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.

Fortunately the chief executive producer of this compilation is Russell Simmons (of Run-DMC fame), and he's cherry-picked some of the finest hip-hop on the planet. Many of the twenty tracks on How to Be a Player lean toward funk and R&B, with occasional (and bracing) forays into gangsta mayhem. Foxy Brown's "Big Bad Mamma" bumps along to a bass riff that sounds cribbed from Rick James, even if it isn't. (Eerily enough, James appears on the very next track, offering a thumped-out reprise of his classic "Hard to Get.") The draw on Junior M.A.F.I.A.'s "Young Casanovas" is a hypnotic keyboard wash that drizzles like lazy rain behind a verbal flow -- courtesy of Mace and Kam -- that's both mellifluous and blustery. "Down Wit Us" features the crisp and raspy phrasing of Redman. The song's heavier East Coast flavor is leavened by a delightfully squiggly jazz sample courtesy of sax man Lionel Parker.

On an album of all-star cuts, Master P's "How to Be a Playa" stands above the rest. Built tautly around a single guitar riff, the song pits musical simplicity against lyrical exuberance, as MCs Silk the Shocker and Fiend spit staccato lines over a massively syncopated drum track. Even the spoken word stuff on this disc -- traditionally a dumping ground for bum poetry -- succeeds, thanks to Max Julien's sharper-than-your-average-playa insights.

-- Steven Almond

The Moog Cookbook
Ye Olde Space Bande
(Restless)

If you were a kid in the Seventies, chances are good that when you put a top rock album on your birthday list, your clueless parents instead bought you something resembling the new Moog Cookbook CD. Funky, goofy, and completely tongue-in-cheek, Ye Olde Space Bande is the second offering of covers from L.A. synthophiles Roger Manning (Jellyfish, Imperial Drag) and Brian Kehew. Cloaked in the thrift-store space cadet personas of Meco Eno and Uli Nomi, the duo used the Moog and other vintage synthesizers to parody altrock hits the first time around on their self-titled debut. Now they've trained their sights on mega-Seventies arena-rock standards, deflating the era's biggest, most pompous hams and slathering their hits with extra-cheesy arrangements.

Bands such as the Beastie Boys and Stereolab may have introduced vintage synth sounds to a new generation, but the Moog Cookbook takes these instruments to their most unnatural extremes, spitting back chunks of classic rock in gurgling, cartwheeling little symphonies of excess. Guitar-driven anthems such as Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama," Van Halen's "Ain't Talkin 'Bout Love," and Ted Nugent's "Cat Scratch Fever" are twisted into freakish funk odysseys and cartoonish themes. The Moog Cookbook's take on Boston's "More Than a Feeling" explores the ultimate nightmare of Yanni joining Depeche Mode, while their skewering of Kiss' "Rock and Roll All Nite" completely neuters the cock-rock mystique with a rubbery thumping backbeat and a deadpan melody that at times sounds like it's being played on a touch-tone phone. And Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" is laugh-out-loud demented. Imagine a flatulating bass line, Jimmy Page on kazoo, and Robert Plant as a balloon steadily losing air, and you're about halfway there.

While it isn't quite as drop-dead hilarious as its predecessor, Ye Olde Space Bande remains essential listening for anyone with a taste for oddity and the ability to chuckle at rock history and its more bloated icons.

-- Robin Myrick

Various Artists
Yellow Pills, Volume 4
(Big Deal)

Ah, guys in service to the innate potency of the hook, in thrall to the divinity of the melody. Although power pop has lain low for much of the past ten years, never fully expiring, it is now experiencing a minirenaissance via L.A.'s Poptopia scene. About time. The fanzine Yellow Pills has been documenting/championing the sound -- that ineffable sonic ground where reverberating guitar chords intersect with crisp vocals, dead-on production, and (mostly) love-stuff lyrics -- since 1990, named for a song by famed late-Seventies power popsters 20/20.

Four years ago YP launched a companion CD series to showcase the genre's torchbearers and spear-carriers. Just-released Volume 4 features worthy entries from salty vets the Plimsouls, the Loud Family, ex-Bongo frontman Richard Barone, Smithereens's guitarist Jim Babjak (in the guise of Buzzed Meg), Chris Von Sneidern, and Material Issue, plus zesty stuff by the lesser-known -- but no less terrific -- Wanderlust, Four O'Clock Balloon, John McMullan, the Nines, Love Nut, and DM3. Not forgetting the crafty Jason Falkner. Clunker alert: Andrew ("Lonely Boy") Gold engages in an ill-advised evocation of Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys, while Anton Barbeau indulges in some tinny, connect-the-dots synth pop. Deservedly dedicated to the memory of Material Issue guitarist/singer/strategist and power-pop avatar Jim Ellison, who committed suicide last year. (Big Deal, P.O. Box 2072 Peter Stuyvesant Station, New York, NY 10009-9998)

-- Michael Yockel

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