Sublime Illusion (Higher Octave)
The Buena Vista Social Club recordings of the last two years, featuring some of Cuba's great, older musicians, have been so well-received that naturally more have been cut. Top-notch vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer, who was neglected in Cuba during the Fifties, has finally gotten some props. The 72-year-old Ferrer, a versatile singer, performs laudably on his self-titled debut, with different types of accompaniment, including lsh big band charts, two by Generoso "El Tojo" Jimenez, Benny More's arranger and trombonuist, who came out of retirement at 80 to write and conduct for his compadre. Ferrer shows he's an excellent, romantic crooner on "Silencio," "Aquellos Ojos Verdes," and "Como Fue." He's also an agile improviser, as demonstrated on "Marietta," where he shares the lead with Teresa Garcia Caturbe, and "Que Buena Baila Usted," made famous by the great Sonero More, for whom Ferrer once sang backup vocals. There's some nice instrumental work here as well; check the sizzling trumpet efforts of Manuel "Guajiro" Mirrabal and Manuel Golban's shimmering electronic guitar appearances. Ruben Gonzalez also contributes fine piano work. Compared to some of the Buena Vista guys, 52-year-old Eliades Ochoa is a spring chicken. His is a more traditional style than guys like Jimenez and Gonzalez, who were trailblazers in their day and drew from jazz and classical as well as Afro Cuban sources. Ochoa, backed up by El Cuarteto Patria, sings and plays tres guitar, drawing his son, guaracha, bolero repertoire and style from the area around Santiago de Cuba, his hometown. Ochoa's a compelling vocalist; he has a powerful, earthy baritone and solid time and pitch. His range is limited, but he doesn't select notes he can't articulate cleanly. He's also an impressive tres guitarist, an economical, thoughtful improviser who might be described as artfully artful, i.e., completely unpretentious but very intelligent. He constructs his solos impeccably and exhibits harmonic daring. It's heartwarming when older musicians who've been ignored are finally given their props, but I hope that listeners won't stop with them. Cuban music has evolved healthily since 1960; Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Chucho Valdez, with and without Irakere and Reynaldo Melian, are wonderful, innovative musicians who are expanding the horizons of their craft. Check them out, because now's the time.
(Both) 4 stars -- Harvey Pekar
EL GRAN SILENCIO
Best Of (Ark 21)
"Mano Negra changed the complexion of European society and music by mixing together Arab, African, and Punk. Their mixture of musical styles and cultures coupled with their political stance greatly influenced a variety of artists as well as the entire Rock En Español movement. This record greatly captures the essence of the brilliant career that was Mano Negra." None of these statements, the only biographical information on Mano Negra's purported Best Of, is necessarily true. At the very least, it neglects to mention that the incendiary eight-piece from Paris disseminated its wild, madhouse muse in French, Spanish, Arabic, and English, and were as influenced by hip-hop and ska as they were classic rock and punk. One also doubts the group, together roughly 1985-95, had much of an effect on European society, while nearly all the Rock En Español bands were influenced by the Clash. And one thing is for sure: Best Of does not "greatly" capture the essence of Mano Negra. Instead, that distinction belongs to the band's sole domestic release from a decade back, Puta's Fever, represented on Best Of by six out of 13 tracks. "Indios de Barcelona," common to both albums but live on Best Of (taken from the import In the Hell of Patchinko), sums up the band in a song: a 4am, drunken Spanish street party for punks. "Mala Vida," perhaps the band's best song, is a galloping blast of horns and guitars driven by calliope organ snaked around singer Manu Chao's tale of a gypsy love curse. Caliente! It crowns Puta's Fever, which is far and away the best of the band's available catalog, Best Of paling in comparison as a rather random collection that would have been better served by a chronological and comprehensive approach; there were great B-sides from Puta's Fever. It does manage, however, on the acoustic-flavored "Senor Ma Tanza," to link Mano Negra to El Gran Silencio, whose back inset reads thusly: "Libres y Locos is the US debut from Mexico's El Gran Silencio. It's an eclectic offering that combines acoustic guitars and percussion with the driving energy of the Offspring, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Clash." Bien, but scratch the Offspring, and modify Mexico with Monterrey, since the young fivepiece incorporates traditional Norteñoisms like accordion and cumbias. In fact, it's the band's old-school balladeering on songs such as "Dormir Soñando" and the romantic "No Sabemos Amar" that often works better than some of the scratching Ozomatli funk of this promising debut. The violin on "Creaturas De Luz" is especially evocative. With the hard-roiling Chili Pepper punch of "Rehilete," El Gran Silencio drive the remainder of Libre y Locos home in grand style. Manu Chao, who released a fine, acoustically frescoed debut last year on Ark 21, would be proud.
(Best Of) 2 stars
(Libres y Locos) 2.5 stars -- Raoul Hernandez
No Limit Top Dogg (No Limit)
Guess who's back in the motherfuckin' house? After almost six years and two disappointing albums, the D-O-double-G has finally recorded a worthy follow-up to his epochal Doggystyle. And with all due respect to Master P, he did it by goin' back to Cali. Snoop's understated, sinewy flow was always better suited to the boundless bottom and reconstituted soul of West Coast G-Funk than the No Limit label's signature bluster & bounce anyway. Here, he plays to his strengths, digging in the crates for old Earth, Wind & Fire ("Party With a D.P.G.") and Parliament ("Buss'n Rocks") tracks to fill the speakers under his cockeyed gangsta narratives. Such luscious foundations are also perfect for bringing in silky-smooth guest R&B crooners, as on "Trust Me" (Sylk E. Fine), "Somethin' Bout Yo Bidness" (Raphael Saadiq), and "Don't Tell" (old buddy Nate Dogg). Even the ubiquitous in-house No Limit cuts ("Down 4 My Niggas" and "Ghetto Symphony") score with the hyperventilated vocals of various soldiers, particularly C-Murder, Mia X, and Mystikal. Two jams stand head and shoulders above the rest of No Limit Top Dogg: the Ant Banks-produced "Snoopafella," an infectious relocating of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale to the LBC; and "Bitch Please," a Dr. Dre-produced Xzibit duet with a palpable Wu vibe. In fact, there's only one thing missing, here. In over 77 minutes, Snoop only mentions his balls once or twice. He does, however, say "Eat a dick." Bee-yatch!
3.5 stars -- Christopher Gray
LESTER BOWIE BRASS FANTASY
The Odyssey of Funk and Popular Music Vol. 1 (Atlantic)
Long ago conceived as an antithesis to his high-minded and artistic (though equally playful) work with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Lester Bowie's high octane horns have kept an eclectic playbook, often landing far afield from modern jazz's cool ethic. Their first American recording in some time finds them delving into everything from Puccini and Notorious B.I.G. to Marilyn Manson and the Spice Girls. Of course, Brass Fantasy sounds nothing like any of these performers. Thicker than a New Orleans brass outfit and funkier than a Conservatory house band, Brass Fantasy pumps air through metal to launch a hard-edged, yet overwhelmingly good-natured sonic attack, blasting full-throated chords, deep growls, silky lethargic rhythms, and occasional screaming wails. On the front lines, Bob Stewart's tuba, Gary Valente's trombone, and Vincent Chancey's French horn work are all superlative. Bowie's trumpet sputters and slices through the wall of bells like a high beam headlight. Curiously, arrangements are not credited, and some material adapts more easily than others. Brother Joseph guests on vocals and trombone, morphing the group into Defunkt for one track. There's also an aspiring reworking of Harold Melvin's "If You Don't Know Me By Now." Yet the real standout is, of all things, a pulsing rendition of Cole Porter's "In the Still of the Night," a bluesy and joyous celebration of popular music that's at the heart of this group's agenda.
3 stars -- Jeff McCord
THE ROBERT CRAY BAND
Take Your Shoes Off (Rykodisc)
Ally McBeal isn't the only one fantasizing about Al Green. Bay Area bluesman Robert Cray, heretofore known as one of SRV's six-string pals, has shelved the guitar heroics (mostly) and recorded the best album of pure Memphis soul since Hi Records closed up shop in the late Seventies. Cray even looks to great MG man Steve Jordan to help get things started on Willie Mitchell's brooding "Love Gone to Waste." Though the overall sound is cut from the same cloth that propelled Rev. Al to fame and fortune, shades of Sam & Dave and Sam Cooke also surface, mostly on "Pardon," "That Wasn't Me," and "What About Me." The full-bodied tones of Jim Pugh's keyboards and Karl Sevareid's bass are on display throughout, especially on the snappier cuts "24-7 Man" (by "Mustang Sally" man Sir Mack Rice) and "It's All Gone." And thank God for the Memphis Horns, who deserve their own Tennessee state holiday. "Won't You Give Him (One More Chance)" has an odd Hollies feel, but after the solid soul of "Living Proof" and "What About Me," Cray revisits the blues for a mesmerizing version of Willie Dixon's "Tollin' Bells," a perfect coda for an album that deserves to be on KUT's Twine Time even though it was cut in 1999 instead of 1974. (The Robert Cray Band plays Stubb's outdoor stage, Saturday, June 12.)
3.5 stars -- Christopher Gray
THE BLUE RAGS
The current roots rock movement is plagued with poseurs who jump on any passing hay-covered bandwagon, abandoning punk bands and electric guitars for a steady diet of cheap weed, public domain recordings, and sloppily played acoustic instruments. The ones who do it upright and wholeheartedly, however, usually stumble onto something. Take the Blue Rags, for instance, who with their wide-eyed and exuberant if slightly sloppy debut Rag and Roll brought ragtime, traditional New Orleans jazz, and sped-up Southern blues to the kids with a freewheeling rock sensibility. On Eat at Joe's, their second effort for Sub Pop, there are a number of tracks like "Movin' On," "Jet Set," "Hard Times," and "Baby Back" reaching out of the nebulous, ill-defined hippie-grass-jam formula of their debut and establishing the band in terms of its own songs -- still making good use of ragtime and New Orleans inspirations, but more honestly acknowledging of the group's rock roots. Every song here is an original, as opposed to a debut defined by covers from Leadbelly, King Oliver, and George Gershwin. They've backed off the tempo a bit, perhaps to let the songs sink in more, and the effect is a marked advance. It's all still a little sloppy, but good enough to know that The Blue Rags are driving their own wagon now.
3 stars -- Christopher Hess
In a time when not only is rock & roll dead, but folk music has been run over so many times by boring singer-songwriters it barely has a pulse, Fred Eaglesmith manages to combine both types of music with enough energy and inventiveness to give us all hope. A departure from his decidedly acoustic past, 50-Odd Dollars rustles up a variety of styles and sounds that make the album hard to pigeonhole while remaining refreshing and entertaining. Like Robert Earl Keen or Tom Waits, Eaglesmith has some great stories to tell, and interesting musical settings in which to depict them, jumping from the electro-Celtic "Blue Tick Hound" to the guitar-driven anthem "Rodeo Boy" to the off-kilter honky-tonk of "Crazier" and rockabilly twang of "Alternator" (Fred just loves cars) to the quiet moments of "Carter," a tribute to bluegrass great Carter Stanley. Eaglesmith's capacity for bringing his characters to life with an economy of words that speak volumes unites the songs into a collective whole, his sense of humor shining through on "Mighty Big Car" (Fred really likes cars), which contains the line, "Elvis had one, so did Hank. They don't look like money, they look like the bank." Even though Eaglesmith calls Ontario, Canada, home, he shares a kinship with some of Texas' best songwriters. Fans of such well-crafted songs are sure to find 50-Odd Dollars a thrill.
4 stars --Jim Caligiuri
Live (Tycoon Cowgirl)
Terri Hendrix's local debut, Wilory Farm, covered a wide range of popular styles with a dexterous competency in performance and production that made for a full realization of the young singer-songwriter's ambitious vision. Since Hendrix's reputation, one that has only become bigger and brighter in the year since, has been built on the consistent quality of her captivating live performances, it's a smart move to release a live CD as a follow up -- especially one like this. Recorded in March of 99, Live incorporates five tunes from Wilory Farm and adds a few well-chosen new originals and covers. It's not perfect -- "Clicker" and "Dana Blues" are tunes that might have otherwise remained live-only selections, while "Take Me Places" is one of those you-had-to-be-there moments -- but for the most part, it's really good. "Sister's Song" is touching as ever, as is Hendrix's cover of "Fisherman's Blues," and from the opening ringing strings, "Wallet" has the sound and feel of a time-tested hit. Throughout, Hendrix shines in the company of veteran local musicians Glenn Fukunaga on bass and Paul Pearcy on drums, not to mention the precision of Lloyd Maines on mandolin, guitar, dobro, and steel, turning in a performance that was well worth capturing.
3.5 stars -- Christopher Hess
Buzz Me In (Capricorn)
What we may have on our hands here is rock & roll's first truly content songwriter. Since Logan released 1994's acclaimed Bulk, culled from over 600 demos he had been working on since the late Seventies, the line has formed to determine what makes this middle-aged Georgian pump mechanic tick. Bulk and its sometimes-rushed successors have delved into dark corners, but from a storyteller's vantage, there's no judgment or affections. Better still, in the Southern tradition of Flannery O'Connor -- or even the old joke "does your dog bite?" -- only so much information is given. Logan claims not to labor over his writing, and while he lacks the depth of some that do, his simplicity is key to his appeal. Buzz Me In is Logan's first real album, with a producer, realized arrangements, even guest stars. By filling in the blanks, his hip cachet may dwindle; the album's a work of striking conventionalism. It's also one of the more intriguing and enjoyable collections of songs to be heard in some time. There's sadness and elation in these songs -- an almost casual lineup of foibles paraded with skill and compassion. Logan is serious about his hobby; he's been writing songs all his adult life, yet he has the smarts not to take himself too seriously. Without a gimmick to market Buzz Me In, it's doubtful this deserving album will find a large audience in the fickle rock world. It's even more doubtful Logan's the least bit concerned.
4 stars -- Jeff McCord
When rock music tackles romance, it's usually sanitized with an airy, saccharine gloss that effectively negates the nervous, awkward truth. Not so with Georgia's Rock-A-Teens. The quartet's pimply, plaintive warbles reek of first-time desperation deep in the heart of unrequited crushville. Golden Time walks us through one such saga in a twang-laden stupor that just might come off like a Teenage Symphony to God if you've had enough liquor. The album's lasting hallmark is a poor man's wall of sound that underscores the sweet sadness of looking back on a once-raging love. "Black Metal Stars" is an erstwhile waltz that stumbles out of the gate in a cacophonous bluster as Chris Lopez's voice groans and cracks with the strain of never being able to satisfy a girl's rock star fixation. The despondence thickens in "The Woods of Hemlock Park," a melancholy esteem-crusher that burrows deep into your head with an unforgettable piano melody. Similarly, "The Wreck in Front of Your House" thrives on a distorted miasma of violin, guitar, and keyboards, and is almost embarrassing in its heartsickness. You don't listen to this dramatic debunker of the fun-fun-fun rubric -- you wallow in it.
3.5 stars -- Greg Beets
THE LONESOME ORGANIST
Caravan (Thrill Jockey)
Imagine you're at a professional baseball game that's stuck in the 27th inning, tied (it's happened). Ignore the utter exhaustion of the players, the sheer frustration of the fans, and listen to the organist. He's been consuming those huge buckets of ballgame beer throughout, thinking he'd be safely home hours ago. What he's resorted to is what you're hearing now, Caravan, the music of the Lonesome Organist. Flecks of various ethnic musics pepper tunes otherwise assembled for use on carousels and ice cream trucks, recalling a time when such unique instrumental visions actually filled the record racks. Those were the days of Esquivel, Martin Denny, Les Baxter, et al., and there's good reason those albums are now labeled "Extremely Strange Music," though most is merely odd. A number of younger artists have attempted to recreate the charm of those old LPs, but most go for goofiness over authenticity, or blend them with newer elements like techno. The Lonesome Organist, on the other hand, is a truer son of those flawed visionaries of years past, playing a zillion different instruments, sometimes adding distant, echo-y vocals or oddball sound effects (one song is called "Boing!" -- you figure it out) without either going too far to the wacky side or drifting too far into macabre Residents territory. That might make the Lonesome Organist "middle of the road" in some sense, but be assured: It's a road that only the Incredibly Strange will find safe to travel.
3 stars -- Ken Lieck
After Cibo Matto's popular food-themed debut found inside-joke charm in everyday refrigerator contents, its follow-up slides smoothly across the room to revel in everything but the kitchen sink, turning funk, pop, bossa nova, metal, hip-hop, and New Wave upside down into a shiny new melting pot. The result is a ambitiously eclectic, not-a-bad-track-in-the-bunch kind of affair, where sonic oddities, resourceful samples, Yuka Honda's whipsmart arrangements, and Miho Hatori's vastly improved singing seem to constantly yell "fun," all the while whispering "maturity." And therein lies Stereotype A's success: Cibo Matto have gone anti-concept, shedding their one-trick-pony baggage without ever coming off forced, contrived, or pretentious. After all, how seriously are we supposed to take a band that uses a title like "Sci-Fi Wasubi" as an excuse to rhyme "stromboli," "Moby," and "Obi-Wan Kenobi"? Okay, maybe they're not entirely out of the kitchen yet, but with "Sci-Fi Wasubi" and 10 tracks like it being so undeniably goofy, freewheeling, and yet fully realized, Stereotype A isn't just a great party album, it's like the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique or Beck's Odelay in the same way those seminal releases came off as entertaining first and "important" later. The only real difference is that Stereotype A feels like both -- right here, right now. More please.
3.5 stars -- Andy Langer
FANTASTIC PLASTIC MACHINE
Luxury (Emperor Norton)
Tomoyuki Tanaka's library of vinyl is legendary, and not just within the Tokyo Shibuya Kei club scene the spawned him. His recent SXSW showcase at Bob Popular saw the rotund DJ spinning a looney amalgam of bossa nova-inspired lounge fare heavily interspersed with spy movie samples and shaken-not-stirred retro chic. That's a pretty fair description of Luxury as well, which like Tanaka's previous releases mines everything from Sixties eclectica to Brazilian world-beat. Like labelmates Pizzicato Five, Tanaka's playful sense of humor infuses his music like cotton candy lodged in a wino's beard, making him a strong contender for the Silliest DJ award. Tracks like "Bossa for Jackie (Dedicated to Mrs. Kennedy)" and "You Must Learn All Night Long" are sugary slices of pure pop giddiness, the former relying on a big beat background, the latter so uncynically avant-Sixties that you can practically hear the Vespas percolating in the background. A groovy cover of Eurythmics "There Must Be an Angel (Playing With My Heart)" only adds to Tanaka's explosion of grinning Nippon lunacy. Shagadelic, indeed.
3 stars -- Marc Savlov
Music for Hangovers (Cheap Trick Unlimited)
With three Top 10 singles under their belts, Cheap Trick could simply be phoning it in on the fairground, casino, and nudist festival circuits. The lasting exuberance of their music is certainly a factor in helping them escape this fate, but the main reason Cheap Trick can strut into Chicago's Metro and play four of their albums straight through on four consecutive sold-out nights is combat-tested live prowess. Music for Hangovers doesn't have anything approaching the adolescent hysteria of At Budokan, yet the band still manages to convey the atmosphere of a big, can't-miss rock event. Most of the songs come from the band's first three albums, which are generally regarded as their best works. "Taxman, Mr. Thief" stews and finally boils over on the strength of one of guitarist Rick Nielsen's most memorable (yet under-recognized) hooks, while the Richard Speck-inspired "The Ballad of T.V. Violence" emphasizes Cheap Trick's seedier side in a manner that would horrify those who only know the band from "The Flame." In addition to their earlier work, the band treats us to prime performances of "I Can't Take It" and "If You Want My Love," two power pop gems from the years without bassist Tom Petersson. Of course, the evening wouldn't be complete without being able to sing along to "Surrender," "I Want You To Want Me," and "Dream Police," but you knew that already.
3.5 stars -- Greg Beets