Le Grand Kalle, Joseph Kabasele: His Life, His Music (Sterns)
If The Father of Modern Congolese Music seems too parochial an honorific for you, how about West Africa’s Miles Davis? Although the comparison isn’t perfect, it touches on Joseph Kabasele’s role in helping modernize African pop even while his urbane band offered apprenticeships to the next generation of African superstars. As this retrospective’s handsome 100+ page book makes clear, Kabasele and crew were educated elites energized by Congolese independence, careful students of regional specialties yet nobody’s traditionalist. And while Kabasele remains a titanic figure, many tracks will be revelations even to studied fans of African pop, as befits a tireless performer who cut over one hundred records between 1950-52 alone. You can even follow along as much-loved styles fall into place; the pure Parisian cafe (plus clave) of the opening track catapulting into “Kale Kato’s” rumba-congo via saxophone, or the sudden appearance of electric guitar on “Baila” heralding the nearly rock ‘n roll drive of “Tujala Tshibemba,” and the world-historical hit “Independence Cha Cha” predicting the liquid precision of both dual guitars and twin trumpets on future tracks aided by Euro studio budgets. Multiculti global fusion has rarely seemed so effortless (forget rhythmic variations and just consider the languages utilized, from Lingala and French to Tshiluba and Kikongo). And while Kabasele’s mid-60s recordings on the second disc can’t compare to his peerless first decade, you’d be thrown off balance too if your band had lost Manu Dibango, Tabu Ley Rochereau, Dr. Nico, and Sam Mangwana in one fell swoop. Easily the historical reissue of the year.
Brandy Clark, 12 Stories (Smith Entertainment)
Deliberately or not, the title evokes Randy Newman’s 1970 statement of purpose, although even at his drollest Newman avoided the flatly declarative song titles preferred by this Nashville veteran, titles giving little hint of Clark’s penchant for wry poetry (“gettin’ hammered / on Alabama Slammers”), local color (protagonists named Aquanette), and small town straight talk (“couldn’t love him any less or hate him any more / the day she got divorced”). Yet the reportorial vibe seems deliberate, not least because many of these songs are dispatches from omniscient observers, detachedly yet empathetically detailing the ways women fight off or surrender to (mostly male-induced) despair. There’s no denying the words clearly mean more to her than the singer-songwriter music she floats atop, although please note arrangements borrowing cleverly from forebears Jimmy Dean (those “Big Bad John” whoah-oh-ohs on “Stripes”) and Bobby Gentry (“Ode”-like woozy strings on “Divorced”). Besides, I’m guessing this Reba McEntire fan got just the unassuming sound she wanted for her intimate tales. Puzzled by the institution of marriage and conflicted over self-medication, Clark worries about decisions and repercussions in a manner anathema to her many dude-bro country contemporaries, whether she’s taking an elevator to the erotic gallows or deciding crimes of passion don’t justify crimes of fashion. And she repeatedly insists it’s too damn hard to stay financially solvent in Great Recession America, which is one reason she sees nothing wrong with praying to Jesus before, during, and after playing the Lotto.
Lee Ranaldo & The Dust, Last Night On Earth (Matador)
Although Sonic Youth’s former members deserve better than pigeonholing exercises, it sure seems tempting to summarize their post-band output so far. Thurston’s proved the ever-eager and unfocused dabbler, Steve Shelley an able drummer-for-indie-hire, Kim Gordon sadly enough a chilly experimentalist sorely in need of her old band’s bullshit detector. Which leaves Lee Ranaldo the committed songsmith and 60s utopian, the latter quality evident in each extended guitar workout and Neil Young allusion on this noisier follow-up to last year’s song-focused effort. The hippie vibe can be off-putting - “light up / so we can all feel our desires” at first seems as clumsy an insertion as the harpsichord on “Late Descent #2”. But he mostly justifies his sloppy aesthetic, especially as the Byrdsian haze approaches an epic closer that shudders and rumbles to grandiose climax. Perhaps someday he’ll figure a way to trim his excesses without losing any skronk power. But until then, Murray Street believers may find this a suitable breakup gift.
Arcade Fire, Reflektor (Merge)
Their pretensions have never been more middlebrow - it figures the Camus they’d fall for would be Marcel. And despite limitless human decency, they at times betray shall we say petit bourgeoisie tendencies, whether via a tribulations-of-fame number wondering whether cameras really do suck out souls or a life-changing trip to Haiti in which tribal rhythms manifest themselves as “a thousand horses / running wild in a city on fire”. But since nobody looks to Arcade Fire for deep insight, such thematic indulgences needn’t worry us much. Far more fatal is the sound of a rhythmically-challenged rock band making their disco move by sprawling slowly across two discs. No doubt James Murphy and his kitchen-sink tendencies deserve blame. But this is exactly the baroque disaster some feared if an earnest ensemble of melodramatic optimists ever started believing their own good press. Forget the lyrical nadirs (“Hey Orpheus / I’m behind you”; “little boys with their porno / oh, I know they hurt you so”), forget for that matter the ludicrous song titles (“We Exist”; “Supersymmetry”), and just ask yourself what an entire album’s worth of dirt-glam like “Normal People” might have sounded like bursting from your headphones. Then reflect on why the Win Butler who once astutely noted the kids all standing with their arms folded tight would cap a ninety-minute album with six minutes of a tape being rewound. May I have this dance? No, really, may I have this dance?
Robert Glasper Experiment, Black Radio 2 (Blue Note)
Glasper’s first installment of this apparent franchise was never as forward-looking or audacious as deep-pocketed boosters claimed, with jazz improv consistently tempered so as to make his soul overtures that much more radio friendly. But at least Black Radio was an awkward hybrid. Flush with Grammy success, the pianist here arrives with a full sheath of original compositions heavier on lyrics than arrangements, showbiz guests from Wayne Brady and Snoop Dogg to a particularly overwrought Marsha Ambrosius, and more preachy talking points from the man who publicly thanked Grammy voters for allowing him to play “real music”. Jill Scott’s slinky presence on “Calls” sure sounds real to me, although Malcolm Jamal Warner orating a well-meaning Sandy Hook tribute “poem” over re-purposed Stevie Wonder fails as both music and verse. The leader also noodles around the piano a wee bit on a couple fade-outs, which seems to fulfill the album’s “jazz” quota. Whether you’re sympathetic to improv or not, you do have to wonder why Glasper didn’t expend a little bit of that cultural capital.