Greatest Whatevers

Just because you can spell 'forbearance' correctly doesn't mean you'll get a gold star

Pick Hit

FESTIVAL IN THE DESERT
(World Village)

Ali Farka Toure aside, the Mali we know is southwestern Mali. Bamako and Wassoulou, Keita and Sangare and Tounkara, all look west to Dakar and the Francophone world outside. This three-day festival takes place well north of Timbuktu, deep in a Sahara where the sand is as fine as flour and Algeria-identified Berber Tamasheks bore arms against Bamako for 30 years before they were finally placated a decade ago. So though Oumou is the soul of grace and kora master Ballaké Sissoko duets nicely with an Italian pianist, though European groups and even some Navajos check in, most of the artists are locals who arrived by Toyota or camel, and most I'd never heard of—not even the rapturous, woman-dominated Tartit. Lots of male gutturals, lots of female ululations, lots of hard chanting, lots of drums, lots of stringed instruments that might as well be drums—and yes, a few blue notes. A MINUS


Pick Hit

THE HANDSOME FAMILY
Live at Schuba's Tavern
(DCN)

Until now the most efficient way to acquire a taste for Rennie and Brett's weird tales was the Ireland-only Down in the Valley comp. This night of greatest whatevers is longer, cheaper, and better. Since they make what little music there is themselves, they've got no production values to lose. Brett's deep monotone loosens up live. And the onstage bickering about magic crystals of overpriced kitty litter and the correct pronunciation of "Vienna sausage" normalize their obsession with the grotesque, the doleful, and the other side of eternity's divide. Sounds like they drive around America picking up gossip at roadside attractions, filling stations, ice cream socials, and bars serving 3.2 beer. Does "Here in the bipolar ward/If you shower you get a gold star" reflect personal experience? So I'm led to understand. But if they weren't past that experience, Rennie wouldn't write about it so well, and Brett wouldn't sing about it at all. A MINUS


RAHIM ALHAJ
Iraqi Music in a Time of War
(Voxlox)

Last February, mild-mannered Iraqi matinee idol Kazem al-Sahir played a sparsely populated Beacon. His 17-piece orchestra was exotically anodyne to me, painfully nostalgic to the attendant Iraqis. But either way it was steeped in denial. Recorded April 5 at Manhattan's Sufi Books, with Baghdad under attack, this solo oud recital is the opposite. The conservatory-trained AlHaj is a Saddam torture victim who escaped in 1991. Yet he is appalled by the destruction of his homeland. And yet again he betrays no rage: however uninspired as "concepts," the "compassion, love, and peace" he preaches are courageous as music. With little knowledge of oud or taste for classical guitar, I'm struck by how unexotic he seems—how his sound, melodicism, and note values bridge East and West while remaining Iraqi. I'm impressed by how modest virtuosity can be in a classical tradition that honors simplicity. And I'm drawn in by the historical context, which implicates me in that tradition. B PLUS


THE BOTTLE ROCKETS
Blue Sky
(Sanctuary)

The Drive-By Truckers having jumped the Bottle Rockets' claim as the social-realist Lynyrd Skynyrd, volunteer producer and neoswamp axeman extraordinaire Warren Haynes avoids a dick-size contest by accentuating their strength—Brian Henneman's Midwestern declarative. Since as border staters they've never defined their roots regionally, Haynes is free to nudge them folk here and rock there. "Lucky Break," about a disabled construction worker who's finally getting his government cheese, sets the tone. And if on one song Henneman enjoys a little wallow in gender-role truisms that have lost their laugh value, the very next track he's got it down: "Came home drunk looking for a fight/She was sober and calm, does that make her right?" A MINUS


THE DANDY WARHOLS
Welcome to the Monkey House
(Capitol)

MTV babies say this is the Dandys' early-'80s record, and who am I to demur? Someone who was too busy back then with X and juju and Grandmaster Flash to internalize whatever musical materials the band has purloined, and who would prefer said materials in this context even if I had. Better Nick Rhodes producing alt sellouts than Nick Rhodes claiming alt himself, and better alt sellouts embracing electropop detachment than alt sellouts aping rock and roll abandon. Clever and droll but also hypnotic and mysterious, with odd noises buried in the luscious mix and Zia McCabe's keyb bass as pleasurable as any explicit hook, they make their big statement in "Plan A," which goes "All of us sing about it" for quite a long while before positing first a planet and then a message that aren't there. A MINUS


MILES DAVIS
The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions
(Columbia/Legacy)

Fewer than half of the 42 tracks are previously unreleased—dark magus Teo Macero broke up and relocated most of the others onto Live-Evil, Big Fun, Get Up With It, the obscure late catchall Directions, and, yes, A Tribute to Jack Johnson, the landmark album that climaxes this five-disc collector's indulgence. Outfitted with the usual pricey packaging and elaborate notes, it's "complete" only if the four missing "Duran"s, 15 missing "Nem Um Talvaez"s, etc., were false starts. But it's a mother of a motherlode. I'm glad Macero imposed his sense of form on Miles's '70s experiments, and definitely don't need the Bitches Brewbox. But though the "Go Ahead John" Macero pieced together for Big Fun gets the good bits, I'd rather listen to the raw material that takes up 45 minutes of disc two. Though the multiple Hermeto Pascoal takes add up to a quiet disc four, they're as soothing as they wanna be. With major input from John McLaughlin and the bass tandem of Dave Holland and Michael Henderson, these jams were why electric jazz was once a thrilling idea—and still is sometimes. B PLUS

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