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Expert Witness: July 2011

Ofori Amponsah/Nigeria 70

Feeling the Highlife
Friday, July 1, 2011  

Ofori Amponsah: Odwo (Supermusic '07)
In Twi and in English, highlife new jack Amponsah has one of those tenors you assume is a falsetto until he feels obliged to spend quality time up even higher, as on the self-pitying "Nothing but Love" or the pitying "Homeless," the sentimentality of which would be easier to resist were it more contained and also if there weren't so many homeless African children. More often he's a cheerleader, as on "Highlife Dancing," with its good Ghanaian sunshine, and "Babicue," where champagne will be served. So sweet he has no need for Auto-Tune, he butters it on anyway, and as with the sentimentality the music just gets more beautiful as a result. He tries so hard you'd be a cad to tell him no. A MINUS

Nigeria 70: Sweet Times: Afro-Funk, Highlife & Juju From 1970s Lagos (Strut)
As with 2008's Lagos Jump, the boon is that the "funk" is so tentative--mostly a few chicken-scratch guitars that barely qualify. The bass lines lope and what trap drumming there is owes nothing audible to Jabo Starks or Ziggy Modeliste. Strut says none of these recordings has ever been released outside Nigeria, and indeed, when I pulled down my vinyl on Dele Abiodun's 15-minute keeper "It's Time for Juju Music" I learned that it had indeed been manufactured in the mother country. Such little-heard luminaries as Victor Olaiya and Ebenezer Obey stake their claims, and I enjoyed Ali Chukwumah's un-chicken scratch "Henrietta" so instantaneously I assumed I'd already heard it somewhere--which it would appear that I had not. A MINUS

Teddybears/Russian Futurists

Pop Heat from Northern Democracies
Tuesday, July 5, 2011  

Teddybears: Devil's Music (Big Beat/Atlantic)
Where the nominally similar Gorillaz are cool and detached, Teddybears want the world and they want it soon. Early in the lead track Eve--you remember Eve--utters, in fact sings, "I am the robot Elvis rocking my bionic pelvis/I'm Technotronic sipping vodka tonics yeah I'm selfish/I am the Killer shaking up some more rock and roll," at which point a vocodored Patrick Arve, Joachim Ahlund, or (most likely) Klas Ahlund murmurs, "Them drum machines ain't got no soul." Joke or gauntlet? The cheap answer is both, but let's make it gauntlet. Not afraid to be funny because they're having so much fun, Arve-Ahlund-Ahlund are one more electrobeat-wielding Swedish cartel bent on proving that rock and roll proceeds from enlightened capitalism like we had in America before our plutocrats started expanding the national income gap up past Colombia's. As soon as Eve is through, here come B.o.B. exulting about how he's gon' "Get Mama a House," Wayne Coyne having a go at "Crystal Meth Christians," Cee-Lo and the B-52's praising a pussycat who happens to be named "Cho Cha." There's also some unusually cheerful Krautrock and the antidrug "Cardiac Arrest," featuring the Teddybears' close personal business associate Robyn, who's why they got to make another U.S. album. Last one was Soft Machine, 2006. Sounded good then. Now it sounds like rock and roll busy being reborn. A

The Russian Futurists: The Weight's on the Wheels (Upper Class)
Throwing off his electrofuzz duvet, bedroom-pop solitary Matthew Adam Hart ambles over to a handy recording studio, where he dispenses with comforting layers of echo as if he's finally decided to let the obscure objects of his desire understand his intentions. A few tunes do some stretches, and then a young woman decides it's worth her while to look good too. Soon she and Hart are back in the bedroom, but together, spending "the rest of the night under the covers." Hart suffers his usual second thoughts: "I don't even know what it's like to be honest." But the warmth they shared sticks with him. Maybe he's finally decided that in Toronto you need all the warmth you can get. A MINUS

Shabazz Palaces

Having Nothing to Do With NOI Cosmology Unless You Want to Think It Does
Friday, July 8, 2011  

Shabazz Palaces: Of Light (Switchblade Music/Templar)
Ishmael Butler surfaced as Digable Planets' Butterfly, briefly led the electrofunk CherryWine a decade later, and then sunk from view until the near simultaneous 2009 release of two illegibly documented alt-rap EPs--even determining Butler's involvement required investigative reporting. Lead track on the first promises both "ideology to go" and "attack of the funky clones," but until the be-what-you-are closer, the record delivers mostly clones or at least "clones," including Butler as raggamuffin and a rent-a-thug calling out such "drug pushers" as Osama, Bush II, and old-schooler Oliver North. Fortunately, when the funk is this deep and weird, replicas sound like singletons every time. A MINUS

Shabazz Palaces: Shabazz Palaces (Switchblade Music/Templar)
Rhyming dark and down over beats artier than Dilla's, the artist currently known as Palaceer Lazaro dares you to pin him down. Although the music is less peculiar than first appears, exotica guitar and group-hey-with-foghorn and looped-mbira-tunelet don't exactly shout street. Yet quietly but clearly, the rapper sticks to MC swagger, casual criminality, partying till you wild out, "a lot of hopes and wishes and dreams in here"--plus just enough cautionary reality to keep his ideology fresh. Think of him as a locally based documentarian--a "bright light on the dark side of town" with a cool hand on the dimmer switch. A MINUS

Shabazz Palaces/Street Sweeper Social Club

Tuesday, July 12, 2011  

Shabazz Palaces: Black Up (Sub Pop)
Play loud. I can't speak to the listening practices of the post-illbient beatmakers whose tricks Palaceer Lazaro gathers together and improves on like he's just been waiting for the go-ahead from Tricky himself. But though I wouldn't be surprised if they blasted everything at 10, I think of them as background guys best heard on de facto dinner comps like, say, Mush Filmstrip (Frame 1). Don't make that mistake on an album that improves mightily when the volume is high enough to break the beats into components so they're impossible to ignore. That way, there's no mistaking it for the aimless prog Sub Pop probably hopes gullible white youngsters lump it with. Special favorites for me are the children's-chorus loop turned mbira-and-hand-drums on "An echo from the hosts that profess infinitum," the kinetic drum'n'whatever of "yeah you," the faux-woodwind-lick/surrogate-maracas-electroclicks/African-etc.-outro of "Swerve . . . the reeping of all that is worthwhile (Noir not withstanding)." But I like them all--the beats, that is. The titles are for the gullible, and shouldn't give you the wrong idea about the rhymes even though the beats are why you'll play this. Loud. A MINUS

Street Sweeper Social Club: The Ghetto Blaster EP (SSSC)
For Tom Morello to swap Zack De La Rocha for the smarter, funnier, savvier, flowinger Boots Riley looked better than it sounded on the resultant album, due partly to Riley's loss of lyrical bite and partly to the musical falloff from Coup to mere Rage. But on this apparent afterthought Riley sounds as mad as ever, calling out the pres by name and declowning himself on "Scars (Hold That Pose)": "This old ripped jacket is 'cause I am an artist/I'll burn rubber on you if my car'll get started/Third month avoiding landlords is the hardest/It's only funny 'cause you don't see where the scar is." And this being an EP, there are killer covers. "Paper Planes" is subtly revised from a song about how they'll take your money to a song about how we will. A verbatim "Mama Said Knock You Out" becomes a threat. "Everythang" was a Coup song to begin with. A MINUS

Rave On Buddy Holly/Grin

Rave On Teen Spirit
Friday, July 15, 2011  

Rave On Buddy Holly (Fantasy)
High-profile film-music supervisor Randall Poster assembled quite the high-profile cast to revive these 19 ancient titles. The Black Keys! Cee-Lo Green! Florence + the Machine! My Morning Jacket! She & Him! A whole bunch of rather dull yet commercially viable succès d'estimes! But lo, handed the gift of Buddy's simple tunes and simpler lyrics, they joyfully escape the craft-by-numbers of their own compositions, leaving it to father figures Paul McCartney and Lou Reed to disrespect Holly's classics and to materfamilias Patti Smith to solemnize Holly's fluff--which they can, because they're Holly's coequals. The way his heedless old songs liberate cautious young professionals lays to rest any doubts as to whether he belongs in the same pantheon as George M. Cohan and Irving Berlin. He just bequeathed us a smaller book. A MINUS

Grin: The Very Best of Grin Featuring Nils Lofgren (Spindizzy/Epic Associated/Legacy '99)
Lofgren is an even better argument than Buddy Holly himself for the historically dubious proposition that rock and roll is the proper province of inspired striplings, because he didn't die. Instead he turned pro, grinding out dozens of overstated, unfulfilled albums before and after Bruce Springsteen provided a use for an enthusiasm that got pretty grotesque as his spontaneity vanished with his chronological youth. Consisting entirely of material selected from or contemporary with the three albums he released before he was 22, these 19 songs are dazzling evidence of the grace and spritz with which the kid fused teen spirit and prodigious virtuosity--an evolved rock and roll that articulates the romantic lyricism left implicit by Holly. Nothing wrong with implication. But you can feel it rising up in such unnecessarily obscure titles as "Slippery Fingers" and "Everybody's Missin' the Sun." A

Jill Scott/Dave Alvin

Two (Very) American Humanists
Tuesday, July 19, 2011  

Jill Scott: The Light of the Sun (Blues Babe/Warner Bros.)
I agree, men are dogs. But it gets my radar in a lather when this loving, lovable woman structures her 2007 album along a break-up's narrative arc and then four years later the same thing happens twice--only the first guy leaves her with a boychild who, let's be candid, she loves more unreservedly than she has any grown man on record. For instance, Anthony Hamilton, with whom she shares the highly unconvincing "So in Love" duet right after a conversion experience of an opener called "Blessed" and right before a well-nigh womanist Eve duet. Other boons in a year when Adele has positioned herself as the queen of solemn soul: the sub-two-minute "Quick," about her babydaddy's attention span, and the four-minutes-plus "Making You Wait," about how she needs to find out whether he's nuts first. Also the Doug E. Fresh duet. A MINUS

Dave Alvin: Eleven Eleven (Yep Roc)
To call this the best record of his solo career isn't to claim it's great, it's to reckon that it's pretty darn good. At 55, young Dave has found his voice, which echoes somewhere on the outskirts of Johnny Cash territory, and the songs strike old notes so truly they could be new: loner quests (a half-blind Golden Glover, a bounty hunter with nothing to lose), lost bard (Johnny Ace this time), union man (he beat U.S. Steel and got beat anyway), sex in the present (he loves her dirty nightgown) and past (one inamorata was a union maid on the side). He even hooks up with his brother for some forced jocularity that's the truest note of all. Remember when Phil was supposed to be the singer? A MINUS


Complicated and Underrated
Friday, July 22, 2011  

Serengeti: Noticeably Negro (Audio 8 '06)
In which Chicago alt-rapper David Cohn, a red diaper baby on his African side, explores the conundrums of race and the hidden injuries of class. His woozy flow gathers a musicality that combines Biz Markie and Posdnuous--half wigged-out clown, half unassuming postcollegiate, neither of which Serengeti is or pretends to be. This kind of confusion is intrinsic to how he conceives hip-hop. A song called "Negro Whimsy" is speckled with gunshots; a song called "T.R.I.U.M.P.H." celebrates cabernet and Lucille's rack of lamb. Occasionally, he stumbles into the gentility he parodies. More often he blurs goofy and brilliant so organically that he's both at once. A MINUS

Serengeti: Family & Friends (Anticon)
Where other rappers claim mere personas are "characters" (sometimes inhabiting more than one on the very same album!), Serengeti writes playlets with something like dramatis personae--not just a few slightly confused rappers, although he has several of those, but white working-class superfan Kenny, black garbage man Lee, hip-hop dilettante Derek. Over beats supplied by Yoni of Anticon rap-rockers Why?, who must envy his lyrics, and Advance Base, formerly known as Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, he raps as or about 11 different losers possibly including himself on 11 songs that last barely half an hour. These include a son shooting up with his formerly absentee dad, a bigamist who couldn't resist that 17-year-old, a privileged jerk who lost his job and started a blog, and an ultimate fighter who blows his knee out. Sure the tone is often depressive or satirical. But it's also often kind, pained, silly, unhinged, and other things. On Noticeably Negro, Serengeti asked: "Serengeti's very ill very understated/Why'd you have to go and make things so complicated?" The answer is that the world is complicated and he damn well knows it. A MINUS

Lobi Traore/Sorry Bamba

Mali Gets Loud
Tuesday, July 26, 2011  

Lobi Traore: Bwati Kono "In the Club" (Kanaga System Krush)
Although I've never heard this Malian guitarist's Bamako or Bambara Blues, I admired his quick, clean, tightly hypnotic 1996 Segou--which hardly prepared me for either of the two albums to appear since he died last year at 49. Rainy Season Blues is one of those solo acoustic sitdowns that authenticity fetishists pine for and I'm too crass to get through twice when the songs are in English. This is the opposite--loud, electric band jams from a late-night club in an early-to-bed city and "a well-known Nigerian 'Hotel,'" whatever that means. I do ask myself why I'm more likely to enjoy the form from the number five Malian guitarist than from, say, Jeff Beck. Intensity of self-creation, partly, plus I remain a big Hound Dog Taylor fan. Traore cuts Taylor. But the 10-minute "Ya Time" ("Someone who has lost their mother and father") could actually pass for blues in the land of Ali Farka Toure, which claims blues a lot more often than it gets within 3000 miles of them. A MINUS

Sorry Bamba: Volume One 1970-1979 (Thrill Jockey)
Before there was a Rail Band, this nobly born singer-trumpeter-flutist led a dance troupe and a musical ensemble in the provincial Malian city of Mopti. The Rail Band was more elegant and complex--Bamba was no Salif Keita or Mory Kante vocally, and when Rail Band stalwart Kanté Manfila steps up for a track here, the delicacy of his guitar technique makes for a nice change. Bamba doesn't put forth a consistent sound. He was in show business, and though his core audience was more provincial than the travelers who came through Bamako station, they liked having clave and Ethiopian horns and baby-got-back mixed in with their griot-approved staples. But that's a positive--fun, really. Combined with amenities only Bamba could provide--his trumpet, his flute, his specialty in Dogon culture, and most spectacularly a thousand-year-old showpiece featuring an impossible hectoring chant for a long-departed emir--the groove that asserts itself has crude satisfactions all its own. A MINUS

The Staple Singers

A Paterfamilias Named Pops
Friday, July 29, 2011  

The Staple Singers: Freedom Highway (Columbia/Legacy '91)
The genius of this one-of-a-kind family pop-gospel ensemble was guitarist-vocalist-patriarch Pops. Roebuck, as his mama called him, grew up on Dockery's Plantation in the Delta and heard the likes of Charley Patton and Howlin' Wolf many Saturdays in Clarksdale. But though his guitar always had more John Hurt than Rosetta Tharpe in it, blues was not his calling. Married by the time he migrated to Chicago in 1935, he worked hard jobs and moonlighted at music before gathering progeny Pervis, Yvonne, Cleotha, and Mavis Staples into a group in 1948. The Staples' mastery of gospel's old-time virtuosic melodrama is impressively documented on the 1956-61 Best of the Vee-Jay Years. But sensing a more expansive audience and aesthetic in the folk movement, Pops conceived the Milestone sessions on Great Day as the civil rights movement heated up between 1962 and 1964. Then the Staples moved on up to Epic and peaked. Vocals and guitar serving the song more than on Vee-Jay, tempos faster and steadier than on Milestone, they cheered up a mass movement with the certified classics it deserved: "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," "Wade in the Water," "Samson and Delilah," "This Train," and also "For What It's Worth." Mavis's growl provided essential bravura. But Pops's gentle baritone led structurally and defined the mood. A

The Staple Singers: Stax Profiles (Stax '06)
On any Stax-Staples best-of there will be three indisputable masterpieces: "Respect Yourself, "I'll Take You There," and above all "Heavy Makes You Happy," composed by those great old soul men Jeff Barry and Bobby Bloom. Sure some of the also-rans are better than others, among them two of the three tracks here that aren't on the more official-looking Best of the Staple Singers: the family-tied "Everyday People" and the Movement-themed "Long Walk to D.C." But even on perfectly enjoyable filler like "Touch a Hand, Make a Friend" and "You've Got to Earn It," you can hear the Stax machine groaning with the effort of squeezing Mavis's intrinsic grit and moral intelligence into a soul stardom she never altogether got the hang of and a contemporaneity by then better pursued with Willie Mitchell just a mile away. A MINUS

MSN Music, July 2011

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