Now Hear This 

Review of gospel box set, “Goodbye, Babylon,”plus recent releases by Air, Andrew Hill and Tulsa Drone.

“Talkie Walkie’s” songs are not so much melodies as adventures in polyphonic songwriting. Thanks to the composition talents of Nicolas Godin and JB Dunckel, the results are spine-tingling: Drive around listening to “Run” change from a Nutcracker-like intro into a melody played by a endlessly-repeating, voice-synthesized word melting into a chorus of angelic female vocals, and you could find yourself unconsciously slowing to 40 mph on the interstate.

Also of note is the inclusion of a wide variety of anachronistic instruments among the synthesizers, vocoders and computer-generated effects. This could be a take on the world music that’s big in Paris right now. With “Cherry Blossom Girl,” Air becomes what might be the only band since Jethro Tull to make a flute sound cool; “Biological” mixes kaleidoscopic voices, canned beats and electrostatic fuzzball noises with, of all things, a banjo — and it sounds made for the song.

The perfect audience for this elegantly futuristic pop music would be the gang of sensitive but doomed androids in “A.I.” “Talkie Walkie” certainly doesn’t sound like anything we humans listen to. — Wayne Melton

Various Artists “Goodbye, Babylon” (Dust-to-Digital) *****

The packaging is bold: Six CDs housed in a sturdy wooden box alongside a massive book with essays on the history of sacred song, protected by bolls of Delta cotton.

Expensive and ambitious, this strikingly packaged collection of stirring sacred odes and anthems, old and new, attempts to be nothing less than the largest single collection devoted to early 20th-century gospel and religious popular music in America. The 160 musical selections contained within “Goodbye, Babylon” come courtesy of many of the annotators and collectors who helped prepare The Harry Smith Anthology of Folk Music and other roots music releases. It’s a crash course in the best of American religious music as cherry picked by discerning collectors’ ears.

“Goodbye, Babylon” draws from the mostly Southern United States choirs, churches and performers preserved by the early recording industry. Within those perimeters, the box casts a wide net across American music, embracing Hank Williams and Blind Lemon Jefferson along with Thomas Dorsey and the Chuck Wagon Gang; sinners are welcome here. The CDs unapologetically mix races, faiths and styles. We hear shape-note choirs, sacred-harp singers, jubilee quartets, bluesmen, bluegrass combos, old-time string units, country bands, jug bands, a cappella soloists, even the strains of forgotten instruments like the Dolceola. The common bond is faith.

And check out the many Virginia performers: Elder Golden P. Harris, the Carter Family, the Golden Gate and Norfolk Jazz Jubilee Quartets, Bela Lam, Ernest V. Stoneman, even — with a stunning Bristol radio broadcast from 1947 — the young and untamed Stanley Brothers.

The best selections come from obscure performers. The Rev. Anderson Johnson was a Newport News folk artist who revamped the classic “Oh Death” as a rollicking R&B prowler in the early ’50s, complete with slide guitar and haunting lead vocal vibrato. Johnson’s “Death In the Morning” sure sounds like rock ’n’ roll to me — but was rock even invented yet? On the gentler side, Blind Mamie Forehand’s “Honey in the Rock” is one of the loveliest tone poems ever committed to shellac, a gentle ballad of faith sung to the accompaniment of a blues riff and a chiming bell.

You’ve got to love a collection that can include the chitlin’-circuit shuffle of the Trumpeteers alongside the close-harmony twang of the Louvin Brothers. Designed both to placate the converted and educate the skeptical, this is a history lesson in a wooden box that could even make atheists and agnostics testify and shout hallelujah. — Don Harrison

Andrew Hill “Passing Ships” (Blue Note) ****

It’s not uncommon for an unreleased session to be released with the hype of “rediscovered masterpiece.” “Passing Ships” is the rare exception that lives up to its billing. Hill’s idiosyncratic compositions, challenging arrangements and angular playing are as fresh and bracing as they were recorded three-and-a-half decades ago.

Blue Note founder Alfred Lion called Hill his “last great protégé” — after predecessors Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell and Herbie Nichols. Lion’s support enabled Hill to express himself without compromise, composing and leading a number of sessions that produced a string of great albums, including the masterpiece “Point of Departure.” Hill’s style blended a jaggedly rhythmic, dissonance-spiced post-bop attack with a breathtakingly expansive, classical sense of structure. His fiercely intelligent, melodically adventurous music never broke through to the ’60s mass audience focused on the more accessible creativity of rock ’n’ roll, or to the intellectuals mesmerized by the transcendent incomprehensibility of the avant-garde.

Hill has spent the time since composing and performing, receiving long overdue recognition when glowing reviews of 2001’s “Dusk” cast a warm light illuminating his extraordinary career. “Beautiful Day” from 2003 solidified his recognition as a living master.

“Passing Ships,” like “Beautiful Day,” is a large-ensemble recording. A variety of instrumentations and styles provides a wide palette for Hill’s multilayered conceptions. Everything is perfectly realized without being overly polished. The pieces move from melodic exotica to funk to Latin without slipping into genre predictability. The space for individual players is especially welcome since some, including multi-instrumentalist Joe Farrell and trumpeter Woody Shaw, are long gone. — Peter McElhinney

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