Art of Time Ensemble (from the album Ain't Got Long available on Art of Time Recordings) (by Chris Wheatley)
Something a little special to brighten up your Spring here. It's fair to say that, when it comes to Classical outfits covering Popular music, fans from both sides approach with caution. The results, when they work, can be brilliant (see Trevor Horn's ‘Trevor Horn Reimagines the Eighties’). Caution, however, is warranted. Such projects can all too easily come off as condescending, and all too often leave the resultant songs stranded deep in no-man's land, stripped of the spirit which inhabited the originals and devoid of the sublime feelings aroused by the best Chamber Music. I can assure you that Canada's celebrated Art of Time Ensemble are far too earnest to fall into that trap.
If the worth of an album can be told by the talents of its contributors, then Ain't Got Long fully measures up. The gifted musicians who make up the Art of Time Ensemble, led by pianist Andrew Burashko, with arrangements by Jonathan Goldsmith, are joined here by an impressive cast of guest singers comprising of Madeleine Peyroux, Gregory Hoskins, Jessica Mitchell and Sarah Slean. The impetus behind the album was a desire to reinterpret a wide variety of songs which ‘qualify as standards in anyone’s 21st-century appreciation of music’. With entries ranging from Robert Johnson to Radiohead, it's a bold ambition indeed.
Goldsmith's own “Ain't Got Long” opens the show, a track which features vocal samples culled from ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax's celebrated Prison Songs collection. Building from said sample, the piece coalesces into a hypnotic, mantra-like meditation, full of ominous overtones, sparse and haunting. That cloud soon opens up, with double-time piano contrasting intriguingly against slow strings. It's deceptively simple and precise, yet the arrangement is impressively sophisticated and emotional. Atmospheric, certainly, but there's plenty going on here to catch the ear. None of its eight-minute run-time feels wasted.
Archetypal Bluesman Robert Johnson's “Love In Vain” captures the pathos and inherent drama of the original splendidly, marrying these elements seamlessly to sliding strings, oblique piano and, most strikingly of all, Madeleine Peyroux's astonishing vocal delivery. There's an experimental, jagged feel here, with some wonderfully menacing and off-kilter guitar. It's a stunning piece, which leaves you in no doubt as to the commitment and earnestness of the players. The Art of Time Ensemble have worked diligently to tease out the essence of Johnson's original and add their own, unique twist.
Similarly extraordinary transformations are presented throughout this record. George and Ira Gershwin's “Someone to Watch Over Me”, the single track on this album which possibly steers its course closest to the original, still manages to wrest new ideas from the piece. Subtle twists and turns add a certain unsettling sweetness to this most romantic of songs. Paul Simon's bouncing, pulsating “Boy in the Bubble” retains the energy, rhythm and depth and transcribes these to an adventurous, jazzy soundscape full of handclaps and breath-taking left-turns. Gregory Hoskins' vocals on this track are more than up to the challenge.
Equally wondrous feats come in the form of Radiohead's “Exit Music”, Lou Reed's “Sad Song”, and Joni Mitchell's “River”. In summary, there is no need for trepidation no matter which side of the fence you approach from. Ain't Got Long is a wondrous, honest and deeply respectful undertaking, which celebrates some of the best which “popular” music has to offer. (by Chris Wheatley)
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