MARC RIBOT Y LOS CUBANOS POSTISOS
If John F. Kennedy had really been the visionary he's credited with being, he'd have sent Buddy Holly to the Bay of Pigs instead of a boatload of CIA operatives. After all, by 1961, Cuban jazz bandleader Arsenio Rodriguez had been in New York since the Forties sowing the seeds of a musical revolution that erupted in the U.S. two years ago when Ry Cooder brought the Buena Vista Social Club back from Cuba. Since Chucho Valdes' extraordinary Bele Bele en la Habana will bypass most rock & rollers as a jazz piano masterpiece, Atlantic Records is stickering Marc Ribot's new release as "Cuban Classics for the Post-Punk Generation." Renowned sideman for visionaries such as John Zorn, Tom Waits, and Marianne Faithful, guitarist Ribot's (Ree-bow) eighth solo album takes tunes associated with Rodriguez, and with the help of organist John Medeski and a couple of top-notch percussionists, puts a spin on the instrumental guitar album that should find noodlers of all shapes and sizes joining the Cuban revolution. From the snappy, festive "Como Se Goza en El Barrio" to the sizzling Santana fretwork of "Postizo," Ribot's "fake" Cuban music is perhaps the first real rock & roll entry in a movement storming these shores like Fidel Castro's own private army.
3 Stars - Raoul Hernandez
The Last Dog and Pony Show (Rykodisc)
As the album's title intimates, this is the end of Bob Mould as we know him. After this album and tour, Mould will be dismissing backing bands, and unplugging the amp. No more playing indie rock god. Befitting of the occasion, Dog and Pony is very much a "give the people what they want" album. Save for the curious sonic fart "Megamanic," this may be Mould's most skilled blend of raw aggression and obliging melody since Sugar's debut, Copper Blue. After the opener "New #1," a thick, ultrabright Workbook-esque acoustic guitar number laden with cello, the bashing pop kicks in. On top of the sonic swells there's a more self-satisfied Mould. It's (gasp) almost fun; or fun by Mould's standards, which leads to lines like: "Yesterday wasn't so bad/ I thought it was a little worse than it was" ("First Drag of the Day"), and "In taking everything from me now/ I'm making over everything I hoped to be, I know" ("Taking Everything"). Dog and Pony is no masterpiece. It's no New Day Rising. But it is an album worthy of holding Mould to his word. He could do much worse than end his extended career as a post-punker with this kind of show.
3 Stars - Michael Bertin
Walking in Avalon (CMC International)
Making no attempt to reinvent himself for the Nineties, Christopher Cross' Walking in Avalon is strictly for old fans who haven't seen his face or heard his voice in a long while. There are hints here of all sorts of Seventies/ Eighties easy listening acts; "It's Always Something" recalls Gerry Rafferty, while the title track sounds akin to something by Al Stewart. Unfortunately, there's also a lyric sheet. While Cross' still-strong pipes effectively disguise cheesy, forced pop culture references like, "It's cool that we both like Bogart and Bacall/It's cool that I like John and you like Paul," when they're actually laid out in front of you, the whole confection comes crashing down. Walking comes with a bonus disc of a live Cross concert from this spring, which will probably end up being the disc that gets the most wear of the two. The impeccably reproduced arrangements of Cross' Eighties hits and album tracks are marred only by some odd phrasing. Unfortunately, something goes awfully awry during "Ride Like the Wind," wherein there's a truly painful misstep in the harmonies, which isn't helped by guest Michael McDonald, trying too hard to make the most of his one line, "Such a long way to go-o-o!" Maybe it wouldn't be so bad if I didn't keep picturing that old SCTV sketch that delineated the very same situation...
2 Stars - Ken Lieck
Walk Between the Raindrops (Sugar Hill)
Life is messy, and few singer-songwriters sing about it better than Austin's James McMurtry. There are two sides to this idea of walking between the raindrops: You stay "dry as a bone," but then you don't feel the rain, either. In the title track, he counsels an unlistening youth to "keep a line open to the outside world," while in song after song he ignores his own advice and closes himself off from all but the most necessary contact. This contradictory protagonist is often the guitar-toting and quietly rebellious McMurtry, growing older and a bit more tired. Yet as McMurtry gets older, he doesn't get lazy or frightened (as he sardonically hints at in "Comfortable"), he gets wise. The opening title track picks up exactly where "Jaws of Life," the last song from the last album, left off. The wisdom gained through a hard road is now handed down - to deaf ears not unlike his own; the contradictions between hope and futility, comfort and rage, love and indifference, are what makes McMurtry's stories poignant and real. The winking ire of "Airline Agent" and the shirking of conscience in "Tired of Walking" show that as McMurtry turns into the curmudgeonly sage he inevitably will be, consistency of thought will not hobble his mind.
3.5 Stars - Christopher Hess
Anutha Zone (Point Blank/Virgin)
It's been nearly three decades since Dr. John the Night Tripper was born, so it's no surprise to see that he's resurrected the very sound that first beckoned you to follow him down a dark path of no return. And surrendering to its seductive lure is like giving in to the vampire's kiss: Once embraced there is no going back. Anutha Zone pulses like hot blood pounding in your ears ("Hello God"), pouring sensuous rhythms around loping conga beats with uncommon ease ("Ki Ya Gris Gris,"), and wrapping the listener in its snakeskin warmth ("Party Hellfire"). Zone is also a portal into the past where the slurp of muddy water on the bayou banks gives way to Pharaohs floating down the Nile ("The Olive Tree"), and the sway of Spanish moss on cypress trees under a yellow moon conjures Humpty Dumpty ("Anutha Zone"). With help from Jason Pierce of Spiritualized, Paul Weller, Primal Scream's Martin Duffy, and Portishead's Clive Deamer, Anutha Zone should prove to be Dr. John's fin de siecle bookend to 1992's jubilant Back to New Orleans. And that, my friends, is a hell of a way to close the 20th century.
3 Stars - Margaret Moser
DALE WATSON AND HIS LONE STARS
The Truckin' Sessions (Koch)
Recorded in one seven-hour session, The Truckin' Sessions was originally intended as a collector's item for Dale Watson's fans, a 10-song cassette sold only off the stage. It proved to be such a popular item, however, that a European label offered to release it as a CD, so Watson recorded four additional tracks and it was made available in England. The resulting project was then picked by the newly revitalized Koch Records, and though his other releases have all been inspired, The Truckin' Sessions is Watson's most enjoyable work to date. The idea of an album of all original songs about truckers and life on the road may sound a bit hackneyed, but in the hands of Watson and His Lone Stars it has never sounded fresher. The way he wraps his voice around the words on tunes like "Longhorn Suburban," "Exit 109," and "Big Wheels Keep Rollin?," you know this is the kind of music the honky-tonker was meant to sing, and he's having a hell of a good time doing it. Ricky Davis also deserves special mention for his steel guitar work throughout. All in all The Truckin' Sessions is sure to fill anyone's twang quotient for the rest year.
4 Stars - Jim Caliguiri
On his first two efforts, particularly last year's Devotion + Doubt, Richard Buckner said more with empty spaces and economical fills than any obtrusive musical fanfare could have done for him. With Since, Buckner incorporates a larger sound into his world of emotional destruction without suffocating the detail or obscuring the impact of his own agony. For the first time, with songs like "Goner With Souvenir" and "Jewelbomb," Buckner almost approaches full-blown rock song status. Producer J.D. Foster, who also sat at the helm of Buckner's last outing, does a Daniel Lanois quality job putting the right part with the right instrument in the right place to accentuate each song, especially on the haunting "Brief & Boundless" and the alternately boisterous and soothing "Ham @ The Hem," while also maintaining a consistent, indigenous sound for the album as a whole. Even when Buckner slips into familiar barren territory, Foster's deft arrangements, like timely piano on the stark "Ariel Ramirez," turn simple sorrow into gut-wrenching anguish. Lyrically and thematically, Buckner is still as obsessed as ever with his own tragedies, but this time he and Foster have given them an even more compelling soundtrack.
4 Stars - Michael Bertin
Nomad Soul (Palm Pictures)
The follow-up to 1995's acclaimed Firin' in Fouta, Nomad Soul finds Senegalese sensation Baaba Maal on his favorite multicultural turf, blending traditional African musical forms with ingredients from around the world, spicing his homegrown yela with notions from reggae, rap, and soul. You'll find talking drums next to hip-hop beats, West African kora next to west Memphis rhythm guitar, an Irish chorus next to some township horns. And in each case you'll find Maal's soaring tenor gliding effortlessly among the instruments, climbing and falling with microtonal precision, expressive and alive without being overbearing. The result is a rich and full-bodied album that takes hold of your ears, wraps 'em up, and lays 'em down gently in a swirl of beats and melodies that spans the seas yet remains unmistakably African. Perhaps most effective is the standout "Cherie," a quietly stunning song that builds from a couple of intertwining string leads into an expansive world chorus, slowly seducing the listener with seven minutes of polyrhythmic bliss. Maal's instincts serve him better on some cuts than others, but each of Nomad Soul's songs contain the soothing but still moving Maal spirit. It's a groove worth catching.
3 Stars - Jay Hardwig
More You Becomes You (Drag City)
Don't even think you can listen to this without clearing the runways. Simultaneously intriguing and annoying, the music of Plush's Liam Hayes anticipates nothing less than total indulgence on the part of listeners. Hayes, a Chicago-based songwriter, has garnered praise from hipster doofuses worldwide on the strength of his slim output (two 7-inches before this album) and reclusive nature. Artistic nudity seems to be Hayes' goal on More You Becomes You and the result is downright embarrassing at times. It's just Hayes and his finely-textured piano meandering through a vaguely confessional set of songs. The vibe is similar to Brian Wilson's unsteady performance in the documentary I Just Wasn't Made for These Times. Though the melodies in songs like "Soaring and Boring" and "(See it in the) Early Morning" sound like demos of great lost pop songs from the final salad days of AM radio, Hayes' vocals are too languid and one-offed to be understood in that context. This exercise brims with potential, but ultimately leaves you longing for Wilson and a cadre of studio musicians wearing fireman hats.
2 Stars - Greg Beets
In a world of frighteningly talented singers, the four heavenly voices of the Finnish 9-piece Värttinä are impossible to ignore. Some members are versed in Finland's Karelian folk tradition, while others attended the prestigious Sibelius Academy, but all are able to send shivers up your spine with their singing. These voices, locked tight in harmonic flight, drive songs about inspirations and aspirations, most set to rare but danceable rhythms. And since Finland, Russia's northwestern neighbor, is linguistically more similar to Eastern Europe than its western neighbors, their multi-harmonic vocal lines have more in common with Le Mystère Des Voix Bulgares than with Anonymous Four. Examples from Vihma's 13 tracks include the frenetically syncopated "Tielle Heitetty" and the catchy but not overdone sax melody in "Laulutyttö." Plus three tracks feature the death-defying, multi-phonic vocal artistry of Tuvan throat-singing sensation Yat-Kha. But don't worry: You don't have to understand the Finnish lyrics (with English translations) to feel the music: full, beautiful, magical, and inspiring.
3.5 Stars - David Lynch
Gustav Mahler, Primal Light (Winter & Winter)
Sound of Love (Winter & Winter)
PAUL MOTION & THE ELECTRIC BEBOP BAND
Flight of the Blue Jay (Winter & Winter)
MONK TO BACH
(Winter & Winter)
Winter & Winter, German producer Stefan Winter's new label, has been issuing impressive stuff lately. On Primal Light, pianist Uri Caine either arranges pieces written by Mahler or composes original material inspired by the 19th-century classical composer. Aided by trumpeter Dave Douglas, trombonist Josh Roseman, soprano saxman David Binney, violinist Mark Feldman, clarinetist Don Byron, bassist Michael Formanek, and drummer Joey Baron, as well as vocalists Cantor Aaron Ben Soussan, Arto Linsey, and Dean Bowman, Caine's approach varies from track to track; some tunes are elegiac, some bombastic and full of humor. All sorts of influences pop up on this smorgasbord album: Stravinsky, post bop, Brazilian, klezmer, Jewish liturgical. And the components are put together well on this unique and challenging work. Of drummer Paul Motion's two discs, Sound of Love is the more important. On it we have his great trio of the Eighties live in '95: Motion, tenor saxman Joe Lovano, and guitarist Bill Frisell - all of them great artists; Motion pioneered a method of playing with Bill Evans, eschewing a steady beat for a contrapuntal dialogue between himself; Lovano excels at everything from post bop to free jazz; and Frisell is arguably the most important guitarist to come to the fore in the past two decades. All are in top form here, recommendation enough for anyone. The Electric Bebop band is a good one, and it's appropriate for Motian to play bop since he was a professional musician at its height, but while the music is fun to listen to, it's not as innovative as the trio's; guitarist Brad Shepik and tenormen Chris Potter and Chris Cheek perform well, but they normally play more advanced music and are wasted in a bop context. Monk to Bach is a Winter & Winter sampler, with selections from the three CDs discussed above, plus tracks by Tim Berne, cellist Paolo Beschi, who performs Bach, and La Gai Scienza doing Astor Piazzolla. Good stuff, but since it's available elsewhere, best just to sample original releases on this fine new label.
Primal Light - 4 Stars
Sound of Love - 5 Stars
Flight of the Blue Jay - 3 Stars
Monk to Bach - 3 Stars - Harvey Pekar