We lost a great musician this week — English guitarist John Renbourn.

Whether duetting with Bert Jansch, creating a masterful folk-jazz hybrid with Pentangle, or playing all on his own, Renbourn was the epitome of taste, style and subtlety throughout his long career.Like his brother-in-arms Jansch, he’ll be memorialized as a “folk” player, but Renbourn knew no borders. His wonderful 1973 solo LP, Sir John Alot Of Merrie Englandes Musyk Thyng & Ye Grene Knyghte, may be packaged to look like a straightforward trad-folk collection, but look and listen closer: Renbourn tackles tunes by jazz saxophonist Charles Lloyd and Stax legends Booker T. & The MG’s.

It was this sense of adventure and openness that defined John’s music. Big Bill Broonzy. Ancient English songs. Charles Mingus. Johann Sebastian Bach. His own beautiful compositions — check out the absolutely gorgeous “The Pelican” from his 1976 LP The Black Balloon. He could play it all, and play it better than 99 percent of other guitarists.

John will also be memorialized as an incredible acoustic guitarist —which he obviously was — but for awhile there he played some killer electric stuff as well. Dig his extended solo on Pentangle’s “Jack Orion,” that dances nimbly at first and then explodes into a fiery burst of fuzz.

We won’t see the likes of him again. Safe travels, John. words / t wilcox

taylorThe Minnesota-based Grass-Tops Recordings has earned the love of guitar soli devotees over the past few years thanks to its stellar reissues of some of Robbie Basho’s hard-to-find masterpieces, as well as new works by talented players like Chrisopher Bruhn, Kyle Fosburgh and Mariano Rodriguez. For their latest effort, they’re shining a well-deserved light on a mostly unknown early 1980s LP by solo acoustic guitarist Dennis Taylor. Originally slated for release on Windham Hill, but ultimately self-released, Dayspring is an elegant, subtle gem that can sit comfortably next to albums by Richard Crandell, William Ackerman and even Basho himself.

Pristinely recorded, Taylor’s expert fingerpicking dazzles and delights throughout, whether he’s casually rambling through “Bicycle Country,” or tearing through the speedy “Going Nowhere Fast,” playing runs that might make even Leo Kottke pause. As its title suggests, this album is the perfect spring soundtrack.  words / t wilcox

Dennis Taylor :: Bicycle Town


Enter Strange Light, a sister mix to last year’s Blue August Moon. If the latter played like a transient spirit hovering over a hazy, humid dusk, then think of this as a snowy, white dawn giving way to spring. Thick with its own mystery and magic – a tranquil blend of global folk, gospel, soul and psych. A strange light, indeed.

Strange Light – A Mixtape (stream / download)

Playlist after the jump. . .


Welcome to Jamaican Snapshots – the second installment of a recurring column illuminating Jamaican artists whose music largely flew under the radar outside genre enthusiasts.

Lloyd Robinson was best know for his dancehall hit “Cuss Cuss”.  Born Altemont Thomas Robinson, he began recording in the mid-1960s as a member of The Tartans, which also included Cedric Myton (of Congos fame). Glenmore Lloyd “Glen” Brown, known as “The Rhythm Master”, began his career as a vocalist in Sonny Bradshaw’s jazz group before recording duets with Hopeton Lewis, Dave Barker, and Lloyd Robinson for seminal Jamaican producers Coxsone Dodd and Duke Reid. Later, Brown himself became a sought after producer working with reggae greats U Roy, Gregory Isaacs, Big Youth, I-Roy, Prince Jazzbo, Johnny Clarke, Lloyd Parks, and Little Roy.

Below are a pair of tracks Lloyd & Glen recorded in 1967 and 1968. “Rudies Give Up” comes courtesy of the Orange Street Special reissue from the Rock A Shacka label, while “Keep On Pushing” – a stellar cover of the Curtis Mayfield classic – is via the Doctor Bird label. words / cognoscere

Lloyd & Glen :: Rudies Give Up
Lloyd & Glen :: Keep On Pushing

22It’s extremely difficult not to think of Iranian music in terms of black and white, before and after. The 1979 Revolution all but put an end to non-religious music-making in the country for the better part of a decade (not to mention the Persian pop and jazz fusions this culture had thrived on since the turn of the century). Foreign influences became even less welcome. Thirty years later and not even the anodyne Chris De Burgh, who had been weirdly experimenting with an Iranian band, could get a visa. In fact, it was only last month that the first American musician since the 70s was allowed to perform in the country.

Recent music compilations (Pharaway Sounds’ Funk, Psychedelia and Pop from the Iranian Pre-Revolution Generation , B-Music’s Pomegranates: Persian Pop, Funk, Folk and Psych of the 60s and 70s and Secret Stash’s Persian Funk) have been anxious to reclaim a liberated period that was stomped out of existence by violent puritanical reform. What, really, can be more rock n’ roll than that? Just look how funky, groovy, sexy things were before the country crossed over to the dark side. How else can anyone contextualize the cataclysmic cultural shift from Googoosh singing ‘R-E-S-P-E-C-T’ to women being banned from singing altogether? (N.b. they were recently given permission to do so, so long as are they aren’t singing solo in front of men who are unrelated to them.)

It’s easy to forget that the so-called Golden Age of Iranian pop music immediately prologues the 1979 revolution, that it was there bopping away right to the very end. Culturally speaking, its terminus gives us a through-the-looking-glass picture of the Shah’s own mid-century White Revolution which aimed to ‘de-feudalize’ Iran autocratically. The result of this earlier upheaval had been a five year plan that lurched on for twenty, veiling increased economic disparity with imperial glamor, political and religious disharmony with OPEC back-scratching. We could perhaps say that the Iranian pop (musiqi-ye pap) heard during this ‘pre-revolutionary’ stage of the game was similarly that of a culture being bullied into shape. On the one hand the music served as an a-political distraction, on the other it could give a televisual thumbs-up to state ideology. A quick trawl of YouTube videos is enough to get a sense of the cultural gloss: singer after singer appears David Cassidy-like, alone on a saturated sound stage, shaking their gilded wares. The packaging screams commercial, fun, saccharine, safety. Modernity had arrived. But as with any varnish, it’s possible to scratch beneath the surface and reveal the true grain.

Iran is a country squeezed not just from within but without. You can hear this in the hyperactive fusions that abound in much of its pop music, perhaps most overtly in the work of sitar maestro Abbas Mehrpouya who seemed to be taking as much inspiration from Bollywood as Lalo Schifrin and Isaac Hayes. This cross-cultural pollination wasn’t a one way street either, as is evidenced in songs like Marjan’s “Kavire Del’ (Desert of the Heart)” with its waddling, downbeat synth and some fearsome, Desire-like interplay between vocal and violin—here we have a tune could later find a home in Turkish (recorded as ‘Baksana Talihe’ by Adja Pekkan) as easily and as weirdly as it could in 80s Bolivian cumbia (‘Vuelve Ami Lado’ by America Pop). The chorus is forthright and full of enough hurt that translation seems unnecessary. Even if we don’t share the language of the lyrics, the music speaks for itself.

The essence of the music would seem to be its characteristic melancholy. Nearly everything in this songbook, no matter how poppy, seems calibrated on a minor scale. And that means, even during a so-called Golden Age, even when everything was meant to look bountiful and carefree and ‘an island of stability’, hints of despair could be found everywhere. In a country where political dissent had to be all but invisible, gut-wrenching singers like Dariush Eghbali and Farhad Mehrad turned to traditional poetry to offer coded social comments within their songs. Sharam Shabpareh, meanwhile, did something even more indirect—and yet somehow just as full of protest.

iranSharam’s recording of Graham Nash’s “Prison Song” stands apart, and not just because of the English lyrics. The content, at first glance, would seem to be wholly American (‘kids in Texas, smoking grass…misdemeanor in Ann Arbor’). Nash’s original is cut from the same cloth as his earlier “Chicago” and CSNY’s “Ohio,” state of the nation songs that had counter-culture chants and marches in their bloodstream. Shabpareh’s artful move is to both appropriate this political otherness (a tale of people being steamrolled by the American War on Drugs) and, with a musical sleight of hand, give it an Iranian moral. Nash’s harmonica, which places his song in a lineage with the protests of Dylan and Guthrie, is here reinvented as blaring, punchy horn lines. They are quintessentially Eastern, yes, but this is not “Ishafan” or some postcard Persian exotica. This is rage and exasperated social comment disguised as pop. Even if Sharam were singing in Farsi, the song’s first mournful measures would give us the tone of the story.  Those horns aren’t about to get the party going because they are too full of battle-scarred history. The skanky guitar is mean, but hanging back, the jazzy piano breaks, noir-ish and similarly inflected with disquiet. The bass line may be up front and center, but it’s eschewing dance-ability for what seems more like broody accusation. The fact that it’s a cover song, sung in slightly broken English about someplace other than Iran, seems to have freed the musicians to throw punches they might not have otherwise thrown on record. It’s all there in the dark funk of the arrangement and indirectly relevant lyrics.

I’ve no idea what sort of impact this song had, if any, within Iran at the time. Perhaps it was just one among many howls in the night. I do know that it came at a time when the aforementioned Dariush had been arrested on trumped-up drug charges (after his song “Pariya” (The Fairies) was banned for being too insubordinate), when crackdowns weren’t waiting for the next revolution to take place. But it’s worth considering, regardless, what it might have meant to encounter a song like this at the time. Let’s think for a moment what it might have meant to sing these words, this way, at a time when one authoritarian regime was about to make way for another. words / dk o’hara

And here’s a song to sing

For every man inside.

If he can hear you sing it’s an open door.

There’s not a rich man there,

Who couldn’t pay his way

And buy the freedom that’s a high price for the poor.

Sharam Shabpareh :: Prison Song

campusWith two days off in Paris after a show at La Maroquinerie, I wanted to explore another side of the city, hitting the Belleville neighborhood. After lunch, a friend and I strolled to Le Silence de La Rue – still one of the coolest record stores in the world. Christophe, the owner of this closet shop, has the most refined taste in all things vintage and ephemera. He can easily pass as a musician from a Mulatu Astatqé concert in the 70s. With everything keenly cataloged, my friend pointed me to Année Mélodique, loaded with b-sides of French troubadours.

After a quick purchase and espresso stop, I ran all the way down back to the 8th District to listen to it. This particular track by Michel Colombier is the link between Serge Gainsbourg, Earth, Wind, and Fire, and Claude Nougaro. He’s best known for collaborating with Gainsbourg and manifesting string arrangements for French disco records in the 1970s. The song is pretty straightforward and sexy. The highlight is the super funky breakbeat-breakdown towards the end. The drum fill falls apart, but immediately comes back together with the fuzz guitar. You immediately fall into a macrame art world, full of stop-motion owls. words / m norton

Michel Colombier :: Canon


On May 4th, tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington will release The Epic, a 3-disc, 171-minute record on Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label. Referred to by Lotus as “West Coast Spiritual,” Washington’s record will include a 32-piece orchestra and 20-person choir and seems poised to make a critical statement for borderless free jazz.

Check out the 14-minute first taste, “Re Run Home.” With its soaring reeds, slinky bass and afrobeat percussion, you’ll want to strap in for this one.  words / c depasquale


This one came out with little fanfare last year, but it deserves more ears — and it’s just been released on vinyl, too. Hallelujah the Hills have been kicking around the Boston area for a decade now, quietly building up an extremely solid catalogue of sharp, smart guitar rock that calls to mind the halcyon mid-90s days of Guided By Voices, Pavement and Superchunk. Now of course, every city in these United States (and probably beyond) has a dozen bands drawing from that deep indie rock well, but few do it with the style and imagination of Hallelujah the Hills. Have You Ever Done Something Evil? is a blast from start to finish, every minute packed with hooky twists and turns. Mastermind Ryan Walsh can write a hell of a chorus, too, hitting plenty of Pollard-ian, singalong sweet spots over the album’s 12 tunes. Nothing evil here — just a world of great sounds. words / t wilcox

Hallelujah The Hills :: We Are What We Say We Are

jim ford companion

Pack your bags, hop in that green Volks’ van and take a Bobby McGee-esque trip with one of America’s most underappreciated musicians and a godfather of Country Funk – Kentucky native, Jim Ford.

Jim Ford – A Companion Piece