Haiti Direct: Big Band, Mini Jazz & Twobadou Sounds, 1960-1978 (Strut)
Even by the grisly standards of Caribbean history, the indignities visited upon Haiti by Western powers are grim, and while indifference to musical culture remains a crime ranking far below banana wars and coup d’état’s, the island nation’s grooves remain non-entities amidst reggae, soca, cumbia, calypso, and son. Blame etymology - it certainly doesn’t help that Hispaniola splits between Haitian méringue and the more popular Dominican Republic merengue. So remember the simple rule: merengue uses accordions, méringue prefers guitars. And if like me you tend to prefer guitars to accordions, these twenty-eight cuts of dance music may surprise you by their accessibility. It helps that compiler Hugo Mendez (cofounder of dance collective Sofrito) ignores the 4/4 cowbell Haitian funk that no doubt exists in favor of the real Antillean deal, meaning not just méringue but such offshoots as compas direct (slower), mini-jazz (smaller bands), rara (very trad.), and Cuban-influenced twobadou (troubadours) and cadence rampa (mambo-ish). If those genres sound unfamiliar, don’t worry, you won’t recognize the performers either, aside from relative superstars Tabou Combo and compas direct innovator Nemours Jean-Baptiste (even genuine superstar Coupé Cloué only appears as ‘Gesner Henry’ on a 1971 cut). So juggle the rhythms as best you can while enjoying the surf guitar, afro-beat organ, and alto saxes. As befits a two disc set, not every selection connects - you may not rush to re-hear Denon Morin’s 10-minute exposition on the Zodiac anytime soon. But how about Scorpio Universal’s late 70s dancefloor scorcher “Ti Lu Lupe,” complete with Rick Wakeman synth freakout? Or NYC regulars Djet-X adapting the Felder/Walsh guitar riff of “Hotel California” for a horn-led compas workout? “Jive Turkey,” that one’s called.
Hard Working Americans, Hard Working Americans (Melvin/Thirty Tiger)
No need for grandiloquence - this side project consists of noted songwriter Todd Snider backed by a blues-rock band singing eleven songs written by other people. If you thought Snider’s last fiddle-heavy folk-slop outfit rocked plenty hard, you may wonder why you’re supposed to squeal over John Popper and the bass player from Widespread Panic. And since Snider’s a better songwriter than Kieran Kane and Gillian Welch and, right, just about everybody else involved in this project not named Randy Newman, you may question the logic behind showcasing the interpretive skills of an inconsistent performer. Yet Snider’s breathed life into other’s offerings before (Jimmy Buffett’s “West Nashville Grand Ballroom Gown” proved a perfect stoner fable), and note how most selections from this quasi-conceptual journey across the blue-collar landscape favor acts you maybe haven’t heard of (BR549) or at least won’t remember well (Drivin’ ‘n Cryin’). I certainly didn’t recall Gillian Welch’s “Wrecking Ball” wielding its outsized metaphor until the “little Deadhead” narrator watches Santa Cruz’s downtown fold under the Loma Prieta quake, and never would have spotted Hayes Carll’s “Stomp and Holler” as the perfect vehicle for “rattlin’ the cage” over “minimum wage”. So figure he knows how to pick ‘em, and also knows how to highlight the populism within these repurposed Great Recession anthems. You want obvious, there’s “Welfare Music,” in which Snider via the Bottle Rockets grants supposed welfare queens the dignity denied them by angry men in radio booths. You prefer subtext, try “I Don’t Have A Gun,” in which a good joke about deflated machismo gets transformed into an indictment of NRA lies. An armed society isn’t a polite society, Snider wants you to know. It’s a society riddled with exit wounds.
POW!, Hi-Tech Boom (Castle Face)
Slithering out of some San Francisco garage comes twenty-six minutes of sneer from a boy-girl-boy synth/guitar/drums trio who won’t apologize for their addiction to echoplex and barre chords. The faux-British snot-punk vocals of Byron Blum get so swallowed by the noise it’s tempting to tune them out, but he’s not just gobbing into the heath - their post-post-industrial complaints include vertical slums and Bay Area gentrification, with the “digital rodeo” of Silicon Valley’s “new breed” coming in for particular scorn on the title track. “No future,” says Blum, and where have you heard that before? Elsewhere, things get noticeably less specific: “the weather! the weather! the weather!”. Anybody who wished Hardcore Devo delivered more hardcore than it promised may well dig it.