Listening Notes, Ultra-Brief (Pt. 54)


Sofrito: International Soundclash     (Strut)

On their second collection of what they’ve dubbed tropical dance music, London-based club and label impresarios Hugo Mendez and Frankie Francis put forth the bold claim that rhythms other than funk a) exist and b) are funky, simultaneously arguing great party music requires a strict vetting process that can’t be entrusted to mere record collectors. Or as Mendez puts it, “The current interest in ‘record-digging’ for me ties in with a kind of quest for authenticity and to define DJs by their possessions rather than their taste or approach”. His disdain for dodgy concepts like authenticity gets fleshed out in pithy liner notes championing the “musical exchanges” that have helped create such glorious hybrids as reggae and sustained many another native rhythm. Over 14 tracks sharing the simple requirement of danceability, styles and regions whir past - soca, luo, merengue, soukous, salsa, cumbia, gwo ka, cadence-lypso, and “Haitian mini-jazz”. The hardest hitting track might be the 2008 carnival monster from Guadeloupe troupe Mas Ka Kle, unless it’s the sick thump and twang of the edited-for-content Hispaniola nugget “Fe’m Confiance”. The most fun track might be the Cameroonian disco grime of a pre-Makossa Bell’a Njoh, unless it’s the one where the Quebecois steel drum outfit tackles Ralph McDonald. Almost positive the most lovely track is Congolese star Fantastic Tchico Tchicaya’s lilting take on iconic Cuban standard “El Manisero,” which sure beats the version Stan Kenton put to wax.

Mike Reed’s People, Places & Things, Clean On The Corner    (482 Music)

Reed’s the kind of jazz drummer who makes sure you know he’s from Evanston, IL rather than Chicago proper, listing Levon Helm and Neil Young along with Ben Webster and Elvin Jones as influences on his website and tossing in a recipe for shrimp étouffée just because, and that easy generosity carries over into his band. Unlike previous outings specifically devoted to such thematic concerns as unearthing Chicago obscurities, the focus here is on originals that nevertheless pay tribute to the early and open-ended days of Windy City experimentalism, with the AACM looming large and forebears such as John Jenkins and Roscoe Mitchell highlighted. A twin saxophone lineup courtesy of Tim Haldeman and Greg Ward is occasionally fleshed out by the cornet of Josh Berman and the piano of Craig Taborn, the latter helping muscle Jenkins’ “Sharon” into breakneck hard bop territory before dodging sideways. Fully conversant with the sweep of post-1960 jazz expression, the quartet pulls out their little instruments for the atmospheric “December,” bump and grind in half-speed during Mitchell’s “Old,” and turn a vibraphone solo snippet by collaborator Jason Adasiewicz into the gentle “House Of Three Smiles,” cheerfully incorporating New Thing noise as seasoning rather than ideology. When alto and tenor entwine, as they often do, it brings to mind the polyphonic leads championed by noted non-Chicagoan Charles Mingus - another composing rhythm player with an eye for a good concept.


Dennis Bovell, Mek It Run     (Pressure Sounds) 

Non-specialists need only so much dub in their lives - the list of essentials peters out after Burning Spear’s Garvey’s Ghost, Keith Hudson’s Pick A Dub, various Lee Perry and King Tubby comps. But if remixed skank is your background music of choice, Bill Laswell’s two Trojan Dub Massive chapters and Madlib’s 420 Chalice All-Stars have their obvious charms. And then there’s this reworking from the founding member of Matumbi and longtime Linton Kwesi Johnson collaborator Bovell. Told to lay off the bass after recent neck surgery, he headed to the studio, pulling his own late seventies to mid-eighties tracks for hands-on sonic manipulation. Dub freaks will note (perhaps approvingly, perhaps not) less in the way of the genre’s storied murk and dust and little reliance on vocals in any permutation. Less committed enthusiasts may simply note the awesome slurring bassline underpinning “In Tha Mix,” the sound effects which for once add appropriate context to album-closer “After The Storm (Tahrir Rock)”, and the welcome presence of I Roy on “Afreecan” and “Burden”. Heavy stuff. 

The Very Best, MTMTMK     (Moshi Moshi)

The incessant comparisons of this Malawi-vocalist-paired-with-European-producers project to Paul Simon’s 1986 Graceland are disheartening because it suggests how seldom our cultural commentators check out the Dark Continent. At least nobody’s claiming the music sounds similar - this upbeat global dance pop brings to mind Ibiza, not Soweto. Essau Mwamwaya basks in the expansive setting cued up by his Euro producers, and if it all seems a bit frantic and breathless, plenty of startlingly unfamiliar melodies (“Yoshua Alikuti” and “Bantu”) take their place alongside the plethora of rhythms on display, not all of the latter native to Mali or even Africa itself. But while this project’s lack of “authenticity” remains its primary charm, there are no doubt hundreds of less-vaunted African outfits mining a similar pan-global fusion, quite possibly equipped with a greater surplus of memorable hooks and easier spontaneity. And while the roster of invited guests certainly adds to the festivities, the revolving cameos by K’naan, Amadou & Miriam, Baaba Mal, and - uh - Mumford & Sons’ Winston Marshall also highlight two central problems - a general absence of individuality (Amadou’s guitar drone on “Bantu” is easily the most memorable sonic detail of the entire album) and a commitment to diversity so hazily-defined they skimp on the quality control.


R. Kelly, Write Me Back     (RCA)

The funny thing about weirdos is that without their idiosyncrasies they’re far more boring than the competition, which is why this piss enthusiast’s ongoing pivot towards the legacy of Teddy Pendergrass engenders shrugs while his mucus membrane feasts and telenovela closet installments at least give off the sheen of kitsch. Charmlessly supported by a pre-fab orchestra and stealing boldly from Bill Withers (“Feelin’ Single” = “Lovely Day”) and The Spinners (“Lady Sunday” = “I’ll Be Around”), Kelly’s tribute to old soul in all its album-padding glory just as often seems a tribute to the legacy of Sha Na Na (“All Rounds On Me”) or Grease (“Party Jumpin’”). Nice to see how some things never change, though - those oafish writing workshop seams still show. In the way of symbolism, you’ve got your angel with, look at that, clipped wings. As for ambiguity, “I had a little too much to drink”. 

Purity Ring, Shrines     (4AD)

38 minutes of electronic indie pop from a Canadian duo with an immediate interest in contemporary r&b production technology, creatively utilized to flesh out their not-inconsiderable abilities with chordal and melodic expressionism and tied inextricably to a concept album about bodily decay and fragility. Yet try and get past the levels of social detachment on display here, with details of anatomic entropy exploited largely for their distancing effects - “it’s like your head is crumbled,” “cultivated piles of bones,” “cut open my sternum,” “precious fractured skulls.” Although it’s quite possible the real concept under construction here is bad verse: “Grateful our cold memories bide / For the plentiful times that… / That her eagerly death had — had / Counterintuitive thunder ride.” Or “I’ll stick red toothpicks in my dirt-filled heart.” Or “Oh my sweet fairy / a palace distraught / touch not my bosom -” ah, you get the idea.