JEFF BERLIN, Jack Songs. How does one legend pay tribute to another? With good taste. Fusion master bassist Jeff Berlin makes the most of his unique tone and virtuoso chops to pay tribute to his hero and friend Jack Bruce, who is best known for his work with the classic trio Cream. While Berlin is more than capable of reproducing his idol’s sounds, he chooses to pay homage to Bruce’s work by respecting the spirit of Bruce’s compositions while bringing his own skill set to the forefront. Thanks to a small boatload of top-drawer cameo appearances (among them Marcus Miller, Bill Frisell, Geddy Lee, Ron Carter, Tony Levin, and Eric Johnson), the mission is accomplished with the highest levels of skill and dexterity. These tunes are the loveliest of love letters to a musician whose influence will be felt for ages to come.
FRACTAL SEXTET, Fractal Sextet (Alchemy Records). Guitarist and mathematics instructor Stephan Thelen has a distinct musical formula. Whether it’s with Sonar, his Fractal Guitar projects or in compositions he wrote for string quartets, there is no mistaking Thelen’s compositional voice. Yet there is nothing boring or redundant about it. Now that voice has found yet another format, this time with a six-piece group in the form of Fractal Sextet. They are very much a band, and Thelen merely considers himself one-sixth of the musical puzzle. But there’s no questioning his influence. Moving the mathematical emphasis around the room, giving everyone a chance to front the groove, has proven nothing short of stunning. Despite the apparent complexity of the music, there’s still more than enough breathing room. This is a testament not only to the musician’s skills, but to the precision of the compositions. Keyboardist Fabio Anile truly shines with his keyboards providing a nice atmospheric foil to Thelen’s guitar work. Jon Durant and Colin Edwin add the grooviest of bass parts, driven home by the tight accents of drummer Yogev Gabay and percussionist Andi Pupato. This is an alternate time masterpiece. Repeated listens are a must.
COURTNEY SWAIN, Augustine (Available on Bandcamp). Singer/songwriter Courtney Swain is an artist with many layers. Her role as the primary vocalist and keyboardist for Bent Knee is just the top layer. There is even more depth to be found underneath, where she is able to express herself as an individual and not compromise her musical ideals within the context of a band. Her latest solo work, Augustine, is a prime example. Swain’s singing voice is as strong as ever, but comes across as more vulnerable in this context, as her songs are propelled forward by her multi-layered keyboards and the lush production of Vince Welch. Swain has no problem telling you what’s on her mind, which she does with grace and dignity while we sit back and listen via candlelight with a glass of wine. In the grand scheme of things, Swain is still a very young musical talent. On Augustine, she sounds mature beyond her years. One can only wonder what’s coming next.
MUSE, Will of the People (Warner Music). Muse is one of those rare bands that can flirt with progressive rock and still fill stadiums. But somewhere along the line, the band pushed the progressive material further to the side to focus on becoming rock stars. Now that they’ve accomplished that mission, Will of the People shows the band easing its way back in the other direction, triggering memories of Black Holes and Revelations while still delivering more than enough hooks to keep the pop lovers satisfied. The band even toys with Djent on “Kill or Be Killed,” no doubt one of their heaviest songs in years. Not to worry: the songs are still hummable and will no doubt keep bodies moving in one form or another over the album’s relatively scant 37 minutes. Will of the People is a little something for everyone who followed Muse from the very beginning.
SINGLES AND SUCH
THUNDERCAT, “Fly Like and Eagle” (Decca Records). One does not necessarily think of Thundercat when it comes to contributors to the Minions: The Rise of Gru soundtrack, but there he is, offering up a graceful cover of the Steve Miller Band classic. Thundercat’s thumping and funky bass is definitely a main part of the mix, but it shares the spotlight with layered vocals drenched in reverb and airtight percussion. Definitely a highlight not necessarily aimed at the movie’s target audience.
CORNELIUS, “変わる消える” (3-D Corporation Ltd.). Rare is the day a piece of pure electronic pop is talked up in this forum. But exceptions can be made and in this case, they must. Japanese musician and electronics wonder Cornelius has returned to produce a new single that translates to “Change and Vanish,” featuring vocalist mei ehara. Fans of Cornelius will be more than familiar with his sound — dropping thumping slow-end beats, fabulous sequencing, and cool synthesizer grooves — which wraps itself perfectly around the beautifully lush voice of ehara, which can further be described as siren-like. This is one of those songs you can’t help but play repeatedly, which is precisely what’s happening now.
THE MARS VOLTA, “Vigil” (Clouds Hill). For a band often known for its aggressive and frenetic approach to music, the latest single from The Mars Volta might come as a bit of a shock. While it’s doubtful they’ll spend a lot of time there, the duo has added a bit of pop to their repertoire. But it works, with it’s still-frantic percussion working underneath clean guitar licks and groovy, ethereal keyboards. This is an interesting new direction. Let’s see where this goes.
Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (cirdecsongs) My book, I Can’t Be the Only One Hearing This: A Lifetime of Music Through Eclectic Ears, is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other fine book dealers. I’m currently working on my next book, The Wizard of WOO: The Life and Music of Bernie Worrell.
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