By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By RFT Music
By Christian Schaeffer
By Gabriel San Roman
Fiction Romance Fast Machines
(Smells Like Records)
Only 23 minutes and 19 seconds. Ah, but what a sweet 23 minutes and 19 seconds it is! The Rondelles' Fiction Romance Fast Machines (Smells Like Records) is a short but immensely satisfying romp. Their "Sleater-Kinney meets the Shangri-Las" tunes are a curious mixture of anthemic rock & roll and bubble-gum pop featuring aggressive players who, though lacking the anger of their riot-grrrl and punk heros, infuse their songs with plinky New Wave keyboards and delectable harmonies.
The Albuquerque, N.M., natives are still in their teens: They're fresh-faced, fun-loving kids, which is what makes Fiction such a wild ride. Young 'uns, free from restraint, don't have to bother with health insurance, major disappointments in life or five-year relationships that turn to shit. Instead, they can sing gloriously about boys, boys, boys and be, at least for now, carefree. Sigh.
The "boys" include Slim, "the rebel guy from the other side," in the catchy lo-fi mania of "He's Outta Sight"; Johnny from "Drag Strip Race"; and the supercute, intellectual object of desire of "Mission Irresistible." The lyrics aren't inane but smart and clever; they don't meditate on the meaning of life or on humanity's place within the universe, but their words are entirely appropriate to chugging power chords and good-girl/bad-girl vocals. There's nothing wrong, and everything right, with singing about milkshakes.
This brings us to an obvious comparison with another teen band that likes boys. If California's the Donnas listened to more indie rock and less Kiss, they would sound like the Rondelles. The latter band is less stylish but more pure: They are a truly modern version of the garage-rock band.
The Rondelles' simple yet incredibly engaging sugar rush is practically over before it begins. But there is virtue in its quickness. Too many cookies can make you sick. And the Rondelles won't make you sick.
Gershwin's World (Verve)
1998, the centennial of George Gershwin's birth, brought forth gobs of material related to the great composer: lots of songbooks, both freshly recorded and reissued; some interesting archival material; and takes by many jazzmen, the music folk who more than anyone have played his songs for the last 70 years.
One of the last of the batch is by an acknowledged titan, pianist Herbie Hancock. With a high-powered cast accompanying him, he should have turned in a masterpiece instead of this bewildering disappointment. Hancock had a good idea: record some Gershwin tunes but also material by contemporaries who shared some of his compositional terrain (Duke Ellington, W.C. Handy, James P. Johnson, Maurice Ravel) to put him in context.
Unfortunately, the guest stars frequently sabotage the party. Hancock's duet with pianist Chick Corea on Johnson's "Blueberry Rhyme" is an inchoate mess; Joni Mitchell drains much of the energy from the overdone "Summertime"; and Kathleen Battle's vocalese on "Prelude in C# Minor" gets annoying after a while. Even Hancock missteps: The pellucid balance of Ravel's piano concerto is pointlessly obliterated by his frantic improvisations. Only Stevie Wonder shines here, with a soulful, fresh take on Handy's "St. Louis Blues."
I applaud musicians who try to update older masters as Hancock does here, but perhaps he should have stayed a little closer to the source material. For a beautiful example of a great musician contemporizing an older style with taste and musicality, check out Dave Grusin's l991 GRP release The Gershwin Connection.
African music is rarely presented on disc true to its roots, as diverse and largely informal improvisations on familiar local forms. We usually encounter it through commercial recordings, where the music has been staged and arranged; when we do get field recordings, they often appear through the scholar's tight focus, and therefore lack diversity.
The Arthur S. Alberts Collection: More Tribal, Folk, and Cafe Music of West Africa is a loose, varied and expansive batch of vintage field recordings. Listening to it conjures the feeling of passing through a series of African communities where music is being made informally with great skill, passion and playfulness. In that sense, it is an accurate representation of the journey from which these recordings emerged, a 4,000-mile trek through West Africa Alberts and his wife made by jeep in 1949. In their travels, for example, they encountered Mano men cutting stone for a new building; the workers took a break from their labors to sing for Alberts' microphone, striking their hammers and chisels for percussive accompaniment.
Like most of the people he recorded, Alberts was a musical amateur, though a selection of his recordings was released on 78 and LP in the 1950s (hence the word "more" in the title of this collection). So if his notes are stunted (we get, for instance, no English translations of the words sung in local dialects), his ears are fresh and open, and his approach seems to have been easy on the musicians, who sound unanimously liberated and at peace in performance, none more than the Congolese people we hear making a percussive symphony by slapping the surface of water.
Alberts recorded drummers from many communities and informal, polyphonic choruses singing in many tongues. These are signature sounds of African music, but perhaps more charming are the more Westernized ensembles. "All for You" is stripped-down high-life from Liberia with gruesomely comic lyrics -- "You took the razor, cut my throat/All for you" -- one could hear as a tortured feminist statement. And the acoustic rumba recorded in the Congo offers an irresistible snippet of village soukous: This is the music that shook the disco, unplugged and backstage, loping along as if there were no tomorrow.
-- Chris King