Short Cuts

Buena Vista Social Club
Buena Vista Social Club
(World Circuit/Nonesuch)

Since the early Seventies, Ry Cooder has been rediscovering forgotten songs and breathing new life into vanishing musical traditions. By embracing numerous genres -- including country, blues, gospel, Tex-Mex, and Hawaiian slack-key -- the guitarist/producer has seemed to be on a quest for an elusive purity, a time-warped solitude among sanctified notes, a refuge from a mainstream tainted by commercial expectations. On a recent trip to Cuba, he found what he was looking for, and Buena Vista Social Club is the proof.

In March 1996 Cooder traveled to Havana to record the pulsing boleros and classic son rhythms that flourished on the island prior to Castro's revolution. In a studio built by RCA Victor in the Forties, he assembled a band of seasoned players for the project. Back in the day, pianist Ruben Gonzalez, now 77 years old, played with Arsenio Rodriguez, the master of the tres (a small Cuban guitar); vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer, now age 70, sang with influential bandleader Beny More; and guitarist Campay Segundo, age 90, played with the Municipal Band of Havana and led numerous groups of his own.

Individually they may be little more than accomplished stylists, but collectively they represent a neglected but vital heritage that's been sequestered from the rest of the world for nearly 40 years. "Cuban musicians are unique," Cooder claims in the disc's press notes. "They have nurtured this very refined, deeply funky music in an atmosphere sealed off from the fallout of a hyperorganized and noisy world. They have evolved a flawless ensemble concept where the organization of the music is perfectly understood [by the musicians]. There's no ego and no jockeying for position, so they play perfectly together."

To his credit, Cooder coaxes amazing performances from his geriatric cohorts and contributes his own nuanced guitar licks to Buena Vista's fourteen tracks. As on his Grammy-winning collaborations with Indian guitarist V.M. Bhatt (1990's Meeting by the River) and Malinese guitarist Ali Farke Toure (1994's Talking Timbuktu), he integrates unobtrusively and allows others to shine, still managing to make his unique presence felt. On "Orgullecida," for instance, his Western-swing lead complements the delicate interplay between Segundo's acoustic strumming and wistful singing. A similarly evocative lead by Cooder gives Segundo's "Chan Chan" its melancholic feel, and his atmospheric slide guitar steers "El Carretero" into deep blues territory.

Despite such reflective moments, the majority of Buena Vista's tracks are built upon interlocking rhythms that automatically move the feet and sway the hips. Songs such as "Veinte Anos" and "Pueblo Nuevo" conjure images of black-maned women and cigar-clutching men moving suggestively across floors in pulse-quickened states of near-embrace. Irresistible, smart, and sexy, they give the disc its heart and make Buena Vista a club worth joining.

-- John Lewis

Bottle Rockets
24 Hours a Day
(Atlantic)

Songwriters love the common folk. Bruce Springsteen has made a career of telling blue-collar tales. Bands such as Southern Culture on the Skids wallow in po' white trash culture for their own shits and giggles. Hell, the entire definition of country music would be different without 'em. The Bottle Rockets revel in this stuff as well, culling from their own experiences of living in dinky Festus, Missouri, to make 24 Hours a Day and its predecessors. But Bottle Rocket singer/songwriter/guitarist Brian Henneman doesn't consider such commoners to be the romanticized, Capra-esque heroes that Springsteen does, nor does he see them as trailer-park inbreeds a la Southern Culture. To him this is the populace that just keeps on keepin' on, almost without notice. On 24 Hours' "Indianapolis," a raucous country stomp, there's the guy who's so frustrated from being stuck in that town with car trouble that he finally blurts out, "I'll puke if that jukebox plays John Cougar one more time." In the sullen, acoustic "Smokin' 100's Alone," a woman fingers some cigarettes soon after she has kicked out her man: "Feeling more like the loser as each minute drags on" go the words. Plain-clothed, unrefined, and sympathetic -- 24 Hours finds Henneman delivering quite the snapshots.

The problem with the new album, though, is that the music -- equal parts Skynyrd, front-porch country, and the garage band down the street -- doesn't always keep up with the words. In fact, for an album that features such varied touches as acoustic folk, Crazy Horse din, country rock, and even traces of psychedelia, 24 Hours sounds strangely monochromatic. Only a few cuts -- most notably the pop surprise "Kit Kat Clock" and the aforementioned "Smokin' 100's Alone" and "Indianapolis" -- really crackle. Maybe altcountry production kingpin Eric Ambel reeled in Henneman et al. too much; maybe this four-piece band is just becoming too proficient; or maybe it's the sameness of Henneman's gritty, twangified voice that bogs down the proceedings. Maybe all three. Whatever the case, it's as if these scruffy locals sidled up to the bar at the corner watering hole and ordered a glass of mineral water rather than a shot of whiskey.

-- Neal Weiss

Various Artists
Def Jam's How to Be a Player
(Def Jam)

There's a major glut in the hip-hop market -- not surprising given the mind-boggling sales of albums by Wu-Tang Clan, Coolio, and the late Notorious B.I.G. Every label on earth, hoping to cash in, has signed a hip-hop act or five. Accordingly, quality control has gone all to hell. MCs with the musical and verbal skills of high-functioning fourth graders are being snapped up and marketed out the wazoo.

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