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The Harlem Experiment is one of those weird hybrid concept albums, a mish-mash of blues, jazz, hip-hop and Klezmer music meant to represent Harlem’s long and quixotic musical legacy.
Following on the heels of two other siblings, The Philadelphia Experiment (2001) and The Detroit Experience (2004), the result here is a little questionable, but the heart behind this effort is a big one (most notably from engineer Aaron Luis Levinson), and deserving of some credit for a damn fine college try.
The biggest names here are probably Taj Mahal with his cover of Cab Calloway’s “Reefer Man” (which is not surprisingly the best song on the album) and Carlos Alomar with his fantastic guitar on “Mambo A La Savoy”. Also mixed in are some German cabaret with “Bei Mir Bist Schon” (there’s an umlaut in there somewhere, but for the life of this writer its location on a computer keyboard remains a mystery to this day) and some decent jazz ditties. Unfortunately that very mix makes this album seem infuriatingly inconsistent, and while the spoken word tracks are well done, they tend to be rather simplistic after the complex jazz pieces.
Even though this adds up to a CD that appeals to many while delivering to few, any “experiment” such as this deserves to be remembered for reminding us all about the music and life of Harlem. — Brandon Whitehead (posted 11/30/07)
Once described by Taj Mahal as “a little, white Ray Charles,” Austin resident Seth Walker is one of those guys that us music snobs just love too pretend we have discovered out of the blue. While in fact he’s had his fair share of chops onstage with the likes of Charlie Musselwhite and Chicago’s legendary piano player Pinetop Perkins (See kids, sometimes you actually earn your nickname by learning a skill). His self-titled CD Seth Walker is his first (at least on Hyena: for some reason blues players have a spotty biography-go figure…), and this man knows his blues baby.
With the help of some of his friends on songs here and there (including Rayvon Foster with some backup vocals and the freakin’ awesome Floyd Domino on piano), Seth rolls us through a lexicon of the greatest music in the world, American blues and soul. Right from the gritty first track “Change My Way,” Seth lays it out in his smoke-filled voice, turning sorrow and pain into pure music. He even throws in some thoughts on his experiences in New Orleans during Katrina (which, by the way, was the moment where the federal government finally went ahead and jumped the shark…) in “2’ Left to the Ceiling”:
“Four feet from the ceiling, eight feet from the floor, Sadie quit barking a half hour ago and I can’t find my way to the door…”
Add in a few rockers like “Gone Before I knew It” and a fantastic cover of Tom Waits’ “Picture in a Frame,” and you’ve got some of the best music never to be played on radio. Now if he could just hurry up and come up with a name for his next album (hell, call it the same thing: just get another out, Mr. Walker!), then this little misanthropic critic will actually have a reason to own an iPod.—Brandon Whitehead (posted 11/09/07)
While it’s easy to compare the Bloomington Indiana trio called Backyard Tire Fire with the likes of Beck or Whiskytown (and plenty of other critics have), it would be best to know nothing before sliding in their latest CD vagabonds and hooligans because you might bias a truly enjoyable experience.
Even though the alt-country label is slapped on endless bands with about as much care as a Chinese toy inspector, it actually fits these guys well. The also know how to put a little rock in tracks like “Green Eyed Soul,” which is about as good a damn song as any human can come up with, bar none.
Singer Ed Anderson’s voice is simple and crystal-clear, with Matt Anderson and Tim Kramp filling in various vocals, percussion and bass on these twelve lush and elegant songs. But it’s the musical arrangements that really stand out. Few musicians even bother to develop the intricate layers that make simple songs (particularly “a long time,” which could bring a tear to Springsteen’s face) become great ones. The craftsmanship, energy and joy present have these guys delivering the freshest music heard in a while. The humor is fun too: If you don’t tap your feet to “Tom Petty” check your pulse ‘cause you’re dead.
Really, the only complaint here is that for some reason they listed six tracks each on an A side and B side, which means some idiot somewhere will inevitably try playing the CD upside down.
Backyard Tire Fire will be playing this Saturday at the Bottleneck in Lawrence with Satan’s Jeweled Crown (note to readers: there is no point in listing the start time because that will never be the time the band starts — just call the place), where no doubt there will be vagabonds and hooligans a’ plenty.—Brandon Whitehead (posted 11/02/07)
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