South Moroccan Motor Berber
I know that a lot of you have been burned by world music: You've picked up a supposedly catchy album after reading a rave review by a writer with a couple of tattered tour guides and a vocabulary with a glandular condition only to discover upon your return home that the music is only good for annoying your dog and getting rid of party guests who've overstayed their welcome. But when it comes to the work of Argan, such skepticism is misplaced. Like Berberism, a disc lauded in these pages last year, South Moroccan Motor Berber is thrillingly exotic yet exceedingly accessible, thanks to its canny merger of North African motifs and Western influences. Take "Takate," the opening track: Hassan Arouhal's ululating vocals may utilize a different language, but they won't come as a shock to anyone who's ever owned a Peter Gabriel CD, and they're supported by propulsive percussion, hooky background chanting and an intriguing Arabic twist on Big Rock Guitar. The dozen other ditties here are filled with plenty of equally unexpected delights--I especially dug the dislocated banjo on "Taissi Laman" and the bizarre disco variations that burble through "Tamazighte"--and while some of them require active listening, they all are capable of inspiring booty-shaking. That's the kind of multi-culturalism anyone can get behind. For more information, contact http://www.maroc.net/barraka.
The Derek Trucks Band
Out of the Madness
(House of Blues)
As child prodigies come and go, Trucks is a technically superb guitarist: He knows how to make the electric guitar come alive like Eric Clapton; he works as mean a slide as did Stevie Ray Vaughan; and he can launch into extended jazz-influenced excursions à la Carlos Santana. But like many of the bands and products promoted by House of Blues in its growing chain of clubs, Trucks aims for the lowest common denominator of music appreciation. Out of the Madness offers up dull blues covers ("Forty-Four," "Good Morning Little School Girl"), annoying instrumentals that seem to go on forever ("Younk Funk," "Look-Ka PyPy") and originals that do nothing but encourage a swift reach for the "stop" button ("Pleasant Gardens"). The one piece out of the disc's twelve that provokes even a slight "wow" is the last one, "Deltaraga," a simmering acoustic solo that blends country blues with East Indian tones. This short ditty rolls, whereas the rest of the CD just gathers moss.
Bigger Than America
The Eighties revival is hitting its stride in one nostalgia flick after another, but that doesn't mean this band should expect its comeback to be a hit; even Total Coelo has a better shot than does Heaven 17. After all, yuppiedom was barely a media trend when these synth-poppers began critiquing the cycles of working, partying and loving that was then beginning to engulf upwardly mobiles in the U.S. and Great Britain. Yet just about everything Martyn Ware, Ian Craig Marsh and vocalist Glenn Gregory had to say in their 1983 prime remains applicable to today's white-collars-with-the-blues types.
Back in the day, I caught up with the group's politics only after much selfish enjoyment of its music; the tunes and arrangements appealed to me in ways that those by the Human League, Duran Duran and Depeche Mode did not. But even though the performers' songwriting has smoothed out since then, their current electronica benefits from its heritage. "Unreal Everything" is the likeliest story here, but "Designing Heaven," which imagines a future filled with free time in every sense of the term, seems closer to Gregory's soul. Do Dave Gahan and Simon LeBon have such dreams? No, because neither of them were ever post-Marxists.
Pay the Piper
Israel Vibration first gained fame in the Seventies as Bob Marley's favorite band. Twenty years later, Cecil "Skelly" Spence and Lascelle "Wiss" Bulgin--two-thirds of what was once a trio--have earned a more timely honorific: They're simply the best roots-reggae group making music today. While many of their peers have slid comfortably into roles as elder statesmen, dutifully performing their old hits on summer festival tours, the men of Vibration have issued compelling albums on an almost annual basis--and they show no sign of stopping.
On the surface, Pay the Piper stands out mainly because longtime member Albert "Apple" Craig did not participate in it. But the group has traditionally rotated lead singing duties, and Spence and Bulgin prove more than capable of picking up the slack. In the end, Craig's absence is hardly noticeable on an album marked by tight, intricate arrangements, delicate call-and-response harmonies and general high quality. "Systematic Fraud" and "Pop Off" are two of the more nuanced offerings, boasting trippy melodica riffs and vivid horn play, respectively, but the disc as a whole exhibits a firm Rastafarian grounding and an uplifting musical spirit that's channeled through Bulgin's spooky, plaintive wails and Spence's sharp clarion shouts. Although the original threesome created some of the most distinctive sounds heard during reggae's golden era, Israel Vibration's present incarnation more than measures up.
The Aluminum Group
A swirling concoction of pop savvy and romantic sensibilities, Plano firmly establishes the Aluminum Group, an outfit led by songwriter/ vocalists Frank and John Navin, as a member in good standing of the new gay pop mafia associated with Stephin Merritt, Neutral Milk Hotel and Imperial Teen. It also helps Minty Fresh live up to its name.
On the disc, "Chocolates" and "Angel on a Trampoline" exhibit a Style Council-like ease, "Sugar & Promises" mixes simple drum programming with a pleasant string arrangement, and "A Boy in Love" achieves electro-acoustic perfection capable of causing any twelve-year-old girl hip enough to track it down to swoon. A few of the tunes aren't quite as ideal: Nods to the queer market such as "The Mattachine Society" and "Sad Gay Life" are marred by morose lyrical navel-gazing. But firm bass vocals and conspicuous intelligence make the package a must for lovers, as well as for any music fan who's always felt that extended guitar solos are a breach of decorum.