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No. 227, May 2010


The Night the Detroit Lions Won the Super Bowl, Robert Crenshaw (Tree Fort Studios)--The saddest song ever written, even if in its first verse Barry Sanders and Matt Millen do dance a minuet. Beyond the obvious heartbroken lament for a football team, Crenshaw sings as a man mourning a city, a way of life, a whole culture smashed to ruins and how one bright moment of hope might lift the entire enterprise. He sings with conviction although whether it's a conviction that the Lions could quit their lowdown dirty ways or that humans can make it through any misery that doesn't kill them, it's hard to say. Which is reason enough to keep listening to this beautiful saddest song in the world.

Cold War / Tightrope, Janelle Monae (Bad Boy/Wonderland)--These simultaneous single releases are a study in opposites though both are about the science of walking the talk. With spacey keys, frenetic beats and a smoldering incendiary device of a guitar solo, Cold War is its own set of contradictions, the more mechanized of the two but with soaring at times screaming vocals that guarantee you feel the declaration, You better know what you re fighting for! Tightrope explodes with funky dance rhythms for strutting the line. Monae spits rapid fire vocals against aggressive bass runs and pounding drums before call and response with various horn and string parts, fast and slow, sharp and silky. A chorus of backing vocals end with a sultry call for a Happy Birthday, fitting for these two presents more shiny and new with each spin.

La Raza, Armored Saint (Metal Blade)--These East LA metal veterans obviously chose to embrace most of the bands' ethnic roots with the title, but the concept of both the song and the album is universal, talking about the environmental destruction facing the entire human race devastated is the land/where I hold my daughter's hand. And that's perfect because this is one helluva unifying record blending Latin percussion, meteoric guitar riffs, spacious, multi-colored arrangements, plainspoken lyrics and melodies to coax virtually anyone into singing along.

Love is Strange: Jackson Browne & David Lindley En Vivo Con Tino (Inside Recordings) A double CD record of a 2006 tour of Spain which included several Spanish musicians as guests, while percussionist Tino de Geraldo formed the third leg of the core triangle with Browne and multi-instrumental whiz Lindley. The sound is acoustic and the songbook is all Browne except for a couple of Lindley's hits ( El Rayo X, Mercury Blues ). It's somewhat like Browne's recent acoustic live packages only with many other flavors added to the mix. Highlights include a Spanish language version of the Eagles Take It Easy (here called Tu Tranquilo with singer Kiko Veneno's very different take on things); the Browne/Lindley tune Call it A Loan, where the percussion seems to drip from the strings; and The Next Voice You Hear, an often overlooked but very important song on which the full cast takes it about as far as it can go.

Cerrando Trato: Corridos Con Tuba, Grupo Montez de Durango (Disa/UMGD) Though this Chicago band of Durango immigrants had its biggest American hit last year with the sweetly voiced ballad, Espero, that's not typical of the hard driving rave-ups that characterize this album, a soundscape where jet fighters and drive bys spray automatic weapons fire. The trademark Duranguense percussive melee makes a spiritual sense in this setting, repeatedly absorbing the blows and absolutely refusing to give up hope in one dark space after another.

I ll See You in C.U.B.A., Pablo Menendez and Mezcla (Zoho)--Havana-based American bandleader revives the idea of Latin jazz/rock with the overpowering guitar-dominated Chicoy and the title song, which seems determined to liberate his adopted nation from the Yankee blockade through sheer good spirits.

Love and Circumstance, Carrie Rodriguez (R.E.D.)--Rodriguez is between albums of original material but Love and Circumstance, on which she wrote nothing, is much more than a fill-in. She has genuine nerve you know anybody else who sings I m So Lonesome I Could Cry in 4/4 time, instead of the waltz time it was written in? impeccable taste in songs ( Rex's Blues, Waltzing's for Dreamers, Wide River to Cross ) and accompanists (Bill Frisell, Buddy Miller). She also sings a beautiful song written by her father, David, When I Heard Gypsy Davy Sing, and concludes with a captivating rendition of La Pu alada Trapera, a long-ago hit for her aunt, the revered Mexican songstress Eva Garza.

Electricidad, Jesse & Joy (WB) It would be easy to dismiss this young, too-cute duo from Mexico City if their unbelievably fizzy pop didn't rock so hard and if Joy Huerta didn't have such a heartbreakingly powerful voice. As it is, you can be thankful for the non-stop energy here starting with the utopian visions of the title track, all wrapped up in a little love song, and ending with another harmonica and piano driven ditty that damns mortality for trying to cut love short.

A: Enlightenment, B: Endarkenment, (Hint: There Is No C), Ray Wylie Hubbard (Bordello)--For those who think of Hubbard as a Texas singer-songwriter (even, folkie) or the spaciest of the outlaw country brigade, here's the news: He's actually a blues-rocker, with a knack for fusing Delta style to serial outrages that amount to a slap in the kisser for anyone who takes everyday miracles and commonplace disasters for granted. Thus Drunken Poet's Dream, Every Day is the Dead Wasp's Nest, Opium and even the title track are laced with two-headed metaphors, one laughing its ass off, one about to bite your ass off. Hubbard crafted an Homeric epic in the language of 21st century roots music and left it on the doorsill for you stumble over it and figure out how to use it. Get to work.

The Deep End, Christine Ohlman (HMG)--Ohlman, perhaps most recognizable for the beehive she hasn't abandoned since early days in the Saturday Night Live band with G.E. Smith, turns out the best blue-eyed soul of her career here. It's a set of mournful reflections upon the loss of her partner, Doc Cavalier, and The Gone of You, which fully exhibits how much grief a blues-drenched heart can bear, is not for the weak of spirit. But it's not all grim: Cry Baby Cry pits Ohlman and Dion himself on a lost R&B gem, and on What's the Matter with You Baby, she and Marshall Crenshaw make like Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. The whole history of soul music can be heard here, reflected in a passionate life or two.

The Blank Generation: Blank Tapes NYC 1975-1985, Bob Blank (Strut) Blank moved to New York from New Mexico, failed as a studio guitarist, and then opened the Blank Tapes studio. He was an early disco pioneer while also working with the likes of Sun Ra and James Blood Ulmer, both represented here (Ulmer's epic declamation, Jazz is the Teacher, Funk is the Preacher is a high point). Blank's trademarks were a tasty musicality and danceable vibe no matter what the genre and he was behind the boards for Tito Rodriguez's Grammy-nominated production of Eddie Palmieri. Highlights include the bilingual disco spice of Charanga 76's Music Trance, the remix of Gladys Knight's It's a Better Than Good Time, and the unclassifiable quasi-instrumental smirk of Lola's Wax the Van.

Troubadour, K Naan (A&M/Octone)--This album isn't about being a kid who left Somalia on the last plane out 18 years ago; it's not about being diagnosed with PTSD when he finally got to southern Ontario; it's not about speaking the truth at a UN conference about how the UN and big nations had treated his homeland, it's not about the fact that he spearheaded a FIFA/Coca Cola tour of 83 countries with his song Wavin Flag, or that even Coke couldn't completely co-opt that song's infectious brilliance. Nope, it's about freedom, from the sounds poached from Eminem and muezzins, to the lyrics that never stray from the most common human dilemmas of poverty and ignorance. A genuinely great record by an artist who demands to live out the future war and politics tried to deny him.

Music for Children ages 3 to 103: The St. Agnes Sessions, Wardell Quezerque (Jazz Foundation of America)--The Creole Beethoven, master of studio, arranging and songwriting, offers up a kids record that will make you feel like one, especially if you re partial to funk. Shannon McNally and Dr. John lead an all-star cast but it's the songs that will grab you, from the pre-adolescent rebellion of Kick Rocks to the album's series of lullabies ( Soldier's Lullaby, Ship of Dreams, Little Girl (Lullaby) and, inevitably, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star ). It's about the music not the words has never been better personified than with La La La (The Warmup Song), written by the 80-year-old Wardell's young son, Brian.

Go Waggaloo, Sarah Lee Guthrie and Family (Smithsonian Folkways)--Guthrie has the best voice of any musical Guthrie, although she's never made a record as good as she is til now, on a project that started with three sets of lyrics by her grandfather (the title track, Bright Clear Day and a folk tale reworking, Fox and the Goose ) and caught fire with a handful by her husband, Johnny Irion ( Cuz We re Cousins, If Mama Had Four Hands, Brush Your Teeth Blues ). Like Woody's children's albums, this one is funny, rambunctious, and balances pep with wisdom.

Strictly Business, EPMD (Priority) The gem in the first batch of reissues under Snoop's watch as Priority's Creative Chairman is this classic 1988 debut by one of the best of the New York hip-hop groups. The samples from Mountain to Joe Tex, from Aretha to Pink Floyd are in your face not deep in the mix and this actually gives more weight to Erick Sermon's dispassionately seductive vocals, since he has a tendency to slur. The song titles I m Housin , You Gots to Chill, Get Off the Bandwagon, Let the Funk Flow write a big check that Sermon and partner Parrish Smith cash with a very musical sensibility, while making up words to get rhymes to work and solidifying one wing of hip-hop ideology (we on it, you ain t) that was new at the time. Best of all is It's My Thing, which sounds like the soundtrack for the end of the world while leaving a faint residue of hope. Semi-coherent liner notes by Snoop himself.

I m New Here, Gil Scott-Heron (XL)--Even a year ago, the idea of a new Gil Scott-Heron album would have seemed worse than preposterous. His fans mourned a brilliant lyricist with that distinctive voice that helped give birth to rap. But even crack can't win em all, and I m New Here is not just a comeback record but a return to form, which is to say, a towering achievement that mingles personal confession ( On Coming From a Broken Home, The Crutch ) with social indictments as only Gil Scott-Heron can deliver them. In the end, this is not only one of the best albums he ever made, but points the way to an active future. Hallelujah and Amen.

Paper Skyline, In the Wake (inthewakemusic.com) This Wichita band's closing track, an instrumental called The Tides Arise, gets at the heart of the sensuous nature of this music with one utterly unique guitar line after another washing against some interstellar shore. Heavy enough to be called a metal band, In the Wake's music is notable for its shimmering subtleties and infectious melodies. Despite that key instrumental, lead singer Bryce Weinberg's vocals make this all cohere into a natural style greater than the sum of its parts.

Crayons, Donna Summer (Burgundy)--Summer has always had a rocker's instincts but she's never shown blues chops until the amazing Slide Over Backwards, a match for anything Tina Turner did past age 50, including the hits. The rest of the album is very good but that's a great one and it shouldn't be allowed to slip away unnoticed.

Momentum, Myron Walden (Demi Sound) Walden, long the alto player in Brian Blade's Fellowship band, here shifts to tenor and hooks up with another explosive drummer, Kendrick Scott. Although the tone of the album revolves around the Fender Rhodes of David Bryant an almost automatic reference point for 70s jazz many of the tunes emphasize forward motion The Road Ahead, Vision of a Visionary, Like a Flower Seeking the Sun, Pulse. Walden, perhaps because he's less at home on tenor, focuses on his writing to good effect. He's another of those mid-career jazz musicians with wide-ranging tastes and steeped in jazz history who keep pushing to take the music to new plateaus. If we haven't arrived there yet, it doesn't mean that much of the soundtrack for the journey, such as Momentum, isn't a reward in itself.

Faces and Places, Fahir Atakoglu (Far and Here Music) Atakoglu is a veteran U.S.-based Turkish keyboardist with an eclectic heart. That means he ranges from intense, chops-heavy jazz fusion to airy Mediterranean soundscapes to the nasty funk of Seven, an album highlight. The nine piece band which includes electric, acoustic, and flamenco guitarists interacts in fascinating ways with a string section, at times evoking the 1960s jazz/classical hybrid known as Third Stream. The heart of it all is the interplay between Atakoglu and drummer and longtime collaborator Horacio El Negro Hernandez, who sound at times like they are rushing to catch a plane, at others like they are pausing to admire a pretty woman, but always in a conversation open to all others.

Emergence, Roy Hargrove (Emarcy) On Valera and My Funny Valentine this nineteen piece big band whispers and moves delicately, as if to conceal its potential power. On Chucho Valdes Latin rave-up Mambo for Roy, the power is fully unleashed, harkening back to the days when massive orchestras drove that rhythm deep into the hearts of New York City's most fervent dancers. Requiem is an epic, standing on the shoulders of both jazz and human history to thrust one sonic assault and then another. Much like the last two albums by Gerald Wilson (the 91-year-old bandleader we spied at a table at a recent Hargrove gig in LA), Emergence doesn't seek to shatter the traditions of the big band as much as to reinvigorate them with power and passion. If you take out three tracks in the middle here which are fatally flawed by poor vocals (and that's easy enough to do with digital technology), you ve got yourself a masterpiece.

Interplanetary Melodies: Doo Wop from Saturn and Beyond, Vol. 1; The Second Stop is Jupiter: Doo Wop from Saturn and Beyond, Vol. 2; Rocket Ship Rock, Sun Ra and his Arkestra (Norton three individual CDs)--Some of the craziest doo-wop ever recorded was produced and orchestrated (in several senses) by the mighty Sun Ra, whose own Stuff Like That There closes out The Second Stop is Jupiter. Other don't miss moments include Juanita Roger and Lynn Hollings Teenager's Letter of Promises, which is girl group harmony of the Rod Serling school (Interplanetary Melodies), and Yochanon's Muck Muck and Message to Earthman #1 on Rocket Ship Rock. Groups like the Cosmic Rays, Nu Sounds, and Ebah rollick and moan their way through gems like Dabba Dabba Du Bay, Africa, Spaceship Lullaby, I Am Gonna Unmask the Batman, Space Stroll and Hot Skillet Momma. And you wondered what you were going to do with the rest of your life.

Backatown, Trombone Shorty (Verve Forecast) Troy Trombone Shorty Andrews is from an important New Orleans musical family (his grandfather was Jesse Hill of Ooh Poo Pah Dooh fame) in Treme, America's oldest black neighborhood. On trombone or trumpet, Shorty is a virtuoso who fits in seamlessly leading his band Orleans Avenue though heavy metal, jazz, R&B, or NOLA party music. As a vocalist, well, he's effective. This album doesn't feel eclectic, it feels like a group of musicians with few boundaries on their own taste who are able to make music that organically conforms to that reality. While this music could only come out of New Orleans, it stretches that tradition in new and exciting ways which, come to think of it, is yet another New Orleans tradition.

Time Stands Still, Chris Smither (Signature Sounds)--As adept interpreting Dylan's It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry as playing slinky guitar or singing in that improbable New Orleans-meets-Delta voice, Smither makes all the pain sound easy, which is more than half the trick when you re singing the blues as on covers and some wicked good originals (the title track, Surprise Surprise, Don't Call me Stranger ) he always is.

The Bridge, Melanie Fiona (Universal) In a recent Billboard, Guyanese-Canadian singer Melanie Fiona calls herself a big nerd, and there's something to that, in a good way. Her earnest, adult exuberance seems way out of step with the mainstream, but the hip hop sensibility behind these R&B mash ups is, as the album title suggests, all about finding new common ground. It's apparent from the opening cut, Give It To Me Right, which uses the Zombies Time of the Season for a sassy demand for more attention from her lover. This is a big heart and a big voice to go with it the vision never bigger than on the mix of Brill Building and Studio One, Ay Yo which unforgettably lays out the mission, Oh life can be unforgiving/I m fighting to keep on living.

It's Not as Bad as It Looks, Jon Dee Graham (Freedom)--The gravel-voiced Austin roots rocker's title refers to a near-fatal car crash that broke almost every bone in his body followed by a fall from a ladder that took care of many of the rest. It also reflects what he's learned about life lived the hard way, and the long crawl back to stand before the mic again. Imagine a record that opens with Beautifully Broken and ends with I Will Be Happy Again, and manages to make the journey between seem no less bleak and desperate than it actually was, while at the same time finding some light. A triumph.

Times Flies When You re Having Fun, Smokey Robinson (RobSo) - Fifty years ago, Berry Gordy made Smokey Robinson's Miracles the first group on his new record label. Now Smokey appears with his first album of new songs in years, sounding as effortlessly seductive at 70 as he did at 20. The unlikely erotic highlight is Love Bath. But the album's tone is more romantic than randy on gems like Satisfy You, Girlfriend and Time Flies. Don't miss the hidden track, an adult ballad version of I Want You Back that transforms the song, making it Smokey's own.

Getting Down is Free, Rad (7 Bridges) Rad is Rose Ann Dimalanta, a formally trained jazz keyboardist and veteran of Prince's 2003 band whose main interest is the funk. Backed by a shifting cast of veterans from the likes of Santana, James Brown, Tower of Power, and Prince, Rad on this album is something like Chaka Khan and Rufus in one person. Highlights include the title track (an even better version can be found at www.youtube.com/watch?v=EB5hITxy7bw), Ain't No Fool, where she accompanies herself to emotional perfection, and her love song to the earth, Honeybees.

Rated R, Rihanna (Def Jam)--After a head-spinning four year progression that started as sunny soca and reggae, the adventurousness of this young Barbadian's mainstream conquering, Good Girl Gone Bad, has morphed, wounded and wiser, into genuinely adult music. The fiery bombast she cooks up with Slash on Rock Star 101 convinces just as hard as the sweaty dancehall of Rude Boy seduces. But nothing really tops ballads like Stupid In Love (which starts out like self-flagellating confession and ends up somewhere near triumph) or The Last Song, a peak into the abyss that still dreams it could save the world.

Live at the Blue Door, John Fulbright (MySpace.com/johnrussellfulbright)--He can be wordy and insular but when it all clicks together, John Fulbright is the most riveting 22 year old singer-songwriter in America. Like Woody Guthrie, with whom he shares a hometown, Fulbright is interested in both politics and poetics. He works hard to blur the imaginary lines between them in little gems like Satan and St. Paul, Somebody's Else's Name and All the Time in the World. The big difference between the two Okemah native sons is that the new kid received his inspiration from Townes Van Zandt, so that he's meticulous where Woody was (often deliberately) slapdash. A studio album is forthcoming from Jimmy LaFave's new label Music Road. Here's hoping it helps Fulbright escape the obscurity Guthrie had to endure.

Pizza Box, Danny Barnes (ATO)--In the early part of his career, Barnes was a bluegrass hellcat, his virtuoso banjo playing leading the Austin-based Bad Livers down the weird and rocky side of traditional (and original) music. Barnes lived in the place where punk, metal, and country met--where the lost highway hit a dead end and howled--and he's still in that neighborhood. Pizza Box (on Dave Matthews label) is less experimental, with more hooks, and has some sweet, almost Beach Boyish singing. But it continues to see the darkness and yearn for redemption, going backwards ( I need a good woman in a rich man's yard ) and forwards ( So here I stand in the ol Wal-Mart ), his spectacular, lead guitar-like banjo connecting the two. If this CD had Steve Earle's name on it, or Dylan s, it would be called an astonishing and moving mash-up of American traditions and be heralded as one of the albums of 2009. And so it is.

Street Politics, Maria Isa (SotaRico)--This Twin Cities dynamo and her crack band SotaRico (named for her mixed heritage, growing up Puerto Rican in St. Paul) blend hip hop schools old and new with sultry Caribbean rhythms, cumbias and lots of rock guitar. Isa has a terrific voice, able to spit political rhymes before soaring to triumphant heights, but the connection to the area's purple royalty on Passion Fantasy manages to unify everything here by turning a sultry come-on into the revolutionary vision, Me and you, we can do anything we want.

Counter Culture, Olmeca (Barking Rooster Entertainment) Luis Rodriguez gives a stirring invocation, putting forth a blueprint for healing a fractured world. Then Olmeca, long a legend in LA's hiphop underground, takes over. He takes his stand with the people who can't afford to wait as he conducts an album-length dialogue between anger and love. Why are we angry? Who do we love? Can love overcome anger? Should it? Musically, the tentpole is hip-hop, driven by Olmeca's powerful voice and scratching that functions like a James Brown rhythm guitarist, but the tent itself includes older musics and much of Mexico as well. Traditional instruments, obscure samples, and the voice of La Marisoul (who someday may become the Celia Cruz of Aztlan) give the album a unique sound and broaden its political actors from rage against the machine radicals to mothers and day laborers and fruit sellers [olmecamusik.com].

Carolina, Eric Church (Capitol) Country and rock but not country-rock. Ain't Killed Me Yet is a fierce musical rip of Steve Earle's The Revolution Starts Now (on a very different topic) while Where She Told Me to Go is a beautiful country lament about a hell of heartbreak that no air conditioner can cool. Producer Jay Joyce overfills the cracks and then allows the tracks to settle and sigh, letting fiddle and keyboard asides find their own way in the mix. And Eric Church is probably the first person to rhyme Faulkner books with mama cooks.

Flood, Moreland & Arbuckle (Telarc) This Wichita trio sounds like a fuzzy, buzzing picture of country blues as it was moving to Chicago, photoshopped with the type of roots rock that made it on the radio a generation later a la Creedence. The acoustic numbers such as Your Man Won't Ever Know work well too but the highlights are the screaming Bound and Determined, which sounds like its title, and Counties, a song about a flood in Kansas that can't help but make you think about Katrina.

Keyboard City, Salvador Santana (Various Music/Quannum Projects) Salvador Santana has a vision as cohesive, if not as world-changing, as his dad Carlos. It comes out on this, an entire album with the vibe of War's All Day Music. Keyboard City makes you smile and makes you feel there's a possibility this may continue indefinitely. Despite heavy input from fourth Beastie Boy Money Mark, it's not a hip-hop album although its sound would be inconceivable without hip-hop. The beats, especially Salvador's muscular drumming, drive the songs while his keyboards fill and nudge and only rarely does he let his full chops fly. The vocals are often distorted, occasionally just silly, yet are surprisingly effective. Horns and guests like legendary LA song thrush Claudia Tenorio spice up the mix without changing its essential flavor.

Would Things Be Different, The Spring Standards (The Spring Standards)--Three fresh faces from Delaware, playing all manner of instruments to support amazing intertwined vocal harmonies this is the light to Low Anthem's dark. The songwriting is equally tricky, intricate and adept, especially on, for instance, the opening Skyline and particularly Bells and Whistles.

Can You Dig It? The Music and Politics of Black Action Films 1968-75 (Soul Jazz) Double disc set notable for the way it combines the hits that came out of these soundtracks (Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Booker T., Isaac Hayes, Bobby Womack, James Brown) with obscure delights such as Jack Ashford's Las Vegas Strut, Don Costa's Charley, or Johnny Pate's truly incendiary Shaft in Africa. The blaxploitation genre gave free reign to R&B stars, jazz musicians (Grant Green, J.J. Johnson), and arranger/conductors like Pate, Gene Page, and Quincy Jones. The often orchestral format gave the music a link to more traditional soundtrack fare but the impassioned vocals, wah wah guitar, electric piano, and percussion took it to another level. The booklet's take on politics is a little murky but the Impressions do a fine job of laying out an agenda with the shake and shimmer of Make a Revolution.

Kombit Pou Haiti, Chuck D & the Slamjamz Relief Project (Slamjamz)--In the wake of Haiti's quake, countless musicians have thrown benefits all over the world, and dozens of singles and albums have emerged for Haiti relief. This benefit for the community-based Haitian organization the Lambi Fund features 9 varied acts, including Heet Mob, Professor Griff's metal band 7th Octave, soul singer Jason Kyle, and the Afro-Dominican group Pa lo Monte. Though the album stays raw and alive from beginning to ending, Mistachuck's opener, This Bit of Earth, may tell the strongest story because, though the forcefulness of Chuck D's voice is as strong as ever, he sounds like he's reading through scribbled notes on the significance of Haiti, letting flow take a backseat to content, the impact all the stronger for the rough edges. (www.slamjamz.com) For more information about the Lambi Fund (www.lambifund.org)

In the Wee Small Hours, Frank Sinatra (Capitol vinyl reissue) Sinatra's first 12 long player from 1955, this magnificent exploration of heartbreak shows the singer often in denial he's over her, things might work out, he's actually speaking in general, not personal, terms. But we don't believe a word of it and he doesn't really want us to, as the delicate power of the vocals and the quality of the standards (plus the new title track) surround us with misery-loves-company pain. Nelson Riddle's orchestrations gently urge us to keep going, while the back cover photo shows the members of the orchestra mulling over their own experiences as Sinatra sings. The cover painting is a movie in itself, writing a big check that this album cashes effortlessly.


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