No way, Ari. But two theses. First, most current American pop and semipop was conceived for a normalcy currently beyond the reach of our imaginations. Second, if Americans don’t have it in them to get more cross-cultural, they’re fucked—by which I mean, patriot that I am, we’re fucked.
THE BEAT: GO-GO’S FUSION OF FUNK AND HIP HOP (Liaison)
With all protestations of American optimism sounding false and forced, I woke up one day with a yen for Chuck Brown’s “Bustin’ Loose” and didn’t-stop-no-I-didn’t-stop playing this definitive genre comp for two hours. Like most dance music, it’s a little long-winded for home use; like most two-CD sets, it gets less definitive as it goes along. It merely documents and celebrates a local movement by a nationally disenfranchised audience that was utterly undaunted by their music’s failure to take over the world 15 years ago. Without ever truly busting loose, go-go remained an autonomous realm of freedom—an option ripe for exploration by any other audience with the will to make it so. A MINUS
THE HANDSOME FAMILY
Twilight (Carrot Top)
At a moment when any depressive with a good line of patter is positioned to convince disaster-dazed dissidents he’s the prophet Jeremiah, lyricist Rennie Sparks and her doleful husband and music provider Bret deliver a new sheaf of morbid songs. These feel right even when their melodies dim out, in part because they aspire to mood rather than prophecy. More than half concern or mention animals, usually but not always still alive. One significant exception is a billion passenger pigeons, another the dog, cat, gerbils, goldfish, rabbit, chipmunk, squirrel, and insects to whom she/he bids so long. Right, the pets are supposed to be funny, in a morbid way. None of the humans who populate this album are so lucky. A few of them are deaf or blind, though. A MINUS
Rumba Congo (Stern’s Africa)
Led by the now ailing guitar legend Papa Noel, eight well-grizzled veterans of the soukous wars sit around the kitchen of the heart and play some songs they’ve been working on. As long on lilt as it is devoid of drive, the abiding quietude is irrelevant to an up-and-at-’em mood. But when nothing seems sweeter than home, it’s a blessed comfort—the harmonies whispering, the drums twining, the groove massaging each overtaxed muscle until the blood can do its work there and flow on. A MINUS
Feminist Sweepstakes (Mr. Lady)
Here’s one new rock record whose optimistic abandon is specifically conceived as a response to deprivation and attack. Or so I theorize—could just be that they got more jam than Sum 41 or the Strokes. They’re not at their best when they catalog grievances (e.g. “F.Y.R.,” for “fifty years of ridicule”). Who is? But over and above their jam, they’re committed to naming names and utterly unwilling to give up on lives they’re still learning to enjoy. It’s not just “the ladies and the fags” who need that example anymore. Never was. A MINUS
Classic Yo-Yo (Sony Classical)
Ever since I encountered Ma (on Sesame Street, since you ask), he’s been my classical crossover guy of choice. His freedom from smarmy noblesse oblige is typified by his approach to repertoire—he accords bluegrass and tango the same modest respect he does Bach and Tan Dun, never showboating for some ill-imagined gallery. Master tunesmith Bach gets three tracks on this subtly sequenced best-of, New York-raised Astor Piazzolla and bluegrass crossover guy Mark O’Connor two apiece, and even the John Williams ringer sounds OK when Ma is adoring the melody on his rhymes-with-mellow, although the orchestration is to barf at. This is the best of the European humanism the classical elite so often falsifies, reifies, and wills to power—not just beautiful and reassuring, useful attributes these days, but tolerant, curious, democratic. Just like me for giving it a shot. A MINUS
Cruzando El Rio (World Circuit/Nonesuch)
Moorish and/or North African Spain is the idea, beginning with a flamenco colombiana—a folkloric variant that arose in the ’30s claiming cross-Atlantic roots, only the hook goes to a Renaissance oboe called a cromornos, one of many medieval instruments on display. Which means that in a time when sensitivity to the Euro-Arab nexus is the way of both justice and survival, what’s most original about this band is its translation of medieval into modern—which does constitute a sonic reminder that European culture isn’t as pure as Silvio Berlusconi believes. What’s most entertaining about it, meanwhile, is its new embrace of the supple and the songful. What’s most annoying about it is its fusion and art-rock retentions. B PLUS
LEO WADADA SMITH/THOMAS MAPFUMO
Dreams and Secrets (Anonymous Web)
African-American synergy, retain hyphen please, that improves simultaneously on trumpeter Smith’s Yo Miles! projects with guitarist Henry Kaiser and the two solid-plus albums the chimurenga revolutionary has cut in Oregon since developing a taste for what he’s proud to designate “the American way.” Even with Kaiser and Woody Lee Aplanalp wailing and wahing, Smith’s N’Da Kulture band can’t generate the paradoxical melodies and shape-shifting rhythms of electric Miles. So Mapfumo’s song-making provides welcome diversion from N’Da Kulture’s straightforward postmodern r&b just when you’re ready to move on to that Willie Mitchell retrospective. The mbiras and percussion devices of Mapfumo’s Blacks Unlimited also jazz things up, which is fine with Smith, who’s been calling jazz world music for decades. It’s always been a dandy idea in theory. This is the practice. A MINUS
The Rough Guide to the Soul Brothers (World Music Network import)
Setting the restrained tensile tenor of David Masondo against the accordion-modernizing Hammond B-3 of Moses Ngwenya, the mbaqanga bestsellers put in 15 years entertaining and uplifting under the thumb of a brutal occupation. Now they’ve spent 10 more keeping their spirits up and their sound fresh in postapartheid’s dystopia. All 25 years are spanned on this compilation. The Soul Brothers’ tight, slick harmonies and long, lissome basslines have remained so consistent over that quarter century that outsiders are hard put to remember individual songs, and the one-sentence trots on their earlier Earthworks best-of suggest that the lyrics don’t add much to the musical effect. Nevertheless, the intensity of craft here, as well as its determination to seize freedom-bearing American sonics for Zulu tradition, should be tonic for those who doubt they can ever be cheerful again. I mean, back when we could imagine nothing worse, we had a good phrase to describe apartheid. State terrorism, we called it, and we were right. A MINUS
Proxima Estacion: Esperanza (Virgin)
The French-raised Spaniard distilled the scattershot Europop-rock of Mano Negra into 1998’s DIY, polyglot Clandestino, a word-of-mouth smash throughout Latin Europe and then Latin America. Clandestino was warm, sprightly, melancholy, palpably humane. This is all that with magic on top, reprising and varying a small store of infectious tunes into a motley suite segued and differentiated with sound effects, funny voices, surprise guest instruments, and spoken-word samples. The pulse is Marley sans Africa—reggae whiter than the Bellamy Brothers, ska liter than polka. The mood is festive in the urbane, liberal, and internationalist manner of Chao’s new home, the pan-European haven Barcelona, a city that resisted Franco so vivaciously for so long that it assumes entertainment coexists with dread. Just in time—Euroworld! Never thought I’d hear it done right. A
Ten New Songs (Columbia)
In February, Cohen put out the presciently entitled Field Commander Cohen—recorded live in 1979, when he could still carry a tune if he brought his luggage wheels. It sounded too suave somehow, too sure of its next whiskey bar. But by August, well before history put in an emergency call for voices of doom, the sepulchral croak here seemed spot on. Breaking a nine-year silence, the first four tracks have nothing to do with history except insofar as history is in league with death. But they’re as powerful as any he’s written—especially “In My Secret Life,” about hiding from your conscience in the crevices of your good intentions, and “Here It Is,” about the ultimate futility of all hello goodbye.
And although he couldn’t have known how close to the bone the finale would cut, try these two couplets: “For what’s left of our religion/I lift my voice and pray” and “May the lights in The Land of Plenty/Shine on the truth some day.” Both beat “God bless America” by a country mile. Well, don’t they? A MINUS
Dud of the Month
CLASSICAL HITS (Sony Classical)
OK, so there’s more Yo-Yo channeling more Bach and Wynton Marsalis doing what comes naturally and Andre Rieu feeling much love for Strauss, That Louse. But there’s also three tenors and three sopranos and a refined orchestration of a Bernstein opus owned by Carol Lawrence and Bond’s platinum-plated va-va-voom chamber music and pantheon poachers Horner, Zimmer, Williams, and Lloyd Webber. There is, in short, a soi-disant great tradition with its pants down, and is that a baton in its jockeys or is it just overdoing the Viagra? Not Bach’s fault, or Yo-Yo Ma’s. Not even capitalism’s fault. But you have to ask yourself just exactly what kind of repository of All That Is Highest in Western Civilization it is that remains so susceptible to the brummagem, the bathetic, the half-assed, and the utterly full of shit. C MINUS
Additional Consumer News
HONORABLE MENTION: Shabaz (Mondo Melodia): from Pakistan, released September 11, sister and brother qawwali singers with more spirit than shame and an American collaborator helping them take their bhangra and chela technopop (“Jewleh Lal,” “Laglan”); Bombay 2: Electric Vindaloo (Motel): DJs refiddle long deflowered Bollywood fare for cross-cultural fun and profit (Kid Koala & Dynamite D, “Third World Lover”; DJMedjyou, “Bionic Hahaan”); Brand New Boots and Panties: A Tribute to Ian Dury (Gold Circle): great songs, absolutely, and if Robbie Williams or Paul McCartney leads anyone to the originals, good for them (Sinéad O’Connor, “Wake Up and Make Love With Me”; Cerys Matthews from Catatonia, “If I Was With a Woman”); Radiohead, Amnesiac (Capitol): makes a lot more sense if you’re already feeling down in the mouth (“Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box,” “Knives Out”); Rumba-Soukous, The Heartbeat of Congo (Cassava): as hi-NRG as any Zaire-Berkeley connection will likely get (“Santa Bella,” “Fire-Fire”); Gigi (Palm): looks Muslim, raised Christian, sings international—in Amharic, with an avant-jazz accent (“Bale Washintu,” “Kahn”); Ozomatli, Embrace the Chaos (Almo Sounds): these days, rap-salsa . . . gumbo, gusado, couscous, whatever, doesn’t just feel like chaos—it also feels like life (“Pa Lante,” “1234”); Thione Seck & Raam Daan, XV Anniversary Live! (Djoniba): direct from Dakar, Islamic dynamics in the secular flesh (“Bour,” “Dieylo”); The Rough Guide to Merengue and Bachata (World Music Network import): especially bachata, with its real lyrics and modest accordion (Luis Segura, “Los Celos”; Blas Duran, “Crei [Version Bachata House]”; Nelson Ruig, “El Dueño De Las Noche”); Chuck Brown, Your Game . . . Live at the 9:30 Club, Washington, D.C. (Raw Venture): Chuck Chuck just just keeps keeps on on going going going going (“Wind Me Up Chuck/Hoochie Coochie Man,” “No Diggity”); Laurie Anderson, Life on a String (Nonesuch): in Juilliard-style postmodern artsong, “can’t sing” is perhaps an advantage (“Slip Away,” “The Island Where I Come From”); Mofungo, Unreleased (www.lostnow.com/ mofungo): (free) download-only of great lost (good mislaid?) 1992 album by Loisaida’s longest-running indie band (“In Imitation of Willie,” “Tobacco Road”); Sum 41, All Killer No Filler (Island): teenpunk alienation at its most normal, with Satan impinging from the wings (“Heart Attack,” “Motivation”).
CHOICE CUTS: Leonard Cohen, “Field Commander Cohen” (Field Commander Cohen: Tour of 1979, Columbia); E.S.T., “The Face of Love” (Somewhere Else Before, Columbia).
DUDS: The Color Guard (Suziblade); the Great Crusades, Damaged Goods (Checkered Past); Killarmy, Fear, Love & War (Loud); Slayer, God Hates Us All (American); Thug Murder, 13th Round (TKO).
ADDRESSES: Anonymous Web, anonymousweb.com; Carrot Top, 935 West Chestnut, suite LL15, Chicago, IL 60622, carrottoprecords.com; Cassava, Box 70175, Sunnyvale, CA 94086, cassavarecords.com; Djoniba, 37 East 18th Street, seventh floor, NYC 10003, djoniba.com; Gold Circle, 520 Broadway, suite 650, Santa Monica, CA 90401, goldcircle.com; Liaison, liaisonrecords.com, 410-880-6111; Mr. Lady, P.O. Box 3189, Durham, NC 27715-3189, mrlady.com; Mondo Melodia, c/o Ark 21, 14724 Ventura Boulevard, Sherman Oaks, CA 91403, ark21.com; Palm, 601 West 26th Street, 11th floor, NYC 10001, palmpictures.com; Raw Venture, liaisonrecords.com, windmeupchuck.com; Stern’s Africa, 71 Warren Street, NYC 10007, sternsmusic.com; World Music Network, 6 Abbeville Mews, 88 Clapham Park Road, London SW4 7BX, England, firstname.lastname@example.org.