CD Reviews: September 2010

Ray LaMontagne
God Willin’ & The Creek Don’t Rise
RCA/Red; 2010

If you’re like me, “Trouble” was your first introduction to Ray LaMontagne. It’s a revelatory song from his sophomore album of the same name, one that lolls comfortably in the past while trudging determinedly toward the future of folk. If LaMontagne’s voice, which falls somewhere between Levon Helm and Sam Cooke, wasn’t arresting enough, his thoughtful, poetic lyrics backed up many critics’ claims that here at last was the man to take Americana to the next level. In light of that heavy load of expectations, you’d be forgiven for finding his third album, Gossip in the Grain, something of a disappointment. All the ingredients were there, but the soul seemed too forced at times, the result perhaps of fulfilling some pesky contractual obligations. So consider his latest, then, God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise a kind of make-up gift, a return to the promise of LaMontagne’s humble beginnings. Backed by the Pariah Dogs — guitarists Eric Heywood and Greg Leisz, bassist Jennifer Condos, and drummer Jay Bellerose — LaMontagne can be found settling into a welcome comfort zone. This is the first time he’s worked closely with a backing band (they’ve been touring with him for some time), and their contributions lend these fantastic songs deeper, more heartfelt texture. Witness the magic on opening shuffler “Repo Man” and the tearful “This Love Is Over.” Expect more great things from this national treasure, but in the meantime, lose yourself in one of the best albums of the year. — P. Thorpe

Various Artists
Afro-Beat Airways: West Africa Shockwaves; Ghana & Togo 1972-1978
Analog Africa; 2010

You’d figure the novelty of another album of unearthed African obscurities would have worn off by now, but the excellent Afro-Beat Airways: West Africa Shockwaves, a selection of mid-’70s tracks from Ghana and Togo, proves that this is just the tip of the iceberg. The edge of a sprawling desert might be more apt though; culled by Analog Africa head Samy Ben Redjeb from 80 CDs of more than 800 tracks he found moldering on a friend’s damp verandah, Shockwaves does a fine job of providing both a concise overview and a titillating intimation of unheard vastness. A beautiful, well-written 44-page color booklet chronicles Ben Redjeb’s serendipitous discovery and fills you in on the backgrounds of forgotten groups like K. Frimpong & His Cubano Fiestas and the Apagya Show Band. A mixture of twitchy Afrobeat, extended psychedelic freakouts, and James Brown-inspired funk, Shockwaves is so infectious and mind-blowing that one wonders how we ever lived without hearing these sounds. Since the beginning of the ’90s, scores of similar collections have piqued listeners’ interest — among them the seminal Indestructible Beat of Soweto (1990) and 2008’s African Scream Contest – but few capture the unhinged spirit of musical creativity found here. Essential tracks: “Ne Noya,” by Cos-Ber-Zam (one of two Togolese bands represented), the riotously festive “Odofo Nyi Akyiri Biara,” by Ebo Taylor & the Sweet Beans, and Uppers International’s elastic “Neriba Lanchina.” – T. Bennison

Vampire Weekend
Contra
XL; 2010

Since the release of Vampire Weekend’s 2008 debut, devoted fans have come to adore the unique mix of indie rock and Soukous (African rumba) that has become the band’s signature sound. Soukous comes from the French word “secousse,” which means “shake,” and when you’re feeling VW, you’ll do just that. As easily moving on a long car ride as on a dance floor, this band produces catchy, poppy, thought-provoking indie songs with a flair of worldly influence. Like walking through a bazaar in a foreign country, you know what to expect, but you’re never really expecting it. On their sophomore release, Contra, VW don’t disappoint. Their melodies and Congo-style beats are as optimistic and infectious as ever. Their first single, “Cousins,” is ska for a new generation, and their second, “Giving Up The Gun,” reminds me of mid-’80s dance mixed with thoughtful radio pop (think Owl City). Third single “Holiday” is an anthem to summer and youth — peppy, cute, and sugar-sweet — but to really appreciate Contra, you must move beyond what’s being pushed by their label. “Horchata” is an eclectic rumination on looking back, and while “California English” is, on the surface, about Tom’s toothpaste and private schools, more deeply, it’s a message to a sweetheart who’s moved and changed. Finally, “I Think Ur A Contra”” is easily the most lulling and beautiful song on the album, a song that to me exemplifies VW’s scope of talent: “You wanted good schools and friends with pools… But I just wanted you…” – V. Bormann

Phoenix
Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
V2; 2009

The French produce alternative dance pop music like no other. Think Daft Punk, Air, Stardust, Cassius, and of course, Phoenix. Wolfgang Amadeus is their fifth release and it’s fresh like cut lemons of cool. Seeing as how they took home a Grammy for WA in January of this year, I doubt I’m the only one who notices how timely Phoenix is. “Lisztomania” has been playing on TV shows like SNL and just about every late-night talk show on the circuit. “1901” has been on a variety of soundtracks like Alice in Wonderland, Where The Wild Things Are, and TV shows such as Cougar Town and One Tree Hill.  Following their more recent success and recognition, the band spent this summer touring for Coachella, Lollapalooza, and Bonnaroo — a clear marker that after ten years of work, they’ve truly moved beyond the “Fences” of the industry and into their own pasture of progressive popularity. Like their namesake, it’s hard to tell where the road will truly begin or end for this musical wunderbird, but judging from their 1995 start covering songs in French bars, I’d say this is the ascent they’ve been working toward. And it only takes one song, “Love Like a Sunset” to know why the sky really is the limit for this effervescent quartet. Grab a feather and get off the ground — there’s dancing to be done! – V. Bormann

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