Giants of East Africa
Orchestra Super Mazembe
In 1991, Earthworks released the compilation Guitar Paradise of East Africa, a title that was less hyperbole than a plain statement of fact. One of the disc's highlights was "Shauri Yako," an early-'80s number from the Kenyan-out-of-the-Congo 13-piece Orchestra Super Mazembe that lasted nine and a half minutes yet ended way too soon. Length aside, there's nothing particularly grandiose about "Shauri Yako" at first. The vocals are nasal and a little homely, the interweaving guitars aren't nearly as showy as those of OSM's neighbors in Kinshasa would be a little later in the decade (compare the slick fretwork of Diblo Dibala on Kanda Bongo Man's and Loketo's albums), and the dynamics are subtle enough to pass you by the first couple times. It's pretty hypnotic, though. Soon, you find both the vocal melody and the guitar breaks stuck in your head. After a while, it's hard not to want to hear it again. And then again. And again after that.
Giants of East Africa, OSM's new greatest-hits collection, achieves the same effect, only a lot faster and more frequently. "Shauri Yako" is still the highlight, but, surrounded by such strong material, such distinctions seem trivial. The hypnotic grace notes that kick off "Kassongo," the group's first single, announce the record's m.o.: paradise found again. Like much of the set, "Kassongo" starts off as a mesmerizing shuffle before the guitars (led by Bukasa wa Bukasa "Bukalos" and supported by riffers Loboko Bua Mangala and Komba Kassongo Songoley) shed their shackles and segue into a kicky little groove, over which lead vocalist Lovy Longomba (aka "Ya Mama") shouts his pleasure. Throughout Giants of East Africa, it's hard not to identify with him. -- Michaelangelo Matos
Going Driftless: An Artist's Tribute to Greg Brown
(Red House Records)
Just who is Greg Brown? you might ask. If you aren't a folk-hound, a native Midwesterner, or a fan of Prairie Home Companion, you probably don't know. Brown is a veteran singer-songwriter from Iowa who's put out 19 or so solo albums and whose songs -- quintessentially American, poignant, and cutting at the same time -- have been covered by everyone from Carlos Santana to Willie Nelson to Shawn Colvin. Brown's mama played electric guitar, his father was a Pentecostal preacher, and his discovery of Mississippi bluesman Big Bill Broonzy at the tender age of 10 sealed his fate as a future roots-music man. His music is intensely personal, whether dealing with big issues like the struggle to keep small towns alive or the hassles involved in the minutiae of everyday life and relationships. Brown's tunes are firmly rooted to a place: the heart of the American Midwest. He worked for years doing music for Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion on NPR and is the founder of Red House Records, an indie label known for its roster of cutting-edge folk artists.
What a feast of artists come to this table. Many stellar female singer-songwriters make appearances here, including Lucinda Williams, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Victoria Williams. Royalties from this tribute album go the Breast Cancer Fund of San Francisco (hence the all-female cast), and what a change it is from the usual charity platter, which is often cobbled together and features MOR artists like Celine Dion to appeal to mass tastes. Finally, here's a charity/tribute album for thinking people that's actually very good. Highlights include Gillian Welch doing the lazy "Summer Evening," Ani DiFranco's chilling interpretation of "The Poet Game," and Iris Dement's high-lonesome yodeling on "The Train Carrying Jimmie Rodgers Home." The lesser-known artists here give excellent performances too, especially Karen Savoca's sassy rendering of "Two Little Feet" and the lovely, translucent voice of Leandra Peak, who closes the album. In fact, there are no snoozers here at all -- a minor miracle given that 14 artists are involved. --Lisa Lumb
Black Letter Days/Devil's Workshop
Frank Black and the Catholics
Being the next writer to blow smoke up Frank Black's arse for his work with the Pixies is not a prospect I'm too jazzed about, nor is it a particularly engaging place to start a review of his two new albums, especially on the cusp of his solo career's 10th year. But what shape would Black's solo career have taken if his 1993 solo debut hadn't come on the heels of his ground-breaking run with the Pixies?
Chances are we wouldn't be hearing anything from Black. He would have given up without that extra push and label attention that come standard with the Previously Fronted Extremely Influential Band package.
But Black shines supreme when placed within the context of the Cue Ball Triumvirate: Black, David Thomas, and Bob Mould. Besides the unifying baldness, all three led phenomenal bands -- Thomas' Pere Ubu and Mould's Hüsker Dü (and, perhaps, Sugar) -- and have tackled lengthy solo careers. Thomas' has been "difficult," which, for our purposes, is another word for "bad," and Mould's has had its ups, downs, and unflattering oddities (see this year's Modulate). Black, if not just plain good, has at least made interesting music worth the attention of an open ear.
And now Black's unexpectedly prolific stretch of post-Pixies albums reaches numbers eight and nine with the simultaneously released Black Letter Days and Devil's Workshop. That spokesperson for AA rock, former Replacement Paul Westerberg, pulled this same stunt earlier in the year. What's with these guys? Is it a secret society? The We Fronted Post-punk Bands of Holy Grail Status So Let's Go Drive Some Golf Balls Club? But perhaps that's a little unfair to Black, because, however improbably, both of these new albums are keepers.
The logic behind the split is clear: This music wouldn't work as a sprawling double CD; listeners need a choice, and they get one. You want no filler in short order? Go with Devil's Workshop, crooked pop finished in 30-something minutes. Black's shameless but workable Stones rips are omnipresent throughout both records, and the numerous phases within the Stones' oeuvre that are worthy of pilfering certainly hold a lot more staying power than the Pere Ubu and Velvets reference points prominent on Black's earlier work, Pixies included. (You go through Pere Ubu and Velvet Underground phases; there should be no Rolling Stones "phase" -- the love should last.) Devil's Workshop is like Some Girls with a Pixies twist. It's a big shot of aging Jagger Swagger administered right into Black's mildly slanted pop musings and yammering acoustic rave-ups.
Conversely, Black Letter Days will require a little more homework. For starters, it's epic, as much music as one CD will hold. The cover art: black-and-white photos of industrial chain-link fences and concrete drainage ditches. Some songs are long; most are nasty and dark, with a touch of faux blues, making Black Letter Days' probable sonic antecedent the drugs-coming-out-of-our-ears '69-'73 Stones. But it's not just plagiarism. Gifted songwriters like Black make their pickings sound new. The moving or catchy air of the songs will strike you long before their blueprints do. -- Andrew Earles
Grades: Black Letter Days: B; Devil's Workshop: B+