That disconcerting visage gracing the cover of I Care Because You Do is a self-portrait by none other than Richard James, aka Aphex Twin. A British bedroom experimentalist who rode to prominence on the techno train, James' instrumental excursions have garnered much crit-praise over the last couple years, largely due to his iconoclastic, mad-scientist's approach to creating electronic music.
Employing everything from cannibalized synths and household appliances to samples taken from the tunnels in which he once worked, the eccentric James isn't just another robotic trance-dance computer programmer run amok. Sure you can dance to Aphex Twin -- sometimes -- but as James himself once put it, the stereotypical Aphex fan is most likely the "sad fucker" who stands in the corner of the rave taking notes. Like Moby, this is techno for people who don't necessarily like techno.
But I Care is nowhere near as "difficult" as one might suspect. Picking up where last year's Selected Ambient Works Vol. II left off, it's immediately user-friendly in a throw-it-on-and-go-about-yer-business sort of way. "Acrid Avid Jam" updates vintage Kraftwerk, and the next three tracks -- in particular, the baleful "ICCT Hedral" -- loosely parallel Coil at its most broodingly orchestrated. It isn't until the torturous, tinnitus-inducing electronic squeal that pervades "Ventolin" (the album's first single, dedicated to England's asthma sufferers) that one really starts to wonder just what some poor machine did to deserve such abuse at the hands of Mr. James. From that point on, the music is pretty much animatronic dub, terminating with the faux-classical "next heap with."
There's a small army of innovative artists out there who easily out-weird Aphex Twin noisewise, but it you prefer twisted tones as a garnish and not the main course, this could be the platter for you.
-- Mike Rowell
When Joe Henderson was first introduced to the bossa nova melodicism of Antonio Carlos Jobim, via Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd's hit version of "Desafinado" in 1963, Latin rhythms began to filter into the tenor saxophonist's evolving musical vocabulary. In the liner notes to Double Rainbow, Henderson acknowledges, "Jobim had a profound effect on the way that I proceeded with melodies that I already had going on in my brain."
This homage to Jobim, intended as a collaborative celebration until the Brazilian composer suddenly took ill and passed away in December of last year, marks the third in a series of spectacular tribute recordings Henderson has been making for Verve since 1992. The first installment, Lush Life: The Music of Billy Strayhorn, reignited the saxophonist's career at the age of 55 by winning him a Grammy for best jazz instrumental solo. The follow-up, So Near, So Far (Musings for Miles), was awarded two Grammies.
More than a mere rehashing of Jobim standards, many of these titles are relatively obscure. Double Rainbow largely explores the soft and serene side of Jobim's compositions as Henderson's deeply focused solos speak to an inner peace, developing like prayer or a tearful conversation with an old, dear friend. The program splits personnel between an impassioned Brazilian combo featuring folks like Eliane Elias and Oscar Castro-Neves (who also produced the disc) and an all-star jazz quartet with Herbie Hancock, Christian McBride, and Jack DeJohnette. In these hands, the gorgeous delicacy of Jobim's vision lives on.
-- Sam Prestianni
Joe Henderson plays Sat, June 10, with Herbie Hancock, Oscar Castro-Neves, and former members of Jobim's band at the Masonic Theater in S.F.; call 864-5449.
The Laura Love Collection
Laura Love plays a musically mutated style she calls "Afro-Celtic." Most artists who claim they've "invented" a new hybrid come across as either pretentious or precious, but Love's stunningly originaR>l arrangements of her hard-hitting tunes draw on African, Caribbean, American folk, and Celtic styles to create settings that are as refreshing as they are unique.
Her Putumayo debut kicks off with "All Our Lives," an Irish jig that examines the unexpected ways people can become intertwined. It's accompanied by a folky fiddle, tinkling kalimba, strummed acoustic guitar, and poppin' bass worthy of Larry Graham. A funky bass also drives "If You Leave Me Now," a gentle kiss-off set to a driving skalike beat. Love's voice, an expressive alto that drips honeyed melismata, recalls Phoebe Snow at times, but with a sharper emotional edge, while her lyrics are extraordinary for their poeticism and innate musicality. Every syllable of every word is in sync with the rhythm, making Love's narratives sound like another instrument, a device that drives the songs forward to a satisfying emotional climax.
Though a comfortable Celtic verse-chorus structure backbones the works, it's elevated by unexpected musical strokes: On "Anyway," a working-class rocker, Love's yodeling suggests the polyphony of the Zairian pygmies; "Less Is More" rides a second-line rumba with a multitracked Love Gospel Choir providing angelic backing vocals; and "This Place I Love," a draft dodger's lament, contains a lighthearted scat that's a marked contrast to the tune's melancholy feel. There are damn few singer-songwriters with the verbal and musical skills to rock both your body and soul as convincingly as Love does here. She's definitely a "contenda."
-- j. poet
The Laura Love Band plays Sun, June 11, at the Great American Music Hall in S.F.; call 885-0750.
Lift Up Your Head
With 'Til Shiloh, his second American album, Jamaican supa Buju Banton has matured considerably as an artist: Not only does he "Walk like a champion/ Talk like a champion," but he appears ready to take on theR> weight of being the spiritual figurehead of reggae, a position left vacant since the death of Bob Marley. To that end, Buju has grown dreads, become a devout Rasta, and written conscious material which has helped spark the current cultural revival in dancehall music. Along with other high-profile raggamuffin artists like Cutty Ranks, Super Cat, and Terry Ganzic, Buju emphasizes "culture lyrics," which are working to reverse the current dancehall trend toward "gun talk" and sex-heavy "slackness."
These 15 tracks center around the spiritual strength needed to take one through life's trials and tribulations. Jamaica's violent history is the subject of "Murderer," a song about the deaths of reggae artists Panhead and Dirtsman, while "'Til I'm Laid to Rest" proclaims Buju's faith in Jah until his dying day. For the ladies, songs like "Champion," "Only Man," and "Wanna Be Loved" take a sensitive view of male-female relationships, with Buju promising "love and affection." His best song, "Untold Stories," represents a complete change of pace for Buju, though, as he steps out of dancehall into traditional roots-reggae territory. Backed by acoustic guitar that recalls Marley's "Redemption Song," Buju attempts to reason with his brederen and sistren all over the world. "I could go on and on/ The story's never been told," he sings, his voice newly raw with emotion.
Like Buju Banton, Everton Blender is a strong proponent of bringing positivity to dancehall, his songs uplifting odes to the power of family, Jah, natty dreadlocks, and "de kutchie pipe," in that order. But while Buju concentrates on raggamuffin rapping for the most part, Blender is a pure singer along the lines of Dennis Brown or Sugar Minott.
Blender's appeal is the humble way in which he presents himself: "I am a family man/ Working for my children," he sings on "Family Man," which reprises the classic "Tempo" riddim. On "Man Is Unjust" and "Ghetto Youths," he explores the social unrest among young people in Jamaica, but smooths over this ruR>de-boy attitude in "Gwan Natty." Blender also covers Marley's "Sun Is Shining," Brown's "Westbound Train," and Cat Stevens' "Where Do the Children Play."
Blender's warm tenor doesn't boast a lot of range, but he does display control and lots of lungpower on songs like "Create a Sound" and "Bring di Kutchie." On "Ethiopia's Calling," Blender teams up with DJ Culture Knox for a powerful combination style that should knock slackness out of the box.
An up-and-comer, Blender hasn't quite achieved the mass appeal that Buju commands, but American reggae fans should be aware that behind Mr. Banton stands an impressive array of dancehall artists who have something to say, and more importantly, are saying it now.
-- Eric K. Arnold
Buju Banton plays the Reggae Sunsplash festival Sat, June 10, at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley; call (510) 762-BASS.
Living Under June
When Jann Arden sings about romantic obsession on Living Under June, her second release, she seems far more interested in what she's searching for than in the relationships in which she tries to find it. On "Wonderdrug" in particular, it's obvious that the Canadian singer-songwriter isn't looking for love so much as searching for some kind of metaphysical Prozac to soothe her soul. She's missing something -- and she really wants what she hasn't got.
This dissatisfaction is conveyed in catchy, fairly complex pop songs made no less intense by their shades of subtlety. Like a more direct, less experimental Joni Mitchell, or a gloomy, cerebral Victoria Williams, Arden makes pop music that's both beautiful and deeply felt. "Could I Be Your Girl" sounds uplifting, but Arden isn't kidding when she calls love a demon. Maybe she's just looking for redemption in all the wrong places. "I lost the truth, I lost my way," she sings on "Looking for It (Finding Heaven)," but what she's searching for lurks in "everything I am."
Though it's affecting, such pop-song spirituality would soundR> overly pretentious were it not for the occasional dose of good-natured humor. In the title track, Arden involuntarily overhears the "sexual atrocities" of her upstairs neighbor, and on "Insensitive," she delivers one of the catchiest disses of the year, suspecting that a cold former lover "might have some advice to give/ On how to be/ Insensitive." Arden's implied admission that she would feel better if she had a thicker skin makes the song achingly honest instead of merely clever.
Such emotional honesty demands that Arden sing about the good as well as the bad, and after an overly smooth guest vocal by Jackson Browne on "Unloved," Arden lists what she does have on "Good Mother." Assets include good parents, a car, and some money in her pocket; the song offers a glimpse of the favorite things that sustain Arden during darker hours. As residents of older buildings know, it's hard to stay bummed out if you've got a good sense of humor and a free real-life soap opera that's only a thin wall away.
-- Robert Levine
Jann Arden plays Sat, June 10, at the Great American Music Hall in S.F.; call 885-0750.