For years I’ve been blocking on Jamaican dancehall, which I knew couldn’t be as indistinguishable as it always sounded. Three compilations below showcase the genre as an accessible singles music, which is what dance styles are, at least for part-time dancers. But is the new Luciano an Honorable Mention or just a Choice Cut? I’ll figure it out, I swear.
The Captain (Asylum)
If the voice doesn’t get you, what can I say—you’re not me, and you’re also not a whole bunch of other people. Its burred drawl is deep country like Iris DeMent; its little-girl timbre evokes Dolly Parton and whispers Lolita. It’s utterly arresting, and as soon as it warbles, “I never lived through the Great Depression/Sometimes I feel as though I did,” you want to kiss her. Of course, when it gets to “I’m not much like my generation/Their music only hurts my ears,” you may wish you’d pulled her nose instead. And when you learn that her “southern kind of life” took place in southern Australia—the cold part, noted for its drawl—you begin to suspect she’s Gillian Welch without the death trip. You notice that her arrangements are slick country-rock, that her worldview is old hat, that you don’t even know what the catchy title number means. So better not give your heart to this AC-ready 24-year-old—not yet. But by all means enjoy her voice and hum her tunes, which are delicious as music and dazzling as aesthetic constructions. And invest your hopes in the two kiss-offs—one to a boyfriend, the other to the world. B PLUS
Chanchullo (World Circuit/Nonesuch)
“More powerful, energised, vital and confident,” insist the notes, but with the crucial exception of confidence, which allows him to cut down on the classical flourishes, your ears will disagree. After a miraculous debut, Buena Vista’s resident genius, who is now 81, elects with the wisdom and limits of age to lay back on a deep-rooted band record whose poky backwater feel is about time rather than place. None of that newfangled Los Van Van hubba hubba for these gents. They’re old men playing the music they love. A MINUS
What’s going on with Billie Joe is less maturity than the really boring stuff—professionalism, craft, artistic growth. He’s abandoning the first person. He’s assuming fictional personas. And he’s creating for himself the voice of a thinking left-liberal who “want[s] to be the minority” and cautions against caution itself—a voice that scolds rather than whines, a nice age-appropriate shift. Crucially, his knack for simple punk tunes remains unchanged; also crucially, these do fine at moderate tempos, and one even gives off a whiff of Brecht-Weill. There are worse ways to come down off a multiplatinum high—lots of them. A MINUS
If I Could Only Fly (Anti-)
For decades aesthetes have crowed about the hard-traveling Haggard’s all-American musicality without mentioning that he’s a cranky bastard who never decides till the moment at hand whether this gig or session is worthy of his high standards. After a long, dispiriting string of releases that gradually devolved from hit-or-miss to cynical, he comes out of nowhere on a punk label to cut one of the very best albums of his very uneven recording career. Although I doubt there’s a “Mama Tried” or “Today I Started Loving You Again” here, I’m positive there’s no “Valentine” or “Kids Get Lonesome Too,” both of which turned my stomach at a 1996 show, and I like or love most of the new songs—including the metanostalgic “Wishing All These Old Things Are New,” the Western swing condom commercial “Bareback,” and several about how much he loves his fifth wife. Plus sui generis singing that pauses for consecutive Bing Crosby and Johnny Cash tributes, and the sense of time that permeates his equally sui generis Bakersfield swing. What is his deepest belief? That time is to be savored, not possessed. A MINUS
LOS VAN VAN
The Best of Los Van Van (Hemisphere)
Like James Brown in the ’70s, they record too much. But if the Duke Ellington Orchestra was this vital after 30 years on the boards, it didn’t showcase the new songs to prove it. Find the right section of any large metropolitan record store and the array of Los Van Van titles will make you dizzy; for those of us without Spanish on our tongues and Latino in our marrow, they blur together. But I’ve never heard a compilation that didn’t reconfigure my cerebellum, and on this ’94-’97 selection I note that, remarkably, the remakes are on average slightly less memorable than the newer compositions—which is not to suggest that the one that crowned the last show I caught, the Yoruba-based “Soy Todo,” was truly new whenever it was written. A MINUS
Convenient and also poetic that Wu-Tang and its cohort—Mobb Deep, Xzibit, Tha Alkaholiks, Big Pun—should label their label with a hard-rock buzzword. Their white collaborators are often dullards like Sevendust and System of a Down—only Sugar Ray, Everlast, and Tom Morello add much content. Yet because everybody wants to accommodate everybody else—to get along, as someone once said—the aggression remains focused and cleansing throughout. Greater than the sum of its parts. Louder, too. A MINUS
RAGGA ESSENTIALS INA DANCEHALL STYLE
A little obvious up top—even rank outsiders know and may own “Hot Steppa,” “Telephone Love,” and “Ring the Alarm” by now. Not as striking as the VP competition as it moves into the late ’90s, either. Nevertheless, this selection has the virtue of isolating tracks that tricked bizzers into envisioning crossover for the likes of Chaka Demus & Pliers, Apache Indian, Junior Reid, and Mykal Rose. As someone who has test-driven several albums by all of the above, I can attest that their direct hits were rare. But because these artists mean to break out of their genre, not to mention their culture, their punch is pretty powerful when it doesn’t ask too much of their reach. A MINUS
THIRD WORLD COP
Not a darn good dancehall comp in disguise, as I first believed, or, on the other hand, quite the soundtrack it says it is. More the best Sly & Robbie album since, to be precise, 1987’s Rhythm Killers, aided materially in this achievement by the soundtrack-style addition of three S&R-less tracks toward the end—each dancehall, each very different from the others and everything else here. My favorite is by the saucy Lady G, who takes the verse on “Man a Bad Man.” Anybody have an ID on the bad man who growls the title? A MINUS
Music (Maverick/Warner Bros.)
Anybody who denies that Madonna made great singles in the ’80s is a boob. Run all together on The Immaculate Collection, they constitute the greatest album of her mortal life. But except for the debut, the albums per se from that period strove for schlock when they didn’t stoop to filler. In the early ’90s, she essayed great longforms—an ambition that presupposes good songs while cultivating consistency and þow. Then she got scared and discovered God, two not unrelated experiences that rendered her great singles and good songs more middlebrow. So rejoice that from Vocoder to cowgirl suit, she’s got her sass back. Pretending to be cheap, she sometimes as on my favorite moment, the processed-munchkin hook of the perfectly entitled “Nobody’s Perfect”—really is cheap, which is essential to the illusion. All the songs are good, all chintzy. Which combo provides just the right consistency and flow. A
DANCEHALL 101 VOL. 1
Speaking as a not quite total stranger, unimbued with electroskank riddims and incapable of understanding more than half of the nominally English-language leerics, I know of no more fun way to access Jamaica’s answer to hip-hop, disco, house, techno, and Blowfly than this historical compilation. From Red Dragon’s “pop [??] your vagina” to Beenie Man’s “keys to my Beemer,” from Yellowman’s zungaing keyb-as-guitar to Cutty Ranks’s deep-jingle organ-grind, this connects as timeless novelty music, lively and dirty and knowing no shame. As a style, not to mention an industry, of course its repetitive hooks are recycled endlessly. Here’s where they started—or were especially well imitated, I don’t know. The secret is that it doesn’t make much difference. A MINUS
Dud of the Month
REBIRTH OF THE LOUD
Smaller labels often have personalities—sometimes hateful ones. Since the dawn of N.W.A., Priority has pushed a brand of brutalism that rejected shows of empathy as, shall we say, unmanly—un-“real.” So it’s not enough to say that bands who would sound ugly covering Howlin’ Wolf won’t do any better by U-God’s “Rumble,” not when the dire likes of Sevendust and the Kottonmouth Kings get out of Republic’s rival Take a Bite Outta Rhyme alive. One need add that these “14 blistering tracks fusing thrash-rock, hardcore-punk and hip-hop infused metal” usually bypass hip-hop altogether, and feature Priority-associated songs when they don’t. One might also point out that this is where Mos Def’s “Rock N Roll” gets as stupid as it always was. D
Additional Consumer News
HONORABLE MENTION: Rancid (Hellcat): what if a Clash record fell in the middle of a stock exchange and nobody could hear it? (“Radio Havana,” “It’s Quite Alright”); Beenie Man, Art and Life (VP/Virgin): hip-hop plus salsa plus r&b plus more r&b equals pure reggae crossover (“Analyze This,” “Girls Dem Sugar”); Los Jubilados, Cero farandulero (Corason import): eight drunk-sounding old son guys, one young trumpeter putting his two centavos in (“Hoja seca,” “El guao”); Republica Dominicana (Putumayo World Music): a quainter place than “the Dominican,” where merengue comes from (Luis Varga, “Tranquila”; Ivan Bautista, “Pegao de Que”); Dancehall 101 Vol. 2 (VP): long on “ice cream sound”—tunelets, yearning, chick toasters (Johnny Osbourne, “No Ice Cream Sound”; El General, “Pun Tun Tun”); King Sunny Ade, Seven Degrees North (Mesa): “Birthdays are very important/Anyone who witness another year should celebrate” (“Samba,” “Congratulations [Happy Birthday]”); Kandi, Hey Kandi . . . (Columbia): She’kspere’s sista (“Hey Kandi,” “What I’m Gon’ Do to You”); Eddie C. Campbell, Hopes and Dreams (Red Rooster): classic South Side groove, plus a few songs never hurt and the “Superstition” riff fits right in (“Hopes and Dreams,” “Did I Hurt You?”); Belle and Sebastian, Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant (Matador): palette expanded, pigment thinned (“Women’s Realm,” “The Model”); Everlast, Eat at Whitey’s (Tommy Boy): the only white rapper who’s lived enough years to be nice about it—the Beasties excluded, Kid Rock not (“Graves to Dig,” “One, Two”); Boubacar Traor ’82, Macir ’82 (Indigo import): firmly avuncular old Malian dance-novelty star turned folkie—lessons in Bambara, love songs in French, time all wrong for blues (“Duna Ma Yelema,” “Serrer la Main”); NG La Banda, The Best of NG La Banda (Hemisphere): virtuosic dance music con production values, part writing, and other things it doesn’t necessarily need (“Papa Chango,” “Cienfuegos”); Take a Bite Outta Rhyme (Republic): mediocre rockers cover great rap songs—most adequately, a few abysmally, several memorably (Dope, “New Jack Hustler”; Dynamite Hack, “Boyz-N-the Hood”; Fun Lovin’ Criminals, “Microphone Fiend”); Willie Nelson, Milk Cow Blues (Island): truth to tell, blues isn’t his métier (“Fools Paradise,” “Texas Flood”); Wheatus (Columbia): wiseass fratbags—too smart for college, too stoopid for their own good (“Wannabe Gangster,” “Teenage Dirtbag”); Chris Smither, Live as I’ll Ever Be (HighTone): no new songs, but the foot-stomping is exceedingly polysyllabic (“The Devil’s Real,” “Link of Chain”); Shemekia Copeland, Wicked (Alligator): a 101 fever, a coupla kids, and a few more Jon Tiven songs short of a genuine red-hot mama (“If He Moves His Lips,” “Steamy Windows”).
CHOICE CUTS: Starkey Banton, “Jungle Bungle” (Essential DanceHall Reggae, Music Club); Supersuckers W/ Amy Nelson, “The Least I Could Do”; the Unholy Trio, “Bring the Noise”; the Meat Purveyors, “Sunshine”; Trailer Bride, “Ghost on the Highway”(Down to the Promised Land: 5 Years of Bloodshot Records, Bloodshot); Allison Moorer, “The Hardest Part” (The Hardest Part, MCA Nashville); Chuck Brodsky, “Gone to Heaven,” “Bonehead Merkle” (Last of the Old Time, Red House); Hank Thompson, “Sting in This Ole Bee” (Seven Decades, HighTone); Isha Blender, “Bad Boys” (Dance Hall Liberation, Heartbeat).
DUDS: Elvin Bishop & Little Smokey Smothers, That’s My Partner! (Alligator); Lil Bow Wow, Beware of Dog (So So Def); Lolita Storm, G F S U (DHR); Nashville Pussy, High as Hell (TVT); Zebrahead, Playmate of the Year (Columbia).
ADDRESSES: Alligator, Box 60234, Chicago, IL 60660, alligator.com; Anti-, Hellcat, c/o Epitaph, 2789 Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood, CA 90026, epitaph.com; Corason, c/o Rounder, One Camp Street, Cambridge, MA 02140; Indigo, c/o Harmonia Mundi, 2037 Granville Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90025, harmoniamundi.com; Mesa, 209 East Alameda Avenue, Burbank, CA 91502; Palm Pictures, c/o Rykodisc, 530 North 3rd Street, Minneapolis, MN 55401, palmpictures.com; Rooster Blues, Box 40997, Memphis, TN 38174, roosterblues.com; VP, 89-05 138th Street, Jamaica, NY 11435, vprecords.com.