Music » Record Reviews

Short Cuts

An early look at "the African Bob Marley."


The Best of the Classic Years

King Sunny Adé (Shanachie)

The Rough Guide to Highlife

Various Artists (World Music Network)

When Bob Marley died in 1981, the music industry, unable to find a successor to the mantle of Designated Third-World Superstar in any of Marley's Jamaican peers, began grooming Nigeria's King Sunny Adé for the role. A royal scion who'd begun playing music professionally in his teens, Adé was the most popular performer of "highlife," a pealing, guitar-centered style of hypnotic dance music whose groove had spread throughout the entire African continent. America surely was next. Except, as it turned out, it wasn't. Adé recorded three terrific albums for Island Records in the early '80s, but, after some initial critical excitement, he proved a nonstarter in this country.

It turns out, though, that Adé had already made his greatest work by the time he got the stateside push. The Best of the Classic Years highlights 1969-74, the first six years of his recording career, and it's enough to give even fans of the Island albums pause. Adé's playing is absolutely demonic here: The self-titled first part of the five-song "Sunny Ti De" medley is soul-wrenching guitar talk that evokes Hendrix but never stoops to imitation, and the grooves percolate so friendly throughout it takes a while to notice how intricate they are. The singing is lovely too, but it's secondary to the overall atmosphere, which is enhanced by the 10-to-20-minute lengths that are the rule here.

The bulk of The Rough Guide to Highlife goes back even further, to the horn-led '50s and '60s dance-bands that gave the style its feet, though there are more recent tracks as well, like George Darko's synth-poppy "Hilife Time." Here, the songs are short, though it's probably no coincidence that the best track, Joe Mensah's "Bosoe," is almost 10 minutes and was edited down from a longer version. With no duds and many killers (Sir Victor Uwaifo's "Guitar Boy" and E.T. Mensah's "Medzi Medzi" in particular), deciding which to start with is a toss-up. -- Michaelangelo Matos

Grade (both albums): A


Buzzcocks (Merge)

So my oldest relatives are now getting into the Clash, thanks to the recent media onslaught, and I've always been a superfan, but good God almighty, enough is enough. The Sex Pistols have never had to pine for press: John Lydon's always had a great big mouth, and they are the Brit-punk reference point. (But, being a Svengali's cash cow, they had more in common with the Archies than the supposed meaning of "punk rock.") Then there's the Damned one great album and then kaput. Which brings me to the genre's confusing stepchild: the Buzzcocks.

The Buzzcocks were confusing for the same reasons that they flew heads and shoulders above the other three pillars of first-wave British punk. For one, they were first, and they were independent. Remember that the Pistols and the Clash were major-label from the word go. The Buzzcocks' Spiral Scratch EP was released in early '76, and it stands as the first overseas DIY record of the movement. The Buzzcocks also looked decidedly normal and sang apolitical, asexual (the band is/was split 50/50 in terms of sexual preference) lyrics about the human emotional condition in a wry, cynical tone that betrayed their years. The Buzzcocks didn't hand you a stylish and easy-to-decipher extra-credit lesson on a plate. They afforded the nascent punk movement a balance between overt politics and something a little more challenging. Additionally, they were heavier, faster, louder, catchier, and degrees superior to their contemporaries in sound. A Sex Pistols or Clash fan can easily be someone who is happy owning a large number of greatest-hits CDs; a Buzzcocks fan is a lifer.

The band's reformation in 1989 was a permanent situation, though each subsequent proper album has an unavoidable "reunion" air about it due to the volume of reissues and live documents (from the first wave) released over the past 15 years. Lifers know that the Buzzcocks are four albums into a second wind, starting with 1993's Trade Test Transmission and edging up to 2003 with this eponymous record. Of the four, this is the most energetic and true to the band's first run. Pete Shelley's vocals have been torn into a deeper, almost ruined tone that comes with age or other things, and Buzzcocks poses the inherent problem of a once-seminal post- or pop-punk band making music at this age: Those unfamiliar with the ground originally broken are going to find the new material indistinguishable from younger peers.

Buzzcocks is an album made by half of a band (Steve Diggle and Shelley are the remaining original members) that invented intelligent pop punk, but listeners who don't know that could possibly lump it in with the lowbrow Warped Tour/Fat Wreckords nonsense tainting the world of pop punk. --Andrew Earles

Grade: B-

Feast of Wire

Calexico (Quarterstick)

Tucson-based multi-instrumentalists Joey Burns and John Convertino are perhaps better known as backup for artists such as Neko Case, PJ Harvey, and Howe Gelb's Giant Sand than as Calexico, an indie outfit that draws heavily from the musical traditions of their native American Southwest. But that may change with the release of their ninth full-length, Feast of Wire, which is surely one of the smartest and most impassioned albums we're likely to hear all year.

Like its predecessors, Feast of Wire inhabits the nether-desert that separates America from Mexico, but the band now sounds more comfortable in this setting, and Burns' vision of both countries is confidently epic. For the characters in these songs, for whom "the future looks bleak with no sign of change," the vast, arid Arizona desert is a blessing and a curse, a place to get lost in and a place to lose yourself utterly.

Burns' songwriting sounds newly assured and inventive. On "Not Even Stevie Nicks" he tells of a friend who plays Fleetwood Mac to soundtrack his own suicide: "Not even the priestess with her secret powers could save him," he sings, his voice registering sad-sweet resignation. And the Springsteen storytelling of "Across the Wire" -- about two Mexican brothers crossing the border -- beats just about anything the Boss has done in the past decade.

But Feast of Wire is as much about sounds as it is about words: If Burns' lyrics strike a rare poetic clarity, then Calexico's music surprises even more with its accomplished eclecticism. Burns and Convertino cover mariachi pop ("Across the Wire"), ethereal folk balladry ("Woven Birds"), hipster jazz ("Attack el Robot! Attack!" and "Crumble"), and, most intriguingly, trip-hop ("Black Heart"). And then there are the interludes, long a staple of the band's records, but here they sound inspired by a purpose beyond decoration. Instrumental tracks like "Close Behind" and "Dub Latina" are more than mere set pieces: They conjure a very specific mood that contributes considerably to the album's atmosphere of loneliness.

All of these disparate elements could have made for a fragmented album, but Feast of Wire coheres into something unique mainly because the diverse styles, like spokes on a wheel, all lead to the same dark-hearted, desolate core -- the Western states as both geographical setting and emotional terrain, simultaneously political and personal. --Stephen Deusner

Grade: A

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