This CD not only features one of Mali's most interesting young vocalists and composers, Oumou Sangare, but capable instrumentalists including, in addition to African musicians, ringers such as saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis of James Brown's band. Sangare sings with power, accurate time, and pitch, but don't overlook her writing. A strongly opinionated feminist, she deals with subjects including the injustice of polygamy, the dearth of farmers in her land, the rigidity of Malian society, and the uncertainty of life. The arrangements feature call-and-response exchanges between Sangare and a chorus, and there are substantive guitar and violin solos on Worotan as well as complex and cohesive rhythm section work. (Oumou Sangare performs at Hogg Auditorium, Thursday, November 6.)
4 Stars -- Harvey Pekar
Dreams Of Freedom: Ambient Translations of Bob Marley in Dub (Island)
It's always been a mystery to me why there has never been a dub album of Bob Marley's music. After all, his songs are virtual anthems to even the most casual of reggae fans and the music itself has long been the very backbone of modern reggae. Well, it's taken awhile, but at last, under the guidance of visionary producer Bill Laswell, the likes of "Rebel Music," "Them Belly Full," "Exodus," "One Love," "Waiting In Vain," "The Heathen" (recently re-popularized in Jamaica), and more are given a thorough-and-then-some dub treatment. Through Laswell's artful use of modern technologies, the music itself gets revitalized and catapaulted into the 21st century. Dub music has always been rather spacey to begin with, so the tasteful addition of technologically ambient sounds and selective percussive enhancement only adds to the ethereal intent. Oddly enough, Marley's voice is nowhere to be found here as Laswell didn't want to tinker it. Instead, the I-Threes cast their sirens' call, guiding us surrealistically through the vast, sometimes dense, multi-textured dubscape. When you peel away all those layers, however, you get down to the core of what this music is all about -- bass `n' drums -- and if nothing else this album is a celebration of the architects of Marley's sound: the incomparable bassist Aston "Family Man" Barrett and his late brother, drummer Carlton Barrett. Together, the Barrett Brothers created Marley's signature "one-drop" riddem and built the very foundation upon which his songs have become timeless masterpieces. I found it supremely ironic if not downright shameful that Aston's name is merely mentioned on a long "thank you" list and Carlton's name is nowhere to be found at all. Shouldn't reggae music's most important riddem tandem ever be given at least a modicum of recognition on an album of music they essentially created? Respect due!
3.5 Stars -- Jay Trachtenberg
One Day It'll All Make Sense (Relativity)
Does hip-hop need a miracle? With all the incessant playa-hating, sensationalist rumormongering, blatant Top 40 whoring, empty grooves, and embarrassing lyrics of the past few months, it sure seems like it. Miracles are hard to come by in '97, but Common's blast of sense may be even better. On his third LP, the Chicago MC is playing in the United Center while everyone else is stuck on the playground. Aided by an incredible guest list (Lauryn Hill, De La Soul, Goodie Mob's Cee-Lo, Erykah Badu, The Roots' Black Thought, Q-Tip, Lost Boyz' Cannibus, Chantay Savage, even his dad and Minister Louis Farrakhan), Common's smooth, intelligent, compelling lyrics tackle sensitive issues such as abortion ("Retrospect for Life," a powerful duet with Hill), and spiritual yearning ("G.O.D.") as deftly as the more day-to-day aspects of his life: parties, sex, fatherhood, fakes, even some B&E bitches who lifted his pad while he was out of town (the "Stolen Moments" suite). Common knows he's real, says so on "Real Nigga Quotes," and otherwise doesn't waste mike time bragging about it. He'd rather speak his mind. And whether he's being harshly critical, philosophically deep, or just kickin' it -- and only Missy Elliott's Supa Dupa Fly is as consistent a bouncing, head-nodding `97 bomb -- what's on his mind makes perfect sense.
3.5 Stars -- Christopher Gray
The Book of Secrets (Warner Bros.)
Those who think perfect albums do not exist have never heard Loreena McKennitt. Like perfectly cut squares of the richest fabrics on a beloved quilt passed down, McKennitt has seamlessly added The Book of Secrets to an exquisite body of work that began in 1985 with Elemental. McKennitt's sixth full-length album, The Book of Secrets, is the Canadian singer's first new product since 1995, and yet all it takes is eight new songs and 54 minutes to completely enchant her myriad fans. Part of that is McKennitt's patient but unflinching devotion to perfecting every aspect of her sound from performance to production (not unlike Eric Johnson), but most of the appeal lies in her ethereal compositions and adaptations of classic poems layered with spare but lavish instrumentation. Open The Books of Secrets and out rolls a brilliant length of songs intricately woven into tightly knit material of the most precious detail, evidence of McKennitt's love of history, and indeed, Secrets is designed like a hymnal, right down to its "Prologue." Past albums, such as The Mask and the Mirror, which was inspired by the Celtic culture of Galicia, Spain, have focused on specific areas of musical development, and true to that form, McKennitt's journeys to Greece and Turkey can be heard on Book of Secrets in the loping instrumentation of "Night Ride Across the Caucasus" and "Marco Polo." Both "The Mummers' Dance" and "The Highwayman" (minus two verses) play on familiar McKennitt territory here, much as "All Soul's Night" and "Lady of Shalott" did on The Visit. What Loreena McKennitt truly does with this skillful patchwork of new and vintage material is create the sound of a deeply spiritual plane that reaches far into its pan-Celtic roots and manifests itself in music that stands for all ages.
5 Stars -- Margaret Moser
Austere, spare, haunting melodies backed by superior scratching, all wrapped in Beth Gibbons' achingly chilly vocals. With a black bow on top, no less. No one's ever going to accuse Gibbons and Geoff Barrow of going overboard; all three Portishead releases have been triumphs of eerie trip-hop minimalism, filled with creepy-crawl loops and enough post-teenage angst to make Morrisey look like Richard Simmons. Portishead continues mining that same scarily romantic vein, only this time the effect is even more laconic. From the opening track ("Cowboys") all the way through, Portishead weaves an ominous portrait of grim, tortured, lost love amid waves of malaise, sorrow, and quiet shock. Music for Ingmar Bergman films? Not really -- that overriding chill is softened somewhat by the group's unmistakable sense of humor; Portishead only sound like they're taking themselves too seriously. Anyone over the age of 16 that took their big hit "Sour Times (Nobody Loves Me)" to their cruel, cruel hearts was either on the dog-end of a bitter relationship or studying too much turgid British romantic poetry. There's a nod and a wink here, for those who care to see. Regardless, Portishead is even more arctic than their past work, and as such, it's a perfect way to welcome in the drooping, skeletal boughs of October. More ice on my heart, s'il vous plait.
4 Stars -- Marc Savlov
Peace and Noise (Arista)
The entire body of Patti Smith's work culminates in Peace and Noise... both in concept, and in this album. For within this work resides the dominant theme of all that is Patti Smith: Duty. The gods of your ancestors salute you! Our beloved art-rat, god-dog, rock & roll nigger lives to serve. Like the creature rock & roll himself, Smith skates the mainline between public- and self-service, communication and meditation, and moreso, mediation, channeling and fanning the embers of what inflames her: Ginsberg, Pollack, Richards, Mother Teresa. Sure, we call Smith goddess, but how many of us turned to literature and art because of her passion? Think of Smith less as deity and more as a walkin' talkin' Naropa Institute, a living, breathing compassion college manifesting free-think, free-form, word babble babel. Think of the disenfranchised 17-year-old who will experience something way beyond nirvana when she hears Smith and co-conspirators put to music the magic of Ginsberg's words ("Spell") and ideas ("Don't Say Nothing"), or the dedication to Burroughs (Vietnam epic "Memento Mori"), and the sorrows of Tibet ("1959") and perhaps think to herself, "Gee, I want to learn more." While 1995's Gone Again also honored dead heroes as Smith walked us on her horrific voyage to Hades, its morose dance merely dropped us off at the gates. Peace and Noise peeks in, tips its brim, lights a candle ("Death Singing"), and gets us the Hell out of there and back up with the living where we belong. Long live Patti Smith.
4.5 Stars -- Kate X Messer
Full Blown Possession (Sub Pop)
Wasn't it that leaving Sub Pop rather than signing with them used to mean selling out? Well, if that's what Memphis' Grifters have done by putting out a second album for the Seattle indie, more power to 'em, because Full Blown Possession is solid proof that old dogs shouldn't learn new tricks. The Grifters stick to what they know: a world that's slightly spooky and more than a bit seedy, where rough-edged riffs weave together with a disconcerting delicacy and singer Scott Taylor's eloquent trash talk. Taylor's vocals are more lucid and smooth than on albums previous, a nice tonal contrast to his waxin' nasty, and the album's liner notes include an additional promise not to clean up their act any more than they did for this album. If it requires cleaning to create the spare and hurtfully beautiful "Sweetest Thing," let's not be so hasty. Funny thing, though; you'll find plenty of Bowie (the overwrought "Spaced Out"), Beatles (the swirling psyche-sound of "Happy"), and Stones (most everything else), but where is their hometown King? Nowhere. In "Re-Entry Blues," Taylor sings, "The King is dead, and I'm moving on." And they are. (The Grifters play the Electric Lounge Friday, October 31.)
3 Stars -- Christopher Hess
THE ROLLING STONES
Bridges to Babylon (Virgin)
The Rolling Stones have always been a band
of their times. When everyone was playing blues, they played blues (12X5). When everyone recorded Sgt. Pepper, they did Sgt. Pepper (Satanic Majesties). Dylan? Beggars Banquet. Later came the punk album (Some Girls), the disco album (Emotional Rescue), and New Wave studio glam (Undercover). In 1997, the thing is electronica, so Mick Jagger, in his eternal quest to be relevant (one can just picture Keith Richards scowling), enlisted remix hotshots like Danny Saber and the Dust Brothers. The results are the album's best tracks: the terrific ghetto gangsterisms of "Gunface," the 21st Century blueux of "Might as Well Get Juiced," and the band's best single in years, "Anybody Seen My Baby." Left to their own devices, Richards resorts to generic jams ("Low Down"), while Jagger sings his icy ballads ("Already Over Me," "Always Suffering"); the Glimmer Twins' solo albums have really made it crystal clear which musician contributes what to the infamous Jagger/Richards songwriting stamp. What makes it all come together, though, what makes it better than the Exile retro of Voodoo Lounge -- and something of a spiritual cousin to '83's Undercover -- is pure Rolling Stones. When Richards lays into the wicked riff of just another throwaway rocker, "Too Tight," it sends shivers down your spine. And when Jagger, who has become a lazy lyric writer, counters with "... I sung that song, I wrote that fucking book," it could only be one band. A band that's made a pretty rad little Stones album.
3 Stars -- Raoul Hernandez
Postcards From Along the Way (Capitol Nashville)
A few years ago, the Delevantes appeared at South by Southwest, and a small crowd of fans gathered in front of the Continental Club's stage (possibly from the Delevantes' home base of Hoboken?) cheered like these then-Rounder signees were the Beatles. Meanwhile, those of us from the alt-country capital of the world were scratching our heads saying, "What?" They just weren't that great. Well, now the major labels have jumped on the bandwagon, and for pretty good reason -- the Delevantes have definitely improved. They sound like they have gotten a much better hang for crafting a pop hook, and the musicianship is definitely improved (John Noreen's steel guitar playing is probably the highlight of this album). Still, one comes away from their sophomore effort with two impressions: One, Foster & Lloyd has been done already, and frankly, it was better the first time; two, there's lots of decent stuff here. Stuff that makes you think, "Well these guys don't suck." And when you get right down to it, is that really enough to justify plopping down money for postage?
2 Stars -- Lee Nichols
LORDS OF ACID
Our Little Secret (Never)
There's only so much beating a dead horse can handle before its fetlocks fizzle, and this is one pony that's ready for the glue farm. When Lords of Acid first burst onto a stagnant techno scene five years back, their super-charged, libido-fueled polyrhythms and tongue in... uh, cheek humor seemed the perfect antidote to the legions of tedious, ultra-repetitive groups pounding out wearying, tunelessly vacuous bits on their Rolands. Jade 4 U's slinky vocals and Oliver Adams' relentlessly sleazy take on electronica were fresh, nasty, and wildly entertaining. Half a decade later, however, and they're barely as exciting as Bill Clinton's rumor-mill. The problem lies mostly in the group's seeming inability to move forward. While the rest of the world is embracing electronica and thrusting it kicking and screaming into the mainstream, new Lords of Acid tracks like "Man's Best Friend" and "Spank My Booty" sound like hollow echoes of past glories, more annoying than enticing, and generally lacking in the one aspect electronic music needs to flourish, originality. It's not that they've changed in any definable way -- it's that they haven't. Unfortunately, it's no longer 1991 out there, and the rest of us have moved on to the Chemical Brothers, Crystal Method, and other bands capable of new, vibrant extremes. The only thing vibrant about "Our Little Secret" is the tawdry cover art, and that ain't much.
1 Star -- Marc Savlov