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Tristeza-A Colores
(December 2005)

A Colores

A new breed of instrumental guitar band has emerged in the last few years, and they don't pay homage to the Guitar Gods paradigm. Instead, they create intricately arranged, cinematic landscapes that value interplay and textural shifts more than flashy solos. Bands like Explosions in the Sky, Mogwai and Lanterna are part of this sound, but one of the first of the current generation is Tristeza. They formed in 1997 with guitarists Christopher Sprague and Jimmy LaValle, bassist Luis Hermosillo and James Lehner on drums. LaValle has since left the band to work with his group, The Album Leaf, but the other members have continued, adding keyboardist Sean Ogilvie and guitarist Alison Ables.

On A COLORES, Tristeza takes a slightly more atmospheric and elegiac approach to their sound, sculpting compositions with meticulously enfolded layers that seem to reveal new facets with each listening. With the twin guitars hocketing simple figures back and forth, they have echoes of surf music and minimalism with electric twang and insistent grooves. Ogilvie's keyboards, mostly a retro Fender Rhodes and an old synthesizer, definitely lend a more atmospheric air to the band. A COLORES has been in my car CD player for a couple of months now, so the imagery in my mind is linked with driving, movement, shifting scenes and enveloping sound. The thing is, Tristeza gives me that when I'm not driving as well.

© 2005 John Diliberto

Ulrich Schnauss "Far Away Trains Passing By"
(November 2005)

Ulrich Schnauss
Far Away Trains Passing By

You don't always get a second chance to acknowledge a musician, but I feel like we just got one with Ulrich Schnauss. His last album, A Strangely Isolated Place, should have been an Echoes CD of the month when it was released in America late last year. The album went on to become a favorite here. We missed the boat then, but not this time. Far Away Trains Passing By is actually his first album. It was released in Europe in 2001, but it's been out of print and is being issued in the U.S. for the first time. It's lost nothing in the intervening years.

Ulrich Schnauss is a German electronic artist who is influenced by forebears like Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk, but unlike so many retro-space artists, doesn't sound like he just emerged from their dusty studios after a 30 year seclusion. Instead, Schnauss is keyed into contemporary electro rhythms, a bit of New Wave romanticism, and melodies that have that infinite, never-ending sound of a Pachelbel Canon. Like Brian Eno, Schnauss has perfected a balance between quiet yearning and joyful heroism in his music, with sweeping major chord progressions that are triumphal without being ostentatious, heroic without being pompous. Although his music is rhythm-centered, with crackling snares and electro-glitches, it's ultimately the melody that draws you in, tuned on glistening, bell-like timbres and space-organ sustains. The re-issue of Far-Away Trains comes with a bonus CD that includes 6 tracks pulled from various Schnauss side projects and tracks that didn't make the original album. Although there are Far Away Trains Passing By, expect frequent stops on the soundscape of Echoes.

~John Diliberto

Sumner McKane-North
(October 2005)

Sumner McKane

Ever since Ry Cooder laid down his lonesome slide guitar on the laconic soundtrack to Wim Wenders's movie, PARIS, TEXAS, there has been a strain of ambient Americana music emerging throughout the country. It includes producer Daniel Lanois's cosmic cajun country, Lanterna's surf-spaghetti ambient-westerns and Bruce Kaphan's pedal steel guitar in space. Sumner McKane has been traversing the same terrain for several years now from his home in Portland, Maine and NORTH is easily his most accomplished work yet.
McKane is one of those guitarists who makes it seem simple, but his easy-going fingerstyle on electric and acoustic guitars is deceptive. He's an orchestrator of guitar, creating lush filigree and sometimes searing leads.For NORTH, he's assembled a small, sympathetic ensemble of drums, bass and occasionally violin. "Careful it Doesn't Look Safe Yet" is typical, with double acoustic guitars laying down rivulets of sound while McKane's electric fades in and out in phantom sustains. McKane's "day job" is playing in a Country & Western band and you can hear that influence here in the plaintive fingerstyle picking and pedal-steel-like sustains and bends he brings to his electric guitar.Track after track on NORTH, McKane paints a uniquely American landscape, a travelogue for a cross-country trip from pristine New England winters to the wide-open expanses of the plains.

© 2005 John Diliberto

Jeff Oster "Released"(September 2005)

Jeff Oster

Jeff Oster spent his youth playing in bar bands, then opted out into the lucrative world of financial advising. All the while, he spent his free time playing in an Oakland funk group. None of that will prepare you for Jeff Oster's debut album, Released. Echoes listeners have been getting a taste for this CD since last year when Oster put out a 4 song EP. All four of those tunes appear here on a disc that elaborates on the themes of that little EP teaser.
Oster plays trumpet, an instrument not usually associated with ambient music, which may explain why he usually employs the more mellow flugelhorn. Exhibiting amazing restraint, Oster eshews the usual smooth jazz rhythms and funk designs of artists like Chris Botti and instead turns his focus on moods and atmospheres. Some tracks are wistful and pastoral like the title track, which is mostly just Oster and guitarist Will Ackerman, who also produced the album. Others chart darker terrain like the mysterious, foreboding sound of "Behind the Veil," which features fractured programmed rhythms pulsing behind vocal fragments and ethereal choirs from Happy Rhodes. She appears on the tribal electronica of "Haleakala" as well, a track co-written by Philip Aaberg, who brings his acoustic piano ruminations to bear on "Fool's Gold." He sounds a lament from the edge, along with Oster's hymn-like harmonized trumpet lines. Now in his 40s, it's taken Jeff Oster a lifetime to arrive at his debut album. And Released is worth the wait.

-John Diliberto

Our Beloved Land
(August 2005)

R. Carlos Nakai & Keola Beamer
Our Beloved Land
Amidst all the Don Ho, hula dancing cliches and sweet Hawaiian slack key guitar, it's easy to forget Hawaii's tribal heritage. Slack key guitarist Keola Beamer taps into that spirit when he teams up with Native American flute player R. Carlos Nakai on Our Beloved Land.

Though most of the tunes are Hawaiian in origin and largely arranged by Beamer, he lets Nakai take them out into the deepest southwest desert, tumbling them through canyon echoes and ancient chants of his own. Despite their physical and cultural separation, it's difficult to tell where Hawaii ends and mainland Native America begins. Beamer's wife, Moanalani Beamer, swirls an oeoe (gourd whistle) on "Ka Honua-The Earth" that sounds like it comes up out of a canyon gorge. Nakai and Beamer's voices, despite intoning different sounds, come together as one. The rhythms, played on percussion instruments from Hawaii, the southwest and Africa are trance-like and ceremonial.Keola Beamer has a deep tenor voice that turns Hawaiian chants into soulful melodies on tracks like “Waipi'o Paka'alana" and "Nani Hā'upu-Beautiful Hā'upu." You don't have to understand the Hawaiian lyrics to comprehend the wistful, deep yearning in the song.

Nakai's flutes act like an answering echo to Beamer's pleas and have never sounded more atmospheric and chameleon-like. You can hear Nakai mimicking the voices and sounds of animals as he blows them into melody against Beamer's plaintive acoustic guitar. And Beamer gets into the act when he picks up the nose flute on "Lapule-'Sunday'" as the two duet over a rainforest recording. The title, Our Beloved Land, is overly sentimental, but the music cuts right to the core. Emerging from Our Beloved Land is like stepping out of a deep dream.

~John Diliberto

Vedic Path(July 2005)

Vedic Path
Various Artists

Vedic Path is a celebration of Indian spirit, music and culture, but don't expect a CD of mantra chants and droning tambouras. Instead, Vedic Path offers an impressionistic journey through an India that's been globalized and re-imagined.

It's been 40 years since Ravi Shankar, transcendental meditation and tandoori chicken have become part of the world's popular consciousness. In that span, cross-pollination has been rampant. A.R. Rahman, best known for his Bollywood scores, opens the album with a serene orchestrated alap of sorts that acts as a passage from the west into the east. But once the passage is open, anything goes.

India sarod player Ali Akbar Khan teams up with legendary singer Asha Bosle for an intricate duet and Tibetan nun, Choying Drolma intones one of her hymns, "Song of Realization" over guitarist Steve Tibbetts' restrained ambient atmospheres. It's fascinating to hear the relationship between Tibbetts' arrangements and those of Stephan Micus, a German musician who has been orchestrating exotic soundscapes with instruments from around the world since the early 1970s. His "Passing Cloud" employs a Japanese shakuhachi flute, Trinidad steel drums and the sinding, a West African variation on the kora harp. You might wonder what it's doing on an album of Indian-derived music, but it works.It's a world music of the imagination. M Path creates a propulsive Indian fusion hinting at electronica while American flute player John Wubbenhorst brings his acoustic fusion ensemble to bear on the rhapsodically serpentine melody of "All Bliss." Surprisingly, Ravi Shankar's "Tana Mana" may be the least convincing in its authenticity as the legendary Indian sitarist dresses up his simple melody in New Age synthesizer designs that were fashionable in 1987 when this first came out, but now sound dated.

All the music on the set has been previously released, but Vedic Path gathers them into one lush, exotic package, which also includes a DVD with videos for each song compiled from footage shot across India. Embracing the Indian subcontinent, including Pakistan and Tibet, Vedic Path is intoxicating and seductive. This is a special gift for Echoes CD of the Month Club members, with a beautifully packaged CD, DVD, extensive booklet and even a large fold-out National Geographic map of India.

(June 2005)


Peppino D'Agostino & Stef Burns
Bayshore Road

Peppino D'Agostino has been a long time Echoes favorite. Born in Italy, he's been releasing albums of pristine finger-style guitar since he released Acoustic Spirit in 1987. Stef Burns has probably never been played on Echoes, but has been heard by millions. He's a fret-burner who's recorded with Y&T, Alice Cooper and currently tours with Huey Lewis & the News. Yet, these two neighbors in San Francisco's East Bay suburbs have made a CD that strikes a balance between sensitive interplay and furious virtuosity.

Most of the tunes are D'Agostino's, who is a composer as much as a guitarist, and although he's a pretty busy player to start with, he still makes room for Stef Burns to lay in his often yearning leads. Despite Burns's rock 'n' roll lineage, the pair co-wrote two of the album's more pastoral pieces, the title track and the calming "Inner Sanctuary." That last track recalls Ennio Morricone's spaghetti western soundtracks with Burns's mournful guitar crying out across D'Agostino's intricate backing. D'Agostino's "Beyond the Dunes," already a frenetic, Middle Eastern inspired composition, gets ripping sustained leads from Burns, while D'Agostino creates a shifting latticework beneath him. And D'Agostino's "Venus Over Venice" is by turns anthemic and thoughtful, though the fade-out on Burns's knotty solo is unsatisfying.

Even the two tunes that seem out of context are fun diversions. "Jerry's Breakdown" reflects back on D'Agostino's Italian bluegrass roots and Weather Report's "Birdland" is given a light-hearted treatment. But they seem misplaced next to the panoramic expanse of "Better World," a tune that breathes in western colors and open spaces. Let's hope these two musicians remain good neighbors.

(May 2005)

Yo-Yo Ma & The Silk Road Ensemble
Silk Road Journeys: Beyond the Horizon

There are few icons in modern music who cross boundaries and genres, culture and class with the ease of cellist Yo-Yo Ma. His name is universal enough that when he was a guest on the television show West Wing, staff assistant Donna Moss could proclaim "Yo-Yo Ma rules," and there was no need to explain who he is or why he's important. It's just understood. Silk Road Journeys: Beyond the Horizon (Sony Classical) is the sequel to his 2002 Album, When Strangers Meet. Once again, Ma has assembled a cast of virtuoso musicians spanning across greater Asia, including China's Wu-Man, a master of the pipa, and Armenian duduk player Gevorg Dabaghyan. But better than that, he's gotten composers from across this geographic region to create new compositions or to recast traditional music.

Beyond the Horizon is like an Asian caravan, picking up and dropping off musicians along the Silk Road path. Sometimes the results are a sophisticated global jam session like "Oasis," sometimes, it's a sweeping orchestral arrangement like the cinematic expanse of Zhao Jiping and Zhao Lin's "Distant Green Valley." Iranian composer Kayhan Kalhor's "Mountains Are Far Away" is a deep meditation on tone and time as the composer also bows he raw-edged stringed instrument, the kamancheh, playing off the more refined tones of Ma and his string septet. For the ecstatic vocal of Nilanjani Dey that opens the album, to Wu-man's gentle pipa plucks on the closing "Sacred Cloud Music," the Silk Road Ensemble recasts tradition in a new world.

(April 2005)

Christopher O'Riley
Hold Me To This

As host of the public radio show "From the Top," pianist Christopher O'Riley is a competitor to our own radio show. But that's not stopping us from picking his latest album as our CD of the Month for April. When he released True Love Waits: Christopher O'Riley Plays the Music of Radiohead in 2003, many were surprised at the inventiveness of his interpretations and the way he recast the progressive rock band's music while still retaining its essential character. Now he's returned with a second album that might be even better. While piano renditions of Radiohead could be muzak, O'Riley moves in quite the opposite direction with knotty, challenging re-inventions full of overtone clusters and spiraling counterpoints. Yet, the essential melodicism, incisive drive and quirky structures of Radiohead still ring out as O'Riley finds the rock and let's the classical breathe. Close your eyes and you might think you're at a classical recital ranging from Chopin to Nancarrow. Open your ears and you'll hear music with Radiohead's delirious exhilaration.

(March 2005)

Mystic Canyons
Soulfood flies under the conventional music radar. After releasing their first album, Breathe, into the ambient ethno-techno market in 1998, they've effectively gone underground into the gift market. It's a nether-region of music, supplying everything from yoga studios to national park gift shops. Sometimes this music is functional and market driven, like Yoga Dreams, but sometimes it transcends its utilitarian goals. DJ Free a.k.a Gordy Schaeffer is Soulfood, and with various collaborators, he's released over 20 CDs in the last seven years. Some transcend, some don't. Mystic Canyons rises above. For Mystic Canyons, Soulfood returns to the sound of his first album, Breathe, creating a Native American ambient music, albeit one less electronica-driven. DJ Free plays Native flute, guitar and synthesizers, but is helped out by Anakwad (Frank Montano) of the Ojibwe tribe on flutes and chants and Rita Coolidge on chants. Soulfood uses the chants judiciously, to set the mood on atmospheric pieces like "Distant Spirits." Soulfood's take on ambient Native music is lush, full of plush synthesizer pads and lots of reverb, but he also has a grounded sense of melody, with flute playing that bends and arches like the arc of a hawk traversing the Sonoran Plateau. As befitting Soulfood's DJ roots, Mystic Canyons is a seamless flow, moving from the quietly triumphal guitar strumming of "Canyon Echoes" to the deep meditation of "Thunder Song" which recalls the flute choirs of Coyote Oldman. There's even a piano reverie on "Mystic Canyons Part 2." Mystic Canyons may show up in Grand Canyon gift shops, but it's a souvenir of the spirit. © 2005 John Diliberto

Other Recommended Soulfood CDs:
Guitar Meditations (w/Billy McLaughlin)

(February 2005)

Harold Budd
Avalon Sutra

Harold Budd is a romantic with a classicist's soul and an experimentalist's curiosity. He's never opted for the obvious ploys for the heartstrings. Instead, Budd explores the geometry of passion, the calculus of love and the shadows of memories. The 68 year old musician is the patron saint of ambient chamber music, with adherents like Tim Story, Kevin Keller, and David Darling following in his footsteps. But Budd says that his musical path has come to an end and Avalon Sutra is his swansong. If that's true, then few musicians have gone out on such a high, albeit muted, note. Avalon Sutra is a materpiece of ambient chamber miniatures as Budd threads his tremulous, spartan piano themes amidst a string quartet, the reeds of Jon Gibson and ambient atmospheres. It's a CD that seems haunted by memories and longing, and many of the pieces bear dedications to people in Budd's life. If there's a flaw to Avalon Sutra, it's that some of the pieces are simply too short. You want to hear these pearls extended and developed. That happens on a second bonus disc, an expanded remix by Akira Rabelais. He takes Budd's miniatures and stretches them and reforges them into a single extended meditation. If Budd's songs are snapshots, Rabelais makes them into a slow motion cinematic opus. Either disc leaves you immersed in a world of bittersweet melancholy.

© 2005 John Diliberto

(Janruary 2005)

Green Isac

It was difficult choosing Green Isac as our first CD of the month for 2005. For one thing, it would mean three out of the last four CD of the Month selections would be by Norwegians! For another, the album actually came out in November. But the end of the year is always a heavy time for new releases and sometimes, great albums get lost in the shuffle or just don't hit us at the right time. That was the case with Green Isac's Etnotronica. Green Isac inhabits a quirky world of ambient music where charming melodies and arrangements fall somewhere between faux-exotica and the trash heap, a meeting ground of the Penguin Café Orchestra and Cluster. Etnotronica continues the sound the Norwegian duo began back in 1991, with pulsing ethno-percussive rhythms loops, global exotica and elliptical structures that keep folding back in on themselves. Engagingly guileless, Green Isac is as likely to pick up djembes and bongos as Moog bass and Fender Rhodes piano. Lap steel guitar meets yang-ch'in (Chinese hammered dulcimer) at a crossroads of African drums and electronic pulsations on "Dr. Talk's Bagpipe." What sets them apart from so many of their peers, who simply loop rhythms into drones of infinity, is a gift for the hook. Andreas Eriksen is a member of the electro-pop group Bel Canto and that melodic sensibility carries over to Green Isac. In fact, Bel Canto singer Anneli Drecker guests on "Siamese Drum," with some of her patented ecstatic wordless vocalese. Green Isac orchestrates an often haunting sound world, but instead of a wink, they've got a twinkle in their eyes.

© 2005 John Diliberto

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