Xiu Xiu, "Nina" (Graveface)
Mainstream vocal-competition programs from "American Idol" to "The Voice" regularly host contestants these days singing Nina Simone's haughtiest blues. And it takes someone with Simone-level confrontational crankiness to attempt her most stirring material. Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart fits that bill, a 21st-century avatar of noise-pop and experimentalism whose voice and music are of a drama comparable to Simone's. Stewart brings in several avant-jazz heavies on "Nina," mightily benefiting his voice and choice of Simone songs. Musicians on this CD include drummer/arranger Ches Smith, accordionist Andrea Parkins, saxophonist Tim Berne, bassist Tony Malaby and guitarist Mary Halvorson.
The mixed bag of mood music finds Xiu Xiu touching on film-noirish sleaze ("Don't Explain"), passionate pleadings ("Just Say I Love Him"), jerky Afro-funk ("See Line Woman") and soft, even faithful balladry ("Wild Is the Wind"). Xiu Xiu is best when channeling the complex Simone spirit. Stewart's voice is inconsolable and majestic in the blistering "Don't Smoke in Bed." The angst of "Four Women" and the soft, agonizing beauty of "The Other Woman" are bittersweet icing on the cake.
Xiu Xiu performs March 5 at 7th Street Entry in Minneapolis.
A.D. Amorosi, Philadelphia Inquirer
Peter Walker, "Has Anybody Seen Our Freedoms?" (Delmore Recording Society)
When John Fahey's folkloric but futuristic, proto-neo, Mississippi Delta-to-the-Ganges acoustic guitar style was rediscovered in the 1990s, the second-wave enthusiasts scattered his ideas far and wide. But recognition for some of Fahey's fellow travelers, including Walker, came a bit later.
Walker is still around; he retreated from recording for four decades, between "Second Poem to Karmela or, Gypsies Are Important," from 1968, and "Echo of My Soul" in 2008. He'd already studied Indian music at the beginning, and during his long interim went deep into flamenco. Perhaps more than his better-known peers, he was interested in doings outside his own art, plunging into the antiwar movement and the study of traditional musical languages.
But the tapes for "Has Anybody Seen Our Freedoms," recorded in 1970 but not released until now, suggest a different path: inward, gnarled and stubbornly personal. In the liner notes, he calls this his "requiem for the '60s."
It's rough, passionate and often raga-like, with surging and falling tempos, drone notes at the bottom, scale melodies on top, fast fingerpicking patterns clumping together. In a flat, conversational voice, Walker sings words as melody, doubling them with steel-string acoustic guitar lines, building a flowing stream-of-consciousness narrative about art and love and constant travel, with words coming out in clipped, jagged bursts.
This is a solitary, even recessive kind of music, but very special. You get the sense it has been intensely, almost ritually practiced, with text and guitar filigree woven together into a kind of epic poem meant mostly for the performer.
BEN RATLIFF, New York Times