Zoe Records, 2006
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 09/09/2006
The challenge for most instrumental CDs is the same -- can you tell a story without words? If the answer is yes, you’ve got an album worth listening to. The challenge is doubled, though, when an otherwise instrumental album includes a handful of tracks with vocals. All too often in these situations, the vocals overshadow the music and the instrumental tracks end up feeling like they’re missing something.
The way you overcome the latter issue is by infusing the instrumentals with truly distinctive and memorable music. And that is exactly what the adroitly-named Euphoria accomplishes with Precious Time.
Euphoria is not so much a group as the nom du guerre of a loose musical collective masterminded by guitarist/songwriter/producer Ken Ramm. Mixing blues-inflected electric and acoustic slide guitar with all manner of ambient synthesizer tones, beats, blips and flourishes, Ramm and his team create exotic soundscapes that fire your imagination with a dizzying meld of raw country-blues and lush electronica. It’s been tagged as “guitaronica,” “electro-blues” and a host of other handy labels that don’t really capture its unqiue juxtaposition of the organic and the electric.
It doesn’t take long to get a flavor for this musical hybrid, though. Lead track and single “Back Against The Wall” feels like Muddy Waters falling into a thumping house-music ass-shaker, at least until Howard Levy blasts through the electronic debris with harmonica that’s half-blues and half-breakbeat. Turn this one up loud and it will set your hips to “churn” and your neck to “swivel” in no time at all.
In a gusty gambit, Ramm moves right into the vocal tracks with “Blue,” the first of two collaborations with Danish electronica singer-songwriter Tina Dico (Zero 7). Nimble, precise acoustic guitar picking rides high over a bed of percussive electronic effects as Dico’s arresting voice steers right down the middle, bridging the musical gap beautifully. The other Ramm/Dico collaboration “Sinners And Saints” has a more continental Euro-pop feel, albeit with distorted electric slide shading the music at fresh new angles.
The other two vocal tracks feature Ramm working with Grammy-winner Tracy Bonham, who oversings a bit for my tastes, but with music this assertively larger-than-life, maybe it makes more sense than my ears are able to give it credit for. “Precious Time” sounds like bluesy lounge-jazz from Mars; “Anyone Can Lose” has kind of a Kate Bush-Peter Gabriel feel, which would be more of a compliment if the end result felt more like it was in that class.
The instrumental numbers more than make up for any missteps on the vocal tracks, though. “Forever Dust” throbs and pulses under distorted blues riffs and spoken-word hypnotic suggestions, at least until the slamming acoustic drums cut through the fog. Yowza! “The Getaway” is an acoustic-electronic acid trip lush and bizarre enough to send the most grounded listener reeling into the stratosphere. The opening segment of “Kolkata” locates the magic musical space between
This particular Euphoria disc also features drummer/programmer/co-composer Steve Sidelnyk and keyboardist Sean Spuehler, who co-produce. The production credits in fact suggest that each cut here was pieced together and mixed from individual instrumental tracks cut by each of the players in their own studios, which is a feat considering how thoroughly cohesive the finished product is.
Precious Time is a moody, evocative mindtrip, the kind of sound-painting that draws you into new worlds the same way a good book or screenplay does. The fact that Ramm and co.’s work has been featured in a variety of TV shows and movie trailers -- CSI, Roswell, Vanilla Sky, Hidalgo -- is no surprise at all. This is music to stir the imagination, an exhilarating ride for anyone with a sense of musical adventure.