There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
When King Sunny Ade emerged as a musician of world renown 30 years ago, he and many of his fellow Nigerian musicians who played traditional tunes on Western instruments couldn’t get good equipment. A squealing thinness marred many a guitar solo. Still, complex traditional rhythms and harmonies kept a multitude of international fans swinging. Ade’s new release, Odu, reveals not only the distance he and the others have come, but also the vivid Yoruba traditions he has carried with him. This compilation of juju musicproverbs set to Yoruba melodiesexhibits Ade’s subtly lyrical guitar playing at its rich, multilayered best. The disc is named for the clay pot used to brew medicines made from herbs and roots; the word also signifies anything new and trendy. But the lessons in the proverbs are old. “The world waits for my weakness,” Ade frets in a breathy introduction to one of the disc’s mostly artfully woven tunes, “Aiye Nreti Eleya Mi.” The meaning isn’t supposed to be transparent; rather, the proverb is to be contemplated to watery guitar rhythms and throaty drum beats. In “Natuba,” Ade pulls blues from his vocal repertoire and laments a poor man’s humiliation at the hands of a haughty neighbor. Ade’s 17-member male chorus encircles solos in “Natuba” with magical harmonies. The vocalists also double as percussionists. Whether they play talking drums, congas, or maracas, the punctuation they add is always subtle and understatedso understated that for some, many songs will seem sleepily similar: Monotony may result from overplaying. But the idea of juju is to let the music hypnotize you into forgetting the Earth’s sorrows. Just think of Ade as a traditional healer and juju music as the medicine.Paula Park
Lips That Taste of Tears
Trembling Blue Stars
I always knew that if those kids in Scotland sat around on the dole long enough, smoking pot and listening to Pet Sounds, one of them would eventually turn out a masterpiece. The fact that so much good music has been coming out of Caledonia latelyfrom the likes of Belle and Sebastian, Yummy Fur, Adventures in Stereo, and Lung Legshows either a growth in Scottish ambitions or a surfeit of decent weed. None of these bands are content to wear their influences on their sleeves; rather, they disable and plunder them, throwing so many elements into the mix they can send you spinning. Trembling Blue Stars are particularly eclectic and exciting. They’re happy to play soulful troubadours, then back their crooning suddenly with a hiphop beat, and then finish up with vamps that could come off a Roger Waters solo album. But it’s all done beautifully; the genuine nature of these simple songs shines through all the uproar. They’re especially obsessed with love gone awry, as in the glorious “Headlights,” which could be Lloyd Cole at his most suicidal, and “Never Loved You More,” which sounds like an Opal outtake. A reprise of the latter shows the band at its most throbbingly dance-y, reveling in the perversity of offering the same song stretched to the hilt. But the slower, softer side of the band is most intriguing, making this album a definite, if dismal, masterpiece.Dale Shaw
Alternative Stereo Sounds
Adventures in Stereo
In the mid-’80s, Primal Scream was a jangly guitar-pop band beholden, like countless contemporaries, to the Beatles, the Byrds, the Velvet Underground, and the Who in their Mod days. But Bobby Gillespie’s reedy vocals and Jim Beattie’s spiraling, vaguely surf-tinged lead guitar work set the band apart. After a handful of glorious singles and a classic album, the two parted waysGillespie to lead Primal Scream heedlessly into the Ninth Circle of Classic Rock Hell, Beattie to form the bland dream-pop band Spirea X. A decade later, Beattie quietly re-emerged in Adventures in Stereo, providing musical settings for the crystalline voice of his girlfriend Judith Boyle. Beattie’s new band is a revelatory return to form: Adventures in Stereo makes stripped-down, extremely catchy pop with heavy ’60s inflections. Dominated by Boyle’s multitracked vocals, Adventures in Stereo’s sound is what Stereolab might make if they were more obsessed with the Beach Boys than Krautrock and expended their infectious grooves in two minutes instead of eight. Alternative Stereo Sounds, the band’s second album (excluding an unauthorized collection of demossome reworked herereleased last year on Underground Sounds), is a collection of 18 delightful songs that whisks by in just over 31 minutes. Some of Beattie’s little compositions sound like themes from forgotten children’s television shows; some could have been written by Brian Wilson in the happy old days of endless summer; others are bits of moody psychedelia. Nearly all of them offer exemplary demonstrations of how to make the perfect pop song.
The Black Light
The desert is a lonely place. The Black Light, the second full-length album by the Tex-Mex duo Calexico, promises and fully delivers a scenic tour around America’s arid Southwestern provinces. Arizonans Joey Burns and John Convertino (also of Giant Sand) create a sonic journey with myriad instruments, including steel guitar, cello, mandolin, marimba, and accordionin addition to special guests on trumpets, gitaron, organ, and Spanish guitar. As a follow-up to Calexico’s previous album, Spoke, the new release reaches farther back into neo-Latin rhythms and folk gestures to accentuate the spooky gypsy quality of the Southwestern genre. Opening with the sultry tango “Gypsy’s Curse,” the album moves forward with the mamboesque double-bass pizzicato of “Fake Fur” and relaxes in the oasis of the delicate cello-guitar duet “Where Water Flows.” But the true highlight of the record is the lovely “Minas De Cobre,” a Mariachi-flavored number with blaring trumpets and weepy violin. Guitarist Burns’ few vocal tracks are tastefully understated; his bare murmurings accompany the exotic mood but refrain from infringing on it. Despite obvious comparisons to former bandmates Friends of Dean Martinez, who rely mostly on elaborate covers of lounge and jazz standards to convey the same imagery of ghost towns and tumbleweed, Calexico is known for penning original recollections with an atmospheric twang. The Black Light could have made a suitable soundtrack for that shootout at the OK Corral.
Some artists should forgo recording self-titled LPs too early in their careers. With the release of N’Dea Davenport, yet another performer takes on the pressure of summarizing her entire personality in a single project. Davenport is a successful sessions singer, best known for spearheading the retro-funk revival of the early ’90s as frontwoman for the Brand New Heavies. Four albums of funk is deeper than your average pigeonhole, but Davenport has finally flown the coop in favor of eclecticism. On the album’s first two cuts, “Whatever You Want” and “Underneath a Red Moon,” the songstress sounds like her old self. Like the scratchy noise of old vinyl, her rich, soulful voice blends perfectly with that rare groove sound. The downside of getting to know her better is discovering her sometimes unpleasant idiosyncrasies: N’Dea sings the blues on “Save Your Love for Me”; N’Dea goes to Mardi Gras with New Orlean’s Rebirth Jazz Band on “Getaway”; N’Dea covers Neil Young on “Old Man.” With so many sides to Davenport’s musical personality, it’s hard to get comfortable with her. The diva’s calculated forays into house music, “No Never Again” and “Oh Mother Earth,” are a little too grim for dance tracks. In the techno-pop race, Davenport loses quite ungraciously to Madonna with “In Wonder,” the album’s most pathetic moment. She’s striving for credibility through variety, but N’Dea Davenport now seems a lot less like the girl next door and more like a neighbor lady with bizarre tics.