TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Music critic Milo Miles has a review of a new album by Sxip Shirey, a performer he calls both eclectic and original. Milo says Shirey's new album mixes experimental and playful music styles in songs that tell stories about an inventive cast of characters.
MILO MILES, BYLINE: Everything about Sxip Shirey's "A Bottle Of Whiskey And A Handful Of Bees" indicates it's a 21st century music creation. It was funded in part by a Kickstarter campaign. Individual parts of tracks were recorded in Australia, London and Nashville, among other places, and then assembled. And it's not out of place for a credit to read ice cube organ built from sample of ice cubes in wineglasses.
(SOUNDBITE OF SXIP SHIREY'S "LATENCY - JETLAG")
MILES: Cleverly dry vocalist Shirey is also quite the multi-instrumentalist, including keyboards, melodic and clarinet, guitar and harmonica. All this range plus his penchant for quirky sound electronics can result in instrumentals that are no more than brainy novelties, a problem I heard on his earlier releases. This time, Shirey gets brighter sound with the help of multi-instrumentalist and co-producer Don Godwin. And by adding fresh guest vocals and bolder, brasher beats to "A Bottle Of Whiskey And A Handful Of Bees," Shirey can get effects he only hinted at before, such as the mix of ancient Appalachia and today's urban trysts in "I Gotta Man," featuring Minneapolis rapper Xavier.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GOTTA MAN")
XAVIER: (Singing) I got a man. I got a man, got a man. Mm-hm, mm-hm. Run away, run away, run away with me, oh, oh, oh. Run away, run away, run away with me, oh, oh, oh. I will love you in the way that we both know so well, and you can tell me all those secret things you never tell. Never, never, never, never, never, never tell, never, never, never, ever, never, ever tell. Don't tell. Don't tell. Don't tell. Won't tell. Won't tell. Won't tell that I got a man (ph).
MILES: A key to "A Bottle Of Whiskey And A Handful Of Bees" is that it was composed over a two-year period when Shirey worked as a performer, composer and music director of an operation called Limbo, which sounds like part performance art and part arty circus. Several numbers on the album move from suggesting a saucy cabaret show to a shambling parade, none better than this number featuring vocals from Rhiannon Giddens, best known as a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BACH, STEVIE WONDER AND JANELLE MONAE")
RHIANNON GIDDENS: (Singing) When I'm on my own, which is most of the time because I'm traveling, traveling, I need a way to make me feel fine when I'm stuck counting days and watching the miles go slow. And so I find that DJ, or in my head I pretend these records play. If you see me smiling, it's Bach, Stevie Wonder and Janelle Monae. When it's late at night and I can't sleep, just counting the cracks on the ceiling, I need a song that sounds so sweet so that the whole damn day will melt away and make room for a better tomorrow. I can trace a melody through all the songs I ever loved and ever sang. When lullabies multiply, I'll be dreaming of Bach and Stevie Wonder and Janelle Monae (ph).
MILES: The most affecting song on the album is also the simplest. "So Stay" is just Shirey's voice, guitar and some pulses. Yet it captures the elusive feel of relationships both tentative and essential, typical of the atmosphere of urban artist circles and, yes, traveling musicians in circuses.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SO STAY")
SXIP SHIREY: (Singing) Watch the coastline from the air, the cities shine but you don't care. They will not take you home. They will not take you home. Another nameless room to stay, another turn off this highway. They will not take you home. They will not take you home. They will not take you home, so stay. If want my love (ph)...
MILES: It seems we're in an era where merely lining up a smart series of references is considered a strong signal of quality. This atmosphere also contributes to an endless sense of heard it all before. Not so with Sxip Shirey. This is an original-sounding album. There's some suggestions of Tom Waits, but even that is minor. Here, Shirey has got his masks and costumes and ensembles and a flawless off-kilter cavalcade where he can act as ringmaster of ceremonies. And that is the complex buzz of "A Bottle Of Whiskey And A Handful Of Bees."
GROSS: Milo Miles reviewed Sxip Shirey's new album, "A Bottle Of Whiskey And A Handful Of Bees." If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like yesterday's interview with Jordan Peele, half of the comedy duo Key and Peele and director of the new horror film "Get Out," or our interview with Rukmini Callimachi, who covers ISIS for The New York Times and got back last week from being embedded with Iraqi troops on the front lines fighting ISIS, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John, Sheehan, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, critic Milo Miles incorrectly identifies Xavier as a Minneapolis rapper. In fact, Xavier is a soul singer.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.