Semipop Life: Consistent rewards
África Negra, Willie Nelson, Superchunk, Oumou Sangaré, and more!
The case, prima facie plausible, that the pride of São Tomé ranks among the top handful of African bands of the last forty years lacked a consensus album you could point to until now. Whether it’s an illusion or not, the twelve all or almost all ’80s/’90s tracks arranged here by Geneva label/coffee shop Bongo Joe—especially when heard in conjunction with their most recent reunion, 2019’s Alia Cu Omalí—give the impression they’ve been playing at a very high level for their entire existence. The outlier is “Ple Can”, whose first known release was in 2012 and whose recording came some time after São Tomé got more hardcore guitar pedals. Otherwise, the flow of Congolese guitar over Latin-mostly and maybe Angolan-slightly rhythms seems as inexhaustible as water in the Gulf of Guinea—nary a mid-song shift is required, with only 1983’s “Cumamo Zivalemo” having something like sebene form. Still, the early Eighties was their probable peak: a remastered set of their first four albums (two of which I’ve heard) would be a box I might pay Euros or even pounds for. Instead, Bongo Joe’s plan for Vol. 2 is a disc of unreleaseds. If that’s about as good, then I’ll really have to calibrate their place among the all-timers.
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Grade: A (“Vence Vitoria”, “Qua Na Bua Nega Fa”, “Epa Sa Cata Pabo Manda Mum”)
Willie Nelson: A Beautiful Time
Many people besides Crowell/Stapleton could’ve written “I’ll Love You Till the Day I Die” (Baz Luhrmann’s songwriters already did with “Come What May”), but perhaps only Willie among living male singers could get away with making a song about being hung up on some woman he talked to once decades ago sound non-pathetic: his singing exudes having loved. Producer Buddy Cannon keeps the vocals up front and Trigger dead center, letting Nelson make it clear that even the titans among us have had touchdowns and interceptions, that there’ll always be nights where all you can do is splutter through, no matter how much of your original lung capacity you still have and no matter how high one gets up the tower of song. The five Nelson/Cannon explorations of wrinkles, mortality, and qi move them up a few floors, while they get just as much mileage out of other people’s songs, however well-worn. Willie’s answers to “Do you need anybody?” and “Could it be anybody” are gloriously redundant.
Grade: A (“Tower of Song”, “I’ll Love You Till the Day I Die”, “With a Little Help from My Friends”)
The first track, a slow one with Owen Pallett strings called “City of the Dead”, had me worried. If it doesn’t manage to creep on to the good side of the ledger, it eases in the listener thematically, helping Mac McCaughan, who became a very effective singer at some point over the last few decades, ensure the more lyrical follow-up songs about anxiety in COVIDland and Climate Change World have their full impact. From then on, things never stay maudlin for long, as no matter how dark and/or hot it gets, there’s always a friend to call, a memory to recall, a dance partner to hit up. Do I think another volume of What a Time to Be Alive would’ve been a more appropriate response to the zeitgeist? Well yeah, but I’m not their dad.
Grade: A MINUS (“Endless Summer”, “Wild Loneliness”, “On the Floor”)
Godwin Kabaka Opara was the lead Oriental Brother, says him, until in the time-honored Afropop tradition he left to form his own band, the second-most popular O.B. splinter group after Dr. Sir Warrior’s. He’s still kicking around southwest Nigeria plotting a comeback, despite being persona non grata at the Oriental Brothers reunion arranged this year by the highlife fanatics at Colombia’s Palenque Records. Contrary to Palenque’s notes, I believe the recordings here are from 1977. The first two tracks might’ve been on 1995’s Do Better If You Can/Onye Ikekwere Mekeya under variant spellings; somebody who collected Afropop reissues in the ’90s can verify that. And even if you have that one, you probably love imported guitar rhythms over Igbo rhythms so much that you’ll want to hear the two other tracks here: the gentle, smoldering “Onuru Olu Mwa Bia Za” and the 12-minute high energy workout “Ijeuzoije Awunkpa”. Despite the lack of a musician with the charisma of Warrior, the time flies by: the band is his instrument.
Grade: A MINUS (“Onye Ikekwere Meyeka”, “Onuru Olu Mwa Bia Za”, “Ijeuzoije Awunkpa”)
Fred Hersch: Breath by Breath
I’d admired not loved the works of this veteran pianist/educator, the student of Jaki Byard and the teacher of Ethan Iverson, until this. Hersch has the small, non-zero amount of shame necessary to let the dreaded With Strings supply elegance without turning things into complete mush. The suite that takes up eight of nine tracks is about meditation, and I suppose you could interpret Hersch’s gradual transition from a melody begging for words to pure percussion in the opening “Begin Again” as entrance into the trance, or you could just say it sounds cool. It’s not all oms and ahs from there—there are snippets of drama and wit—but gratuitous beauty is the main goal until the suite-ending “Worldly Winds”, which lets everyone return to the physical plane via some light cardio. As a postscript, there’s the Schumann tribute "Pastorale": how fjucking Romantic.
Grade: A MINUS (“Begin Again”, “Worldly Winds”, “Mara”)
Oumou Sangaré: Timbuktu
The title doesn’t signal a turn to desert blues: this is in the Wassoulou-internationalist vein she’s worked in most of her career when not distracted by dance remixes or acoustic authenticity. Besides being written while she was stuck inside of Baltimore with the Bamako blues again during 2020’s COVID summer, the album’s distinguishing feature is the ambition of the arrangements, with West African and Western instruments (there’s a sousaphone in there somewhere) blended with care and taste. Co-producer Pascal Danaë’s slide guitar and dobro complement Mamadou Sidibé’s ngoni very well, and if I’m not so enamored with the Moog, these are Moogy times. Sangaré fits every mood, getting high and lonesome on “Kanou” and rocking with moderation “Kêlê Magni”. Right on average for her, which as she’s one of the greats is pretty good.
Grade: A MINUS (“Gniani Sara”, “Timbuktu”, “Kanou”)
Melodic hardcore supergroup who deliver on the “melodic” part despite lead preacher Andy Norton’s sprechgesang’s limited relationship with Western tonality (though he hits some crazy notes almost surreptitiously.) The twin guitars more than compensate with strategic silences and classic rock resolutions to the tonic, while drummer Daniel Fang, who’s in every straight edge band in Baltimore and half the ones in D.C., smacks the even-numbered quarter or eighth notes in the least Jamaican way possible. The production is in the current big room fashion, which for once feels appropriate, as Norton’s inspirational phraselets yearn to inspire bigger audiences than will fit in the local VFW. On the title track he says “I wanna to be in love with [almost] everyone” and “I choose to see the light” and sees “visions of love that seem to be true, another night another dream but always you” okay I might’ve let autocomplete get carried away with that last one. At least as sentient as LaMDA, and more spiritually adept.
Grade: B PLUS (“All in a Dream”, “Peace of Mine”, “Suddenly Human”)
Yard Act: The Overload
It’d help James Smith if he had more than one voice: the title track has a succession of personas chirping on in the same Northern accent (not that I can differentiate between Northern accents, maybe one’s from Manchester and one’s from Yorkshire) and it’s a bit hard to follow despite the quality of the writing. He’s on firmer ground when he sings as someone with a high similarity score to James Smith, sometimes angry at Post-Brexit Tory Capitalism, more often disappointed at what PBTC forces people to become. His power trio’s faux Elastica-faking-the Fall is more than adequate backing, with a strong contribution from bassist Ryan Needham, whose groove-readiness and collection of not-quite-stolen hooklines keep the character pieces chugging. Best in show is the third-person “Tall Poppies”, about a village football captain who lives a conservative life, makes some money, puts his Mum in a home, and dies early and beloved.
Grade: B PLUS (“Tall Poppies”, “Dead Horse”, “Payday”)
Manel Fortià: Despertar
You can tell which member of this Spanish trio is the leader by the fact that the bass is mic’d way up. Fortià wears his Haden influence on his sleeve, playing lengthy melodic lines regardless of whether he or pianist Marco Mezquida or both are taking the lead. After the opening “Dormir” takes us to Nod, he filters a panoply of Iberian and Iberoamerican musics through his experiences in New York: song dedicatees include Jackson Heights and the JFK Airtrain. “Espiritual” strides with an inefficient relentlessness, like a Barcelonan tourist in Manhattan or vice versa. Mezquida plays with restrained dynamics, doing those hairpin things I sucked at as a piano kid with much legato, while drummer Raphaël Pannier brews up supporting pitter-patter and localized storms. When the closing title track wakes from multicultural dreams, fragments of the visions persist, as if you can never be sure when a face from another part of the world might glide past on automated rapid transit.
Grade: B PLUS (“Saudades”, “Despertar”, “Espiritual”)
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