Sunday, June 29, 2014

R.E.M.: Reckoning (1984)



On recently seeing 1983-vintage interviews with the members of R.E.M. I was stunned to see just how young they were, just how impressionable and naive and even innocent they seemed. This creates a disparity and yet it explains something. The disparity is, how did these people manage to look so goddamn disaffected and hip all the time (the proto-Radiohead, don't deny it) and keep putting out their relatively disaffected and hip music, even with the rock press taking them under its wing, obsessed like popcrits have been with few bands since Captain Beefheart or whatever? Murmur was the precursor to a seduction of adolescents. Which brings us to the part I now understand, that Reckoning is reactionary and tentative because it has to be, and it pretends it's not reactionary by being tentative, and it avoids being hurt by that because it's reactionary. Right? Right.

For the seduction to be driven by journalists is such a copout, of course. What kind of asshole of the rock & roll world is it to be the sort of people music store clerks and (oh lord, no) scenesters follow around? Worse, "intelligent" scenesters. Peers the Replacements had scenesters, but their scenesters were immature and nuts, and a lot of them were babes. If R.E.M. was getting laid in 1983, it was probably by Village Voice writers. How did any kind of rock music get driven to this kind of seclusion? "Radio Free Europe" did get jacked up once on American Bandstand, and the kids did dance.

Speaking of "intelligent," what does it mean in a pop group? That's the buzzword people have tossed around about R.E.M. for decades now. They are the "thinking" band. Thinking, of what exactly? "The biggest wagon is the empty wagon is the noisiest / The consul a horse, Jefferson I think we're lost" is a lot of words leading in no direction at all. Reckoning's cover is a coiled snake or a river, a beautiful painting by Howard Finster, in which nothing moves in any direction.

Murmur created such buzz that no one in the band knew what to do on the follow-up. That's why Reckoning is a collection of ten extremely divided, separate Byrds jangle-songs jumbled together and very mathematically divided onto two sides, labeled "left" and "right". The albums have the same producers, Mitch Easter and Don Dixon, but they are surprisingly different; absolutely none of the subtlety of the first album is evident on Reckoning. This helps it greatly. Nothing could possibly have hurt the record more than to condense Murmur's mystery into one dirge in a series. Reckoning has neither menace nor dread. It leaps out, many times. The band arguably never performed so tightly as in this period, a theory borne out by available live shows from the period. Bill Berry's formidable grit and force as a drummer is the most holy sort of contrast to Peter Buck's shimmery guitar, Mike Mills' cloudy melodic mystery and Michael Stipe's full-on art school dynamism. All are at their best here.

Side One oh god I'm sorry Side Left is five great radio songs with personality beautifully hampered by nervous second-album-by-critical-darling restraint. "Harborcoat" rings out with harmonies that the band and Mitch Easter would have considered outright unacceptable on either Chronic Town or Murmur. "7 Chinese Bros." builds to a miraculously rousing chorus that actually begins and ends (compare "Catapult" and "Sitting Still" with their very slight, clipped refrains) and expands the sonic palette with conservative piano. And "So. Central Rain" is the most commercial song they recorded until "The One I Love," hands down, and it is meaningless, completely, but packs insanely prescient emotional power that can shake a person up to this day. "Pretty Persuasion" is a rock song. It really is, I mean. The vocals are a little oblique, at first, but there's drum fills and a meaty structure and a wild chorus and crazy guitars all the way through, particularly at the bridge.

If these songs bring the lack of meaning in Michael Stipe's lyrics into focus, one can hardly argue against the fact that they prove a vital point of his being a master of atmosphere maintenance. A few of the words are excellent, if free of any kind of depth except that which free association can offer. "So. Central Rain" is beautifully written ("eastern to mountain, third party call, the lines are down, the wise man built his words upon the rocks but I'm not bound to follow suit"), and who really notices what "Pretty Persuasion" says (aside from the important "goddamn") or what "Harborcoat" means (nothing)? No one, even among those for whom the words do mean everything. Perverse, but true. The invisibility and simulated intricacy of those words actually adds to the surreal beauty of the performances, even if it does land far away from the enigmatic mutterings of the band's earliest work.

"Time After Time" is just more disparity. They call it their Velvet Underground song. It drones, of course, droning is the thing to do, but it drones so above and beyond '80s indie rock shtick. It's, like, a song, you know? A beautiful, shimmering, slow, mature song, the one that creates the most gripping chasm between the R.E.M. look, the hipster posturing, and the band's actual skill set. It simultaneously connects a line to the revealing duplicity here: The art-school cover, the oblique music videos, the music, they manage that detached pretension, but they also are apart from it. The cover is stunning, the videos are often gorgeous, the image has some kind of reality, the rock & roll is the image. Whether they mean it or not, they are masters of achieving sincerity while retaining a special kind of elevated eccentric status, a skill that would continue to abet them for a long career.

Without compromising great songs or doing much to connect them, the first half of Reckoning scores completely with a technique we'd now consider rather foolish of dealing with a problem by pretending to ignore it. Flip the record over and you witness how the same idea can fail.

The problem begins but is not limited to the songs, three of which are questionable. "Little America" is gobbledygook, but it's fast. "Second Guessing" is stupid, unfinished, annoying, but it's fast. "Camera" is the loser of the album. A tribute to R.E.M.'s late friend Carol Levy (a photographer), it begins as a plodding power ballad and just gets worse with an insipid guitar solo and steadfast refusal to start moving. The lyrics, curiously, are somewhat redeeming here: "I fell by your bed once / I didn't want to tell you / I should keep myself / In between the pages"; even though they also contain the first reveal of a fondness for schmaltz lurking under the surface of Stipe's rebellion against convention ("Will you be remembered? / Will she be remembered?"), the strange, startling confessions have a ring of truth. But the song sounds like a band's tribute to their dead friend. It can't move past that idea and fails to connect for five hideous minutes.

An even more private composition, the middling but complex "Letter Never Sent," does pick up the pace and beckons quite enjoyably in the direction of the sing-song southern folk of Fables of the Reconstruction, but the strongest cut of side two is the novelty, the country tune "(Don't Go Back To) Rockville," easy enough to dismiss as a tear-in-your-beer joke but in fact one of the most well-written songs on the LP and easily the most direct. The only lyrics on the record to match the sweet, unabashedly smitten lyrics of "Rockville" ("Everybody else in town only wants to bring you down, that's not how it ought to be" is read with such sheepish showmanship by Stipe it can generate the rare involuntary smile) are the simple "Time After Time" couplet of "If you're tired and you're tried, you can find me in my room." Obscurity is all good and well, but R.E.M.'s best moments are when their personalities shine through the rubble, and when, in "Rockville," they give in to their country heritage full-force with a great and lively pop song (formerly written as a thrash number), it is to exist in awe of the management of this and all else on Reckoning. They know what they're doing, but they are human beings always.

Reckoning has its limitations, sacrificing not just the mystery and wonder of Murmur but a lot of its excitement. However, it's leaps and bounds above its predecessor in emotional power, with even relatively oblique songs like "Harborcoat" generating chill bumps through harmony and the consistent surprises of melody and production. A beautiful, charming, smart record, it takes the Chronic Town / Murmur R.E.M. sound as far as it can go, almost systematically, exercising in all of its songs one extreme or another of their sound, exhausting it even. "Rockville" and "Time After Time" break through that wall entirely, with the former seeming to deny it ever existed, and it was through this open door that the band gracefully exited, bound for the next adventure.

[Originally written and posted in 2006, with a few corrections and additions now.]

Eponymous (1981-85)
Chronic Town EP (1982)
Murmur (1983)
Collapse into Now (2011)

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Format change info

Hi, everybody. Because the time I have to listen to music seems more and more to be vastly eclipsing the time I have to write about it, and equally because the quantity if not quality of writing posted here requires a dedication that is really difficult to maintain without being paid for it (not that I'm placing myself as being as good as the people who do get paid so much as just noting that I don't want to participate in any kind of devaluing of their work), this is a really long sentence. Where was I? Oh, I am going to be making a change to the way reviews are posted here -- assuming that I don't have a change of heart after I sleep on it. I'm extremely behind on reviewing both new and old music in this space, and I think the best solution is not to cut the number of albums I cover but to reduce the number of full reviews I post.

I quite like the format I've used on the "Also Recommended" posts at the end of 2012 and 2013. That's what you're likely to be seeing on future reviews here. Note, however, that this mostly applies to either negative, neutral, or mildly positive reviews. It's rather likely that most anything that would receive a "highly recommended" tag will still get a lengthy writeup. (That being said, there are exceptions to everything. I'm posting something about Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs sometime this summer and I adore them, but I'm having doubts that they will be sufficient inspiration for an essay.) I'm still giving each record the same amount of attention, just making cruder, possibly less reasonable drive-by judgments, so it's win-win all around! And I like being forced to rein in my wordiness, so it's likely that it will be more fun to me as well, hence less hemming and hawing about sitting down to write here, hence more posts, hence happier readers? In theory? I guess? I hope to have the first such post up by the weekend, along with one or two complete reviews, both of older albums. The first revolutionary short-reviews post will be called "June albums." Future monthly posts will follow.

What kind of stuff will be relegated to the short review pile? Artists I don't know but feel a need to weigh in on, mildly interesting things I run across, failed follow-ups, other sorts of runoff, and things I sense are good despite not being a fan of their genres (that covers two of the reviews in the post coming up). What gets a full review? Generally something by an artist I absolutely love, or anything I'm confident I will have a lot to say about. As a consequence of all this, One Sentence Reviews will be discontinued. My apologies. But if it ends up saving me as much time as I suspect it might, I may start Wuzzon again. (The Also Recommended post at the end of the year will remain because it's meant for records I liked but didn't have time to listen to enough to form an entirely confident opinion.)

If this post disappears in the next 48 hours, you will know it's because my inner stubbornness wouldn't let me change the routine at this blog after four years. Because I can't think of any other good reason not to change, unless you really think I have a lot of exciting and original stuff to say about, like, Architecture in Helsinki. (No slur on them. Just... c'mon.)

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Artwoods: 100 Oxford Street (1964-66)


There are a lot of bands like this in the '60s -- garage kids with nothing better to do than start a band, or forgotten castaways from the British Invasion, the stuff of Nuggets and Pebbles -- who made that such an exciting, electric time in the true democratic playing field of rock & roll. Surprisingly, a lot of them had more consistent bodies of work than you'd expect; the Creation or the Count Five, for example, were solid rock bands with skills that went beyond their obvious classics. Judging from this compilation that gathers, so far as anyone cares to check, the bulk of their output, the Artwoods aren't such a jewel. They're quite competent, and if you have a taste for this Spencer Davis Group-like blues-rock aesthetic (with a touch of Booker T.) from the time, you're likely to at least bob your head and receive no urge to turn the thing off. But the Artwoods, while very successful in their heyday as a live act, never took off in the studio and it's easy to hear why. Their music in and of itself just isn't all that interesting or distinctive.

The band's primary claim to fame is the presence of singer Art Wood, brother of future Rolling Stone Ron; the unit was among several signed to Decca in a scrambling of sorts to get into the Brit guitar band business after their embarrassing dismissal of the Beatles. Wood's delivery as a vocalist is somewhat similar to Eric Burdon, which is largely why the Artwoods are frequently mentioned in the same breath as the Animals by those who remember them. Wood is less a blues singer, which makes his work here frequently less labored than Burdon's, but he has a more limited emotional range; the same goes for the band, who come off as a frat-rock variant on the Yardbirds. Again, this stuff isn't bad, especially if you love the period, but there isn't much to be said about it.

This compilation offers a lot of the Artwoods' R&B-leaning singles. We get standard rockers, standard ballads, the standard repertoire of blues and American rock cover material -- if a bit less obvious than that of some of their peers. The highlights are scattered around here and there, usually redeeming moments in less than memorable performances: the arrangement on "Sweet Mary" is basic but made to sound enormous with the aid of good, slick production and an excellent solo from guitarist Derek Griffiths (who wrote the liner notes for this early '80s release). The oddball chamber pop of "Oh My Love" is the sole suggestion of real eclecticism, with great piano sound and the instantly classic couplet "When I kiss your eyes / You know that my heart dies." The band reveals a good way with Gene Vincent melodrama on "I Keep Forgettin'" and prove their mettle as backing singers with their interesting, haunting work on "One More Heartache." There's even a weird Kinks thing called "Keep Lookin'" but the disc is largely rounded out by odd instrumentals that undoubtedly made more sense on stage; why bother with this when we can all go listen to the Mar-Keys?

It's hard to turn you away from this. If you are a fan of off-the-beaten-path '60s bands like the Action and the Blues Magoos, you should at least give this a listen, but I can't really encourage you to do so without reservation unless you're a real cultist for the dregs of British Invasion rock. It sure beats Gerry and the Pacemakers, anyway.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

East India Youth: Total Strife Forever (2014)

(Stolen Recordings)


Moody and heavy as a broken dark night but often breezily pretty all the same, the debut album from William Doyle, who spins the knobs and records as East India Youth, couldn't be easier to get into. As modern techno goes, it's almost suspiciously immediate, with a good deal of brooding ambiance tempered by bursts and stabs of melody and sensually pleasurable beats 'n' moans. It goes forward at length without really settling into a coherent mood, but despite a boring denouement it never truly falters either.

While there's nothing unique or new about what Doyle's doing here, he will go far as a stylist, capturing complicated and offbeat moments with the verve of Four Tet and the Field, only with more of a sense of audaciousness and adventure than either (lately, anyway). Like James Blake, Doyle's sort of a de facto singer-songwriter dabbling in a world that frequently downplays the importance of songs themselves, but Total Strife Forever has considerably more variance in its grooves than Blake has yet exhibited. The pulsating first part of the title cut will turn your mind inside out with its gorgeous thump, especially on headphones or a great system, but skip down the line a bit and find something like the blown-out "Midnight Koto." It's just as interesting, but it doesn't even sound like the same performer -- a sign, some will say, of an identity problem, but I think it's more like creative restlessness and eclecticism. Part two of "Total Strife Forever" is Eno-like drone but loud, and "III" booms forth with what sounds like a pipe organ at a funeral just when it threatens to recede into the background. There's a lot to hear.

Doyle is a very young Englishman -- just 23 -- and the most endearing moments of his record are those that have him connecting with the peculiar identity and history associated with his age and nationality. On four particular cuts, Strife becomes essentially a pop record, and such a good and unusual one that you start to wish it went all the way. The Beatles are an evident influence on the minimal but melodic twins "Looking for Someone" and "Song for a Granular Piano," but it's Bowie who makes the grand entrance. "Dripping Down" owes a lot to Berlin-period Bowie, up to its operatic "fiiind new love" climax, but its plugged-in, insistent pop also fits with the darkened, drugged club atmosphere that's the main event here. An even stronger catharsis comes at the peak of "Heaven, How Long?" which is written like a Bowie song but sung like one of Martin Gore's Depeche Mode showstoppers, and it fulfills the back end of its open-armed chorus even more completely, sliding back into brutal backbeat and the emotional connection that anyone who sits at the crossroads of electronica and pop pines to reach.

The major impression is not that this is a rock or pop record trying to be something else, but that the entirety coalesces into a disconnected but intriguing collision of sounds that are, more than anything else, pretty. With the ghosts of Eno and the Beatles both in tow, this is simultaneously a solid dance album and a rather terrific rainy-day album. Doyle's gift is that he sees little daylight between the beautiful, distant piano that opens "Glitter Recession" and the glitchy computer sounds that are just as lovingly broken down on "Hinterland." The former is drowned out in the end by oceanic white noise, the latter breaks out into soft, chilled, sinister trance, but both cuts achieve an ideal balance between the skill and curiosity of a great producer's technique and the personal subservience to full-hearted bliss that's just as important on a night in as a night out.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Johnny Cash: With His Hot and Blue Guitar (1957)



This is a crossroads of two great legacies. It is the first LP not just of Johnny Cash and his most distinctive and unusual backing band, the Tennessee Two, but of Sun Records and therefore Sam Phillips, one of the two or three people most individually responsible for the existence of rock & roll. Cash never fit quite perfectly as a rock & roller, nor do the country or rockabilly labels seem entirely appropriate. For the majority of his career and certainly in his brief period at Sun, during which he cut what would arguably remain his best and most unblemished studio recordings, he'd strike the same curious tone he does on this album -- a murder balladeer expressing sympathy for the blackest hearts, a novelty performer of sly and eccentric humor, a gospel singer, a dark and heavy romantic, and a menacing, sneering badass. He's among the most unique individuals ever to wander into a studio, and he was from the beginning.

With His Hot and Blue Guitar is as much a hodgepodge of material as its art deco cover, its songs mostly the A- and B-sides of singles in addition to some recorded haphazardly in the interest of eventually generating a full album. Some of Cash's best material for Sun -- including the stunning "Hey Porter" and the rockabilly classic "Get Rhythm" -- never made it to a longplayer until after he left for Columbia, and a few songs that are here seem comparatively weak. Yet the record feels like a singular, perfectly shaped piece because of the intriguing starkness of the Tennessee Two. So labeled by Phillips, they consisted solely of bassist Marshall Grant and guitarist Luther Perkins, the latter of whom altered the future of country music with his odd, leap-frog playing style, backing Cash, whose history was something he carried unapologetically. A religious singer by trade, he only reluctantly made the switch to secular music at Phillips' insistence that he wanted something more commercial. He'd never fully embrace the change. He frankly doesn't even do so here -- on the godly "I Was There When It Happened," he fires up with a play and enthusiasm that makes Burt Lancaster's Elmer Gantry seem staid and pallid.

Nor is this rockabilly in the sense of other Sun artists like Elvis Presley -- who hopped, galloped and grinned more in those days -- Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, not one of whom was well-versed enough in backroad American traditionalism to have spent time in the '50s on folkie throwbacks like "Wreck of the Old 97" and "Rock Island Line," which opens the record in a burst of oblique energy. Cash settles in to tell a story and aligns himself perfectly with the release of tension and increase of speed inherent to his narrative, and all the while Perkins and Grant make a noise so minimal and rhythmic it's hard to compare it to much of anything -- but for certain, it bears few marks of any mainstream vision of country music then or now, and has the effect of making Cash's work from this period sound distant, almost hazy.

His voice, of course, plays the central role -- still with the ragged anxiousness and hunger of youth here, he nevertheless already is possessed of a baritone designed to make you sit up and listen. As much as his work can break your heart or even charm you, part of its appeal is how much it commands your respect. On just the succession of four cuts that opens this album, you can hear a versatility that might be easy to miss at a surface glimpse. "I Heard That Lonesome Whistle" puts a rough, masculine spin on the broken Hank Williams, "Country Boy" is downright sensual in its purr and holler, and "If the Good Lord's Willing" has a grit and playfulness that seems inaccessible to most rock or country vocalists. Perkins, Presley and Lewis were all great performers, but none of them could quite put across the range of emotions and tricks in Cash's repertoire.

The songs here that are fully Cash's are largely autobiographical. Though he would grow more assured as a curator of his own material and to a lesser extent as a singer, he was from the earliest moments of his public life an extraordinary songwriter. Significantly, all four of the big hits included here were his own work, gathered up from the difficulty of maintaining a relationship in amidst a life on the road, from his former life in the Service, from aches and pains and wanderings. Not only was he instantly one of the great storytellers in rock & roll, he was one of the most gut-splittingly personal. It says something that the four most surprisingly intimate, confessional songs he'd written by now (and included here) were all major singles.

"So Doggone Lonesome" is witty, self-deprecating and defeatist in the obvious mold of Hank Williams, covered elsewhere on the record. But the breakthrough hit "Cry! Cry! Cry" suggests more about what Cash would achieve in very little time. Adorned by an almost inaudible clopping along from the Two, Cash lays into a lover who's spurned him and engages in catharsis upon what's obviously meant to be the immediate aftermath of a breakup -- a guy saying things when he's not thinking. His grievances are rationalized: she only lives to see the lights uptown with her lecherous Sugar Daddies, it's happened again and again, and when she comes back he'll be gone. The important verse is the last one, in which Cash engages in a human fantasy, a lie on top of a lie; the premise is already that she, not he, is being rejected, and now he thrillingly indulges in the hell-to-pay moment, when the nameless woman comes crawling back and finds nothing except a cold "bye, bye, bye." It's an angry song, but there's a smile in it, a recognition of the adolescent or adult miseries so familiar to most of us in our worst dejected moments. It's crucial both that the song is not explicitly teenage and that it's readymade for a cover version by either gender; it's not about being trashed by a woman, it's about being trashed.

In the same way that "Bye Bye Love" and "Heartbreak Hotel" would speak to almost universal, earth-shaking truths, "Cry! Cry! Cry!" made Cash a star because it is so adaptable and simple, and its reveling in depression is perversely fun. Cash's most enduring pair of songs from this period, however, are far more serious -- and are essentially perfect. "Folsom Prison Blues" would eventually become the definition of Cash's entire aesthetic, of the complicated sympathies arising from a realism about evil and strife tempered by a general belief in humanity and decency, even in its most unforgiving corners. It's essentially a murder ballad, replete with an unusually complex third act about wishing to avoid being reminded of the world outside while acknowledging the reasons for one's imprisonment, remembered by many -- Cash himself included -- as a sort of revision of gun-toting blues braggadio and anticipation of the most violent moments in early '90s gangsta rap, largely for its heartlessly vile but curiously perceptive "I shot a man in Reno / just to watch him die" line. Cash takes John Wayne violence to its obvious conclusion here and recognizes its ugliness, but he also doesn't flinch before the other side: the misspent youth of a bored, wrongheaded moment, the permanent alteration of a life by a single instant of bad judgment, and the fact that even in the villain there beats some sort of a heart. In reality, it's not a celebration of violence, though Cash wouldn't be immune to writing such a thing; it's a profoundly compassionate examination of what it means to do wrong and to then live the agonizing consequences.

As massive and world-expanding as such subjects may be, and as much as it may seem an obvious and even boring statement, it's difficult to make a strong case that "I Walk the Line" is not the greatest song Cash ever wrote. The performance is one thing -- dramatic, calm, reflective, perfectly restrained and almost devastatingly emotional without ever once tipping its hand into sap or pausing for a moment to allow us to truly ponder what it's saying, it is one of the most beautiful recordings of the early rock & roll period. But the lyric bears much responsibility for the song's place in the world. Its complexity is almost unheard of in chart-hit pop love songs of the period, a constantly self-doubting pledge of devotion to a lover, almost explicitly a direct message from the continually touring Cash to his wife Vivian. He chronicles the struggle of fidelity, the wanting to be faithful, the temptation everywhere, and after opening the song at perhaps the highest register he could muster, he's descended by the end of the record to a low, tentative moan even as he sings the same words: "Because you're mine, I walk the line."

Along with the Kinks' "Strangers," it's one of the most realistic and unsentimental songs about marriage ever written -- dark, confused but winning and devoted, more about the romance inherent to that idealistic devotion than by the strict practice thereof. Its wavering, the difficulty of a long history, is included in the words and the performance. On top of being tirelessly romantic and moving, it's just tough -- effortlessly so. Cash would spend the next decades defining himself as an artist of integrity, humor and toughness, but in some ways it could be argued that he had long made his point in a primitive studio on Union Avenue in Memphis, with fire in his eyes, paper behind the strings of his guitar and a dedication he never thought could fall away. Maybe that's pure rock & roll after all, and maybe Phillips -- who was aware he couldn't keep a lid on all this for long -- knew before we did.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Bassekou Kouyaté & Ngoni Ba: I Speak Fula (2010)

(Sub Pop)


I'm still relatively new to Malian music, but Bassekou Kouyaté and his band Ngoni Ba's 2013 record Jama Ko rocked me to my core sufficiently that I have gone back to explore their earlier crossover effort I Speak Fula, a sufficiently accessible album that it ended up being licensed for release on Sub Pop. Though a hot, atmospheric album in its own right, it doesn't do it many favors to cast it in some comparative light against its follow-up. Jama Ko was recorded in the midst of considerable strife, a factor obviously reflected in its intensity and anger. Kouyaté is more openly bidding on this earlier effort for an international audience, and there's a case to be made (as it has been, by Robert Christgau among others) that he and the group slide into mere background pleasantness for much of this record.

The closer one listens, though, the more I Speak Fula's own kind of grace becomes clear, or maybe I just have a taste for these calmer, more florid grooves. What's surprising is that it gradually reveals itself as a much more solemn album, which says a great deal about Kouyaté's sensibility as a bandleader and arranger -- his response to injustice is a cutting, focused but feverishly emotional outpouring that snarls and snipes at its targets, but given time he adds the finesse of a true craftsman to the bleakness. If Jama Ko is punk rock, to use a perhaps gauche western analogy, this is traditionalist rock, but in some ways no less hard or idiosyncratic. With more contemplation and rehearsal likely in play here, the arrangements seem more complete and, unexpectedly, weirder. The songs are typically slower, the drama more protracted and careful, right from the rhythmic but flowery opening cut, which comes on like a red-carpet entrance.

With more time to think and less of a determination to capture a specific, violent and important moment, the band tends to come across as sadder, more troubled, more complicated. The restrained groove and beauty of "Jamana be Diya," for instance, is more melodic than most of the short bursts of vocal anxiety on Jama Ko, but even if its traded vocals are more carefully composed, the final impact is similar -- the musicianship in Ngoni Ba is uniformly impressive, especially Kouyaté's remarkable solos on the ngoni (listen for his show-stopping climax on "Torin Torin"), but they also believe in a subservience to songcraft like any great rock band. Each cut has its own distinct feeling, and each has considerable merit. Again, calling them a rock band sounds facetious and insulting, but this is indeed constructed like a classic American or European pop record -- and several songs are directly evocative, in particular the airtight, locked-in slow-burn of "Falani," which vaguely suggests the Young Rascals' "Groovin'" as much as any other West African record you can name.

The most remarkable song on I Speak Fula (a title highly suggestive of the implied universalism here), is "Musow," which exemplifies (like the later "Ladon") the increasing sophistication of vocalist Amy Sacko (Kouyaté's wife) while clarifying the entire band's allegiances to both Malian traditionalism and the roots rock and folk music of the West. It revolves around a mysterious, almost Middle Eastern hook that immediately edges the performance toward the transcendent, its many rhythmic changes gradually building to a crazed solo that is hard not to describe as some relative of '70s funk, though the chanted "HEYYY" that gives the song its arena-ready climax is tied less to any music than to human community itself. Other songs here are equally addictive and powerful, but none is so surprising. Only "Torin Torin," with its wild stop/start dynamic trading the bare and the beautiful, comes close -- and its harmonic vocals are almost soothing in the end, something that could never describe "Musow" or Jama Ko.

Kouyaté's work has opened a door for me, as I now find myself determined to become more aware of the nuance and power in modern African music, and it also emphasizes the continued grandness and necessity of physical media. I don't normally digress about this here, but it seems necessary: when I wrote the review of Jama Ko linked below this past winter, I was working with a stream on Spotify, a press release and a lot of other people's research and criticism online. As soon as I had the money, I bought the LP, imported from Belgium. It's one of the more expensive pieces of vinyl I've bought in the last few years, but unpacking it revealed just why it was worth the trouble, and why music like this demands to be touched, felt as much as heard. The liner notes explaining the depths of and thought process behind each cut and the gigantic photographs of the band recording the album enhance the experience sufficiently that it feels nearly like a different record, like something cinematic. The picture grows more complete. My thoughts on the record posted here seemed suddenly pale and superficial because of not having yet had this experience, and I suspect the same may be true of I Speak Fula -- which is a less vital record, but no less enjoyable and impressive. I'm going with my gut, but I'm going to argue that if you sample this music and like it at all, that you purchase it in some format wherein the notes and supplemental materials are available to you. It makes a difference, a big one, and genuine renegade art deserves all the support you can give it, now as ever.

Jama Ko (2013)