Once or twice a year I spend a few weeks comparing and contrasting the latest cache of Afropop, but rarely do so many good ones fall into place simultaneously. I don’t promise there aren’t more in store, either. Still, this should hold you.
Private Suit (Palomine)
Crisply songful after years of feedback and drone, it’s Carol Van Dyk-not-Dijk and her backup band. About time, too—not because there’s anything wrong with feedback or drone, but because neither should preclude songs when you proffer yourself as a pensive woman who takes the occasional Tylenol and deserves someone she can love back. “Unsound” is their most clearly irresistible ever, and the aural nimbi that surround or trail after the others never obscure Van Dyk’s lines of thought. A MINUS
Lone Star: The Best of Freddy Fender (Music Club)
Fender’s catalog will always be a mess—because he recorded too much, because Huey Meaux will license to anyone, because no one will ever compile his deeply felt “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window,” because his “Junko Partner” has gone the way of all dope legends. Dot/MCA’s The Best of Freddy Fender accesses his late-’70s country-chart phase, whereas this best, while prudently providing alternate takes of “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights” and “Before the Next Teardrop Falls,” lovingly samples the Meaux-produced rest. Included are a regional rock and roll hit from before his just-past-21 1960 drug bust, a creaky Johnny Ace cover, a rollicking “Fannie Mae,” a circa-1980 remake of the Who’s “Squeeze Box,” and a “Chokin’ Kind” in which Fender ignores the title apostrophe and sings “If you don’t like the peaches walk on by the tree” as if Shakespeare had written it just for him. Though Fender’s tenor is sharp rather than mellow, the closest analogy is Aaron Neville, who even when he was good was less innocent, who remains more spiritual if less sublime, and who doesn’t break into Spanish for his supper. A MINUS
The Very Best of Abdullah Ibrahim (Music Club)
Cape Town-born pianist Dollar Brand won Down Beat polls in the ’60s, when his idols Monk and Ellington were still active, because beneath his enticing fusion of modernist ambition and African authenticity he had at his disposal a store of simple tunes and beats Americans had never experienced firsthand. These later recordings, which begin with his second exile in 1976 and continue through the defeat of apartheid, no longer sound exotic—1985’s “Mandela” we can now hear as pure township jazz, a jaunty classic put through its paces by a horn section featuring Carlos Ward’s alto and Ricky Ford’s tenor. I mention those names in part because the notes neglect to; Ibrahim couldn’t have made his impact without American sidemen and frontmen feeling along with him, as several of the solo pieces here bear out. Nevertheless, the fusion was his idea, and his prophecy. After all, what young jazzman today would turn up his nose at the history encapsulated in a jaunty tune? A MINUS
IN GRIOT TIME
I doubt I would have gotten this without having scarfed down compiler Banning Eyre’s eponymous book about his seven-month stay in Bamako studying guitar with Rail Band headman and CD centerpiece Djelimady Tounkara. Mixing home- and street-recorded tape with commercial releases by the renowned and obscure Malians who populate his memoir, Eyre thinks like a guitarist and induces us to hear like one—Oumou Sangare and Habib Koite tracks I’d barely noticed spring to life in this context. The Music in My Head it’s not. But Eyre’s book is so much better than Mark Hudson’s it could suck you in. B PLUS
The Ecleftic (Columbia)
Last time he merely claimed African diaspora. Here he casts his net wide enough to snare all of pop if it’ll have him, as in “Kenny Rogers-Pharoahe Monch Dub Plate,” featuring live appearances by both luminaries, or the pot song illustrating the proposition that if hip-hop is his wife, the guitar is his mistress. He sings roughly but warmly, and makes up as many hooks as he samples, a ploy I’m glad he can afford—one more way to mix things up. His obligatory shout-outs to the hood reject thuggism as good-humoredly as his voluntary testimonial for the red-light district rejects moralism. Clef is obviously bitterer than he lets on about the respect he doesn’t get. That he keeps it to himself is the essence of an appeal that tops any schoolmarm’s I can think of. A MINUS
Bambay Gueej (World Circuit/Nonesuch)
Senegalese out of Burkina Faso, Lô plays traps, wears dreads, quotes Fela, and names as his favorite musician Orchestra Aragon flutist Richard Egües, who takes the album-opening guajira home. Better equipped to roughen a croon than sweeten a shout, he’s not quite the singer his wide-flung admirers say he is. But with Pee Wee Ellis arranging hornmen who include easy-swinging permanent saxophonist Thierno Kouyate, the pan-Africanism never sounds forced on what remains a studio creation even though Lô’s band drives every cut. A MINUS
Joko (The Link) (Nonesuch)
Half a decade minding his own business in Dakar has flexed his fusion—every one of these tracks breathes, bends, follows flow. The synthmelt and fancy layering with which he once made nice now subject one-worlders’ cosmic creature comforts to a specifically Senegalese technological elegance—and reality. The endlessly gorgeous “Birima” honors the elders with a melody for the ages, “Medemba” defends a beleaguered union boss. And even when he’s testing world’s most ductile ballad pipes you can feel him getting you ready to dance, dance, dance. A MINUS
Wanita (Indigo import)
Where an older younger generation might have equated musical self-definition with rock, this daughter of the Malian elite engages tradition in a culture where music is culture’s engine, modernizing so subtly that Euro-American folkies will believe she’s toning things down just for them. Her deepest innovations are in the shades of her willowy soprano, a delicate thing by the wailing standards of the female griots whose intonations she modulates—and whose ideology she injects with a female pride they won’t admit, even praising useless drudges who can’t procreate. Other times her moralism is stiffer, but her music never is. It’s the image of an African voice bending neocolonialism to its own knowledge and needs. A MINUS
DAVID S. WARE
Although I don’t keep tabs on postpunk’s favorite free saxophonist, this is much the most confident of the three albums I know. With virtuosity and ease, he and a quartet balanced by pianist Matthew Shipp naturalize the sturm und drang of the post-Coltrane ’60s. It’s got a pulse, it’s got a voice, it’s got some heads. It’s got unflagging energy. So what’s to be scared of? A little noise? A MINUS
Songs From an American Movie: Vol. One: Learning How to Smile (Capitol)
All doubts as to Art Alexakis’s punk bona fides are hereby laid to rest—he doesn’t have any. Instead he chooses to whup Dave Grohl, the jerk from the Verve Pipe, and if there’s any justice Rob Thomas in postgrunge’s Bryan Adams sweepstakes. The corn he indulges on this fondly detailed end-of-a-marriage song cycle has nothing to do with abstracted teen agony and everything with classic Garth Brooks, except that Garth never waxed nostalgic for the days he and his honey whiled away watching porn and eating Chinese. Laying on strings, horns, synths, and backup vocals to a fare-thee-well, it makes honest peace with a pop moment when honest pop is the toughest artistic challenge there is. Volume two will supposedly return to the guitar-o-rama of his roots—without any loss of principle, one trusts. A MINUS
South African Hip Hop (Stern’s/Earthworks)
Where the Jo’burg disco of late apartheid was not-for-export schlock, this lowbrow party fodder, more “Jack Your Body” than “Bring the Noise,” sounds like independence music. I’m not sure what makes it go. The southern African pulse, so much heavier on the four-on-the-floor than the equatorial polyrhythm? The entrepreneurial thrill of artist-owned labels? Township kids feeling like their own people? Dumb luck? All I know is that this compilation moves like one of those flukey dance albums that makes you keep on loving the same trick—electro riff plus raggaqanga bass plus southern African chant and chorus. Is it conscious, as they say? A little, sometimes—Arthur’s “Kaffir” sure puts the kibosh on the K-word. Note, however, that the one that preaches “Together we are one under the sun” is entitled “Make Em Bounce.” A MINUS
Dud of the Month
Afrika Wassa (Triloka/Gold Circle)
“Making West African music accessible and enjoyable has always been Diop’s goal,” admits the wretched press release for this kora-tweedling WBAI host, as if the likes of—oh, you know the names, everyone down from Diop’s onetime boss Youssou N’Dour—hadn’t already created something powerfully new from the same idea. Diop targets the New Age folkie escapists milked by his producer, TV-soundtrack titan Brian Keane, and the result has all the tensile strength of vanilla pudding. Admittedly, he’s not the only African to utter a sentiment like “We are all but flowers in the field/To nature’s changing seasons we must yield/We only have but one season under the sun/We’d best take care before our time is done.” But usually African homilies are starker—and even when they aren’t, they sound starker. C
Additional Consumer News
HONORABLE MENTION: Ian Dury & the Blockheads, Live!: All the Best, Mate . . . (Music Club): December 1990—bloody lively for an oldies reunion (“Billericay Dickie,” “Blockheads”); Fallou Dieng, Medina (Stern’s Africa): hyperactive selection from mbalax thirtysomething’s Senegal-only cassettes, which apparently peaked songwise in 1996 (“Koleuré [’96],” “Biri Biri,” “Withiaxou”); Jimmie Dale Gilmore, One Endless Night (Windcharger/Rounder): not the standards album he has in him (“Mack the Knife,” “Ripple”); Charles Douglas, The Lives of Charles Douglas (No. 6): into the great indie mother-drone, with Mama Moe Tucker at the helm (“Earlybird School,” “Good Luck”); Spring Hill Jack, Disappeared (Thirsty Ear): trying their hand at lounge jazz, chamber oboe, soundtrack bombast, any sound that’ll stick (“Trouble and Luck,” “I Undid Myself”); Archers of Loaf, Seconds Before the Accident (Alias): not enough old stuff for the live overview they earned (“Web in Front,” “Wrong”); North Mississippi Allstars, “Shake Hands With Shorty” (Tone-Cool): Allman Brothers as electric folk music (“K.C. Jones [On the Road Again],” “Po Black Maddie”); Rickie Lee Jones, It’s Like This (Artemis): proof a girl can sing standards and chew gum at the same time (“Show Biz Kids,” “On the Street Where You Live”); Roy Nathanson, Fire at Keaton’s Bar & Grill (Six Degrees): the saloon of dreams goes up in smoke (“Bar Stool Paradise,” “Jazz Night at Keaton’s”); Steve Earle, Transcendental Blues (E-Squared/Artemis): if “transcendence is about being still long enough to know when it’s time to move on,” as he says, he should quit scratching himself (“Over Yonder [Jonathan’s Song],” “I Can Wait”); Luke Vibert/BJ Cole, Stop the Panic (Astralwerks): lounge techno meets steel guitar, also bluegrass (“Swing Lite,” “Hipalong Hop”); the Legendary Marvin Pontiac, Greatest Hits (Strange & Beautiful Music): John Lurie sings the blues and comes down with the cutes, both of which humanize him considerably (“I’m a Doggy,” “Wanna Wanna”).
CHOICE CUTS: Blazy Foley, “Clay Pigeons” (Live at the Austin Outhouse, Lost Art); Sherie Rene, “Squeezebox” (Men I’ve Had, Sh-K-Boom); Britney Spears, “Oops! . . . I Did It Again,” “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (Oops! . . . I Did It Again, Jive); Saint Etienne, “Heart Failed (In the Back of a Taxi)” (Sound of Water, Sub Pop); Smash Mouth, “Do It Again”; Ivy, “Only a Fool Would Say That”; Brian Setzer Orchestra, “Bodhisattva” (Me, Myself & Irene, Elektra); Hamiet Bluiett/D.D. Jackson/More Thiam, “Papa” (Join Us, Justin Time import).
DUDS: Lil’ Kim, The Notorious KIM (Queen Bee/Undeas/Atlantic); Olive, Trickle (Maverick); David Olney, Omar’s Blues (Dead Reckoning); Mike Younger, Somethin’ in the Air (Beyond).
ADDRESSES: Artemis, 130 Fifth Avenue, NYC 10011, artemisrecords.com; Astralwerks, c/o Caroline, 109 West 29th Street, NYC 10001, astralwerks.com; Indigo, c/o Harmonia Mundi, 2037 Granville Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90025, harmoniamundi.com; Music Club, c/o Koch, 2 Tri-Harbor Court, Port Washington, NY 11050, musicclub.com; No. 6, c/o Caroline, 109 West 29th Street, NYC 10001, caroline @caroline.com; Palomine, c/o Parasol, 905 South Lynn Street, Urbana, IL 61801; Six Degrees, Box 411347, San Francisco, CA 94141-1347, email@example.com; Stern’s, 71 Warren Street, NYC 10007, sternsmusic.com; Strange & Beautiful Music, P.O. Box 220, Prince Street Station, NYC 10012; Thirsty Ear, 274 Madison Avenue, Suite 804, NYC 10016, thirstyear.com; Tone-Cool, Windcharger, c/o Rounder, 29 Camp Street, Cambridge, MA 02140, rounder.com.