Rachid Taha, Zoom (Wrasse)
There are probably any number of good reasons why this fairly amazing ninth album by a French-Algerian icon has yet to claim a review by the tireless folks over at Allmusic, and they may well be the same reasons Taha claims no presence over at Metacritic. German import release, exotic name, sings in some weird moon man language - all qualities still capable of sending even the most cosmopolitan American pop fan sauntering towards the soothing landscapes of Daft Punk. So don’t be offended if I insist Taha is more cosmopolitan than you (and me). Set aside the fantastically bombastic and omnivorous raï vibe propelling more than a few of these short tunes, and ignore for the moment an irrepressible ode to “Star Of The East” Egyptian legend Oum Kalsoum. Western rockists should take note of a five-song fusillade literally encompassing this album’s center, a blast of international pop as varied and fun as any similar five-song stretch in notable wide-ranging canonical rock statement London Calling: ominous darkwave synth-pop espousing progressive gender politics (“Jamila”), an English language-graced indie-Arabian folk take on Elvis Presley’s version of “O Sole Mio” (“Now Or Never”), Clifton Chenier-style zydeco meltdown as Francophone tribute (“Fakir”), Johnny Cash & the Tennessee Two transplanted deep within the Saharan sands (“Ana”), John Lee Hooker stomp studded with peerless boast “I am nothing, baby” (“Les Artistes”). And that’s not even mentioning the dub/reggae one with Mick Jones or the spaghetti western skip of “Galbi” or the nth version of the artist’s own big hit “Viola Viola,” here featuring Brian Eno doing his noise-funk thing. See, I told you Taha was more cosmopolitan than you (and me).
Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba, Jama Ko (Out Here Records)
The politics add heavy context - it’s remarkable enough that an album hampered by blackouts, shifting curfews, and a rebel troop-sponsored coup was made at all, let alone a gorgeous one taking form as a sustained plea against extremism in any form. But long before the politics signify, the music will draw you in, even captivate. Not anti-Islamist so much as pro-Malian (although explicitly anti-sharia), Kouyate the performer makes clear where his sympathies lie, plugging in a personalized ngoni and deploying distortion pedals as glorious safeguard against fears music in any form might be outlawed by unwelcome invaders. So we get defiant multicultural nods like the Fela-like organ jabs on the afrofunk “Ne Me Fatigue Pas,” the blues crawl of both “Mali Koori” and a Taj Mahal guest spot, wah-wah solos amid quasi-desert rock owing much to Kouyate’s nomadic North African compatriots. But we also get traditional Malian numbers like “Wagadou” transformed into intricate chamber pop and the presence of the leader’s two sons (Moustafa and Madou) and wife Ami Sacko as testimony to the comforts (nay, necessity) of family during times of upheaval. And so the politics resurface, hopeless days birthing beauty in a way Westerners might well find useful. Which only heightens the political stakes.
Melt Yourself Down, Melt Yourself Down (The Leaf Label)
“Nubian-inspired party punk music” from UK-based jazz types, worked out painstakingly beforehand and mostly recorded on a boat - sounds like fun, no? Actually, it sounds like Mulatu Astatke minus the groove, or maybe Liquid Liquid minus the groove trying to remember what Mulatu Astatke sounds like. Some good skronk, rhythmically insistent, smeared with keyboard squelch, chock full of mostly needless vocal interjections courtesy of Kushal Gaya, simple, repetitive, pretty silly. And did I mention not funky, which is probably to plan, but still kind of a bummer.
George Benson, Inspiration: A Tribute To Nat King Cole (Concord / Universal)
I swear the words “mawkish” and “treacly” were already swirling around in my head before discovering 8-year-old “Little Georgie Benson” opened proceedings with a ukelele rendition of “Mona Lisa”. But in a way, this is perfect - a gifted jazz guitarist who made his millions crooning smoothly paying honor to the gifted jazz pianist turned smooth crooner who showed him (and everybody) the way. Only why does so much of this sound like Johnny Mathis rather than Nat King Cole?