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I don't usually like stuff like this: gorgeous voice sings heartfelt ballads with intelligent ardor and indecipherable lyrics. I know that Suzanne Vega and Kate Bush are very good but they do not hit my spot. For some reason, Mimi does.

She sure doesn't do it with "pretty"; she lets you know from the first note of Soak that she feels no such obligation. Though she can do pretty just fine when she wants to, as she shows us on "Fire and Roses" (track 2), also on Luaka Bop's 10th anniversary album.

With playful intelligence and a killer melody-maker, she explores the open range between romance and metal, ground I never even knew was there. She can get a bit dreamy at times; even then, oddly, she sounds like a nervous wreck -- in fact, my kind of nervous wreck, which is why some of the lyrics are all too decipherable to me (from "The Watch," track 7):

Such a struggle to unwind and stop thinking so loud...
calm down... calm down...
so serene... so serene...

For bittersweet poignance, try "Thrilled to Pieces" (track 5):

Tomorrow is my favorite day, although it's not here yet.
Hope lies a stone's throw away, although it's not here yet.

Vox Humana and affiliated artists

unsampled is an unexpected double delight: fun, adventurous music, lyrics that rhyme "sexy" with "apoplexy." Who in these benighted times would write a song about the clash of science and religion over evolutionary theory? Vox Humana, that's who, with "Galapagos" (track 6):

Tiny vampire finches feed
On blood, and blue-foot boobies breed,
And penguins glide and seals mate,
And giant tortoises sleep and wait.
Materialism always wins the toss
Every time. Galapagos.

Followed immediately by an a capella cover of the old Ray Davies hit "Sunny Afternoon," wearing unexpectedly well after all these years. This compilation of 19 unique and idiosyncratic tracks by Vox Humana and affiliated artists covers a wide musical range: hot Afropop from Remy Laporte, edgy Residents-channeling-James Brown rhythm and blues from Professor Zoom -- his electric "1965" (track 15) is a convincing acid trip back to that incomparable era.

And from Vox Humana we can apparently expect anything from German cabaret to hey-nonny folk to the sweet love song "Mating Call" (track 13). Best of all, Johnny Human plays a darn sweet accordion, for example, on "Quango" (track 16), a lovely, offbeat tango.


obscure but wonderful

A simple list of obscure but wonderful discs -- some of this stuff may be hard to find, but I sure found these worth the trouble:

Teodoro Anzellotti and Erik Satie. untitled.1998, Winter & Winter
A brilliant Italian accordionist plays a variety of pieces by Satie, gives the austere a touch of luscious.
Aphex Twin (Richard James): Come to Daddy. 1997, Sire Records.
and I care because you do. 1995, Sire Records.
Nerd-musician does it all with electronics at raves.
Samm Bennett and Chunk. The Big Off.1993, Knitting Factory.
His cover of the Beatles' "Blue Jay Way" is brilliant. "Desert Story," the song of the guy who pumps your gas when you stop in the middle of nowhere, chills in spite of the heat.
Aaj Ki Raat,various versions
The latest Kronos Quartet recording, "Caravan," contains a stirring instrumental version of the Indian movie number "Aaj Ki Raat." It's a gorgeous song; here are two more versions with vocalists:
  • In 1990, GlobeStyle put out Golden Voices from the Silver Screen, a retrospective of Indian film music in three wonderful discs. Volume 3 contains Asha Bhosle's version, complete with racy intro -- lovestruck girl on the phone in a thunderstorm.
  • Najma covered it on Forbidden Kiss, her 1996 album on Shanachie.
Big Daddy. Cutting Their Own Groove. (1991)
Warning: comedy concept ahead. The cover shows the needle of a 50s-style record player, the kind teenagers used to play 45s, being lowered onto a CD. And the sparks do indeed fly. Each song features lyrics from an 80s hit grafted onto a tune from the 50s for the funniest musical juxtapositions I've ever heard. Mark Knopfler's witty MTV satire "Money For Nothing" gains an extra dimension when sung to the tune of Tenessee Ernie Ford's "15 Tons."
Fatal Mambo. Rumbagitation. 1996, Tinder Records
and Fatal Mambo. 1997
Exciting French band does salsa, rock, and a lot of things -- even, occasionally, a bit of mambo. Witty lyrics, if you understand French. Lots of fun, regardless.


space lullabies

Ekova is the talented trio of Deirdre DuBois-Haddab, vocalist, Arash Khalatbari, percussion, and Mehdi Haddab playing a large subset of everything else. Though both men are talented and wide-ranging multi-instrumentalists, they tend to favor the vinegar timbres of traditional Arabic instruments. Deirdre DuBois-Haddab has a strong, versatile voice that goes from country-queen sweet to priestess ethereal; she can turn on a dime, and does, but multitracking frees her from having always to counteract their vinegar with her sugar. Instead, she explores her voice as if it were an orchestra -- which, in fact, it turns out to be.

Ekova starts out with one foot in Eurythmics-style rock and the other in world music, especially (but definitely not limited to) Arab. space lullabies is their second album, and it's even better than their first, heaven's dust (reviewed last April). Spooky longing suffuses "How Sweet Mal" (track 2), "In the Kitchen" (track 5) explores musique concrete, dervish trance prevails in "The Chase" (track 9). Hypnotic percussion and a generous helping of musical imagination create a rich, complex album full of moods, surprises, and shivers of pleasure.

Tabla Beat Science
Tala Matrix
(or the other way around)

Even half-deaf with a bad head cold, you'd know in fifteen seconds that Bill Laswell was here: this "electro-acoustic hypercussion," as it aptly describes itself, has his fingerprints all over it. Here he collaborates with Zakir Hussain, Ustad Sultan Khan, Talvin Singh, Trilok Gurtu, and Karsh Kale: jazzy, infectious, and -- if you've ever liked anything he's ever done before -- not to be missed.


Gran Baile
Senor Coconut

There was this Star Trek episode wherein several crew members were accelerated until time moved so quickly for them, the others could not even perceive them. Some of this music sounds like a collaboration between people, not in different time zones, but in zones in which time flows at different rates. Carefully chosen zones, evidently, because Gran Baile is one delightful surprise after another.

Mixing technonoise and urban hip-hop rhythms with high-spirited salsa (and mambo and cha-cha and jazz and so on), Senor Coconut (who seems to be from Chile) makes smart, knowing music -- Tom Tom Club meets The Art of Noise, and a wicked hand with a tape loop along for the fun. Don't be deterred by the jangling start -- he's making a point: he doesn't have to be pleasing if he doesn't want to be. Fine -- by track 9 ("Musica Moderna," billed as a virtual samba), he's settled down into a very pleasing groove indeed. But it's the rumba funk "Diarios Clave" (track 10) that slays me with joy.

His label, I think.


Rock and roll -- melodious, energetic, suspenseful, intelligent, passionate, gripping -- music to stir you up and up and up -- I don't know anything about Dusminguet except that they sing in Spanish, they play like there's no tomorrow, and wow, would I like to hear them live!


sainkho namtchylak: stepmother city

sainkho namtchylak, a woman from Tuva, composes music that you never heard the like of, except you feel like you've been hearing it since the day you were born. And she sings -- though that simple word does not cover the things her voice can do: soar, strain, shriek, soothe, sob, slip from little girl to operatic tenor in the space of two bars. On "Tuva Blues," a meditation on her own mortality, she sings like Billie Holiday; she's the young Joan Baez on "Olde Melodie" and the LSD-crazed Nina Hagen almost everywhere, most particularly the remarkable "Order to Survive." Sweet to sour -- at the beginning of "Lonely Soul," she out-Sades Sade (okay, maybe not hard); by the end she has a vocal fit that Odd Job would envy.

Even my husband looked up from his weighty tome to comment that she certainly does stretch.

Last year she made this album in Milan with a musicians list that reads like a UN assembly. (It delights me that the same guy plays saxophone and shakuhachi.) It starts out easy -- after a gentle introduction, the second track, "Dance of Eagle," is a jazzy modern rendition of a Tuvan folk tune that will sound familiar to anyone who's ever heard Kongar Ol-Ondar's version on "Echoes of Tuva" (also the first track of Ellipsis Arts's excellent collection, "Deep in the Heart of Tuva"). For those who'd like to compare this with a truly traditional rendition, another version is also available on Shu-De's album "Voices from the Distant Steppes," (it's track 13, "Tyva-Uriankhai"). So okay, you think, this is Tuvan jazz fusion.

Don't get too relaxed. That's the last you'll hear of Tuvan folk tunes. stepmother city is a wild ride.


Badmarsh and Shri: Dancing Drums

dancing drums, by turns energizing and haunting, swallows you whole. Badmarsh and Shri, two Indian-British DJs who blend the clubs of east London with those of Bombay, have made a fluid, fearless album crammed with treats: ever-changing rhythms; delicious dissonances; lush, inevitable melodies.

The liner notes are, as is becoming usual, hopeless. They give no instruments and don't even credit the lovely woman's voice that makes "The Air I Breathe" (track 5) so mesmerizing. Instead, they speak of "the dark side of the dance floor." I don't know what they're on about; no dance floor ever held the weight of "Lament" (track 6).

That it should end with a loopy marching band.... well, that's the fearless part. These guys consider it self-evident to accompany mouth drumming with a theremin-like synthesizer. They've got me convinced, too. The amazing tabla piece that ends the album leaves you with no will for anything but to lose yourself in the groove.

In a winter hotel room I was warmed, not by the Indian sun, but by the heat of a Hackney rave.