Utne Reader Music Reviews: July-August 2009

Feeling Burkina Faso
by Hermas Zopoula (Asthmatic Kitty)

The tiny, landlocked country of Burkina Faso isn’t known for its music, or for anything, really, even though its most famous leader, Thomas Sankara (“the Che Guevara of Africa”), was a keen guitar player.

That may be changing as Burkinabé artists struggle to move out of the shadows of Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, and Senegal. A few years ago, the ministry of culture started mandating that local music be shown on TV, and now the scene in the capital, Ouagadougou, is booming. Suddenly, artists like former moped mechanic and Internet café owner Hermas Zopoula are finding themselves on the international stage. Zopoula’s new album, Espoir (Hope), is being put out by Asthmatic Kitty, which normally traffics in indie acts like Cryptacize, My Brightest Diamond, and Sufjan Stevens.

Zopoula brings a whole new musical world to the label with this two-CD set, featuring studio versions on one disc and live demos on the other. The studio songs are luminous and lively, showing the influence of soukous legends Pepe Kalle and Sam Mangwana, with uptempo beats that would find a good home in any African discotheque.

Perhaps more interesting are the live demos, which have a lighter, airier feel. These tracks are a little ragged, with laughing and talking and even rain falling in the background, but the melodies are sunny and warm, with occasional touches of melancholy: sounds you might hear in an African country­side church. Overall, Espoir is a great addition to any Afropop fan’s library, and it’s evidence that where there is hope, there’s music. —Frank Bures

Muddy No More
The Bright Mississippi
by Allen Toussaint (Nonesuch)

The songs on The Bright Mississippi are New Orleans-style classics made famous in an earlier era by jazz titans like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Sidney Bechet. These performances, by New Orleans pianist-composer Allen Toussaint and a band of sharp contemporary jazzbos, are purely in the here and now, treating the songs as breathing organisms rather than museum pieces. Hearing Toussaint and fellow pianist Brad Mehldau bounce and glide off each other in “Winin’ Boy Blues,” or listening to Don Byron’s clarinet pick up where Bechet’s left off on “Egyptian Fantasy,” it’s easy to get swept up and carried away by this deep, wide river of song. —Keith Goetzman

Mining Millay
Songs for Edna
by Caroline Weeks (Manimal Vinyl)

At first blush, an entire album of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poems set to music might seem contrived, but Caroline Weeks manages to sound neither precious nor forced, marrying the poet’s heady verse to spare, hypnotic acoustic guitar. Despite the stripped-down instrumentation, the results are sensuous, not spartan. Like the music of her erstwhile bandmate Natasha Khan (Bat for Lashes) and the reigning queen of neu-folk, Joanna Newsom, Weeks’ compositions are on the appealing side of weird, and her ethereal, witchy voice breathes new life into the poet’s words. Millay was famous for her free-spirited, bohemian lifestyle; she’s earned an acolyte and aesthetic heir in Weeks, whose songs reveal a similarly playful, mischievous temperament. —Jake Mohan

Wichita Soul Men
Eccentric Soul: Smart’s Palace
by various artists (Numero Group)

Smart’s Palace was the beating heart of the Wichita, Kansas, soul scene of the ’60s and ’70s. Giants like Aretha Franklin and James Brown would pass through the club, but the warm blood of the place was a cadre of horn-blowing brothers called the Smarts, who conformed to the soul orthodoxies of the era on record, but never on stage. Leroy “Iron Jaw” Smart would jump onto the dance floor into the splits, grab audience members by their belts with his teeth and spin them around. A roster of vibrant and quirky groups grew up around the brothers and their palace, and Smart’s Palace is a spirited document of this largely forgotten scene. —Jeff Severns Guntzel

Utne Reader Approved:

Samantha Crain’s dusky voice, impressionistic lyrics, and indie-edged Americana form the solid foundation of Songs in the Night (Ramseur), where she and her Midnight Shivers explore dark spaces with open hearts.

Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey gave the dBs sun-kissed harmonies way back in the 1980s. Here and Now (Bar None) finds them together again, mining pop history and their own hook-laden brains for pure pop delights.

Dan Deacon’s reputation as an electro-pop torchbearer rests on his euphoric performances. That ends with Bromst (Carpark), a pulsing, popping, and searing collection of songs that are accessible against all odds.

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