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AUGUST 28, 2000: 

*** Taj Mahal and the Phantom Blues Band SHOUTIN' IN KEY (Hannibal)

Taj Mahal's homonymous 1968 debut established him as an acoustic country blues master who also had a sure hand when it came to the electric varieties. But that status also threatened to eclipse everything else this singer, songwriter, guitarist, harp blower, and ethnomusicologist from Springfield, Massachusetts, accomplished in its wake. So Taj ignored the trends and the purists and traveled wherever his instincts took him. And after 30 some odd years they've brought him into the company of the horn-heavy Phantom Blues Band, who join him on a live recording that was compiled from a three-night-stand at the Mind in Los Angeles. The album finds him mixing Western swing with uptempo R&B ("Honky Tonk"), delving into classic reggae (Delroy Wilson's "Rain from the Sky"), and offering up a little Latin soul (Mahal's "Sentidos Dulce"). His voice is a little ragged these days, and the new versions of "EZ Rider" and Sleepy John Estes's "Leaving Trunk" (both of which he introduced on Taj Mahal) lack some of the raw passion of the originals. But Shoutin' in Key proves that Taj still has a powerful grasp on the blues. -- Linda Laban


Those who find Cat Power no longer strange enough should be heartened by You Think It's like This But Really It's like This, the debut full-length by a singer/songwriter who goes by the name of Mirah. Hailing from the Pacific Northwest, Mirah comes off like a less fiery and less complex Lois Maffeo, with her girlish, quavery, rather twee lo-fi acoustic-based songs, though Chan Marshall (a/k/a Cat Power) is clearly her closest indie counterpart when it comes to austerity of arrangements and tremulousness of delivery.

The tracks here range from strummy to strummier, with some mid-century ragtime-meets-jazz excursions thrown in to diversify the mix. The lyrics suggest that Mirah has a curious preoccupation with natural disasters and having sex outside; "Sweepstakes Prize" and "Murphy Bed" reveal her to be a sharp-witted songwriter. It may work against Mirah that You Think it's Like This doesn't seem as weird and melancholy as Cat Power's first couple albums, since her lighter-than-air melodies could use some heft. But there's a certain battered charm here that will appeal to fans of the indie form. On the other hand, those who shrink from the idea of a fey girl playing love songs on the ukulele would be well advised to keep their distance. -- Allison Stewart

*** Haysi Fantayzee BATTLE HYMNS FOR CHILDREN SINGING (Razor & Tie)

It wasn't as if punk never happened for the new romantics -- it's just that all they could do was pose in the rubble of 1977, look fabulous, and aim for that Top of the Pops rocket to fame and fortune. And from such an alternately clueless and scheming method of making (or, more precisely, having to make) music came this incorrigible 1983 anti-masterpiece, the most purely impure new-wave nugget extant. Here was an album that sounded the way fashion rival Boy George looked -- awkward and garish, clashing and cluttered. No Motown readymades, lovers' rock riddims, or other pretensions to listenability here. Jeremy Healy delivered his vocals in a grating shout rap, leaving Kate Garner to the hebephrenic nonsense chants that gave each track its primitive structure. The rhythms rarely varied from Haircut 100 lockstep and were probably Moog presets anyway. In short, whereas Boy G became an ambassador for tolerance, these club muffins stretched your tolerance, an effect exacerbated on this reissue by the inclusion of seven even klutzier bonus tracks and remixes. Pull it out for those moments of powerlessness everyone endures, because you gotta feel suaver or more in control after hearing this snarl of dreadlocks and leg warmers. -- Kevin John

**** Fred Frith with Ensemble Modern TRAFFIC CONTINUES (Winter & Winter)
*** Fred Frith and Chris Cutler 2 GENTLEMEN IN VERONA (Cuneiform)

After a quarter-century in the trenches of the avant-garde, guitarist Fred Frith continues to make adventurous music in as many ways possible. But these days his most visible roles are as playful improviser and serious composer. 2 Gentlemen finds him allied once again with his Henry Cow bandmate and supremely musical drummer Chris Cutler. They romp through this 1999 performance, creating mean or sweet textures that shift and erupt, banging and twanging out their own willful sonic wonderland with ears cocked for small melodies, textural grace, and humor.

It's humor that seems the most consistent element of Frith's work. So his eight-part composition "Traffic Continues," played by the 21-piece Ensemble Modern, not only comes to grips with the sonic rush of our lives but delivers little aural pratfalls in its woodwind dénouements. "Traffic Continues II: Gusto" is more serious: a memorial for the late cellist Tom Cora based on lines culled from Cora's playing. It's full of melody and sonic intersections -- places where beautiful violin lines are nipped and sliced by burps of horn, tinkling samples, and the electric harp of Zena Parkins or Ikue Mori's uniquely colorful -- rather than driving -- drum programming. The piece's range of moods and sounds is both dazzling and sonorous, falling somewhere in the widening cracks between rock and new music. -- Ted Drozdowski

*** The Spinanes THE IMP YEARS (Merge)

When singer/guitarist Rebecca Gates and drummer Scott Plouf started making music, in the early '90s, they took the spirit of '80s-style jangle pop and fused it with the lo-fi enthusiasm that had begun to take hold in the Pacific Northwest indie scene. The formula was simple -- a girl and a boy, a guitar and a drum kit, and plenty of smart, melodic songs. Happily for anyone who wasn't savvy enough to grab the handful of singles the band released before Manos, their 1993 Sub Pop debut, North Carolina's Merge Records has them all on this EP. A brief, powerful retrospective, The Imp Years reveals that even early on the Spinanes were capable of creating a much fuller sound and larger impact than you'd expect from such a stripped-down duo. "Hawaiian Baby," with its lovelorn la-la-las and crisply layered guitars, is so elegant and wise that you can't help pitying the recipient of the song's doleful valentine -- some unfortunate sod who unwittingly allowed a good thing to slip out of his grasp. Thanks to The Imp Years, the same fate won't befall those who let the Spinanes' singles slip away. -- Lois Maffeo

*** Richard Davies BARBARIANS (Kindercore)

Richard Davies has the cult artist's knack for either staying one step ahead of what little limelight is cast upon him or shrinking from the glare of recognition entirely, preferring instead to lurk in shadows of his own making. Davies got his start back in '91 with the short-lived avant-indie outfit the Moles, then formed the critically lauded Cardinal with Eric Matthews a few years later. After making one quietly perfect album that updated the Left Banke and the Zombies and set a standard for '90s-style chamber pop, Davies bolted for a solo career.

Although he's upped the rock quotient and pared back the support staff this time around (local footnote: the disc, recorded at Fort Apache Studios, features Bostonians Jeff Berlin and Chris Bothelo on drums), the Sydney songwriter's impeccable third outing doesn't sound terribly different from his previous solo discs, There's Never Been a Crowd like This and Telegraph. Which means there's another flower bed of fragrant pickings here, from the gilded majesty of "Coldest Day" to the clandestine, jasmine-scented interlude of "Palo Alto" to the mildly hungover street scenes that swirl amid "Formulas." As always, Davies writes with casual, if opaque, eloquence about what he sees around him, offering a glimpse of detail here and a morsel of introspection there, but never standing still in the sunlight long enough to be recognized. -- Jonathan Perry

*** Carl Cox MIXED LIVE (Moonshine)

Cox, who looks like famed house DJ Frankie Knuckles but sure doesn't mix like him, here presents himself in real time and in the right setting: mixing live to a (presumably) full house at Chicago's Crobar Nightclub. Cox plays an entirely instrumental, minimalist style of dance music. Those who prefer the sweetness of a melody will find his music acerbic; those who like diva style will think him restrained. Still, there is classic disco-mix method in his droll madness. During the more than 60 minutes in which he highsteps, scratches, noise-effects, and buzzsaws his way through parts of 21 tunes, he keeps to the same rapid-fire groove, stringing every noise hook and beat burst to it like charms on a bracelet, exactly the way the first generation of disco DJs did it. Actually it's wrong to dub Cox's rhythm strings "charms on a bracelet." His harsh, nonvocal rhythms feel like barbed wire fencing us in, as if we were prisoners -- a stark, bitterly industrial picture of the world we run through, diva-less and not in any way sweet. -- Michael Freedberg

*** Nahawa Doumbia YAALA (Cobalt)

Singer Oumou Sangaré is the best known exponent of West Africa's Wassoulou music, with its bluesy, pentatonic melodies and shuffling, seductive rhythms. But Nahawa Doumbia has actually been on the scene longer, and as her latest work confirms, she's every bit Sangaré's creative equal. If her vocal timbre is harder-edged than his, the emotions expressed are no less powerful.

This release shows the subtle influence of Western producers and one collaborator, French guitarist Claude Barthélémy, who plays slide, acoustic, and electric guitar, adding a distinctive voice without overwhelming or compromising these delicate African soundscapes. The production style is admirably spare, avoiding electronics and bringing particular instruments forward: wooden balafon on the serene "Minia -- The Sacred Boa," piquant electric guitar on "Sisse," and the signature sound of Wassoulou music, the fleet, funky six-string harp known as kamalé ngoni, on the standout title track. Traditional concerns pervade Doumbia's thoughtful lyrics, which include warnings against laziness and corruption, advice on child rearing, and songs about the difficulty of accepting death. More great work from a mature and underrated African star. -- Banning Eyre

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