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.

-- Rafer Guzman

Various Artists
Good Will Hunting: Music From the Miramax Motion Picture
(Capitol/Miramax Records)

After directing a string of semi-arty films such as Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, Gus Van Sant weighed in recently with Good Will Hunting, a straightforward movie about a twentysomething genius (Will Hunting, played by Matt Damon) who confronts the personal demons in his past. Thanks to a handful of talented artists, the accompanying soundtrack does a good job of tracing Hunting's emotional checkpoints. The sweet-but-troubled songs of Elliott Smith are juxtaposed with more hard-bitten tracks (such as Gerry Rafferty's 1978 hit "Baker Street") and the occasional bit of bouncy, good-time fluff (such as Andru Donalds' ska interpretation of Jackson Browne's "Somebody's Baby").

Van Sant, who lives in Portland, Oregon, usually works that city into his films somehow. He does so here by way of bands. One is the Dandy Warhols, a pseudo-Britpop outfit from Portland who contribute the ultramodern track "Boys Better." Another is Smith, who is featured on six of the CD's fifteen tracks. Three of the songs here are taken from his 1997 album Either/Or (Kill Rock Stars), and two were previously unreleased.

Smith's sleepy songs, lightly decorated with Beatlesque harmonies, are tales of complex, uncertain relationships. On "Say Yes" Smith sings, "No one says until it shows and you see how it is/They want you or they don't/Say yes." The music, though understated, carries plenty of emotional freight. Another Smith song, "Miss Misery," has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song.

There is some genuinely good theme music here as well: Two pieces by the New-Waver-turned-composer Danny Elfman are full of tinkling piano, Irish pipes, and swelling choruses. But Smith's music is definitely the lifeblood of this soundtrack, which paints a picture of a young man fighting the world because he's afraid to live in it.

-- Daniel Lovering

The Ray Campi Quartet
Train Rhythm Blue
(Mouthpiece/Rounder)

Ray Campi, the '50s rockabilly legend and soul survivor, proves his continuing relevance to the younger generation of roots-rockers on his latest CD, Train Rhythm Blue. Featuring Skip Heller on guitar, Rip Masters on piano, and drummer D.J. Bonebreak (of the legendary punk band X), the Ray Campi Quartet chugs through a friendly jam recorded over three consecutive Sundays at a sixteen-track studio in Los Angeles.

It's a nifty collection of altcountry tunes, but there are so many Southern California scenesters here -- Dave Alvin (of the Blasters), Tony Gilkyson (who's played guitar with Jimmie Dale Gilmore), and singer-songwriter Stan Ridgway (who founded Wall of Voodoo) -- that Campi himself sometimes gets lost in the shadows. The CD evokes the underground club scene more than real-deal rockabilly, but Campi manages to hold the reins of this eclectic group and ride along with the various songwriting styles.

"Hot Water" and "Here Comes That Heartache" are about the only hardcore rockabilly numbers here, and the quartet gives them a dignified workout (though not a sweaty one). But Campi's smooth, smoky voice and his warm, resonant delivery are the record's main attraction, and he makes every syllable count. His deep tones enrich the caramelized guitar drippings of "Lorena" and the country strut of "Little Love Lies." On "Don't Forget the Train," Campi manages to sound even more wistful and lonesome than the whistling blues harp solo. That song provides one of the disc's real flashes of greatness.

The best songs here were written not by Campi but by his younger cohorts. "Luther Played Guitar" is a typically gritty and sharply observed Stan Ridgway number, while Dave Alvin's "Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame" is a cool hillbilly raver with a martini twist (and some exquisite solos by Masters, Alvin, and Heller). It's Heller's "An Honest Bar," however, that really stands out. With its twanging, burning guitars and spoken-word interlude, the song may be typical L.A. hipster chic, but Campi's suave authority gives it some real zing.

Purists will surely bemoan the fact that Campi wrote or cowrote only three of the album's twelve tracks. Still, the glimmer kids who Campi attracts have done a fine job of putting this '50s rocker in a decidedly '90s setting.

-- Robin Myrick

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