Songs from a Little Blue House
This isn't your father's son. It isn't Juan-Carlos Formell's father's son, either. On Songs from a Little Blue House, Juan-Carlos takes the kind of wide departure from the traditional Cuban son, charanga, and "feeling" genres that daddy Juan Formell probably never contemplated. While Juan Formell's institution-of-a-band, Los Van Van, wrought hard-charging timba, Juan-Carlos committed the subversive act of exploring a highly personalized form of the song styles that put Cuba on Edison cylinders, 78s, 45s, LPs, and CDs around the globe.
His heresy of bringing the introspective vibes of his frowned-upon yoga practices to traditional pop earned the younger Formell sufficient distrust from government bigwigs that he was barred from traveling abroad. An oversight in 1993 carried him to Mexico with a Cuban band, and the 29-year-old musician took advantage of the situation. He swam the Rio Grande, eventually making his way to New York City, where his music was received with about the same level of enthusiasm it garnered back home. Too jazzy for traditional music haunts, not jazzy enough for jazz clubs, he found his sole performing venue in the subway system until, as he put it, "the moment came" and his band Cuba Libre gained the acceptance it deserved -- namely, the recording contract that produced this album.
Patience rather than revolution characterizes Songs. Despite Formell's contention it's hard to imagine the Cuban government fearing a challenge to its social fabric from an initial listen to this music. The disc starts so low-key that when the acoustic guitar instrumental "Agua Dulce" first came on, I wondered if the label hadn't mistakenly slapped the wrong title on a Hawaiian CD. "Canto del Delfin" continued the slack key vibes, but the addition of Cuban percussion told me I was on the right track. And soon enough Formell's guitar is joined by a second to form an intense tangle not too far removed from the descargas of Casa de la Trova on the island. Although few of the songs are overtly political, it doesn't take much reading between the lyrics that celebrate the simple days of Juan-Carlos's upbringing, to grasp a dissatisfaction with current affairs underpinning the nostalgia. "Pajarillo" ("Little Bird") is explicit. "The peasants have been robbed of their soul and their freedom," he sings in a context so lovely, lightened by Mark Whitfield's guitar solo, that the anger is more undercurrent than declamation.
Songs combines the understated pop approach of samba with the tasteful restraint that ideally applies to small-combo jazz. Only the percussion by Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez leaps out at low volume. Play this loud to take advantage of the wide dynamic range, and the melodies soon enough sink in as well. Play it too quietly, and the overarching subtleties all but consign Juan-Carlos back to the subway.
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-- Bob Tarte
Destroy All Human Life
This sloppy mess-of-an-album from Scotland's Country Teasers is imbued with the same reckless, scuzzy spirit as the Mekons' 1985 redux honky-tonk classic Fear and Whiskey. Like that record, there's a spirit at play here that marks the energetic, ramshackle playing, showing the quartet's determination to both honor and spit on country music's history. But there's also something stranger at work on the Teasers' second effort, an energy that connects the band with Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 (i.e., a related penchant for loopy, left-turn riffs) and the Palace Brothers (much like Palace vocalist Will Oldham, the Teasers' B.R. Wallers can't sing for shit). From the playful, cornpone bounce of "Reynard the Fox," to the bloodshot melancholia of "Go Away from My Window," the Teasers manage to pull off their artfully artless country punk, adding shamefully tasteless tongue-in-cheek misanthropy ("Brown Jews, Etc.") and covers that are knocked off, but not thrown away (you've never heard a darker version of "Almost Persuaded"). And when everything falls in place -- when A.J.R. McKinven's whining slide guitar melds with the bleak drone of Wallers's vocals and the casual crash of L. Worthington's drums, as it does on the damn-near beautiful "Hairy Wine" and the chaotic "Deliverance from Misrule" -- the Country Teasers transcend their limitations even as they wallow in them. In the process the band kicks up a startling, screwy, and altogether intriguing racket.
-- John Floyd