Now Hear This 

Reviews of new releases by Franz Ferdinand, Messer Chups, Fiona Apple, Maxim Vengerov, and a compilation of Iraqi folk and pop music, plus local artists Wells and Rah Bras.

Messer Chups "Crazy Price" (Ipecac Recordings)

Looking for a Halloween party album that's more than funky screams and "buried alive" coffin pantings? The Messer Chups are a wildly eclectic group of Russians who make enthusiastic, B-movie sci-fi music with heavy doses of surf, rockabilly and programmed beats. It's like a Tarantino-culled soundtrack for a '60s Italian vampire flick, or (for those versed in lounge sounds) a Tipsy-scored Martian movie.

Arising from the ashes of Messer fur Frau Mueller, a self-described "industrial psycho-hardcore act," this Chups album is largely the work of three guys named Oleg (Gitarkin, Kostrow, and producer Tarassov). Each giddily atmospheric song bristles with oddball frequencies and quirky sounds, including top-notch theremin playing from Lydia Kavina (the grand niece of creator Leon Theremin) with interspersed loops of Russian B-movie ghouls howling over hip-hop beats, harp, and the sintesator, an evil-sounding Soviet synthesizer producing all manner of oscillating bleeps and noises. Fun, spooked-out songs with names like "Satan Jeans" and "Monkey Safari" make this a great background album for conjuring that crazy voodoo biker/Pat Robertson mood. *** — Brent Baldwin

"Choubi Choubi! Folk and Pop Sounds of Iraq" Various artists (Sublime Frequencies)

The folks behind Seattle-based Sublime Frequencies might as well call themselves pop ethnomusicologists. They specialize in releasing exotic foreign music packaged for Western hipsters. This release was compiled from Iraqi cassettes and LPs found in Syria, Europe and Iraqi neighborhoods in the United States (mainly Detroit) and it covers an interesting range of Saddam-era folk and pop styles. Many tunes are built on frenzied "choubi" rhythms which use fiddles, double-reeded instruments, bass, keyboards and oud over rapid-fire percussion from hand drums such as the Khishba or Zanbour (Arabic for "wasp"). The characteristic speediness sets Iraqi music apart in the Arab world, and depending on your history, it may leave you feeling overly caffeinated or scanning the streets for IEDs. Highlights include the wonderful free-form Mawal vocal improvisational style and some 1970s Socialist folk rock from Ja'afar Hassan. If you like exploring wildly different forms of music sans Western instruments — this is an absorbing ride. *** — B.B.

Maxim Vengerov "Kreisler, Paganini, Sarasate, Wieniawski" (EMI Classics)

Any violinist can impress with virtuosic passages found in Wieniawski's "Variations on an Original Theme," and Vengerov does. But it's the violinist that can draw the listener in with a quiet sensitivity as Vengerov demonstrates in Rachmaninov's "Vocalise" that sets him apart. When Vengerov plays, the violin sings. Even more, the sensitive accompaniment of Ian Brown complements Vengerov's sometimes drastic, but dynamic changes. To his credit, Vengerov lets the piano sing in places too. This is especially apparent in "Vocalise" where the piano has a short melodic bit toward the end of the piece. Vengerov's lyricism in Kreisler's arrangement of Rachmaninov's "18th Variation from Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" is particularly noteworthy.

The only piece I question on this CD is the "Theme from Schindler's List" by John Williams. Could this be a marketing tactic for sales? However, it's played with such heart, it seems unfair to criticize. It's hard to believe that the violin, an instrument that's been around for five centuries, could still evolve; but somehow Vengerov has managed to reinvent one of the greatest inventions in the music world. **** — Chantal Panozzo

Fiona Apple "Extraordinary Machine" (Epic)

To say that Fiona Apple's latest release was highly anticipated is an understatement. After rumored shelving by her label for lack of a potential hit and reworking of the previously recorded material by producer Mike Elizondo (Eminem, 50 Cent), the best work of Apple's three-CD, nine-year career has emerged. The opening title track is playful with cartoonish orchestra arrangements amid pitter-pat snare skips and woodwinds with Apple recommending that "If you don't have a date, celebrate." While the lyrics might suggest she's been burned but gotten over it, Apple remains sullen and incensed for most of the album. Mature, well-crafted lyrics — poetically delivered like spoken-word rhymes — have replaced her once puerile diary form. Smoldering vocals serenade moody piano that dips deep into the low end of the keys and then catapults into fluttering melodies. Throughout 12 tracks, Apple's once minimal sound blooms into an experimental landscape garnished with rich sweeping strings, plings, dings, horns and indiscernible other instruments that make this an album you can sink your mind into. **** —Hilary Langford

Wells "Wells" (Self-released)

Wells is a Charlottesville-based rock quartet with former Richmonders Curtis Fye on bass and Robbie Sinclair on drums. They're currently road warrior-ing up and down the East Coast in pursuit of gigs, fame (probably under a new name) and a major label contract. This self-released debut EP (available on shows they have the stuff to be a contender.

The CD is stuffed with clever ideas and strong playing, the combination of pop appeal and multilayered angularity is a bit reminiscent of XTC. Lyrical cleverness has its risks; "Brainiologist" teeters on the precipice of cuteness. But the ironically rueful anti-fundamentalist "Left Behind" is right on the money. Variety is the band's strongest suit — the band members' jazz background gives them a wide range of styles and texture to mix and match. All in all, "EP" is a very promising beginning for a band on the make. *** — Peter McElhinney

Wells plays at Mojo's on Nov. 11 at 10 p.m.

Rah Bras "Whohm" (Lovitt Records)

What happens when new wave has a bad day? This Richmond trio once again celebrates the post-punk possibilities of the keyboard and lead singer Isabellarah Rubella's strangely-sensual vocal range. Maybe it's maturity, or maybe it's the European touring, but "Whohm" is much less sample-happy and chaotic than previous albums, focusing the mania into a pop sound that is danceable, but still weird enough that it belongs in, say, a German discotheque. The robot vocals on a couple of tracks evoke the Eurotrash.

It's a carnival of electronic noises, all designed and delivered with energy in mind. That liveliness is a reminder that this is, first and foremost, a band that thrives on performance, on-stage antics, and the ever-present threat of descending into reverb. The fairly constant presence of a thundering percussion and Rubella's cabaret voice hold it all together when it threatens to tip overboard into a distorted mess. It's sexy because it's just barely controlled. *** — Brandon Reynolds

Rah Bras play with VCR and Measles Mumps Rubella at Empire Lounge, 727 W. Broad St., Friday, Oct. 28.


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