Two cover stories in three weeks, not counting our Beale Street Music Fest guide, has kept Listening Log dormant for a little while. Hopefully that can change for the rest of the summer, as there are lots of records to catch up on.
On deck for this third Listening Log: A Stax legend, brainy folk-rock, and a Congolese street band:
Potato Hole — Booker T. (Anti-): On this first solo album in more than 20 years, the MGs bandleader and Stax legend is assisted by the Drive-By Truckers — known more for their songs than their sound — and Neil Young, who downplays his own guitar-hero bona fides to play judicious sideman here. Young and the Truckers have made a bundle of brilliant records between them, but needless to say they aren't exactly the funkiest white guys with whom Jones has ever worked. These collaborators make for better press hooks than musical ones (the cover of Outkast's "Hey Ya" similarly feels like publicity bait). There are many lesser-knowns that would have made for presumably more interesting music. Though that familiar organ tone is the first sound you hear on Potato Hole, this is almost as much of an instrumental guitar album as an organ one, with even Jones himself joining in on the instrument. Jones is a deserving legend, but it's hard to imagine this record would have gotten much attention if tied to a different bio. It's not as compelling, for instance, as the 2009 debut from local MGs inheritors the City Champs. ("Space City," "Potato Hole")
Hungry Bird — Clem Snide (429): Clem Snide's Eef Barzelay is a frequently dazzling, occasionally impenetrable songwriter, and while this first band album in four years has more musical juice than his two solo albums (albeit considerably less than the band's 2001 peak The Ghost of Fashion), the lack of specificity in this batch of Barzelay's songs makes it difficult to grasp. Gone are the self-aware video hoes, Joan Jetts of Arc, and autobiographical new dads that have populated some of Barzelay's better songs. A direct closing plea aside, these modest little folk-rock songs reach high, occasionally beyond their grasp, with impressionistic, sometimes stream-of-consciousness intimations of wonder and doom. ("Born a Man," "Beard of Bees," "With All My Heart")
Tres Tres Fort — Staff Benda Bilili (Crammed Discs): From the same Western promoters who brought you the Konono series — the rare recent Afropop to find an audience among American alt-rock fans — comes this oddball discovery: A band of aging, handicapped Congolese street musicians found playing on the grounds of the zoo in Kinshasa, where most of this three-years-in-the-making debut album was recorded. The band's ranks are swelled by a rhythm section of street kids, starring 17-year-old Roger Landu riffing and soloing on a homemade, one-string electric lute he fashioned with a tin can.
In other words, this exotic backstory is rife with red flags, but Tres Tres Fort would demand attention even if the music-makers were as relatively square and normal as Orchestra Baobab. This acoustic music is usually lively, sometimes stately, always beautiful, redolent at times of rumba, country blues, doo-wop. The aged voices harmonize in a manner that would be astounding if it wasn't perfectly common for top-notch African pop, and the kid torpedoes any creeping sense of folkie dignity by wailing away on what, in his hands, sounds like a musical saw with note-by-note dexterity; otherworldly and hypnotic. ("Sala Mosala," "Poliomyelite," "Tonkara")
A clip of Staff Benda Bilili: