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Nguyên Lê

Songs of Freedom

(ACT; US: 25 Mar 2011; UK: 28 Mar 2011)

No juju eyeball, but plenty of holy rolling.

It’s about time somebody classed up “Eleanor Rigby”! And “Black Dog”, and “Sunshine of Your Love”, and, um, “In a Gadda da Vida”, which I always figured was highfalutin’ enough, since it’s from the Bible and everything. But believe me, you haven’t heard the Iron Butterfly classic until you’ve heard it re-invented as a feature for vibes and the liquid guitar of bandleader Nguyên Lê, arranged with carefully-scripted mixed meters and everything. It sounds like a Zappa reject. It’s actually more self-indulgent than the original, even though it only feels like it goes on for 20 minutes. But at least it doesn’t have any singing. “Eleanor Rigby”, on the other hand, features the stylized vocals of Youn Sun nah, who imbues the song with a whole new meaning: basically, “This is a powerful and important song so PAY YOUR RESPECT.” The other seven vocalists take similar approaches throughout, and every one of these Songs of Freedom tries to out-ponderous the one before. By the time they get around to doing “Come Together”, the song’s ridiculous images get fewer laughs than the Gettysburg Address.

The band is tight, I’ll give ‘em that. “Whole Lotta Love” features tabla and precise metrical shifts, so you’re not always sure where the downbeat is or where it’ll be the next bar—it’s like a game for OCD psychiatric patients. But there’s no version here that can touch its original for power, coherence, or plain old direct communication. If the goal was to cast these tunes in a new light, the only revelation is that solemn and meaningless fusion wank can engulf absolutely any song. Watch out!


Josh Langhoff is a church musician. He's written about music for The Village Voice, The Singles Jukebox, two EMP Pop Conferences, his church newsletter, and his blogs NorteñoBlog and Surfing in Babylon.

Tagged as: covers | fusion | jazz | nugyen le

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