Chill Out Island

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

Archive for Easy Listening

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.

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.

Blind New York singer/songwriter sees love and wisdom through soulful shades


Reviewed by Carson James

Artist: Vinny St. Marten

Title: Blindness Is a State of Mind

You see the cover — a bald, white man in shades enveloped in darkness, and you become intrigued. Immediately you get the impression that this isn’t pop music, at least what passes for such on commercial radio stations. In fact, although I can hear the late ’60s-early ’70s AM influences that color the music of New York singer/songwriter Vinny St. Marten, that doesn’t mean you’ve heard any of this before. Rather, this is one of those records that is so personal, so close to the artist who created it, it doesn’t feel like it belongs to any genre at all.

While there are only three tunes on the EP (not including Marten’s heartfelt, informative introductions to each of them), we don’t feel short-changed although it does leave us yearning for more. “Think About It (Roy’s Song)” deals with the subject of racism in a powerful, non-preachy manner. Using audio samples from Martin Luther King, Jr. as an anchor, Marten relates the true story of his friendship with a black boy named Roy. Since Marten is blind, the color of Roy’s skin was at first completely unknown and then irrelevant to him. It’s a beautifully moving tale with poignant, dramatic narrative punched by Marten’s bluesy singing. On “Please Let Me Be Your Eyes,” Marten duets with Elysa Sunshine for a soulful declaration of love that has deeper meaning the more you analyze the lyrics. Their singing is gorgeous and hauntingly pretty. The sentimental “16 Grove Street” ends the EP with Marten’s homage to his family. It’s almost as if he’s opened the front door of his house for you and let you in. But really it’s his heart that has allowed you entry, and every cut on this CD beats with the pulse of life. Unforgettable.