Workers Unite! (08/13/99)
Ani DiFranco and Utah Phillips, Fellow Workers (Righteous Babe 1999) - Ani DiFranco, the recently-married independent artist who proudly refers to herself as the "Little Folkie," returns with a second collection with Utah Phillips, the long-time protest singer (ala Woody Guthrie) and folk historian.
Fellow Workers is the follow-up to the 1996 release, The Past Didn't Go Anywhere. The album is centered around Phillips: DiFranco booked time at Kingsway Studio in New Orleans, where she and the members of her touring band (Jason Mercer on bass, Julie Wolf on keyboards, and Daren Han on drums) provided the musical settings for a new batch of Phillips' seditious stories of tramps, hobos, war resisters, and the struggles of the labor movement.
A health condition has forced the 60-something, white-haired, white-bearded Phillips to curtail his extended schedule of live performances. Yet his alternately playful, piercing, mischievous, and nostalgic style comes across on songs like "I Will Not Obey" and "Unless You Are Free." And the message of "Dump the Bosses" could not be clearer, followed by the sweet instrumental number that concludes the album, "The Internationale."
Phillips' storytelling delivery brings to mind William S. Burroughs, though with more of a focus on American history and events. Explains Phillips, "For twenty-six years, I have worked as a traveling folk singer and storyteller . . . I have also belonged to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) for more than forty years and it is my single and proudest association. I'm a perpetual candidate for President of the United States on the Sloth and Indolence ticket. If elected, I promise not to do anything."
Fellow Workers includes such classic folk tunes as "Joe Hill," "Bread and Roses," "Pie in the Sky," and "The Internationale." Both Utah and Ani share a dislike for the bosses of this world: says Utah, "Boss is double SOB spelled backwards."
The mix of DiFranco's well-oiled band against Utah Phillips' old-home storytelling is a delightful blend. Though separated in age by three decades, DiFranco and Phillips share the same ideology. And anyone who sings a song about Mother Jones (who, at age 83, was dubbed "the most dangerous woman in America" by Theodore Roosevelt) can't be all bad. Add in a cameo appearance by Dave Pirner from Soul Asylum and you've got a winning combination. Look for Fellow Workers.
Disney's Jungle Boogie (Disney 1999) - Those animal instincts are aroused by Disney's Jungle Boogie; these fourteen tunes will have your little critters swingin' and slithering to the beat. Disney has blended songs from feature films and Saturday morning cartoons to produce a CD that will make you and yours go "ape": There's no hibernating here.
Perk your keen ears to Elton John and lyricist Tim Rice on selections from the hit film, The Lion King, including "Hakuna Matata," "I Just Can't Wait to Be King," "Can You Feel the Love Tonight," and "Circle of Life." Other tracks come from the Jungle Book, including "The Bare Necessities" and "I Wan'na Be Like You."
Also featured are the two fun-loving characters, Timon and Pumbaa, who sing "Yummy Yummy Yummy" and "Warthog Rhapsody": these are Mother Nature's recipes of lingering in the sunshine, eating bugs and honey and creeping and crawling. (Sounds like activities for children).
I would recommend an afternoon of Jungle Boogie to share "Colonel Hathi's March" of "Up 2, 3, 4, Keep it up," while mixing the sounds of elephants, monkeys and many other Jungle animals. Who knows, it just might lead to days of fun and you could be the V.I.P.
Katherine Whalen's Jazz Squad (Mammoth 1999) - Katherine Whalen, singer and banjo player for the Squirrel Nut Zippers, steps into the solo spotlight with Jazz Squad. Featuring a dozen vintage jazz standards, Katherine shows her delight in all things retro.
Whalen started singing with the Squirrel Nut Zippers six years ago, and has performed on their three recordings (including 1996 platinum-selling, Hot). Katherine dips into the well of 20's and 30's jazz numbers on the new release, including "My Old Flame," "Yesterdays," "There Is No Greater Love," and "Just You, Just Me."
Katherine says she selected the songs based on her personal record collection. "They're the songs I was listening to and practicing along with when I first started learning how to sing. Those tunes cover my main influences up til now. The versions that I learned the songs from are mostly by Billie Holiday or Chet Baker."
Katherine explains that the album opener, an effervescent though breathy version of the mid-20's hit, "Deed I Do," is a direct homage to another important vocal influence, New York cabaret singer Blossom Dearie. "She's kind of obscure," says Katherine. "You have to look a little harder to find her records."
Katherine is accompanied by fellow Zipper and husband Jimbo Mathus on guitar, Stu Cole on bass, Robert Griffin on piano, and Cecil Johnson on tenor sax. Katherine and her Jazz Squad plan to tour this summer alongside the legendary Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
Jazz Squad has a decidedly retro, laid-back feel. Many want to ride the swing trend - Katherine and the Squirrel Nut Zippers helped create it. If you're into an airy, speak-easy kind of sound, try Jazz Squad.
- Randy Krbechek © 1999
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