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Consumer Guide: Shufferng and Shmiling

Below note 10 releases by or associated with Fela Kuti, a total that the truly mad will observe falls short of the entirety of MCA's massive and welcome reissue promotion. The missing found their resting place in the limbo I call Neither: Coffin for the Head of State/Unknown Soldier (keyb vamp-till-ready), V.I.P./Authority Stealing (six-minute speech-speech), and Yellow Fever/Na Poi (simply not good enough).

BLACKALICIOUS: Nia (Quannum Projects) Like all underground hip-hop whether it admits it or not, this is not aimed at le DMX fan moyenne intellectuel. Like all underground hip-hop whether it admits it or not, it's for musos--predominantly white and Asian beat aesthetes whose racial impulses risk awkwardness and worse no matter how objectively progressive their tastes and ideas. But that doesn't mean the scene isn't good for plenty of sharp rhymes and rhythms, or that this West Coast crew aren't better than that. Not because they refuse to "contribute to genocide" by faking gangsta "reality," although that's nice, but because they refuse to contribute to the pleasureless us-versus-them of the old-school ethos. As philosophy, their spirituality is icky. As music, it's profusely generous, overflowing with tribal chants and doowop choruses and easy-going basslines. They're "r&b" without a wet rhyme in 74 minutes. They actually seem capable of a hit. And if, as usual, that actuality is theoretical, soundtrack scouts should at least remember they're around. A MINUS

JAMES CARTER: Chasin' the Gypsy (Atlantic) Sonically and conceptually, audacity is Carter's m.o. He always makes sure you know he's in the room. So on this bow to Django--an attention-getting device in itself, of course--he grabs hold of Reinhardt's famed "Nuages" with a totally inappropriate bass saxophone and never lets go. Does the European proud, too--even on soprano Carter is a gutty presence, overlaying just enough raunch for anyone who's always found the tributee a touch quiet. With two well-schooled moderns taking what are no longer lead lines on guitar and Regina Carter a more muscular Stéphane Grappelli, this is the spirit marriage a tribute should be. It swings like a horse thief, parlays Fransay, and adores the melody. A

JAMES CARTER: Layin' in the Cut (Atlantic) Never fear--the most gifted and broad-minded young jazzman on the set hasn't succumbed to the dreaded amplifier. Hooking up with Ornette bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Blood drummer G. Calvin Weston, heavy guitarist Jef Lee Johnson, and fleet guitarist Marc Ribot is just a way for him to make another record without his touring band, write heads while nobody's looking, pay respects to a strain straighter coreligionists disdain, and prove he can rock a little, quite possibly while finishing the crossword. Not that there's anything distracted or desultory about this funk, this blues, this Latin, this harmolodic fusion, this free jazz. But he sure does make them seem second nature. A

CLEM SNIDE: Your Favorite Music (Sire) Too doleful and detached to be as compassionate as he feels he should be, Eef Barzelay turns his best impulses into slow tunes with homely words that express concern without quite holding together or committing him to anything. Don't think he'll "die for your sins"--"Take it easy or you'll hurt yourself" is as far as Eef'll go. Maybe he'd cheer up if he rechristened himself John Doe. B PLUS

EDDIE COCHRAN: Somethin' Else: The Fine Lookin' Hits of Eddie Cochran (Razor & Tie) Because he was worshipped in England, where he died in a car crash, this hot-picking Hollywood rockabilly was overrated in a pop world that had never heard of Charlie Feathers. But after punk, Brits forgot him, and soon his legend was reduced to "Summertime Blues" and "Somethin' Else," so that these 20 two-minute songs comprise his first decent US CD. I always found his catalogue thin, but boy-pop puts it in perspective; it would be rich to hear one of today's teen tycoons singing, "I want my own Coupe de Ville/Make my dad pay the bill." In his time, he was the essence of nominally rebellious male adolescence--and as such, more redolent than Charlie Feathers. A MINUS

COME ON: New York City 1976-80 (Heliocentric) Who were these guys? There were five of them, including a female guitarist--neatniks all, favoring white shirts, black pants, short hair. Half of this belated testament was recorded CBGB 1978, a final track Hurrah 1980, both places I frequented. But I'd never heard of them, and when I checked with New York Rocker's Andy Schwartz, he recalled only the name. On the evidence of these 16 homages to early Talking Heads, we were missing something: the halting yet propulsive, arty yet catchy ejaculations of the uptight nerd as subversive geek. A five-year-old sex fiend joins a suburban tennis player exposing her underthings joins somebody's kitchen floor joins the incendiary "Old People": "Get out in the streets/Turn over cars/Elbow young people/Set garbage on fire." Not important, obviously--we did fine without them. Lotsa laughs, though. B PLUS [Later]

GRANDADDY: The Sophtware Slump (V2) One thing I like about Jason Lytle is that I usually know what he's talking about. If he calls one "Broken Household Appliance National Forest," that's what it's about, to go with the booklet pix of dead keyboards in the gravelly dirt. Computer keyboards, that is--final image is a guy in a cowboy hat carrying a Casio into the sunset, and if you don't take the cowboy part literally (think last frontier, not Gunsmoke) that's pretty much what the music is like. It's the end of the day, you're sitting in your house in the exurbs feeling kind of sad for reasons you don't fully understand, although you do wish your humanoid pal Jed was still around. So you make up tunes that feel as blurry as you do. So you aim toward the sky and rise high today, fly away, far away from pain. A MINUS

FELA KUTI: The Best Best of Fela Kuti (MCA) There is one true Fela experience, and that experience is long. L-o-n-g. Unless qawwali counts, no one in pop has ever gone on so unceasingly for so long. Even Phish and such mix in song-type fragments to give folks a rest. Fela's practice was to release 30-minute albums with two cuts on them, or to dispense with this formality and designate the sides parts one and two. As a result, this 158-minute double-CD comprises all of 13 titles. But of these, more than half are edited or cut unceremoniously in half, which is great, because long can wear out fast. Most Fela albums, including the 20 MCA has arrayed across an overdue reissue blitz of 10 CDs that pass by such renowned releases as Zombie, Black President, and Army Arrangement, are listenable enough. Few, however, are the knockout punches his notices lead thrill seekers to expect--their attractions are more unfocused than an artist so militant requires. Here that's not a problem. Long though they still are, all are marked by top-notch tirades, explosive horn blasts, riffs he'll never improve no matter how often he tries. Certainly some original albums are of a quality that renders the usual duplication caveats moot. But this is the one you need, a masterful piece of compilation for an artist who deserves the best. A

FELA KUTI: Confusion/Gentleman (MCA) At 25:36, the 1974 "Confusion" is one Fela song/track/album it would be a waste to edit--from free-form intro to multiple solos to Tony Allen's one-man polyrhythms, it's the proof of Africa 70's presumptive funk. The horn work introducing "Gentleman," omitted from the Best Best version, embodies the contradictions of that song's anti-European message. Two eight-minute Africanisms carry the package off into the bush. A MINUS

FELA KUTI: Original Suffer Head/I.T.T. (MCA) Emerging from a groove that maintains, the find is the sole non-title cut. Called "Power Show," it's nothing of the sort. It may not be thoughtful--Fela always reacted more than he reflected. But the laid-back bpms and sour sax make thinking sound like a good thing. B PLUS

PUERTO RICO (Putumayo World Music) These earnest craftspeople you never heard of feed off and into a folkloricismo of uncommon naturalness and grace--fueled by a Third World economy with loads of loose money in it, and lubricated by ease of movement between two different worlds. Too hip to the States to mess up their cultural pride with xenophobia, on good terms with the commercial danceability of their salsa-pumping Nuyorican cousins, they choose to serve the bomba of the black settlements, the plena of Ponce, the seis of the mountainous center. Although these tracks abound in indigenous percussion and don't shun horns or pianos, their defining sound is the lilt of the 10-string cuatro--rural yet sophisticated, romantic with a beat. Would that preservationists in Cuba and West Africa could float such a utopian groove. A MINUS

TROPICÁLIA ESSENTIALS (Hip-O) Relics of a cultural revolution--14 1967-1969 songs, all except the Tom Zé written by Caetano Veloso or/and Gilberto Gil and most performed by them. Although these songs outraged their world merely because they weren't Brazilian enough, what's striking at this distance is the Brit specifics of their internationalism, idealizing not the hippie '60s of spaced-out pastoral but the mod '60s of trippy pop. For all the deep rhythms and avant-garde sounds, the guitars are drunk on Revolver and Out of Our Heads, the orchestrations full of Blow-Up and Modesty Blaise. Decades later, we can hear how Brazilian their cheese and lyricism remained. But these particular Brazilians were the premier melodists of their generation, and they considered it especially trippy to juxtapose bright, rebellious music against grim antijunta fables. Translations provided--read them. A MINUS

Dud of the Month

FAITH HILL: Breathe (Warner Bros.) Hill's Shania move comes down so far on the wrong side of Bryan Adams it's a wonder she doesn't pop out of her fancy black lingerie--great color choice, gal, no grass stains. Back in the boudoir, she poses for photos, then carefully removes said lingerie so as to "make love all night long." As the drums wham-bam her promises home, the guitars make noise without having any fun. How poetic. How precisely what Tim McGraw deserves. C PLUS [Later]

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • The Asylum Street Spankers, Spanker Madness (Spanks-a-Lot): fun with reefer--it's so relaxin' ("It's Dry Down Here," "Beer")
  • Mahavishnu Orchestra, The Lost Trident Sessions (Columbia/Legacy): from before John McLaughlin discovered Barney Kessel and Jan Hammer discovered Jan Hammer ("John's Song #2," "Trilogy")
  • Fela Kuti, Stalemate/Fear Not for Man (MCA): the old ways are best, in sound and story ("Palm Wine Sound [Instrumental]," "Don't Worry About My Mouth O [African Message]")
  • Graham Haynes, BPM (Knitting Factory): Miles in the sky of drum 'n' bass ("Telluride," "Tristan in the Sky")
  • Ricardo Lemvo & Makina Loca, San Salvador (Putumayo Artists): diasporan pansalsa, the next level--meaning ready for the cruise ships and good clean fun ("Boom Boom Tarará," "Ave Maria [Por Dios]")
  • Tony Allen, Black Voices (Comet import): left to himself, Fela's Jabbo Starks is more juju than Afrobeat ("Asiko," "Black Voices [We Are What We Play Mix]")
  • Big Pun, Yeeeah Baby (Loud): anthemic pop-metal thuggism con salsa ("Wrong Ones," "Laughing at You," "Nigga Shit")
  • Alvin Youngblood Hart, Start With the Soul (Hannibal): first acoustic bluesman to cover the Cornelius Brothers and Black Oak Arkansas, but probably not the first garage rocker ("Fightin' Hard," "Manos Arriba")
  • Fela Kuti, Shuffering and Shmiling/No Agreement (MCA): worthwhile really long one, good 15-minute one, vamp-plus instrumental ("Shuffering and Shmiling")
  • Fela Kuti, Opposite People/Sorrow Tears and Blood (MCA): from defiance to defeat, and guess which has the beats and solos ("Opposite People")
  • Pearl Jam, Binaural (Epic): rock as inner struggle, eternally externalized ("Of the Girl," "Insignificance")
  • Fela Kuti, Shakara/London Scene (MCA): early funk experiment more interesting, early Afrobeat excursion more satisfying ("Shakara," "Egbe Mi O [Carry Me]")
  • John Hiatt, Greatest Hits: The A&M Years '87-'94 (A&M): tuneful, what else, but beware: Capitol cherry-picked from these already ("The Rest of the Dream," "Real Fine Love")
Choice Cuts:
  • Sisqó, "Thong Song" (Unleash the Dragon, Dragon/Def Soul)
  • Buckcherry, "Lit Up" (Buckcherry, DreamWorks)
  • Dilated Peoples, "The Platform," "Triple Optics" (The Platform, Capitol)
  • Ray Condo and His Ricochets, High and Wild (Joaquin)
  • Hanson, This Time Around (Island)
  • Fela Kuti, Expensive Shit/He Miss Road (MCA)
  • Femi Kuti, Shoki Shoki (MCA)
  • Princess Superstar, Last of the Great 20th Century Composers (The Corrupt Conglomerate)
  • Rah Digga, Dirty Harriet (Elektra)

Village Voice, June 27, 2000

May 30, 2000 Aug. 22, 2000