Red Hot & Riot
Over the course of a dozen years, the Red Hot Organization has released AIDS-fundraising CDs that are theme-oriented and specialize in unique artist collaborations. Red Hot + Riot, the 14th in a series that includes Red Hot + Blue, Red Hot + Rio, America is Dying Slowly and others, ranks among the most successful of an impressive bunch. The new disc is a tribute to the late Fela Anikulapo Kuti, a Nigerian artist who developed a style called Afrobeat that combined various African sounds with American funk and jazz. He was also a tireless dissident, who was repeatedly arrested and beaten by the totalitarian regimes of his homeland. Fela died in 1997 of AIDS-related illness.
Red Hot + Riot brings together the cream of America's progressive hip-hop and nu-soul crop with African musicians, as well as those from Cuba, Brazil and Europe, and a few wildcards like bluesman Taj Mahal, avant-jazzman Archie Shepp and trumpeter Roy Hargrove. Fela's eldest son, singer/saxophonist Femi Kuti, weighs in, along with his Positive Force horn section.
The 76-minute epic is remarkably cohesive, considering it uses a bevy of different producers and a mix-and-match strategy that can find personnel swelling to more than 20 artists on a single song.
The cumulative musical result is far-ranging but focused. Foremost, this is a groovefest that relies on African-based rhythms. Fela's beats have a funky flair but don't rely on the terse snap of modern American funk. These rhythms tend to lope and undulate, even at fast tempos. A roil of drums and percussion propel most of the tunes, with programming kept to a virtually inaudible minimum. It's intriguing to hear such American MCs and singers as Common, Talib Kweli, Dead Prez, D'Angelo, Bilal, Macy Gray, Meshell Ndegeocello, Res and Kellis adapt their flow to the motherland groove. In most cases, it sounds perfectly natural.
Another common element: horns. There's nothing quite like the brawny attack of an African-styled horn section, with its ragged harmony and low-end punch. Vocal ensembles further thicken the sound with soaring call-and-response parts.
Red Hot + Riot showcases imaginative but faithful reworkings of Fela songs like "Zombie," "Water No Got Enemy," "Gentleman," "Shakara/Lady," "No Agreement" and "Colonial Mentality."
In some cases, the highly politicized lyrics are updated with pointed contemporary raps. "What is it worth to have the biggest religion when the people got miserable living conditions?" spits Dead Prez on "Shuffering and Shmiling." Much of the rhetoric concerns the dreadful state of the African Diaspora, which is, after all, where AIDS still thrives.
Red Hot + Riot just about has it all: great grooves, songs and performances, innovation, a sense of community, social consciousness and a noble purpose. Go out an buy it. (MCA)
Jets to Brazil
The band and songwriter who together raised melancholy to an art form on their previous two full-lengths are back with a sprawling, aptly named dissertation on the subject of failed love. Jets to Brazil's third release is more expansive on every level (the shortest tune here, William Tell Override, is four minutes), taking the quartet's artfully made Super 8 rogue American pop and blowing it up to 35mm. The six-minute The Frequency opens the disc with their now-familiar amalgam of bouncy rhythms and wry reflection, but a newfound sense of comfort and unity is obvious, and remains palpable through 12 tracks and around 70 (!) minutes. Whereas the previous albums sometimes (OK, fairly often) came off sounding like Jawbreaker's Blake Schwarzenbach and his backing band, Perfecting Loneliness bears the unmistakable signature of a cohesive unit working for the good of the song. The results occasionally veer a little too close to redundancy, but tracks like Cat Heaven, the title track, Further North and the closing opus Rocket Boy showcase a unit at the top of their game. It's tough to explore one substantial mood over an entire album. Some less voracious (or ADD-afflicted) listeners certainly might be turned off by such an experiment. In the course of mining this theme, however, Jets to Brazil have kicked out some outstanding introspective pop. (Jade Tree, www.jadetree.com)
Sun Records: The 50th Anniversary Collection
The simplified view says that rock 'n' roll resulted from the convergence of rhythm & blues and country music. But if you examine the early laboratory of Sun Records, it sure looks like the black influence was more pervasive. The proof is all over the two-disc 50th Anniversary Collection. Blues, R&B, boogie, a sliver of country, and as the collection wears on, more and more rock 'n' roll, baby. The set also answers the question: What else went on at Sun besides Elvis, Jerry Lee ("Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On," "High School Confidential"), Carl ("Blue Suede Shoes," "Matchbox") and Cash ("Folsom Prison Blues, "I Walk the Line")? Sam Phillips spun the imprint off of his Memphis Recording Service in 1952, mostly because he felt he was getting ripped off by labels. He started with blues and R&B, relying on second- and third-tier names like Joe Hill Louis and Doctor Ross. The blues segment is the least satisfying part of 50th Anniversary, but it does have its moments. Two songs feature guitarist Pat Hare, one of the edgiest guitarists on the Chicago scene. His heavily distorted razor tone and biting licks snake through James Cottons' "Cotton Crop Blues," and his own, previously unreleased, "I'm Gonna Murder My Baby." Elvis weighs in with "That's All Right (1954) and "Mystery Train" (1955). In hindsight, it's easy to understand what Phillips heard in the teenage hick; equally apparent is how these songs were unprecedented in the mid "50s. Disc 2 finds Sun entrenched in nascent rock "n' roll. The best selections here are loopy, wide-eyed rockabilly songs by the likes of Tommy Blake ("Shake Around"), Sonny Burgess ("Red Headed Woman," with an improbably demented trumpet part), Ray Harris ("Come on Little Mama"), Bill Riley & his Little Green Men ("Flying Saucers of Rock & Roll") and Hayden Thompson ("Love My Baby"). There's also a couple of songs from Roy Orbison's pre-crooner period ("Ooby Dooby," "Cat Called Domino"). Only a handful of the 44 songs on this twofer made a major dent in the mass psyche, and that's why it offers such a sense of discovery.