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When songs become necessities
Any port in a storm
by Mark Anderson

othing hammers home the notion that we're all in this together like a national calamity.

There's no forgetting the big one four years back. I still marvel at its jittery aftermath and how, during my daily jogs through the neighborhood or on walks to the store, strangers of every stripe would lock eyes for a second and say hello.

Amadou & Mariam: The non-U.S. version of Dimanche a Bamako became a bestseller in many parts of the world in 2004.

It lasted maybe a month.

Then it was back inside our shells with money to make, possessions to gather and jockeying to get ahead.

But Katrina and her weaker sister Rita seem different. For starters, it appears ever more obvious that the world will long be cleaning up after the stubborn little boy we made president.

Still, maybe we can learn that life goes beyond all the money and the power and the stuff. And that it's up to each other to offer whatever comfort we can. A port in the storm. That helping hand. Necessities we can carry.

Fortunately, with today's technology almost anyone can carry a tune. In that vein and for when songs become necessities, here's a handful of titles with plenty of possibilities for loading up your iPod or your poor-man's portable as we all pass across this crazy planet we call home.

Amadou & Mariam: The U.S. version of Dimanche A Bamako came out in August.

Amadou & Mariam
Long known around much of the globe as "the blind couple from Mali," Amadou & Mariam have been singing together since the '70s, although he's barely past 50 and she's only 47.

Their latest disc, Dimanche A Bamako, is immediately likeable, totally modern, amazingly fresh and the songs don't all sound alike.

"La Réalité" comes off like a dancefloor smash and "Camions Sauvages" offers an exotic kind of cockeyed vibe that the too-cool-for-the-mainstream crowd seems to crave. But there's not a bad song in the bunch and the album turns world music into a joyous global village.

Amadou is a rocking guitarist and his voice is salt to Mariam's pepper. And, with a big sonic assist from the quirky world-pop impresario Manu Chao, Dimanche A Bamako has the would-be makings of a very popular album (in many countries it already is) – even if most of the songs aren't sung in English. Don't let that stop you, though. This is one of the year's best discs.

Sons And Daughters: The Repulsion Box

Sons And Daughters
Amazing acts keep coming out of Scotland and the edgy pseudo-folksinging foursome called Sons And Daughters has eked out an interesting place among them.

The band, two women and two men, was formed as a Scottish splinter supergroup of sorts (Arab Strap, March of Dimes).

A seven-song 2003 EP, Love the Cup, is a paean aimed in the general direction of Johnny Cash, while The Repulsion Box, their first full-length, dials things up at least a notch or two.

Rousing boy-girl singing, snarling guitars, strong songs and wild abandon pull off the odd feat of sounding pretty by not trying to sound pretty at all. The first and last songs, "Medicine" and "Gone," are standouts, but there's not a thing wrong with the other energetic eight.

Shelby Lynne: Suit Yourself

Shelby Lynne
Listening to Shelby Lynne's latest is like standing in the studio when the tape starts rolling. Lynne calls out instructions to her band as the album opens on a false start. Things take off from there, though, and Suit Yourself rides a confident swing that defies Lynne's pigeonholed country label.

Lots of living comes through this latest batch of songs as the album, Lynne's ninth, tosses out a welcome mat of rootsy conviction and unbridled spontaneity.

The project's peak is "Where Am I Now," a bright mid-tempo ode to sobering self-examination. But the CD's soul is a softly expressive reading of "Rainy Night In Georgia," the 1970 Brooke Benton gem. Lynne's plaintive rendition clocks in at over seven minutes as the song's familiar phrasings wrap themselves around a succession of restrained solos, eventually offering uplift without a second wasted: "... I feel like it's raining all over the world ..."

Robbie Fulks: Georgia Hard

Robbie Fulks
I'm of two minds regarding country music: I don't care for much, yet a good song is a good song.

And there's no denying that Georgia Hard, the latest from Robbie Fulks, has plenty of good songs. Fulks is a musical sponge, soaking up personas from traditional to rockabilly to earnest to goof. One sharp number is named "Countrier Than Thou," while another details a guy so drunk he doesn't realize he's hitting on his own wife.

Fulks primarily plays the role of the bumpkin who's a lot smarter than he initially seems, attacking titles like "Goodbye Cruel Girl," "You Don't Want What I Have" and "Leave it to a Loser" with deft musicianship, clever turns of phrase and surprising, offbeat melodies. There's even a show-offy instrumental and, to Fulks' everlasting credit, when he goes over the top with the novelty songs, he does it unashamedly.

Herbie Hancock: Possibilities

Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock's new album is a soothing, star-studded affair that pushes a blend of jazz and pop disturbingly close to easy listening.

But although Possibilities is a scattershot affair, it holds up to repeated listenings, front to back. Collaborations with Paul Simon, Annie Lennox, Sting, John Mayer and several more are winners. Others, not so much. A guilty pleasure for sure, but sometimes soothing is good.

If, however, it's the only Herbie Hancock album you own, that's like shunning baseball and buying a ticket to see Pedro Martinez vacuum his living room or wash his car.

So there you have it: Five CDs culled from different parts of the planet that have little more to do with each other besides offering a few moments of solace, substance and joy in these deeply troubled times. Just keep in mind that it can't hurt to have extra batteries on hand for when the floodwaters start rising. You never know what kind of help will arrive and when.

I'm reminded of a buddy since grade school, now a doctor, and an incident from our early 20s. He got arrested for holding a beer on the sidewalk outside an overcrowded, superheated mainstreet hometown bar. The arresting officer was widely known as the tough lady cop with a chip on her shoulder in a hard-living town of 12,450. The friend was aiming for medical school and home for the summer. The incident caused his life no shortage of grief.

Some weeks later that same lady cop got ambulanced into the local hospital where my friend worked his summer job as emergency-room orderly. She came in on a gurney with a life-threatening situation and she wailed like a baby.

I had to ask. "What did you do?"

"I calmed her down," he said without irony, "and took care of her till the doctor showed up."

Any port in a storm, alright, but let's not kid ourselves. Some ports are better than others.

E-mail Mark at andersonenterprises@hotmail.com, and see more tripewriter.

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