Christians and Heathens

Known quantities, brave genre experiments, program music, and a couple of Cairos

Pick Hits

DABY BALDE
Introducing Daby Balde
(World Music Network, 6 Abbeville Mews, 88 Clapham Park Road, London SW4 7BX, England, post@worldmusic.net)

This Dakar star is a 36-year-old Fouladou from the Casamance region south of Gambia, the cultural complexity of which is said to be why his band includes classically trained Belgian bigshots on violin and accordion. But if the explanation is glib, the results aren't. The groove and ambience are West African with European shading—not Portuguese as history would suggest, but Balkan, probably an accident rather than an influence, though in the melting pot that is the continent that invented imperialism, who knows? Lithe, warm, changeable, distinct, Balde's voice arouses hope, and in time the arrangements claim attention even when the tunes don't grab it. With so much of the best nonarchival Afropop dependent on known quantities or brave new genre experiments, he has a shot at becoming a known quantity himself. A MINUS

SUFJAN STEVENS
Illinois
(Asthmatic Kitty, Box 1282, Lander WY 82520, asthamtickitty.com)

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Scornful though one may be of Stevens's beliefs that "classical music" is "high art" and Christ Jesus died for our sins, it would be rigid in the extreme to deny his melodicism. There's not an unattractive tune on a record rife with counterpoint and interlude; musically, it's so inspired—and because it does its appointed work simply and unhurriedly, so unpretentious—that nonbelievers had better accept that he's getting over on talent, not talk. Religion arises mainly in the immensely touching, and unorchestrated, "Casimir Pulaski Day," where the cancer death of a teen love occasions something resembling doubt. The historically inclined may object that Steven's portrait of the great state of Abraham Lincoln and Ozzie Guillen is impressionistic to the point of whimsy, and I myself would die a smidgen happier if I never heard another song about a mass murderer. But this album radiates positive energy, and in today's alt, that's a precious thing. A MINUS

DANGERDOOM
The Mouse and the Mask
(Epitaph, 2798 Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood CA 90026, epitaph.com)

I've seen enough Adult Swim to agree with Epitaph prexy Andy Kaulkin: "Danger Mouse and Doom [which I refuse to uppercase—R.C.] are both brilliant at taking chunks of popular culture and shaping them into art [I would say more art—R.C.]. The context of Adult Swim makes this already promising collaboration truly inspired." Both guys are so irrepressibly playful that they get serious at their peril—they're better off as a nonstop musical goof. Fave detail: Doom's rhyming of the ancient usages "beer and skittles" (meaning ninepins, not some modern candy or long-lost salty snack) and "jot and tittle." I promise to watch the DVD. A MINUS

STACE ENGLAND
Greetings From Cairo, Illinois
(Gnashville Sounds,Gnashville Sounds, gnashvillesoundsrecords.com)

Roots-rock program music about the southernmost city in Illinois. He doesn't detail much vice, which was once the town's bread and butter, but there's lots of race—1909 lynch mob, segregated bus crosses big river, 1967 vigilantes, young Jesse Jackson stops by. Better researched than Sufjan, but not as evocative, nor any longer on answers. B PLUS

FRANZ FERDINAND
You Could Have It So Much Better
(Domino)

They've gotten unmistakably louder and unmistakably gayer—or perhaps I mean, hate the term, more metrosexual, given that the most affecting song here is a plea to a Brooklyn girl to rush her ass to Scotland. Small shows of force are all this ex-alt unit needs to achieve the meaning curmudgeons demand of rudderless guitar bands. They define themselves when they declare—not howl, not brag, declare—"I'm evil and a heathen." Firmly secular on their shaky pop pinnacle, they're a beacon. A MINUS

THIONE SECK
Orientation
(Stern's Africa, 71 Warren St, NYC 10007, sternsmusic.com)

Seck is mbalax's second banana, a leather-lunged griot renowned for lyrical wisdom whose work has never translated with anything near the fluency of Youssou N'Dour's—his groove is solider, hence less explosive, and he's shorter on telling musical detail. Like N'Dour, Seck had the idea of taking his Dakar brand of Mouridist Islam to Cairo long before September 11, but he was a year longer getting it right. The arrangements are more conventional and less delicate than N'Dour's Egyptian pomo-trad, and Indian elements are added to the big Cairo-pop orchestrations and choruses. But though the big man still sounds somewhat grand and stentorian to non-Wolof ears, the novelty factor and the alien melodic input put his wisdom across—if not as ideas, at least as an idea. A MINUS

SILVER JEWS
Tanglewood Numbers
(Drag City, PO Box 476867, Chicago IL 60647, dragcity.com)

David Berman joins a pickup band that includes his close personal friend Stephen Malkmus to explore realms of vocal inexpressiveness undreamt by Stephin Merritt or the Handsome Family. The music rocks very very steady with femme backup counteracting occasional Pavementy noises, and the lyrics, Berman's specialty, devote equal time to the animal kingdom, which permits him to wax whimsical if not vegetarian, and the dark burden of love, which inspires even more steadiness, in this case welcome. B PLUS

STEVIE WONDER
A Time to Love
(Motown)

Right, what you feared—mostly mush. Since mush has been his specialty for almost 30 years—that is, since he was 26 years old—why anybody should expect him to turn into Bob Marley now beats me. I just marvel that the mush continues so tasty. The melodies don't falter, and Wonder's unexpectedly and perhaps unfortunately influential vocal attack is as mellifluous as ever. Credit his laziness, or maybe it's perfectionism. His touring schedule is nonexistent, and in the time he took for one album, fellow aging melodist Paul McCartney, for instance, chose to release four plus (don't tell Stevie, he might try again) a faux symphony. And speaking of McCartney, this stuff isn't all mush. Wonder's politics are moralistic and universalist. But he's as faithful to them as he is to the lady or ladies in his songs. A MINUS

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