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A better view of Buena Vista

March 16, 2003|Natalie Nichols; Steve Hochman; Robert Hilburn; Soren Baker; Kevin Bronson;Agustin Gurza

Ibrahim Ferrer

"Buenos Hermanos" (World Circuit/Nonesuch)

***

Something essential is missing from the series spawned by the Buena Vista Social Club, the cult of Cuban nostalgia godfathered by guitarist-producer Ry Cooder. In its obsession with the past, the Buena Vista dynasty overlooked traits that make Afro-Cuban music so addictive: the spark of spontaneity, a delight in originality, a visceral rhythmic tension and tastiness.

But with the second solo album from beloved Buena Vista singer Ferrer (due in stores Tuesday), Cooder and company are finally starting to catch up with this ever-evolving genre and catch on to its elusive secret -- how to stay traditional but sound contemporary.

The improvements on this collection of vintage tunes are subtle, embedded in textures and touches. There are wonderfully surprising but unobtrusive contributions from Tex-Mex accordionist Flaco Jimenez and gospel's Blind Boys of Alabama.

And Ferrer's band gets an infusion of fresh Cuban blood, notably musical director Demetrio Muniz from Havana's Tropicana nightclub and pianist Chucho Valdes, who also contributes two tunes.

Even the 76-year-old Ferrer sounds fired up here, with inspired improvisational phrasing that ignites up-tempo numbers. His warm, sentimental voice sounds stronger, steadier and more confident than on his 1999 debut, a conventional collection of tired oldies. Remarkably, with this work Ferrer demonstrates how to get younger with age. Ferrer plays UCLA's Royce Hall on April 1 and 2.

-- Agustin Gurza

Personal looks at the big picture

Ani DiFranco

"Evolve" (Righteous Babe)

***

After releasing a couple of sprawling double albums that indulged her many stylistic interests, this prolific singer-songwriter offers a somewhat more musically focused single disc (in stores Tuesday). Thematically, the famously independent artist continues to look fearlessly into her soul while simultaneously keeping her finger on society's pulse.

Most breathtaking is "Serpentine," a 10-minute ramble with acoustic guitar that juxtaposes the pain of a romantic betrayal with the agony of watching America unravel from a combination of the greedy powerful, sleeping watchdogs and a willfully clueless populace.

Most of the songs feature DiFranco and her band threading acoustic blues, groovy soul, funky jams and stark folk into a dynamic, frequently jazz-flavored mix. At times stunningly naked, her elastic, sensual yowl fleetingly recalls Billie Holiday, Rickie Lee Jones and Macy Gray without losing its own quirky personality.

Things get a little repetitive halfway through, as the understated yearnings pile up with such tracks as "Phase" and "Here for Now," but no matter. DiFranco offers a classic moment of self-encouragement with the spirited title track, and the album-closing "Welcome To:" wraps up the heartbreak element with the calming notion that sometimes being alone isn't just OK -- it's necessary.

-- Natalie Nichols

Of innocence and camp

Various artists

"The American Song-Poem Anthology: Do You Know the Difference Between Big Wood and Brush" (Bar/None)

***

In the '60s and '70s, some pop-music dreamers answered "poems wanted" ads in magazines to have their words set to music by professional composers, singers and players -- for a fee, of course. The result was a wealth of unintentional outsider art that works as camp, but also as a vehicle for both the joy and sadness of common hopes and dreams.

These 28 songs, compiled by song-poem aficionado Phil Milstein, reveal such recurring themes as heartbreak ("I Lost My Girl to an Argentinian [sic] Cowboy"), patriotic fervor ("Rat a Tat Tat, America") and personal obsessions ("I Like Yellow Things"), the rendering as earnest as the lyrics through whatever bizarre twists they may take. Only "Blind Man's Penis" (words by L.A. musician John Trubee as a vulgar art-joke) spoils the innocent perfection.

-- Steve Hochman

Quick spins

Richard Ashcroft

"Human Conditions" (Virgin)

**

The Verve's "Urban Hymns" was one of the great albums of the '90s, a work of such profound passion and depth that few thought Richard Ashcroft would have any trouble in a solo role after the British rock group broke up in 1999. But he stumbled in his first solo album, 2000's "Alone With Everybody," and he only partially regains his balance here. The arrangements have some of the old eloquence, but too many of the songs -- about confusion and struggle -- seem muddled and dense.

-- Robert Hilburn

Dirty Three

"She Has No Strings Apollo" (Touch and Go)

** 1/2

The Aussie instrumental group's sixth album drones along in the trio's mournful tradition, poetic song titles forming an almost-story that complements the bucolic menace and sorrow in melodic to distorted violin, guitars and piano. Some selections nerve-rendingly recall the Velvet Underground's "Sister Ray," but other tunes are less grinding, with a moody, cinematic feel. It's finely crafted baroque gloom, but "Apollo" eventually becomes tedious. The group plays April 24 at the Henry Fonda Theatre.

-- N.N.

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