Thursday, January 9, 2014

REVIEW: Anawaty/Russell - Analog Universe

Analog Universe

The curiously titled Analog Universe is a recording from the duo of pianist/keyboardist/guitarist Cass Anawaty and guitarist/keyboardist/synthesist and rhythm programmer Paul Russell They're joined (on various tracks) by a crew of able accompanists: Don Latarksi (lead guitar), Jeff Leonard (bass), Romy Benton (flute), Charley Langer (sax), Benjy Wertheimer (esraj), Peter Hollens (vocals), Dale Bradley (cello), and Mark Zonder (drums). I say "curiously titled" because the words "analog universe" evoke (musically) for me retro/Berlin school synths and outer space soundscapes. In reality, while there are moments here and there on the album where ambient/spacemusic textures surface, the overwhelming evocation for me is closer to jazz and blues, somewhat akin to the sensational jazz fusion duo from the '90s, Dancing Fantasy (Curtis McLaw and Chris Williamson). Anawaty and Russell infuse their music with somewhat the same mixture of jazz, rock, and pop, but they also introduce world music elements. Where Dancing Fantasy was slick and polished to a chromium sheen of synth-pop hooks and danceable rhythms, Anawaty and Russell are aiming for something a little less, for lack of a better word, superficial. If Dancing Fantasy was ear candy, Analog Universe is more like a substantial meal - tasty for sure, but more varied (you got your veggies, your carbs, your protein, your spices, etc.).

This isn’t to say that these two cats don't kick out some snazzy licks (especially on guitar) to go along with gently rockin' rhythms (check out the blues-tinted electric leads on the title track), but they can also kick back and lounge a bit as well, witness the mellow synth, reverberating bells and flute on "On the Beach" along with some seriously sensual hand drum percussion. You can almost hear the ocean waves lapping, taste the margarita on your lips, and feel the gentle rays of the setting sun warm your skin. "Where You Hide" opens with a quavering series of synth notes, joined by a plaintive but warm guitar melody. This track also elicits the feel of the tropics at times, less so when piano is folded into the mix and the mood becomes somewhat somber, only to revert to the original synth and guitar motif. Jazz flute opens "If Only I Could," flitting gracefully over a subtle bed of keyboards, soon joined by more of the mellow jazz/blues guitar (the guitar itself is played in somewhat the same style as Mark Knopfler, especially on his various soundtracks). A slow tempo trap kit drum backing track comes into play and the guitar switches briefly to a Spanish-flavored acoustic one. At 6:35 "Another Worldly" is far and away the longest track on the album, but despite its title, the predominant vibe here is still rooted in jazz/jazz fusion, although with some well-executed spacey synth work added to the mix. About half-way through the song, the assorted drums and percussion becomes more pronounced and dials in some tropical-spiced funk into the track. "A Space in Time" has the most overt spacemusic sound (at its outset) with flowing synths sounding like a cross between Jonn Serrie Meg Bowles, but the introduction of Wertheimer's esraj (an Asian "violin" like instrument) moves the sound into less of a spacemusic direction and more in an ethnic-ambient vein - haunting and mysterious. The closing track, "Deep Sighting" begins in with Eno-esque minimalism (sparse piano and subtle synth backdrops) before taking on some Asian influence via what I assume to be sampled koto. Dale Bradley's cello descends over all the other instruments near the end, lending an air of both elegance and profound somberness, if not even downright sorrow of a sort.

Analog Universe is both quite varied yet remarkably cohesive, but I'm at a loss to explain how I judge it thusly. Part of it is because many of the songs wind up introducing an element of jazz or jazz fusion at some point during their durations. The beautiful, albeit short, opening piece, "Theme For an Imaginary Noir," may remind you of "Memories of Green" from the Blade Runner soundtrack, and illustrates what I mean. The track begins as an ambient piano piece and folds in silky smooth sax and bluesy guitar. This seems to be a modus operandi for Anawaty and Russell, i.e. they introduce a spacey/ambient theme at the outset and slowly but surely mold it into something with touches of jazz, blues, maybe a hint of rock, or even world beat. They do all this will anchoring each song in solid accessibility, catchy rhythms, and inviting melodies, even when they venture into world music territory. In the end, Analog Universe is about kicking back and indulging in the semi-tropical, breezy vibe from the majority of the album's tracks. Every now and then something unexpected hits your "aural taste buds," but that's what makes a great meal, yes? 

Analog Universe is available at CDBaby, Amazon, and iTunes.