Grab your nyckelharpa!

An exclusive free download "Lord of the Rings" fans will love. Plus: New music from a Norah Jones precursor and an upbeat rocker from former Replacements frontman Paul Westerberg.

Published September 15, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

We all know that major labels make goofy decisions and like to throw heaps of money into obviously unmarketable acts. But no recently launched major-label career is so absurd, so purely risible, as that of Universal recording artist Miri Ben-Ari, "the hip-hop violinist." I use the tag in deference to whatever hard-working spinmeister put together her publicity campaign and Web site, because they seem to have decided, Homer-style, that her name should never appear without the epithet attached. (It's presumably the same person who came up with the priceless description of her sound as "urban classical.")

My first encounter with "the hip-hop violinist" was six years ago, when one of my bands was on a bill with her. At that point Miri, who had not long before moved to the States from her birthplace, Israel, was a chopsy jazz-fusion player. Her jazz career was moderately successful but never really took off, so you can imagine my surprise when I recognized her as the violinist in the video for Twista's (fabulous) "Overnight Celebrity." She also did all the string arrangements for Kanye West's "The College Dropout" and apparently impressed enough people to score a contract with Universal to record a hip-hop album. That's right, a hip-hop album, on which a host of guest MCs handle the rapping, while Miri does ... the string arrangements!

To make matters worse, her string arrangements are played with an obnoxiously stiff, "I used to be a classical violinist" sound. Give me cheesy string samples any day. Ben-Ari's first single is titled (get this) "Sick Wit Da Flip," and it's even worse than you might expect.

Am I the only person who finds Usher entirely unexciting as a singer, a songwriter, a dancer and, yes, even as a sex object? Apparently I am, because a scant few weeks after he (finally!) lost his summer-long chokehold on the radio charts with "My Boo," his newly released duet with Alicia Keys, the song is climbing right back up those very same charts. Despite the cute little cooed "my boos" sprinkled throughout the song, it's bland as can be.

For something a little livelier, head to any of the digital music stores (or your favorite file-sharing network) and grab Snoop Dogg's "Drop It Like It's Hot," produced by the Neptunes. Where have they been all summer, anyway? A welcome return. In truth, Snoop sounds a little too Neptunized here, but the beat is hot -- even if it is basically a Timbaland track as covered by the Neptunes.

"Dance Me to the End of Love," Madeleine Peyroux, from "Careless Love"
Madeleine Peyroux's vocal similarity to Billie Holiday is so extreme that her new record, "Careless Love," affords us the acute, if anachronistic, pleasure of hearing how Lady Day might have tackled a Leonard Cohen song ("Dance Me to the End of Love") -- or better still, hearing the record that might have been made if Billie decided it was time to kick Norah Jones' ass. Not that Peyroux is following in Jones' footsteps, far from it: Her 1996 "Dreamland" (along with Cassandra Wilson's "New Moon Daughter") is the ultimate proto-Norah record and a good deal better than anything Jones herself has done. Peyroux is just reclaiming her own turf, albeit after an unexplained eight-year absence. (I heard that she had some damaged vocal cords, but there's no official word on that.)

"Careless Love" is, like Norah Jones' records, a seamless blend of jazz, country, folk and sophisticated modern pop, with a reigning aesthetic of understatement. The only significant difference is in the singers, and while many will disagree, I find Peyroux a more intriguing, and moving, vocalist. And really, I'm not being fair to Peyroux when I imply that she's just a highly skilled mimic. Listen for a while and her similarities to Holiday begin to sound less dominant, her own voice comes through loud and clear, and a significant emotional difference between the two singers becomes obvious: In place of Holiday's pain and heartbreak, Peyroux offers serenity and contentment. (iTunes, RealPlayer, MusicMatch)

"Kapten Kapsyl," Väsen, from "Whirled"
Väsen is a folk music group from Sweden, based around a core trio of Roger Tallroth on guitar, Mikael Marin on viola and Olov Johansson on nyckelharpa. The nyckelharpa, for those unfamiliar with odd and wonderful Scandinavian instruments (check out another one called the hardanger fiddle, currently enjoying a good deal of exposure from its use on the "Rohan Theme" in the "Lord of the Rings" movies), is essentially a keyed fiddle, with a set of sympathetic strings (like many Indian instruments) that give its sound extra resonance (go here for photographs and a more detailed description). Väsen are stars and innovators in the Swedish trad scene -- roughly equivalent to bands like Solas in the Irish scene or La Bottine Souriante in the Quebecois. Väsen's music is available in the United States thanks to NorthSide Records, a label focused exclusively on Scandinavian music, most of it folk based. NorthSide has kindly given Salon permission to post "Kapten Kapsyl" (Captain Bottlecap), my favorite track from Väsen's 1997 release "Whirled." Also available for free download on the NorthSide Web site is "30-ars Jiggen," or "30-year Jig," a pseudo-Irish composition by Tallroth that happens to be my other favorite track on "Whirled." (As per NorthSide's policy, both MP3s have low-quality sound. If you like what you hear, buy the whole record and hear the music the way it should be heard.) Salon Exclusive Free Download: "Kapten Kapsyl"

"Methamphetamine Blues," Mark Lanegan, from "Bubblegum"
Once frontman of the Seattle grunge band Screaming Trees, more recently a member of the Queens of the Stone Age, Mark Lanegan tends toward a whiskey-soaked, dark, brooding and romantic sound in his solo work -- think Tom Waits without a sense of humor and with the Tin Pan Alley roots replaced by hard rock. His latest, "Bubblegum," is full of stark, ragged songs that provoke an ominous sense of unease. Two of the best, "Hit the City" and "Come to Me," are duets with kindred spirit PJ Harvey. "Methamphetamine Blues" is not among the album's better tracks -- to my ears, it pushes Lanegan's blues-rock beyond menace and into cartoonishness -- but it's a free taste of this excellent record. Free Download: "Methamphetamine Blues"

"As Far as I Know," Paul Westerberg, from "Folker"
Since giving up on (or being given up on by) major labels five years ago, Paul Westerberg, erstwhile king of that most ragtag of major bands, the Replacements, has retreated to his basement to churn out home-studio records at a remarkable rate (five in the last two years, most released on indie Vagrant Records). Like most of Westerberg's other work, his new "Folker" is full of good, sometimes brilliant songs masquerading as very ordinary, banal and thoughtless songs, written and recorded without care. Sometimes, as has been the case throughout Westerberg's career, it's not just a masquerade -- some of his songs are actually boring and bad, although that's probably inevitable, given the rate at which he's writing and recording them. More often, though, these songs sound like the work of a stealthily masterful songwriter. "As Far as I Know," among the most polished-sounding songs on the record, is an upbeat rocker that showcases Westerberg's nice pop melodic sense. Free Download: "As Far as I Know"

"Dance All Night," Julie Doiron, from "Goodnight Nobody"
"So I'll dance all night/ To the music in my kitchen." So begins "Dance All Night," a typically depressing offering from Canadian singer-songwriter Julie Doiron. Loneliness is what Doiron does best, particularly resigned and hopeless loneliness, and her evocations of that emotion often recall Cat Power's music. The similarity isn't just emotional; it's stylistic too -- Doiron's blocky piano playing and eerie double-tracked vocals on this song are copped directly from Cat Power. If "Goodnight Nobody" is Doiron's strongest release yet, and I think it is, it's not because she's doing anything appreciably different, but because she's assembled such an exceptional band for this record, including Simon Joyner, Eric Heywood (of Son Volt), ace experimental cellist Fred Lonborg-Holm and the always brilliant Jim White on drums. Free Download: "Dance All Night"

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By Thomas Bartlett

Thomas Bartlett is a writer and musician in New York. He maintains a blog called doveman.

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