Wai, Ora (Jayrem Records)
Maka McGregor was once the drummer of Maori reggae band Aotearoa who were instrumental in bringing a voice to New Zealand’s young Maori population. Such was the subversive power of this concept in the 1980s that one of their songs, ‘Maranga Ake Ai’, was banned from the airwaves by Radio New Zealand. Twenty-five years later, McGregor has revisited the song on this, the second album he has recorded under the name Wai with his wife Mina Ripia. The transformation is remarkable. What was once a slice of well-meaning but duff sub-Marley reggae has been turned into a truly mesmerising piece of music, a combination of minimal beats that carry a distant echo of reggae, and a shimmer of electronic sounds dominated by the mellifluous drift of voices. It is a recipe that works beautifully throughout an album that isn’t quite like any other album we’ve heard. Particularly striking is track six, ‘Mei Kore Koe’, where the cool riffs of a vibraphone and electric piano blend with the warmth of multi-layered voices. The album features numerous guest voices whose names will be familiar only in New Zealand. The accompanying press release is a hefty four pages long, and talks at length of the deep roots in Maori tradition of each track. None of this information has made its way into the CD booklet. It doesn’t matter – this beautiful and truly innovative album speaks for itself.
Tim Robbins and the Rogues Gallery Band,
Tim Robbins and the Rogues Gallery Band (PIAS)
Yes, that Tim Robbins, Oscar winner and writer/director of Dead Man Walking. Coming from a musical family – his father sang with The Highwaymen – his claim that he has always written songs and that this was not a midlife-crisis project ring true. The production (by Hal Willner, veteran of many an unusual album) is understated, the playing by a group of ace musicians impeccable. The songs, though firmly in the tradition of contemporary Americana, are given a pleasingly fragile edge by Robbins’s tentative delivery.
Wyatt/Atzmon/Stephen, For the Ghosts Within (Domino)
Ros Stephen is the leader of the Sigamos String Quartet, Gilad Atzmon is a saxophonist of astonishing power (and leader of the Orient House Ensemble) and Robert Wyatt is, well, Robert Wyatt and a long- term musical partner of Atzmon. Together they serve up a selection of elegant and warm-hearted reinterpretations of standards by the likes of Monk (‘Round Midnight’), Strayhorn (‘Lush Life’) and Ellington (‘In A Sentimental Mood’), plus a handful of their own songs.
Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin, Llyria (ECM)
For six years, Swiss pianist Nik Bärtsch and his group Ronin have come together every Monday to play live in their own club. This practice has brought an almost transcendental tightness to a group that knew few technical limits before it started. The result – a vocals- free blend of contemporary classical minimalism, funk and rock is rhythmically and melodically complex, without ever erecting a wall of virtuosity between player and listener. On the contrary, the effect of this quietly intense music is embracing and hypnotic.
The Jim Jones Revue, Burning Your House Down (PunkRockBlues)
Jim Jones was once a member of the foolhardy as well as unlucky Thee Hypnotics, producing Stooges-like dirty garage rock when the whole world was set on Nirvana and acid house. And he’s still at it, to joyous effect. This second album by his latest band was produced by Bad Seed/ Grinderman Jim Sclavunos, who doesn’t impose any restraint on proceedings. Driven by a Faces-esque piano, The Jim Jones Revue sound as if the anti-smoking campaign had never taken off. Great.