Sheshbesh
Sheshbesh
Enja Records (www.enjarecords.com)

Sheshbesh is a group from Israel made up of four musicians who have wide experience in jazz and classical music. The basic instrumentation is flute, oud, double bass and percussion, and the music is mostly original although based on traditional tunes. This is almost Third-stream Israeli music--the classical training shows up strongly, especially in Yossi Arnheim's flute playing. And the arrangements seem carefully worked-out, with lots of unison lines. Granted, the oud is not the best instrument for chordal accompaniment. But most of the solos are either unaccompanied or occur during rubato introductions to the pieces. The players are all excellent; there's some nice bowed bass work by Amir Massarik, and the occasional use of marimba gives a nice variation to the tonal color. But for me the passion inherent in much Middle Eastern traditional music (or jazz, for that matter) is here stifled by the too-polite approach. Group interplay and precision are the main qualities in evidence, and while the CD succeeds on its own terms, it's a little too restrained overall. - Joe Grossman


Chris Smither
Drive You Home Again
HighTone Records (www.hightone.com)

Chris Smither does not sing the same old blues. But he travels that snake road that Robert Johnson, R. L. Burnside and so many others followed:
"Every step is destination/Every moment is as long/ As it will take imagination/To begin and end the song/ Part equals all, that's creation/That's the sense that we belong"
As Chris told me recently, this is a song about a character who is not very nice, but who is very interesting. "Someone we all might have been, or might be at one time." The devil at the crossroads.

You have a growing sense listening to Chris Smither's evolving work that, nice guy though he surely is, he has never fully moved away from that dark persona who haunts his songs. It's that teasing fellow who speaks in Bob Dylan's wicked, "What Was It You Wanted?", which Chris covered a few albums back. Or the "Rattlesnake Preacher" of the Eric Von Schmidt song he covers on this CD. A character so bad he is irresistible, so nasty you love to hate him for his wit.

Chris has stated, "I just have to put 'em out there the way they come out of my head." Maybe this is roughly the intellectual equivalent of the old bluesman's sex boast, "I'm a Man!". If so, Chris Smither is entitled to bragging rights. Over the past few years, he has given us a collection of eerily mythic portraits of shadow figures too nasty to ignore. This CD adds to that gallery.

These dark tales, and some lighter asides, are tied together by trademark sinuous Smither fingerpicked guitar and deep country-style vocals. On this fine CD, Chris's sound is augmented by harmonica, horns and steel guitar. The very clear, tasteful production by Turner Stephen Bruton is most appropriate. The effect is much like Mississippi John Hurt, with even more grit. Very soothing, yet deeply disturbing. The songs create an itch that you have to scratch by playing this set again and again. Truly haunting music.

A combination of inquisitive but oddly comforting original songs, all rooted in the Delta blues, and well-chosen, deftly-executed covers by the likes of Tim Hardin and Danny O'Keefe, Drive You Home Again is Chris Smither's most satisfying album so far. Truly a great American songwriter and performer, he is at the top of his career. Look forward to many great songs and albums to come! - Bill Nevins


JPP
History
Northside (www.noside.com)

This is a retrospective of the career of "the little fiddlers of Järvela," now known simply as JPP. This band of fiddles, harmonium and bass has been leading the Finnish folk revival for almost 15 years, growing from a youthful revivalist ensemble into a full fledged force in the new Nordic music scene. This retrospective includes tracks from their early albums (stuff that's never been on CD to my knowledge) through to the elegant compositions of Timo Alakotila, Arto Järvela and Mauno Järvela. This is a wonderful introduction for those of you still curious about this "Finnish thing" that's been happening. - CF
You can hear a song from their last full album,
String Tease.


Madredeus
O Porto
MetroBlue (www.metroblue.com)

madredeus Two friends to whom I recently lent Madredeus discs had the same reaction: with wide-eyed wonder, they handed back the disc and said, "This is so beautiful." Certainly the angelic singing of Teresa Salgueiro is the first thing people are struck by, but the group's balmy sound is a perfect accompaniment for her. Using two Spanish guitars, acoustic bass and a slight wash of synthesizer, Madredeus creates songs that have the delicacy of chamber music, but with a light rhythmic insistence like folk or pop.

The Lisbon-based group's sound is not as dark and dramatic as traditional Portuguese fado, but it is still tinged with bittersweet emotions. The bright, meticulous playing and Salgueiro's luminescent voice, however, make the music both soothing and gently uplifting. O Porto is a double-disc live version of their release O Paraiso. As pretty as this album is, newcomers might start with the group's single albums, which are just as beguiling. - Marty Lipp


The Carter Family
The Carter Family on Border Radio Vol.3
Arhoolie (www.arhoolie.com)

These radio cuts from 1939 feature the Carter Family at the height of their power. Maybelle's guitar style was more fully developed than in their older recordings and was in the process of influencing a generation of southern guitarists. The solo and harmony singing was also polished and the arrangements seemingly more energetic than in their last commercial sessions.

Here is a chance to hear a more complete idea of the range of the Carter Family repertoire - updated parlor tunes, gospel numbers, reworked ballads and up-tempo instrumentals. An added bonus are several selections by Sara's teenage daughter Jeanette (quite effective) and trios by Maybelle's pre-teens, Helen, Anita and June (which are a bit too precious). - Stacy Phillips


Various Artists
Narada World: A Global Vision
Narada Media (www.narada.com)

Regardless of how one evaluates Riverdance as a manifestation of Irish dance and music, its appeal and success pulled uncounted listeners to the broader music of Ireland. Something like that is going on with the Narada label and its artists. This collection is less roots music than it is popular sound infused with styles from around the world put into an accessible package. As these tracks slip between electric/contemporary and traditional, a middle ground is landed upon. Most wouldn't withstand the scrutiny of folk music purists, yet the selections offered here do capture elements of Celtic, Latin/Spanish/South American, Near and Far East and Native Indigenous music. For fifteen years Narada has provided a diverse catalog of world music. With 29 tracks and better than two hours of recording time from most of Narada's artists, this 2-cd release is both a generous sample of and a tribute to the company's efforts. Narada has identified its audience and found its market niche and now sustains itself with top-caliber productions for them. Not everything from the Narada catalog is sampled, but more than enough to let you find some favorites worth pursuing. Mine? Try Jesse Cook's "Baghdad," Michael Whalen's "The Cheetah Hunt," Alasdair Fraser's "The Road North," Rumillajta's "Cielo y Montana," and John Whelan's "Dancing to a Lot of Time." Check 'em out. Stingy liner notes provide only an index to source albums, but I bet there's a homepage out there for those wanting additional background. -Richard Dorsett



Manu Chao
Clandestino
ARK21 (www.ark21.com)

The early '90s saw an interesting breed of French world-pop. For instance, Les Negresses Vertes came off like a Gypsy-cabaret version of the Pogues. Lo'Jo sounded like refugees from a world of literate circus music. Mano Negra were young punks on the streets, running amok with loud guitars, blaring horns, and a polyglot serpent's tongue spouting references from venereal disease, Haitian voodoo, and their own peculiar rock vision called "Patchanka."

It's been years since then, but Manu Chao -- the leader of Mano Negra (The Black Hand) has returned to walk among us. Thankfully, Chao still sounds at home in the urban jungle. Clandestino sounds considerably more relaxed and less frenetic than Mano Negra, and it's all the more rewarding for it. Manu Chao revises an old Mano Negra favorite, "King of Bongo," into the goofy "Bongo Bong," but the rest of the disc points to the future. Chao deftly blends Latin rhythms with his French, English, and Spanish singing. We're treated to great Mexicali horn lines and wonderful Spanish guitar. Clandestino is Border Radio for the global community. In Mano's world the streets still stink of love and desire, but you can always dance and, if the authorities aren't looking, have a bit of marijuana to boot. With any luck, we'll have more Mano Chao soon after this thoroughly enjoyable outing. - Lee Blackstone


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