(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 22, Number 1, 2003)
(Click here for cover art, purchase info, and RealAudio samples of the CDs reviewed in this column.)
"Could I maybe get me another one of them delicious biscuits?"
After a mere three days in Kentucky, my wife Linda had suddenly lapsed into fluent hillbilly as she attacked a bowl of pinto beans at the Cave City Restaurant in the city of Horse Cave. As I finished my matchbook-thin grilled cheese sandwich, Linda told the restaurant owner about her relatives in Tennessee, then asked, "You wouldn't know the name of that little prospector at the rock shop down the road?" We were in Horse Cave to revisit the clapboard rock shop that had enchanted Linda with chunks of brownish-orange crystal onyx when we had breezed through town on our honeymoon back in 1990. We also returned to check out a new attraction called Kentucky Down Under, where unseasonably cold fall temperatures unfortunately quashed the Australian Outback verisimilitude.
While the zoo itself was slightly less shabby than a Queensland cattle trough, we enjoyed the interactive presentation that allowed us to pet a couple of kangaroos, fend off emus bent on devouring our shoelaces, and watch a border collie herd a flock of sheep that had been through the demonstration so many times, the sheep guided themselves into their pen while the dog romped in the grass. Best of all, we entered an outdoor aviary and acted as human feeding stations as rainbow lorikeet parrots landed on us to snatch bits of apple from our hands. Little else in life has ever pleased me so thoroughly.
Linda declined the biscuits in the southern Kentucky town of Corbin, site of Harland Sanders' first restaurant now commemorated as the Colonel Harland Sanders Cafe and Museum located on the premises of a modern KFC eatery. During the 1950s, years before a cash-strapped Sanders purportedly parlayed his Social Security check into a coast-to-coast fried chicken franchise, he built a motel next to his restaurant. In a visionary piece of marketing, restaurant patrons were confronted with a sample motel unit attached to the dining room indoors as a way of impressing persnickety Eisenhower-era mothers with the cleanliness of Sanders' motel. In fact, the model motel bathroom served as the restaurant restroom, and diners in search of a pay phone were directed to the motel room closet. The Corbin KFC preserves Sanders' original kitchen, cooking implements, model motel room and memorabilia from the days before he had adopted the honorary title of "Colonel," including posters from an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate. But the display case that held his trademark white suit and cane was empty. These were presumably on loan to a more extensive Colonel Harlan Sanders Museum in Louisville.
"I wish we could have had a guided tour," Linda sighed as we sat on bench beside a larger-than-life statue of the Colonel and posed for souvenir snapshots. "Can we go somewhere that has a guided tour?"
Eager to please, I thumbed through my AAA Kentucky and Tennessee Tour Book in search of a historical site of KFC quality that featured visitors herded by fact-spewing docents. For the cliché quality alone, My Old Kentucky Home State Park in Bardstown trumped any other choice. I knew my instincts had been correct when our hostess swept into the 1818 Federal-style house dressed in a rose-colored hoop skirt that delighted my wife and annoyed the college-age wearer. Built by Judge John Rowan, a cousin of songwriter Stephen Foster's father, the three-story house was the inspiration for Foster's "My Old Kentucky Home," our guide informed us. Not so, according to an excellent book by Ken Emerson that I bought at the state park gift shop, Doo-Dah! Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture. Early drafts of the ditty, originally titled "Poor Uncle Tom, Good Night," make clear that Foster was inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, which enjoyed wide success in the 1850s. Our hostess also obfuscated the cause of Foster's death at age 38, ascribing it to untimely illness. In fact, a nearly penniless Foster drank himself to death on the New York City Bowery.
Both reviled as a composer of minstrel songs and beloved as the creator of at least a half-dozen American standards, Foster inhabited an era when elements of black music first entered popular culture, albeit in a white-filtered, racist form. Minstrelsy, of course, is the stereotyping and in most cases mockery of purported Afro-American behavior in stage performance. Folk songs from the Georgia Sea Islands and the Bahamas collected on Rounder Records' series of Alan Lomax cds preserve elements of authentic 19th century black American music. Foster's "Camptown Races," "Old Folks at Home," and "Oh! Susanna" reveal no discernible similarities to these styles, nor do his compositions connect with African traditional music. But Foster's "plantation songs" bucked the florid European ballads and operatic parlor songs of the day by attempting an earthier, more direct connection to the wellstream of song. Doo-Dah! author Emerson maintains that, far from dying out early last century, minstrelsy persists in the work of white rap artists Eminem and Vanilla Ice. It also figured strongly in the white blues revival of the 1960s. I thought he was overreaching until I played a newly remastered version of the Rolling Stones' Beggars Banquet and shrunk in horror at Jagger's sharecropper dialect in "Prodigal Son."
None of this was broached at My Old Kentucky Home State Park. And when I asked our costumed guide where the family's slaves lived, she decorously answered, "The servants lived in a separate building." Too bad a few sample slave berths aren't attached to the restored Rowan house in Harlan Sanders Museum-fashion for a needed bit of contrast.
Near Lexington we visited The Kentucky Horse Park, which interested me not a whit. But attendance was mandatory. "Pastor Larry recommended it," Linda insisted. "He'll ask me if we went there." At the entrance of the park inside an assemblage of boredom called the American Saddlebred Museum, Linda asked the jaded ticket taker, "Is there a guided tour?" There was not, which disappointed Linda. But I was cheered by a nearly horseless World's Largest Horse Barn and an unexplained lack of horses in general at the 1,032-acre horse park. We did see a statue of legendary horse Sea Biscuit. It may actually have been Man o' War. But in Kentucky I had biscuits on my mind.
When you think of Pink Floyd, if you think of them at all, overblown stage shows and progressive rock clichés undoubtedly come to mind. And so does Dark Side of the Moon, the album which spent an astonishing 724 weeks on the Billboard 200 chart of top-selling albums. But when the British band first fired up its lysergic-fueled engines in the late 1960s, Floyd was anything but mainstream. The first attempt at a single, "Arnold Layne," was banned by the BBC for its subject matter of transvestitism. While the stoned and carefree follow-up "See Emily Play" proved to be a surprise hit, the group's first album, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, was a happy, eclectic mess that earned more fans than moolah. Psychedelic nursery rhymes, stuck-note guitar playing, an 11-minute space epic, and way too much whimsy ensured the album's place on the sidelines and its embrace by hardcore fans of the strange. Needless to say, I loved it.
Seven marginally successful releases followed, including three soundtrack lps, none of them in the least portending the commercial breakthrough of 1973's Dark Side of the Moon, on which the group suddenly abandoned experimental noodling for radio-friendly songs spouting off on obvious topics like time, money and death - and not a single cross-dresser within earshot. With Floyd's sudden ascent, those of us who thought the band was all about the undercurrent and not meant for the mainstream turned to Daevid Allen's pot-headed pixie sagas of Planet Gong instead while waiting for Dark Side's sales surge to subside. Nearly 30 years later, the wait is finally over. Pink Floyd's sell-out is redeemed. New York City's Easy Star All-Stars yank the THC-friendly opus away from marketplace respectability and return it to the peace and love posse with a reggae reinvention of the record called, what else, Dub Side of the Moon.
Dub Side marks only the second time in rock music history that an entire album by one artist is faithfully covered by another, and theatrical adaptations of the Who's Tommy don't count for obvious reasons. The first example, oddly enough, is also a Pink Floyd remake. In 2002, Canada's Luther Wright and the Wrongs recast The Wall as a jokey bluegrass song cycle called Rebuild the Wall. The All-Stars could have also taken a campy approach to the parody-ready material on Dark Side, targeting the anachronisms and flower-power demagoguery. Instead, the crew lovingly replicates the original right down to its familiar sonic landmarks, imagining the heartbeat at the beginning of "Breathe" as the tattoo of Nyahbinghi drums and envisioning the cash-register jingles that kick off "Money" as a succession of noisy bong hits. Adding firepower to the All-Stars is an impressive roster of guest vocalists, including Frankie Paul buttering up "Us and Them" and the Meditations pouring roots harmonies on "Eclipse."
The results are exhilarating. Corey Harris does "Time" with a smooth vocal, lulling the listener into complacency until Ranking Joe bursts in with a classic U Roy-style rap augmented by rat-a-tat-tat delivery. "Great Gig in the Sky" gets a one-drop reggae arrangement and all-out, drop-out dub treatment with soaring wordless vocals by Kristy Rock. Wailers' singer Gary "Nesta" Pine and dj Dollarman are a tad too laid back on "Money," however. David Gilmour's vocal betrayed anger and anguish on the original that are absent from the remake, suggesting that the hippie aversion to cold cash because of its corrupting aspect doesn't play these days. It's the root of all evil only if you lack it.
But that difference between source and secondhand points up the strange experience of listening to Dub Side. Hearing it without overlaying Pink Floyd's original from your memory banks is both to miss the point and lose out on the fun. If you're too young to have fallen prey to Dark Side or skillfully sidestepped it through the decades, its musical limitations are palpable. Much of Dark Side consists on weak variations of the melodic theme of "Breathe," and other songs are merely excuses for Floyd to trot out its then-new synthesizer, replacing the ingenious electronics of Saucerful of Secrets and Meddle with canned sequencing effects. Thus, Dub Side would be a much stronger album if the source material had been stronger. A handful of bonus versions at disc's end showcases an elastic approach to a few of the songs that should have you grappling to identify them. That's one way of upgrading the repertoires. Another is for the Easy Star All-Stars to choose a disc next time that isn't just an icon but also an inarguable work of art, like Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Pet Sounds or Astral Weeks. Too easy? Then how about wrapping some dub around Gong's Radio Gnome Invisible, Part 2?
Ry Cooder and Manuel Galbán's Mambo Sinuendo (Nonesuch) stakes out its territory right away. "Dru Me Negrita" is a guitar instrumental in the tradition of the 1959 Santo and Johnny hit, "Sleepwalk," with lush slide guitar, mile-deep melody, and nostalgia with a hint of nervousness. The whole album "harkens back to a point in the late 1950s when Cuban popular music began to hint at a fusion of American pop-jazz and the futuristic creations of modern Cuban composers," explains the liner notes.
That's probably why the title cut with its retro sound effects harkens back to the days when selling Latin music to an American audience meant cloaking it in an otherworldly atmosphere. Sonar blips, weird organ burbles, and a female chorus straight out of a science-fiction B-movie where an alien race represented repressed sexual mores contribute to the tune's lounge music feel. In fact, as catchy as most of the songs here may be, even a strong cut like "Los Twangueros," with its fat, doom-laden guitar chords, comes across like a novelty song. There isn't much at stake in the music, so once you've exhausted the exotic textures and tippled the bent revisionism, you may find yourself grasping for something deeper. But don't look to the Cuban rhythms for the passion that's missing elsewhere. Since Cooder's name comes first on the disc, he may bear the blame for the rockified drumming from Jim Keltner and Joachim Cooder which bogs down songs that should have taken flight. "Monte A Dentro" references Nigerian juju music with a taut guitar-fueled rhythm apparently inspired by King Sunny Ade's 1983 album Synchro System. But the overheated trap drumming decorates the groove without forwarding it, and not even conga genius Agná Diaz can keep the concept airborne.
With its freewheeling sensibility and solid sense of fun, Mambo Sinuendo occasionally resembles Cachaito, the 2001 solo album by Buena Vista Social Club bassist Orlando "Cachaito" Lopez, who plays here, too. But the experiments on that disc were risky yet subtle, like the work of an acrobat who makes juggling chainsaws seem commonplace. Though consistently entertaining, the material here is somewhat cartoonish in comparison. It's vivid in a way that makes these tunes obvious prey for bumper music between NPR program segments.
Malian vocalist and composer Salif Keita was an early victim of the dreaded West African Bombast Virus. This insidious disease can have devastating effects on an artist's songwriting ability, directly attacking the tasteful-arrangement gene and bloating the neurotransmitters responsible for crafting succinct musical statements. Symptoms include an acute depletion of traditional source material and the retention of European pop formats accompanied by the rapid growth of non-organic filigree. In the most serious cases, a secondary infection by French cabaret styles can occur.
On Moffou (Universal), Keita follows the strict regimen demonstrated by fellow Bombast sufferer Baaba Maal, who inoculated himself against electronic excess in 2001 with his back-to-the-roots record, Missing You (Mi Yeewnii). Keita follows suit by hugging African sources as if his artistic life depended on them via a collection of mostly acoustic tracks - though he still can't resist plugging in what sounds like an uncredited synthesizer and letting it wash across the background of some of the fuller cuts. A handful of the songs are as stripped down as any music Keita has ever made apart from singing in the shower, and to their credit these slow movers slough off the vocal acrobatics you might expect from one of Africa's finest throat men in favor of surrendering themselves to honest emotion.
Moffou immediately sets an uncharacteristic tone of understatement with disc-opener "Ya-more." Hoisting a gentle swing borrowed from Cape Verdean morna, Keita trades verses with morna queen Cesaria Evora, matching the quiet elegance of her smoky voice with such eerie ease it's tricky telling the two apart. The backing singers nearly elbow Evora and Keita right off the stage with their propulsive interjections, but the pair holds onto Kante Manfila's chiming Spanish guitar, Benoit Urbain's urbane accordion, and the insistent lapping beat. By song's end, the mood is resolute if not positively triumphant.
The majority of tunes on the album are plucked from Bambara and Malinké traditions, including the neo-griot jolly jali romp "Madan," which posits a pair of ngoni lutes and Djelly Moussa Kouyaté's electric guitar in a whirligig of a parched climate rumba. The usually serious Keita emotes serious fun on this cut, launching grunts at his female vocalists while congas, tama, djembé, and assorted percussion crackle to the bounce of a been-everywhere bass guitar. "Moussolou" finds our man in his familiar thoughtful mode, wielding a light touch but lofty tones to address a string instrument pulse and low tones on an electric guitar that resemble distant horns. On "Ana Na Ming" pure longing takes the fore in a tune that dreams up an imaginary female companion as Keita twiddles his thumbs alone on an island. His singing is so sweet, the lack of a translation to the song lyrics hurts. "Koukou" pushes local sources to their furthest point. Guitars, ngoni and David Aubaile's flutes merge and tumble so tightly their mesh suggests a sampled, sequenced lick, but the touch is far too complex and joyful for mere microchips to muster.
Keita maintains the grandeur, passion, and even the epic quality of his earlier albums without the bloat that often made them chair-squirmers to sit through. Bombast Virus victim Youssou N'Dour also beats the bug this time around as he achieves the apex of singer-songwriter professionalism on his sophisticated return to African instrumentation, Nothing's in Vain (Coono de Réér) (Nonesuch). But professionalism isn't a match for authenticity. While Keita splits opens his soul, N'Dour is frequently measured even as he spins one appealing song after another. Keita sounds as if he were singing with an actual ensemble on Moffou. N'Dour's record feels like the Senegalese superstar is standing at a studio microphone capping a raft of pre-recorded tracks with brilliant vocal performances. This may not amount to much of a criticism, since few people ever bought a Frank Sinatra album because they wanted to hear Nelson Riddle's orchestra, but it does add an element of disconnect that slightly flattens the impact of an otherwise fine album.
Nobody merges African and Western music with anything approaching N'Dour's deftness. He might as well be blending spring water with tap water on the buoyant "Li Ma Weesu" (As in A Mirror). It's that difficult determining where the Senegalese influences end and the Western pop ideas begin. Wolof lyrics and rhythms ripple across a familiar European-style verse and chorus structure underpinned by a perfectly balanced ensemble of amplified and traditional instruments. But the distinctions don't remain this clear cut. The female accompanists sing in non-Senegalese harmony, the tama and other hand drums lean toward ballad pacing, and N'Dour's hooky hopscotch falsetto lines borrow as heavily from his mbalax past as they do from Smokey Robinson.
Curiously enough, Nothing's most memorable cuts pile up at the end of the disc. "So Many Men" is a lovely vocal duet with Pascal Obispo lit by faux strings, electronic textures, interwoven voices, snatches of English lyrics, and few Senegalese flavorings. "Yaru" (The Makings of Respect) starts with a parsed muezzin-on-shortwave-radio voice then glides into Youssou pitching his finest swooping, soaring vocal backed by the same southern African-inflected choir that encircles him on the syrupy but affable anthem "Africa, Dream Again." If no song here provides the immediate kick of "Live Television," the frantic energy of "Set," or the genuineness of "Old Tucson" from his earlier albums, mature artistic expressions tend to be reflective rather than fiery. This is a record you have to live with a while, and it pays off repeated listenings as N'Dour harnesses the power of traditional musical motifs to craft winning pop songs. Salif Keita uses his return to roots as an opportunity for rediscovery. That difference makes all the difference between these two records.
Speaking of musical maladies, if you've been vaccinated against American funk of the 1970s, you might risk infection by an Africanized version in Ghana Soundz (Soundway), a sometimes nutty, often irresistible compilation of Afrobeat, funk and fusion music from '70s Ghana. Compiler Miles Cleret, who also wrote the photo-packed liner notes, tracked down the most obscure tracks imaginable, often starting out by digging up a scratched lp somewhere in Ghana just to determine whether it contained a song that warranted searching for a clean record or master tape. Most of the pieces here owe a substantial debt to James Brown and Nigerian bandleader Fela Kuti. In fact, the heavy Afrobeat rhythms tend to overwhelm the highlife underpinnings. Even highlife outfit the Sweet Talks flings itself into an uncharacteristic funkified dance groove on "Eyi Su Ngaa-ngaa," adapting what Cleret calls "indigenous rhythms from the upper, central and western regions of Ghana" to a feverish dance treatment with a tinge of sweetness to the vocals. Gyedu Blay Ambolley and his band the Stene-boofs harness superhuman lungpower to exhort Ambolley's audience to try the inevitable "brand new dance" he's flogging. A Fela-style opening rap and "la la la" interjections combine with intense organ crescendos in "Psychedelic Woman" by Honny and the Bees Band. But the undisputed period piece has to be Rob's eyebrow-raising "Make It Fast, Make It Slow," featuring the male counterpart to Donna Summer's "Love to Love You, Baby" moans from her memorable single of that era. Tight arrangements, prolific soloing and tireless rhythm sections thrust this odd cd right into the pleasure zone if you give it an indecent chance.
Bobi Céspedes possesses a voice of such folkloric power, she could sing Gilbert and Sullivan and make it sound like Cuban roots music. Rezos (Six Degrees) doesn't demand anything as strenuous as throwing Latin soul at operetta. It posits the San Francisco-based vocalist and bandleader with a mix of Latin jazz and drum loops for a surprisingly effective Yoruba-priestess-in-clubland sound. Not that this is any kind of techno disc. The repeating piano snippets on "Obatala," sitar break on the calypso-flavored "California," and low-key electronica throughout the disc are about as outré as things get. Despite the synthesizer bleats and funky bass, "Yambu Rock" has the feel of a traditional rumba and "Anoche" has son writ large over its hip-hop beats. When not involved with other projects, Céspedes is the leader of the 12-member Conjunto Céspedes.
Don't strain your ears for soothing vocals on Zemog's El Gallo Bueno (Aagoo). Bandleader Aib Gomez is one sandpapery plenero. But he comes by his oddness honestly. Gomez grew up in rural Puerto Rico fascinated by watching freshly decapitated chickens run around the yard of his grandfather's farm. He ended up moving with his family to the U.S. as a boy and living in a house converted from a chicken coop. Playing out recurring dreams of being a rooster, he crows with his band Zemog, "The rooster is flying on his faith," on "Animate," a cut enlivened to the point of sheer frenzy with human-poultry noises backed by real rooster vocalizations. Zemog is Gomez backwards, which is a none-too-subtle tip-off that Gomez is bent on setting tradition on its head. An in-your-face parody of Latin American rural village bands that can barely play their brass instruments in unison seems to be the motivation behind the overriding clamor and clatter. So is the call to party. The songs are white hot, cranked up, and running on nine cylinders. But whap me with a cuatro if Frank Zappa's ghost doesn't rear its art-damaged head in "Palo De Ron" along with free jazz influences and dollops of Sun Ra. And speaking of jazz, get past the too-spooky-for-Halloween mutterings of "Egra" and squeeze into the busy happenings of "Lares Vegas," which takes off from the jumpiness of 1920s jazz a la Fletcher Henderson. Wild percussion, crazy riffs, and mayhem combine with solid chops plus meat-and-potatoes plena atmosphere. What a ride! What a band! But get a singer!
While he was far from the first recording artist to lay down a rap over a Jamaican rhythm, attitude alone makes Prince Buster the primogenitor of the modern dj style. His boasts may link him with Big Youth, U Roy and other dj legends, but Buster's bouts of unfathomable poetry and manifestation of outright nuttiness are suggestive of Lee "Scratch" Perry at his prime. The Buster anthology FABulous Greatest Hits (Trojan) was a vinyl mainstay for years, but a new Trojan reissue improves upon the original by adding a handful of must-have tracks, including "Madness," which launched the British Two-Tone band of the same name, and "One Step Beyond," which may be the quintessential ska song of all time. A minor-key melody suggestive of the ancient Twilight Zone-copycat tv show, One Step Beyond, snakes and shimmies around sensual reeds. Ace trombonist Rico Rodriguez nearly steals the show from the wisecracking Buster on "Barrister Pardon," the follow-up to his popular gagfest, "Judge Dread" (another cut whose title became an artist moniker). If you're curious about the old-time movers and shakers of ska, rocksteady and reggae, Cecil Bustamente Campbell's best provides an essential lesson in scathingly great originality.
Buena Vista: The Next Generation (Pimienta) is both a little better and a little worse than you might expect from a cd that features relatives of the original Buena Vista Social Club. Disc-opener "Los Herederos Intro" is wondrous as trombonists Generoso Jimenez and Juan Pablo Torres tie the melody into woozy knots, and Torres kicks brass on "Palmira," too. Eliades Ochoa's sister, Maria, could build a vocal career on her own without the family connection, and proves my case in the fiery duet with Maria Elena Lazo, "Asi Son Con El Son." But some of the other singers are shaky at best, so that the best you can say about "De Todo un Poco" is that the lackluster instrumentation makes Manuel Licea, Jr. sound a little better. And Ruben Gonzalez, Jr. plays a few too many of his father's trademarked eccentric runs across the keys. The disc title gives all these performers so much to live up to - or live down, if you don't buy into the concept - that they might have been better off choosing a neutral name. Maybe something like the Afro-Cuban Up-Starts.
The naïf who purchases the anthology Calypso (Putumayo) would have reasonable expectations of snagging a calypso anthology. But the jaded record buyer who discovered that the label's recent From Congo to Cuba contained exactly one cut from the Congo won't be too surprised to discover that eight of the 15 songs here are labeled as something other than calypso, and Calypso Mama's "jazzy-calypso" offering "Yes, Yes, Yes" resembles calypso only if you exercise a vivid imagination. Trinidad itself contributes a scant four to this stew, which, true to the back-cover blurb, also contains "calypso-influenced music from the Caribbean islands." So you could just as easily title this pastiche Mento and be barely less correct. Putumayo has a healthy history of putting out the highest quality compilations, so the lapses behind this disc and the Congo to Cuba collection are deep mysteries indeed. Someday someone will surmount the obvious licensing problems and deliver a collection that not only contains the four vintage tracks from Sparrow, Panther, Lord Shorty and Lord Beginner on Calypso, but also give us the motherlode of Lion, Tiger, Kitch, Invader and other Trinidadians who defined and refined the genre.
The traditional music of Mexico is as colorful as a set of dayglo markers,
and The Rough Guide to the Music of Mexico
(World Music Network) proves the case by moving far beyond the ranchera
and mariachi styles that most folks identify with south-of-the-border
music. The disc kicks off with a ranchera, but hold onto your hat. Astrid
Hadad all but demolishes the form with her biting vocal satirizing machismo
on "Qué Puntada." Café Tacuba are up next with a
1994 song grounded in new-wave rock, "Las Flores," and Banda el
Recodo de Don Cruz Lizárraga jolts big-band polka with jarring tempo
changes and brass swoops worthy of a klezmer performance. Close-knit guitar
trio Los Andariegos plays and sings the rustic son istmeño
"La Juanita," La Negra Graciana shoots through a rousing harp-based
son, and Los Marineros de Apatzingán combine harp music with
dissonant violins and bracing vocals in a now-extinct local son variant.
This is a superb one-disc survey of Mexican traditional-based genres with
a little rock thrown in. A dash of the contemporary narcocorrido
style would have added a nice touch, but it's hard to quibble with the excellence
of what's here.
(Click here for cover art, purchase info, and RealAudio samples of the CDs reviewed in this column.)
[Copyright 2003 Bob Tarte]