Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Mighty Sparrow [extended]

  • King of the World [B's, 1984] A-
  • We Could Make It Easy If We Try [BLS, 1992] Neither
  • 16 Carnival Hits [Ice, 1993] *
  • Dancing Shoes [Ice, 1993] Dud
  • Volume One [Ice, 1993] A+
  • Volume Two [Ice, 1993] A-
  • Volume Three [Ice, 1993] **
  • Volume Four [Ice, 1993] A-
  • First Flight [Smithsonian/Folkways, 2005] A-
  • Sparromania!--Wit, Wisdom, & Soul From the King of Calypso 1962-1974 [Strut, 2012] *

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Sparrow: King of the World [B's, 1984]
Though one distinction between calypso and soca is that the earlier style wasn't geared to phonographic reproduction, I much prefer the two hard-to-find calypso compilations I've recently gotten to know (More Sparrow More!! on Recording Artists, Hot and Sweet on Warner Bros.). And though the greatest of the modern calypsonians claims right here that he's not a "Soca Man," the album's dance groove is compulsive enough for disco. But Sparrow remains a supremely resonant singer with a taste for resonant lyrics: "Grenada" lays into Cuban accommodations without letting Reagan off the hook, "Marahjin Cousin" satirizes racial complexities unimaginable in our polarized land. The reason he works variations on the same few melodies is that they're all classics. And his groove is worth a go. A-

We Could Make It Easy If We Try [BLS, 1992] Neither

Mighty Sparrow & Lord Kitchener: 16 Carnival Hits [Ice, 1993]
road marches, mostly--kind of like disco songs about going to the disco (Mighty Sparrow, "May May"; Lord Kitchener, "Rain-O-Rama") *

Dancing Shoes [Ice, 1993] Dud

Volume One [Ice, 1993]
Thirteen varied songs from Slinger Francisco, this hemisphere's most underutilized musical resource. They slip only slightly with "Calypso Twist," the first of his many unflappable attempts to keep up with the rhythmic times, and the best of these lyrics stand with anyone's: "Congo Man," a wildly perverse piss-take on African roots, interracial revenge, interracial sex, male-female relations, and cannibalism, or the education satire "Dan Is the Man (In the Van)." Sparrow's career as a sympathetic critic of democratic socialism begins with "Our Model Nation" and "Federation." And while Yank-lover putdowns like "Jean and Dinah," "Jack Palance," and "Don't Go Joe" incur feminist dismay, they're about the pain of imperialism, not the treachery of woman. A+

Volume Two [Ice, 1993]
Daisann McLane, a/k/a Lady Complainer, believes the most impressive thing about Sparrow is that back-stabbing Trinidadians still consider him theirs. With his suave delivery, he's a superstar synthesizer like Frank Sinatra, moving confidently from the tourist-board "Pan Man" to the Brooklyn-minded "Calypso Boogaloo," the come-fly-with-me exotic "Oriental Touch" to the she'll-fly-to-mas sexy "Same Time, Same Place." But it's hard to imagine the Chairman daring the equivalent of "Sparrow Dead"--much less observing "These good citizens are the architects of economic slavery." A-

Volume Three [Ice, 1993]
too long on "Soca Man" and "Boogie Beat" ("Idi Amin," "King Kong") **

Volume Four [Ice, 1993]
He's always urbane, good-humored, devilishly at ease, and like most professional hitmakers, he isn't averse to coasting--"Sailor Man," "Dear Sparrow," "Trinidad Carnival." But as a born word man he usually gets something going even when he doesn't come up with a horn part or choral hook, and even when his lyrics are predictable, his music is usually a pleasure. If there are no works of world-historic genius hidden away on his fourth semirandom best-of, the logocentric really ought to hear "Well Spoken Moppers" anyway. A-

First Flight [Smithsonian/Folkways, 2005]
The writing here rarely approaches the finished wit of the Ice anthologies, and just because Volume One is still available, don't assume it always will be. But consider that all this material dates to before he was 25. Most of the songs--recounting news stories, local happenings, life in the yard--are homely moments of social music, the sole love song a Christmas postcard to a spouse back home. But the homeliness isn't just charming. Singing about Bermuda shorts, a peeping Tom, Laika the satellite dog, or the Eric Williams government, Sparrow embodies a musical culture unlike any that's existed in the U.S., even in the South. It's like a griot society too irreverent for praise songs, with an admixture of pseudo-Brit sophistication that would suggest Anglo-India if it wasn't so earthy. And the studio bands definitely have some jam, as in the unkempt fanfare to the opening "No, Doctor, No" or the brief sax solo on "Gun Slingers" or the chorus crooning the title refrain to my favorite, "Harry in the Piggery." A-

Sparromania!--Wit, Wisdom, & Soul From the King of Calypso 1962-1974 [Strut, 2012]
Got paid every time he walked into a studio--still does ("Dancehall Brawl," "No Money, No Love") *

See Also