Havana Cafe (Havana Caliente/Atlantic)
PEDRO LUIS FERRER
ADALBERTO ALVAREZ Y SU SON
Jugando Con Candela
Just because it's Cuban doesn't mean it's the Buena Vista Social Cloob. Destined to become one of the few musical legacies from the Nineties, BVSC is an endearing Cinderella story in which journeyman guitarist Ry Cooder and producer Nick Gold go treasure hunting in Havana and make the Christopher Colombian discovery that seminal musicians from Cuba's Golden Age of Son -- a centuries-old coupling of European and Afro-Caribbean balladry -- are alive and well ... older. Naming the all-star endeavor after one of Havana's long-departed nightspots and recording a series of timeless releases for indie vanguard Nonesuch/ World Circuit -- including priceless solo debuts by 80-year-old pianist Rubén González and classic crooners Compay Segundo (92), and most recently, Ibrahim Ferrer (72) -- BVSC has gone beyond generating sales and international acclaim, and has even helped unblock embargo-clogged political channels between the U.S. and Cuba. A tale where the glass slipper fits every chimney sweep, as documented lovingly in Wim Wenders' dewey-eyed new film, Buena Vista Social Club. Well, almost everybody. Launching their own vessel of Cuban colonialism, Havana Caliente, Atlantic Records recently sailed for the new world a trio of island exports on their new label imprint. The first and best of the releases, Havana Cafe, from Cuban laúd player Barbarito Torres, distinguishes itself as closest in quality to the Nonesuch/World Circuit catalog, this master of the small, 12-string lute-like instrument having provided masterful musicianship on four out of the first five BVSC releases. Prone to lapses of musical mulch, wherein Torres' laúd and the disc's acoustic instrumentation and arrangements all start to sound the same, Havana Cafe is saved by a mid-album quartet of tunes with guest vocals from BVSC alums Ibrahim Ferrer, Omara Portuondo (the only female among in the club and a vocalist well-deserving of her own solo turn), and 82-year-old baritone sonero, Pio Leyva, one of Cuba's greatest composers. "Corazon de Chivo" ("Heart of a Goat") especially, a composition by legendary Cuban tres player/composer Arsenio Rodriguez featuring Leyva, is devilishly funny. Leyva's vocal turn on "Cangrejo No Tiene Na" ("Crab Doesn't Have a Thing"), featuring integral BVSC sideman and trumpet player Luis "El Guajiro" Mirabal, and Orquestra Aragon's flute player Richard Egües, is equally charming and witty. Unfortunately, when Torres' two vocalists handle lead singing duties, Villa Vigas and his wife Conchita, their efforts often pale in comparison; "Sublime Ilusion," the enchanted title track from BVSC MVP Eliades Ochoa's superb new album on Higher Octave, outclasses the version on Havana Cafe by a country Cuban mile. Vocals are also the weakest element of Pedro Luis Ferrer's eponymous debut on Havana Caliente. A respected composer and accomplished tres player (a six-string, guitar-like instrument), Ferrer's singing displays little range, his heavy Cuban accent slurring into his high, somewhat bland singing voice in a manner reminiscent of James Taylor. Even in his native tongue, Ferrer's vocals are still generic. Nevertheless, a trio of lovely compositions, "La Tarde Se Ha Puesto Triste" ("The Afternoon Has Gotten Sad"), "Ay, Qué Bueno," and a witty and warm duet with his wife Lena, "La Desnudez de Mario Ague" ("The Disrobing of..."), as well PLF's lyrical abilities ("There are people who are like cockroaches," he sings in "Pisotia la Cucaracha") buoy Pedro Luis Ferrer, which ends strongly by stripping down to the spare essentials: voice and percussion. Adalberto Alvarez, the youngest of the three debutees on Havana Caliente, has problems with neither his deep, strong singing nor his crystal clear enunciation. Instead, Jugando Con Candela ("Playing with Fire") suffers singularly from its namesake's weak compositions. His band's blast of two trumpets, two trombones, two keyboards, and requisite congas, bongos, and timbales roils majestically at street party levels, but it all becomes defeaningly indistinguishable quickly. Only simmering mid-tempo numbers like "No Llores Mas Por Me" ("Don't Cry Anymore for Me"), and "Te Equivocaste" ("You're Confused"), scorch with passion while also distinguishing themselves from the rest of Jugando Con Candela. None of these Havana Caliente debuts reach BVSC standards, but then as Ry Cooder says at the end of the Buena Vista Social Club film, musical magic on the order of BVSC usually comes only once in a lifetime.
(Barbarito Torres) 3 stars
(Pedro Luis Ferrer) 2.5 stars
(Adalberto Alvarez) 2 stars --Raoul Hernandez
Briyumba Palo Congo (Blue Note)
Believe it or not, Chucho Valdés' new album is a disappointment. The Cuban piano player, accompanied here by a backing rhythm trio (drums, bass, congas), displays too much bombast and empty technical display here, and too little creative improvisation. Check out the repetitiveness of his playing on Ellington's "Caravan," which goes nowhere. There are times on this and several other tracks where it sounds like Valdés is running through exercises. Among the discernible influences here are Art Tatum, McCoy Tyner, and on "Bolero," Bill Evans. Like Tatum, who combined amazing innovativeness, incredible technique, and bad taste like no other artist, Valdés does too much facile but shallow ornamentation. His Tatum-like rubato opening on "Ponte La Clave" is promising, but after that it's all flash and no substance; he doesn't get into anything beyond playing fast and pounding his instrument. Yes, he has a comprehensive grasp of jazz and Afro-Cuban styles, but on this follow-up to last year's outstanding Bele Bele en la Habana, Valdés jumps from one approach to another without making his ideas jell. The album does have virtues, the pianist and his band finding a nice groove on "Bolero," Valdés playing warmly on it and "Embraceable You." But what are we to make of "Rhapsody in Blue," which seems aimed at a pop concert audience? Perhaps this is an attempt by Valdés' producers to gain him a larger audience. He certainly deserves one, but not for this kind of playing.
2 stars --Harvey Pekar
The Best of Os Mutantes/Everything Is Possible!
(Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.)
This eccentric psychedelic band's bizarre music and irreverent attitude not only had a significant impact on Brazil's revolutionary sociopolitical "Tropicália" movement of the late Sixties, their innovative blend of Latin rock and avant-garde experimentation has also influenced modern artists ranging from Stereolab and Tortoise to Beck and Nirvana. Recently reissued on David Byrne's world music label, Luaka Bop, this album has been hyped as a sort of "Third World Missing Link" to the modern music vanguard, and while it may be true that Os Mutantes have been influential, their case has probably been overstated as much as the music itself is dated. If you're expecting to find something that resembles Stereolab bopping in Portuguese or some kind of Latin Tortoise, forget it. Everything Is Possible! reminds me more of a South American disco album my mother bought for me at a Target in 1978. Nonetheless, the band's subtle side shines in tunes like "Ave. Lucifer," "Desculpe, Babe," "Panis Et Circneses," and "Baby (1968)," invoking the stranger stylings of the Velvet Underground and showing off far-out tape manipulation, sampling, and other effects for which they are acknowledged pioneers.
3 stars --Taylor Holland
THE FLAMING LIPS
The Soft Bulletin (Warner Bros.)
The Flaming Lips' eighth full-length (stereo) release is so far removed from their first, it seems like a whole other universe. But then some things never change. While Wayne Coyne's often goofy, occasionally sappy lyrics might put some listeners off, he has a way of making the mundane seem almost profound ("Suddenly Everything Has Changed"), and at his best, the singer manages to turn cheesiness into genuine sweetness ("The Spiderbite Song") in a way that would make Brian Wilson proud. In fact, there's a lot here that evokes heyday Beach Boys. The near-complete absence of terminally distorted guitar (previously a defining characteristic of the Lips sound), or any guitar at all, has pushed the band even further from standard rock structures, leaving plenty of room for lush arrangements, spacey sound effects, and quirky musical non sequiturs. Not to say that this is Pet Sounds warmed over. After all, the Beach Boys never had a rhythm section like this. Much of the appeal of this album is in the bizarre juxtaposition of quasi-orchestral, easy-listening-esque, late-Sixties-soundtrack sounds punctuated at odd intervals by the huge, bouncy, and thoroughly modern backing of Michael Ivins (bass) and Steven Drozd (drums). The Soft Bulletin posts several clunkers, a few throwbacks, yet manages to it finds its way into some genuinely new territory, and in its wake the Flaming Lips might just be poised to make a masterpiece.
3 stars --Brian Barry
THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS
Is this the ChemBros' pop crossover or just another big beat spin beyond the rave revolution? Either way, one thing's for sure: Giving in to this disk is a plesaure. First and foremost -- and despite its delightful pastiche of house, hip-hop, and techno -- Surrender is a modern rock album. Rock purists may piss and moan about the invalidity of "dance music," how it's just a head-on collision of already invented subgenres, and that today's "artists" are nothing but compilators unable to conjure anything remotely original without the crutch of sampling technology, but Surrender makes that dismissive tirade tougher. The Brothers (and their ilk) simply combine memories instead of notes, concepts instead of chord patterns, constructing beyond arrangements. While Surrender breaks no new ground, it's an effective tour through the best of this decade's recombinant culture. It feels like reviewing a thorough, juicy Nineties compilation with finger firmly set on the fast-forward button: from the old-school boink of Kraftwerk in the opener "Music:Response" to the sexy, muffled thumping mix of Chi-town house and Aussie film soundtrack in "Got Glint?" Heck, there are even featured stops at early-Nineties Brit-boy anthems, such as the Beatle-tinged/Oasis-Charlatans-EMF-y "Let Forever Be," featuring Oasis' Noel Gallagher, and mid-decade dreamy girl indierock like "Asleep From Day," featuring Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval. The inclusion of guests Gallagher and Sandoval, in addition to New Order's Bernard Sumner, Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie, and Mercury Rev's Jonathan Donahue, reinforces this Greatest Hits of the Nineties feel. Instant nostalgia? It had to catch up with us sometime.
4 stars --Kate X Messer
Once the most excoriated agent provocateur in electronic music (see Animal Rights), Moby returns to form in a very cool way with this watermark release on Old Man Branson's nascent V2 label. He's still the same scrawny, follicly challenged, self-righteous New Yorker he's ever been, but he's left off the punk rock guitars and abrasive aggrandizement this time in favor of exploring the outer reaches of Mobyrama. Much of Play sounds like it was beamed directly from planet Sad Guy, but it's far and away Moby's most cohesive and affecting work to date. Moby and blues are two words you never thought you'd hear back-to-back, but his proclivity in that direction is apparent in several tracks, most notably the stunning "Natural Blues," which samples Vera Hall's "Trouble So Hard" as its woeful chorus. It's almost as if Moby has sought and found solace from his electronic pariah status in the sad-sack, downtrodden echoes of the delta blues. Play isn't just a collection of danceable blues riffs, though; it's also rife with Moby's lush keyboard orchestrations on tracks like the trip-hoppy "Down Slow" and the narcoleptic plod of "Inside," which more than anything sounds like a castoff Angelo Badalamenti track from Twin Peaks and could easily have B-sided the classic "Go!" Play is the sound of Moby getting on with it all and putting away childish things, and as such, it's his best work to date.
4 stars --Marc Savlov
There's a Poison Goin' On ... (Atomic Pop)
Revolutionaries inevitably mellow with age, but not Chuck D. The man who once called rap "the black man's CNN" is still calling 'em like he sees 'em, and it's not a pretty picture. As befitting somebody who bailed on Def Jam for the grass-roots Atomic Pop label (this CD is AP's maiden offering), a good bit of D's ire on Poison is directed toward fat-cat music-biz bigwigs and money-hungry musicians willing to sell their souls for radio play. "If you don't own the master, the master own you," he raps on "Swindler's Lust," while also noting that "rap and R&B line the streets of Bel Air." "Crayola" blasts pay-for-play ("played playa shit"), while "LSD" goes after "spray-on hits" ("in the hip-hop game, but the rap got cancer"). Unfortunately, the pointed lyrical vigilance of "I" and "41:19" can only illuminate the larger social ills of poverty, violence, racism, and self-defeatism, not solve them. There's a Poison Goin' On ... shows a PE still willing and eager to fight the good fight, but even they can't do it all by themselves.
3.5 stars --Christopher Gray
BIG BILL MORGANFIELD
Rising Sun (Blind Pig)
The Lost Tapes (Blind Pig)
His father is probably the hardest act to follow for any bluesman, but Big Bill Morganfield, the son of the legendary Muddy Waters, does his daddy proud with this solid, if unspectacular, debut of raw and raucous Chicago blues. The fact that this set sounds so much like his father's music is both its strength and its ultimate weakness. Half the album features well-known songs associated with Waters or fellow contemporaries like Howlin' Wolf, Jimmy Rogers, and Little Walter, while the top-shelf band he fronts is comprised of rock solid musicians like pianist Pinetop Perkins and drummer Willie Smith, who were both members of his father's band at one time. That's all well and good, but it tends to obscure Morganfield's individuality. His singing is robust and strong, with a hereditary urgency in his voice that he uses to good effect. Likewise, his songwriting shows potential and is one clear way to establish his own mark in the future. Blind Pig has also just released a live album of Muddy Waters from two dates in1971. It's not the most exciting performance you'll ever hear from Waters, but it does adequately document his music at that point in time. Perkins and Smith are here, as well as guitarist Sammy Lawhorn and the great George "Harmonica" Smith, who sounds uncharacteristically restrained and generic. Muddy and the crew run his standard greatest hits, but with so much of the legendary bluesman's essential canon readily available, you might want to pass on this one unless you're a truly die-hard fan.
(Big Bill Morganfield) 3 stars
(Muddy Waters) 2 stars --Jay Trachtenberg
Cold Hard Truth (Asylum)
The George Jones Collection (MCA)
What a life. Old Possum George has already outlived many of his contemporaries and even his old flame Tammy Wynette, defying death more than once. If Jones lives to see 90, he'll probably still sound the same, and on the new Cold Hard Truth, it's the sober, latter-day Jones who shines. Given his recent car wreck, the song selection on Cold Hard Truth is excellent, a collection full of bittersweet compositions (the title cut, "Choices") from a man who has peeked over the precipice and seen how far there was to fall. "Our Bed of Roses" is a weeper in the same vein as "The Grand Tour" and "It Was a Good Year for the Roses." For all the solemnity of those songs, however, there are plenty of fun, uptempo tunes as well; "You Never Know Just How Good You've Got It" verges on rockabilly twang, as well as "Real Deal" and "Ain't Love a Lot Like That." Produced by longtime compatriot Keith Stegall, Cold Hard Truth is slick, but thankfully leaves off the syrupy strings and excesses of Jones' Eighties hits. MCA's recently released George Jones Collection is a little weak for just this reason, listing more of his watery latter-period songs. Standouts include a redux of "Golden Ring" with Tammy Wynette and the clever "High Tech Redneck." "Honky Tonk Song" pokes fun at Jones' infamous riding-mower escapade from the Seventies. Sobriety does funny things to people, though; most of these songs simply don't have the kick that his older stuff had. Better to check out one of his less recent anthologies for the likkered-up reckless thrills of "Who Shot Sam" or the bizarre goofiness of "I'm a People" and "Love Bug." And maybe the Cold Hard Truth.
(Cold Hard Truth) 3 stars
(The George Jones Collection) 2 stars --Jerry Renshaw
Terror Twilight (Matador)
It's unnerving to realize that the beloved and brilliant smartass buddy of your youth has grown up and abandoned impetuous impromptu in favor of thoughtful, linear discourse. Terror Twilight offers that insight, pitching gleaming guitar riffs and twisted logic into a fully realized series of songs that shows more refinement than decay. Indie rock isn't dead; it's not even losing much grace with age, really. The notable absence of a quickened pulse and flushed public countenance at the newest release by folks like Sonic Youth, Archers of Loaf, Sebadoh, or Pavement doesn't signal that the music is no longer vital or aesthetically virtuous as it does that the music and its conventions of unconventionalism have become familiar to its fans. For Pavement's fifth full-length album, instead of the slight shift in voice they employed to punctuate the schizophrenia in previous outings, it seems to be all about Stephen Malkmus (except for the weird, sugary, multi-voiced "Carrot Rope"). As a result, the album has an even-tempered, coherent feel that is in itself a departure from what "a new Pavement album" has always been about. The songs are good, like the fluid "Spit on a Stranger" and the swinging, dual-faced "Speak, See, Remember," and sometimes they're even really good, like the 12-bar breakdown of "Platform Blues." The playing is cleaner, the interactions are tighter, and if this is the twilight that's hunting Pavement down, as Malkmus sings in "Speak, See, Remember," getting caught ain't necessarily a bad thing.
3.5 stars --Christopher Hess
RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS
Californication (Warner Bros.)
If only 1995's One Hot Minute had been a little less middling and the fan response to it a little less indifferent, the Red Hot Chili Peppers could have beaten Seinfeld and Soundgarden to the punch and gone away with dignity. Instead, they're still trying to prove they've grown since Blood Sugar Sex Magik and that they can still funk without faking. Unfortunately, nothing comes off more forced than a last-chance effort, and the Chili Pepper's vitality challenge yields an unfocused, frustrating, and self-indulgent mess. Time and time again, underwritten songs, sketchy hooks, and faux drama build into sweet 'n' sour nothings. For every radio-ready but utterly disposable gem like "Scar Tissue" and "Other Side," there are two overwrought, overthought, lyrically inane throwaways that conveniently fall into two distinct groups: full-on funk or sappy power ballad (surprise!). While newly refound guitarist John Frusciante sounds comfortable enough strapping on the same old ball and chain, it's frontman Anthony Kiedis that comes off as most awkward and most insincere. He's singing more confidently than ever, but never has he written himself so little worth singing (i.e., "Python power straight from Monty/Celluloid loves got a John Frusciante"). Californication doesn't suck outright; it's too obviously flawed and hollow to get that emotional about.
2 stars --Andy Langer
The Pilgrim (MCA)
Marty Stuart has always stood for what's right in country music. A member of Lester Flatt's band in his teens and a sideman for Johnny Cash not long after that, he's a fancy picker and respected songwriter who's had a few hit and gold records while currently presiding as President of the Country Music Foundation. Yet nothing Stuart has done up to this point in his career could have prepared us for The Pilgrim. An opera of sorts, or as Stuart calls it, an "opry," Pilgrim relates the story of a wandering man with a broken heart, whose only sin was falling in love with a woman who he didn't know was already married. Loosely following this framework, Stuart carves a masterwork of country styles into each song, all of them performed with a spirit and flair that's uncommon in anything that passes for country music these days. Stuart accomplishes this while also getting guest appearances from such venerable stars as Cash, Emmylou Harris, George Jones, Earl Scruggs, and Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys, all of which makes listening to The Pilgrim even more delightful. From gospel to bluegrass to barroom weeper to high kicking honky-tonk to country rock to Johnny Cash reading an excerpt from Tennyson's "Sir Galahad," The Pilgrim works because Stuart has country music in his heart and this project has permitted him to show it in a way he never has before.
4 stars --Jim Caligiuri
Dark Side of the Spoon (Warner Bros..)
Does Ministry matter anymore? Or have they become, in the years since 1995's Filth Pig, an industrial-sized rawk & roll footnote? The answer is a firm maybe. Stylistically a half-hearted stagger backward to the fold/spindle/mutilate salad daze of yore, Al Jourgensen and Paul Barker not only beat the dead horse, they also dismember that spindley sucker. Echoes of greatness abound on Dark Side..., from opener "Supermanic Soul," with its skittish, razor-quick tread recalling "Burning Inside" to the lumbering rumble of "Bad Blood," close enough kin to Ministry's Psalm 69 to qualify for a seat on the Ned Beatty Banjo Team. There's nothing particularly awful about Dark Side ..., but by the same dirty token, there's also precious little here that fuses Al and Paul's sickpuppy humor with the juddering, lock-step, hellfire theatrics of, say, The Land of Rape and Honey or A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste. It's as if Chicago's (once Austin's) finest soulfuckers have run headfirst into the walls of creativity, lacerating their musical lobes and ended up relegating themselves to a sporadic regurgitation of great and terrible things past. Here's hoping A&P can find their way back to the lunatic fog they've seemingly emerged from: Their black little hearts are back in there somewhere. They've gotta be.
2 stars --Marc Savlov
Trio 2000 + 1 (Winter & Winter)
Drummer Paul Motian honed his unobtrusive and eloquent drum work with the late pianist Bill Evans' trio, and would later back keyboardists Lennie Tristano and Keith Jarrett, among others, before embarking on a solo career in the mid-Seventies. Since then, Motian has helmed his many groups while furthering his completely modern approach. The Trio 2000 (not to be confused with his two decades of on-and-off collaborations with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano) is a project that features unsung veteran Chris Potter on tenor and Steve Swallow on electric bass; the plus ones are Larry Grenadier on acoustic bass and Masabumi Kikuchi (who leads his own far-reaching group featuring Motian, Tethered Moon) on piano. While it would have been nice to hear more from Kikuchi, his rare appearance here delivers a moody beauty, and shakes up the doldrums prone to set in on trio dates. Airy and fluid, this session entrances, and often develops an unanticipated edge. Swallow's a cryptic player, and like Motian, finds unexpected ways to reach his destination. Yet it's Potter's work that's the most expansive, the tenorman drawing a wide sound field in which the band leaves plenty of open spaces. How Motian propels a band while simultaneously mining such a minimal approach is part of his genius, and much of what keeps you coming back to his work again and again.
4 stars --Jeff McCord