“1970s Algerian Proto-Raï Underground” Compilation (2008)

Let me begin by saying that I know exactly nothing about Algerian raï music. But if you’re like me, as soon as you see the cover of this record you think to yourself, “I have to know what this is”. And since I was at Easy Street Records 29th anniversary sale, it was 29% off, so there’s no way I could pass it up.

Trumpets are integral to the raï vibe, or at least they are on the songs chosen for this comp – if anything defines the sound it’s the way the trumpets are used. Oddly enough I get a vague sense of familiarity when I listen to these songs, hearing elements of other African and Middle Eastern performers like Omar Souleyman, Islam Chipsy, and Bombino (♠). If anything the songs feel like they belong in an early James Bond movie, you know, the good ones with Sean Connery. Like something from the gypsy camp in From Russia With Love.

(♠) Or parts of Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, or even more so, No Quarter: Jimmy Page & Robert Plant Unledded.

Heidatrubador – “Fast” (2017)

Heiða Eiríksdóttir has been a part of the music scene in Iceland for decades as part of bands as diverse as Unun, DYS, and Hellvar. Recently she has been performing as a solo artist using the nom de music Heidatrubador, releasing the intriguing electro-experimental Third-Eye Slide-Show in 2016. But lest anyone think that Heiða was moving in a more electronic direction, she took a sharp left turn to come at us from a completely different angle with her latest work, Fast.

I mention Heiða’s prior work because Fast is in many ways a departure from what she’s done before – achingly quiet and tender, a woman and her guitar exploring her personal experiences. Fortunately Heidatrubador is willing to share her vulnerabilities with us, presenting them with a wistfulness that can only come from a combination of life experience and perspective. “How many times can you begin… how many times can you begin again?” she asks at the start of “Onthology & Booze”. Indeed, how many? Whether she’s speaking in metaphors as she does in “Root”, describing a young plant trying to establish firm roots, or more directly when articulating the alienating feel of being an outsider trying to connect to a new place in “Curry & Cannabis”, we’re invited to witness and share in her experiences.

While much of Fast’s depth comes out of the lyrics, it’s the music that creates the framework, providing the shape and form upon which the words display themselves. Sonically it has a lo-fi bedroom feel; “It isn’t very far between life and dream” we’re told, and that feels true. Ably aided in the studio by Curver, there’s just enough production to add a dreaminess to Heiða’s voice, and even the occasional harmonica flows as part of the overall vibe, imparting a hint of melancholy without being obtrusive.

It’s easy to lose yourself in Fast’s embrace, but it’s also an album that rewards a deeper listen. Heidatrubador invites you in; it’s for you do decide if you’re going to join her or simply enjoy from a distance.

かぐや姫 (Kaguyahime) – “Live” (1974)

Ever since our trip to Japan in 2014 I’ve kept my eyes open for any random Japanese musical treasures I might run across. The other day I surprisingly found one and my local used shop, Vortex. I’m not sure how this one random folk rock record by かぐや姫 (Kaguyahime) found its way to Kirkland, Washington, but for three bucks I wasn’t going to pass it up.

A little online research reveals Kaguyahime to have been a popular band in Japan from 1970 to 1975, with this live album coming out in 1974. The band’s most well-known song, and according to at least one blog the folk song most Japanese are likely to remember, was “Kandagawa (神田川)”, which just so happens to be the closing track on Live. The guitar work is fairly intricate, and it certainly sounds like a passionate story… I just wish I could understand the words!

I don’t mind folk music in general. It’s not my favorite genre by any means, but some songs can be quite beautify both musically and lyrically. The problem, of course, is when the songs are in Japanese I lose half of what might attract me to them, and all I’m left with is the sound. And Kaguyahime sounds beautiful… but it’s still a bit hard to connect to, because without following the words it sort of drifts off into the background.

Peter, Paul and Mary – “The Best of Peter, Paul and Mary, Vol. 2” (1966)

I bought this record more because of what it is than because of the music that is on it. I’m not into folk stuff that much, and while I’m sure I’ve heard plenty of Peter, Paul and Mary songs on the radio in my parent’s car, there has never been a single moment in my life when I’ve thought, “You know what I’d like to hear right now? Some Peter, Paul and Mary.” But during our recent trip to Hong Kong I paid two visits to the museum/store/listening room of James Tang, aka “Sam the Record Man,” and I learned a thing or two about Japanese pressings, and I was able to put that knowledge to use in acquiring this copy of The Best of Peter, Paul and Mary, Vol. 2.

I found this nestled in the “Audiophile” section at Tacoma’s Hi-Voltage Records, and it was the obi strip that caused me to take notice. The jacket was clearly of the very thick, high quality construction that is one of the defining qualities of quality Japanese pressings, and while I didn’t think there was a snowball’s chance in Tacoma of this being a red vinyl first pressing I looked anyway. And it was. Score.

I got it for a good price, though far from a steal. But these things don’t show up too often, so it’s pretty cool to be able to find one in the wild here in the States. And the sound quality is fantastic, even if I’m not a big fan of the music.

James Taylor – “Greatest Hits” (1976)

What am I going to tell you about James Taylor that you don’t already know? Nothing at all, most likely. He’s pretty much the definition of a singer-songwriter with his style of folk rock, the minimal arrangements that showcase the emotion in his voice. He’s sold over 100 million records (let that sink in for a minute…), and this particular record, his 1976 Greatest Hits is certified diamond in the US, having sold 12 million copies. Hell, not only is he still putting out music, but his 2015 release Before This World finally gave him his very first #1 album after having put 10 of them into the Top 10 over the years.

The reason is, of course, because he’s stupid talented. Yes, his style of music is easy to stick up your nose at in this day and age as quaint or boring or whatever. But he continues to resonate with people, and that’s not an accident. I’m not any kind of James Taylor fan – I’ve never owned one of his studio albums. But guess what? I know all 12 songs on Greatest Hits. Every single one. He’s the kind of performer that easily reaches across generations. Sure, his style is “old,” but listeners can connect with and relate to what he sings about and the emotion he conveys with both his music and vocals. Others have surely put out powerful minimal folk rock like this – Nick Drake certainly sticks out in my mind, but no one has done it as consistently well for as long

This version of Greatest Hits is fairly recent – a nice gatefold and some good looking blue translucent vinyl. The sound quality of the recording is excellent – other than one loud pop at one point, there wasn’t a hint of noise, so if you’re interested in reliving your memories of AM radio in your parents’ car, it’s a fun trip down memory lane.