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(independent release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/10/2010)
With music being the proverbial universal language, along with the global nature of the media, and the Internet erasing boundaries, one would think that regional styles would be less of a factor. And indeed one gets respectable versions of regionally distinctive styles performed by artists from unlikely places, such as reggae from New Zealand (Katchafire), a chanteuse singer-songwriter from Malaysia (Zee Avi), a Salsa band from Scotland (Salsa Celtica), and an authentic Afro-beat band from Chicago (Chicago Afrobeat Project). Sometimes that geographic displacement is musically seamless, with the group from "here" faithfully doing the music from "there." But sometimes, there is enough of the cultural collision either to make it a little bit off, or more fortuitously, providing an interesting reinvention on the style.
This week, we have a good example. It's a CD named Dreamer from a group called The Hipstones. The Hipstones' style is basically a kind of laid-back variety of soul and funk, and they have an intriguing geographic provenance. The Hipstones are basically two people who surround themselves with additional players. Mark Palmer and Anthea White are Australians who, according to their band biography, formed their group in a "high-rise" in Tokyo. They recently moved to New York, where they figured they would find a compatible environment for their very American-influenced music. But their CD was largely recorded in Sydney with one track from New York.
What makes the Hipstones' CD intriguing is the way their soul pastiche is given a number of twists. There's a fair amount of jazz influence, and the horn arrangements can resemble Steely Dan. Ms. White is hardly a traditional-style soul singer. Instead, she has an easy-going airy approach, while she often harmonizes with Palmer, who has a similarly breezy sound. Palmer's instrument is the piano, rather than the guitar. They create compositions that are generally quite interesting, especially musically, with what the musicians call the "changes" -- the harmonic structure of the compositions -- being a lot more sophisticated than is typical for 60s soul. That's another area where a parallel can be drawn to Steely Dan. But they also do a couple of laid-back ballads, perform a some pieces with a string quartet and do one doo-wop-style a cappella track. The result is an intriguing but thoroughly appealing amalgam notable for the group's great writing and Ms. White's notably relaxed vocal approach. Apparently, other members of the group also made the pilgrimage from Australia to New York, with several of the players from the Australian sessions also appearing on the New-York recorded track. To add further geographical diversity, the Hipstones' CD was mixed in Los Angeles.
The album opens with its title track Dreamers which sums up the Hipstones' sonic pastiche. The soul influence is clearly there, but the laid-back sound, the pair's distinctive two-part harmonies, and the Steely-Dan influenced horn arrangements combine to make a sound that is both familiar and unexpected. <<>>
A bit more toward the conventional soul sound is Spread It All Around, though the track has a jazzier texture. <<>>
The Hipstones bring a laid-back, almost atmospheric quality to several tracks. A piece called Min's Song evokes that dreaminess, with the aid of the string quartet. <<>>
Mark Palmer does lead vocals on a few tracks. Lost Again is one of them that also features a kind of Sixties soul approach to the singing combined with a slow, contemplative musical setting that even lacks drums. <<>>
On the other hand, the most danceable track on the CD is It's My Soleil, which has a kind of African-influenced rhythm, while the musical texture still has a vaguely laid-back quality. <<>>
To show their jazz credentials, The Hipstones do a bluesy original song called I Can't Get Started, not be confused with the Vernon Duke-Ira Gershwin classic of the same name. The Hipstones' song has a sound that also evokes an earlier era. <<>>
The band includes one instrumental piece, called Esperanza, and compared to the rest of the CD, it's not nearly as strong. <<>>
And as a contrast to that, the Hipstones do an a cappella song, called Passing Through. It's another interesting departure, with the additional vocals from singers brought in for the occasion. But the results are not quite at the level of the best of the a cappella groups on the scene. <<>>
The CD ends with a pleasing piano ballad called Any Day, also showing the duo's jazz tendencies. <<>>
The Hipstones' new album Dreamers is their second CD, but apparently the first to be released in the US, now that these Australians have settled in New York. It's a very appealing and distinctive recording that combines a kind of thread of 1960s-style soul with an intriguing mix of other ingredients, such as jazz harmonic complexity, and sometimes a kind of dreamy atmospheric texture. Though the vocals are often patterned after 1960s soul, Anthea White's airy quality could hardly be described as that of a classic powerful soul-singer. Mark Palmer can sometimes evoke Stevie Wonder, but he also can slide into jazz ballads. The musically rich arrangements with the added horns and strings can take the sound in other directions as well. The result is music that hints at familiar and classic styles, and at the same time establishes a very distinctive personal sound for the group.
Our audio quality grade is about a A-minus. The mix is quite good, the vocal sound is pleasing, there are no unnecessary studio effects, and the recording generally has good clarity and warmth. But we'll deduct points, as usual, for the compression used to jack up the volume of the recording, spoiling some of the dynamics of the music.
With a pair of Australians forming a group in Tokyo and playing soul-influenced music, then moving to New York, the result is bound to be interesting. The Hipstones do not disappoint, and their CD is one you'll probably want to go back to many times.
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