When songs become necessities
port in a storm
hammers home the notion that we're all in this together like a national
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.
& 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.
& 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
"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.
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
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
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.
Lynne: Suit Yourself
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 ..."
Fulks: Georgia Hard
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'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.