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APRIL 17, 2000: 

*** Touré Touré LADDÉ (Tinder)

An inspired band of brothers, Senegal's Touré Kunda were one of the guiding lights of the 1980s Afropop explosion. During the '90s, the group dissipated, and their late work was perfunctory. Now two members of the next Touré generation, Omar and Daby, have created a new, Paris-based group that has much of the appeal of the original Touré Kunda.

To start with, these boys can sing. From the warm harmonies of "Sanio" (a warning against laziness) to the keening, Arabic verses of "Almudo" (a song urging Islamic teachers to teach kids, not send them out to beg), these performances are flawless, fresh, and satisfying. The band are as tight as the vocal arrangements, almost frighteningly so. Things get pretty slick on pumped-up tracks like "Bané" and "Yorro," but what distinguishes this from high-production Paris Afropop is the group's chemistry. Acoustic guitars and 21-string kora are more prominent than keyboards, always a plus in my book. The rhythm section pops, making even the lighter grooves sound heavy. And the compositions are good -- strong melodies belted out by strong voices, and arrangements that never sag. -- Banning Eyre


*** The Asylum Street Spankers SPANKER MADNESS (Spanks-a-Lot Records)

It doesn't take much effort to figure out the concept behind this Austin combo's fourth album. The title alludes to the public-service anti-drug movie and cult classic Reefer Madness, and the songs are all about recreational drug use. The fiddle-accented, country-flavored "Winning the War on Drugs" mocks current government and legislative tactics as facile and even hypocritical. "Wake and Bake," a ragtime jamboree with cackled, lovy-dovy lines like "I gaze into your eyes so red," is more indicative of the album's simple lyrical agenda: fun. This is no ordinary tale of reefer madness but a fine trad blues, country, and hot-jazz recording put together by top-notch musicians (a Spanker is someone who can play an acoustic instrument both vigorously and proficiently). The subject matter might wear thin at times, but the wit and wily musicianship make Spanker Madness more than the sum of its various drug jokes. Plus, "Beer," with its slapped bass and picked banjo, extols the virtues of a hops-based beverage rather than a hemp-based plant. -- Linda Laban


*** Marah KIDS IN PHILLY (E-Squared/Artemis)

One night two years ago in Nashville eight people came to see Marah play in the basement of a pizza joint, and only four of them had the capacity to sign the young band from Philadelphia to their label. The clever, self-produced debut that Marah were selling from the stage, Let's Cut the Crap and Hook Up Later On Tonight, barely resembled the chaos they manifested live, songs tumbling over loud guitars, blunt banjo chords, steel-guitar phrases sprawling beneath the mess. But nobody left early.

Kids in Philly, their second release (still self-produced, on Steve Earle's E-Squared label), marries that beautiful mess to sharply drawn songs, casually shifting among the varied textures of the band's South Philly neighborhood. Hardly country, but certainly gifted songwriters, brothers David and Serge Bielanko lead a quartet-plus whose frame of reference is East Coast: Springsteen, Mummers, Houserockers, etc. Because both brothers have become compelling performers and Marah owe a debt to classic rock, they'll be compared to the Black Crowes. But there is less artifice here (a lot less), and Kids in Philly is not an homage to the past but a knowing adaptation of some of its best parts. And because they're still kids (well, mid 20s), Marah's best parts rock with rare and unbridled joy. --Grant Alden


*** DEATHRAY (Capricorn)

If Cake, the Sacramento-based outfit who graduated two Deathray members, have a liability, it's their tendency to veer from catchy quirkiness into major annoyance. That's not likely to happen -- at least not through the same process -- with Deathray, the quintet formed in 1998 by Cake alumni Greg Brown (guitar) and Victor Damiani (bass). Eschewing their former group's imaginative clutter, Brown and Damiani emerge with a more streamlined pop approach. The 13-track debut leads off with "My Lunatic Friends," tipping some kind of hat (an old-fashioned American baseball cap?) to new wave's underestimated Vapours before moving on to the kind of sophisticated, smart pop matched only by like-minded practitioners Imperial Teen and Fountains of Wayne. If the disc gets irritating, it's when keyboards and synths become cloying, an occasional nuisance (it didn't seem to hurt the Cars some 20-odd years ago) that balances the album between organic warmth and technological iciness. While retaining bits of Cake's twang ("Someone After You," "10:15"), Deathray deliver infectious modern-pop punches wrapped in a classic package. -- Mark Woodlief


*** BR5-49 COAST TO COAST LIVE (Arista)

With a high-energy amalgam of ornery sounds traceable to folks ranging from Bob Wills to Charlie Daniels, BR549 have earned themselves a lot of fans within Nashville and without by jamming on some well-chosen covers and originals in the fine tradition of countrified irony and humor. The quintet's latest collection rounds up 40 minutes of tunes recorded while the band toured with the Brian Setzer Orchestra in 1999. Guitarists Chuck Mead and Gary Bennett take twangy turns on vocals while the band rock Gram Parsons's "Big Mouth Blues" and Daniels's longhair redneck anthem "Uneasy Rider" -- kind of a blend of the rockabilly staple "Hot Rod Lincoln" and Johnny Cash's "A Boy Named Sue." Mead and Don Herron, who plays fiddle, steel guitar, and mandolin, get into it pretty good on several numbers, and the hollow boom of "Smilin' " Jay McDowell's upright bass leads into the only slow tune on the set, Wills's "Brain Cloudy Blues." Snippets of between-song banter are included to underscore the feeling conveyed by wayward lines like "I'll apologize if you just call me" (from "Pourin' Pain"). It's all pretty joky, but it's also real lively, and nobody gets hurt. --Bill Kisliuk


* Bill Laswell EMERALD AETHER: SHAPE SHIFTING (Shanachie)

Over the past few years, über-producer Bill Laswell has unleashed his "reconstruction and mix translation" methods on reggae, jazz fusion, and Cuban field recordings. But on his latest remix effort -- which uses Irish music as the source material -- his crystalline digital methods begin to lose their luster. At worst, Emerald Aether is just flat-out wack: the addition of turntable cuts and chunky hip-hop beats to Karan Casey's a cappella singing on "The Labouring Man's Daughter" is a serious offense. Most tracks just receive a pleasant ambient washing of bubbles, gurgles, and hisses that, depending on your point of view, are incredibly soothing or suspect.

The best of Laswell's "mix translation" efforts have approached the material with a set of sonic rules. On his Bob Marley dub remix he removed Marley's voice from the entire disc; for the Miles Davis project he simply focused on cleaning the muddy masters. Emerald Aether could've used some of that careful planning, because it sounds more like a new-age advertisement for Shanachie's Celtic catalogue than like serious electronic music. -- Michael Endelman


*** Andre Williams PIG SNOOTS AND RIB TIPS (Tuff City)

Cult '50s R&B icon Andre Williams has recorded four comeback albums -- in the mold of the late Screamin' Jay Hawkins, these have been done mostly on the cheap for tiny labels with erratic, slouching accompaniment -- but his sizable back catalogue has remained frustratingly out of print. The only survey currently available -- an import, at that -- is Mr. Rhythm, which collects his sides for the Fortune label, including his best-known work: chitlin-circuit faux dance-craze faves ("The Greasy Chicken" and "Bacon Fat"), lascivious romps ("Jail Bait"), the occasional vocal-group weeper ("Just Because"). His jive-ass street patter (fashioned in part after the mile-a-minute slang-slinging personality DJs who championed his early hits) has gained him grandfather status in both hip-hop and garage punk, but it's the latter audience he's courted since being rediscovered panhandling on the streets of Detroit. Until now, the period between his Fortune novelty hits and his drug-fueled homeless stint has been ignored by everyone save a select group of DJs and obscure-funk collectors.

During the '60s and '70s Williams served primarily as a producer and an A&R man (to Ike & Tina Turner, among others), but he also continued to record. From these lost years, Pig Snoots collects a hefty dose of instrumental grooves (including the two in the title), which were apparently marketed as soul-food novelties in the tradition of "Greasy Chicken." But the material shows that Williams stayed hip to the times, unleashing hard, fatback funk with massive breakbeat potential and the same sly, wiry tenaciousness that marked his early work. -- Carly Carioli


**1/2 Alvin Youngblood Hart START WITH THE SOUL (Hannibal)

Fans of Hart's gifted approach to acoustic blues may be disappointed by this ambitious album, but he deserves praise for its scope and imagination -- and for his own courage. At worst, the CD descends to bar-band hackery: the Jersey rock of "Fightin' Hard" and a mediocre cover of the Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose's "Treat Her like a Lady" are hurdles. Yet they're countered by the provocative, anti-racist roots rocker "Manos Arriba" and daring music like "Once Again" -- which straddles the worlds of Tom Waits and B.B. King -- and the edgy jazz instrumental "Porch Monkey." When Hart gets back to blues-ness, it's in the prickly-riffed "A Prophet's Mission" -- a visionary reimagining of Howlin' Wolf's signatures -- and the dirty-ass workout "Will I Ever Get Back Home," a purer extraction of Mr. Burnett's style. There are other clunkers, but Hart's knack for lyrics celebrating the pride and strength of the individual man (African-Americans in particular) in the course of life's trials gives the album a steely backbone. And his bag of electric guitar riffs, from Hendrix-ian wah to grimy power chords, is satisfying. --Ted Drozdowski


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