(from The Beat, Vol. 24, No. 4, 2005)

World-weariness grips and twists Boris Kovac's World After History (Piranha). The joys feel thin and nostalgic, while even the sorrows are muted, as if to shrug, "Well, what else did you expect from life?"

            Given the in-your-face aggressiveness of popular music, TV shows and culture in general these days, reedman Kovacs and bassist Milos Matic earn points for concocting ambitiously arranged pieces whose driving force is a lack of drive. But giving in to resignation isn't the same as formulating an alternative. Kovac epitomizes the album's ennui in his spoken word vocal on "To Entertain You," which sounds as if he's delivering its tongue-in-cheek lyric from a state of deep hypnosis. "We just want to make you happy," he claims, and the accompanying instrumentation barely hauls itself out of a chair. If this is happiness, it's surely the satisfaction of diminished expectations.

            Kovacs and company hail from Serbia, a nation not exactly known for instilling peaceful atmospheres. The underlying irony is so thick, it nearly scuttles the beauty of the clever if understated cabaret stylings that carry touches of chamber music here, and intimations of jazz there. Adding ambiguity in the guise of complexity, Kovacs' band La Campanella plays a costumed role, sort of like a Balkanized version of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. As on 2003's Ballads at the End of Time, the conceit is that we're listening to a slightly bored, frequently inspired, somewhat seedy orchestra on a Mediterranean cruise ship – one that presumably stops at ports of call whose glory days lie about 150 years in the past. To instill a holiday mood among the passengers, the band dips into a pastiche of popular music that bears tasty if overripe fruit.

            Buttery smooth soprano saxophone and accordion coat a slapstick ballroom rhythm on the emblematic "Limping Waltz," and when soaring solos dance about the ceiling, you can hardly look away. Even more lackadaisically ambitious is "Malena," which lurches from love poem to folk dance to gypsy swing in just over five minutes. Talk about a crowd pleaser. It could melt the heart of the most hardened xenophobe, and bless us if we don't toe-tap along. Guilty pleasures abound through the lovely, languid disc, and if fascism and mayhem steal the best seats to the show, well, that's just Europe. That's just America, too. Don't blame the innocent cruise ship band for the excesses taking place offstage. The guys are just trying to make a buck.

            Another album that keeps a tight focus on the rear view mirror is Sierra Maestra's Son: Soul of a Nation (Riverboat Records). This tribute to classic Cuban songs spotlights dazzling vocal performances and makes a welcome change from the ensemble's 2002 Rumbero Soy, whose integration of avant garde guitarist Mark Ribot added more noise than innovation. The easily distracted among us will appreciate the fact that some of the most attractive standards – including Ñico Saquito's "Al Vaivén De Mil Carreta" and Beny Moré's "Santa Isabel De Las Lajas" – are essentially one-riff wonders. Even Arsenio Rodrîguez's haunting "Bruca Maniguá," which graced Ibrahim Ferrer's first solo cd, flaunts an octave-hopping melody that tests any singer's mettle only to settle into a restless, extended, stuck-groove chorus for vocalist Jose Antonio Rodriguez to rubber-band against. Rodriguez, aka 'Maceo', is one of the six founding members of Sierra Maestra still with the band. But you won't mistake these performances for old recordings, thanks to sonically sophisticated arrangements that boast the broadest musical palette, taking maximum advantage of trumpeter Yelfris C. Valdés, tres virtuoso Emilio Ramos, guest laud-ist Barbarito Torres, and percussive geniuses Eduardo 'Ñiquito' Rico and Alejandro Suárez. But you'll be paying strictest attention to singers Rodrigues, Luis Barzaga, and Alberto V. Valdés on this splendid look back that avoids anachronistic traps.

            The liner notes to Kongo Magni (World Village) call Boubacar Traoré a "Malian blues giant." Certainly you'll hear both the antecedent and successor to American blues in the modality, phrasing and slow delivery of his songs, and his gruff yet fluid vocals might put you in mind of John Lee Hooker. But just as noticeable are the tapping rhythms stretching toward Arabic North Africa that are only degrees of dynamics away from being belly dance beats, plus a dryness to his voice recalling singers from the Sahara. Countryman Ali Farka Toure had long been one of the strongest proponents of Mali as the source of American blues. Led by Traore's loping but attention-grabbing acoustic guitar, Boubacar's disc sets itself apart from Toure's catalog of calabash clickers by adding surprising touches to his down-home repertoire, including Régis Gizavo's harmonium-style one-handed accordion accompaniment to "Kanou" – which may put you in mind of Pakistani qawwali music. Vincent Bucher's harmonica conjures Little Walter and other mouth organ greats, whenever he pops up on this wide-ranging but utterly homogenous series of songs, yet his style is distinctly African. Knotting the ends together, Traoré flourishes the grace and understated power befitting a musical patriarch.

            Wanna trace the roots of American bluegrass violin with its long, legato bow sweeps and exuberant to the point of manic melodies? I'm just making stuff up here, but I would guess that Vikings brought something resembling the form to Scotland centuries ago, it eventually dissipated throughout what is now the UK and Ireland, and trundled over to America patiently awaiting adoption by Aaron Copland and use in a rodeo-flavored tv ad for beef. Recognizable remnants of the old hoedown style still linger in isolated pockets of the Shetland Islands, Cape Breton, the Kaustinen region of Finland and, it appears, Sweden, home to fiddle band Harv. No purists they, these new generation folkies deliver the goods straight up on "Grythyttehyl," go Cajun on "Sockertöj/Ja Dä Gör Vi," add a dobro and Appalachian smatterings to "Tösen" and generally exude charm all over Polka Raggioso (NorthSide).

            Third World's return to form on Black Gold Green (Shanachie) is as harmonious, hook-filled and exuberant as you might expect. Intimations of dancehall beats don't deter these British graybeards, whose pop savvy always singled them out from lesser reggae songsters. In fact, this comeback disc marking the band's 30th anniversary is so triumphant, you'll find yourself asking, "Where have these guys been?" "Lovers in a Dangerous Time" manages to combine a classic-style love song worthy of the Four Tops with apocalyptic Rasta imagery. Inspired lyrical phrases like "butterflies in the rain" elevate the otherwise ordinary song of the same name. But Third World ordinariness sets an exemplary standard, and if you need to dig deeper with reggae that's less overtly commercial and not so blindingly bright, you may set this aside. But you'll keep coming back, especially with guest stars Beres Hammond, Wayne Marshall, and Blue Fox on board.

            Archival folk recordings by John and Alan Lomax have gotten a workout in the past few years. Clothesline Revival's treatment of vintage vocal tracks on Long Gone (Paleomusic) is closer to that of Melville-descendant Moby than to southern production team Tangle Eye, which folded the singers into mostly acoustical instrumentation for an organic, collaborative feel on 2004's Alan Lomax's Southern Journey Remixed.  Clothesline Revival, on the other hand, makes hay out of the contrast between 1930-50s rural recordings of blues, gospel, work songs, and shiny new settings, demonstrating that the old, weird, indigenous American music is both deep enough and sufficiently elastic to still signify. While the surprise of this kind of treatment faded back in the 20th century, Long Gone maintains an agreeable creakiness in the teeth of its modernity. I salute guitarist-etc. Conrad Praetzel and his band members for knowing when to keep out of the way of the source material, as on "I'm Troubled About My Soul," which develops its pedal steel and plucked string accompaniment gradually beneath Lillie Knox's waifish voice, but I do miss the newly recorded vocal performances of Clothesline Revival's debut disc Of My Native Land, which proved that a mix is as good as a remix, and past is present all over again.

            It's the battle of the dueling Titoes. The late and legendary Cuban-born bandleader and percussionist Tito Puente suddenly gets two new best-of retrospectives, The Rough Guide to Tito Puente (World Music Network) and The Essential Tito Puente (Sony). If I could locate my misplaced pre-release liner notes to the Sony double-disc set, I'd fill pages with cribbed descriptions of the 40 included songs. Instead, I'll just note that these two collections only share a single song title, which isn't too surprising considering the output and stylistic excursions of the mambo king in the 29 years of recordings that the Rough Guide dips into. Tito soars with La Lupe, Celia Cruz, Miguelito Valdes and more gifted soloists than you would care to count, so treat yourself to both collections instead.

            Led by Martin Craddick's peppy guitar lines, Outback's style is instantly recognizable. If little has been added to or subtracted from the formula over the years, consistency isn't cause for complaint as long as you like what this UK-based band is up to. Over the last couple of recordings, Celtic touches such as Gaelic-style vocals and flutes augment a blend of flavors whose soul derives from the music of the Baka pygmy people of Cameroon. The Francophone vocals and Paddy Le Mercier's Gallic gypsy violin lend a French feel to several of the tracks. The Rhythm Tree (March Hare Music) comes most alive, however, when male pygmy voices hop in, as on the rollicking title cut. It's a nice sound, and Baka Beyond is smart to stick with it.

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