Nothing Major

I leave it to Consumer Guide scholars more diligent than I to ascertain whether any previous edition has been totally devoid of major-label records before Honorable Mention. I can't find one. Only Artemis even has big-five distribution.

(Trikont import)
Although there are traces of Wu in what I'd rather call these rhythms or these sonics than these beats, the reason this (not African but) West African collection smashes through the language barrier is that hip hop music as a whole is only a flavor, albeit a prominent one, in a sound that remains Sahel—sometimes looped and sometimes live near as I can tell, mostly mbalax but traditional too, with plenty of live and sampled singing as well as some rapping you'll savor just for the sound. I wanna hear Mystikal battle guttural old schoolers BMG 44. I know I won't, but I wanna. A MINUS

Spirit of the Century (RealWorld)
Gospel as blues, the way you, me, John Hammond, David Lindley, Charley Musselwhite, and two guys from Richard Thompson's band like it. A little manipulative, but just the thing to play Sunday morning without compromising your religious principles—or the Blind Boys', which were never the same after they experimented with pagan ritual in The Gospel at Colonus. The opener equates glory with a brand-new Ford, and the crowning touch is the conversion of "Amazing Grace" into "House of the Rising Sun"—or is that now "Son"? A MINUS

Songs of Sahm (Bloodshot)
Not a band out of songs mining a B hero's book—a concept album about the alt-country process. It isn't Rootsman Sahm the Bottle Rockets care about, it's Sir Douglas the Hippie—a simple Texas boy high not just on anything he can smoke or gobble but on the fellowship of strangers he knows would groove on him even if he wasn't slightly famous. "Mendocino" and "Stoned Faces Don't Lie" glow with possibility, evoking '60s utopianism far more concretely than any precious latter-day studio psychedelica. But it has to end. "You Can't Hide a Redneck Underneath That Hippy Hair," Doug realizes. "The changes in this city made a fool of me/I got too free, forgot I had a family," he admits. So, he concludes, "I'm Not That Kat Anymore." Out of options, he turns into an icon whose conjunto country r&b will always be longer on rep than edge. For a taste of the wildman the young Sir Douglas was, try the Music Club comp Son of San Antonio. But believe that Brian Henneman's interpretation says more about his character and his fate. A MINUS

Ralph's Last Show (Signature Sounds)
In the studio, musicianship renders this Canadian singer-songwriter one more rough-hewn troubadour with his heart pinned firmly to his hollow-body. On this live double, his need to shout over bar talk and penetrate the sloppy strum-and-thrum of his drumless good- enough-for-folk-rock band combines happily with the best-of effect, resulting in a raucous celebration of male chauvinism Montgomery Gentry should only envy—for its powers of observation, class solidarity, and laugh lines. The fast hard ones are all great, and they outnumber the medium-tempo corny ones, which bottom out at tolerable and memorably honor migrant workers and a good dog. Not counting the song that goes, "When exactly did we become white trash," my three favorite fast ones are all about souped-up gas guzzlers, the finest of which drives up to an old-age home. Never again do I expect to enjoy an album that begins and ends with songs about trains. Then again, I never expected to enjoy this one. A MINUS

Downhome Sophisticate (Rounder)
If Harris had the good sense to be white, he'd be a roots-rock hero. But it would probably help too if he gave the four-piece whose record this is a moniker, so here goes. Those North Nawlins No-Names, dang—they evoke the heart-skip irregularities of Delta blues like gathering moss is for moldy figs. Blend in West Africa like blues came from there or something. And top it off with rock-type poetry that makes like social conditions are as real as love and dreams. Songwriting could be sharper, true. But if you're looking for a sound, they've got one in spades. A MINUS

(Mondo Melodia)
I know and with a single exception recommend eight of the 10 albums targeted by this obvious 66-minute collection. Buy any one and you'll hear Sam Mangwana, Samba Mapangala, Koffi Olomidé, Kékélé, and others as distinct artists imposing themselves on rhythmic and sonic strategies that conquered a continent. Buy this idealization and you'll conclude they're too gentle and friendly to impose themselves on anything. But if you're only now getting your feet wet, or just have a yen for Afropop gentle and gorgeous, obvious is obviously what you're looking for. A MINUS

Bana Congo (Tumi import)
Noel's record—Papi, the well-respected tres-playing offspring of tres legend Isaac Oviedo, is on only half the 10 tracks. But collaboration agrees with Noel, the longtime Franco guitarist and recent Kékélé mainstay whose exercises in the son style that fueled Congolese rumba in olden times gain contour from their brushes against Cuba's compatible melodic resources. The tunes are brighter than on his solo album, and Oviedo's angular tres adds bite to the rumba flow. Several lyrics taken by second-rank soneros boil down to "Our classic style beats your newfangled noise," which I'm glad I only know from the booklet. The music makes the case better without them. A MINUS

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