African Connection II

Apologies to those who regularly skip my African selections, which have been getting me through rock's bad times (see Honorable Mention, especially toward the bottom) since the middle '80s. And thanks to an old riot grrrl for doing her latest thing.

Le Général Defao
'Ambiance Plus' (Bana Congo Vol. 2 Dance Mix)
(Roma Productions import)

Well after soukous supposedly withered away, a second-tier crowd-pleaser with a willingness to throw his big body into a dance he named puts out his 17th or 18th album, something like that. Vocally he's no Wemba or Rochereau, but Manda Chante (of Wenge Musica, how did you miss him?) caramelizes one track, and Le Jeune Makuta, Likanga Mangenza, and others I've never heard of take guest turns. Vocal colors shift as leads come and go; the chorus expands and contracts. Rhythms converge, thin out, flow horizonward. A saxophone comes in to garnish the guitars. Songs segue for easier dancing, or divide into parts the dancers better be ready for. The jollity is general, audible. A generic good time is had by all. B PLUS

The Del-Lords
Get Tough: The Best of the Del-Lords
(Restless)

If 15 years later the anthem that goes "I believe that there's a heaven before I'm dead" seems al most as naive as the anti-imperialist title song, well, these guys were more a straw to be grasped than a future to be seized even at the time—an American version of the Clash just as the Clash was headed for the shredder, substituting for rootsy punk formalism a full embrace of rock and roll and its sources. Leader Scott Kempner and believer Eric Ambel were never dead-on songwriters or overwhelming singers, so this distillation is the perfect place to recall just how humanistic the straight stuff can be. Slightly out of time in their time, today they're just as likely to make you ask why the hell it couldn't happen again. A MINUS

Handsome Boy Modeling School
So ... How's Your Girl?
(Tommy Boy)

More trip- than hip-hop in that its irresistibility is atmospheric—a sound that pits industrial textures against quiet piano samples/parts. Not that the guest rappers (and singers) don't boost the musicality further, or that a few bits aren't drop-deadpan funny. But I was sure this Prince Paul p-jay was distinctly lo-res when I read the credits and learned that the track that stood out strongest was produced by DJ Shadow. A MINUS

Ladysmith Black Mambazo
The Best of—Vol. 2
(Shanachie)

Absolute masters of a self-invented formula neither they nor their fans ever weary of, Ladysmith are like the Ramones at a higher level of musical if not philosophical development. And now they've outlasted these great rivals. Sixteen tracks, mostly new to U.S. consumers, showcase their a cappella trickery with daunting subtlety and never-ending smarts. B PLUS

Ladysmith Black Mambazo
Live at the Royal Albert Hall
(Shanachie)

Their first live album in a quarter century of taking it to the stage disperses the pious aura with which their religious faith and the self-righteousness of the world-music ethos conspire to surround them. Their sound effects ought to be funny enough in themselves (try the kisses on "Hello My Baby"), but their awkward repartee will convince the properest sobersides that it's OK to laugh. Their rhythms are more pronounced as well—too bad you can't see the steps. Their English repertoire is limited, so the half where you'll understand the words is re makes; their Zulu repertoire is vast, so the half where you won't isn't. Inspirational Chorus: "Everything's so stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid"—sung with a smile. A MINUS

Pet Shop Boys
Nightlife
(Parlophone /Sire)

Having spent the decade risking l-o-v-e, Neil Tennant settles down with "A borderline fool/Naive and cruel," cushions the pain with melody, adds up the damages, and accounts himself ready for more. "I only worry for your sake," the altruist-as-ironist insists as he wonders where "Boy Strange" is with who. Not to worry, he will survive—for as long as he at least hears B.S.'s "footsteps in the dark." "Only love can break your heart," he observes, and that we've heard that one before doesn't make it any less poignant—maybe more. A MINUS

South African Rhythm Riot: The Indestructible Beat Of Soweto Volume 6
(Stern's/Earth works)

Trevor Herman knows better than any one that compilations suffer when they sneak in artists the compiler has a weakness for, but here he gets a little sentimental anyway. Kwaito is the biggest musical fad of postapartheid South Africa, and the smashes he wanted to include—notably Arthur's "Oyi Oyi," one of those dance hits that sweep all parochialism before them—make the choicest township jive seem more received than it used to. Put it all together and you get patchwork rather than seamlessness: pop stars like Chicco and Brenda Fassie cambering the old rhythms, the socalike single-mindedness of Aba Shante's Arthur-produced "Girls," even a visit from the tireless Papa Wemba. Fairly terrific track by track—I've tried hard enough with Fassie to admire how skillfully Herman flatters her, and I'd rather hear "Oyi Oyi" here than on the megahit album of the same name. But a sampler nevertheless. A MINUS

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