Jay N. Miller
This week, we take a look at two local artists who have taken their music in new directions. Jazz singer Lauren Henderson explores Latin and South American music in a collection of originals and standards based on the theme of female empowerment. Hard-rockers Norwell Totem, meanwhile, deliver a cathartic album that’s mostly composed of softer, acoustic-focused melodies detailing loss and its aftermath.
Salem Witches Inspire New Songs
Marblehead native Lauren Henderson always notes when she first meets people that her hometown is right next to Salem, which inspired her new album, “La Bruja.”
“Everyone always knows Salem, and usually they say, ‘Oh, witches! ‘” Henderson said. “I have always been proud to be from this region, but what happened to these women is well known. And we all wonder, what could they have done to deserve to be executed…? That was the start of this album, wanting to explore some of those things, the role of women in society, and also paying homage to beautiful songs from Central and South America. I have ancestry in Montserrat and in Panama – my grandfather was there when they built the canal – and I wanted to make a record that celebrates that.
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Henderson, 35, graduated from Wheaton College in Norton, then earned her master’s degree in business administration from Brown University and founded her own label Brontosaurus Records. But his studies also included musical traditions in Puebla, Mexico, and flamenco in Cordoba, Spain, at universities in both places.
The new album, released on July 29, is available on streaming platforms or via laurenhendersonmusic.com. It includes four Henderson originals, as well as seven Latin American standards. There are classic songs like “Perfidia,” a romantic tale of betrayal first directed by Xavier Cugat and later by Nat “King” Cole, and lesser-known numbers like “La Sitiera,” a gripping tale of a lost love. (Coincidentally, “La Sitiera” also features on the latest album by country-rockers The Mavericks, whose tour played Plymouth’s Memorial Hall in June.) Henderson is the kind of singer who excels in nuance, and all through of these 11 songs, she achieves a subtle intimacy that feels like she’s right there in the room with the listener, while the Latin flavors give it all a simmering warmth.
Henderson’s seventh album is part of a two-album project she’s been doing during the pandemic. Since moving to New York, she has kept a busy schedule performing and recording with some of the Big Apple’s top jazz players, some of whom appear on the record, usually in quartet or quintet format.
“I’ve been writing during the pandemic, and sometimes I’m proud of my creativity, having completed two records during that time,” she said. “But there are other times where I think I should have done four. We’ll be releasing the second album this fall, and the second record will be like a response to that one. That first one is all in Spanish and the second will be almost everything in English. I wanted it to feel like the records were talking to each other and we did both of them in the same sessions so I could mix and match songs with the same groups of musicians.
‘Perfidia’ becomes a slow, sultry samba with John Chin’s playful piano lines giving it resilience, while his piano also drives the bright, upbeat ‘La Sitiera’. It is worth finding the words of “La Sitiera” and their translation, because it is a truly remarkable poetic work.
“I think it’s a wonderful song,” Henderson said. “I grew up with my parents listening to the Buena Vista Social Club record and they had a version of this song. These lyrics are profound. I think they reflect the stages of romance but also of the society where the idea is, “We’ve got something good and strong going on here; let’s not spoil it. It just called my name, with everything going on in the world today.”
The title cup “La Bruja” (The Witch) is attributed to Jarocho and the region of Vera Cruz in Mexico. The song has a mystical aura enhanced by the dazzling interplay of Sean Mason’s piano and Joel Ross’ vibraphone.
“I wanted that mystical feel, and I knew Joel on the vibes was something I needed for this song,” Henderson noted. “I learned this song when I was studying in Mexico and it’s a very popular traditional song. I fell in love with it.”
Henderson’s most striking original is “Amistad,” a quintet piece with a hauntingly beautiful melody and understated Latin accents. The 1997 film “Amistad” told the story of the 1839 incident in which a Spanish slave ship was picked up by slaves off Cuba and then captured along the East Coast by the United States Navy. . After a long legal battle involving John Quincy Adams, the slaves were freed. In this song, Mason and Ross craft the haunting melody and Gabe Schneider adds a subtle guitar solo that culminates in an inspiring finish, as if telling the story sonically in addition to the singer’s emotional voice.
“I wrote ‘Amistad’ to showcase my culture,” Henderson said. “I got very interested in the African diaspora in Latin America and wanted to cover that. People think of this ship, off the coast of Cuba, and their music has echoes of Africa – this Afro-Cuban sound, so this song allowed me to explore all the colors and sub-colors of my culture.
Henderson is heading to Europe for a tour that will cover the whole of September, but will perform at the Beacon Theater in Marblehead on October 29.
New album from Norwell’s Totem
Norwell’s Totem began in the mid-1990s as a hard rock band, releasing their debut album in 1997 and enjoying a solid New England tour. They backed off when life intervened, but reunited in 2009 and have been doing the occasional show ever since. However, principal songwriters David Kaslauskas and Gary Alex never stopped writing, and the new album, “The Power to Forgive”, shows not only the maturity of that experience, but also a decidedly new style.
While a few hard-rock songs end the album, most of “The Power to Forgive” is in an understated, often acoustic style that evokes New Wave indie rock or British pop. “Expendable Like,” for example, a swinging, foot-stamping rocker that’s a sweet look at a lost love, could be a cut from a Squeeze album. It’s one of the coolest surprises of 2022, that Kaslauskas and Alex have become the new Difford and Tillbrook.
The album also follows a sort of chronological path, the loss and regret of a painful breakup, and ultimately the redemption of having overcome that. That cathartic feeling permeates the entire record, and lyricist Kaslauskas admitted it reflected a tough time in his own life. The album was recorded primarily at Mic’d Up Audio Productions, run by Alex, and also at 37′ Productions, both in Rockland.
“Get Carried Away” opens the album with the Totem sound we’re all used to, raw and harsh with whipsaw guitar lines and a vocal whose desire is palpable. But then “Sister Melandrome” and “Ghost to You” morph into softer, acoustic-centric rock and a bittersweet tone that echoes the pain behind. “Sweet for Nothing” is a beautiful acoustic guitar ballad, and “Just Enough” works on an austere keyboard figure as the course of a painful relationship is recalled. The bright acoustic guitar lines of “Climber” and the bright harpsichord tones of “Watch the World” signal the emergence from darkness with their soaring pop. And then, “Untitled Eight” returns to Totem’s hard-rock foundation.
The Totem disc is available on all streaming platforms or via bandcamp.com to place. Physical copies are available at Norwell inclusion registers, where fans can pay what they want, or just take it for free, because Kaslauskas and Alex just want their music to be heard. Plans are underway for a launch party and show at Inclusion Records this fall.
Manilow, Motley Crue and more on tap
Thursday, Barry Manilow will headline the TD Garden. Friday has FREE music: Richie Rich and the 24 Karat Funk Band at 7 p.m. at Launch in Hingham Harbor. The big Motley Crue/Def Leppard Tour hits Fenway Park on Friday and Saturday. Saturday night Fitz and the Tantrums will have you dancing at Leader Bank Pavilion, or dancing at C-Note in Hull, where Texas bluesman Willie J. Laws vies with Italian guitarist Roberto Morbioli, or head to Soundcheck Studios for the famous tribute to Aerosmith Draw the line.
Saturday and Sunday from 3-8 p.m., downtown Quincy hosts a free multicultural folk festival, also featuring polka, klezmer, and oompah bands. On Sunday afternoon, New Hampshire pianist/singer Veronica Lewis (compared to Carole King and New Orleans queen Katie Webster) at the John Alden Sportsman’s Club, while Bagful of Blues are at the Greyhound Tavern in Bridgewater. Do you remember Emily Wade Adams, whose Nancy Wilson show played at the Spire Center in 2019? Adams is back and playing his originals on August 11 at the Cotuit Center for the Arts.
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