Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Mighty Sparrow, Volume 1

Aptly christened Slinger Francisco in 1935, Trinidadian word-slinger Mighty Sparrow continues to tower over post-World War II calypso decades after beat-heavy soca bum-rushed the genre. Despite his fame, his accessibility, his longevity and the influx of his countrymen to the States, Sparrow's discography is a rat's nest. He's never once enjoyed comprehensive distribution or major-label support in the U.S. So this 1993 compilation on his fellow West Indian Eddy Grant's dicey Ice imprint is a gift. Mostly it cherry-picks the years immediately following Sparrow's first carnival triumph in 1956. In a genre where most bark or shout, Sparrow projects mellifluously; in a genre where the same tunes repeat for years his melodies are complexly catchy. But calypso is about lyrics above all, and though as with Willie Dixon and Hank Williams some claim Sparrow didn't always write his own, who cares when they're in a class with Chuck Berry if not quite Bob Dylan or Cole Porter? Start with the outrageous racial piss-take "Congo Man." Or the irresistibly patriotic "Our Model Nation." Or "Don't Go Joe," which looks at American military presence on the island from both sides then. Or, actually, anything that catches your fancy. Even "Calypso Twist."

Wondering Sound, April 11, 2011