"Evangeline Made: A Tribute to Cajun Music"
In the stress and complexity of modern life, there's always room for music that feels cleansing and unspoiled, which is most certainly why many of the pop fans who loved the Buena Vista Social Club album also found much to enjoy in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" The music may have been from Cuba and Nashville, respectively, but there's a common sense of emotional purity in the two collections.
The motherland in the case of "Evangeline Made" (due in stores Tuesday) is southwest Louisiana, where Cajun music has asserted its liberating zest for more than two centuries, thanks to its distinctive mix of lively, accordion-and-fiddle instrumental seasoning and spirited, French-language vocals
Rather than produce an album of her fellow Cajun artists, musician and musicologist Ann Savoy wanted to demonstrate the affection of pop-rock figures for Cajun music. Her all-star cast ranges from rock 'n' roll master John Fogerty and former Lone Justice cowgirl Maria McKee to Richard Thompson, Linda Thompson and Nick Lowe. Savoy teams with Linda Ronstadt on a couple of numbers, and the pairing is as fluid and engaging as Ronstadt's country-pop duets with Emmylou Harris.
"Sing the Real"
The release of new albums by these two Los Angeles bands highlights the musical melting-pot percolating in the local Latin alternative scene. Quetzal offers an ambitious set of politically tinged musings couched in a silky blend of jazzy Afro-folklorico. Slowrider, the newer group, serves up more of a party mix of Latin jazz, funk and hip-hop in which lyrics make way for several instrumentals.
Quetzal is by far the more mature and accomplished outfit. This is the second album by the multiethnic East L.A. band, which was founded in 1993 by guitarist and composer Quetzal Flores. My, how they've grown in just the past two years.
This must be the most highly educated Chicano band in history, with some of its nine members holding degrees in ethnomusicology, fine arts, classical music and jazz. Their training shines through on this intricately textured work (in stores Tuesday), which weaves sweet vocals and bewitching violins on a gently flowing stream of rhythms, from cumbia to son.
Although several members are credited as songwriters, the band's central vision of "organizing through art" belongs to Flores. His commitment to the cause, inspired by Mexico's Zapatista movement, occasionally gets heavy-handed, as when he rhymes "community" and "ideology" in the album's opening musical manifesto, "The Social Relevance of Public Art." Yet even that difficult tune grows on you, thanks to the pure and alluring vocals of Martha Gonzalez (who is a guest on one Slowrider track).
By comparison, Slowrider's work (also out Tuesday) often seems derivative and half-baked. Although the hip-hop vocals grab attention, the instrumental title cut, which means "birth," sounds oddly lifeless. Still, Slowrider has promise if it follows Quetzal's example: Stay the course and keep working at it.
*** Eleni Mandell, "Snakebite," Space Baby. Less is more, they say, and this L.A. singer-songwriter does a lot with less on her third collection (in stores Tuesday). More introverted than 2000's "Thrill," this album may be less obvious about its pleasures, but the quiet, slightly noir-country touches resonate well amid her wry, moody blends of folk, jazz, blues and cabaret. Against stark acoustic backdrops that accentuate the raw emotion, her voice transforms from raspy-sweet to sexually hysterical to fervidly scornful, painting rare portraits of mysterious and desperate lives.
*** Playgroup, "Playgroup," Astralwerks. After two decades of production and remix work, Playgroup mastermind Trevor Jackson clearly knows his way around a beat. On his debut as Playgroup (due Tuesday), which features a slew of eclectic guest stars, including Bikini Kill and Le Tigre's Kathleen Hanna and dancehall artist Shinehead, Jackson turns his experience into a stylish paean to dance-pop beats of all genres and eras. Like early B-52's, Playgroup knows that cool and fun aren't mutually exclusive.
**1/2 Rinocerose, "Music Kills Me," V2. Listeners who like a little rock with their house music, or vice versa, will enjoy this French collective. Upbeat in rhythm but gothic in sensibility, with nods to the Cure, Brian Jones and Jimi Hendrix, "Music Kills Me" (in stores Tuesday) flows easily from boogie-down dance tracks to living-room funk light. But it's hit-or-miss when vocals are added to the mix.
**1/2 RockFour, "Another Beginning," Rainbow Quartz. Those who witnessed this Israeli foursome's Midnight Oily club gigs last summer in L.A. might be surprised to find them marching alongside Sgt. Pepper into a Byrdsian haze. Well, the lava lamps are aglow in Tel Aviv, illuminating RockFour's political and personal themes. Shaven-headed frontman Eli Lulai teeters on imitation in places but finds his emotional pitch on "President of Me," a ballad that recalls the work of Neil Finn.
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.
To hear samples of music from the albums reviewed in this week's Record Rack, visit www.calendarlive.com/rack.