Yulduz Usmanova

On the minus side, the self-titled first American release by Uzbekistan's pop songbird Yulduz Usmanova could have been produced by the World Trade Organization. The hungry, spinning, microtonal singing of Usmanova comes together with gritty backing vocals by South Africa's The Family Factory in a buttery blend of synthetic textures that depersonalize the intimate subject matter of her compositions. Tashkent and Jo'burg click in and out of the rich array of keyboard string samples and drumbeats as snippets of English high-five Zulu phrases and Uzbeki phonemes before flying out the door. World beat is one thing, but this casual threshing of traditional music from a pair of Third World countries in multinational studio machinery is the closest thing to cultural plundering I've heard since Malcolm McLaren's Soweto, and he hoisted his Jolly Roger with waggling tongue.

On the plus side, the momentous, multipart arrangements with sly talkback between ethnic and electronic instruments, arresting solo and choral turns, and street smarts that keep Easternisms from soaring off into kitsch means Yulduz might have been produced by Brian Wilson between psychiatric visits.

“Caravan” triumphs with the same skewed babble of Wilson's eponymous solo outing from the late Eighties, goosing clichés and exotic timbres into grandeur that serenades the angels. Even if we throw out the baby with the bathos, Usmanova's amazing voice remains. “Tak Boom” barely transcends mere fun as rap takes to the Silk Road, because the song underplays her pipes. But “Dunya” shucks the minor charms of an Eastern-orchestrated Pat Benatar-esque anthem once she kicks her voice into ecstatic overdrive with enough galvanic potential to raise goose bumps on a cadaver.

To be clear about it, Yulduz Usmanova is nobody's exploited naíf. The same mysterioso flavorings and dance-club thud that trivialize her origin are the vehicles that vaulted her up the European charts and established her as a new generation heroine back home. In the context of Uzbekistan's Islamic social climate, the modernisms of Yulduz count as triumphs of self-expression, and the slick pop chassis becomes a counterpart to the miniskirts that this youngest member of the Uzbeki Parliament wears in public, signifying that a better day -- more democratic, more prosperous -- is coming to her country. Assimilation is the key, and optimism as strong as hers dare not be sold short.