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Various Artists
Roosevelt in Trinidad: Calypsos of Events, Places, and Personalities 1933-1939

(Rounder)

The 1930s were a tumultuous decade. The Great Depression took hold. Hitler rose to power. King Edward VII abdicated. And Atilla the Hun invaded New York City. Along with Atilla came Roaring Lion, Growling Tiger, King Radio, and a host of other calypso potentates availing themselves of topnotch recording facilities and a large West Indian audience in New York City hungry for news from home. Roosevelt in Trinidad: Calypsos of Events, Places, and Personalities 1933-1939 documents front-page stories in Trinidad, such as the deadly hurricane of 1933, the 1932 rum-fueled Port-of-Spain Government Treasury fire, and various sporting spectaculars. Equally important the Trinidadian troubadours filtered other news of the world through their wry points of view, putting a local spin on topics such as modernity, celebrity, and the American presidency.

Considering Trinidad's colonial status at the time, it follows that several songs collected here choose British royal affairs as their subject. Not as much of a given is the intimacy with American popular culture. "Bing Crosby" and "The Four Mills Brothers" garner lionizing songs from Lion, but he flips the coin the other way on "The Vendor's Song" which features a protagonist driven giddy by a Madison Avenue-style advertising jingle he can't get out of his head. But Tiger trumps Lion's obsessiveness on "Movie Stars," a dizzying Latin-flavor litany that shoehorns almost 50 Hollywood names into a three-minute ditty with a great cast but little plot. One of the few edgy pieces here is a debate between Atilla and Lion over "Modern Times," which gives Lion cause to utter, "King Solomon in all of his glory, wasn't happier than me!/Because he couldn't take a diesel truck, and travel far, he couldn't drink at the Railway Bar."

Lion's glibness points to the big plus of this collection, a command of the language so superlative it eclipses the disc's great orchestral arrangements in the cinematic tropical-music trend of the era. Calypso's mix of highfalutin language and low subjects is part of its considerable charm. "As lovely as the soft sylphs of poetic dreams" is the unlikely description of Bing Crosby's wife in Lion's paean to the crooner, and more double-entendres than a prime-time sitcom inhabit "Body Line," ostensibly about cricket technique but actually a tribute to an island gal's romantic prowess. This tune aside, Roosevelt is less pointed and bawdy than other collections, but it brims with strong melodies and hooks courtesy of the greats of calypso's golden age.

-- Bob Tarte

Joe Henry
Fuse
(Mammoth)

Joe Henry's latest album, Fuse, is a darkened diamond mine, with TNT planted well within its shadowy depths. In the resonating imagery of his words we hear the distinct sizzle of the fuse, and wait for the explosions to hit. The tremors on Henry's seventh full-length release occur in tiny bursts of "ahas" and "ohs" that tickle the equally dark recesses of our psyches. And in the open spaces of his occasionally dreamy, always shady compositions, Henry hides additional secrets.

After moving to Los Angeles from his native North Carolina, Joe Henry's music underwent an epiphany. Prior to his last album, Trampoline, Henry had developed a reputation as the bitter cousin of the rootsy No Depression y'all-ternative movement, a position cemented by the use of members of the Jayhawks as his backing band.

Henry's work now owes more to the music of Vic Chesnutt, the Mitchell Froom-produced Suzanne Vega, and early Chris Whitley (whose scratchy guitar graces the songs "Skin and Teeth" and "Like She Was a Hammer" on Fuse) than it does to Uncle Tupelo and its progeny. An even stronger influence seems to be film noir. It would be as accurate to compare this album to the movie Paris, Texas as to anything released on disc.

All of this adds up to as good a record as Henry has ever recorded. The arrangements are moody, with shuffling drums, lithium-induced bass lines, long, extended, heavily processed guitar chords, and delicate solo flourishes, but they're not drenched in despair. Rather they're laced with irony and uncertainty. And the mixing, handled mostly by ace producer T-Bone Burnett (who produced Henry's 1990 album Shuffletown), gives the music exquisite space in which to allow half-hidden and half-revealed moments of longing, hope, and doubt.

For instance on "Like She Was a Hammer," the album's most memorable tune, Henry's character barely finds in the shifting images an anchor to the woman with whom he has connected: "Like she was the railroad/Like she was the lost world/Like she was the big hand turning back the sea/Like she was the raging flower in the brickyard/Like she was the only thing holding on to me." He exhorts this while the song's rhythm seems to fall down a set of stairs.

Without resorting to autobiographical head-hanging, Joe Henry mines the emotions hidden deep within the shadows of the cave of the human heart, places them on shifting musical plates, and serves them beautifully arranged for our consumption. If we choose not to eat, it's our own damn fault.

-- Brian E. Rochlin

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