These days it seems like producers are constantly scrambling for the next "untouched" genre to market, from Cuban sones
to hardcore bluegrass to bamboo percussion from Micronesia. Novelty sells, or so they believe. Thus the hype surrounding Gary Lucas's latest album, The Edge of Heaven
. Some of you may know Lucas from his edgy guitar work with Captain Beefheart's Magic Band, while others might have him pegged as a charter member of Manhattan's loft music scene. (He's got street cred, having been recorded by John Zorn and other tastemakers in that hermetically sealed world.)
And you might be ready to write him off at this point, but that would be a big mistake Lucas, a master guitarist, puts a wicked, bluesy spin on old Cantonese pop tunes. Though the album concept might sound dubious, it's anything but: the music has a delicate, evanescent loveliness that goes far toward explaining Lucas's fascination.
As he tells it, a business trip to Taipei in the mid-1970s was the start of it all. While there, he fell very hard for Chow Hsuan and Bai Kwong, the top women singers from the 1930s through the '50s. Lucas was so besotted that he began opening Captain Beefheart shows with medleys of their songs, played for Chinese weddings, the works. And he eventually talked someone into letting him record this album, which (in my book) is a good thing. His ferocious technical ability could have sunk the project, but The Edge of Heaven is no chops-fest I think Lucas would rather die than trivialize this exceedingly lovely music.
He comps for singers Celeste Chong and Gisburg with a feather-light touch, but this is where the going gets a bit tricky. Chong's passionate restraint brings the lyrics home sans translations, but Gisburg's cool, emotionally distanced interpretations are another thing. They're interesting enough in their way, but they simply don't grab my imagination like Chong's. (Or Lucas's instrumentals, for that matter.)
The Edge of Heaven is highly diverting, and it certainly bears up under repeat listenings. But I'd far rather hear the recordings that captured Lucas's imagination in the first place. Here's hoping his work here spurs someone to risk releasing them for the U.S. market.
Personnel: Gary Lucas: acoustic, electric and National Steel guitars, electronics; Celeste Chong, vocals (2, 6,
and 8); Gisburg, vocals (4, 9 and 11); Ernie Brooks, bass (4, 9, 11, 12); Jonathan Kane, drums (4, 9,