Reviews


Carter

Michael
Franti and Spearhead,
Stay Human (Six Degrees)


From his days with the
Beatnigs and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy on up to his current band
Spearhead, Oakland-based singer-rapper Michael Franti has been evolving more
accessible blends of music and protest. Taking inspiration from Bob Marley,
Marvin Gaye, and Gil Scott-Heron, Franti wraps his anti-capitalist, anti-racist,
anti- sexist messages in an easy pulsing blend of R&B, hip-hop, and reggae. On
Stay Human Spearhead’s soulful groove is again in service of social
justice, this time Franti’s incisive and passionate rants on the moral, racial,
and economic implications of the death penalty.

Manu Chao,
Proxima Estacion…Esperanza (Virgin)


One of the prime
movers of the worldwide rock-en-espanol movement, Manu Chao draws political and
musical lessons from the likes of Bob Marley, The Clash, Eduardo Galeano, and
subcommandante Marcos. In his band Mano Negra, Chao fused anarchist politics,
street tragedies, and rebellion with punk and world sounds appealing to
dissident youth. With his 1998 solo debut Clandestino, he translated his
rebel stories through an edgy blend of rock, funk, reggae, ska, and salsa that
garnered global album sales of over two million. Virtually unknown in the United
States, the French-born Chao is now getting a chance to grab an English-language
crossover audience. Still, Esperanza offers no major alterations of
Chao’s message or sound. Singing in English, Spanish, and French, and relying
heavily on Latin flavored reggae and ska, Chao is still aiming toward an
ambitious synthesis of Catch A Fire and London Calling.

India
Arie,
Acoustic Soul (Motown)


With Lauryn Hill,
Erykah Badu, Macy Gray, and Jill Scott, woman-centered R&B has gradually been
carving out some liberated space for sisters turned off by gangster bravado and
naughty sex tease. Now joining that camp is a 25-year-old acoustic guitarist
India Arie. Taking cues from Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Minnie Riperton,
hip-hop, and Lilith Fair, Arie is out to affirm old fashioned values like inner
beauty, sexual restraint, and non-violence. A fresh twist of old school and new
school and one of the best debuts of the year.

Alejandro
Escovedo,
A Man Under The Influence (Bloodshot)


After emerging from
the punk upsurge of the late 1970s and working his way through respected cult
bands such as the Nuns, Rank and File, and True Believers, singer-songwriter
Alejandro Escovedo turned toward a more intimate, soul-searching brand of song
on a series of solo albums earning wide critical acclaim and a small, but devout
club audience. Escovedo’s sound pulls from diverse roots—his Mexican heritage,
rock, folk, blues, and classical. But it’s his poetic and candid writing that
makes his voice so distincively haunting. Opening wounds of race, love, and
family, Escovedo unfolds life’s most tender and painful moments with elegant
precision.

Various
Artists,
Avalon Blues: A Tribute To The Music Of Mississippi John Hurt
(Vanguard)


The delicate sound
of Mississippi John Hurt doesn’t fit popular notions of blues, but for a brief
period in the 1960s his intricate, syncopated fingerpicking and sweet, calm
singing delivered the music’s most essential truths to club and festival
audiences around the country. Hurt’s blues didn’t carry the raucous and haunted
perspective of the Delta and Chicago styles. Instead Hurt concentrated on
telling funny and sad stories of everyday rural life. Since his death in 1966,
his legacy has slowly faded. The Peter Case- produced Avalon Blues means
to remedy the situation with 15 performances of Hurt tunes by a stellar array of
modern-day folk, blues, and rock performers including Lucinda Williams, Chris
Smither, Steve Earle, Beck, Dave Alvin, Victoria Williams, Gillian Welch, John
Hiatt, Bruce Cockburn, Ben Harper, Alvin Youngblood Hart, and Taj Mahal. No
radical reinterpretations here, just from the heart appreciations of a much
loved master.

Olu Dara,
Neighborhoods (Atlantic)


At the age of 60,
jazz trumpeter Olu Dara is in the process of creating an amazing artistic second
life. In the 1970s and 1980s, Dara built a reputation as an avant player in the
David Murray Octet and the Henry Threadgill Sextet. But with the release of his
1998 album In The World: From Natchez To New York, Dara
reintroduced himself as a chronicler of black musical forms with a “new sound”
rooted in rural blues and African folk traditions. Neighborhoods secures
that identity with songs and styles spanning nearly a century’s worth of
multicultural African America. One of the year’s best.

 


Gillian
Welch,
Time (The Revelator) (Acony Records)


On her first two
albums, Revival (1996) and Hell Among The Yearlings (1998),
Gillian Welch staked out a sound and vision based in old-time Depression-era
country traditions. From this space, she connected listeners to stark emotional
and economic realities most entertainment prefers to ignore. While the newly
released Time (The Revelator) retains the same roots, Welch is stretching
toward a looser, more personalized expression of themes and values that once
seemed historical or second hand. With her partner singer-guitarist-writer David
Rawlings producing, Welch now seems fully relaxed in her adopted tradition,
singing woes and yearnings as if they were her own. The real news, however, is
in the writing. Over the course of three albums, Welch and Rawlings have come to
craft old-time imagery and narrative that sets comfortably alongside the work of
revered originators.

Kelly Jo
Phelps,
Sky Like A
Broken Clock
(Ryko)


Like Welch,
singer-songwriter- guitarist Kelly Jo Phelps seems bonded to an ancient muse,
but in this case rural blues. On previous albums, Lead me On (1994),
Roll Away The Stone
(1997), and Shine Eyed Mister Zen (1999), Phelps
has employed his smoky voice and virtuoso slidework to pursue questions of
meaning, mortality, love, and loss. Accordingly, the reference points for Phelps
quest have been the deep blues of Skip James, Robert Pete Williams, Roscoe
Holcomb, and Dock Boggs. On his new live album Sky Like A Broken Clock,
Phelps continues to extend his meditative approach to the blues, but this time
with instrumental support from bassist Larry Taylor and ex-Morphine drummer
Billy Conway. With these sensitive, veteran players complementing his words and
moods, Phelps lays aside his slide in favor of deft and subtle fingerpicking. As
always, a trip through dark, painful emotions to hard won, comforting release.

The White
Stripes,
White Blood Cells (Sympathy For The
Record Industry)


Detroit’s Jack
(guitar and vocals) and Meg White (drums) make up the very back-to-basics rock
duo known as The White Stripes. Like other garage punks before them, the Whites
(a brother and sister act) favor no frills noise, brash attitude, and blunt
words. The difference with The White Stripes is a connection to rock’s most
primitive roots. Lovers of folk, blues, and country, the Whites keep their eye
on the surface rudimentary sound rooted in imagery, melodies, and riffs
springing from Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta. Mix that up with a little
Kinks, Cole Porter, and punk and you’ve got a messy originality that fits no
current corporate formula.

Tricky,
Blowback (Hollywood)


Since his 1995
breakthrough, Maxinquaye, the trip-hop innovator known as Tricky has been
on a critical and commercial downslide. Music fans originally mesmerized by his
scary urban soundscapes bristling with economic and racial tensions have slowly
turned off to a dense and pessimistic ride to nowhere. Blowback may turn
the tide a bit as Tricky makes moves toward songs, melodies, and hope. The air
of foreboding has not entirely evaporated, but with a little help from the Chili
Peppers and Cyndi Lauper, Tricky is finding ways to throw light on a path
forward.

Caetano
Veloso,
Noites do Norte (Northern Lights)
(Nonsuch)


Since the early
1960s when he emerged as a leader of the radical tropicalista movement,
singer-songwriter Caetano Veloso has reflected the heart and soul of Brazilian
politics and culture. As a result, Veloso is now regarded as a national hero and
poet of the people. Released earlier this year, Noites do Norte (Northern
Lights)
is another of his landmark works showing the power of socially
conscious art. The album offers an intoxicating blend of the nation’s rich
musical traditions including samba, bossa nova, 19th century classical music,
African folk, and indigenous variations of American rock and hip-hop. This
extraordinary soundtrack, however, carries along a critical examination of the
Brazilian legacy of racism and slavery. In songs such as “Zumbi,” “Zera a Reza,”
and “13 de Maio,” Veloso conveys facts and personal histories tracing the
horrors of social dislocation, slave rebellions, and enduring inequality. A sad,
provocative, and angry work meant to provoke argument and change.

Los Super
Seven,
Canto
(Columbia/Legacy)


On their debut
outing of 1998 the loose knit group convened as Los Super Seven introduced
Tejano and traditional Mexican music to listeners just waking up to the glories
of indigenous Latin music. On Canto the mission is broader in scope. With
Ruben Ramos, Rick Trevino and Los Lobos members Cesar Rosas, David Hidalgo, and
Steve Berlin staying on from the first group, and a host of new singers and
players including Raul Malo of the Mavericks, pianist Alberto Salas, Peruvian
vocalist Susana Baca, and Brazil’s Caetano Veloso, Los Super Seven display a
stunning multifaceted panorama of Latin sound. Another gorgeous and essential
record owing nothing to calculations of crossover.          Z