For many years, the vast majority of musicians could not afford to release an album without significant support from a record label. Internet idealists now predict a world in which record labels are obsolete and consumers browse search engines, using all-inclusive lists of bands to weed out the good from the bad — even if the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ recent ruling against Napster pushed visions of this file-sharing paradise into the distant future. Nevertheless, advances in recording technology now allow even weekend hobbyists to create and peddle aural evidence of their creations. This results in some oversaturation, particularly in the flavor-of-the-month bins. (An unfortunate number of rap/rock groups’ demos sound as if the band members met for the first time, drew aggressive slogans and floor-scraping riffs out of a red baseball cap and recorded the results all in the same weekend.) But it also means artists producing unorthodox music can peddle their products without compromising their sound. The discs that follow came from such musicians, all of whom fall outside of Kansas City’s most commercially viable genres: hard rock, indie/emo and jazz.
Well, maybe we’ll include just one jazz disc, but it’s the gem of this bunch. David Basse‘s Strike When the Iron Is Hot brilliantly showcases this veteran performer’s warm yet gruff vocals. Listeners should eagerly accept his throaty “Invitation to the Blues,” and Dick Vermeil might want to tap the inspirational lyrics of the title track (penned by Milo Adamo and Basse’s co-producer Michael Melvoin) for one of his halftime speeches. Basse, joined by such other local luminaries as Ahmed Alaadeen and Eldar Djangirov, played this song before and after Al Gore‘s campaign stop in Kansas City. If Gore hadn’t failed to carry through on the album’s titular suggestion, Basse might have been playing another inauguration ceremony. (He played Bill Clinton‘s in 1997.)
When paired with a sprightly piano backdrop, Basse’s voice is smooth enough to torch such love songs as “Sugar” and “The Light of Our Love.” However, he’s versatile enough to venture into much rougher territory, covering scorched-throat wheezer Tom Waits without missing a beat and tackling the noirish “House of Should’a, Could’a, Would’a Been,” another standout from Melvoin and Adamo.
Basse’s successful stab at Waits was a bold gambit. But pianist Ruben Pascottini‘s decision to merge Alan Silvestri‘s “Forrest Gump Suite” with refreshingly low-key renditions of James Horner‘s bombastic “My Heart Will Go On” and Christopher Cross‘ sap-drenched “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)” might have been even more ambitious. This impressive ten-minute-plus medley is one of seven multisong movements on From Me to You, Pascottini’s collection of the most requested tunes from his Wednesday-through-Saturday performances at EBT Restaurant. In addition to neatly merged combinations of Broadway show tunes and movie music, From Me to You contains an intricately melodic original titled “Mi Angel” and a four-song finale in which Pascottini lovingly addresses the Bolero, which he describes as “the most romantic expression of Latin-style music.” Growing up in Asuncion, Paraguay, Pascottini absorbed Latin-American and American songs with equal enthusiasm and soon was able to produce and re-create tunes in both veins.
Being well-traveled isn’t a necessity for crafting a culturally eclectic album, though it certainly helps. Diligent study, however, is seemingly a must. Celtic artists are by far the most attentive to detail in their liner notes, often pairing each song with an explanation of its historical origin and even attaching glossaries and maps. Sunrush avoids the more extravagant learning aides, but its song synopses prove educational and occasionally entertaining, particularly its description of the peculiar pasttime addressed in “The Twisting of the Straw Rope.” As for its music, Sunrush excels at high-speed jigs, during which its fiddle and banjo players produce smoke during their manic solos. All of these stomp-along numbers are instrumentals, but the complex interaction between instruments is nearly impossible to unravel until the midpaced breakdown segments. When vocalist Jann Maloney appears, the songs at first seem sedate, then they start to glisten with New Age sheen. Sunrush dubs each Enya-esque sleeping pill as “song” on its back cover; its spirited jaunts are aptly titled “reels.”
Reels are few and far between on Maria Anthony and Megan Hurt‘s crawl-paced Thegither an A, but this duo’s harmonies, delivered over somber string arrangements and wispy woodwind melodies, are nonetheless engaging. While Anthony and Hurt’s invitingly authentic versions of traditional tunes seem as though they’re being surveyed from in front of a museum’s velvet rope, Anthony’s original tunes, particularly the touching lament “Hey Soldier,” possess even more power. Your skin is stretched too thinly for you to hide your fright, she sings tenderly to a swaggering soldier. Covering all the bases, the liner notes complement the text of Anthony’s lyrics with maps and bold-faced references to King Robert the Bruce and the Clyde River.
Tabla Rasa‘s liner notes are footnote-free, but then, this quintet isn’t aiming for an old-country feel. With its jangly guitar, up-twisting vocal quirks and drum-circle percussion, Tabla Rasa jams Dave Matthews-style when it’s not getting jiggy with it. Using congas, timbales and mandolin, the group constructs deceptively dense verses, then builds a thin tunnel to the big power-ballad style choruses. Drummer Justin Danner chauffeurs each song to its inevitable dramatic peak in style, using a series of thunderous rolls to excellent effect. Songwriters Mike Tipton and Matt Smithmier employ the type of subtlety that’s absent in Tabla Rasa’s music, making spiritual references and even referring directly to Jesus without coming off as missionaries.
Father-and-son team Coleman and Coleman take the opposite approach, preaching their devotion to Christ on each and every track of Aairborn Chapter 1. Omer Coleman III, the younger of the two, graduated from Oral Roberts University with a degree in church ministries. He once sang a duet with ORU’s president, and now he puts his soulful voice to work over upbeat synthesized rhythms and grinding low-end-heavy slow jams. Unlike some religious institutions, the Colemans aren’t afraid to place women in a position of power, using female singers and MCs throughout the album. Most noteworthy is the angelic Reina Saunders, whose solo showcase “Sparrow in the Storm” provides an excellent bridge between the reggae-flavored “One Race” and the name-dropping (such as Lazarus) testimonial “Victory.” As men of God, Coleman and Coleman shalt not steal, but they do sample (with credit given) several beats from funk deity George Clinton. Most memorably, they freak the same bass loop Big Daddy Kane used on his classic “Smooth Operator,” speeding it up and topping it with the chorus Nobody can do it like Jesus.