By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
Former Grateful Dead drummer/percussionist Mickey Hart does good with the first post-Garcia release from a member of the Grateful Dead, turning in an effort that is surprisingly accessible and avoids both cloning the Dead and the sometimes-relentless ethnomania that grips Hart at his most enthusiastic.
World rhythms and percussion are still the salient features here, but the Mint Juleps--a six-member female vocal group from Jamaica whose sweet precision may in part stem from the fact that four of them are sisters--put this album squarely in the realm of listenable (world) pop.
Musically, the textures of the album shift subtly between Caribbean lilt and deep African heartbeat. Hart half speaks, half sings in the manner of Robert Hunter, who wrote all the lyrics for Box, texts deeply rooted in the neo-Beat imagery of the scene that spawned the Dead. Like the references to you-know-who that pop up, both obliquely ("John Cage is Dead") and directly ("Down the Road"), this all might seem a bit belabored to those with a low tolerance for what is by now an entire genre, but fans and the uninitiated may well find Box delightful in its difference.
Long Ago & Far Away
Returning to the classics is by now almost an admission of defeat--even Chicago has tried to save itself by clinging to this career-flotation device--but Charlie Watts was lecturing blank-faced rock scribes about Bix Beiderbecke back when Linda Ronstadt was still making silk purses, so there's no shame here.
That is especially true of an effort as polished and sophisticated as Long Ago, the fourth album by Watts and his quintet and a work as elegantly simple as a tuxedo. An homage to timeless songs by Cole Porter, Louis Armstrong, and the like, Long Ago is the quintet's first excursion with a substantial (more-than-two-dozen-member) orchestra. The abilities of the other players and the lushness of the arrangements often make Watts seem a sideman on his own album. He hangs back with the subtlety of the supremely confident, but the real find here is the exquisite voice of Bernard Fowler, Rolling Stone backup singer and unofficial sixth member of the quintet. Fowler's voice is as rich and smooth as cashew butter, expertly nuanced and gracefully deployed, much like the album itself.