Sunday, May 17, 2009

CD Review: Pavla Milcová

Pavla Milcová & Tarzan Pepé
Independent / PM 02-2, 1998

And now for something a little bit different: Pavla Milcová. I first saw her perform in the spring of 2008 and, disgusted at the lack of English coverage of her work, set up Prague Jazz as a result. She was one of the most unique artists I have ever seen take the stage and continues to be so. Her infrequent appearances are on my must-see list and she never disappoints.

Milcová’s sound is distinctive and delightful, if not 100% jazz (so we don’t need any emails from jazz purists informing of us this). However there are distinctly jazzy passages, she does play in jazz clubs and at jazz festivals, she sometimes dips into the Great American Songbook, and her cohorts include the very jazzy Jaromír Honzák (acoustic bass) and Pavel Plánka (percussion). With the jazz there is a rich blend of folk and world music, expressed through a mixture of original material and inventive interpretations of (sometimes unusual) other work. Wrap all this up in a sense of fun, without losing the depth of purpose, and you have some sort of idea of what is happening here.

Of her four albums to date Pavla Milcová & Tarzan Pepé is perhaps the most consistently interesting, although all of them are definitely worth having.

The first track, “Neví se, zda odletěli” (P. Milcová), opens with low, brooding acoustic guitar and slightly sinister background effects, creating a tension that opens out into a more welcoming chorus.

Both electric and acoustic guitars on this album are provided by Milcová’s main collaborator, Peter Binder. As well as being good with the strings he is a pretty mean piano and synth player and also a sound engineer, perhaps explaining the clean sound of both their recordings and their live shows.

“Hvězda na nebi” (P. Milcová) is a sweet number with some nice violin from Tomoko Suzuki and lovely vocals. Although sung in Czech (like most of the pieces) Pavla’s voice is sufficiently interesting to be worthy of attention even if you don’t understand a single word. Expressive to the last, she jumps between high angel and low growl, throwing in the occasional giggle and yelp along the way.

“Petře!” (P. Milcová) is a more straightforward slow piece, but again with delightfully breathy vocals and some lovely legato trumpet from Michal Gera. The sinisterly named “Mr. Lurk” (P. Milcová) starts off with the sound of tea being made, possibly with a kazoo. The trademark use of kazoo is one of the more unusual aspects of Pavla’s particular musical style, and oddly enough it works. Powered by rhythmic acoustic guitar, bouncy bass and clattering percussion, it is a playground through which her vocals romp. With a kazoo.

“Rusalka”(P. Milcová) and “Otče!” (P. Milcová) both bring percussion to the fore but in very different contexts. The former is a short but hypnotic piece with vocals delivered over little but rapid percussive effects. The latter is a high-tempo romp, complete with some pleasingly fuzzy electric guitar.

Next up are two of the most unusual covers you are likely to hear on a Czech record. Scottish folksong “Silver Herring” is performed in a joyfully upbeat fashion (lyrics in English, or rather Scottish), while Shakespeare’s Sonnet No. 66, set to music by Peter Binder, is a moment of delicate sadness. Binder joins in on vocals to create a duet in which both voices wind and wander around each other, separate and yet together. The sparse music brings with it a hint of darkness, and something that could have ended up sounding cheap and cheesy is in fact a highlight of the album and of their concerts.

In “Podzim” it is Czech poet Ivan Blatný who has provided the words. Having left Czechoslovakia after the Communist coup in 1948 he lived as an exile in England, including a spell in a retirement home in Clacton-on-Sea. He died in 1990 but here his words live on, again set to music by Binder. This time the duet is between acoustic guitar and forceful violin, subsiding as Milcová sings the poem unaccompanied, before resuming in mournful tone.

“Ještě že nejsou andělé” (P. Milcová / P. Binder) lifts the mood with a comparatively lush arrangement, vocals delivered as a duet, and some aggressive electric guitar from the normally restrained Binder. “Je každá vteřina originál” (P. Milcová) also utilises a fuller arrangement with dissonant and almost Spanish-themed trumpet, elastic bass from Honzák, background sound effects, and pulsing steady drums (Binder again!) Finally “Mniši & Rytíři” (P. Milcová), the last piece on the album, places the emphasis back on the singer with effective multi-tracked vocals.

There is an experimental (without entering silly territory) and celebratory feeling to this recording that makes it fit in with the spirit of jazz if not the strict definition. But then folk purists probably wouldn’t claim it as their own and it is too Western to be officially given the ultra-trendy stamp of “world music”. I would never call it pop and it really isn’t rock. It is what it is and I like it a lot. I may not know in which section to put it in a record shop but I do know that it deserves to be heard.

Artist information and mp3 samples can be found here.

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