Music Review: Gaby Moreno – Illustrated Songs

Hi all!

Recently I’ve been amazed by the seeming rebirth of a more classic sound – not quite Motown, but something close mixing R&B and soul with modern songwriting. Artists like Amy Winehouse, Joss Stone, Duffy and Adele remind me a bit of the soul music greats like Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and Gladys Knight. It was an era where you could feel the blues and gospel roots shining through and I think we’re starting to see that style again as new artists are gaining traction on the pop charts.

Gaby Moreno takes the bilingual skills of an artist like J. Lo and puts a bit of a Duffy/Adele spin on them without losing her own originality along the way. She’s capable of smooth ballads in Spanish and hot songs like “Mess a Good Thing.” Her new album, Illustrated Songs, is impossible for me to lump in one category however. It spans multiple genres and would sound just as at home in a French cabaret, a jazz club in New Orleans, or on “Top 40” radio. Though I compare her to Duffy and Adele, she both is similar and yet not at all similar to both artists.

To add to the confusion, I swear Moreno has one of the most genre-defying voices I’ve heard in a long time. In one song I’m reminded of the new soul movement, in another I’m reminded of Judy Garland, and in yet another I think her songs would seem at home in any Randy Newman-inspired Disney/Pixar movie soundtrack.

Of the dozen songs on the album, “Mess a Good Thing” is by far my favorite. The rocking soul guitar, strings and horn section behind her sultry voice just drive home that this woman has some serious soul. At no time did it feel like the song was out of her control, as can sometimes happen when you sing with such a large band. She knows she’s a good catch and her man won’t be leaving her: “Baby, you won’t be messing a good thing / Hurrying off with the break of day…” But though the lyrics may say he won’t be leaving her, her voice drives the point home hinting that if he does he’ll be in trouble!

But “Garrick” is one of those songs that just can’t leave my brain. The fact that she’s singing in Spanish makes no difference at all. It’s the amazing arrangement of strings, guitars, and clarinet that really makes this one groove. I can’t help but see her singing in front of a big band in some 1920s speakeasy or French cabaret. She’s just at home here as in her sultry soul mode, adding to the mysterious mix of genres she’s comfortable with.

And “Mean Old Circus” makes me think of some Judy Garland movie. The xylophones, circus organs, and her voice merge to provide yet another genre. She dons them as easily as changing hats. Beneath the kid-friendly sound however, there’s a darker purpose to the words – “A revelation …for conversation / A new permission for my religion / A sleeping lion’s lion dream /
In my forsaken evil schemes…” What is she really after here? Escaping to the circus may simply be a cover for more nefarious plans.

Evidently Gaby taught herself to speak better English by singing blues, R&B, and soul classics from artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, and Aretha Franklin. “I learned English from blues records. I’d read the lyrics, then go to my dictionary. In school, we studied basic English, but the records made me interested in learning it and singing it.”

Moreno is backed up by a terrific band featuring Sebastian Aymanns (drums), Leslie Lowe (bass) and an ensemble of renowned musicians including Greg Leisz (electric guitar, Mandolin, Lap Steel), Big Band leader Bob Mintzer (bass clarinet), Larry Goldings (celeste, piano), Patrick Warren (piano, keyboards), Mark Goldenberg (guitars) David Piltch (upright bass), Conan O’Brien’s horn section – Mark Pender (trumpet), Jerry Vivino (tenor sax), Richard “La Bamba” Rosenberg (trombone), and Adam Schroeder (baritone sax) – and string, horn and woodwind arrangements by Paul Bryan (Aimee Mann, Grant Lee Phillips and Amy Correia ). It’s a huge band that reminds me of the big band era of the 1940s but has all the other genres and playing styles at their beck and call as well.

Gaby Moreno seems to be a lady out of time brining classic ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, and other styles back to the people. If you’re looking for something to wile away a lazy Sunday, Illustrated Songs should be on your list to pick up. I love it when modern artists seek to rejuvenate the past and can’t wait to see what else lies in store for her. Illustrated Songs will be released on April 5, 2011 with a tour to follow. To learn more check out Gaby’s website.

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

p.s. Pick up these great albums below!

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Music Review: Eva Cassidy – Simply Eva

Hi all!

A decade ago, I heard Eva Cassidy for the first time in an unlikely place. We were watching an episode of Smallville on television and as soon as the song came on I started to ignore whatever was happening on screen. Eva was singing her version of Cyndi Lauper‘s “Time After Time“. Already a fan of the original, Eva’s version took it to a whole different level… and thus started my fascination with her music.

That one song was my gateway drug. Since then, I’ve picked up albums here and there, always hungry for more. Her album Time After Time still finds its way into my playlist at least once a week. Her versions of “Kathy’s Song” (written by Paul Simon and originally performed by Simon & Garfunkel), “At Last” (originally performed by Etta James), and “Woodstock” (originally performed by Joni Mitchell) haunt my mind on a regular basis.

It’s tough for me to describe the qualities of her voice in words. She was ethereal at times. Always passionate. With a tenderness and a strength that sends chills down my spine every single time. There are few voices that do that to me on a regular basis and Eva’s is one of them.

As I began learning more about Eva, I was crushed to discover that she had passed away of melanoma in 1996 at the age of 33. Another life cut far too short. She had so much more to share with the world.

So when I heard Blix Street Records was releasing an album of twelve acoustic tracks from Eva, I knew I had to give it a listen. The album, called Simply Eva, goes back to the core of what Eva relied on – her voice and her guitar. And as always, I was not disappointed. How could I be?

There are some songs I’d heard before with broader arrangements, such as “People Get Ready” which appeared on Live at Blues Alley. And both “Kathy’s Song” and “Time After Time” appeared on her album Time After Time. But these are stripped down versions that really showcase her guitar skills as well as her amazing voice.

Though every track is amazing, I’m going to focus on three here that really moved me.

Wade in the Water” is a classic gospel song that she just croons with a simple pluck and strum pattern that takes this gospel to a bluesy place that simply rocks. Eva would fit right into a gospel choir with this one. There’s a spiritual quality to her singing that makes even this agnostic soul think twice. For years my father has played this song on his twelve-string guitar but wasn’t able to remember the name, which makes it all that much more personal for me.

Then there’s “Wayfaring Stranger,” which is a staple of the folk tradition. And once again, Eva makes this an emotionally loaded song of cascading meanings. I wonder what she was thinking of as she sang… “I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger / Traveling through, this world of woe. / There’s no sickness, toil nor danger / That bright land, to which I go.” For someone who left us with so much more to say, I hope she’s someplace like that.

And finally, there’s “Over the Rainbow” written for the MGM classic movie The Wizard of Oz. Eva played with the arrangement a bit to make it hers. It’s a song of hope for the future… “Someday I’ll wish upon a star / And wake up where the clouds are far / Behind me.” With a wistful quality in her voice, you truly believe that she hopes things will turn out for the best someday.

If you are a fan of Eva Cassidy’s, or simply are looking for some amazing acoustic folk with a voice that will leave you longing for more, I can’t recommend picking up a copy of Simply Eva enough. Give it a listen. She is missed, but she left behind an amazing legacy for us to enjoy for years to come.

Simply Eva is available today – Tuesday, January 25, 2011.

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

p.s. Pick up this and other great Eva Cassidy albums from Barnes & Noble and Amazon below:

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Music Review: Behave Yourself (Dig)[EP] – Cold War Kids

Hi there!

The Cold War Kids was formed just a few years ago in California and doesn’t seem to have taken much of a break since 2004. They have even been quoted saying with as often as they’re on tour “Why even have apartments?” CWK seems to thrive on live performances, rather than wanting to be regularly in the studio.

Behave Yourself (Dig) is a collection of four songs and a jam session that didn’t make it onto their Robbers & Cowards or Loyalty to Loyalty albums or their many EPs released since 2005. The band consists of Matt Aveiro on drums, Matt Maust on bass, Jonnie Bo Russell on guitar and Nathan Willett on vocals and piano. And based on these four songs, I have to say they have a unique sound that crosses boundaries.

“An Audience of One” opens the EP with Willett exploring his great range while not listening to the advice proposed by the EP title… Tough to “Behave Yourself” when singing lyrics like “Reach out and point a finger / And touch the globe / Spin around and where it stops / You’ve got to pack your bags and go…” Sounds good to me, but easier to do when you’re young and free!

From there we progress to “Coffee Spoon” with its easy pop guitar and percussion backing Willett’s smooth lyrics once again. This one’s meaning is a bit darker though, perhaps in response to some of the economic troubles the world has been seeing. He sings “my indulgence is a joke / and while everyone laughs / I’m clipping coupons / and saving my breath…” The upbeat music mixed with the messages of consumption and the mismatch with how the voice of the song actually feels makes this one stand out.

Santa Ana Winds” is my favorite of the four songs. Like “Coffee Spoon” it mixes upbeat and almost happy melodies and percussion with observations of the gritty California world around them. “Easter on Olvera Street / Girls nursing new babies in alleyways / In between is a basin like the great divide…” showing the disconnect between different sides of the same street all too familiar to most inner cities today. Socially conscious rock songs make me feel that younger generations actually have the hope to see a change in their lifetime.

And the last song, “Sermons vs. the Gospel,” continues the socially deep trend, but this time slowing it down to almost a Southern Church feel stripped down to a few bare instruments and voices. “Got this idea in my head and I can’t get it out / cause all your money and all your culture / I can surely live without…” Begging for mercy from the lord in a world where the rich get richer and the poor keep getting poorer…

Having never heard of the Cold War Kids before, I have to say I’m impressed. Solid music and lyrics that make you stop and think. There may be hope yet.

For more details about CWK, their touring schedule, and previous releases be sure to check out their website at www.coldwarkids.com.

–Fitz

p.s. Pick up this CWK EP and other albums at Amazon!

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