CARAVANA CUBANA Late Night Sessions (Dreamer Music)
Caravana Cubana: Late Night Sessions could be viewed as how the recent Buena Vista Social Club phenom might have played out had Ry Cooder come to L.A. instead of Havana to record scads of Cuban octogenarians. And here they are, all the local expats, young and old, trotted out in force to throw down on these immensely diggable eight tracks.
This soulful record is a major event in L.A.'s finally-coming-of-age local salsa and Latin-jazz scene. Producer-musicologist Alan Geik has hooked up three generations, at least, of Cuban players, resident and visiting, with the composing of local salsero José Caridad "Perico" Hernandez, whose band Charangoa has been a mainstay at El Floridita restaurant and the L.A. Latin club circuit for many years. Unlike the bolero- and son-heavy Buena Vista album, here there's not only a wider variety of several rural Cuban styles, there are also intricate descarga jams closer in instrumentation and groove to the African side of things, as well as a superbly swingin', bop-informed jazz harmony flavor.
This great-for-dancing-or-listening album took seven arrangers to put together: Nelson Montalvo, Joe Rotondi, David Stout, Gary Eisenberg, Perico Hernández, Carlos Del Puerto Jr. and Lázaro Galarraga. One of Geik's big scoops was bagging classical and jazz pianist Jesus "Chucho" Valdés during one of the maestro's recent visits to L.A. for a session that produced "Chucho Carabalí," a smoking instrumental bop melody written and arranged by Rotondi, with dazzling charts by Eisenberg. Geik also pulled in bassist Al McKibbon, the big Diz and Bird connection who copped his Cuban chops from Chano Pozo in the Gillespie band. Vocally, the highlights are by Lázaro Galarraga, practitioner of sacred Afro-Cuban music, Pío Leiva, another 84-year-old sonero from '50s Havana, and Perico himself. Francisco Aguabella, who brought bata drums into the U.S. in 1955 and has been working in L.A. and New York ever since, also jams, as does conguero Raúl Travieso Rodríguez, brother of the late Arsenio. The new salsa generation is well-represented, including Jimmy Bosch, the ass-kicking young trombonist and rising international jazz star whose solos alone are worth the price of the CD, while flutist Orlando "Maraca" Valle, conguero Miguel "Angá" Díaz, bassist Carlos Del Puerto Jr. and vocalists from Bamboleo all shine.
Buying the Buena Vista Social Club record was never enough to neatly round out your groovy collection . . . you need more . . . this record is essential.
Jesus "Chucho" Valdes, Perico Hernández, Al McKibbon
Stop me if you've heard this one before: 20 years into his/her recording career, there's a cult artist whom some of the people reading this sentence know intimately, perhaps even in the biblical sense, and the rest haven't heard a single note of this person's music (and probably wouldn't like it if they did). A few of the latter -- like you in the back -- retain open minds. This review is for you, and everybody else who just wants to have a low-cost laugh over the usual Thursday-afternoon latte.
English as a bag of prawn-flavoured crisps, Robyn Hitchcock has been playing his patented brand of acidic folk-rock-pop since he first surfaced with the Soft Boys back in the late '70s. Then the singer-songwriter-guitarist took his BeatlesByrdsSyd Barrett songbook and went solo, where his musical (nonprimitive) approach to Art Rock, respect for classic song structure, and surreal humor -- endless songs about insects and amphibians that aren't really about insects and amphibians -- helped make him the kind of man you read about in things like the previous paragraph. (If any of this sounds like your particular cup of chocolate-covered ants, start with Rhino's '97 Hitchcock compilation or the Soft Boys' reissued Underwater Moonlight LP.)
This new album, however, is mostly love songs. They're highly stylized (setting sentiments such as "I Feel Beautiful" in an unsettling minor key, for example), not-so-silly love songs (the droning psychedelesia of "Dark Princess," the respective acoustic and electric blues of "You've Got a Sweet Mouth on You, Baby" and "Elizabeth Jade," and the verse-chorus contrast of the title track), but relatively straightforward nonetheless. Amid all the hearts 'n' flowers, you'll also find dime-store-Dylan taunts ("NASA Clapping"), droll pastoral reveries ("No, I Don't Remember Guildford"), and a pair of what might best be described as character studies ("Sally Was a Legend" and "Antwoman").
Supported throughout by a shifting combination of semi-legends (75 percent of the Young Fresh Fellows, Grant Lee Phillips, Jon Brion, exSoft Boys guitarist Kimberley Rew and R.E.M. riffslinger Peter Buck), Hitchcock mines his most magical musical moments and, not coincidentally, hits his most humorous highlights with the bare-bones anti-pop of "Mexican God," the Pythonesque raga/saga of "The Cheese Alarm" -- which isn't about cheese, exactly -- and the bashing Seattle anthem "Viva! Sea-Tac." Ain't nothin' like surreal thing. (Don Waller)
KWYET KINGS Been Where? Done What? (Dionysus)
You can snivel till your snot turns blue about how corporate marketing strategies are causing popular music to become increasingly niche-oriented, but the fact of the matter is that Top 40 radio has been pretty short on variety since the mid-'70s, when FM stations began beating the pants off their AM counterparts in the ratings game. Nor have things been any better on the underground or international levels -- historically, hipsters have rarely had much use for artists who stray outside of their chosen subgenres.
Take Norway's Kwyet Kings, for example. Featuring former members of such popular '60s-influenced garage rockers as the Cutbacks and the Lust-O-Rama, Kwyet Kings began life in 1993 as a sort of garage-rock supergroup, and went on to rule the international garage scene for a couple of years. But when 1995 saw them ditch their organ player and fuzz pedals in favor of a twin-guitar power-pop approach, Western Europe positively trembled with the sound of pissed-off garage fascists stomping their Beatle boots in disapproval.
If anything, such small-minded resistance has only made the Kwyet Kings stronger. Their second full-length release in the power-pop vein, Been Where? Done What?, is an action-packed masterpiece along the lines of the Flamin' Groovies' Shake Some Action or the Real Kids' first album. The '60s influence is obvious in the ringing six- and 12-string guitars and the watertight songcraft, but the band's brash, pull-no-punches attitude is more reminiscent of the cream of the '70s CBGB crop. "You Say" explodes like an early Ramones track, with stuttering Rickenbackers replacing the Ramones' Mosrite roar. The verse of "Lonely Boy" lurches forward with a menacing, peg-legged gait that recalls vintage Lyres, before blossoming into the sort of soaring jingle-jangle chorus that Stiv Bators might've killed for during his postDead Boys, pre-Lords season in the California sun. And then there's the stirring "It's Easy" (a previously unrecorded number given to the band by Barracudas leader Robin Wills), which showcases both Arne Thelin's choked-up singing and the band's ragged surf-style harmonies to great effect.
Out of time? Certainly. Influenced by more than one specific era? It would seem so. Addictive as hell? You betcha. If you're craving power-pop with real power, and you're comfortable with the fact that true rock & roll spirit knows no national or stylistic boundaries, Been Where? Done What? will most definitely cure what ails ya. (Dan Epstein)
SNOOP DOGG No Limit Top Dogg (No Limit)
Listening to "Don't Tell" on Snoop Dogg's latest, one can't help but think about all the trouble ol' Billy Clinton might've saved himself had he just politely asked Monica beforehand, "If I hit this pussy you gon' tell on me? When I get that pussy you gon' tell on me?," as fellow married man Snoop Dogg inquires of his intended object of infidelity throughout this wicked track. But alas, no such luck. While Clinton got shamed before the entire world, Snoop in true gangsta-rap fashion gets even with Miss Blabbermouth and her chatty-ass friends. Aside from a few other female troubles, like "In Love With a Thug," where Snoop chronicles the downslide of a good girl gone to the dogs on account of her yen for rough trade, when it comes right down to it, No Limit Top Dogg ain't nothin' but a gangsta party.
Overall, Snoop's back. After an acrimonious falling-out with his old label boss, the imprisoned Suge Knight of Death Row Records, following his '93 debut, Doggystyle, and the murder of close friend Tupac Shakur, Snoop more or less limped through his subsequent releases, 1996's Tha Dogg-father and '98's Da Game Is To Be Sold, Not To Be Told. The absence ofDoggystyle producer Dr. Dre on both of those projects didn't help matters. But on this second outing for No Limit Records, with exec producer Master P uncharacteristically quiet at the helm, the Long Beach Crew kingpin rarely skips a beat, and it all picks up where Doggystyle left off. The album features a phat production posse of Snoop's homies in and outside of the LBC, including Dre's stepbrother Warren G., Ant Banks, DJ Quik, Raphael Saadiq, G-1 Jelly Roll and Goldie Loc, all of whom do the job, all right, but it's the welcome return of Dre to Snoop's camp that makes this dog-pound party stand on its hind legs. The Dre-produced "B Please," steeped in classic pipe-organ funk and featuring whiskey-throated Xzibit swappin' licks with Snoop's cool, lazy drawl, is pure urban-rap bliss. Dre also contributes the 40-ounce whack track "Buck 'Em," with Sticky Fingers on the hooks, plus the equally hood-hangin' "Just Dippin'," backed up by the soulful crooning of R&B's Jewell. The foul-mouthed street-corner preacha-man antics of the legendary comedian Dolomite drop-kick the record's opening.
While Top Dogg doesn't yield anything like the sly, laid-back funkiness of "Gin and Juice" from Doggystyle, Snoop delivers a rowdy collection of bass-driven G-funk tracks guaranteed to prick up the ears of any late-night LAPD cruiser. Yet some of these 21 cuts should have never left the recording studio. There are a couple of great tributes to Slick Rick -- "Snoopafella," a Cinderella story in which Snoop copies Rick's flow, and "G Bedtime Stories," which opens with a kid asking "Uncle Snoop" to read him a bedtime story -- but "Down 4 My N's" sounds dated, as does "My Heat Goes Boom," reminiscent of "Still a G Thang." Though Snoop throws a couple of great shout-outs to R&B with smooth slow jams like "Somethin' Bout Yo Bidness" (featuring Raphael Saadiq) and "Doin' Too Much," he falls short with rapper Silkk The Shocker on the empty blandness of "Gangsta Ride."
Snoop quotes Dre on "B Please": "Ain't no limit to this, as long as we drop gangsta shit." How 'bout rephrasing that to "good gangsta shit." Ah, that okay with you, Snoop? (Derrick Mathis)
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