Consumer Guide

African Connection

Two techno comps, a country-rock best-of, some lounge authenticity, and what? The African connection, that's what. West Africa and Cuba, to be more specific. Slim pickings in rock proper these days, rap included. This figures to change. But one never knows, does one?

N'Wolof (Dakar Sound import)
A mere 3800 miles west of the contemporaneous Éthiopiques sessions, the original-is-still-the-greatest Senegalese salsa band surveys its turf after hiring leather-lunged Laye M'Boup to up its trad cred with his Wolof blues. Sometimes the grooves bounce and sway on their poky three-and-two, sometimes they pace soulfully forward. Either way the voice holds— first time the soon-renowned Thione Seck takes a lead, the record briefly disappears. So all praise to M'Boup, dead in a car crash in 1974. And to saxophonist Issa Cissokho and guitarist Barthelemy Attiso, whose band it was. a minus

Casa De La Trova
Even when the musicians have a drop taken, there's nothing bacchanalian about this survey of the poetic, composed Cuban folk songs it designates trova. Their clave subsumed in guitars and the occasional chamber orchestra, they're formal, precise, intensely romantic, old- fashioned, crotchety. All the singers are stylists, and sticklers for harmonic detail, and though only the seventyish sisters Faez, tart as grandaunts and weird as widows in a haunted house, command one-of-a-kind deliveries, the vocal variety keeps you alert. Call it the Buenas Vozes Hearts Club Band and hire a film crew. a minus

Estrellas De Arieto
Los Heroes (World Circuit/Nonesuch)
An amazing story. In 1979, a Paris-based Ivorian bizzer convinced Cuba's state record company to convene a cross-generational all-star band, and for a week some 30 musicians and over a dozen singers jammed in combinations dictated by a trombone-playing a&r man. The five albums that resulted stiffed in Cuba except among musos, although they were a hit in Venezuela. But don't think the jams didn't jell. These two CDs, a mere 14 cuts lasting two-and-a-half hours, grant a second life to what was obviously a blessed event. Simple heads-plus-improvs dominated by tres and violins, the first disc is one of those rare records that nail such pieties as the joy of music-making and the pleasure of the groove— the way Layla does, or, if you'll pardon my obscurities, Delaney & Bonnie's Motel Shot or the first side of Marc Benno's Ambush. The convergence of relaxation and exhilaration, teamwork and exhibitionism, skill and fun, is nothing less than utopian, which in Cuba, where utopia was a bitter memory, may have been hard to take. The second disc overemphasizes the strident trumpets adored by Cubans who want to be modern. The first one makes me want to send Ry Cooder an ironic thank-you note. a minus

Éthiopiques 3
(Buda Music import)
The instant cachet of a five-CD series documenting the 1969­1978 run of the only record label in Addis Ababa did not reflect the irresistibility of its parts. I doubt any reviewer bonded with many individual songs/tracks even on this superior volume, not after the three or four listens preceding publication and probably not ever. Because Ethiopia was its peculiar self— an uncolonized absolute monarchy so insensible to indigenous music that its national anthem was composed by an Armenian— the set also does without such world- music boons as love of the past, belief in the future, and lust for conquest. As the soundscape to a locale undiscovered by squarer, older tourists, however, it obviously has its uses, especially for an alt generation that's always mistrusted organic ecstasy. I've never encountered a more neurotic-sounding Third World sensibility. Its m.o. is to mush up Middle East, Africa, and Europe for a small-time power elite you can almost see— anxious young traffickers in court intrigue sitting around smoky, well- appointed clubs where petit-bourgeois artistes strive to give them a thrill. And just often enough, the organic— imbued with melody or hook or vocal commitment or instrumental synergy, only to be tempered and twisted by an endemic uncertainty— peeps through. b plus

John Hiatt
The Best of John Hiatt (Capitol)
Master of a Nashville-Memphis fusion that is all of rock and roll to his own generation and totally cornball to the next, this Springsteen-writ-small has always yoked Grade A songwriting to Brand X singing, and by now it's clear the limitation is as much intellectual as physical. Almost every individual selection here connects, the wedding plea "Have a Little Faith in Me" no less than the bank-robbing saga "Tennessee Plates." But though one doesn't negate the other— life is long, and various— Hiatt's ever more skillful shows of soul can't make them cohere, because at bottom he has nothing to say. All things considered, he might have been better off with less voice, not more. Then he wouldn't have been tempted to juggle career options on that endless road. He'd have settled into the well-heeled life of a Music Row pro. Alan Jackson would record his songs. b plus

Albert King with Stevie Ray Vaughan
In Session (Stax)
About a year later, in October 1984, Vaughan would throw a birthday party at Carnegie Hall with his brother Jimmy, Dr. John, and the Roomful of Blues horns. This was just a Canadian TV taping with the stalwart bluesman, who barely remembered jamming with the skinny young kid in Austin years before. With Vaughan dead (oh right, King too), both these events are now CD-available for keepsake-hungry fans. Rockers always overrated Albert King, whose broad aesthetic was longer on power than definition, but here his presence has a quieting effect on his disciple, who in the end did far more with a closely related aesthetic. And since King is the putative star, we get his repertoire, a big problem with the endless Vaughan reissue program, and his singing, less than classic but stronger than Stevie's. So to my surprise, this is the one to wear around your neck. a minus

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