It was a proposition as certain as any in the world of natural phenomena.
The sunspot cycle lasts 11 years. Amanita phalloides mushrooms cause liver
failure. Night follows day except in polar regions. The smallest horse on
earth is the nine-inch-tall extinct eohippus. Eek-a-mouse is incapable
of carrying a cd on his own.
These are facts as indisputably unwavering as the cesium standard clock
at the Royal Greenwich Observatory--as any third-year student of particle
physics or past releases by the Eekster will readily verify. His trademark
vocal acrobatics aren't the problem. Feed me sixty solid minutes of MC Mouse's
mind-meld of doo-wop glossalalia and a spin dryer full of ball bearings,
and I'm ready to take on a heaping second helping.
But the Eekster's English-as-interplanetary-language enunciation, which
makes no-means out of morphemes via the dissective prowess of a drunken
neurosurgeon, needs the support of more musical tooth than has previously
been available within our galaxy. Backed by standard skin and bones studio
reggae, the Rasta rodent tends to de-evolve from flamboyant curiosity to
some droning nerd from a home heating and cooling convention who traps you
in an elevator.
Though it took the talents of a half-dozen producers to add variety to Mouse's
spice--from Stetasonic's Daddy-O to Shabba Ranks' Augustus "Gussie"
Clarke--as it turns out U-Neek (Island/Peace
Posse cd) is nothing short of brilliant, the most distinctive reggae hip-hop
amalgam to date.
Certainly it's the funniest, from the rowdy remake of Led Zep's "Dyer
Maker" to a hilarious deflation of the "Godfather" theme
in "Gangster Chronicles" to the mock-serious choir intoning the
Mouse's nonsense scat syllables on "Rude Boys A Foreign." But
once the shock of the new fades with repeated listenings, humor loses its
bonding force. So it helps that U-Neek's attack is consistently varied,
genre-stretching the Mouse's ouevre like so much silly putty.
Not only don't any two cuts sound alike, many don't resemble any reggae
I've heard before. Is that a blast of Balkan dance music jump starting "Run
for the Border", or some techno-latin thang jitterbugging "Let
The Children Play"? Forget it. What consistently carries the day is
the Eekster's ability to transmute self-consciously idiotic wordplay (check
the Maui-Waikiki-Fifi-Fiji-sushi rhyme string on "Get Away") into
narrative that packs real punch.
"I walk, I talk, but I no crawl on my belly like a reptile," he
sings in "Border Patrol" an ostensibly funny image that soon turns
chilling, as the singer recounts his harassment by American immigration
officials. Irrepressibly bubbly backdrop to the contrary, "Rude Boys
A Foreign," weaves a sobering story about Jamaican dope dealers in
the U.S. Even "No Problem," which equates the projected trajectory
of the Mouse's career with ending apartheid and other serious social problems
("I don't see no problem with that!") is less an egocentric boast
than a boost of optimism.
So my apologies to the Eekster, who stands head and shoulders above the
vocal feats and applied production science to reveal a lion's heart. No
surprise. I always knew he had it in him.
Asked why members of Ivo Papasov's orchestra rarely look at the audience
during concerts, saxophonist Youri Younakov replied, "There is no time.
Have you ever seen how a hunted wild rabbit runs? It runs zig-zags, stops,
returns, does 8's and 16's... That's how Ivo plays. And we chase him like
hounds with our tongues hanging out."
While "Mladeshki Dance" opens Balkanology
(Rykodisc/Hannibal cd) to the reasonable pace of a reggoid skank guitar,
before long the mild mannered Turkish reel accelerates into hyperspace,
setting the pattern for most of the songs that follow. Ivo flings himself
headlong into tempi incognita where few western Western musicians would
dare extend a toe, igniting clarinet bursts at a maddening 11/8 rhythm mirrored
note for note by Younakov and accordionist Neshko Neshev, while drummer
Stefan Angelov sets up a fusion clatter in brave ground-level pursuit.
It's difficult believing Balkanology presents Bulgarian wedding music
based on traditional folk motifs and not the latest harmolodic jazz torture.
Dazzling as Ivo gets in terms of sheer momentum, even more impressive is
his tonal mastery, blowing his clarinet full throated and rounded one moment,
then the next phrase pinching it back into an atavistic buzz. Despite the
white-hot note-density, melodies emerge with miraculous ease to linger lazily
Ivo's wife, Maria Karafezieva, tempers the hysteria with hierophantic vocals
in the quavering Bulgarian body-electric style--a timbre Ivo somehow matches
on his instrument. But even the slow numbers burn, as this disc pushes the
envelope of conventional approaches to folk, jazz, time and spatial plasticity.
In the hallowed tradition of Nigerian's premier juju captains, Afropop innovator
Fela Anikulapo Kuti has amassed a bewilderingly fat catalog of domestic
and foreign releases that range from illuminated descriptions of the promised
land to tail-chasing detours through moraines of recycled riffs. Shanachie's
slab of classic Fela is thus an easy choice. Squeezing onto disc three-fourths
of two lps from the bandleader's most inspired period, Original
Sufferhead combines a couple of his best extended vinyl jams with
a pair of rarer, shorter pieces (one a mere 13:42).
A response to a thuggish police raid that murdered Fela's mother and destroyed
his home, "Sorrow, Tears and Blood" is remarkable for the passionate
detachment that turns personal grief into a cool-headed expression of anger
at the Nigerian government. His big band has never sounded more succinct
and powerful. Riding a start-stop bassline, stuttering rhythm and seething
sax solo, "Colonial Mentality" widens the indictment to villify
a corrupt, inherited social order based on the greed of a priveleged few.
On this and the title cut, the interplay between Fela and a chorus composed
mainly of his wives is outstanding.
So why quibble with greatness? Despite the inevitable pops and crackles,
I prefer the sound of my lps to these neatly-scrubbed digital versions,
which strip away noise and hiss at the expense of three-dimensionality.
The horns especially suffer. Note-tails are subtly clipped; rather than
trailing off into silence, they roll off at a low threshhold and simply
end. Brightness replaces punch in the sax-sections, but I must admit the
added overall crispness does work to the advantange of the vocals.
If you don't have the vinyl originals, Sufferhead probably won't suffer.
Its sonic eccentricities don't even approach the flatness and shallow staging
of the Live in Amsterdam double-lp. But would someone please tell me what
a "jeffa-head" is?
3 Mustaphas 3, Friends, Fiends & Fronds
(GlobeStyle cd). This singles- and rarities-based portrait of the artists
as an evolving concept traces the Balkanesque funsters from their campy
genre-splicing days to the grittier, more empowered boundary erasures of
the present. The self-assured "Linda, Linda", presented here in
two essential versions, seems to have been the turning point. Some remixes
like the Albanian-language "Bread & Salt" improve so little
on originals I'd suspect padding but for the cd's packed 70-minute length
and knowledge that Soup of the Century sessions with Yugoslavian
bandleader Jova Stojiljkovic so far languish unreleased. The two new cuts
at disc's end are pleasant pastorals.
Malicorne, Legende (Rykodisc
cd). Liner notes to this generous retrospective peg the defunct ensemble
as France's Fairport Convention for its update of folk material. But Malicorne's
approach is closer to middle-early Gentle Giant, so art-rockers who like
their ink from a quill pen viscous black will grow goosebumps in the dark.
Not only arrangements but proficiency on invented instruments display inspired
Salif Keita, Amen (Mango cd). If
any pairing could turn virtuosity to revelation, depend on Malian griot
Keita and producer Joe Zawinul for an epiphany. But I'm still tapping my
foot and waiting. While Zawinul's arrangments impart a flow Keita's instrumentals
previously lacked, the voice still seems forced in its righteousness, as
if triumph over personal adversity automatically conferred spiritual authority.
Aurlus Mabele with Loketo, King of Soukous
(Sound Wave cd). On this brisk train ride through sun-drenched environs,
if you're open and alert the vistas thrown off from the sparking wheels
invite exhilaration. In the blink of shadows across your face, the modulation
of countryside, markets, billboards, apartment blocks and farms keep your
eyes miles from the newspaper on your lap. But let them drop for a second,
and by the time you've begun your crossword puzzle the half-hour commute
is over. Now that you've arrived, where are you? Someone's radio on the
station platform plays a hymn.
Guitar Paradise of East Africa (Earthworks
cd). The microprocessor-inspired evangelic thrust of soukous has pushed
this gentler but by no means less brave guitar-based pop irrevocably into
the background. Compared to the sapeurs, the musicians on this '70s-'80s
compilation seem positively ancient, yet their argument of letting traditionalism
breathe in tight city spaces remains current. If an inevitable nostalgic
ache underpins the fade-to-silence guitar figure that introduces "Achi
Maria," consider that Kenyan-government victim H.O. Kasaselleh knows
more about the modern world than most of us care to. Vocals that frequently
feel like laughter are so compelling this could just as easily be termed
a singers' paradise.
Jimmie Dale Gilmore, After Awhile
(Elektra Nonesuch cd). Neotraditionalists as far back as Graham Parsons
have argued for the merits of C&W. But I always dug in heels against
an aesthetic of resignation that gives negativity a bad name. No one else
sounds like Gilmore, though, whose reedy, lonely whistlestop voice evokes
Last-Picture-Show microcosms of an America crumbling from the edges in and
a rugged individualism leading to self-diagnosed symptoms of madness. "Even
if you're lying with somebody you really love," he sings jauntily,
"you gotta go to sleep alone." Existentialism has never sounded
sweeter or more like a natural fact.
Thomas Mapfumo, Shumba (Earthworks
cd). The genius of chimurenga is how its anticipatory rhythms point to a
resolution that can only occur outside the music. Within the songs, the
tension never ceases. Yet this same rhythm, carried away in the body, sloughs
off all anxiety to induce instead an essential cellular tempo or the stuff
of ping-ponging alpha waves at least. And when songs of reconciliation do
surface in the midst of these chronicles of struggle, the abrupt relaxation
feels luxurious at first, then later as if something's missing. It took
a while past the scope of this '70s-'80s anthology for Mapfumo to fold his
joy at Zimbabwean indepedence back into a form as forceful as his longing.
But the elation is strong enough to carry away, too.
Winston Jarrett and the Righteous Flames, Solid
Foundation (Heartbeat cd). While dancehall insists on instant gratification,
roots reggae opts for biblically paced patience and a warm choral sound
that, until now, kept the increasingly audible technology of pop at arm's
length. But here the synths and samplers joyously pump the arrangements--brilliantly
in the cover of "Satisy My Soul"--and organically interweave in
perfect timbre with Jarrett's upward arching vocals. He does ragamuffin
scat, pure pop, prophecy and proscription, straining a bit only on the lover's
rock, but whose voice doesn't crack where life-or-death romance is involved?
And he never lets the bassline falter.
Tony de la Rosa, Asi Se Baila En Tejas
(Rounder cd). Because I don't get to hear much conjunto, some of the subtler
points of the music are lost on me--telling the sound of one performer from
the other, for example. No such problem with Tony de la Rosa, though, whose
continuous button-pushing style penetrates the fog of my ignorance by avoiding
the endless Sisyphean cycle of verse-solo-verse-solo, for one thing. For
another there's a great deal of variation between cuts. Strings of polkas
and rancheros are deftly tied off by jump-up instrumentals that toy with
a jangly, orchestral carnival feel to playful variations on "Roll Out
the Barrel", which I never even knew I loved. He sings with as much
good humor as he plays, never letting the accordion line falter, not even
for a single breath.
Honor the Earth Powwow: Songs of the Great Lakes
Indians (Rykodisc cd). While traditional music from other continents
steadily gains visibility, some American genres remain obscure. Nonesuch
Records' American Explorer series is beginning to rectify the situation
with fine releases by Charlie Feathers, Boozoo Chavis and others. Closer
to the soil comes Mickey Hart's Rykodisc recording of drums at the edge
of magic at a Wisconsin tribal gathering of Memoninee, Ojibway and Winnebago.
And the drums are the first thing you notice--never more belly rumblingly
documented than here--then the high-pitched male lead vocals that share
a shamanistic vitality with Thomas Mapfumo. Copious line notes demystify
the shapes of the energy that are otherwise immediately and directly grasped.
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