Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide by Review Date: 2011-06-28


Fania Records 1964-1980: The Original Sound of Latin New York (Strut, 2011) I'm reviewing this 29-track double-CD with my judgment, conscience, and sense of history as half a dozen imagined family members roll their hips slightly while looking over my shoulder; my ears, body, brain, and musical tastebuds, while present, aren't dominant. What you get without fail is impressive singing in half a dozen pleasurably varied Afro-Hispanic modes, more clave than you can shake a peg at, and montunos of noticeable firmness and vigor; what you get sometimes is piano solos of jazzlike sophistication, a rare thing, and big-band arrangements of playful sophistication, a rarer one. What you get too often is arrangements that are overbearing, even bombastic. By the second disc, as the music bigs up the way world-beating pop styles always do, the horn tuttis take over, leading inexorably and paradigmatically to the strings that puff up Hector Lavoe's 10-minute "El Cantante," which aficionados revere and I can't stand, especially once the strings start eliciting soundtrack moves from the horns. But right around there Ruben Blades is throwing his simplifying intelligence around and Celia Cruz is chipping in some female principle. Fania was the definitive salsa label, and there are unmistakably great records I'd never heard here: Richie Ray & Bobby Cruz's "Sonido Bestial," Johnny Pacheco's "Dakar, Punta Final," the Fania All-Stars' long, live "Quitate Tu," maybe even some on the second disc. Also, you're probably more tolerant of tuttis than I am. B+

The Real Bahamas, Volumes I & II (Nonesuch, 1998) Recorded by two young amateurs in 1965, initially released in 1966 and 1978, then re-released minus two tracks on one CD, these part-sung, finger-picked gospel songs constitute one of the great treasures of folkiedom's collecting adventure. Here is the individual untutored genius in the person of the literally nonpareil guitarist Joseph Spence. But here also for once is communal creativity in action, as leaders rhyme their couplets while so-called background singers dab, smear, and pixilate the music we're there for, and I dare you to decide who's who for the entirety of "God Locked the Lion's Jaw." Although full-fledged tunes rise up only intermittently from the quirkily articulated babble, many of these have been anointed classics--"I Bid You Good Night," "Out on the Rolling Sea," "Don't Take Everybody to Be Your Friend." The Bahamas became a haven for escaped U.S. slaves after slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1834. Friendly but also mischievous and not all that easy to know, these folks sound as if they know the limits of friendship to be one of God's great truths. A

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