Cuban Gold 4: !Fuego, Candela! The Smokin' '70s
The utopian balladeers of the earlier years of the Cuban revolution -- Silvio Rodriguez et al. -- became worldwide ideological icons, and they have remained enduring symbols of their place and time. Meanwhile, the funk of the same era has been mostly forgotten. Qbadisc's release of the Sixties Cuban groovefest El Mambo Me Priva earlier this year helped set the record straight. This sizzling collection of Seventies dance music, the fourth in the New York label's excellent series, updates the effort.
The Seventies was a transitional period in Cuban popular music, with dance orchestras moving from the big band son of the Fifties toward a manic-percussive, jazz-infused contemporary sound. To attract young audience members who had discovered foreign rock, Cuban bands came up with faddish new dances. On-stage, musicians wore newfangled polyester guayaberas or African prints and beads, their bell-bottoms swinging as they jived. Encouraged by the state's nationalist cultural policies (and coinciding with the international Black Power movement), popular orchestras revisited the African roots of traditional Cuban music. The driving rhythm of the album's opening track, "AY Pa' Que?" by Las Maravillas de Florida, focuses on the shimmering sound of the shekere (gourd shaker). The venerable Orquesta Aragon offers a son version of a Congolese song, "Muanga," and Ritmo Oriental salutes the conga drum and the rumba beat on "El Son de Claro." Malian musician Boncana Maiga, who went on to found the popular Afro-Cuban group Africando, leads a charanga band with African members on "Radio Mali."
The great sonero Miguelito Cuni, largely unheralded outside Cuba, is included here on two numbers that are testimony to the endurance on the island of the classic (pre-revolutionary) dance-orchestra sound. On "Congri con Chicharron" the gravel-voiced Cuni appears with the band led by legendary trumpeter Felix Chapottin, who also delivers a spine-tingling solo on another track, "Que Nos Dejan Solos." Bolero singer Elena Burke lends her cognac-soaked vocals to Orquesta Aragon's hip-swinging version of "Son al Son," by the celebrated guitarist-composer Cesar Portillo de la Luz.
!Fuego, Candela! winds up with innovations in Cuban music brought about by the arrival of the electric guitar to the island and by the experimentation of young (and not so young) musicians. Orquesta Aragon got hip to the groove with a rhythm called cha-onda, adding fire-engine sirens and reverbs to their song "?Juego De Que?" The group Reyes '73 tries a psychedelic take on son with "Baila Que Baila Mi Son". And an early song by the innovative Juan Formell and Los Van Van, "Una Vieja Tonada," features an example of the band's trademark frenzied soulful rhythm, called songo, and rock-friendly vocals.
New York Latin music guru Harry Sepulveda compiled the CD, rescuing these nineteen tracks from obscurity in the vaults of Egrem, the Cuban state recording company. With so many multinational labels rifling through the Egrem archives these days and releasing slapdash compilations of Cuban oldies, it's a joy when someone does it right. As both a historical treasure and a party album, !Fuego, Candela! is hot stuff indeed.
-- Judy Cantor
The Holdover is more like it. Ex-Guns N' Roses axman Gilby Clarke does everything you're not supposed to do in this press-driven notion of postrock America. He uses the dreaded "r 'n' r" words in a song title ("It's Good Enough for Rock 'n' Roll"). He covers already overexposed classic-rock nuggets such as "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" and "Hang on to Yourself." He writes his own faux-Ziggy rock-star anthems like "Mickey Marmalade" and "Captain Chaos."
Guilty on all charges, Your Honor, but somehow you just can't bring yourself to send this likable journeyman rocker down to the cooler. Why? Because Clarke's fervent belief in the therapeutic powers of rock and the roll makes even its most dog-eared cliches seem somewhat endearing, das why! You wouldn't make fun of someone for believing there's some old bearded man in the sky playing interplanetary chess with our lives, and dagnabbit, you shouldn't knock Clarke's religion either! Sure, you can probably up your cool quotient by digging the latest electronic brain truss, but to a kid practicing mirror moves, two turntables and a microphone can't quite match the cool of a guy wresting emotion from a silvertop Les Paul. And as this album proves, this obsolete man can play. The Hangover may be old hat, but at least it won't hurt your head.
-- Serene Dominic
The very idea of Bjork is so appealing that you can feel like Ebenezer Scrooge for even hinting that her music is somehow deficient. In an industry never short of calculating frauds, she is an absolute original: someone who can intuitively merge a child's sense of wonder with a feminist rage and express everything in the unfiltered vernacular of a warped surrealist. And her voice is an unfettered, exotic instrument that's instantly recognizable but impossible to imitate.
Why is it, then, that her albums tend to be such ponderous affairs? Maybe the very elements that make Bjsrk such a fresh presence in small doses -- her free-spirited lack of commitment to structure, for example -- grow wearisome over a whole album. She spends too much time aimlessly scurrying around the harmonic equator, and her static-electronic backing tracks sound like they were scooped up from Kate Bush's cutting-room floor.
Bjork's previous solo albums were at least good for a few striking singles ("Human Behavior," "Army of Me," the big-band cover "It's Oh So Quiet") that resulted in otherworldly, indelibly lavish videos. The depressing thing about Homogenic is that even the "good" moments aren't quite as happening as they've been before. The lush "Bachelorette" is a nice showcase for Bjork's vocal melodrama, and "Hunter" neatly makes its case for her emotional wanderlust: "Thought I could organize freedom/How Scandinavian of me." But the overall shortage of inspiration on this album is enough to make you wonder if Bjork shouldn't try tracking down some of those long-lost Sugarcube phone numbers.
-- Gilbert Garcia
The Bacon Brothers
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In keeping with the game of musical chairs that many popular artists play with their careers, actor Kevin Bacon has teamed up with songwriting brother Michael, bassist Paul Guzzone, and percussionist Marshall Rosenberg to form an acoustic ensemble. Please, folks, stop laughing. While Forosoco is hardly a masterpiece, it is not the work of a hack trying to use his Hollywood cachet for an easy ride in the music biz. The songs, which favor guitars in a sparse, bongo-drummed version of pop, range from Donny Osmond-style bubble gum to haunting ballads about the art of leave-taking.
The opening riff of "Old Guitars" is pure and deliberate corn, an appropriate intro to a song that tries to celebrate pop stardom but soon collapses under the weight of trite similes. "Hearts can break just like a string"? Sheesh. Give them credit, though; these scrappy Bacons make a dazzling recovery with "Grey-Green Eyes," which sounds like vintage Marshall Crenshaw. "California's brighter than a paparazzi flash/Sentimental like a fake eyelash," begins this well-wrought song about happy accidents. Falsetto harmonies join wah-wah guitar and Mersey-beat drums in a chorus that itself sounds like a happy accident.
The nostalgia anthem "Boys in Bars" features splashy guitar work and guest vocals from rocker-turned-actor Jon Bon Jovi (leading to the distinct possibility that we can expect a Kevin cameo in the next Bon Jovi film project.) But songs such as "Memorize," which offers plaintive wisdom in the James Taylor vein, and "Adirondack Blue," with its chilling cello interlude, make it impossible to write off the Bacon Brothers. When you run across Forosoco in the stores this Christmas, don't wince. It's a far more enjoyable record that you might suspect.
-- Victor Cruz