There’s fascinating music to be found in unexpected, unexplored places. A Mixtec trio rooted in a Oaxacan village and a lo-fi savant fit that bill, while an LA band is poised for a big breakout. These three make for a rich array of new California music offerings this month.
Los Tres Amigos-Snuviko, The Three Friends from Where the Clouds Descend (Little Village Foundation)
With us all having recording studios in our pockets and everything we capture put on YouTube within minutes, the notion of an Alan Lomax or Arhoolie Records’ Chris Strachwitz intrepidly making field recordings to preserve cultural music expressions, seems anachronistic if not obsolete. "The Three Friends from Where the Clouds Descend" by the trio Los Tres Amigos - Snuviko puts the lie to that.
One of four inaugural releases from the Little Village Foundation, the venture of musician and insatiable seeker Jim Pugh, the album captures lively instrumental music originating in the Oaxacan mountain village of Snuviko, which in the local Mixtec language means “where the clouds descend.” Pugh found this music, though, in a vibrant Mixtec community that has come together among the farmworkers around Santa Maria in Central California. Pugh, a Chicago native now living in the Santa Ynez Valley, was tipped off to these guys by members of a Norteño band he met in Lompoc, who alerted him that they spoke neither English nor Spanish. But with a Mixtec translator, he found them — guitarist Juan Hernandez, violinist Alberto López and bassist Jacobo Martinez — and recorded them in a Buellton studio.
The music is raw, expressive, evocative of both life in Mexico and Central California. It’s a valuable document, sure. But more important, it’s a great listen — just like the best Lomax and Strachwitz recordings. The Little Village slogan is “Pebbles on the Beach, Sounds from the Margins.” The other initial releases are from cowboy balladeer Dave Ellis, soul man Wee Willie Walker and boogie blues guitarist Ron Thompson, just the first round of Pugh’s marginal beachcombing.
Part Time, Virgo’s Maze (Burger Records)
Lo-fi, these days, is an aesthetic choice, not an economic necessity. It’s been a good choice for David Loca, recording as Part Time. The muddy, made-in-the-bedroom patina is an integral part of his sound, every bit as much as the tinniness on old blues records. Clean it up too much and it’s not the same, or as appealing. With the new Part Time album, Virgo’s Maze, that style doesn’t mask the wide reach and wide-eyed spirit of this artist. It’s probably a necessity as he flits from ‘80s electro-pop to vintage, sax-accented ‘50s rock ’n’ roll to ‘60s garage rock to quasi-soul balladry to quasi-punk-pop to a little Frank Zappa-esque weirdness, moving around in time as much as in style, as if he just can’t pick a place to land.
Even a loony version of the Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There” feels like just a restless stop along the way. It’s not lack of commitment — rather over-commitment, if anything. This guy loves music, loves all kinds of music and just wants to make as much music as he can. In some ways it calls to mind Todd Rundgren’s early-‘70s feeling-his-oats creative scattershot approach on "Something/Anything." That both albums are three-fourths one-man-band efforts is a nice coincidence. (And here and there, such as on “It’s Elizabeth,” “Strangest Eyes” and the title song, the album explicitly recalls Rundgren’s pop delights.)
Few artists could, let alone would, go right from sounding like early Pet Shop Boys on “My Jamey” to, on the next song, the chirpy “Honey Lips,” getting even more cornball old-time romantic than Paul McCartney on “Honey Pie.” But the keep-you-guessing quality is matched with a keep-you-entertained appeal, along with a handful of winking in-jokes. “Touch Me Responsibly”? Restrained/repressed lust has rarely been so tuneful. And in a time when nothing in pop culture is restrained, ever, in any way, it’s refreshing. As is the lo-fi pop throughout.
Dawes, All Your Favorite Bands (HUB)
Earnestly sweet sentiments have abounded in music for, well, since there’s been music. But Los Angeles’ Dawes has come up with a new one, and it’s as earnestly sweet as it gets. “May all your favorite bands stay together,” sings Taylor Goldsmith on the title song. It’s a beautiful song full of such nice wishes for, presumably, a fondly remembered ex, and as such sidles up nicely alongside, oh, Neil Young’s “Long May You Run” and John Martyn’s (via Eric Clapton) “May You Never.”
More than that, it anchors an album that sees Dawes justifying early praise that saw it poised to take over the mantle of classic California rock, with such fans/mentors as Jackson Browne prominent among supporters and reference points. (He’s taken them on the road as his backing band.) But this album also sees Dawes separating itself from the reference points — not entirely, as there’s still a lot of Browne’s tone present, as well as Crosby, Stills, Nash and/or Young and, to some lesser extent, the Eagles. Perhaps Goldsmith’s stint alongside Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and Rhiannon Giddens in the T-Bone Burnett-squired New Basement Tapes (crafting new music for old unused Bob Dylan lyrics) broadened his writing palette.
Whatever the case, he and his bandmates have matured nicely. This is on display throughout the album — the hurting opener “Things Happen,” the layered, somber “I Can’t Think About It Now” and the Grateful Dead-like extended meditation “Now That It’s Too Late, Maria” — but nowhere stronger than on “Right On Time,” a crisp tour-de-force, entwining complex emotions and involving music. In its course it renders influence and antecedents moot, Dawes making a statement all its own. Here’s to Dawes becoming one of our favorite bands. And staying together.