Harry Belafonte: Belafonte Returns to Carnegie Hall

As I learn more about calypso music, I dismissed Harry Belafonte as a lightweight whose greatest contributions was a whitewashed version of an old calypso song. But a wise man at Smithsonian Folkways suggested that I take another look at Belafonte, so I checked out Belafonte Returns to Carnegie Hall, the only Harry Belafonte recording available from the EPFL. My goal was not simply to listen, but also to learn more about the man.

Apparently, Harry Belafonte is the kind of man who makes people happy, but isn't afraid to take a stand for his beliefs. While there's not a lot of blatant evidence of that mindset on this live recording from 1960, it's not difficult to find proof of the man's integrity in this concert.

The most obvious thing that Belafonte does at this show is something that's easy to overlook: he gives up the stage to other artists. Whether it's "first lady of the folk song" Odetta, then-newcomer Miriam Makeba, the lighthearted Chad Mitchell Trio, or even his own backing band, nearly half of this Belafonte concert is handed over to other artists. It takes a courageous performer to shine the spotlight on other musicians, especially when those other musicians are talented enough to outshine the main artist.

This recording doesn't contain the aggression that I found so refreshing in Lord Invader's calypso, nor does it contain the overt politics of folk artists like Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger. Belafonte was hardly a lightweight, though, and I was wrong to dismiss him as such. As for Belafonte Returns to Carnegie Hall, it's a fun and entertaining album by some very talented musicians, and it's a good reminder that sometimes we can accomplish more by giving up the spotlight than by hogging it.

Music: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
This is light folk that branches into world music, gospel, and easy listening. There is a sense of playfulness throughout the album, and even when the songs get a bit serious, there's always a quip from the stage to bring everything back into the realm of fun. The album proves that Belafonte was an excellent entertainer, and it's hard to imagine any ghosts from that Carnegie Hall audience who don't still smile at the memory of this show. With that said, this isn't for people who are seeking "serious" folk and/or calypso.

Packaging: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Someone spilled water all over the liner notes, rendering them nearly unreadable. Fortunately, there are enough intact pages to convey a lot of information about this performance and these songs. Some more photos would have been nice, but all in all, this is a pretty good booklet.

Listen if you like: Kingston Trio, The Weavers, Odetta, Miriam Makeba, Harry Connick Jr.

If it were food, it'd be: a banana. It's light, it's healthy, it's got substance, and it gets even better when you add other things to it.


Josephine Baker: Breezin' Along

This is a collection of English-language Josephine Baker recordings from the 1920s. As a historical artifact, it's interesting. As an introduction to Baker's voice, it's not bad. As pleasurable listening, it leaves me completely cold.

Music: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
I'm sure this is great for people who love 1920s dance bands, but I'm not a fan of pop recordings from the '20s. I find most of the big band arrangements from this period to be just as contrived and soulless as any given Wednesday's American Idol. Baker saves these songs, though. Her voice is an oddly captivating study in contradictions: it's simultaneously girlish and womanly, innocent and sultry, playful and serious. If you can get past the recording quality and the run-of-the-mill arrangements, her voice is absolutely worth hearing. In fact, this album makes me realize that I absolutely need to track down some of her later French recordings.

Packaging: n/a (altered by EPFL)
The cover photo captures the innocence and seductiveness that lives in Baker's voice. Unfortunately, the rest of the package is missing. Why does the EPFL do this? They're a library, right? And aren't libraries supposed to respect the integrity of their catalog? It'd almost be like ripping a chapter out of the middle of a book because it takes up too much space on the shelf. (For what it's worth, I've been patronizing the EPFL since 2002, and this is my only complaint. Believe me, I like to complain, so I guess they're not doing all that bad. But still... STOP DESTROYING THE COVERS OF THE CDs ALREADY!!!)

Listen if you like: Vaudeville, Paul Whiteman, Lena Horne, Marlene Dietrich

If it were food, it'd be: Ginger snaps made by your grandmother. They're kind of quaint and bland on the surface, but if you pay close attention, you might notice the hint of a flavor that could only come from life experiences you never imagined your grandmother having.


Johnny Cash: American V: A Hundred Highways

(This is my 100th review of a CD that's available from the Pratt Library in Baltimore. It's kind of fitting, then, that this review relates back to my first visit to Charm City.)

I still remember the first book I bought in Baltimore. It was a sunny summer afternoon in 2000, and we were waiting for an Orioles game to start at Camden Yards. We had a few hours, so we wandered over to the Inner Harbor. Of course, I didn't know the difference between the Pratt Library and Pratt Street at the time, but I was immediately smitten by the gentrified charms of the Barnes & Noble that sits in an old power plant on the water. I walked up to the second floor and, as light streamed in one of the giant windows, I saw a book titled Japanese Death Poems, which happened to be a collection of farewell poems written by ancient Japanese monks just before they died.

A Hundred Highways is Johnny Cash's death poem. It would be hard to imagine a better farewell from one of modern music's greatest artists.

Music: 5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
This probably wouldn't get a five-library-card rating if it hadn't been Johnny Cash's last record, but it's a perfect way to close the circle of his musical career. Interestingly (and fittingly), this is the only album in the American series that is almost entirely rooted in country. Yeah, there's a Springsteen song on there, but Cash and producer Rick Rubin had the wisdom to see that "Further on Up the Road" is actually a mighty fine country song at its core. A few of the songs kind of fade into the background, but there's not a bad moment on the album.

Packaging: 50 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The cover contains a photo of Johnny Cash singing. Otherwise, the liner notes are black, and contain only credits and a powerful eulogy by Rick Rubin.

Listen if you like: life, love, and/or death

If it were food, it'd be: A last meal


AFI: Decemberunderground

A while back, I wrote a review where I compared My Chemical Romance to Mötley Crüe. If that's true, then AFI is the Dokken of the dark-and-scary punk/emo scene.

There's nothing wrong with Dokken, as long as you like '80s Southern California hair metal with tight pants and big guitar solos. Likewise, there's nothing wrong with AFI, as long as you like '00s Northern California goth punk with dyed hair and big angst.

If dyed hair and big angst aren't your thing, there's absolutely no reason to listen to Decemberunderground.

Music: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
AFI may be emotional and they may be genuine, but nothing about Decemberunderground is unique. Every song follows a tried-and-true formula, a formula that exists solely to separate frustrated and angry teenagers from their hard-earned money. This is to punk what Saw IV is to horror movies: It's the cream of the crop of the lowest common denominator.

Packaging: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Oh, look. Bare trees. What a clever metaphor for the anger and loneliness that pervades these songs.

Clichés aside, the package is pretty awesome. The printing is absolutely gorgeous. Several of the photos were staged in a gallery and photographed (or they were Photoshopped by someone with some serious experience behind the mouse), which is a subtle but superb touch. The words are presented in a way that is legible but still creative, and reading the lyrics is a bit unsettling (in a way that compliments the music). Most of the band photos are pretty typical, but the photos of bassist Hunter Burgan are striking.

Listen if you like: Angels and Airwaves, Underoath, Taking Back Sunday, The Used

If it were food, it'd be: A burger from TGIFriday's. It's a commodity, not a creation.


Death Cab for Cutie: Plans

It's hard to describe why I consider Death Cab for Cutie to be one of the greatest rock bands of the past decade, especially when I look at the strikes against them: Their musicianship is competent but hardly exciting, their attitude is whiny, and their unoffensive blend of indie rock and adult alternative is destined for the grocery stores and elevators of the future.

Despite all of that, though, their songs are like a late night with an old friend.

The thing that makes Death Cab a great band in my eyes are Ben Gibbard's lyrics. The man has a gift for words. He describes scenes and feelings in a way that lets his listeners layer their own experiences on top of the songs. I wouldn't necessarily describe his words as brilliant poetry, but they are absolutely lyrical, in the truest sense of the word.

Music: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Plans isn't quite as powerful as Death Cab's previous release, Transatlanticism, but it's close. This is an album that crosses borders. I know goth kids who love it, punk fans who love it, metalheads who love it, and Barry Manilow lovers who love it. Nearly every song could've been a radio hit, but there aren't as many musical risks as there were on the band's other records. There are so many strong lyrics on the album that I'm hard pressed to focus on one song, but the hospital waiting room in "What Sarah Said" is a great example of Gibbard's gift with words.

Packaging: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Not to over-analyze the jacket, but the band seems to be playing with the idea of tiny bits of light (life) shining through the darkness (death). Abstract lighted windows and buildings pepper the liner notes, and the whole thing is printed on a glossy black paper that reflects light back at the listener. The plain black tray card keeps with this theme, and not only reflects the ambient room light but also the listener's face and surroundings; again, it's another way that Death Cab lets the listener become part of the album. The lyrics are included, but the decision to print them in a middle grey makes them a bit difficult to read. Of course, if I'm correct about the theme of the package, printing them in a more legible way would have destroyed the aesthetics, so the band probably made the right decision to slightly favor form over function.

Listen if you like: This is one of the few bands I'd recommend to almost anyone. It may not be your thing, but if you give it a chance, you might find something special nestled inside of it.

If it were food, it'd be: A warm mug of cocoa with someone you love who probably won't be in your world much longer.


The Killers: Sawdust

I felt sorry for The Killers when I listened to their third album, Sawdust. They had a wildly successful debut with Hot Fuss, but they got no love from "serious" music fans or critics. On Sam's Town, they tried to show how sophisticated and capital-m Mature they were, which left them somewhere between a second-rate Springsteen and a third-rate Queen. So when everything on Sawdust sounded like an attempt to recreate one of those two albums, I sighed a sad sigh and accepted the fact that The Killers were pretty much dead.

But then I read the liner notes, and I understood. These are songs that, for one reason or another, didn't make it onto either of the previous albums. These are the red-headed stepchildren. These are the remnants. Sawdust is, simply put, the sawdust.

Sawdust doesn't serve much purpose, but it does smell pretty good when you're sweeping it up off the floor. Sawdust doesn't serve much purpose either, but these songs sound pretty good for a bunch of rejects that were swept up off the recording studio floor.

Music: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
This album is for fans. This is for people who love The Killers no matter what they do, and want more more MORE! Most of the songs aren't particularly noteworthy, and a few of them have some glaring flaws, but they're all perfectly listenable. There are a couple of tracks that stand out: the cover of Mel Tillis' "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town" is a bit awkward but very enjoyable, and the alternate version of "Sam's Town" is better than the original.

Packaging: 2 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
I'm guessing the band had enough money to hire a real honest-to-God sculptor to create the log/arm on the cover, but something about the staging makes it look like cheesy Photoshop. The liner notes are generic, and contain nothing but basic song info, cute photos of the band, and a statement that "this album is dedicated to our fans." That's nice and all, but if The Killers really loved their fans, they wouldn't charge full price for a bunch of rare rejected songs.

Listen if you like: both of the previous Killers albums.

If it were food, it'd be: leftovers


David Sylvian: Everything and Nothing

I could try to review Everything and Nothing as an objective listener, or I could review it as a fan. I'm an objective listener in that I've never heard this anthology and many of the hard-to-find songs on it, but I'm a biased fan in that I believe David Sylvian to be one of the greatest undiscovered musical treasures of the past 30 years.

I probably wouldn't be a Sylvian fan if I hadn't been forced to listen to his album Secrets of a Beehive over and over and over again when I worked in a Los Angeles record store in 1990. The first few times, I dismissed it as light jazz drivel; but the more I listened, the more depth and beauty I heard in the music.

Sylvian's lyrics are often cryptic but nearly always poetic, a trait that is easy to overlook with one or two casual listens. He is also an experimenter who, as this collection shows, is never satisfied to recreate his past accomplishments. He's worked with some of modern music's great innovators, including Robert Fripp, Marc Ribot, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Talvin Singh, and Hector Zazou.

Music: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
This is an excellent overview of David Sylvian's catalog, especially since it includes some rarities like "Pop Song" (originally released only as a single) and "Buoy" (originally on Mick Karn's "Dreams of Reason Produce Monsters"). Any collection like this is going to irritate one or two fans because this or that song was left off, but one obvious omission was the song "Forbidden Colours," a collaboration with Sakamoto from the film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.

As good as this collection is, I'm not certain it's a great starting point for people who don't know David Sylvian's work. It touches on the different sounds Sylvian has explored, but its diversity prevents the listener from being immersed in a single mood. For new listeners with leanings towards experimental and progressive music (yeah, I'm talking to you, Mad Hatter), The First Day is an excellent introduction, while people who prefer acoustic instruments and strong lyrics might prefer Secrets of the Beehive.

Packaging: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Every David Sylvian package has fallen somewhere between very good and astounding, and this one is down towards the "very good" end of the scale. It's a simple package whose primary contents are details about each song (including who played the instruments, and where and when it was originally released) and photographs. As with the music, the photos span more than 20 years of Sylvian's career, and it's kind of neat to see how he's changed over the years.

Listen if you like: This is tricky, because it's the kind of music that could appeal to everyone and no one. King Crimson fans should give it a listen (for the experimental qualities), but so should Dylan fans (for the poetry) and Peter Murphy fans (for the voice). Bowie and Bryan Ferry fans might find something they like.

If it were food, it'd be: Dark chocolate. It's an acquired taste, but it's irresistibly delicious once you acquire the taste.


Fela Kuti: The Underground Spiritual Game

I said this last time I reviewed a Fela Kuti album, and I'll say it again: If you love music and haven't heard Fela Kuti, you should check this out.

Fela Kuti isn't widely known, but he had an immense influence on pretty much every style of music created in the past few decades, be it jazz or funk or hip-hop or rock.

The Underground Spiritual Game is Fela Kuti as mixed by Chief Xcel from Blackalicious. Xcel obviously cares about Fela's music, and everything from the song selection to the sound quality makes it obvious that this album was a serious labor of love.

Music: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
These aren't remixes in the sense that most of us think of the word "remix." There are no breakbeats or house vocals or James Brown samples. Instead, Chief Xcel picked a diverse set of Fela songs, pulled out the integral parts of each, and put them together in a continuous mix. It's a really neat way to hear Fela for a few reasons: First, the song selections are far more varied and obscure than they'd be for a best-of collection; second, the songs blend together in unexpected ways that highlight the similarities and differences of each track; third, Xcel must've worked some kind of sonic magic, because these recordings have a clarity that I've never heard in Fela's music. This is a good set for either seasoned Fela fans or for newbies who want to discover the richness of the man's music.

Packaging: n/a (altered by EPFL)
All that's left from the original package are the front and back covers and what might be the back of the jacket. The design is nice but ultimately forgettable. I wish the liner notes were here, because I'd love to know if Chief Xcel wrote about how and why he reworked these songs.

Listen if you like: Honestly, if you like any real music from the past 50 years, you should check this out. It doesn't really matter if you're a rock fan, a hip-hop fan, or a jazz fan because it was all influenced by Fela Kuti.

If it were food, it'd be: I've got to step outside of Baltimore for this one. There used to be a Nigerian restaurant in Oakland called the Museum Kitchen, where you could get all sorts of veggie and meaty foods. Like the mixture of Fela Kuti and Chief Xcel, it was a mixture of Nigeria and America. Alas, like Fela, it's no longer with us.


PJ Harvey: To Bring You My Love

By the time To Bring You My Love came out, I'd begun to overcome my fear of PJ Harvey. Because of that, checking this one out from the EPFL isn't so much hearing a good album for the first time as it is rediscovering an old friend. And this album is a friend; granted, it's the kind of friend that is angry and scary and drinks too much and makes your loved ones wonder what you see in it, but it's still a friend.

Music: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
This album is dark. It's dark in the way that Tom Waits and Nick Cave are dark. Sometimes it's dark in a punk way, sometimes it's dark in a bluesy way, and sometimes it's dark in an almost cabaret way. There's not a lot of joy here. Actually, that's not true, because there is a sense that Harvey enjoys being dark. She sounds like she enjoys both pushing her own boundaries and pushing other people's buttons. One or two of the songs aren't great, but most of them are incredibly strong. Some are creepy, some are dark and some are aggressive, but nearly all of them are powerful.

Packaging: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
This cover is especially striking when it's compared to Rid of Me. A dressed and made-up Harvey lies in a pool of water on the cover as if she's dead. On the back of the jacket, she poses in the same gown and make-up. What's interesting is how out-of-place she looks. While I don't know the story behind these pictures, it almost appears as if the record label told her, "Polly, we let you do the ugly pictures on the last album, now you have to give us some diva shots." So she did, but she's so ill-suited to be a diva that these pictures are a giant "screw you" to an industry that says only pretty girls sell records. There's still very little in the way of content, but at least the jacket has some sense of design.

Listen if you like: Nick Cave, Tom Waits

If it were food, it'd be: A piece of fried chicken and a large black coffee at a hole-in-the-wall diner in the middle of the night on a long and tiring car ride through the South in the summertime.