Wars don’t produce a heck of a lot of good but one positive thing they have delivered is music. Conflicts ranging from the American Civil War to World War II have resulted in a ton of memorable songs; even the Vietnam disaster gave us Country Joe’s “I Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag.”
And then there was the Spanish Civil War, which began in 1936, when Spanish military fascists, led by General Francisco Franco, launched a three-year effort to overthrow the democratically elected government. Citizens of more than 50 countries—including nearly three thousand Americans who came to be known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade—poured into Spain to battle the fascists.
The freedom fighters lost their war, but their struggle produced fine music that has been recorded and performed many times over the years. Pete Seeger popularized some of it on a 1944 album, Songs of the Lincoln Battalion. More recently, in 2003, a variety of artists contributed to the excellent Spain in My Heart: Songs of the Spanish Civil War. And now, from the eclectic New York-based Barbez and vocalist Velina Brown, we have For Those Who Came After: Songs of Resistance from the Spanish Civil War, which includes such classics as the socialist anthem “L’Internationale” and the anarchist song “A Las Barricadas.” The album was recorded live last year in New York at the annual reunion of the Lincoln Brigade.
The only bad thing I can say about this record is that, at 33 minutes, it’s too short. Then again, it would probably feel too short at twice the length; the music is so rich and exquisite that you simply don’t want it to end. Brown—who is also an accomplished actress, songwriter, and director—is an extraordinary singer; and the members of Barbez—who incorporate folk, classical, and flamenco elements—are just as impressive. Employing imaginative arrangements and instruments that include marimba, vibraphone, clarinet, violin, drums, theremin, and guitar, they convey the beauty of this music and the passion of those who inspired it.
The year isn’t quite over, but it’s hard to imagine that this won’t wind up being the obvious choice for best world music album of 2017.
Jerry Yester, Pass Your Light Around. Jerry Yester was all over the place in the 1960s and ’70s, producing acts ranging from Tim Buckley, Tom Waits, and Aztec Two-Step to the Association and the Turtles while performing with the New Christy Minstrels, the Lovin’ Spoonful, and other groups. His own solo work from that era remained mostly unissued, however. Now 15 tracks have been pulled from the vaults and released on Pass Your Light Around, all of which was written or cowritten by Buckley collaborator Larry Beckett. Perhaps inevitably, since it was recorded over a period of years and never intended to be a single album, the CD is a bit of a mixed bag. But if you can forgive the occasional throwaway (e.g., the bubblegum-flavored “My Dusty Darling”), you’ll find enough interesting stuff here to make you wonder what Yester could have accomplished if he’d pursued a solo career. Among the high points: “Brooklyn Girl,” which sounds like Surfs Up-era Beach Boys; “The Whiskey Moon,” a memorable ballad; and the partly a cappella “Across the Persian Gulf,” which is one of two tracks where Johann Sebastian Bach shares a songwriting credit.
Ryan Koenig, Two Different Worlds. Ryan Koenig, a longtime member of Pokey LaFarge’s band, makes a strong impression with his honky-tonk-flavored solo debut. The program bows to country tradition as much as the albums of, say, Jimmie Dale Gilmore but it also sounds like the work of someone who listens to lots of rock and roll. Catchy melodies and Koenig’s distinctive vocals make every track a pleasure, as does his penchant for the sort of wordplay that has imbued many of the genre’s big hits. (He calls one track “This Old Main Drag Is About to Drag Me Down”; another is “Am I Still in Your Heart or Am I Just in Your Way.”)
May Erlewine, Mother Lion. Michigan-based singer/songwriter May Erlewine delivers 14 heartfelt numbers on this well-produced album, which features atmospheric piano and guitar. Erlewine's poetic and effusive lyrics may or may not strike a chord with you; but her vocals, which sound redolent of Nanci Griffith’s, and consistently lilting music are enough to make this record worth investigating.