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February 4, 1998

International Blend

SultSult: Spirit of the Music (Bottom Line Record Company 1997) - The inaugural release from Bottom Line Records (kin to the famed club in NYC), Spirit of the Music is culled from a 13-part music series recorded in April 1996 for TnaG, the new Irish language television station. The 17-track collection reflects the rising fortunes of Irish music, particularly that which is traditional or traditionally-based.

Spirit of the Music is built around the Sult house band assembled by musical director Donal Lunny. The album features a formidable lineup of singers and musicians, covering a wide range of musical idioms and traditions, including acoustic and electric, classical and contemporary, Gaelic and English.

Thus, the album ranges from fiddle-stirring instrumentals, such as "Causeway" featuring Nollaig Casey, to traditionally-styled arrangement such as Mark Knopfler's version of "On Raglan Road."

But the star of the show is Van Morrison's live version of "St. Dominic's Preview" (featuring Mary Black on backing vocal). Easily the best single I have heard in the last six months, this live version dusts off a 1972 studio recording and triumphantly celebrates Van Morrison's position as one of the best live performers in contemporary music (though sometimes overlooked by younger audiences, the Belfast Cowboy is one of the great live performers of our generation.)

I'm always uncomfortable recommending an album for just one single. Spirit of the Music is a fine introduction to contemporary Irish music. And the single by Van Morrison will blue your mind. As Van says in one of his most famous bootlegs, "If you don't like it, go f*ck yourself."

James BondShakin' and Stirred: The James Bond Project (Sire 1997) - Do we really need this 11-track, British electronic-oriented set of James Bond covers? Maybe not. But Shakin' and Stirred has its moments.

The album is the brainchild of David Arnold, a musician and songwriter who produced the Grammy-winning soundtrack to the movie, "Independence Day." Arnold devoted substantial energies to the album, and notes, "It's taken 18 months to complete because so much thought went into it. From the start, I was determined that it wasn't going to be like most other compilation albums. I saw it almost like a film."

With its cast of alternative musicians, Shakin' and Stirred is the kind of album I would expect from Caroline Records. The album had decidedly British technoflavor, and the instrumentals, such as "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" by Propellerheads run a bit long. Likewise, "All Time High," with vocals by Jarvis Cocker of Pulp, didn't move me.

However, the vocal-oriented songs, such as "Nobody Does It Better" (featuring Aimee Mann), "Live and Let Die" (vocals by Chrissie Hynde) and "From Russia With Love" (featuring Natacha Atlas) are solid cuts, most likely because the original songs were stronger.

Adds Arnold, "If people are mystified by what it is I actually do, then it doesn't really matter. People shouldn't really care. Just enjoy the work. That's the important thing." Shakin' and Stirred is an offbeat project built around a singular theme.

SkaLand of the Rising Ska, The Best of Japanese Ska (Moon Ska Records 1997) - Proving that music truly is the international language, Land of the Rising Ska features tracks from a dozen Japanese ska bands.

I don't pretend to know anything about the Japanese ska scene, or whether bands such as Snail Ramp, Cokehead Hipsters, or Duck Missile are well-known in their homeland.

But their music translates well, as they have fully embraced the Western horned-based ska idiom. In particular, "Lion Bite" by the Determinations is a catchy track. If you're looking to expand your ska horizons, set your sights on the Orient with Land of the Rising Ska.

-- Randy Krbechek

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