Recordings

The BaBenzele Pygmies with Louis Sarnos
bayaka
(ellipsis arts)

The successful integration of technology and nature in music is tricky business. You've no doubt cringed at the humpback-synthesizer duets of misguided New Agers, or pitied the shortsighted vision of well-intentioned projects like Vanishing Voices, in which the cries of endangered species serve as little more than intro fodder for quasi-pristine MIDI recordings. Even Baka Beyond's The Meeting Pool, arguably the best of this breed, often comes across as a little too precious in its merging of sampled rain forest singers and an electronically savvy crew of international musicians.

Compared to authentic field recordings, such attempts at modernizing the hypnotic polyphony of Africa's little-heard music inevitably come up short. And they imply that the extraordinarily beautiful and complex songs of the forest somehow beg the intervention of Western musicians. Ironically, pygmy tribes like the BaBenzele (or Bayaka) have been doing the New Age thing -- fusing their music with the sounds of nature -- for centuries. And without the aid of synths or samplers.

As illuminated by ethnomusicologist Louis Sarnos on bayaka, a CD and photo-heavy 90-page book documenting the lifestyle and music of Central Africa's Bayaka tribe, these rain forest people have a profound spiritual connection to the land. The Bayaka use the found sounds of their environment as the building blocks of their music, engaging in a running dialogue with the chirps of cicadas and the muted patter of rain. Both ethereal and earthy, this music is a blend of melodic singsong and highly rhythmic chants. Having lived among the Bayaka for more than a decade, New Jersey-born Sarnos developed a high level of intimacy and trust, which enabled him to capture the rarest of musical moments, from hunting and gathering ceremonies to wedding and funeral songs.

Sarnos relays a deep appreciation of Bayaka life without lapsing into the veiled "noble savage" rhetoric found in similar studies. Most important, the ministrations applied here by producer Bernie Krause -- mixing Sarnos' tapes of birds and other creatures of the forest into Bayaka tunes -- are not used to "augment" the recordings with Western notions of tribal culture, but to better exemplify the undiluted Bayaka experience. You can almost feel the cool wetness of the forest. A thoughtful introduction to a still-insular music, bayaka unfolds like a revelation.

-- Sam Prestianni

Donal Fox/David Murray
Ugly Beauty
(Evidence)

Master reedist David Murray, as has been well-documented, can and will play anything with anyone, and this sometimes leads to embarrassment (such as his recent Octofunk forays with his high school buddies). But it also means that he brings an orchestral form of understanding to the most scaled-down and direct musical communications.

Murray knows how to organize his thoughts for the occasion, such as Ugly Beauty, a series of duets with pianist/composer Donal Fox (to call Fox "classical" is glib). In his liner notes, Amiri Baraka takes great pains, in his goosey, wonderfully convoluted manner, to distance himself from any pleasure the writer might garner from the "European" elements of the music. What is Europe but a bugbear, one's smashed mirror, and where are those components? Not to come off as the universalist that I'm not, this is sympathetic music, period. Fox sounds more like a jazz artist than, say, George Shearing. He's certainly an improviser: Both takes of Murray's "Hope Scope" (one studio, one live) feature puckish, upper-register runs that draw a searching altismo out of Murray, driving but free of mere provocation.

Better yet, Murray finally sounds involved. As of late, he's come across as distracted on projects that aren't too close to his heart. Critics have remarked that he can stretch himself a bit thin pounding out similar tropes: starting midregister, leaping to the Alvin Ayler freak-out, then settling back into the Ben-Webster-by-way-of-Stevie-Wonder thing. With Fox, a mutual respect comes across; this pianist's "Becca's Ballad" is a real ripper in which the musicians are clearly enjoying each other's company.

If Baraka hadn't complained, I would never have known there was anything to worry about. But isn't that the role of the critic -- to raise issues when there are none? I'd call this the David Murray release of the month.

-- D. Strauss

Tori Amos
Boys for Pele
(Atlantic)

"Musically, I always allow myself to jump off of cliffs," Tori Amos muses in her newest bio. "To me, this album sounds like the biggest cliff yet." Maybe so, but the next time Amos decides to take a plunge as big as Boys for Pele, she may want to make sure she's not headed for a slab of dull slate. Her self-produced third release, purportedly inspired by her "relationships with men," is a confused scramble of unfinished thoughts and musical indulgences. Its slight feel, musically and lyrically, is an unwelcome surprise, given that Amos once invoked resonance with similarly spare piano-voice arrangements, delicate tonal dynamics, and impressionistic wordplay.

Lost in her continual spiritual and emotional cleansing -- a therapy she self-administered effectively on her 1992 debut, Little Earthquakes, and its follow-up, Under the Pink -- Amos has forgotten that she's better at writing twisted pop songs than expansive vignettes. Her ability to fuse classically bent piano melodies with an Elton John-like potency and then drop them into a post-punk context is what made her previous portrayals of adult abuse and childhood trauma easy, even enjoyable, to stomach. If her soundbite lyrics ("So you can make me come/ That doesn't make you Jesus") came off as disingenuous at times, the passion of her performance converted many cynics. Now she's issuing irredeemable endearments like, "You little Fig Newton."

Having recorded Boys in rural Ireland and Louisiana, Amos obviously had a lot of time to overthink these 18 songs, burying any messages under quasi-symbolic excess so deep that it seems pointless to excavate it. The music wanders restlessly in a series of non sequiturs, Amos pausing only periodically to admire her own cleverness. The next time Amos tries cliff-diving, she might consider taking someone else with her on the leap: She's in desperate need of an outsider's levelheaded input.

-- Hobart Rowland

Makers
The Makers
(Estrus)

Art Chantry's spare cover art for the new Makers LP features a Xerox of a fist with its middle finger cranked skyward. That's a perfect image for the sort of music made by these snot-nosed, cock-of-the-walk proto-punks: glorious psychotic reactions lasting no more than a minute and a half apiece. Though The Makers is the Spokane group's third full-length platter for Estrus (following the like-minded releases Howl and All Night Riot!!), there's little use in charting their development. As someone once said of Naugahyde and aluminum baseball bats, the Makers are a pimple on the ass of progress.

Which is not to overemphasize the benefits of advancement. The Makers revel in the "dangerous" sounds of the guitar combos of the early 1960s, groups like the Sonics, Seeds, and Trashmen, who constituted the aural equivalent of stimulants and switchblades. Though they call themselves Mike, Tim, Don, and Jay Maker, it's tough to imagine one mother putting up with a brood as incorrigible as this. If the lyrics to unbound caveman anthems like "I'm Not a Social Kind of Guy" and "Angry Young Man" leave anything to the imagination, vocalist Mike Maker's sneering delivery obliterates any lingering doubts about his compatriots' composite worldview. In their liner notes, the Makers mockingly thank "bands like Blur ... cheerleaders ... Simon Le Bon ... and all the clubs that ripped us off and/or kicked us out," among other targets. Any takers?

The Makers play Sat, Feb. 10, at the Kilowatt in S.F.; call 861-2595.
-- James Sullivan

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