Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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By Lucinda Williams's exacting standards, Essence (Lost Highway), only her fifth album since 1981, came fast--just three years after Car Wheels on a Gravel Road finally translated her critical renown into a sustaining audience. So she may kick herself when she realizes that it has a few missteps on it, notably a closer that mentions Pontius Pilate. Nevertheless, Williams remains one perfectionist who's generally perfect. Refusing to waste a word or a melodic flourish, she mines the musics of the South without settling for one, her cracked drawl all breath and yearning, sweet with a dry finish. Hardly a babe or a geisha, Williams packs a sexuality so intense you feel you'd best meet it halfway for safety's sake. Even so, the likes of I Envy the Wind, Steal Your Love, and Essence may make you wonder whether all that passion is worth the emotional cost--and then shrug and figure you only live once.

Cuba's Orlando Lopez is the nephew of expatriate bassist extraordinaire Israel Lopez, a/k/a Cachao. But it's chops, not nepotism, that's made him the bass player on every Buena Vista Social Club-related track yet released. And now Cachaito (Nonesuch) shows he's got ideas of his own. Shot through with compositional devices from classical music to drum 'n' bass and lots of avant-friendly jazz, Cachaito leaves Buena Vista traditionalism behind. It's the most exciting new album the current Cuban wave has yet tossed up.

Just for including both the title track's beatmastery and the party-starting freshness of the long-unavailable old-school classic Zulu Nation Throwdown, Afrika Bambaataa's Looking for the Perfect Beat 1980-1985 (Tommy Boy) would be a recommended hip-hop buy. The other nine tracks make it a must.

Playboy, May 2001

Apr. 2001 June 2001