Whether you plan to broil in the sunshine or hide from the rain (as New Yorkers will be accursed to do this Memorial Day weekend), these three new albums will enhance your three-day hiatus from responsible adulthood. Happy listening. Let the summer begin!
Eric Clapton: Reptile (Reprise)
Eric Clapton’s latest album, “Reptile,” is neither cold nor scaly, but a thing of profound warmth and beauty.
The word “lovely” best describes this recording. While that may sound like faint phrase, it is an accurate accolade for an album whose every moment exudes the grace and serenity that evidently compose Clapton’s soul. From the lush guitar notes and light tropical atmosphere that open the instrumental title cut clear through to the gentle acoustic sound of “Son & Sylvia,” Clapton brings you along for a breezy and joyous ride.
While light on boot-stomping guitar anthems, “Reptile” will keep toes tapping from coast to coast. This album is simultaneously mellow and upbeat. Think Unplugged with Clapton’s guitar plugged back in.
“Reptile” concerns neither a pet lizard nor a vicious water moccasin. A reptile, Clapton explains in the very touching liner notes, is a term of endearment he learned as a child, roughly equivalent to the Yiddish word mensch. Clapton dedicates the album to “the greatest reptile of them all,” his uncle Adrian, who passed away last spring. Clapton says his uncle “had an incredibly profound effect on my view of the world” as well as “most of my tastes in music, art, clothes, cars, etc. etc.”
Uncle Adrian would be damn proud of his nephew. Clapton has surrounded himself with stellar sidemen such as “fifth Beatle” Billy Preston on piano and organ, Steve Gadd on drums, The Crusaders’s Joe Sample on keyboards, fellow guitarists Doyle Bramhall II and Andy Fairweather Low and a smashing background vocal quintet called The Impressions.
Clapton selected first-rate material, ranging from his own buoyant “Believe in Life” to Ray Charles’s soulful “Come Back Baby,” Stevie Wonder’s rocking “I Ain’t Gonna Stand for It,” to a wonderful rendition of J. J. Cale’s “Travelin’ Light.” Clapton and his stellar team treat each tune with utmost appreciation, pouring their every calorie of talent into making the music shine like the mid-day sun itself.
Even the staggering despair in the blues tune “Broken Down” somehow glows rather than sinks:
Stepped outside into the night
I took a walk around the block.
I stopped at a church that I used to go inside
But even that door was locked.
So I came back home feeling so alone.
A light had burned out in the hall.
My TV’s broke.
I see I’m out of smoke.
There’s no one I can even call.
I transcribed these lyrics by ear, so please excuse any inaccuracies. My only complaint about this Grammy-worthy recording is that Reprise didn’t bother to include the lyrics. It’s a shame such beautiful words are not available in print. If you want to learn these 14 songs, just listen carefully.
This album does include a spirited rendition of James Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight.” Among his old fans and those who will discover him through this recording, loneliness is a remote prospect indeed for this world-class reptile named Eric Clapton.
The Motet: Play (Anonym Records)
So just what is a motet?
After seeing this Boulder, Colorado-based band, I figured a motet must be a group of musicians (“tet”) that played “‘mo music.” Actually, my dictionary defines a motet as “a vocal composition in polyphonic style, on a Biblical or similar prose text, intended for use in a church service.”
This description nicely fits my encounter with The Motet. Some of us hop on planes and stay out dangerously late in search of the elusive moment when band, tune, crowd and place melt into an epiphanous flash that makes the hairs on our arms stand at attention. The quest for and indulgence in these transcendent intervals is what I call The First Church of Song.
One of this secular faith’s most intimate chapels is The Maple Leaf. It is far off the beaten path in the Uptown District of New Orleans. Absolutely no one stumbles in who doesn’t really want to be there. This is holy ground for hardcore music fanatics.
The Maple Leaf’s block of Oak Street is more than a little eerie. Prosperity has walked on by this area, but not so long ago as to have left it menacing. There are many abandoned storefronts on this route, but several going concerns offer their own peculiar charms nearby. The House of 10,000 Frames looks like it could hold a tenth of that, max. A huge sign identifies Chinese’s Chinese Restaurant, where they don’t serve any of those cheap, Mexican-Chinese knock-off dishes. About two miles to the northwest, a giant transmission tower beams two bright, white flashes every three seconds. I nickname it the local Tesla coil.
Amid all this, the Maple Leaf features a small bandstand, narrow spectator area, and a quiet patio out back. When the music plays, the dance floor throbs with hot, sweaty aficionadi. Beneath a pressed tin ceiling, two pairs of wobbly benches abut each wall. Those who boogie on them coordinate their bouncing so the benches don’t splinter beneath their feet. Turning one’s lower legs into de facto rhythm instruments in conjunction with other music lovers while a terrific band plays its hearts out is worth the physical toll this spectacle later exacts on so many of us.
The benches bounced aplenty when The Motet took the stage. This is an excellent ensemble of very sharp and energetic young musicians. They blend rock, funk and heavy portions of Latin rhythms into a dazzling serving of musical bliss. Their sound evokes Santana, the Allman Brothers, a small 70s group called Sea Level and hints of Steely Dan, here and there. They call their sound “the Electric Americubafrican Groove.” Imagine Isaac Hayes’s “Theme from Shaft” as congas wail and a guitar howls with joy.
With the able assistance of Deep Banana Blackout’s horn section, The Motet’s crisp Maple Leaf performance was delightfully hair-raising. While their studio album Play is, naturally, more restrained, it offers an excellent introduction to this band and its solid, exciting musicianship. Michael Tiernan’s fiery guitar licks playfully bob and weave among Kurt Reber’s bass notes, Dave Watts’s drum beats and Scott Messersmith’s veritable toy chest of percussion instruments (tumbadores, timbales, bata, djembe and more). Steve Vidaic stands out with a particularly colorful sonic palette in which piano, Moog and Rhodes organs swirl into a most delicious massage for the eardrums.
These lads also clearly have spent plenty of time sharpening their harmonies which tend toward the deep end of the sonic scale. While Jans Ingber’s lead vocals are hauntingly rich, his band mates enhance his singing with their own smooth voices on such songs as “Do What You Want.” “Madrina Ayudame,” “Bobo” and the traditional tune “Minha Mae Ochunmare,” allow The Motet and a number of guest musicians to sing in Spanish and what sound like a variety of African tongues.
Play offers a 66-minute-long melange of upbeat, danceable, funky world music…straight from the Rockies. This smoothly produced album is available online at http://www.themotet.net/ (click through to links, then to Anonym Records’s logo). Keep your eyes out for this highly talented young troupe as they crisscross the country spreading their euphoria-inducing musical liturgy.
The Radiators: The Radiators (Rattlesby Records)
From their New Orleans base, The Radiators have rocked audiences across America for 23 years. Throughout their career, waves of Tulane University graduates — better-versed in Radiators’s lore than in calculus — have carried their affection for this band back to their hometowns and invited their friends to see the quintet during its many concert tours. My old Georgetown classmate, Quin Hillyer, introduced me to the Radiators during the 1984 World’s Fair in the Crescent City. My own crew of New York-area Tulane alumni soon helped feed my addiction to this group which continues to this day.
The Radiators appreciate this loyalty. Last November, they wrapped up a Saturday night show at Manhattan’s Irving Plaza with a pyrotechnic version of a song called “Lost What They Had.” (Its chorus is the moral of the story: “They got what they wanted, but they lost what they had.”) About 30 minutes later, guitarist Camile Baudoin strolled into Shades of Green, a nearby bar. I congratulated and thanked him for leaving the crowd on the tips of our toes screaming for more. He smiled graciously and said, “It takes all of us.”
While attending the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival last month, I ran into Baudoin’s colleague, bassist Reggie Scanlan at one of the outdoor concert venue’s numerous food stands. Beneath a perfect spring sun, he held a glass of rosemint tea in each hand as he spoke proudly of the Rads’s newest album, “The Radiators.” He said: “I can step back and just listen to it like someone else’s album.”
It was pitch black out when I first spun this release at home. I had the volume way down so as not to disturb my neighbors at 3:00 a.m. What I heard on first exposure was rather low-key and not especially energetic. How flat, I thought.
Then I listened to this album again with the sun out and the volume up. My first impression was overly critical. This is a well-produced and entertaining collection of new Radiators tunes as well as some oldies that finally are available in official versions. The band’s well-honed chops are on display. “Deep in My Voodoo” and “Driver” are well presented with keyboardist Ed Volker’s vocals and Baudoin’s guitar work both in solid form. This album also includes “Untouched by Human Hands,” a personal favorite.
While lively and listenable, this eponymous recording (why so, 12 titles into their discography?) lacks the abundant fire of The Radiators’s last release, an outstanding effort called “Live at the Great American Music Hall.” Bands like The Radiators are far better on stage than in studio. They really should ply fans with well-engineered releases of their best on-stage performances (a la Grateful Dead’s “Dick’s Picks” series). Concert versions of the same songs on “The Radiators” would have been so much more satisfying, not to mention cheaper for the group to produce.
The 1987 Epic release, “Law of the Fish,” is a superior studio effort. Blessed with boundless verve and an unsinkable cheerfulness, “Law” also features a big, meaty wide-mouth bass on its cover. “The Radiators” album features a fish skeleton picked clean of flesh. I can’t help but think that this new endeavor combines the Radiators’s form and structure with sub-par substance.
So the Rads bogeyed an album. Is that so wrong? For the uninitiated, “The Radiators” is a decent, upbeat rock album (available at rattlesby.com). But it likely will leave veteran fishheads searching for more of the magic we know is well within this superb band’s reach.