Weekly Music Roundup: Polar Punk & Arab Spring

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Hazel English
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Week of October 31: This week, polar punk, the voice of the Arab Spring, and a Halloween gift.  


The Polar Punk of Tanya Tagaq


The Inuk singer Tanya Tagaq, from the Nunavut region of northern Canada, has been making waves in “world music” circles for years now, but she burst upon the wider music scene in 2014 when she won Canada’s most prestigious music award, the Polaris Prize – leaving Drake and Arcade Fire in her wake.  Her feral, shamanic performances are more like ancient rituals than concerts, and she uses a startling array of vocal sounds – guttural growls, high-pitched overtone chant, and the rhythmic, almost gasping sounds of traditional Inuit throat-singing – to create an otherworldly texture.  Her new album, Retribution, is about the rape of the Earth by heavy industry, and the threats posed to traditional culture and to the environment by Westernization and climate change.  It is full of sound and fury; it draws on rock, hip hop, and the electronic avant-garde; it is provocative, forbidding, and surprisingly sensual.  And it concludes with a cover of Nirvana’s “Rape Me.”   If you think this is creepy, with Tanya’s whispery coo over an ominous thudding drum, you may want a stiff drink before tackling the rest of the album.    


A New Song From Emel, The Voice Of Arab Spring

The Tunisian singer and songwriter Emel Mathlouthi became the unofficial voice of the Arab Spring in 2012, when she was forced into exile after her song "Kelmti Horra (My Word Is Free)" became an anthem of the Tunisian revolution.  Now that she’s signed to an American record label (Partisan), she’s dropped her last name and is recording simply as Emel.  Her new album, Ensen, isn’t out until February 24, but she’s just released the title track, “Ensen Dhaif (Helpless Human).”  Much of Emel’s music involves contemporary electronics and studio processing techniques married to traditional North African instruments.  In this case, that means the hypnotic rhythms of the bendir (a large tambourine-like drum), the swirling zukra (a reed instrument), and the guimbri, a bass lute used in Moroccan trance rituals.  The Western kick drum’s patterns set up a stuttering effect with the bendir, and a brief electric guitar break offers a chance to reorient yourself before the drums come roaring back.  Meanwhile, Emel’s voice soars implacably over it all.  


Hazel English Makes It Better By Dancing

25-year old indie pop artist Hazel English is Australian-born and Oakland-based.  She’s just released a video for a song called “Make It Better,” which suggests that dichotomy is a comfortable idea for her: the music is sunny and completely danceable, while the lyrics and the darker, reverbed sound hint at a dislocation you don’t need to be living 12,000 miles from home to feel.  That dichotomy extends to the video as well – an irrepressible celebration of dance, from the sublime (Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers) to the ridiculous (Adam West as Batman).  There are dozens of clips, all pretty neatly synched to the song’s rhythm.  Watch. Enjoy. Dance if you have to.


Hazel English plays Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn on Tuesday, Nov. 1st, and at Berlin in Manhattan on Wednesday the 2nd.  


A Halloween Gift From The Shins

As frontman James Mercer mentioned last time he was on Soundcheck, his influential indie band The Shins have been working on a new album.  This was good news for patient, long-suffering Shins fans, who were wondering if Mercer’s other projects – especially Broken Bells, his duo with Danger Mouse – meant that the Shins were now part of his past.  The album’s not quite ready yet, but Mercer has decided to play trick or treat with us by offering a song called “Dead Alive.” 


Despite the title, there’s nothing particularly scary here – and the video, although full of animated skeletons and nightmare-like changes of perspective, is completely fun and lighthearted and safe for both the kids and the cowardly.  


Classic Soul from Lee Fields & The Expressions

The soul singer Lee Fields has been in the music game for over 45 years, so he’s heard a thing or two.  And you’ll hear a thing or two if you check out his forthcoming album, Special Night, out on November 4.  The band’s sound is redolent of the golden age of 60s soul – the sound of labels like Stax and Motown and early Atlantic Records, and the lyrics are often full of lines from elsewhere.  The song “Make The World,” for example, borrows “a lot of men didn’t; a lot of men died” from the great old Merle Travis song “Sixteen Tons.”  Its message – “we can make the world better/if we come together” – harkens back to soul classics like Curtis Mayfield and Al Green, but the arrangement has some surprises, like the big gong that punctuates the verses and the flute solo that ends the song. 

Lee Fields & The Expressions are playing Irving Plaza on Saturday, January 7.