Chill Out Island

From New Age to downtempo electronica to acoustic folk, Chill Out Island surveys the finest in relaxing music.

San Francisco’s Don Arbor pays tribute to Iraqi blogger

An Interview with Don Arbor

By Julian Wilson

San Francisco has always been a wellspring of musical talent; from Jefferson Airplane to Journey, the Bay Area continues to be in a world of its own, free from the artificial and disposable product often emanating from Southern California. Count singer/songwriter Don Arbor as among the city’s real pleasures, a gifted vocalist and lyricist with the socio-political heart of Bob Dylan and Jackson Browne but blessed with the golden throats of Brian Wilson and Del Shannon.

Julian Wilson: You named your album after an Iraqi blogger who wrote first-hand about the atrocities in his homeland. Did Salam Pax inspire you to record a whole album? I ask because, even when you’re not writing about the war in Iraq, there is a sense of calmness throughout the record, a certain therapeutic vibe that seems to yearn for love and understanding in a world of madness and violence.

Don Arbor: I was incredibly moved when I read the entries in Salam Pax’ blog. Even now, I get chills thinking about it. It was amazing to me that Salam Pax had such courage, insight, humor, and ironic sensibility, as his home, his city, and his life were endangered. In reading these stories, I felt like Salam could be a neighbor, a friend, a kindred spirit, and this feeling was especially important to me at a time when I felt that the U.S. government was attempting to justify the war by presenting negative images of the Iraqi people. I wouldn’t say that Salam Pax inspired me to write the whole album, because I had been working on songs for the project with other sources of inspiration, both before and after reading Salam’s blog. But I do credit Salam Pax as the inspiration for the song that bears his name (“Peace”), which I hope speaks to others about the possibilities of peace. I do yearn for more love and understanding in the world so I’m glad that sense came through to you in the rest of the album as well.

Wilson: How do you feel you have evolved musically since your previous album, Postcard from the Mystery Spot?

Arbor: Postcard from the Mystery Spot was recorded in commercial studios, where my time and access were limited. After that recording I built a studio in my home, which has allowed me more time to explore the possibilities in each song. The instrumentation, arrangements, and the overall sound of the new album are a better expression of the variety of emotions I am trying to convey in the songs. Like the power of the horns in “Salam Pax (Peace)” compared to the subtlety of the piano and the building intensity of the string quartet in “I Let It Go.”

Wilson: When did you start recording albums? Was this something you had attempted earlier in your life?

Arbor: My first recording project was in a small room with two four-track tape decks in the Montmartre neighborhood in Paris, France, in 1975. I was performing in cafes, in the streets, and in the metro. We also performed a couple of the songs on a live radio broadcast for a show called “Le Pop Club.” Great name. In 1976, I moved to California and started law school. I kept writing songs, but I did not have the time, money or equipment to record them. In the 1980s, I recorded several songs with a band, the Tectonics, and we sold records at gigs. After that band broke up, I didn’t record for a long time. I have been raising a family, and our two boys are old enough now that I can put more time into the music. There’s a lot of support for music in our family, which is great.

Wilson: Your music video for “Salam Pax (Peace)” will be presented at the Berkeley Film and Video Festival on September 27th. How did that come about?

Arbor: After “Salam Pax (Peace)” was recorded in the sping of 2007, people who heard it were moved. Sometimes to tears. Their reactioons reinforced my own belief that the song communicated an important message and should have a wider audience. Some of the lyrics evoke visual imagery, and I thought a video to accompany the lyrics could give the song a path to the wider world. I asked my friend, Pam McCann, a video director, to listen to the song and let me know if she was interested in helping to make a video. After she wiped away the tears, Pam said she would love to help. We worked for several months on finding the right material to tell the story. We had great contributions from Hal Phillips, the videographer and editor, and especially from Kamran Kamjou, a young student who played the role of Salam Pax with great presence. The video was completed just before Christmas 2007. Pam dropped off a copy at the office of the Berkeley Film and Video Festival, and the festival directors told us that same day that they wanted it as an Official Selection for the 2008 festival. That’s coming up on September 27, and we’re very excited about it.

Wilson: In the late ’60s, amid the bloodshed of the Vietnam War, many singer/songwriters sang openly about serious real-world issues. Why do you think that is so rare these days?

Arbor: I came of age listening to songs that did have real-world content, and that experience shaped my relationship to music. I think there are still many songwriters and bands that attempt to express social and political ideas in their work, and I don’t think that there’s a black-and-white difference between the content of songs today and those of the earlier era. But in the 1960s, music represented a broad-based cultural movement more than it does today. There was also more experimentation with mixing styles, and messages, rather than commercial niches that are limited to a single style of music. One of my favorite of today’s musicians with a message is Michael Franti, who traveled to Iraq during the war and has a wonderful video based on his travels, “I Know I’m Not Alone.”

David Hansen transcends contemporary classical music on ‘All That I Could Give’

Reviewed by Carson James

Artist: David Hansen

Title: All That I Could Give

Rarely does a contemporary classical or New Age CD arrive in our offices which has vocal parts alongside instrumentals. Of course, that has never been a requirement for quality in the field; it’s just that you don’t see it often. David Hansen is among the exceptions, and what is even more remarkable about his record All That I Could Give is his singing voice. Hansen lays down some tear-jerkingly plaintive vocals on a few tracks on the CD, especially on “Love in Three Days,” wherein he has seemed to find true love, only to see it slip away. It’s the kind of composition that could transcend the classical roots of Hansen’s style and cross over into the adult pop market.

For devotees of jazz fusion and New Age, Hansen has that side of the coin cornered, too, with a couple of striking instrumentals. Percolating synthesizers deliver the goods on “Toleetah” while “Ladder of Being” moves to a steady, irresistible groove. Given Hansen’s eclectic tastes, it’s hard to classify All That I Could Give into a single genre, but then that’s a large part of its appeal, too.

Caldwell Shine shines with blend of folk, jazz, and blues

An Interview with Caldwell Shine

By Carson James

Caldwell Shine isn’t just a singer/songwriter; he is also the leader of the band named after him. Oddly enough, the music they make together has the intimate feel and personal vision of a solo project but also the wide-screen scope of a rock group. However, classifying Caldwell Shine as a rock & roll artist only reveals a small part of the Big Picture. On Which Way Is Mine, Shine’s consciousness-expanding sentiments are fed through jazz, folk, and also the blues, seamlessly stitching themselves together for an enigmatic and spiritually elevating experience.

Carson James: Which Way Is Mine is credited to Caldwell Shine. Do your consider this project as a solo effort or a band achievement named after you?
Caldwell Shine: I think WWIM represents both a solo and a band achievement.  I wrote much of the music on this record several years ago  Over the years, we as a band have worked on this music, and it has thus received touches of hues from all of the kindred spirits in this circle of positive energy that we work within.
While Caldwell Shine is both my name and the name of the band, I think both represent what my life philosophy is: be positive, give positive energy to the world, and be mindful of the energy that is around us so that we can understand how that energy should be worked with.  The band is another means to express this philosophy through the magic of music and I’m honored that Silas, Clem, and Alan enjoy working in this setting.

James: The songs seem to be open to interpretation, but I’m hearing a positive outlook throughout the record. Do you possess an optimistic view of life?
Shine: Yes, I do.  I really do try to find a positive side to all situations in life.  Negative energy clouds my mind and when it is prevalent, I have to work harder to achieve the goals that I wish to attain.  For me, it’s just simply easier to embrace something positive because doing so clears my mind. I have learned through experience that life cannot always be positive.  I actually have to seek out non-positive energy sometimes and fully accept it.  This process allows me to stay balanced.  I believe too much of anything is not harmonious.  So, for example, if I see an angry person I might allow their anger to consume me and then attempt to slowly offer my positive energy to the person in order to offer a balance that both of us can be happy with.  I will also practice this by watching scary movies (laughs) to feel fear or really sad films so I can cry.  As an artist, I feel that it’s important to understand many different emotions although there are some that I just plain don’t like to experience unless I have to.  This overall process helps keep me balanced and open. 
James: There are elements of jazz and folk strewn into the mix on the CD, especially on “Today.” Are those musical genres close to your heart or was their inclusion brought upon a member or members of the group?

Shine: I was originally trained in jazz and classical music via my trumpet.  I was also raised in the ’70s by a mom who practiced Middle Eastern dance which means that I spent a lot of time listening to a wide variety of music such as fusion, disco, jazz, and Middle Eastern. I suppose I’m a renaissance musician meaning that I love old school music that uses the theories of music such as key changes, modes, altered chord progressions, odd time signatures, codas, grand pauses etc., in order to express emotions.  I love music that is thought out using these old time techniques.  I like to think of myself an an emissary of the art of music.  These old theories are something that I want to help keep alive by continuing to write music that embraces these techniques.

James: “These Wired Times” reminded me of Steely Dan with its pointedly funny observations about the online world. What was the inspiration behind it?

Shine: Well, the band Steely Dan is one of my heroes because I think they are keeping the old musical ways alive.  “These Wired Times” is about one of my many adventures on the bus system in Austin.  I use the bus nearly every day.  On a side note, since I don’t drive much anymore I’ve noticed that my driving skills are deteriorating, which I find amusing. The song is about an evening bus ride in which nearly all of the passengers had their heads down and were looking at some sort of plastic screen.  The song was originally just a story song.  It wasn’t meant to have a vocal hook; over time, the idea of looking to the stars was added as a means to explain that we should remember to look away from our plastic screens.  I think this idea took on the responsibility of a short vocal hook in the outro.  I’m guilty of using plastic screens since I write most of my music on some sort of electronic device.  I still use paper and pencil from time to time, too; hence, I’m always striving for balance.  My wife purchased a special cheese cutter for the kitchen.  I still use a chef’s knife to cut cheese because I don’t want to loose the old ways.  She thinks this is hilarious.  I’m just glad that I can give her something to laugh at. 

James: “Sweet Mother Earth” – and the declaration on the sleeve stating that a paper album package was chosen for the product announces your environmentalist stance. Is it difficult to send these messages across without being preachy?

Shine: I’m glad you mentioned this.  I attended a singer/songwriter school many years ago and an instructor warned us not to sound preachy.  Rather, find a way to get your message across in a subtle yet concise manner.  I don’t like to be preachy, and I don’t think it’s in my nature yet I think having been raised by a dad who was a college professor rubbed off on me so I am very conscious about trying to come across as something warm and positive to the folks whose lives my music touches. I think the statement about the environment which you mentioned is bold – especially since it says there’s still no insert.  That’s a little out of character for me.  I am passionate about trying to live responsibly.  I hope that for those who know me, I lead by example and not through words.

Bryan Rowe’s ‘Songs of the Soul’ paints ‘landscapes of personal memories’

Reviewed by Carson James

Artist: Bryan Rowe

Title: Songs of the Soul

This meditative, mood-spanning collection of piano instrumentals from Bryan Rowe opens quietly, but it’s a stillness you won’t forget. If these compositions are supposed to reflect human emotions and personal experiences, then the first cut, “Redeemed,” seems to open with the initial silence of life forming in the womb; it takes a few minutes before the melodies become apparent, as if they are gradually crawling towards the light of existence. When the music increases volume and tempo, it is the equivalent of gazing at the sun as it breaks through the morning haze. Rowe isn’t simply expressing himself with notes here; he is painting landscapes of personal memories.

For the most part, the music elaborates on the song titles; given that none of these pieces have words, that is a pretty remarkable achievement. “Broken Bond” has an overall feeling of sadness and loss; there is almost unbearable melancholy in its tones. “Embraced” is appropriately affectionate while “Dance of Light” seems like an extension of the introductory song, its giddiness suggesting a flower in bloom. “Abandoned” is appropriately stressed, even agitated.

Listening to Songs of the Soul is almost an uncomfortable experience because it is so naked and revealing. It takes courage and talent to produce an album as compellingly honest as this. Treasure it always.

Movin’ Melvin Brown is welcome throwback to Motown’s glory days

Reviewed by Carson James

Artist: Movin’ Melvin Brown

Title: Love on My Mind

They don’t make them like Movin’ Melvin Brown anymore. Brown is a welcome throwback to the Golden Age of soul music, when sultry crooners such as Marvin Gaye, Al Green, and Smokey Robinson healed a country aching from the bloodshed of the Vietnam War with their soothing, passionate singing. Of course, these type of vocalists never really went away, just became scarce and, whenever you would hear anybody remotely comparable, the production would be too cold and slick. Not so with Brown. Nearly every track on this CD sounds like it could’ve been recorded during the late ’60s-early ’70s creative peak of Motown.

The title track is an epic (at 5:53!) slow-dance number with sensual bass lines (for the ladies, of course) pulsating below Brown’s yearning vocals. “The Girl Is” picks up the tempo, revealing Brown’s Motown ambitions with its vintage R&B rhythms. “Smooth Situation” and “Nothing Else But Love” find Brown in purely funk territory without drowning out his voice’s bedroom appeal. The production is fairly raw throughout; however, in this that’s perfect because you want these tracks to feel authentic, to make believe they’re from the glorious era which inspired their creation.

Geresti fuses own personality in piano renditions of ’70s classics

Reviewed by Julian Wilson

Artist: Geresti

Title: Keys into the 70’s

At first, Keys into the 70’s may seem like one of the dime-a-dozen Muzak versions of moldy Easy Listening hits. But when you begin listening to the album itself, you’ll be as surprised as I upon first spin. Geresti isn’t simply playing note-for-note piano renditions of Top-40 classics from the bell-bottom generation. Rather, he has fused his own personality in them, letting his fingers create magic on the keyboard. On his cover of the Stylistics’ priceless “You Make Me Feel Brand New,” Geresti’s playing is immaculate, radiating a loving glow that doesn’t wear off until long after the CD is done. He’s not trying to imitate the soulful, angelic qualities of the original; instead, he’s paying tribute to it.

You get the feeling that these songs are personal to him, that they most likely helped inspire his growth as a musician. Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly” is given a jazzy elegance; you don’t need hear any singing because Geresti’s piano is already whispering the words in your ear. Styx’s breathtaking “Babe” was almost unrecognizable in the beginning with its playful intro, but when the familiar melody kicks in, you are swept away by it. Geresti has turned what could’ve been a generic Brand X product into a deliciously seductive work of art.

‘Sing Your Song’ is beautifully crafted, bittersweet

Reviewed by Julian Wilson

Artist: Kat Goldman

Title: Sing Your Song

The temptation in listening to singer/songwriter Kat Goldman’s Sing Your Song is to relax and let all of the background music take center stage in your ear attention. Certainly as the album opens with its bittersweet blend of piano and violins, the desire to be swept by it all is fairly considerable. However, there are depths to be plumbed on this disc on both a lyrical and musical level.

Goldman seems to be attracted to midtempo piano-based numbers; there’s quite a few here, and the finest -“Baby You Gonna Fall in Love,” “The Lone Plane,” and “Angel Child” – evoke images of autumn. For the first couple of hearings, you probably won’t notice Goldman’s words. That doesn’t mean her lyrics are weak (quite the contrary, in fact); it’s just that the music is so well played and evocative that it can make your mind drift into your own scrapbook of memories.

You can give this the folk tag if you want; however, I don’t hear folk albums as beautifully crafted as this.

Vickie Russell returns wit to country music

Reviewed by Carson James

Artist: Vickie Russell

Title: Next

If Dolly Parton is interested in reviving her superstar country career, she might want to think about covering the title track of Vickie Russell’s new CD. “What about the one before, I think it was Wayne?/At your 10th reunion you rekindled the flame/Got you hot and bothered by the way he kissed/Had a second job as an arsonist,” Russell sings. Such twisted humor has sadly become a lost art in country music; I applaud Russell for reminding us that this genre is not as vanilla as people think.

Russell sways back and forth from old to new country, utilizing elements of both to create a sound that is neither too retro nor too pop. She should be able to corral both audiences then. Her singing borrows from folk music, such as on “Painted by Monet” and “I Want You,” with its reflective acoustic opening that then picks up speed. The piano song, “Go to Sleep,” is as sweet and uplifting they come. You will emerge from Next with a large smile on your face, either from laughing out loud or simply being touched.

Torch’s ‘Charmed’ offers a ‘world of endless delights’


Reviewed by Carson James

Artist: Torch

Title: Charmed

Torch’s Charmed has been delighting me for a couple of months now; in fact, it has become such a presence in my everyday listening that reviewing it is proving difficult. Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt, just an absence of words. Finding ways of writing about a well-played record as if it was still fresh in my mind would normally be impossible, but thankfully Charmed conveys more of its abundant qualities after massive spins.

At first, my attention was fixated on the smoky singing of Seela Misra. Veering from the film noir-ish enigmatic beauty of “Night of the Arrival” to the giddy self-confidence and radiant sexuality of “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” it was inevitable that my ears would linger on her voice. However, after a while I began to notice the top-flight musicianship of her band. Chris Maresh and Mike Porter are superb bassists, helping give the songs (a combination of original compositions and nicely chosen remakes) their tight, intoxicating rhythms. Jon Greene is a solid drummer, especially thrilling on “Is It Enough” and “Caravan.”

I envy those who will just now hear Charmed. To them, a world of endless delights will follow.

‘Mood Swing’ combines classical elegance with the deep emotions of jazz


Reviewed by Carson James

Artist: Becky Archibald

Title: Mood Swing

Pianist Becky Archibald combines the elegance of classical music with the rich emotional textures of jazz. Some of the compositions here are so strong that you might think they were written decades ago. Actually, this is a new record with Archibald writing everything herself. The production and mixing are immaculate; it’s sounds almost as if Archibald is performing in your living room.

For quiet time, put on “Spring (duet),” with its golden collaboration of piano (Archibald) and cello (Ingrid Fischer-Bellman). It is lush and relaxing, putting calmness in your heart. “Waltz” and “A Really Mean Boogie-Woogie” quicken the tempo a bit but it all goes down smoothly like warm honey. I am particularly moved by “Unspoken,” which has somewhat of a winter feel to it, perfect for this time of the year. As far as chill-out music goes, this is about as classy and sharp as it gets. Lovely!