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CD REVIEW: Minimal - Mississippi
By Chip Withrow - 07/11/2006 - 01:01 PM EDT

Artist: Minimal
Album: Mississippi
CD Review: I’m intrigued by artists who put exciting twists on traditional music forms: Coltrane’s take on the whimsical “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music, the Grateful Dead melting a psychedelic jam into a Johnny Cash or Woody Guthrie tune, Van Morrison’s late 1960s/early 1970s brew of country and soul.

And now I’m grooving to Mississippi by the San Francisco group Minimal – an avant garde soundtrack to a musical tour of brassy Dixieland, Delta blues and jaded funky-yet-smooth West Coast jazz rock. It’s a sprawling album, one in which disparate styles and instruments work together like layers of textures on a canvas.

When I opened up the package containing this CD, I was curious and a bit confounded. No note, no bio, not even a cover for the case – just a web site address on the disc. I went to, and one of the first things I saw was a startling photo of a face (go to the site to see what I mean). Through the link, I found that visual artist Donald McCrea is also the guitarist, vocalist, songwriter and leader of Minimal.

The first instrument you hear is spectral, swamp-blues banjo that dissolves into “Ragtime,” a percussive, horn-driven invitation. That is followed by “Song of the South,” which mixes guitar and tuba and takes you on an image-laden trip downriver.

I would play the funky “Coaltown Babies” for someone who wants to know right away what this group is about. Pounding piano, a couple of percussive spoken-word breaks, fun background vocals, horns (with clarinet and muted trumpet featured), and McCrea’s Soul Coughing/Warren Zevon-esque vocals.

“Crescent City” is a driving, country-blues shuffle in a minor key. The guitar and banjo picking propel this song, and the horns take their turn in a way that reminds me of a Greek chorus to McCrea’s vocal.

The disc takes a turn into languid, cool jazz/blues with “Brand New Shade of Blue.” “Black Cat” is in a similar vein but a bit more sinister. Both feature heart-piercing guitar work and Melissa Phillippe’s inventive background vocals.

“Mississippi” and “Coconino” retain some of the deep South feel of the earlier numbers. They take their own sweet time, with snaky horns adding to the bluesy yearning of the lyrics.

The mainly acoustic “Bluebottle Fly” is the shadowiest of these bluesier cuts. It’s followed by the jazziest and most mainstream number, the pretty yet lyrically jaded “Tinseltown.”
“Tinseltown” sounds too much like Steely Dan for a disc that is otherwise so original, but it has some deft flamenco-sounding acoustic guitar.

Then it’s back down South: “Boogaloo to Beale Street” mixes Dixieland jazz with sultry soul, and it plays smartly on the classic riff to Al Green’s “Take Me to the River.” The following “Roadkill Blues” is a backwoods dirge with a low brass background and slippery slide guitar. Then the album comes full circle with an instrumental reprise of “Ragtime.”

I wish I knew more about what prompted a San Francisco band to tackle this kind of music. I know the Bay Area is a great place for music, in which you are liable to hear anything. I learned from the band’s MySpace site that members have played with an eclectic group of artists such as Commander Cody, Ella Fitzgerald, the Judds and Van Morrison.

But Donald McCrea and company have a psychic connection to this music that goes beyond tribute. Minimal has evolved popular, familiar jazz and blues into striking postmodernism.

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