, practically invented bossa nova through his whispered vocals and the sway of his percussive acoustic guitar, while her mother and uncle, Miúcha and Chico Buarque, were key songwriters and performers who shaped the sound of MPB.

Not surprisingly, then, the acoustic guitar that has been the foundation of her father’s music and so much of MPB is Bebel’s most important songwriting tool. “Songs always begin on the acoustic guitar. Sometimes there’s some back and forth with a flute, but first of all it’s the acoustic guitar — always,” says Bebel proudly from her home in New York. Almost invariably, the person playing that acoustic guitar is Masa Shimizu, her long-standing musical collaborator.  “I’m a very dear friend of Masa’s and we’ve travelled the world together making and playing music since 2000. Because of my father’s influence, I work best with the guitar, and I have been lucky enough to find Masa, who I work with so well.”

While Bebel draws assuredly from the musical legacies of her parents and MPB, it’s her ability to so freely interweave these elements with contemporary sounds from all over the world so freely that has made her music her own. “I’ve always travelled a lot and the sounds I hear naturally come to influence my music. My home for the most part over the last seventeen years has been New York, and here, you are always exposed to musical ideas from everywhere, so the rest of the world just seeps into my music.” Such openness to whatever comes her way saw her accepting an unexpected offer to work on the Peeping Tom project with Mike Patton, a musician more well known for his experimentation on the louder end of the musical spectrum. “Faith No More were very big in Brazil when I was living there, so I knew who Mike Patton was when he contacted me about the Peeping Tom project, and I had no reason not to do it. Just because he was a rock musician was no reason to say no. Maybe I might make a rock record too — who knows?”

It’s not rock, though, that can be heard amidst the more traditional Brazilian sounds of her latest album, All in One, but reggae. “I wrote my latest album in Port Antonio, in Jamaica. It was like a vacation — there was a studio where I stayed surrounded by palm trees and with beautiful views of the beach. So when I was developing ideas there, Jamaica was a big influence, and that’s how I came to cover Bob Marley — who is so great — and his song Sun is Shining.”

That Jamaican influence will accompany her to Australia in April as Bebel Gilberto plays a date in Melbourne and another in Sydney after performing as part of the Byron Bay Blues Festival. “I’ll be singing songs mainly from All in One, but I also like to mix things up and sing songs from my earlier albums.” Happily too, for as long as she’s in Australia, we have the special privilege of being able to claim such a charming, talented performer as one of our own. “I travel so much, I’ve learnt to be comfortable wherever my bed is and to consider that home, so yes, while I’m in Australia and sleeping there, Australia will be my home.”

Surely someone can arrange for her a citizenship ceremony?

Dr. John and the Lower 9-11 @ The Corner Hotel, 31st March, 2010

3 out of 10: A flat outing for the king of the swamp

The globe is getting warmer, the days sultrier. It’s only a matter of time before the world is one giant Louisiana swamp, and in that sweaty future, we’ll all be listening on repeat to the mad gumbo stylings of Dr. John, New Orleans’ voodoo master.

Melbourne is a long way from New Orleans, but this Wednesday night is abnormally balmy for March in the Antipodes, the unexpected heat the perfect setting for musical concoctions from the Cajun country. Dr. John will clock seventy years on this mortal coil come November, yet no matter how far removed he might be from the latest trends and his revered home town, he still exudes a timeless cool that any style-conscious youth would die for.

The guitar, bass and drums of the Lower 9-11 Band are Dr. John’s foils, and it wouldn’t be too far fetched to assume that there’s 911 years of musical experience on stage together. Everyone of them knows every nook, every cranny of the rhythms and the melodies of the swamp, and perhaps that’s what’s the problem: Dr. John and the band seem bored, on autopilot, barely even there.

The show starts with One 2am Too Many, yet it’s hard to shake the feeling that Dr. John will be in bed by midnight at the latest. Compounding the musicians’ lack of energy is the low volume — a rudimentary stereo system could blast out something louder — and the microphones on stage that are bedevilled by technical hitches which repeatedly refuse to amplify Dr. John’s delightfully gnarled knot of a voice.

All that’s not to say there aren’t highlights: Reynard Poché’s slide guitar on St. James Infirmary is ridiculously slinky and adds something new to the standard, while Dr. John remains the consummate professional, the sound of Louisiana emanating effortlessly from the keys any time his hands touch them.

Nevertheless, Dr. John and the Lower 9-11 Band showcase tonight the pitfalls of an experienced hand. They’ve been around the block perhaps too many times, and the energy of a band on the make is keenly missed. The likes of the Dap-Kings and the Bamboos still celebrate the sounds of the past with vigour, and, unfortunately, the old stagers tonight are no match for the bands they’ve inspired, no matter how much more accomplished their veteran chops might be.

Hemingway and the Kings of Leon

Yes, I am indeed one of those musical snobs who thinks Kings of Leon did a Black Eyed Peas and turned from what was enjoyable and creditable if not life-changing towards shiny, bland pap.

And as one would expect from a respected member of the holier than thou, I happened to be reading Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. I still retain fond memories of the Kings of Leon’s first album, so I was pleased to have it rush back to mind upon discovering from where the band lifted the album’s fantastic title, Youth and Young Manhood:

I was writing about up in Michigan and since it was a wild, cold, blowing day it was that sort of day in the story. I had already seen the end of fall come through boyhood, youth and young manhood, and in one place you could write about it better than in another.