There Is No Eye: Music For Photographs
Various Artists
Smithsonian Folkways

When released in 1952, Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music bolstered the incipient folk music revival. As John Cohen puts it, "[The] music was from the late 1920s ... [and] already gone." Many people, touched by music previously hidden in regional enclaves and unavailable on record, began to learn and play traditional songs. Many other people sought out still-hidden songs and documented them. Cohen did both.

For almost 50 years, Cohen has photographed, recorded and performed folk music -- the last with the revival band The New Lost City Ramblers. "Less style, more spirit ... " he explained, "I was seeking music still in direct touch with its roots." There Is No Eye (a collection of 166 of Cohen's photographs) and Music for Photographs (recordings of his subjects) are what he found.

By covering a variety of traditions, MFP makes for an apt folk initiation. It begins with a Harlem Gospel Church in 1953 and ends with a California music camp in 1973. Stops on the way include: Peru's Andean mountains, the hills of Scotland, and Greenwich Village circa 1962 -- where a young Bob Dylan performs "Roll On John."

But MFP is also for aficionados. It includes eight previously unreleased gems (nine including the Dylan, which has until now been available only on bootlegs) from luminaries like Reverend Gary Davis and Bill Monroe. None of the archival discoveries sound like "outtakes." Each is a first-rate performance.

The anthology's only missteps are a New Age jam by Cohen's son Rufus and the David Arman Quintet's impossibly lame theme to the Beat film Pull My Daisy (for which Cohen shot the stills).

Otherwise, Cohen continues to follow in Harry Smith's footsteps. MFP presents a hodgepodge of styles unified only by their emotional directness. More spirit, indeed.

-- Peter Jacoby

Josh Groban
Josh Groban
143 Records/Warner Bros.

In the liner notes of his self-titled debut album, operatic singer Josh Groban thanks Cirque du Soleil and the entire cast of Ally McBeal. Any review could be left at that, all drama deliberately implied, but it's impossible to dismiss Groban so quickly. The kid's voice simply grabs your collar before you can turn and go.

Only 20 years old, Groban's voice is as full and controlled as any seasoned, professional opera singer. But the pop-heavy arrangements that accompany his rich voice on each track leave him surrounded by the misty mauve aura of well, say, Celine Dion.

And that's all right, if you're looking for an extensive soundtrack to your majestic life. But unless you're a French ragpicker or a Dickensian street urchin, this music is really too dramatic for passive listening. Groban's voice is so laden with emotion that it needs no obnoxiously enormous orchestra to accompany it, yet a complete lack of respect for simplicity on the part of producer David Foster (composer of the Dion/Andrea Bocelli hit "The Prayer") ruins Groban's perfectly honorable recordings. While his beautiful voice clutches away your breath with delicate phrasings in Italian and Spanish, distracting classical guitars and completely lame, predictable beats consistently steal the focus away from Groban's vocals. Foster pairs the singer with Charlotte Church, sets him up with bad Don McLean songs ("Vincent"), and allows Richard Marx to produce one of the more commercial tracks. Thank God it's winter, or Foster would surely have dug up John Denver for a duet on "Sunlight on My Shoulders."

Who knows what David Foster was thinking, if he was at all. Groban can be let off the hook based on youth and inexperience -- let's just hope that this first mistake hasn't permanently relegated his heavenly voice to Hollywood soundtracks and PBS holiday specials.

-- Kristen Sherwood

Jim O'Rourke
Drag City

I never noticed Jim O'Rourke before he joined Sonic Youth two summers ago. I must not have been paying attention. When my research turned up his discography, I tried to count his total projects. I gave up when I ran out of fingers and toes, after about one-tenth of the list.

O'Rourke began in the late '80s and early '90s as an avant-garde composer and guitarist, drawing largely on John Fahey--styled fingerpicking and small cacophonies of found sounds. Later, with Chicago's Red Krayola and Gastr Del Sol, he helped found the post-rock scene that paved the way for the successes of Tortoise and Radiohead. O'Rourke finished the millennium rocking with Superchunk, experimenting with Anthony Braxton, and twanging with alt-country icons Wilco. He also squeezed in, among other things, two solo albums (Bad Timing, Eureka) and an EP (Halfway to a Threeway), the last two of which were full of pop arrangements a la Burt Bacharach and Steely Dan.

O'Rourke thus has managed to be both inimitable and ubiquitous. That is, he never sounds like anyone else; his sound is that which is found on every third indie release. It's rock with an orchestrator's touch -- which Insignificance has in spades. Bridges with three-part harmonies, distorted guitar coupled with vibes. Sections repeated just long enough to get your attention, to make you listen, to even start sounding ugly, before the song urges on.

Insignificance is also indebted to the eclectic compositions of Frank Zappa. But O'Rourke's work lacks Zappa's nervous irony, that anxiousness that precluded hum-ability. Zappa was always too smart for sentiment. On "Memory Lame" O'Rourke sings: "Looking at you/ reminds me of looking at the sun/ and how the blind are/ so damned lucky." O'Rourke's sentiments may be cold and bitter but they're also sharp and direct -- like his music.

-- Peter Jacoby

Sous Les Votes, Le Serpent
Michel Godard
MA Recordings

This fascinating, impossible-to-classify recording spotlights the serpent, a snakelike ancestor of the modern-day tuba. The valveless instrument, which dates from 1590, features a wood mouthpiece that is partly responsible for its deep, primal sound. Played by Michel Godard, the serpent is featured on mostly original compositions recorded in a resonant Spanish monastery. All this helps create an otherworldly, time-suspending experience of mind-expanding dimensions.

Michel Godard, who arranged four of the disc's nine tracks, began playing the serpent in 1979. He has since become one of the world's leading exponents of the instrument. In addition to his modern tuba playing with numerous French orchestras and chamber ensembles, Godard plays with a plethora of international instrumentalists, as well as with his own ensemble.

Joining Godard is: Linda Bsiri, who variously sings and plays trumpet marine on a number of tracks; Mark Nauseef, who plays percussion on all tracks and composed five of them (one with Bsiri); and Pedro Estevan, who adds percussion on three tracks. Percussion in this case includes gongs, bells and Tibetan singing bowls.

The disc begins with music from the time of the serpent's emergence, as everyone joins in on Godard's wordless arrangement of the traditional plainchant "Victimae Paschali Laudes." From there, the music journeys to mystical realms that transcend the limitations of language.

Part of this album's success is due to the genius behind MA recordings. Established in Japan in the spring of 1988, the MA label is known for recordings of unusual, frequently impossible-to-classify music captured in acoustic settings that emphasize an almost mystical sense of expanse and space. Many of MA's musicians are from Central and South America, although some hail from the Middle East, Southern Siberia, Macedonia and other exotic locales. MA's digital recordings, in this case recorded at a 96 kilohertz sampling rate, are produced with only two omnidirectional microphones, with signals fed through exotic audio cabling into handmade and customized recording equipment designed specifically for the label. The results are extraordinary.

-- Jason Serinus



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