Native CD reviews
We take a look at albums by four top-shelf Native music artists: Jana Mashonee, the Crow Girls, Arvel Bird, and Gary Small & the Coyote Bros.
We take a look at albums by four top Native music artists. Listen to clips or download music from some of the albums below.
The first thing longtime fans will notice on Jana Mashonee's New Moon Born is that the popular Native American musician has shed traditional Native folk melodies for some seriously soulful R&B. The first thing new listeners will notice is that they've somehow missed a great talent. Falling somewhere between Corinne Bailey Rae and Natalie Cole with suggestions of Alicia Keys and Whitney Houston, Mashonee potentially has made the defining record of her career — one that should deliver the wider audience her star power ought to command. It delivers at every turn, sometimes with radio- and dance-floor ready pop tunes, at other times with intense, melodic ballads.
"For Just One Night" teems with longing lyrics and delicious minor-key harmonies. "Miracle" flows with pulsing dance funk grooves. And "Carousel" brims with vocal power and classic Motown soul. The hidden gem might be the Spanish-language version of "For Just One Night," "Una Noche," which has all the makings of a Spanish-language-radio hit. Mashonee may have broadened her musical genres here, but her songwriting skill, gift of a voice, and musicianship (she plays piano on the album) are in better form than ever. Aided by legendary producer Stephan Galfas (Stryper, Meat Loaf, Kool and the Gang), Mashonee, who co-produced and co-wrote every song, proves that when change comes, it can be a good thing indeed.
The Crow Girls
Where The Green Grass Grows
The Crow Girls are Karen Donaldson and Julie Olmsted, a stellar singing and songwriting Canadian Cree duo who make music that is sometimes classified as aboriginal or indigenous. If those labels don't tell you much, their sound is a Western Canadian blend of country, folk roots, Celtic, and Cree. Blowing on the wind in their organic sound you might hear intimations of Waylon Jennings, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and the Indigo Girls.
Whatever it reminds you of, this music is a fine blend, and the Crow Girls' debut CD, Where the Green Grass Grows, brims with excellent songs — an excellence that was recognized with a Nammy Award for Best Folk Album. "My Love" is a heartwarming tune sung in the traditional Woodland Cree language. "Sleep Is the Ocean" washes over you like waves of melancholy and profound wonder. Rousing songs like "Good George," "The Storm," and "Little Bear" belong to the storytelling tradition. The possible hit waiting for an audience is the commanding "Back on the Bus," with its evocative melody shouting to the endless Western sky.
If you find yourself in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, for the annual Mayday Festival or the National Aboriginal Celebration at the Royal Alberta Museum, you might get lucky and see the Crow Girls perform live. If not, there's always this memorable CD.
Bird's music has been dubbed "Global Native Fusion" and for good reason. The 2007 Nammy award winner for Artist of the Year incorporates an eclectic mix of styles into his music. An experienced professional who has toured with many legends of country music — including Glen Campbell, Tom T. Hall and Loretta Lynn — Bird is proficient playing everything from bluegrass to classical, Celtic (he's part Scottish) to New Age.
His latest record, Tribal Music Suite: Journey of a Paiute, is a historically accurate instrumental concept record focusing on Native American hero Quaninch, his life journey, and the impact of Europeans on Southern Paiute culture. Songs such as "Birth and Tribal Life," "Healing Waters of Love," and "The Journey Home" unfold before the listener like a favorite novel. Originally written for symphony orchestra performance, Tribal Music Suite makes for some very theatrical flute music. But don't let the neoclassical overtones intimidate you — this is a sublime record.
An earlier effort, Music for Wellness & Bliss is a compilation record combining select tracks from Bird's best-selling albums Animal Totems and Animal Totems 2. Songs like "Wapiti," "Red Tail Hawk," and "Dolphin" are beautiful and soothing — a perfect instrumental record to kick off your boots and relax to after a hectic day. And there's more relaxation: In conjunction with Nuwati Herbals, Bird has developed his own line of meditation teas, The Fiddler brand. Sip it with some Arvel Bird on and you'll be sitting tall in your spiritual saddle.
Gary Small & The Coyote Bros.
I Don't Play By The Rules
Crazy Mountain Woman
(Medicine Tail Music)
Having captured the 2007 Nammy award for Best Rock Recording, Northern Cheyenne tribal member Gary Small has proven that he is one smoldering guitar player. Raised in the wilds of Montana and Wyoming, Small is a chip off the George Thorogood or Brian Setzer block, but he's his own rockabilly bluesman.
Small and fellow Coyote Bros. percussionist Jim Willey and bassist Jobe Jennings have made one "whiskey drinkin' renegade" of an album with I Don't Play by the Rules. Full of high-octane swagger, the album throws in a sax riff here, some Cajun seasoning there, along with the occasional Santana-like interlude. "Low Down Evil Ways" is Beale Street-saturated dirty blues. "Stay Away from My Dog," "My Baby Snubbed Me," and the stinging "Buck Shot Bette" kick down the doors with turbo-charged blues licks.
On their previous release, the Nammy Award-winning Crazy Mountain Woman, Small and the boys forged a George Thorogood-meets-Gimme Shelter-era-Rolling Stones sound that somehow manages to remain true to their Native American roots. Jam-packed with real music for classic rock-and-roll lovers — "Jake the Bull Snake," "Camilla Tequilla," and the humorous "Carlos Can't Surf" are just a few — this is retro-rocking rhythm and blues. Together, these two records prove that Small and the Coyote Bros. are to Native American music what ZZ Top is to Texas blues — a rough-and-tumble treasure.