The experimental rockers in Silly Rabbit make it one of the most danceable groups to emerge from Seattle's postgrunge wasteland. This eight-piece urban groove machine consists of guitars, sequencers, an unstoppable rhythm section and something called a psychedelic illuminator (an elaborate, lighting-video rig designed to create a rave atmosphere at live performances). Add to that ensemble another nine musicians who contribute jazzy percussion, flutes and a cello and you have a group whose avowed goal is to become "the Pink Floyd of the Nineties."
More like the Spearhead of Seattle.
In actuality, Silly Rabbit is less a band than a mob of musical contributors all coming together with slightly different ideas about what makes a song go "Ungh!" Some of the members apparently spent their allowance on Beastie Boys records, while others kicked back with old P-Funk 45s. It's the tech heads tossing samples around, though, who prevent Rabbit from lapsing into Chili Pepper-wannabe mode.
Bandleader and vocalist Anthony Russell claims Silly Rabbit's music reaches new dialectical heights by blending the synth-machinery of dance music with the human groove of live drummers and guitarists. The band tries to reflect "the human spirit right now"--half slave, half master to the computers that increasingly mediate reality.
Russell's theories, while elaborate and superficially interesting in a neo-Luddite kind of way, take a back seat to an ass-shaking assortment of funkedelic rock. Case in point: "On and On," with its killer, two-chord intro blazing away over a sample of something that sounds like a back-masked bagpipe flanged with reverb. Russell's vocals punch through a beat whose energy is tempered with ambient washes most often associated with trance music. The dynamic interplay between genres results in a blissful earful where all the pieces somehow fit.
"Forty Little Kings," on the other hand, slinks along casually with funk-metal guitar and bassy rumble, posing existential questions inspired by a group of drunks in the gutter. Meanwhile, "The Tempest of Sense and Intellect" deconstructs the cradle of grunge with its smooth, sonic cocktail mixing peculiar movie samples, sultry female back-up singing, and Eric B. and Rakim patter.
It's remarkable how well the band moves unpretentiously from hard-edged funk to ethereal flute solos fluttering over trippy loops (Is that a sheep I hear?). Blending musical genres is nothing new or particularly daring from a postmodern perspective. But taking jazz, funk, hip-hop, ambient and trance elements and creating something this listenable require the crazy skills. And to produce an entire album of head-bobbing, body-slamming grind requires talent, tact and just the sort of luck that only a snippet of George Clinton's flipped-out wig can bring.--Matt Golosinski
La Strada Ballet Suite
Cable penetration can be a wonderful thing. Recent showings of Fellini films on the Bravo channel included an airing of LaStrada, the bittersweet masterpiece that won a Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1954. Longtime Fellini cohort Nino Rota, who wrote the film's score, was later inspired to write a ballet based on the movie and turned out a taut piece of classical music, at turns nervy and sentimental. It's a memorable work made even more compelling on this recent rendition by celebrated conductor Riccardo Muti and Italy's Orchestra Filarmonica della Scala.
Highlights include the Ballet Suite's fourth movement, an intense, string-heavy swirl that starts off with the stridency of Bernard Herrmann's more psychotic Psycho numbers, then gives way to huge melodies intercut by quiet, tense interludes. The movement is supposed to represent the rage of Zampan, the brutish circus muscleman played in the film by Anthony Quinn. It works, though some of the music's more grandiose gestures threaten to spill over the top (the cymbal crashes, especially, are a bit much). Still, it's hard to nit-pick with those melodies sweeping things along.
The suite's other magic moment is the sixth movement. This time the mood starts off placid to the point of pastoral. But the energy slowly builds to a rousing finish as Rota depicts the Chaplinesque heroine in the film (played by Fellini's wife, Giulietta Masina) finally making the decision to leave the abusive Zampanu, with whom she's reluctantly taken up.
La Strada includes other classical works by Rota as well, including the "Concerto for Strings," which alternates between light and edgy musings. There's also a collection of dance music Rota penned for the 1963 film IlGattopardo (The Leopard), by director Luchino Visconti. Rota had to come up with late-19th-century-sounding music for an extended scene involving a party and lots of dancing. The results range from happy, peppy polkas to the kind of airy melodies that bring to mind busy background music in the old Dennis the Menace or Leave It to Beaver TVshows.
In other words, great stuff.
Indeed, two of the most attractive things about Rota's music are its accessibility and economy. The quick, easy melodies may leave an unpleasant aftertaste with classical "poofs" more concerned with experimental and "difficult" works, but there's nothing on this disc that would turn away a listener looking for picturesque sounds in an orchestral setting.--Ted Simons
The American Fogies, Vol. I
It's Friday night. You're so broke, your power and phone have just been cut off, and your last faded package of ramen noodles just crumbled into a fine, MSG-stained dust in your grubby little hands.
Now is the time to either commit yourself to a life of convenience-store crime or do something useful. Like, say, learn to play the three-button accordion, bajo sexto or electric mandolin.
Such is the giddily off-center feeling sure to well up from deep inside your rock-numbed soul a few cuts into The American Fogies, Vol.I. This 25-track excursion through the ethnicity and eccentricity of American folk music (in all its forms) broadens the definition of eclecticism to the point that you'll find yourself singing along with every Czech, Mexican, Yiddish, Cajun, Native American, Appalachian or Polish melody in some strange new variant of Esperanto.
Produced by wandering New York field recording hand (and erstwhile claw-hammer banjoist) Ray Alden, Fogies showcases the diversity of American ethnic folk-music forms from California to Croton-on-the-Hudson. Allthe recordings here were produced and engineered by Alden during a feverish trek across the U.S. that began as a search for oldtime rural Southern musicians and gradually metamorphosed into a cataloguing of all the weirdly resilient styles of down-home, front-porch and/or parlor music still being practiced in some of the most unlikely corners of the country.
Nothing is unexpected in the Lone Star State, but Brian Marshall's chirpy, staccato fiddling and high, lonesome Slavic vocals on the otherwise countrified Polish folk song "Pija Kuba" have a decidedly jarring--and stimulating--effect. Ditto for "Chitarra Romana," an Italian mandolin number given the New Mexican-coffee-house string-band treatment by the Pastatones, a goofy hodgepodge of displaced New York Italians/Sicilians and Albuquerque folkies. This madcap lineup of whirling mandolins and concertinas includes a guy (John Zito) who actually turned down the chance to sing the part of Johnny Fontaine in The Godfather. Guess he didn't like horses.
The presence of a few too many Yankee folk scenesters tends to muddy the waters of tradition a bit too much on songs like "Blue Tail Fly," New Jersey-born Dan Gellert's awkward attempt at blackface minstrelsy. But this is a minor complaint stacked up against the stark acoustic beauty of Kentuckians Carla Gover and Charlotte Lester's high-mountain gospel duet "Little Moses," and the lilting, melodic Piedmont blues of cancer-stricken mill hand Turner Foddrell and his nephew Lynn Foddrell.
Other standouts include the Croton, New York, Colombian dance band Impacto Vallenato on the propulsive "La Gota Fria"; Houston-based Sabias Espinosa and Freddie Porras' oompah-ish Tejano conjunto "La Repetida"; and Mount Airy, North Carolina, guitarist Wayne Henderson's dizzying acoustic runs up and down the fret board on the instrumental "Chow Time."
Because the good ole music biz is so diversity-shy (heavy sigh goes here), you'll likely never find this album at Best Buy. All the more reason to seek it out with a vengeance before you take your next ascetic vow and hightail it for the high desert in search of some good sand-clogging, a cheap balalaika and some multicultural, polka-playing neighbors.--Kevin Roe
Tippett: The 5 String Quartets
The Lindsays, one of the most consistently satisfying string ensembles in the classical kingdom, are coming to town this week for a performance Thursday night at Scottsdale Center for the Arts.
This is good news.
Even better news is that the Lindsays will be playing selections by Beethoven (No. 15 inA minor, Opus 132), Haydn (No. 2 in Dminor, Opus 71) and Bartók (No. 6), all of which (especially Bartók) make up some of the quartet's finest recorded moments.
The Lindsays, however, won't be playing anything from another landmark in their discography, the string quartets of Sir Michael Tippett.
Which isn't such good news.
The Lindsays have a special relationship with Tippett, having worked alongside the aging-but-still-reigning king of British modernism on a variety of efforts. Tippett's Fourth and Fifth Quartets, for example, were written especially for the Lindsays, with the Sheffield, England-based group performing the premires of both.
The Lindsays' composer-approved handling of Tippett's chamber music is anthologized on a newly released double disc that collects Tippett's five string quartets in one jewel box, a long-awaited piece of packaging for Tippett fans. The first three quartets in the collection were originally recorded and released together 20 years ago, and they hold up as highlights in this new home.
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The rousing finale of No. 1 is enough to turn any ear. The same goes for the energetic third movement of No. 2, and the nuances and contemplative nature of No. 3. These quartets are considered at, or near, the top in terms of 20th-century British chamber music, and the Lindsays give the pieces a palpable sense of warmth and discovery.
The Fourth and Fifth Quartets are tougher to take. The jagged Fourth has its moments with its stair-step sequences of rising and falling notes that are agreeably complex, butthe rest of the piece feels flat and about as ingratiating as sandpaper. The music is supposed to be based on a life-cycle, "birth to death" kind of theme, but often the liveliestmoments sound like resuscitated Beethoven, a criticism that also applies to No.5, only more so. Neither piece has the weight of Nos. 1 to 3.
Still, the Lindsays come off as sympathetic to Tippett regardless of the material, and the musicians--Peter Cropper and Ronald Birks (violins); Roger Bigley (viola, disc one); Robin Ireland (viola, disc two); and Bernard Gregor-Smith (cello)--give Tippett's muse a discernible pulse. Which means there should be plenty of life when the Haydn, Bartók and real Beethoven come around Thursday night.--Ted Simons
The Lindsays are scheduled to perform on Thursday, March 21, at Scottsdale Center for the Arts. Showtime is 8 p.m.