Listening Notes, Ultra-Brief (pt. 20)


Bambara Mystic Soul: The Raw Sound Of Burkina Faso 1974-1979   (Analog Africa)

Calling this the “raw sound” of what was at the time actually Upper Volta oversells things somewhat, even if production facilities weren’t state-of-art. But it’s certainly unknown. With the music of this landlocked nation retaining less name recognition than that of immediate neighbors Mali, Niger, or Benin, most of these songs will be new even to committed African enthusiasts - just four artists from Savannaphone’s 2009 Ouaga Affair: Hard Won Sound of the Upper Volta are carried over, and only relative superstar Amadou Ballake repeats specific numbers. With six out of sixteen tracks, the versatile Ballake dominates this compilation, as he should, his career encompassing standard mid-70s afrobeat, Cuban rhythms, and hints of the West African griot, the latter (on “Renouveau” and “Sali”) echoing seminal Malian act Rail Band. Not all of Ballake’s compatriots carry as much personality, with some offering merely adequate funk or barely adequate disco (Mamo Lagbema’s English language dud “Love, Music And Dance), and careful listeners might rightly note the lack of a defining “Voltan sound”. So embrace this as a solid sampler of a nation whose sound is as much defined by its porous borders and influential neighbors as its own traditions, and note that solid tracks by Issouf Compaore and Mangue Konde (the joyful “Kabendo”) enliven proceedings noticeably.. And give thanks to a label now entering its tenth year for steering relatively clear of psychedelic rock and third-rate funk outfits while digging deep with an ear for variety. 44-page booklets help, too.

Scroobius Pip, Distraction Pieces    (Speech Development)

 Stepping out once again without partner dan le sac, this Edward Lear fan ratchets up the rock quotient on a brief album that’s not so much rap as rhythmic spoken word. Essex-born David Meads has an endearing, nearly sing-song, delivery that brings to mind both John Cooper Clarke and Art Brut, with shrewd wit (“you see a mousetrap/ I see free cheese and a fucking challenge”), very few duff lines, and a sense of timing as solid as it is versatile. The first six tracks all deploy heavy guitars, with personal favorite “Try Dying” the kind of rap-rock fusion the world could use more of. He muses political, too, taking on Drudge Report-era journalism before ordering “soldier boy” to “kill those Disney villains” and protect the oil supply. This last invective occurs during a piss-take on Soulja Boy’s “Crank That,” hurled over an ultra-distorto wall of drums that makes room for activist rapper B. Dolan to throw down some verse. Immediately afterwards, proceedings slow down noticeably, with two conversational/confessional numbers, the first featuring a bargain-basement John Lee Hooker shuffle, the latter, “Broken Promise,” finding our hero musing on how he once thought he was one of the good guys. Didn’t think I needed to hear him trade lines with Natasha Fox on the final track, but didn’t think I needed a hip-hop album to go out on a Kate Bush cover, either. Somehow, he makes it work.


Werner Hasler / Gilbert Paeffgen / Karl Berger, Hasler/Paeffgen/Berger   (NoBusiness)

Don’t expect cacophony from this trio of let’s-call-them jazz musicians, all German/Swiss and all friendly to the avant-garde, with elder statesman vibraphonist Karl Berger the standout, bringing to this project a reputation sealed in seminal 1960s work with Don Cherry (plus his co-founding of the Creative Music Studio). But don’t be misled by Werner Hasler’s billing of “trumpet/electronics” to presuppose an electro-acoustic groove session, either. It’s Hasler’s trumpet that dominates, with periodic electronic manipulation gurgling around the edges or helping double the rhythms laid down by Gilbert Paeffgen. Overall, a quiet affair - brass and percussion with plenty of empty space. But when they want to cook, they do, as on “Lomallet,” in which Berger gently chimes against a steady beat while Hasler drops a repetitive fuzz-synth bass line before looping Paeffgen’s beats back at him. For seven minutes at least, it’s motorik jazz, which makes sense given their heritage.

9th Wonder, The Wonder Years    (Traffic Entertainment)

 Originally set to drop in 2008, this long-delayed feature-length from North Carolina producer 9th Wonder arrives top heavy with guest spots, featuring big names Warren G, Talib Kweli, Masta Killa, Raekwon, and Erykah Badu, and countless others batting cleanup. At first, this oppressive reliance on outside strengths seems deadly. Only then, the shifting palette helps create individual thematic statements, new voices whirring by, consistently playing off deep soul samples that deliver the only hooks on offer. Yet guess what? Bereft of tunes, this becomes little more than a very long, well-meaning, earnest, dull, traipse through hip-hop trophes, except for the times it’s not well-meaning at all. Such luminaries as Badu repeat “I’m twenty feet tall” over and over hoping it might stick as a hook, wannabes like Mac Miller try out laff lines such as “I’ll buy you dinner and then…..maybe pull your tits out haaaaaaaa,” and somebody (Raekwon? really?) boasts that he’ll “swim through money like I’m Jewish”. Zero in on these individual moments and you’ll probably shrug, or worse. So try taking it in as a sloppy whole, and perhaps enough good vibes will emerge, the benchmarks of an imperfect hip-hop journey. Start with track six, “Loyalty,” or seven , “Now I’m Being Cool,” and you may not stop.   


Roots Manuva, 4everevolution    (Big Dada)

On the cusp of turning 40, longtime UK rap figurehead Roots Manuva couldn’t be accused of sleeping on trends or dialing it in – he would seem to be as comfortable rolling in dubstep as he is the grime he partially helped inspire over a decade ago. But he remains as ponderous as ever, hamstrung by a weakness for melodrama. Dialing back the claustrophobia, he occasionally charms, as on the chillwave-calypso “Wha’ Mek?” a great single which longtime fans have apparently rejected as being too poppy. Wonder what they think of “Watch Me Dance,” a desperate club anthem that finds a floundering Manuva weakly singing “we don’t mean to be sleazy” over sleazy synth? Maybe they prefer hearing two members of Skunk Anansie over-emote all over “Skid Valley,” in which a sober prediction of the August riots gets swamped by the portentous production. And on and on.

I-Wayne, Life Teachings    (VP)

Liberals of any ethnicity embrace Rastafrian philosophy at some peril, no matter how addictive the bass lines carrying along protestations and harangues. Exactly why socially conscious music consumers heap disdain on somebody like Toby Keith while talking up the musical artistry of this young moralizer probably has something to do with Keith’s all-American delivery hammering home preachy fables while I-Wayne’s patois just as often softens the message. So take time to study the lyrics, because even his supposedly uplifting career-defining hit “Can’t Satisfy Her” crouches behind nastiness while painting its portrait of a sex industry victim – addicted to bling and spreading the disease she caught, a prostitute staying in the game so she can afford the “house, car, and land she desire” gets judged as surely as any Babylon denizen. And so it goes on this supposed ‘romantic’ album, which opens on a call to “Burn Down Soddom,” takes time out for the requisite “Herb Fi Legalize,” and urges us all to “Change Them Ways”. Such self-righteousness might be tolerable were it not expressed through simpering vocals and pushed along on glossy production. Although even without those sonic limitations, who can say for sure?