Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide Album

The Rail Band: Rail Band 2: Mansa [Belle Epoque, 2008]
Formed by the Malian government in 1970 to beguile visiting businessmen and long recognized as the equal of Orchestra Baobab and Étoile de Dakar, Bamako's Rail Band was sparked initially by future crossover pioneer Salif Keita, who quit shortly after the 1973 arrival of vocalist-instrumentalist Mory Kante. Its presiding genius is master guitarist Djelimady Tounkara, backbone of the three maddening double-CDs that now constitute the band's legacy. Each set is dominated by four-to-10-minute recordings from 1973 to 1977, with synthed-up '80s tracks snuck in here and there, and though it's possible true cognoscenti can fathom an organizational logic that goes unexplained in the notes, I cannot. My mind tells me that the first volume is the least accessible not because it's appreciably earlier but because it seeks out deep-Malian lyrical content. And my ears tell me that all three volumes lag when third banana Makan Ganessy takes the mike, though various fourth bananas acquit themselves with distinction. In the absence of the jaw-dropping best-of this project has in it, Keita's inspirational "Mansa," Kante's gorgeous "Mamadou Boutiqui," and grooves reliably vigorous and hypnotic by turn make Vol. 2 where to start. A-