Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide Album

Franco: Francophonic [Sterns Africa, 2008]
As monumental as, and meatier than, Stern's Rochereau retrospective The Voice of Lightness, this overview of the big man's first three decades plays less smoothly because smooth was never the idea--he was John to Rochereau's Paul. The two of them ruled Kinshasa because they were bandleaders on a par with James Brown: shrewd businessmen, charismatic bosses and unrelenting musical conceptualizers. But though Franco helped create the onwards-and-upwards rumba lift that turned their city into the musical capital of pan-Africa, he remained rough and local. His lyrics eschewed romance, his singing favored a declarative midrange, his famed guitar was loud and plangent rather than nimbly lyrical. Where compiler Ken Braun gives us a Rochereau who sheds idiosyncrasy as he defines a genre and masters a personal style, his Franco is always thinking. Even on the later disc, he's masterminding a transcendent commercial and then mourning his younger brother, teasing out a buildup on one song and delivering nonstop climax on the next. Rhythms and tempos shift: here a cha-cha, there a torch song, there some eerie 3/4 time. But he never stints on melody. You may need Braun's notes to get your mind around songs your body has already internalized. Or you may decide to just enjoy how it sounds. A+