Heads, Future and Past

Finally a chance to catch up on all those new bands. Well, maybe not bands exactly . . .

Pick Hits

PAPA WEMBA
1977-1997(Stern's Africa)

I know just two tracks of 18, both from import albums; most of the first disc began its life as seven-inch vinyl. But beyond Franco, who bought vocalists in bulk, no one in soukous amassed a catalog of this strength in the '80s, much less the '90s. The audio is shrill at first, and the lead track's guitar is as crude as it got in Zaire—but also, how rock and roll, as exciting. Always conscious of country and city, Wemba has been the rare African to hold his own with synthesizers, yet homes in on two village chants. He deploys manly shout, girlish falsetto, gritty tenor, and mellow midrange to describe, explain, celebrate, ululate, sigh, cajole, declare his love, and state the facts. And ever since Zaiko Langa Langa, he's led one hell of a band or another. A

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EMINEM
Encore
(Aftermath)

Any lingering doubts that puking and diarrhea noises might effectively forestall maturity were allayed by the crinkled noses and pursed lips they've elicited from arbiters of creativity at Billboard and Cokemachine-glowalike. Except to report tediously that he sounds bored and complain ad infinitum that he's obsessed with the love of his life (plus, right, the beats are no good, details later), how else to objectify the cycle of disinterest inevitably inspired by the mainstreaming of 8 Mile? Me, I say good riddance to his rock dreams, so much vainer than his mosh dreams, and note that said noises are hard to listen to, which is a compliment. Funny, catchy, clever, and irreverent past his allotted time, he can't make records this good forever—no one else has. But I also note that the mostly unreviewed three tracks on the bonus disc keep on pushing—"We as Americans" is a high point. That's rare. A

AFRICAN UNDERGROUND VOL 1: HIP-HOP SENEGAL
(Nomadic Wax)

According to the label head's senior thesis, there are 3,000 hip-hop acts in Senegal, so a big up to BMG 44 and Omzo, who take the lead tracks here after highlighting Trikont's 2002 Africa Raps. But where that music was Senegalese first, this sounds like the true Afrofunk. Flow yeah yeah, and the label guy says the lyrics are conscious, although the few in English could be sharper and are welcome anyway. But here, there, and everywhere, the techno-flavored synth/ guitar splats of international hip-hop sink their hooks into frantic gutturals of unknown meaning. A MINUS

THE ALLMAN BROTHERS BAND
One Way Out: Live at the Beacon Theatre
(Sanctuary/Peach)

The best live album of their career because both age and youth suit them, and because —just compare this 2003-vintage double-CD to the recently dug-out Atlanta International Pop Festival set or the expanded Live at the Fillmore East—they're better now than they ever were. Right, the original Allmans were true visionaries, and there's no reason to think Warren Haynes or Derek Trucks would have become what they became in the blank space that vision filled. But both have more chops than 2001 layoff Dickey Betts or, sorry, Duane himself. On their solo/leader records, both prove better-than-average virtuosos. But in the band context they have the good sense to play Duane's kind of music. Power audio, curtailed drum solos, and songs not yet buried alive in the uncharted expanses of the Allmans' live catalog finish the concept, and at 55 Gregg finally sounds as if there's more to a man's life than the parlous fate of his latest erection. A MINUS

THE FUTUREHEADS
(Sire)

There's that Ramones sense that songs should be short like life, and that XTC sense that songs should be complicated like life. So who could expect these young Brits to understand life, except to suggest, sometimes observantly and sometimes rhetorically, that it's dangerous? They don't fulfill the promise of the wonderful title "The City Is Here for You to Use." But they do make the most of the bitter novelty "First Day," which starts fast and ends double-time, just like that job they were so lucky to get. B PLUS

MCENROE AND BIRDAPRES
Nothing Is Cool
(Peanuts & Corn)

Like most beatmasters, Vancouver's finest thrives with a partner, and although local legend Birdapres pitches in on music as well as words, it's really the collaborator's spirit and reach that make this a find. Effectively, McEnroe's Disenfranchisedwas a concept album about the indie-rock business. Still defiantly scenebound, this is a party record for people so determined to pursue their own idea of fun they're ready to go back to their j-o-b's on a buck-and-a-half's sleep. Bush and his war and even his economy loom over these Canadian pleasures, but that permeable border affords psychological protection—the beats are danceable in practice as well as theory, and there's no sense of hiding from grim reality. Living in it, that's all. Exemplary. A

NAS
Street's Disciple
(Columbia)

Its double-CD sprawl is ambitious not hubristic, imposing not indigestible—squeezes onto a C-90. There's devil and Jesus-killer obscurity up front, electoral asininity later, but in general Nas finally seems comfortable with his (black) humanity. He's responsible, thoughtful, and compassionate, never mealymouthed, so that his political misprisions and retrospective sex boasts function like Eminem's latest sound effects—they keep him incorrect. If this means "Prescott Bush funded Hitler" is ignored on the op-ed page, Nas is barred from that realm anyway, and the information certainly does his faithful more good than, for instance, the distracting fantasy that Prescott's heir planned 9/11. The shout-outs to Bojangles Robinson, Stokely Carmichael, Redd Foxx, Fela, and Miriam Makeba are right on time. And when he and his pops get together on a blues, Muddy Waters is in the house. A MINUS

PETE ROCK & C.L. SMOOTH
The Best of Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth (Good Life)
(Elektra/Rhino)

I missed these guys—too smooth and insufficiently rock, I guess. That was deaf. In this distillation, Smooth's rapping rivals Rakim's, and Rock is an all-time DJ. Credited samples are few, but the music's pure rhythmic pleasure returns us to those thrilling days of yesteryear before property rights trumped art: as dense with borrowed, distressed, and performed elements as the Bomb Squad's sometimes, only flowing rather than explosive. Smooth recalls a wiser time as well: conscious not self-righteous, ghetto not thug. A MINUS

THE VULGAR BOATMEN
Wide Awake
(No Nostalgia)

Between their flat rhythms and their undemonstrative vocals, this long-running hobby band have to hit it just right to hit it at all, which on this retrospective happens most of the time: if not sweet tunes, then sharp lines or even driving grooves. So cannily generalized they make the polite romantic disconnections of academia stand in for those of all white middle-class America, their songs sound like what Ricky Nelson might have sung if he'd grown up to be a manager in the conglomerate that bought the Emporium rather than the wastrel who pursued a musical career. A MINUS


Dud of the Month

CHERIE
(Lava)

The subject of a painstakingly hedged 2003 John Seabrook profile in The New Yorker, she's a teenage Whitney-Celine-Mariah wannabe who's more fun than Hilary Duff and less fun than Ashlee Simpson. Two and a half years and several million bucks in the marketing, her debut album failed to chart after its modest dance hit skyrocketed all the way to 99 on the Billboard Hot 100. In principle, this is an ideal time for an American idol who is both French and—ooh la la—Jewish. But her flop feels like a victory nonetheless. C


Additional Consumer News
Honorable Mention

GWEN STEFANI
Love. Angel. Music. Baby.
(Interscope)

Turns out the problem wasn't ska per se—it was No Doubt ("Bubble Pop Electric," "What You Waiting For?").

SAUCY CALYPSOS VOLUME ONE
(Ice import)

Trinidadians and their filthy sex habits risk Jah's wrath (Lord Canary, "Dr. Beckles Clinic [Tent]"; Mighty Sparrow, "60 Million Frenchmen").

NEW YORK DOLLS
Live From Royal Festival Hall, 2004
(Attack)

They haven't slowed down, the world's speeded up, but though it's good they're more together, it's bad they're more dead ("Human Being," "You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory/Lonely Planet Boy").

ENJOY EVERY SANDWICH: THE SONGS OF WARREN ZEVON
(Artemis)

It wasn't just Schmeagles who envied his sarcasm and gusto (Jordan Zevon, "Studebaker"; Adam Sandler, "Werewolves of London").

LE TIGRE
This Island
(Strummer/Universal)

Taking leftism pop—that one's tough to pull off ("Viz," "I'm So Excited").

SUFJAN STEVENS
Seven Swans
(Sounds Familyre)

Pretty battles evil in the service of kind ("The Dress Looks Nice on You," "In the Devil's Territory").

DANGER MOUSE
The Grey Album
(no label)

It's tricky to rock a rhyme, to rock a rhyme that's right on time—it's tricky, tricky, tricky, tricky ("99 Problems," "Change Clothes").

BRITNEY SPEARS
Greatest Hits: My Prerogative
(Jive/Zomba)

Her heart, her soul, her aesthetic maturation ("Oops . . . I Did It Again," " . . . Baby One More Time").

ANUBIAN LIGHTS
Phantascope
(Rhythmbank)

Twice removed, Adele Bertei contorts herself ("Wild Winter," "Way Gone Man").

LIF UP YUH LEG AN TRAMPLE
(Honest Jon's import)

Hard dancehall soca surrounds improbable nominee for best Iraq II song extant (Andre Tanker, "Food Fight"; Dawg E Slaughter, "Trample").

ASHLEE SIMPSON
Autobiography
(Geffen)

The real Avril Lavigne ("Autobiography," "Lala").

JET
Get Born
(Elektra)

The juice and talent to make their retro happen without the brains or vision to run with it ("Rollover D.J.," "Look What You've Done").

LUNA
Rendezvous
(Jetset)

Confidence, languor, fatigue—having established all three, they average them and say goodbye ("Speedbumps," "Astronaut").

THE DONNAS
Gold Medal
(Atlantic)

Next stop, matrimony—either that or their own line of porn flicks ("It's So Hard," "It Takes One to Know One").

AFRICAN GROOVE
(Putumayo World Music)

Ethnotechno from the ethno side (Badenya Les Frères Coulibaye, "Boroto"; Madeka, "Mokoto").

SHIYANI NGCOBO
Introducing Shiyani Ngcobo
(World Music Network import)

A generation late, South Africa gets its postcolonial neotraditionalist ("Isothothobala," "Yekanini").


Choice Cuts

WILLIAM SHATNER
"Common People"
(Has Been, Shout! Factory)

STUART RUSH & THE GENIUSES
"When the Words Won't Come"
(Accept No Substitutes, Winged Flight)

THE WRENS
"Bus Dance"
(The Five Mod Four/The Wrens, Split CD, Contraphonic)

MERLE HAGGARD
"Goin' Away Party"
(Unforgettable, Capitol)


Duds

CHET BAKER
Love Songs
(Columbia/Legacy)

COHEED AND CAMBRIA
In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth 3
(Equal Vision/Columbia)

DAARA J
Boomerang
(Wrasse import)

HILARY DUFF
(Hollywood)

IRON & WINE
Our Endless Numbered Days
(Sub Pop)

JAY-Z/LINKIN PARK
Collision Course
(Warner Bros./Machine Shop/Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam/MTV)

DAVID KILGOUR
Frozen Orange
(Merge)

MARAH
20,000 Streets Under the Sky
(Yep Roc)

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