The Book Of Secrets
There's always one album that manages to just miss getting on my Best of The Year list — not because it isn't good, but because its released late in the year and I just haven't had the chance to really listen to it before I put together that list. This year's "shoulda been on the best list" omission is Loreena McKennitt's gorgeous Book of Secrets. Released at the tail end of 1997, this is an entrancing collection of song and rhythm that is hard to categorize, but easy to enjoy. As with her last LP, 1994's The Mask and the Mirror, this is an album of mystery and mood, modern charm mixed with ancient instruments and melodies. Sometimes the band sounds as if it's performing in a Sultan's boudoir ("Marco Polo") while other times it sounds more like a cross between Enya and a Renaissance group of minstrels playing a lullabye for the king ("Skellig").
McKennitt sings with a Celtic trill, to the accompaniment of bodhrans, violins, tin whistles, hurdy gurdys and mandolas. It's slowly building, powerful stuff, with an otherworldly quality that encourages the eyes to close and dream of places...beyond. McKennitt takes her lyrical inspiration from old stories and books, and crafts in the style of the folksinging minstrel. "Dante's Prayer" is a good example of her poetry:
"When the dark wood fell before me
and all the paths were overgrown
when the priests of pride say there is no other way
I tilled the sorrows of stone."
The Book of Secrets listens like a welcome visitation from a world long past. So it was with some amazement that I heard Chicago's normally abrasive guitar-fixated Q101-FM play a somewhat remixed version of "The Mummers' Dance" recently. But then again, McKennitt's pure voice and siren-powerful melodies are alluring to young and old, rockers and classicalists alike. Her songs live beyond boundaries and time. Take the time to appreciate this one.
The Aqua Velvets
If you like instrumental surf guitar music, you should own this album. That's really all that needs to be said! The Aqua Velvets play fluid, "Secret Agent Man" style guitar instrumentals that make great background music for almost any occasion (especially, I suppose, if you're on a Secret Agent mission).
Their song titles are as descriptive as I could be about their music: "Mysterious Mambo," "Casbah Club," "Day in the Life of a Private Eye," "Slow Dance with a Fast Girl," "Twilight of the Hepcats." This is like ultracool music for a spy flick...but without the flick.
"Medazzaland" has to be about the strangest song Duran Duran has ever released. In it, a monotone voice talks over a rhythmic bed of synthesizers, bongos and guitars about a "scalpel on my skin/it's cutting deeper and deeper/I'm in Medazzaland/oh Medazzaland." It's a fairly avant intro to an otherwise fairly average Duran Duran album.
With the loss of John Taylor, the original members of the band have dwindled to singer Simon LeBon and keyboardist Nick Rhodes with 1990 addition Warren Cuccurullo now handling all guitar work. The remaining trio seem to have reached backwards in the creation of Medazzaland, recapturing and refining the style they created in the late '80s and eschewing the rappish elements that have permeated their albums of the '90s. The single "Electric Barbarella" (which at last allows the band to note the movie they take their name from in song — Barbarella) is a good thermometer for the sound of this album; crunchy guitars, anthemic chorus vocals and throbbing electronic soundscapes. It's enjoyable, if not particularly new or adventurous. "Michael You've Got a Lot To Answer For" provides the disc with a lushly melancholy slow ballad and the oscillating guitars of "Big Bang Generation" hearken back to the days of the Big Thing album. For all their detractors; those who have said the band should have just packed up and called it quits in the '90s, the band offers an amusing sometimes self-effacing coda for Medazzaland in "Undergoing Treatment." LeBon sings of the band needing treatment for their fame:
"We are undergoing treatment
they say that we'll get over it
disappear like dinosaurs
to the sound of small applause."
They have yet to craft a bad album, and if the applause has dwindled over the past decade, it has never gotten to the point of "small." Long may these dinosaurs roam.
Rhino Records charges into the New Year next week with a stack of releases in its "Smooth Grooves" series geared to attract Valentine's Day music seekers. Smooth Grooves: New Jack Ballads Vols. 1-3 include songs by Levert, Kashif, Troop, The Gap Band, The Jets, Club Nouveau, After 7, Guy, Deja and more. Smooth Grooves: Wedding Songs include tracks like "I Pledge My Love" from Peaches & Herb, "Cherish" from Kool & The Gang, "and songs from The Four Tops, DeBarge, Atlantic Starr, Dreamboy, Stevie Wonder and Klymaxx. Rhino is also releasing a compilation of Otis Redding's Love Songs which includes "These Arms of Mine," "That's How Strong My Love Is" and 14 more. Rhino also mines the '70s soul vein in its new collection VH1 8-Track Flashback: Classic '70s Soul, which hits record stores next week as well. The second disc in the 8-track Flashback series includes songs from James Brown, The Temptations, Jackson 5, Spinners, Ohio Players, Parliament and more.