Leo Gandelman
Brazilian Soul
(Verve Forecast)

Saxophonist/composer Leo "From Rio" Gandelman has created a strange studio artifact with his latest album, Brazilian Soul. Without a doubt, the album's attempt to update an Ipanema Brazilian sound with the accoutrements of streetwise, modern pop has resulted in fancy elevator music. But it's hardly reducible to just that. Gandelman proves a much more canny arranger/composer than a soloist, and on more than a couple tracks, close attention reveals some fascinating sounds beneath the lilting sax and soporific Brasilia.

Given a superficial listen, the album sounds innocuous at best--Brazilian Muzak too upbeat for the cocktail set and too exotic for the grocery store (barring, of course, a mean sale in the produce section). That's due mostly to Gandelman's maudlin sax work, which nearly always sits in the front seat and rarely ever breaks from a Kenny G-with-nylon-stringed-guitars sound.

Some tunes never get beyond that. A cover of Sting's "Fragile" ventures so deeply into synthesizer land that one listen will perm the hair on your head. "April Child" at least brings the tempo up a bit, but then there's those damn flutes. The looped piano and programmed drums then proceed to drain what little life the songs had left. These tunes aren't for the listening, but rather for the hearing--preferably over the sounds of clinking margarita glasses and the tap of stiletto heels against hardwood floors.

What goes on under the surface, however, sometimes approaches kitsch nirvana. While often dull in his soloing, Gandelman the composer/arranger has created a dense soundscape that stands solidly on the amputated aesthetic legs of Esquivel (zu-zu chorus and all) and Beck. Beneath the repetitive solos, Gandelman's subtle backdrop mixes jerky edits, loops, spacy electronica, and sound effects that might very well have been lifted from a Medeski, Martin & Wood reject track. "Tanga," for example, uses answering machine samples and beats that combine hip-hop and Latin rhythms. On Beck's "Dead Weight," Gandelman openly displays his debt. The sax sticks to the melody, while the track indulges in the most far-out sounds on the album. Insect-like clicks, spaced-out string lines, creepy organ work, wah-wah pedals, and superfuzz, all sitting at the same bar with the nylon-stringed guitar, and nobody gets fresh.

Gandelman's greatest strength may be the near-seamless incorporation of modern techniques into his sound. None of the crazy pop fun noise ever infringes or detracts from the Jobim-lite. Nevertheless, the big attraction is the background sound. Esquivel fanatics take note. Few others are going to have the patience and sheer determination to sift through this.

--Aaron Steinberg

Groop Dogdrill
Half Nelson
(Mantra/Beggars Banquet)

As if Bush weren't enough, England has churned out yet another pseudo punk-pop sensation, this time from Doncaster. If the label's description is to be believed, Groop Dogdrill's Half Nelson is "aggressive, bluesy punk and roll." Certainly, the album is aggressive, full of berating guita work and choruses hollered by the entire trio, but bluesy punk and roll is a bit of a stretch.

Made up of equal parts of the group's 7-inch catalog from its inception in 1996 and new material, the debut from Groop Dogdrill often falls into all-sounds-the-same category. Moments of Half Nelson shine; "Salt Peter" corroborates the bluesy punk concept for a few moments, as do "Southbound Tuxedo" and "Oily Rag." But this, like too many albums, is made up of a few good singles and forty minutes of filler.

Half Nelson does have an underlying power-groove that will hook the more testosterone-driven fans, but it's not enough to shoulder the weight of the entire album. Too often Groop Dogdrill ignores the groove, choosing to charge through to the end at a full run, rather than letting the music flow. The band would be better off throwing out the '90s punk and concentrating on the Pixies' Doolittle; that essence glimmering around the edges of Half Nelson adds the only element of charm.

--David Powers

Michelle Willson
Tryin' to Make a Little Love

Jazz and blues, unlike rock and roll and country, have always had a place for the big, sassy woman with the big, sassy voice. Perhaps it's because jazz and blues are black musical forms, and blacks have always been less hung-up about fat than white people. Jazz and blues have never said a corpulent woman can't convey sex appeal.

Boston-based Michelle Willson is one of those pudgy gals who sounds like she can teach Ally McBeal a thing or two about men. Her voice is a virtual erogenous zone. She can do hurt. She can do defiance. She'll give dare-you-to bravado or a what's-in-it-for-me ultimatum.

And she does it with vocals like New England maple syrup--smooth, sweet, thick, and flavorful. Willson's singing might be brassier than the horns that back her, but she never hits a wrong note, misses an inflection, or fails to drive home her meaning. Don't let the fact she brims with attitude blind you to her God-given vocal gifts.

On Tryin' to Make a Little Love, Willson's third album, she broadens her range by tackling more than just the cocktail lounge jazz-blues that she already has down cold. The title song was written by Lilith rocker Joan Osborne. Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, best known for writing the classic "Dark End of the Street," gave Willson a song in a similar vein, "Life Rolls On," that had never before been recorded. Another cut on the album, the New Orleans-flavored "Responsibility," by Doc Pomus and Mac Rebennack (Dr. John), also gets its debut with Willson. The Los Lobos songwriting team of David Hidalgo and Louie Perez provides Willson with the mournful gospel-blues of "Someday."

She's a full-figured talent with size-16 vocal cords. Check her out soon.
--Steve Byrne

Matt Powell
The Money & the Grass

Yeah, sure, white men can sing the blues. Matt Powell just does not happen to be one of them.

Matt Powell is a talented, though not very inventive, guitar player in the best blues-rock tradition. He's also an above-average songwriter and a guy who seems careful enough to be able to give his audience a dose of flash without going over the top with it. That is quite a feat for one so new to the recording business.

What Powell is not is a blues singer. It isn't that he can't sing at all. It's simply that his voice doesn't have the edgy qualities a bluesman requires (and it's not foreign to Caucasians). Should he find a decent blues singer to work for him, he could really have something here. He could still leave his name on the act; call it the Matt Powell Band/Group/Combo/Quartet/Project/Outfit/Gang or whatever.

For those who simply live for guitar credentials, Powell is one who ought to be checked out. This Austin resident has completed his course in Stevie Ray Vaughan 101, but has also included Canned Heat, Fleetwood Mac (pre-Bob Welch/Christine McVie), and Ten Years After (pre-Woodstock) in his academic load.

It would be a shame if it went to waste. Powell needs to land that killer vocalist, write a few new songs, work the old ones like "Jet Black Dreams," the nice acoustic "Rich Man," the '70s-flavored "Daisy Chain," and the Led Zeppelin-style "What You Do to Me" into succeeding albums, and he could propel himself into the league of youthful white blues guitar hotshots such as Jonny Lang or Kenny Wayne Shepherd. He won't get there on the axe alone.