LOS TRAFICANTES Matan Mi Gente (Dogday)
Ever since pistol-packing L.A. norteño bad boy Chalino Sanchez was killed in Culiacán in 1992, the comparisons between drug-trade-chronicling narco-corridos and gangsta rap have abounded. So it was only a matter of time till something like Matan Mi Gente would come along: an all-Spanish-language hardcore-rap record inspired by the tales of drug running and murder that underwrite the music of narco crooners like Los Tucanes de Tijuana and Los Huracanes del Norte. Hayward-based Dark Room Familia rappers Drew and Sir Dyno (currently doing time on drug charges) even take on alter egos as Los Traficantes to pull it off, posing as Locote and Tokztero, two rapping dealers who trade the ostrich-boots-and-Stetson look for pressed khakis and Aztlán baseball caps.
Lyrically, there's plenty of the usual narco fare on Matan -- shootouts with corrupt Federales, metaphoric references to AK-47s and the trade's infamous "three animals" (pot = rooster, coke = parrot, heroin = goat) -- but Los Traficantes remold it to fit the relentless violence cycles of Central Valley gangsterism. They add gabachos to the narco hit list, mourn dead homies, hang with Modesto coke mafiosos and, in Matan's ideological low point, dare to compare themselves to the Zapatistas. True-school politicos better start their engines: Los Traficantes get all civil-rights on us, too, slinging and killing in the name of brown pride, with recurring shouts of "Viva La Revolución" and "Que Viva La Raza."
But while Los Traficantes may look as far south as Michoacán for outlaw role models, they always return to their home turf for beats and rhymes. Save for an occasional button-accordion loop and two straight-outta-Sinaloa bookends from Grupo Potencia Norteña, Matan sticks to flat Bay Area thump-and-squeal production. Which leaves the narco hook as the only thing rescuing Los Traficantes from the gun-blast dustbin. (Josh Kun)
ART OF NOISE The Seduction of Claude Debussy (Universal)
The handful of albums released in the '80s and '90s by the English collective known as Art of Noise were never disposable. They weren't the kind of thing you played to death during the summer months of a particular year and then filed away, never to touch them again. The Art of Noise experience was one that always invited you to return to it, which is also true of the recently re-formed group's new work inspired by the music of composer Claude Debussy.
Circa late 1800s to 1918, Debussy made music that was decidedly French in style (a detail he ardently emphasized), yet he was a musician of an aberrantly modern sensibility, and strove to describe in sound the poetic ambiance of the time and place in which he lived. The titles of a few of his piano works are as revealing as the music itself: "Footsteps on the Snow," "Dead Leaves," "Gardens Under the Rain," "Sound and Perfume Swirl in the Evening Air." Art of Noise selects a few choice snippets from the Debussy treasure-trove (including a section from the orchestral La Mer) and turns them into a sumptuous sort of pop opera, complete with drum machines, layers of keyboards, energetic rappers, a soprano and even a deep-voiced narrator (the wonderful John Hurt). It's a rich if at times superficial multimedia homage to the ultimate master of disquieting atmospheres.
"Imagine Debussy dreaming in color," intones Hurt during a break between languid ambient noise and fluffy dance beats. This majestic disc will enhance your own dreams, and perhaps serve as a gateway to the disturbingly tranquil works of Debussy himself. (Ernesto Lechner)
THE DYNATONES Shake That Mess (Blue Suit)
From Tut's Ice House to the Black Diamond, you can find the Dynatones workin' 200 nights a year, bringin' their patented brand of '60s soul to all the dancing faces and smiling feet. After two minor LPs and one major-label release, the sharp-dressed band resurfaces on a Toledo, Ohiobased indie with Shake That Mess, a wake-up-and-smell-the-Naugahyde set of smokin' O.P.s that's guaranteed to wear the shine off the dance floor.
As with their '60s cult-jam counterparts Wilmer & the Dukes, the Dynatones' latest lineup consists of an African-American vocalist and six ragin' Caucasians. And if there's a badder soul band out there playin' the juke joints and ski lodges that dot this great land of ours, this too-cool fool will pay his own money to hear 'em. For one, the Dynatones' stripped-to-the-bone (guitar-bass-drums) rhythm section puts the spotlight on spectacular horn charts (tenor saxtrumpettrombone). Check out that interpolation of James Brown's version of "Night Train" into the exit vamp on the Dynatones' rendition of Bobby "Blue" Bland's "Don't Cry No More," or the slow-burning, "who-needed-that-string-section?" workout on Albert King's "Cadillac Assembly Line," and a tougher take on Gary U.S. Bonds' "Bring Her Back" than Bruce Springsteen and Miami Steve's. For two, rather than rely on shopworn soul standards (or thinly veiled rewrites thereof), the Dynatones currently showcase a connoisseur's taste in obscure covers from such semilegendary luminaries as William Bell, Little Johnny Taylor, Bobby Patterson, Arthur Conley, Howard Tate, O.V. Wright, Joe Simon, Junior Parker and Jerry Washington. (Anyone who owns all the original versions is obviously too hip for the room and is hereby excused.)
And if that don't set your wig-hat spinnin' on your head, pick up on the vintage radio spot tacked onto the fade of blue-eyed-soul singer/songwriter Dan Penn's "Memphis Women and Fried Chicken," wherein WLOK/Memphis DJ Old "Kane" Cole advises listeners to visit "Frank's Cut-Rate Liquor Store, right next door to the Green Beetle Lounge. Where you can get yourself a fifth of Old Crow and go over to the Green Beetle Lounge and drink it right down. And if you want, you can get yourself some cans of beer to take home with you afterward," while a woman wails, "Oh mama, papa's got them Green Beetle Blues" over an appropriately dypsomaniacal piano, drums, bass and "git-fiddle." An additional two minutes of this authentic American folk poetry provides the fitting close to this perfect-for-parties platter. (Don Waller)
CAETANO VELOSO at the John Anson Ford Amphitheater, July 3
Caetano Veloso didn't need the swell of a charismatic 12-piece ensemble, every man among them a virtuoso and dancer, too ("So talented, and so charming!" the singer exclaimed of one fine drummer). He didn't need light effects (strobe, moonlight, dramatic fade-out), and he certainly didn't need Beck, although the brief, gawky presence of the bright young egghead, sloppy hairdo and all, on Veloso's ode to his sister, "Maria Bethânia," only confirmed the resilient beauty of Veloso's songwriting (as Veloso's halting cover of "Tropicalia" did for Beck, who lauded Veloso's interpretation as "sexier than I could do it").
If this summer evening at the John Anson Ford Amphitheater, the fourth stop on Veloso's Livro Vivo tour (named for the record released last month) and only his second live performance in L.A., had consisted solely of Veloso's unpredictable antics, liquid voice and straightforward guitar, it would have been an aesthetically fortifying experience, the kind that leaves audiences with a satisfied glow of having done something meaningful. Instead, Veloso's night of the living book plays like a carefully constructed Brazilian avant-garde circus, with himself as a set piece, his slight body and viscous sound forming a link between samba and John Cage. In a suit and skinny tie, he dances with a purposeful awkwardness David Byrne could well have copied; he holds his guitar aloft like a doll being manipulated into strict postures, and he surrenders himself frequently to delightfully weird tableaux: While his musicians work themselves into a percussive lather around him, Veloso stands stock-still midstage under a large mobile that hangs from the ceiling, one hand outstretched to mimic the art's abstract shape. But if Veloso on his own is like a force of nature exerting some ineffable attraction on humans, he's made transcendent by his musicians, in particular the drum corps (Josino Eduardo, Eduardo Josino, Marcio Vitor Santos and Andre Junior) that forces Veloso fans, row by row, to their feet. Add the lilt of Rowney Scott's soprano sax, and the cello played by Jacques Morelenbaum, who also serves as Veloso's musical director, and Brazil's sexiest postmodern political-cultural sage -- a "subversive pan-Americanist," as he described himself upon introducing "Manhatã" ("Manhattan") -- turns into a symbol of high-minded eroticism and progressive musicianship the likes of which exists nowhere else on Earth.
Veloso has always been a radical. In the '60s he spoke out against Brazil's dictatorship and got himself kicked out of the country; he founded the "Tropicalismo" movement with Gilberto Gil around the same time, and these days he puts 12-tone melodies to a samba beat. Recent attention paid to him may launch the 56-year-old into that ephemeral realm known as American pop-culture fame, during which his proposed dream record of Brazilian standards will sell millions of copies and he'll make an MTV video. Loyal Veloso aficionados, whose airy, feminine voices float up from the crowd like magic dust whenever Veloso does a song they know, should wish for this impending phenomenon for only one reason: It means that evenings like this one will be less rare. (Judith Lewis)
A Miller-time Tale
Blind Guardian at the Iron Hill
BY ANDREW LENTZ
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BLIND GUARDIAN Nightfall in Middle-Earth (Century Media)
Part ethnomusicologists, part con men with fevered imaginations, Teutonic heathens Blind Guardian resurrect a long-abandoned subgenre of hard rock, burrowing so single-mindedly into Western Europe's music traditions that they've stumbled upon its troubadour roots. Nightfall in Middle-Earth's metallic aggression is ballasted by shimmery acoustic 12-string, glockenspiel, lute and pretty minnesinger-type chiming in unison over this 22-track fugue based loosely on Tolkien's The Silmarillion.
A suspension of current-pop disbelief is required to reap the full pleasures of Blind Guardian, unless you have a soft spot for the brief mid-'80s peak of this genre's commercial appeal (in the immortal words of Europe, those Adonis-like Swedes: "Rock now, rock the night/Woe-ho, woe-ho"). Spoilsports be damned, your flesh will horripilate at the splendid "Mirror, Mirror"; hearts will beat a bit faster with the hard-won brotherhood of "Time Stands Still (at the Iron Hill)"; and spirits will rise to empyrean heights with the gorgeous triptych "A Dark Passage." Axmen André Olbrich and Marcus Siepen -- the former coaxing trilly pomp from his fretboard, while the latter anchors him in the speediest of power shredding -- are real studly workhorses. 'Tis a pity vocalist/bassist Hansi Kürsch doesn't warble in his native tongue -- all the more to evoke merrie olde England, one must suppose.
Neither nostalgists nor ironists, B.G. are as sincere as the errant knights they sing of, fully swept up in the historo-mythic conceits of their finely wrought never-never land. So if Nightfall in Middle-Earth doesn't have you wassailing kinsmen with goblets of mead or pledging fealty to a lord, it'll at least make you feel less dorky slipping on that jerkin for the Renaissance Faire.