Monthly Archives: November 2015

Sound ‘Round: Mbongwana Star / Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba

New sounds from humanity’s oldest continent

Mbongwana Star – From Kinshasa (World Circuit)

Mbongwana Star - From KinshasaBefore the label goofed up, the original title was supposed to be From Kinshasa to the Moon. Such a would-be proclamation is audacious for a debut, but these West Africans possess enough rhythmic acumen to rocket them to the Oort Cloud. The front men are Coco Ngambali and Theo Nzonza. Both are wheelchair-bound natives of Congo’s largest city that’s namechecked in the title. They turned personal poverty into worldwide buzz as members of the award-winning outfit Staff Benda Bilili before poor management forced the band to dissolve in 2013. With hired hands resembling Die Antwoord’s less satanic relatives and the help of French-Irish producer Liam Farrell, they spend 10 songs swimming in relentless polyrhythms. Their charm isn’t just in percussion instruments, either. Every musical tool is treated as a drum: bass lines lay a foundation of fuzz as brittle guitar bits bite with syncopation. Some Afro-pop purists accuse Farrell of diluting the proto-typical Congolese sound, but his Euro post-punk background fortifies their beat-first ideology. This is for those who prefer a bit of “Sex Machine” with their Sandanista. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks:  “Masobele” / “Shegue” / “Suzanna”

Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba – Ba Power (Glitterbeat)

Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba - Ba PowerHis prior release was clandestinely recorded in his native Mali as Tuareg rebels overthrew the government and instituted a strict Sharia law that, among other atrocities, forbade music. That wonderful protest album resonated with an aura as peaceful as its plea for political harmony. Two years and a series of French military counterstrikes later comes the follow-up. Less concerned with domestic policy, Kouyate concentrates showcasing his prowess on the ngoni, an African equivalent to the lute. But a sappy renaissance fest, this ain’t. With distortion, wah-wah and blistering fretwork, he earns the right to be called the Hendrix of Afro-rock. The beats are important, sure. They always will be with music like this. But here they are propelled by Kouyate’s rapid-fire instrumentation and the vocal musings of bandmate and wife Amy Sacko, whose quivering soprano is as righteous as hubby’s solos. While his music stands out, her words resonate more — thank the lyrics included in the booklet. Don’t know how else a Westerner like me would decipher “Musow Fanga” as “Power of Woman.” GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Te Duniya Laban” / “Musow Fanga” / “Sira Fen”

This article appears in the Nov. 20, 2015 issue of The Monitor


Sound ‘Round: Deerhunter / Giorgio Moroder

They ain’t dead, yet

Deerhunter – Fading Frontier (4AD)

Deerhunter - Fading FrontierFront man Bradford Cox was struck by a car while walking his dog in December 2014, and that horrific event informs each of these nine songs both sonically and lyrically. But this is the rare kind of near-death experience album that resonates with ease and joy despite its macabre origins. They’re no strangers to open chords and delicate synth, but here those elements lighten their grim subject matter and allows them plenty of room to explore eternal elements. Less than a year removed from a brush with the grave, Cox gets busy living by reaffirming the profound simplicity of breathing. Though the morbid imagery of a line like “Jackknifed on the sidewalk crossing” is an accurate portrayal of his accident, it’s followed by the hopeful quip, “I’m alive, and that’s something.” Such duality between fatalism and optimism is repeated throughout. The record’s namesake comes from a verse on “Living My Life,” wherein Cox fears an unpredictable future despite pledging to do as the song says. On the finale, he vows to “carry on” until the end — even as the title (“Carrion”) is spelled using the homophone for the decaying flesh of a dead animal. It’s black humor as the best medicine. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Breaker” / “Duplex Planet” / “Snakeskin”

Giorgio Moroder – Déjà Vu (RCA)

giorgio moroder - deja vuDuring the decade of Burt Reynold’s mustache, Moroder helped lay the foundation for modern EDM with Donna Summer as his disco muse. Daft Punk gave him an honorary cameo on their 2013 comeback album, Random Access Memories, and it’s the goodwill generated from that tribute which allows this record, his first solo outing in 30 years, to exist. The 75-year-old Italian brings the electro-pop flare while the guests bring name recognition and vocal hooks. Most critics have been unkind, using words like “rickety,” and “unnecessary,” to describe these dozen songs. While much of what’s here is hindered by the kind of dance-club romanticism Euro kids mistake for profundity, there’s no denying the melodies. Be it Sia crooning the title track about facing love without fear or Charli XCX comparing diamonds to a state of mind, the choruses click with an efficiency generated by a man who mastered the formula before his collaborators could walk. The biggest name is Britney Spears, who’s never sounded so digitized on a rendition of “Tom’s Diner.” Android pop not your thing?  Get acquainted with the unknown Matthew Koma, who quotes Elivs Costello and one-ups losers like Adam Levine on “Tempted” by reminding everyone the proper way to enjoy pop — stop thinking and dance. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Tempted” / “Déjà Vu” / “Diamonds”


This article appeared in The Monitor on Nov. 13, 2015

Sound ‘Round: Jason Isbell / Freedy Johnston

Men of their words

Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free (Southeastern)

jason isbell something more than freeIsbell flourished as the third-best member of the Drive-By Truckers because his plainspoken demeanor complimented Mike Cooley’s humor and tempered Patterson Hood’s romanticism. He left the band in 2007 due to an excess of booze and a crumbling marriage, and has spent the bulk of his time since reconciling those demons. Though such subject matter lends itself to the kind of neo-noir Southern folk this Alabama native prefers, his sweet-tea vocal delivery never packed the punch his lyrical wit deserved. This album, however, breathes with a loose, tranquil character not found in the rest of his canon. His wrestling-with-sobriety songs out of the way, Isbell at long last sounds at ease and renewed. “I keep my spirits high / Find happiness by and by / If it takes a lifetime,” goes the opener. From there, it’s onto songs about speed trap towns,  hymns concerning the plight of blue collar America, and a portrait of a single mom who overcomes the Depression to raise a family. Isbell’s matte drawl will always be as colorless as a cotton field, but his verses treat his characters with a tender awe  rarely seen by his big-time Nashville peers. He’s a man of the people, for sure. Still, a few jokes wouldn’t hurt, either. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “If it Takes a Lifetime” / “Speed Trap Towns” / “Hudson Commodore”

Freedy Johnston – Neon Repairman (Signing Magnet)

freedy johnston - neon repairmanI like to think this Kansas-born songwriter learned empathy from his Midwestern roots. The realist in me knows his adoptive New York home plays a larger role in shaping his worldview — there are more oddballs in Brooklyn than Topeka. But on album number nine, Johnston finds a worthwhile narrative wherever he pleases. There’s the dusty casino bum who loses at the poker table but wins the heart of a trailer park queen upon buying her an antique TV, and the title character who welcomes the darkness because that’s where he earns a living. His most poignant story is saved for the finale, where a war-torn veteran wrestles with the onset of PTSD. “I got a wife and kids, but I’m supposed to stay away from them,” he sadly quotes. Between light-hearted wordplay and serious-as-hell protest anthems, he delves into songs you’d swear are mere genre exercises if they weren’t so catchy. The standout is the quaint “Baby Baby Come Home,” a steady-handed plea for love that George Strait is right to covet. Also, dig the one about the astronaut who picks his profession over his girl because, “the first to leave the world is the first to see the world.” Can’t argue with that. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Baby Baby Come Home” / “A Little Bit of Something Wrong” / “TV in My Arms”

This article appeared in the Nov. 6, 2015 edition of The Monitor