The Devil You Know
In 2004—18 years after he started playing his songs in bars for a living, 10 years after he signed with Jimmy Buffett, a year after he nailed a live best-of for John Prine, and a few months after he went to jail and then the hospital for an OxyContin habit—this chronic insomniac cut East Nashville Skyline, which was so smart, deep, and funny it could only have been a fluke. New one’s better. If “there’s a war going on that the poor can’t win,” then it’s Snider’s genius to make you feel how for some people, freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose—cf. “Looking for a Job,” about a day worker who takes no shit, or “Just Like Old Times,” about a high school sweetheart turned hooker. At 37, he still makes a specialty of escapades that belong on Cops. And then there’s the one about a similarly hang-loose fella, only he’s rich, hence loathsome. Habitué of Camp David, it turns out. A
Toumani Diabaté’s Symmetric Orchestra
Boulevard de l’Indépendance
Conceived and directed by Malian kora luminary Diabaté, this grandly danceable pan-Mandé big band aims to balance modernism and neotraditionalism as it reconceives Sundiata Keita’s empire for a democracy that only arrived in 1992. Nine tracks feature six lead singers and 26 musicians, a Pee Wee Ellis horn section chips in, and the material is shamelessly surefire—griot classics, horn-tutti salsa, an apt reminder that the Wolof word for “yes” is “wow,” and the finest hippopotamus metaphor in God’s creation. That would be “Mali Sadio,” meaning “hippopotamus with white legs” and concerning the slaughter of such a beast by a homo sapiens with white skin. Too often in “world music,” the kora lulls, slipping exotically into didgeridoo mode. Diabaté has won a Grammy playing that game. Here he rules, and he rocks. A minus
Secret House Against the World
Like most rappers, Richard Terfry sings at his peril, and like most rappers, he’s better off with made beats than played ones. Nevertheless, with occasional input from Tortoise and D-Styles, he and two Halifax pals reclaim the sonic legacy of Serge Gainsbourg. His growly flow confuses Afrocentrists, and there’s a chance the guy “who can’t tell the difference between real art and high kitsch” will prove to be Terfry himself. But even free-associating he can outrhyme 99 percent of the spitters who’ve never heard of him, and every time the one about the goldfish comes up it’s clear he has more stories to tell. B PLUS
The Silent Partner
Downtempo,” “chill-out,” even “trip-hop”—different ways to say “boring” for most of us, and long past modish as well. But, like DJ Shadow and not many others, the musical mastermind of Hungary’s Yonderboi crew likes guitars and orchestral sounds and even melodies. He also has an intuitive-seeming sense of pace and structure that’s probably as calculated as all hell and may be an illusion as well. Doesn’t matter. This moody soundscape moves, hitting you with difference before you know what hit you. Like all DJs, he scratches too much, but like Kid Koala (there is no higher praise) he can make you grunt doing it—as in the last few minutes of “Across the Opium Den.” A MINUS
Mariem Hassan con Leyoad
From Algeria-based Western Saharan exiles circa 2002, the most powerful single-artist desert disc I’ve heard. Hassan is a nurse and mother who obtained a divorce from her first husband because he wouldn’t let her sing. Resolute, soul-struck, transported by struggle, she’s the heart of Baba Salama’s, and while a male singer named Jalihena is very much present, women’s voices dominate—not just Hassan, but her comrade Shueta and on several tracks whole keening choruses. A cooperative sonic gestalt more progressive genderwise than that of most Judeo-Christian bands that bring men and women together, it’s also surer of itself—probably because everybody involved has something to fight for. A MINUS
One of Keita’s better conceived and executed albums presents a familiar vexation to the world music appreciator: exactly how to relate to a supremely expressive voice singing about we-haven’t-the-foggiest. One attraction of beat-driven Afropop is that it runs this question over with a herd of kudu, as in Keita’s years with the Ambassadeurs, a dance band and proud of it. Continuing the big man’s recent return to Malian instrumentation, musical overseer Kante Manfila rewards connoisseurs of pop arrangement for its own sake—traditional soloists piling on their flourishes at the close of “M’Bemba,” accelerating repetitions at the climax of “Moriba,” the look-mama-no-synth washes of the one I know translates “I’m Going to Miss You” because it’s in French rather than Bambara, the hard grooves of “Kamoukie” and “Ladji” to stir the blood. When Keita tacks on a “keyboards and programming” dance remix, it’s just one more fillip.
From the ex-hellion drinking ice tea in his yard to the city laborer who’d rather work his job than wear chains like his cousin Willie, this is where the Kentucky storyteller gets off the outlaw romanticism train, which turned into a Trailways bus years ago. “Old Man” deserves to be programmed back to back with John Prine, “Dirt” with Freedy Johnston. Still, put him head to head with those guys on the wrong Saturday night and he might still be inclined to kick both their asses. B PLUS
J/All I Do
Cynics will dis Kanye’s buddy as this year’s socially responsible faux mainstreamer even though anybody who rhymes “I’m down like syndrome” and “I should be lynched I’m so high-strung” isn’t guarding his p.c. ratings. Word-slinging about day-to-day struggle and bullets gone astray, he either knows whereof he speaks or hires good researchers, and his beats lively his facts just right—only things that sound faux are the street tracks in the middle, one posse and two sex. Kanye bumps up two songs. But the decisive guests are Chris Rock preaching to the heathens and ODB partying from the grave. A MINUS
DUD OF THE MONTH
Never let it be said that the youth of America can’t recognize quality. These guys are spectacularly expert—with their dybbuk-or-angel vocal switchoffs, compulsive tempo shifts, dramatic dynamics, and multiple melodic and rhythmic elements, they’re as exhausting to listen to as Stan Kenton, and with almost as much insight into the human heart. They predicate their worldview on their inability to win the love of Lara Croft, who led them on in a summer romance they now realize was an amoral farrago of lies and deception. So they consign her to many different hells, from ordinary suicide to my favorite: “Watch the stars turn you to nothing.” And she thought she was so great. C PLUS
Additional Consumer News
Dirty Pretty Things
Waterloo to Anywhere (Interscope)
Carving out a punk alternative after the collapse of Albion’s dream (“The Gentry Cove,” “If You Love a Woman”).
‘Sno Angel Like You (Thrill Jockey)
Finally the influence reverses, providing Uncle Neil the chorus idea for his own 2006 album, only this one’s about love in the desert or something (“Get to Leave,” “That’s How Things Get Done”).
Hundreds of young bands still make their generic stabs at short-fast-catchy, and every so often a good one gets lost in the crowd, on a major especially (“Never Gonna Die,” “Astoria”).
Katamanto Highlife Orchestra
(Katamanto Music/the Orchard)
Cheerful Africans and cooperative Danes re-create charming old Ghanaian style (“Mahunumu,” “KK”).
Rolling out licks, turns of phrase, satire, and persuasion, country cat tries to create a country he can be proud of (“I Lie,” “Act Like Nothing’s Wrong”).
Towers of London
Blood Sweat & Towers
If you still don’t think the world is going to hell, remember that once Slade defined bombed-out desperation (“I’m a Rat,” “Start Believing”).
Never Slow Down, Never Grow Old
Right, the Boston sportswriter, who enlists Theo Epstein on a Clash cover and seven actual Red Sox on “Wake Me, Shake Me” (“NyQuil Blues,” “Model Citizen”).
Broken Toy Soldiers
Jack helps Brendan with his problems, remains stuck on his own (“Steady as She Goes,” “Intimate Secretary”).
That Was Me 1994–1998
The country-rock highlights will sound brighter live and acoustic, but other moments shine loud enough (“Late Last Night,” “Margaritaville”).
(World Music Network)
Dakar-born neotraditionalist links to Morocco for the discriminating world muso (“Talibe,” “Niane”).
Band of Horses
Everything All the Time (Sub Pop)
Echoed melisma and felt folk-rock drones for Generation Sad (“First Song,” “Weed Party”).
Strong Arm (buck65.com)
Richard Terfry gives his fans a mixtape (“Track One,” “Track Two”).
Neko Case “Margaret vs. Pauline,” “Star Witness”
Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (Anti-)
Mamany Kouyat “Fatou Nana”
From Dakar to Johannesburg (Playasound)
T.I. “What You Know”
King (Grand Hustle/Atlantic)
Dave Alvin “Don’t Look Now”
West of the West (Yep Roc)
The John Doe Thing “Bad, Bad Feeling”
For the Best of Us (Yep Roc)
Soul Asylum “Fearless Leader”
The Silver Lining (Columbia/Legacy)
Brendan Benson The Alternative to Love
CocoRosie Noah’s Ark
(Touch and Go)
Liars Drum’s Not Dead