Nashville Sessions (JS Records)
Of course, like everyone else Jake Shimabukuro has relied on acoustic tones and high-fidelity recordings for prior studio albums, like the orchestral accompaniment of 2012’s Grand Ukulele or the sparse solo ukulele work on 2007’s In My Life. But the ukulele powerhouse takes a boldly different approach on his latest album, Nashville Sessions. At his manager’s suggestion, Shimabukuro traveled to Nashville in early in 2016 to hole up in a studio with drummer Evan Hutchings and his regular touring bassist Nolan Verner for six days of jamming, songwriting, and recording. The resulting 11-track album manages to sound like nothing else he’s done before, yet also sounds unmistakably like the boundary-pushing musician who has been a leader of this ukulele movement.
The recording process for Nashville Sessions left behind the acoustic tones sweetened with reverb (sometimes overly so), in favor of the direct sounds of his custom Kamaka’s undersaddle pickup, creating an album that feels and sounds more like a live album than a studio production. This recording approach is similar to one many acoustic guitarists take as they increasingly embrace the ability to record their music the same way that we might hear it in concert: through a pickup and often with tone-coloring effects added.
As his live records attest, Jake hasn’t been shy about using effects, but in these studio sessions expect to hear his deft strumming and fingerpicking—and lightning fast left-hand—shaded with reverb, delay, distortion, and anything else he can think of throwing into the mix. The resulting 11 tracks, created on the fly with his trio, have a more progressive rock flavor than anything we’ve heard from him before.
Like many jam-based recordings, Nashville Sessions has moments of grooving psychedelia, raw shredding, and many dynamic changes. Set over Verner’s repeating bass figure in the eponymous time signature, Jake’s extended solo over a heavy-rocking mid-section of “6/8” takes on a gristly tone, fuzzed out like some Led Zeppelin jam. Nashville Sessions is not all ’70s-style rock-fusion freak-out and pyrotechnics, though. With a minute-long acoustic intro on what sounds like a baritone ukulele, “Galloping Seahorses” comes as a surprise after the tripped out, high-energy “Man of Mud.” Then there is the cascading line of the medium-tempo “Blue Haiku” and spaciousness of “Ballad,” which also features strings by Chris Carmichael.
The approach for Nashville Sessions is a daring one and the resulting album captures the electric energy and spontaneous artistry of Jake’s live performances. Fans hoping to hear Jake’s interpretations of old favorites probably won’t warm up to Nashville Sessions, but for listeners wanting to catch a snapshot of an artist in motion, the record is an exciting new step in Jake’s growth.
And, really, when you get down to this groundbreaking artist’s path, you can expect nothing less than innovation and change.
— Greg Olwell
Danielle Ate the Sandwich
The Terrible Dinner Guest (danielleatethesandwich.com)
Because it’s great at intimate, stripped-down solo performances, singers often turn to the uke for stripped-down confessionals, but as Danielle Anderson shows on her latest album, the ukulele can bring a special emotive power to an ensemble.
On her sixth album, The Terrible Dinner Guest, Anderson, known to the world as the bespectacled ukulele-playing Danielle Ate The Sandwich, wraps the ukulele core of 13 new songs with plush, supportive instrumentation, including acoustic and electric guitars and basses, percussion, and choir. The results are delightful songs for Anderson’s gorgeous voice and personal lyrics.
With the music’s mainly acoustic focus and mid-temps, Danielle’s songs fit most securely in the indie-pop vein. With the Fort Collins, Colorado-based singer accompanying herself on keyboards and acoustic guitars on The Terrible Dinner Guest, the ukulele is not her only songwriting tool; but it is the instrument she turns to again and again. For good reason, too, its sweet sound is wonderfully effective on the touching (and highly relatable) pieces, like the title track’s “fish out of water” tale of feeling out of place at a dinner party or the Tin Pan Alley-vibe of “Bad Habit.”
Kamaka Ukulele Presents Keep Strumming! Celebrating 100 Years (kamakahawaii.com)
As you might do for any 100th anniversary, venerable Hawaiian ukulele maker Kamaka has been celebrating its centennial all year long. Throughout 2016, the company has hosted concerts, parties, events, a special “centennial headstock” on its 2016 instruments, and now a cool two-CD compilation featuring some of the biggest names in ukulele-dom.
Opening with music and a chant by Samuel Kamaka Jr., both discs feature a virtual roll-call of Hawaii’s island-born talent performing in a variety of styles, from traditional vocal and instrumental songs, to pop, and Hawaiian reggae: Benny Chong, Kalei Gamiao, Taimane Gardener, Raiatea Helm, Aidan James, Andrew Molina, Herb Ohta Jr., Brittni Paiva, Jake Shimabukuro, Kuana Torres Kahele, Bryan Tolentino, Bryon Yasui, and Hoku Zuttermeister. The scale of the music is contemporary recordings, so don’t look for a deep dive into the past. However, Kamaka was able to include a track from “Aunty” Genoa Keawe, a legendary Hawaiian falsetto-singer (who was born in 1918, two years after the company was founded) and whose recording and performing career began just after World War II and lasted until her death in 2008.
If the list of artists isn’t reason of enough to get a copy of this special CD, then the music should make it a must-own. It’s a fantastic sampler of what generations of players are doing with the ukulele right now. (GO)
If we’ve learned one thing from the internet, it’s that people love cats and ukuleles. Now So-Cal comedy duo Pony Death Ride has a nine-track album of retro-themed cat-centric tunes. Ukes power most of Cat Sounds’ songs, but for feline lovers/haters, the sweet-toned takedown of internet phenom “Grumpy Cat (Ain’t All That)” and “Your Cats Are Crap,” show that furballs and jumping fleas belong together. (GO)
The way Hawaiian composer Choi uses a baritone ukulele is probably unlike anyone you’ve ever heard. These two EPs of avant-garde ukulele music collect solo works (Whenmill) and baritone with percussion and electronics (Three Dancers). Whenmill’s four solo compositions for baritone feature honed fingerstyle playing and extended techniques like retunings that will sound unfamiliar to most uke fans, while Three Dancers, most notably the title track, adds electronics, like reversed loops, and percussive playing to create music for the ukulele in the vein of iconoclastic composer Lou Harrison and other late-20th century composers.
Tangential Dreams (ardenfujiwara.com)
Coming from Seattle’s Arden Fujiwara, Tangential Dreams clocks in with four instrumental songs in 14 minutes. The Latin groove of “The Return of El Jefe” and the spacey, echo’d out descending line of “World 9” bookend the introspective solo two-part “Winds of Remembrance.”
Grande Royale Ükulelists of the Black Swamp
Uke Tide [ukulelists.com]
Hailing from Bowling Green, Ohio, the GRÜBS is an all-ukulele quartet that that uses everything from tiny sopranissimo ukes, to bass ukes, 8-strings, and reso-ukes to weave a tapestry of ukulele sounds on this collection of Christmas songs.