Short Cuts

Various Artists
Caribbean Island Music
(Nonesuch)

Various Artists
The Real Bahamas
(Nonesuch)

The remarkable source recordings on Caribbean Island Music, as raw as unrefined sugar cane and just as sweet, are spontaneous performances recorded throughout the Caribbean at street carnivals, parades, religious ceremonies, and informal jams. The release features eighteen songs from Haiti, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic captured by the anthropologist John Storm Roberts in 1971. It's the real deal: everyday people in the bosoms of their own communities, making music at dances, at weddings, at church.

Drawing from the wealth of Afro-Spanish, Afro-French, and Afro-British music unique to the region, these unnamed performers will leave an indelible impression on ears accustomed to the pristine perfection of modern recording techniques. Dogs bark in the distance, singers clear their throats, drums sometimes overwhelm the microphone. Here are country dances, call-and-response pieces, and basic merengue rhythms.

There are also some unexpected surprises, such the French-language lament "Les Deux Jumeaux." It's a Haitian bolero that fuses quaint nineteenth-century European melodies (and a slightly out of tune acoustic guitar) with a rhythm more commonly associated with Spanish-language ballads. European elements merge with African elements in the work songs recorded in St. Andrews Parish, Jamaica; some very British-sounding melodies are accompanied by the rhythm of pickaxes digging into the dirt.

The Real Bahamas, recorded on location by Peter Siegel and Jody Stecher in 1965, was originally released as two volumes. This reissue collects all the material on one disc. These 28 highly emotional tracks show how American roots reached 200 miles off the coast of Florida and into the Bahamas. Because drums were banned in the U.S. during the era of slavery, hand-clapping and an African percussive style of singing were practiced on plantations. When slaves in the Bahamas were emancipated by England in 1838, U.S. slaves who fled to the islands brought their music with them.

"We'll Understand It Better By and By," performed by Mrs. Edith Pinder, sounds familiar, but her unique cadences (and the accompaniment by her husband Raymond and daughter Geneva) give the material a spine-tingling intensity. Africanisms are also prevalent in Sam Green's chilling "I Told You People Judgment Coming," as well as in the rhythmic complexities of Bruce Green's reading of "Up in the Heaven Shouting." The most remarkable performances belong to the eccentric guitarist-singer Joseph Spence, whose outstanding finger-picking on "Don't Take Everybody to Be Your Friend" sounds like something straight out of the Mississippi Delta. It's as scary as anything Robert Johnson ever did and as complex as the best of Lightnin' Hopkins' legendary fretwork.

Anyone tired of the smoothly coated stuff that passes for blues music today ought to seek out these two discs. They're a breath of rich, earthy, and very fresh air.

-- Manuel Pila

The Vandalias
Buzzbomb!
(Big Deal)

At a mere nineteen years of age, JimJim Vandalia wasn't even a twinkle in his mother's eye when Sweet, Neil Diamond, the Partridge Family, and the Bay City Rollers dominated AM radio. At best JimJim might have caught a bit of "My Sharona" in utero. Nevertheless the Vandalias -- JimJim (rhythm guitar and vocals), his brothers Alan (lead guitar) and Bobby (bass), and Tommy Etelamaki (drums) -- have just released their second album of mid-'70s-style pop. It's as crispy-sweet as a box of Honeycomb and filled with more hooks than the K-Tel archives. Best of all it's straight-ahead and irony-free.

The Vandalias could easily be filed alongside other latter-day pop revivalists such as Velvet Crush, Teenage Fanclub, and the Pooh Sticks. Ironically, these are the bands to whom JimJim likely listened while growing up: He was about twelve when Teenage Fanclub released its debut album in 1990. Yet there's nothing secondhand or "retro chic" about the Vandalias. JimJim has the kind of strong, midrange voice that was once a requirement for any worthwhile pop singer; his older brothers prefer superclean guitar lines to edgy feedback; Etelamaki's drums vary between snappy rhythms and arena-rock whomping as is appropriate.

The eleven songs on Buzzbomb! are about that most dependable pop topic, love. On the title track, JimJim proves the old adage that sad lyrics plus a happy tune equals a sure-fire hit: "Here's my soul, it's been starving for your touch/Take my eyes that you used to love too much," he sings over a quick-stepping, highly danceable guitar riff. The song is over in two and a half minutes, but it's amazing what the Vandalias can do in such a short amount of time. "Big Red Catalina" races through a whole summer's worth of gorgeous chords and soaring harmonies, and "Hey Kari G" compresses Jackson Browne's entire back catalog into one track.

Buzzbomb! is filled with high points, but "Charity at Home" stands out as JimJim's most original and distinctive song, a hummable ballad with some bittersweet chords that are at once surprising and totally satisfying. It's the kind of rock-solid song they used to put together in the Brill Building, and JimJim seems to have magically inherited the blueprints.

The Vandalias could top the charts with almost any song on this album, and JimJim probably has a million where these came from. After all, this nineteen-year-old, bubble gum wunderkind is just beginning. Be prepared to find a Vandalias poster in your next box of Honeycomb.

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