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Di Naye Kapelye, A Mazeldiker Yid (A Lucky Jew)

From the first happy, high-energy clarinet notes (Jack Falk playing), you can tell what a kick this is going to be. Sure enough, this delightful second album by nouveau-klezmer group Di Naye Kapelye delivers the goods. I defy any grouch to listen to Bob Cohen's swinging violin on "Yom ha-Shabbes" (track 4) and stay grouchy.

The musicianship is consistently wonderful. Christine Crowder's accordion mesmerizes on a haunting Yiddish tune called "Doomed" (track 10); it's just as good when she's backing Bob Cohen as he plays a delicate melody on the cimbalom for "Jewish Hora" (track 16). And, though it's not my cup of tea for casual listening, Jack Falk turns in a virtuoso vocals on the mystic Hasidic "Yearning Tune" (track 13). As a special treat for this album, their lineup is enhanced by guest appearances from Mihaly Sipos and Peter Eri of Muzsikas.

These folks choose interesting material and approach it with imaginative and playful intelligence. For sheer drama, you can't beat "The Bosnian Nign" (track 18) -- Astor Piazzolla could have done this as a tango (I'd love to hear that). And they actually tell you all about what they're doing with (imagine this if you can) informative liner notes. Not that they're adequate; I found myself wishing for the lyrics to the title song, A Mazeldiker Yid -- a marvel of brazen humor that had me gasping.

Sometimes they get a bit too serious for me -- I'm not a fan of spoken introductions as a rule, shut up and get to the music, I sit there thinking -- and this one's no exception. But enough quibbling. This album is a gem. Anyone with the slightest interest in klezmer or the music of eastern Europe will have a rollicking good time.


David Byrne, Look Into the Eyeball

The first time I played this album, I was washing the dishes after the second-to-last dinner in the house I'd lived in for over twenty years. I could hardly pay attention to anything that wasn't swaddled in newspaper, cardboard, and packing tape. Even so, I looked up and thought to myself, "Someday, when I can absorb this, I'm going to love it."

It took a lot longer than I thought it would. Some of that is due to numerous distractions, but much is due to the sheer density of this music. Ever since the big white suit, David Byrne has been music's Idea Man; on this album, he exceeds himself in ideas per millisecond. Take, for example, the dissonant gongs, edgy percussion, and minor-key vocals that start "Broken Things" (track 5):

    There are broken things in my house.     There are broken things in my house.     Some are twisted, some are cracked,     some been bended till they snapped.

—before modulating into the triumphant:

    I am fixing broken things, well,     I am fixing broken things, well,     everyone could use some help.     Will you help me fix myself?

This artist does not stand still. Ever since earliest Talking Heads, Byrne has always written intelligent lyrics; he's since developed the knack of melodies that surprise and gratify every ten seconds. In Look Into the Eyeball, he's got the two reinforcing each other like nobody since Elvis Costello at his best. The sweet dreamy violin that introduces "The Revolution" (track 2) is the aural equivalent of Manet's "Olympia." Seconds later:

    Beauty rests on mattress springs     wearing just her underthings,     and when she wakes,     the revolution's here.

And he's obviously been listening to everyone from Philip Glass -- hear the chords repeating their sadness, setting the mood for "The Accident" (track 6) -- to Cafe Tacuba -- as the Latino techno number "Desconocido Soy" (track 7) demonstrates.

Now that I can finally sit down and listen, I see what I mean.


Don Air, Carpenter's Delight

The problem with making music for people on ecstasy is that almost anything that keeps 'em dancing keeps 'em ecstatic. Rave, trance, techno, dance -- whatever you call it, it doesn't have the most critical of audiences. So I was rummaging in the store's basement dance section for Don Air with qualified hope. I'd heard "Kiss Me" (track 10), his humorous, inventive, and fun cover of "Besame Mucho," so I knew this was worth a shot. But without a wonderful old Latin standard to lean on, would his own material have more to offer than some hypnotic lines and a danceable beat?

No fear. Humor permeates Carpenter's Delight; so does inventiveness, and this fellow knows a lot about melody, too. Indeed, Don Air seems to combine the iconoclasm of Zappa with the anarchic humor of The Residents and the beat of almost any competent dance band. Though it's not the soulless, relentless, machinelike beat so often heard from that sector. Instead, "Bye Bye" (track 1) or "Joy Dub" (track 2) rollick along like happy hippos.

Being no longer practically inevitable, the sound of a needle scratching on vinyl is now just one more color to use; it starts off "Desert Dancer" (track 3), which soon morphs into cowboy music, with vocals reminiscent of The Residents or Snakefinger. Then guitars come in to do what they do so well -- tell a melody like a story, one clear sweet note after another.

Throughout these tracks, the baton passes from one instrument to another, from synthesizers to horns to a plaintive flute and even cartoonlike sound effects, weaving each melody from many disparate elements. "Do It Again" (track 7) is a witty and irresistible take on a familiar teenage theme wherein everything -- the distant, degraded voice; the fuzzy bass; the laid-back, dead-on beat -- combines to make the perfect whole. This artist knows exactly what he's doing, and he's having a lot of fun doing it.


Orchestre National de Barbes, Poulina

I first ran into this group on a delightful Earthworks / Stern's Music compilation called Tea in Marrakech which featured the title song "Poulina." Delighted, I searched for the album, which the liner notes assured me existed. No luck. They next appeared on a truly excellent double compilation called Flying Carpets (which I wholeheartedly recommend as having some of the most exquisite contemporary Arab music to be found on any recording). There, they play a nine-and-a-half minute tour de force entitled "Alaoui," which unfortunately is not on the album Poulina, being more recent. It is, anyway, a stunner -- three minutes into the track, when most groups are winding down, they're still introducing new elements and cranking up the excitement. It blew me away. When I found Poulina (in the unlikeliest place, but that's another story), I jumped on it.

Orchestre National de Barbes is a dozen guys, Arabic and French, playing a wide variety of instruments, Arabic and Western. Their high-energy, creative music clearly starts with its heart in rai, but explores rock, reggae, jazz, shaabee, and various other genres, Arabic and other. It's safe to say that these guys are not particularly interested in limits; twelve musicians playing a score of instruments were not, apparently, enough, as they invited another nine to join them here and there.

And they feel the same way about time: they expect their listeners to have an attention span beyond the confines of the typical rock song. The album begins with over a minute of slow, intricate introduction to the title track ("Poulina Intro," track 1, and "Poulina," track 2). A typical song starts with Arabic instruments and harmonies and lays down such a groove that, when the Western harmonies appear several minutes later (maybe along with a saxophone), it hits like a sugar rush. The excitement on this album is palpable; I can barely imagine what it would be like to hear them live.


daau, life transmission

In the waning millennium, daau knocked my socks off with an album called we need new animals. Last year, while I was, alas, too busy to notice, they released another knockout: life transmission, music so rich, intricate, and absorbing, it leaves me breathless.

Try as you might, you can never guess what's coming next. It could be anything, sweet symphonic interlude or scratchy old boogie-woogie. Yet when it comes, each note sounds inevitable; it could have been no other way. Thus whipped into a state of unusual attentiveness, your ear never stops trying to grab for the next sound, and the next, and the next --

Guess what? Rapping can sound melodious when backed with Buni Lenski's tuneful violin and Simon Lenski's cello like dark honey; listen to "Mary Go Round (track 3), featuring Ya Kid K. And once again, Angelique Willkie of Zap Mama contributes her miraculous levitating vocals, on "Piano Dub" (track 7).

By the way, daau is apparently an abbreviation of die anarchistische abendunterhaltung, which Babelfish assures me means "anarchistic evening maintenance." Hmmm. These folks are doing much more than maintenance. This album is chock full of thrilling new developments.


miscellaneous marvelous miscellanies

Lately, I've really been enjoying not one, not two, no, nor even three, but four fabulous miscellanies. Two feature mostly Arab music, and two are Rough Guides courtesy of the very clever folks at the World Music Network.

Arabesque Zoudge 2 showcases a few well-known performers such as Natacha Atlas and Jah Wobble, but more are relatively obscure musicians such as dZihan and Kamien, or the stunning Omar Faruk Tekbilek. All the more delightful that these sixteen tracks are impressively packed with hits.

Flying Carpets is another compilation from the stunningly prolific producer Claude Challe, who lately seems to have become ubiquitous. If these two discs were weather, they'd be a squally day, lots of rain -- sometimes hard, sometimes soft -- frequent blustery winds, and intermittent sunshine. Among 25 tracks are a few of his usual indulgences, but mostly interesting choices -- long and intricate, full of changing moods. Try the traditional, brooding Lili Boniche (track 4) on CD 1 and the techno Stoppa & Nobby (track 12) on CD 2.

Rough Guide to Bollywood is another solid gold collection. DJ Ritu , who made the selections, is exactly the sort of guide you hope for, someone who shares your enthusiasms, but who is a lot more knowledgeable. Her choice of the hyperventilating, delicious "Piya Tu Ab to Aaja" (track 3) would have been mine; but what did I know of the effortless vocal levitations of Chitra? And what girl-group ever matched the opening vocals of "Kehna Hi Kya" (track 11)? Of course, if you want melodrama, you can have all you want -- excess is part of the fun; just try "Didi Tera Devar Deewana" (track 12) by Lata Mangeshkar and S P Balasubhramaniam.

I bought Rough Guide to Paris Cafe Music thinking it would be nice to listen to at dinner -- Edith Piaf crooning gentle ballads, that sort of thing. Well, she is on here, but it's not that sort of thing at all, and I hated it when I tried to hear it that way. Instead, it's a fascinating and satisfyingly deep exploration of the roots of bal musette, the accordion-based music so intimately associated with Paris that it plays in the background of all cheesy montages showing the Seine, the Eiffel Tower, and the protagonists in love. Its roots blend the musics of two groups of migrant workers: those from Auvergne, who brought smallpipes, and those from Italy, who brought accordions. The disc features selections from early artists such as Emile Vacher, transitional ones such as Jo Privat and Francis Lemarque, and practitioners of contemporary rock-musette such as Les Hurlements d'Leo and Les Primitifs du Futur. (By the way, that atrociously American-accented French you hear at the beginning of "portrait d'un 78 tard" ("portrait of a 78 enthusiast," track 5) belongs to the cartoonist R. Crumb, who apparently plays mandolin and banjo for the group. Golly.) Edith Piaf is even on here, singing a song called "L'Accordeoniste." What can I say? This CD is all wonderful.