Friday, January 22, 2010

EVIE LADIN- BREAKING BARRIERS WITH THE BANJO ON ‘FLOAT DOWNSTREAM’


So, since when did banjo music become world music- no foreign languages, no Africans, no salseros, nada? I don’t know. What year did girls from New Jersey start picking up the instrument? But unlike other innovators like Bela Fleck who deviated totally in his new jazzy direction, Evie Ladin stays squarely within the traditional confines of the instrument, concentrating on songs with a good lyrical base, and doing them up right with sweet harmonies and spot-on phrasing. It becomes world music when divorced from its original farm-system Opry roots and all the cultural baggage that goes with that. Thus bluegrass and country now have another option besides slick country-pop or ‘hillbilly music’ and blues and R&B are no longer ‘race music’ but a medium open to all those who choose it as most appropriate to their sensibilities. Of course the fusions don’t always work. I have yet to hear an Afro-beat band that jukes and jives like Fela, and there’s many an alt-country up-and-comer who’d do well to listen to a few Merle albums before that SXSW showcase.

“Free at last,” someone once exclaimed at seeing barriers fall, but don’t forget to pay respects to your forebears who labored long and hard to give you your licks. Evie Ladin does. She goes way back in her nods to the greats, before bluegrass even, back when they were still ‘string bands.’ And that’s the way she plays her banjo, too, not strummed- she doesn’t go THAT far back- but picked in a claw-hammer style that is at once expressive and percussive. If you’re looking for ‘Orange Blosson Special’ you might have to wait a while. More modern influences might include Emmylou and Marcia Ball, not to mention her producers and virtuoso musicians Mike Marshall on guitars and mandolin and husband Keith Terry on drums and percussion. A stellar line-up like that pretty much justifies the cost of admission straight off.


The album starts off fairly predictably, with ‘I Love My Honey’ – “love my honey I do…love till the sea runs dry,” a quick-picking number that re-assures you right away that at least you did choose from the right Amazon rack. Song #2 ‘Romeo’ is a nice change-up, more folk-style, with some nice organ and drum, that lets you know that you better put down you Sudoku and listen to this album, or you might just miss something- "you wanted me to be your wife… what changed your mind?" Song #3 ‘Float Downstream’ drills the point home even further with its slow lugubrious “my baby left me.” So THAT’s what’s bothering Evie, and millions of women- and men- like her. Love is transitory, going by like a speeding train in one of Einstein’s famous ‘thought experiments’ if you can’t get into the same frame of reference… BEFORE the opportunity passes. Fortunately you can, at least some of the time, as in ‘How Did You Know’- “I didn’t want it to get nasty… after all these years I’m still here,” a slow soulful lament with an ultimately happy ending of willed… not resignation, but adaptation.


By now Evie’s made her points on love- okay, one more point on #5 ‘Dance Me’ – “waited my lifetime for just such a man… who can dance me the way that my baby can,” and NOW we can proceed to kick out the jams a little. ‘One of These Days’ is Las Vegas bluegrass a la Emmylou- “a long time ago, life was so slow… win or lose, have another round,” and ‘Mardi Gras’ is a jazzy Cajun fiddle tune, Marcia Ballsy and rollicking- “Mardi gras is a grand party.” She’d probably do better to wait a month for Festival Internationale Louisiane. Still feelings of hurt and loss creep in, no matter how effective music’s ability to allay them, as in ‘Maybe An Angel’ – “can it be I’ll never see you again? Where you flying now?” with some nice organ, or ‘Precious Days’ with its sparse banjo and guitar, introspective- “well all my years have gone before me, and the race is almost run… I know my journey’s just begun.” Finally there emerges a re-assertion of core values, common to all string bands of whatever stripe, home and family, in ‘Home From Airy’- “this old house is run-down, but it’s mine… it’s home and I know where I stand,” fiddle and banjo now in service to the greater good. The circle is complete, and that’s good. Give ‘Float Downstream’ by Evie Ladin a listen. You might just be surprised. I was.

Monday, January 04, 2010

BIGBANG- Last Call for ‘Edendale’


For a foreign band to ‘make it’ in the US, or even the UK, is a tough proposition. It it doesn’t matter whether they’re singing in their native language or singing in English as a second language, though it could be argued that you haven’t really ‘made it’ until you’ve done it in English- it’s tough. Aside from a few Spanish-speakers- mostly bilingual- with a built-in fan base of native US Hispanics, I don’t think you’d need more than five fingers to count the ones who HAVE made it. There’s ABBA… and their clones Ace of Base… and… and… Nina Hagen? Scorpions? I guess it depends on definitions. It’s hard and takes a great deal of luck in addition to hot licks. Would ABBA have been so successful if they hadn’t popped on to the scene in the glam-rock/kitsch era doing naturally what others had to work and study hard to self-consciously create and emulate? Most that do make it, of course, make it first ‘over there’ and import themselves here as stars for hire fait accompli.

It seldom works, of course, so BIGBANG is doing it the hard way, the honest way, by moving to LA and playing clubs, slowly building up a fan base on the West Coast to add to that already established in home Norway and Europe… AND THEY’RE DOING IT IN THE AMERICAN MUSICAL IDIOM! Russia’s Mumiy Troll is also working hard at it right now, and doing well, but they’re something of a novelty group and may always remain so, and there’s no question but that ABBA scored as many points for novelty as for their cheesy lyrics in that export-quality Simplified English. BIGBANG is operating on American turf singing English-language lyric-driven songs. What are they thinking? Don’t they know how many American bands move to LA to ‘make it’ and then go home a year later, wallets and egos significantly deflated? Apparently not, for, little by little, BIGBANG is clawing their way up the ladder of success, one step- one club- at the time.

It’s not that we don’t like foreign accents- just look at Penelope Cruz’s phenomenal success. It’s just that lyric-driven songs require a certain amount of nuance that TOEFL-taught English just can’t seem to come up with. Despite most songwriters’ best efforts, the results are generally shallow two-dimensional clich├ęd… and, dare I say it, redundant? Even ABBA could barely avoid being cardboard-cutout-caricatures of themselves in concert, wooden as the boreal forests from which they came. I guess that’s why BIGBANG moved to LA to effect their metamorphosis- they want to be more than Norwegian wood. They want to achieve their success by actually mastering the masala idiom of good ol’ alt/indie/Americana. Do they succeed? Maybe.


I’ll confess that my first brief listen to 'Edendale' seemed to confirm my worst suspicions and prejudices, so I didn’t listen any further for a while. That’s what prejudices are for, after all. The problem was that my laptop is set to play everything ‘random,’ i.e. not in the order originally intended. Well, that system spit out the Steely Dan-like song #7 ‘To the Max’ first… only I didn’t realize it was Steely Dan-like, tongue-in-groovy-cheek and all that self-conscious feed-back from billboards and childhoods long past by on the road to redemption. I assumed they were playing it straight. Fortunately, if I’ve learned nothing else in my fifty some-odd years, I’ve learned to second-guess myself… so I listened to it again- still random mind you- but all the way through. Aaahhh, that’s better…


For the most part, BIGBANG plays it straight, little self-conscious kitsch to sort through in the search for ultimate meaning. Their songs may be influenced by FaceBook and television and other various assorted ephemera of existence, but mostly it’s about the core equation, albeit in reverse order- I AM, therefore I think… and love… and hurt… like Hell sometimes. It’s no accident that their album cover is in chiaroscuro- so are their songs. Thus they seem sometimes as if they want to be for pop music what fellow Nord Ingmar Bergman was for film- or maybe Woody Allen’s take on Bergman- weird moods that can function in real time… and with a sense of humor.


Edendale is an obsolete name for Echo Park, the rocker/artist enclave in LA, and ‘Play Louder’ leads off the album evoking that theme forthwith, in something of a time-travel apocalyptic sci-fi scenario- “Somewhere in Edendale… the whole world’s coming down… I’m not around,” making up in pure sympathetic energy whatever it lacks in factual accuracy. ‘Call Me’ ups the emotional tempo a notch, rocking hard and spitting out lyrics like, “Call me.. you don’t need me… but I like you and I wouldn’t mind… all I need is a bit of your precious time.” Song three ‘Swedish Television’ slows things down a bit, moving into the weird-but-all-too-familiar psychological space of love and life gone wrong, “You should see me now… trying to remember the warmth from a father’s hand… feelings still grow here without you.” Song #4 ‘Isabel’ is an even slower more brooding ballad, “Isabel… coming to the end of the road… be sure to put your jacket on… time to send your soul back to the ground… a part of you is already dead.” I hope she’s okay.


The remaining studio songs on the album are mostly variations on the themes of life and love, culminating in the ballad ‘One Step at a Time,’ “one step at a time… I’ll move to another town and find someone else,” a solitary guitar painting a landscape of guilt and rejection and longing… for something. In addition the US version of the already Euro-released album contains three bonus tracks, including ‘Something Special,’ an up-tempo jazzy number featuring a really nice drum track and enigmatic lyrics like, “you got me running… late at night trying to find you… I started thinking, ‘what could I do?’… I had something for you, must be something for me… something to give you, something special…” A live version of ‘Wild Bird’ wraps things up nicely, proving if nothing else that the three bonus tracks may very well be worth the cost of admission. A foreign band that can back up their studio stuff with effective live versions deserves suspension of disbelief prima facie. The proof comes with repeated listens. These guys are no cardboard cut-outs. They rock… in English. That’s ‘Edendale’ by Norway’s BIGBANG. Check it out.

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