03 ZeelliaTse Tak Bulo/That’s How It Was
ZeelliaChickweed Productions #ZL003 (zeellia.com)

With its mix of field recordings and original arrangements and compositions, Zeellia’s new album Tse Tak Bulo/That’s How It Was explores pre-Soviet Ukrainian migration to Canada. Containing snippets of interviews and songs from elderly migrants, which the ensemble founder Beverly Dobrinsky collected in Alberta and Saskatchewan in the 90s, the CD is both a historical document and an artistic statement. Zeellia’s approach to these traditional songs lives firmly in the realm of artistic re-interpretation, rather than an ethnographic recreation. With her mixture of vocal and instrumental textures, Dobrinsky takes great liberties with the found materials pushing them into the realm of original compositions rather than mere arrangements. The most striking track is Oy byv mene cholovik (My Husband Beat Me). In my own explorations of Ukrainian folk music, I have found that domestic abuse is, unfortunately, a common theme and I commend Zeellia for not shying away from it. Dobrinsky’s recomposition of the tune is a highly effective combination of playful rhythms and dissonant a cappella vocal harmonies punctuated by woodblock knocks. As I Walk across Canada is a gorgeously mournful song steeped in loneliness and nostalgia for the homeland left behind. Among other instruments, the album features the hurdy-gurdy, known as lira in Ukraine. Dobrinsky’s approach to the instrument both nods towards its traditional role as accompaniment to spiritual minstrel songs and reframes it in a new light.

04 Max RichterMax Richter – Songs From Before
Robert Wyatt; Max Richter
Deutsche Grammophon 4795566

For some years now you could have confined your re-imagined and exploratory music CD buying to releases by the German-born composer, pianist and electronics manipulator Max Richter and found your shelves start to sing with depth and invention. And that would hardly be surprising. Richter is among the foremost of the talented new musicians who have developed a sharply individualistic, difficult-to-classify personal genre. Here, on Songs From Before, as is customary, roots in and branches from folk and classical often surface, but there is so much else going on: Richter skilfully, imaginatively and (by-and-large) subtly mixes in elements of electronic music, rock, contemporary composition and the occasional nod to the fantasy of poetic recitation.

Although most of the pieces develop from beguiling, elegant melodies, what makes them so special is Richter’s manner with arresting textures and colours – achieved not only with his keyboards, but also with the strings. These sonic creations stimulate mental pictures of mysterious narratives – especially when on Flowers for Yulia, Harmonium, Time Passing, Lullaby and Verses, Robert Wyatt is called upon to recite sparse verses – evoking the work of such chroniclers and visionaries as Bach and Arvo Pärt. And yet with every phrase unfolding a new mystery as if by aural magic, one is irresistibly drawn to this music because it is distinctly and uniquely a part of Max Richter’s own sound world. 

05 Anoushka ShankarLand of Gold
Anoushka Shankar
Deutsche Grammophon 4795459

“Everyone is, in some way or another, searching for their own Land of Gold; a journey to a place of security, connectedness and tranquility, which they can call home,” writes sitarist Anoushka Shankar in the liner notes of her new album. Themes of separation, isolation, journey into the unknown, parental love and hope, are all inspired by the refugee crises across the globe and the current state of the human condition. Shankar is an evocative storyteller – her compositions (co-composed with Manu Delago) are intensely hued with raw emotion. The journey from darkness and uncertainty to light and acceptance is portrayed with a powerful musical drive and in collaboration with many wonderful musicians.

The album opens with Boat to Nowhere and Secret Heart – two sitar-driven numbers, featuring yearningly poetic cello lines (Caroline Dale) in the first and the dynamic Indian reed instrument shehnai (outstanding Sanjeev Shankar) in the latter. M.I.A. is a guest artist in Jump In (Cross the Line), adding a contemporary feel and expression, and Alev Lenz’s touching lyrics and vocals are the pulse of the title song Land of Gold. But the heart of the album is Remain the Sea – featuring heartbreaking poetry of Pavana Reddy, spoken with much feeling (Vanessa Redgrave), and landscaped beautifully with traditional chanting and sitar. In this piece one cannot help but feel the weight of emotion, coupled with responsibility.

The mix of Indian classical styles, electronica, jazz and textured soundscapes, has an admirable fluidity. This album makes a difference – as a social commentary and as a powerful musical creation.

06 Ice and LongboatsIce and Longboats: Ancient Music of Scandinavia
Ake & Jens Egevad; Ensemble Marie Balticum
Delphian DCD34181

What would the music of the Vikings have sounded like? This CD offers a partial response to this question and more, as it takes the listener on a journey through soundscapes of two periods: music improvised on Viking era (800-1050 AD) instruments, as well as notated songs and instrumental items from the early centuries of Christianity in Scandinavia.

The second volume in Delphian Records’ groundbreaking collaboration with the European Music Archaeology Project, Ice and Longboats showcases the work of the versatile Ensemble Mare Balticum, as well as the remarkable father/son team of Åke and Jens Egevad. The Egevads are musicians and reconstructors of ancient instruments. They built the wooden lurs (trumpets), frame drums, bone flutes, hornpipe, animal horn and Viking lyres heard on this recording.

The selections mostly alternate between instrumental and vocal songs, with occasional dramatic shifts in mood and texture between tracks. The delicate medieval bone recorder is contrasted with the declamatory sounds of the lurs, and the simplicity of the bells provides a foil to the more elaborate medieval vocal and ensemble sections.

Standouts include the lyre duet on In the Village: evening, the Jew’s harp solo (played by Ute Goedecke) on Gaudet mater ecclesia and the sublime vocals on Nobilis humilis. The overall sound is pristine, as the music was recorded in the historic (ca. 1100s) Oppmanna church in Sweden. A beautiful and illuminating recording, Ice and Longboats is a voyage worth taking.

01 Turbo Street FunkMomentum
Turbo Street Funk
Independent TSFCD002

My first introduction to Turbo Street Funk was witnessing their live Toronto street corner bouncing performances which made any lengthy wait for public transit a joyous experience. Their busker street spirit is remarkably captured on this, their second release, though now they can also be heard playing lively gigs at festivals, clubs and on air!

The nine tracks feature both original tunes and covers. The original title track Momentum is a big rock concert hall funky anthem with sing-along arm-waving melodies. In contrast, the jazzier original Never Been to New Orleans moves along in blues-based harmonica and sax solos, and fun double-time speedy Cajun-flavoured middle and ending sections true to their street roots. The other originals are good too and indicative of their developing songwriting skills.

Covers are the band’s forte especially in Seven, an unlikely combination of the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army, the Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) and yes, Edvard Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King. Technical performance precision, precise listening skills and superb individual musicality weave an almost new musical genre highlighted by in-your-face guitar solos and dance-in-your-living-room grooves.

Each Turbo Street Funk band member is an accomplished musician whose youthful artistic essence is captured by the excellent recording production. Infectious musical energy, a driving beat, booming bottom end tuba, wailing solos and boisterous vocals make Momentum a jubilant release.

Ice Age Paradise
Sienna Dahlen
Independent SEN06 (siennadahlen.com)

Dream Cassette
Joel Miller; Sienna Dahlen
Origin Records 82713 (originarts.com)

02a Sienna DahlenSienna Dahlen follows the great line of Canadian vocalists who commit to disc the poetry of music written from the heart. She also reveals that she is a queen of bright timbre and contrasting colours; a lyrical vocalist par excellence. On Ice Age Paradise she plays characters that are elementally flawed and tragic, revealing the raw wounds of their emotions as they rise up in the throat. The performance is a visceral one that flirts dangerously close to music’s nerve endings. Dahlen has in her sights a pure kind of poetry. How beautifully Venezia dances its ghostly waltz here, the flowing speed perfectly judged by conductor Andrew Downing to give the rhythms a lift and allow Dahlen to phrase the poem in unbroken sentences with total naturalness. Throughout, Dahlen is an engaging storyteller who brings to life a narrative almost completely visualized in monochrome. But as surely as night turns to day, voice, piano and bass, horns and cello, guitar and drums open the door to an attractive, songful luminosity that glimmers as if from a rainbow-coloured gossamer web.

02b Joel Miller Sienna DahlenOn Dream Cassette, Dahlen teams up with an extraordinarily gifted multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, Joel Miller who, in each of 12 original songs here, has tempered his arsenal of sophisticated compositional resources with fond and haunting reminiscences reflecting the contours of New Brunswick’s rich and yet starkly dramatic cultural landscape. The mostly unfamiliar tunes serve as unifying devices, which in the hands of Miller and Dahlen, together with a crack ensemble, elevate their intentions through deconstruction in a variety of unexpected ways. Songs such as Flying Dream and Corey Heart are densely evocative and hypnotic musical embroideries while the audacious Streamlined is at once raucous and poignantly eloquent. There is a wonderful kaleidoscopic palette of vocal colours from Miller’s saxophones throughout, with plenty of sonorous bloom for high and lonesome notes. For her part, Dahlen brings an ethereal beauty to this recording, singing gloriously as she rises fluently to the stately melodic lines of Miller’s music.

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