Megan Slankard: "A Token of the Wreckage"

February 2011

Megan SlankardMegan Slankard's First New Album in Three Years Is a Winner

Daily Acts 39216
Format: CD

Musical Performance
****
Sound Quality
****
Overall Enjoyment
****

In the video for the title song, Megan Slankard walks past a group of bored slacker musicians sitting on the curb outside a bar. She goes in, finds a location, unpacks her instrument, and starts to play and sing. The musicians from outside find their way inside and provide her with instrumental backing. The footage up to this point is black and white, but it gradually changes to full color as she finishes and leaves the bar. I admit it sounds hokey when put into words, but the simplicity and sincerity of the whole event makes it tremendously effective and uplifting. Slankard’s music is like that, positive and honest to a fault. You won’t regret hearing it, and your life might even be a little better for the effort.

The young singer, still in her 20s, hails from San Francisco. She’s been compared to Rickie Lee Jones, Joni Mitchell, Ani DiFranco, and other female singer-songwriters, and her style embodies country, folk, acoustic, and folk rock, yet doesn’t seem derivative. Slankard’s music supports lyrics that are down-to-earth intelligent and often deliberately ambiguous, letting the listener participate in the creative process through interpretation.

A Token of the Wreckage has been three years in the writing and contains songs that are mostly about coming of age and entering adulthood. The title song speaks of the many pitfalls in growing older, but it suggests we can always find a bright spot along the way. "The Happy Birthday" and "The Pain of Growing Up" are most obviously about the passage into adulthood, but that theme also underlies most of the music. I was especially taken with a song called "Beautiful Makeshift," which indicates that even though two sides of a relationship might seem at odds, the overall picture can become an ideal and satisfying compromise.

David Bryson of Counting Crows mixed the album, and it's largely clean as a whistle without losing any warmth. He introduces meaningful distortion on a few of the bigger tunes. I don’t care for it much, even if it does have purpose, but only ten percent of the album wallows in that excess. The rest is as refreshing as a mountain brook during spring thaw.

I wondered what will happen to Megan Slankard as I thought of Lawrence Lebo, another great female talent I’ve written about recently. I thought about them both as I was watching many sub-standard performers during the dismal Grammy Awards. How is it that talent gets swallowed up in a maelstrom of mediocrity? I want to blame American Idol for setting low standards, but perhaps that isn’t the whole story. After all, the immensely talented and original Esmeralda Spaulding got recognition. You can’t buy A Token of the Wreckage until March 8, but you can watch the video now.

Be sure to listen to: The acoustic guitar, bass, and drums make a beguiling background for Slankard’s vocal. It’s a lovely, complete, wouldn’t-want-to-change-a-thing-about-it sound.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagexperience.com

Take 6: "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year"

November 2010 

201012_take6Hearthside Holiday Music That’s Smooth as Silk

Heads Up HUCD3158
Format: CD  

Musical Performance
****
Sound Quality
***1/2
Overall Enjoyment
****

The a cappella group Take 6 has wowed audiences around the world with its virtuoso vocal style, earning them ten Grammy Awards. This is their third holiday album, and except for “I Saw Three Ships” and “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” it’s composed of secular holiday chestnuts that conjure up images of snowfall as seen from a cozy cabin heated by a roaring fire. Things get off to a rousing start with “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” which, like most of Take 6’s repertory, is mellow but has a lot of bounce and life.

A calypso-like version of “White Christmas” follows, and I must say that it’s refreshing to hear this new twist on an almost too-often-sung favorite. Up next is a humorous version of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” A bouncy take on Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride” follows, leading to a jazzy version of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” “Jingle Bells” receives a surprisingly languid and laid-back interpretation, which perhaps sheds new light on it. The final track finds guest pianist and singer Shelea Frazier joining the group for Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here."

The sound is lush, smooth and homogenized. I would have liked a little bit more clarity and less overt mixing, but the somewhat breathy (bordering on overly reverberant) sonics actually fit the singing well. If you’re looking for a new “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” type of holiday set, you’ll like this one.

Be sure to listen to:  Track 7 is a vocals-but-no-words version of “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. With its finger snapping and vocal scoops, it sounds like the singers might have had too much hot-buttered rum. I can’t decide if I like it or not, but it certainly got my full attention.

 . . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Christmas with The Washington Chorus"

November 2010

201011_washingtonchorusVivid Voices and Blazing Brass Combine for a Thrilling Holiday Recording

Dorian Sono Luminus DSL-92117
Format: CD

Musical Performance
****1/2
Sound Quality
****emptystar
Overall Enjoyment
****emptystar

This is one of the most exciting big-chorus holiday recordings I’ve heard in a long time, and it’s not from the UK or Germany; it’s from this side of the pond. The performers are the Washington Chorus, the Whitman Choir, the National Capital Brass and Percussion, and organist John Bohl, all conducted by Julian Wachner, the director of the Washington Chorus. This is a downright thrilling disc, full of energy, drive, and astounding virtuosity. There are readers everywhere who find the sound of a large chorus with instrumental accompaniment the most exciting thing in music. They won’t be disappointed with this disc, and it might even create some new converts to the genre.

Most of the big carols are here -- “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “O Come All Ye Faithful,” "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” “Joy to the World,” and “The First Nowell,” mixed in with lesser-known classics like “Un Flambeau,” “Sing We to the Merry Company,” and “Good King Wenceslas,” the latter in an electrifying arrangement with dizzying trumpet swirls that are played to perfection. The other carols are heard in stunning arrangements as well, most with brass, but some with chorus alone, or chorus and harp. I was very taken with Glenn Rudolph’s “The Dream Isaiah Saw,” which closes the concert and makes very effective use of the timpani. The recorded sound is resonant and spacious but not at the expense of detail. The sounds all ring true, from delicate harp accompaniment to full chorus, resounding brass, and thunderous organ. Pretty good for a live recording (yes, there is applause but not until the very end). If you’ve been waiting for a new choral album to add to your holiday collection, this is it!

Be sure to listen to: Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus,” the concert’s encore piece. It’s often played in a stately tempo bordering on the funereal, but here it’s vivid and fleet, the brass playing the instrumental parts so well that you can easily forgive the lack of strings. It times out at 3:59 with applause. “Hallelujah” indeed! If you hear nothing else new this holiday season, hear this!

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

Esperanza Spalding: "Chamber Music Society"

August 2010

201008_esperenzaEsperanza Spalding’s Music Successfully Channels Exciting New Crossover Directions

Heads Up HUI-31910-2
Format: CD

Musical Performance
****emptystar
Sound Quality
****emptystar
Overall Enjoyment
****emptystar

Young Esperanza Spalding is a triple-threat artist. She’s an accomplished acoustic bass player, a virtuoso jazz singer, and an adept songwriter. And on this exciting and appealing CD, she often displays all three of her talents at once. The album’s basic idea was to combine a jazz trio (Spalding, pianist Leo Genovese, and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington) with a string trio made up of violinist Entcho Todorov, violist Lois Martin, and cellist David Eggar. The six players are augmented from time to time with another percussionist, as well as guitar and backing vocals. The result is a new direction for jazz that should also please listeners who like classical, folk, or world music.

The music is kaleidoscopic -- essential and alive, lush and lean, sweet and sultry, and simple and complex. Spalding brings new life to “Wild Is the Wind” and “Inútil Paisagem” by going to the heart of each piece, separating the elements and reweaving them in her distinctive and seductive style. Her voice can be simple and sweet (“Little Fly”) or insistent and cutting (“Really Very Small”). It’s an instrument that seems to have no restrictions of range or timbre, and it does exactly what she wants it to do. Though every track exhibits emotion and warmth, there’s always a consummate intellectual guidance system calling the shots. Spalding’s backup musicians sound more like collaborators who complement and expand her verve rather than taking a back seat, and the rich, full, and singularly focused close-up recorded sound makes everything clear to the listener’s ear.

Spalding is not yet 30, and she’s already on a course to become one of the hallowed greats of jazz. Get the CD and hitch a ride.

Be sure to listen to: The introduction to “Winter Sun” is delicately layered for Spalding’s bass, the piano, the string trio, and wordless backing voices. Superb engineering gives full support to make this track a moment of beauty and musical magic.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

John Escreet: "Don't Fight the Inevitable"

June 2010

201006_johnescreet2Jazz Tone Poems of Searing Intensity Sizzle on John Escreet's Second CD 

Mythology Records MR0007
Format: CD

Musical Performance
****1/2
Sound Quality
****emptystar
Overall Enjoyment
****emptystar

Escreet's music is inventive, powerful, and even frightening at times. Throw in his virtuoso playing and it seems that the overused adjective awesome has found a worthwhile use. His backup band, the John Escreet Project, comprises musicians (David Binney on alto saxophone/electronics, Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, Matt Brewer on double bass, and Nasheet Waits on drums) who keep up with him not as background but as co-conspirators, and the ensemble's hair-raising virtuosity is breathtaking.

There's a sixth voice in "Charlie in the Parker," as a recording of Parker's spoken voice has been woven into the track: "Music is basically harmony, melody, and rhythm; people can be descriptive in all kinds of ways." Parker was instrumental in changing the face of jazz, and his inclusion here is a tribute to innovation and an affirmation that Escreet will keep its torch burning. The recorded sound is full and appropriately reverberant without losing any detail, and that's no small accomplishment since there are a so many subtleties here that could easily get lost in the often cacophonous mix.

Be sure to listen to: The striding opening and chord progressions of the first cut, "Civilization on Trial," which might remind the astute listener a bit of John Carpenter's Halloween score. That reference is quickly banished by an insistent rhythmic motif but then reappears under a new guise. For once the opening track on an album really sounds like a curtain raiser.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com