I think I can save George Lucas some pain when scoring his next Star Wars installment. Instead of continuing his steady diet of John Williams, he should look to Tuvan folk rockers Yat-Kha. For example, scenes of Darth Vader assembling his first legion of stormtroopers could be accompanied by "Keerginchik" from Yat-Kha's first American release, Dalai Beldiri. Set to a slow marching tempo with crunching, full-body-armor percussion, this cut from the Siberian steppe posits the heroic, operatic voice of new member Aldyn-ool Sevek against the bloodcurdling, otherworldly subwoofer rumblings of group founder Albert Kuvezin, who emits alienlike growls. Bolstering this rousing anthem's unlikely pairing of Dudley Do-Right bravado and Genghis Khan ferocity are khomuz jaw harp boings that echo eerily against the metal halls of Lord Vader's ship. Talk about atmosphere.
Dalai Beldiri moves Tuvan throat singing from the folkie genre to bona fide pop status via amplified local instruments, plus unexpectedly well-assimilated electric bass and guitar. Apart from what may be a synthesizer howl at the tail end of "Kazhan Toren Karam Bolur," the spirit here hugs the early days of rock (when the sheer novelty of plugging in hatched new ways of making music), and rejects the recycled numbness at the frozen heart of modern sample-based formats. Although definitely not the stuff of dance-floor cantering, Zhenya Tkachov's deep percussion sets the perfect high-step tempo for herding mares or staring at a flat horizon. In place of a drum solo we get the opus "Opei Khoomei," on which an a cappella Sevek demonstrates nearly every imaginable permutation of throat singing and attendant harmonics. The one form he leaves out, everyone's favorite high-whistling sygyt, shoots like an arrow through disc opener "Kaldak-Khamar" against Ponderosa ranch rhythms, Alexei Saaia's morin-huur fiddle, and a Tuvan banjo.
This disc is so utterly surprising, so unlike any combination of sounds I've heard before, I don't know whether to laugh, cry, or hit the skip button as a metallic electric guitar riff built around a Siberian folk motif on "Khemchin" underpins bass profundo Kuvezin while he scours his jaw through a gravel pit. The singer's most audacious moment is certainly "Charash Karaa." Gentle guitar arpeggios, so quiet you can hear fingers squeaking across the frets, set the romantic mood for the Tuvan vocalist's almost froglike tender croaking. Think of a Tibetan monk crooning Bacharach at a karaoke bar in Kabul, and you come within spitting distance of this wonderful and oddly touching slab of sheer testosterone. When Lucas's new epic bangs its lens filter against the moons of Pelucidar, this is the music I hope to hear. -- Bob Tarte
Sure Shot Redemption
Black Sheep's 1990 debut A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing was the last hurrah for the Native Tongues alliance (De La Soul, Jungle Brothers, and A Tribe Called Quest being the most prominent members of this group) and the clever, intellectualized, nonghettocentric subset of hip-hop it championed. Black Sheep's rappers Dres and Mr. Lawnge (best remembered for their hit "The Choice Is Yours," with its rousing "engine engine number nine" interlude) seemed poised to become one of the most promising rap acts of the early '90s. Instead Death Row, Loud, and Bad Boy (could Dickens have named those three better?) bum-rushed the show, rendering Native Tongues' jazz ethos and college-radio appeal about as current as an Apple II.
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Accordingly Black Sheep's followup seemed so out of context it was almost impossible to take seriously amid all the braggadocio of hip-hop's mid-'90s phase. The group's record label, Mercury, apparently saw it that way as well: After the second Black Sheep album (1994's Non Fiction) disappeared without a trace, Dres lost an executive-producer deal he'd signed with the label back in Black Sheep's glory days.
Five years later Sure Shot Redemption finds Dres wisely keying in on the emerging underground scene. Less focused on immediate gratification than platinum-selling playas and hustlas tend to be, underground rappers are hip-hop's think tank. Their mixture of traditionalism (emphasizing mike and DJ skills) and future focus (building a mass audience slowly, though a network of radio shows, mom 'n' pop stores and indie labels) is perfect for an under-30 has-been like Dres. With his own label, Ground Control, distributed by Nu Gruv (which also handles Kool Keith's, Aceyalone's and DJ Shadow's labels), Dres comes off less like a bandwagon-jumper than a convert.
His fervency proves well suited to the cadences of the underground, too. On lead cut "Pardon Me," featuring a cleverly appropriate Busta Rhymes loop ("Pardon me ... as I come back!"), the former Black Sheep sounds modern without trying too hard. He must have kept up, privately, all along, because the long lines and jagged rhyme schemes of post-Wu-Tang emceeing isn't something a pre-Wu stylist can just pick up. His production also demonstrates an elevated game, as the strutting "Damn Right" scoops up and, amid a volley of well-placed horn stabs, slam-dunks the loose ball of Dres's call-it-a-comeback gambit home.
On slower songs like "As I Look Back" and "Hi & Lo," Dres unveils the wise man that always seemed nascent in Black Sheep's wiseass tone. His industry experience and unforced poetry make for some interesting insights and opinions. But unfortunately, while rapping slowly over ghostly sax samples and gently swinging beats, Dres loses his ability to concoct the meandering, nonrepeating vocal melody lines of his upbeat raps. Lyrical profundity is wasted in dated, singsong verses, where a listener's ability to easily predict the mike tune makes Dres's words sound trite. Fortunately the album's finale, "Straight Paper" rekindles the spark of up-from-under inspiration, finding Dres proudly aligned with the underground artists who are young enough to be this veteran's younger brothers. -- Adam Heimlich