The Mag: CD reviews

Shaman

Troika

Feeling like you've been in a bit of a trance lately? Then this is just the disc for you. Arkenstone, who takes his hypnotic inspiration from fellow new-ager Kitaro, has been a hit for Milwaukee's Narada label right from its beginning. He composes on a Macintosh computer, then transfers to guitar and synthesizers. This ain't the Louisiana Hayride we're dealing with here. Troika (a trio whose members prefer to remain anonymous, "preferring that the focus be placed on their music rather than on the personalities of the group," kind of like the Archies, I guess) offers an electric ambient sound that reminds me a lot of Tangerine Dream and Synergy, a kind of soundscape to which you just surrender and see what happens. Not much, if you're looking to get people dancing, but it's not bad accompaniment for reading ... or just drifting off. "Crossing the Light" has a pretty catchy and propulsive percussion element to it, and "Chanting Up the Sun" features an eerie yet strangely calming vocal that recalls American Indian chant. "Vision Quest" also has a American Indian influence to it. "Trance" speaks for itself. An acquired taste, for sure, but one that seems to have been easily acquired by advertisers for new cars. Maybe if they played this in the showroom, there might be a spike in sales.

Wasp Star (Apple Venus Vol. 2)

XTC

If there were a hall of fame just for pop song writers, Andy Partridge would have to be a shoo-in. For 20-something years, Partridge has been churning out clever, incisive, hip and hilarious songs. "Wasp Star" follows 1999's double orchestral release of "Apple Venus Vol. 1." Partner Colin Moulding can crank clever himself but Partridge remains the soul of XTC whatever the lineup (longtime guitarist Dave Gregory departed before "Apple Venus Vol. 1"). Who else can wax poetic about being "stupidly happy" or proclaim himself "the man who murdered love?" It doesn't hurt that the Partridge/Moulding partnership consistently produces pure pop melodies to carry the lyrics. This time they do it to the sound of electric guitars and a harder edge than volume one. Hmmm ... versatilely happy?

That's It

David Raitt and Jimmy Thackery

Thirty years after they palled around in high school, guitarist Jimmy Thackery got the notion to hook up again with David Raitt. Good idea. Thackery's fine playing carries this soulful romp of an R&B; record. And while Raitt can't match the voice of his famous sister, Bonnie, he holds his own. He did coax her into singing backing vocals on two tunes. Thackery, the longtime guitarist for the Nighthawks, is not underrated, but certainly commercially underexposed. Thackery's a practitioner of textbook blues-rock playing who can put down power chords, riff his way through hard-driving leads or pick his way lightly through a bridge, all as needed. "That's It" is probably one of the more productive high-school reunions you'll ever hear about.

Live at Antone's

Joe Ely

A third live album? Well, Joe Ely has always been at his best in concert. It was his Lone-Star Springsteen stage dynamism that first hooked this longtime fan in 1981, when he opened a Tom Petty show. Performing on his home turf of Austin, Tex., with a band that includes his original guitarist, Jesse Taylor, and newer additions Teye on flamenco guitar and Joel Guzman on accordion, Ely puts on a show that displays all of his old strengths as well as his growth. Like the Boss, he can still rock hard, but much of the music also reflects the textured border influence that has shaped his sound of late. Meanwhile, his increasing ability to build tension and drama is showcased on tracks such as "Up on the Ridge" and "Gallo Del Cielo," while "Thousand Miles From Home" and "Rock Salt and Nails" highlight the deeper expressiveness of his ballad singing. Ely is a pretty fine writer himself, but if the best tracks here are by others -- Robert Earl Keen's "The Road Goes on Forever," Tom Russell's "Gallo Del Cielo," Jimmie Dale Gilmore's "Dallas" among them -- it's Ely's stirring versions that are the definitive ones. Which is what you'd expect from a set that amply lives up to his reputation.

Live at the Village Vanguard

Chucho Valdes

The piano isn't big enough for the Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes. He wears it out. Valdes, 60, who once directed saxophonist Pacquito D'Rivera and trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, combines Tatumlike technique with an outsized tropical heart. This 1999 gig at New York's legendary Village Vanguard shows off Valdes' extraordinary technical mastery. It's full of the whiffs of old Havana that he creates with his rhythm section stoked by two percussionists, Raul Pineda Roque on drums and Roberto Vizcaino Guillot on conga and bata drums. Valdes exhibits soundboard-shaking riffs, a penchant for wild quotations, and a spirit that squeezes and reworks the music until epiphany arrives. In rifling through a collection of originals, Valdes always uses major Cuban musical forms as references. The result is one of the strongest sets so far this year.

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