CD Reviews

NUSRAT FATEH ALI KHAN

The Final Recordings

(American/Legacy)

A fitting send-off from Qawwali's king of kings.

Before his untimely death in 1997 at the age of 49, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was universally recognized as the "king of kings" of Pakistan Qawwali, a form of devotional music developed by Sufi Muslims. The release of this beautiful double-disc recording amply demonstrates why that was the case. Supported only by harmonium, tabla drums, and a chorus of backup singers, Nusrat's incredible voice darts playfully over eight cuts, none of which clocks in at less than 15 minutes. The simple majesty of his ensemble shines through, unburdened by lush synthesizers, severe drum machines, or any of the other staples of contemporary world music. The lyrics for each song are drawn from Sufi poetry; most appear on the surface to deal with the vagaries of love but are actually elaborate metaphors for spiritual longing. As each piece glides from relaxed poignancy to ecstatic release—often several times—one begins to appreciate the many levels of emotion expressed in each lyric. The passion and energy of Nusrat and his musicians are matched by the discretion and elegance of the recording itself, personally supervised by American Recordings' Rick Rubin. Rubin, who first came to prominence for his work with LL Cool J (!) in the 1980s, delicately positions each musician in the stereo field, so that the listener can easily follow the interplay between Nusrat on the left, his nephew and prot駩 Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan on the right, the bell-like tones of the tabla in the middle, and the lush support of the chorus that underlies it all. It's a headphone experience on par with the finest psychedelia, and the world would certainly be a better place if more high-school stoners listened to this recording while writing in their diaries . . . I mean journals. Joe Schloss

SCOTT MILLER AND THE COMMONWEALTH

Thus Always to Tyrants

(Sugar Hill)

Knoxville musician's solo debut re-blazes trail of former band, the V-Roys.

"Part of being a good songwriter," ex- V-Roys leader Scott Miller once said, "is being a good thief." On his solo debut, the Knoxville, Tenn., resident validates the notion that sometimes you can even steal from yourself. Miller follows similar trails as that of his former band ("Mess of This Town," "Dear Sarah," "Yes I Won't"), but aims to make the footprints a bit larger this time. Backed by bluegrass fiddler Tim O'Brien, Texas guitarist David Grissom, and Knoxville rockers Superdrag, the college- educated Virginian and Civil War buff takes the mound with an impressive arsenal of lyrical pitches. Miller's fastball: a gift for unpretentious details, as in "Is There Room on the Cross for Me," which looks at the afterlife. "My life is nothing to compare," he sings over a desolate piano, "to those who've earned their right up there." The curve? Miller's deft ability to set his visions to poetry ("Winter will spring/Summer will fall," he sings in "Loving That Girl"). He goes with the screwball on "I Won't Go With You," sporting a humorous streak traced from Dylan through Westerberg ("This beer is colder than the shoulder/You would give me if I were to tell you the truth"). And when Miller digs deep into the Nuggets box set for a fuzzy cover of the Brogues' "Miracle Man," the word is out. This time around, Miller's even got the change-up working. Scott Holter

SAUL WILLIAMS

Amethyst Rockstar

(Columbia)

Think poetry is all fluff and puff? Watch Saul Williams pulverize your mind.

Imagine someone crafting an entire world through words and then detonating it, and you get Amethyst Rockstar, Saul Williams' first full-length album. The artist who put the "slam" in slam poetry, Williams is clearly hip-hop inspired but refuses to be caged in by rap conventions. Songs like "Coded Language" and "Penny for a Thought" goad rappers for their limited imaginations, as Williams himself proclaims, "I'm the Om Ni Merican/ born of beats and blood/the concert of the sun/unplugged." Williams invokes metaphors of the cosmos in many of his songs, reflecting both the size of his imagination but also the power of his wordplay. Along with a backing band that drills out beats as frenetic as his flow, Williams' poems chain chaos to chords and force mayhem into melodies, as every line becomes a provocation, every verse an auditory assault. It's an exhilarating, exhausting experience, as each song demands repeated listening to appreciate the full force of his poetry. Replacing hard core with "heart core," Williams speaks on everything from the intimacies of love ("Fearless") to the challenges of fatherhood ("Wine") to the legacy of black artistry ("Robeson")—but he could muse on laundry lint and still make it seem godly. Oliver Wang

FONTANELLE

F

(Kranky)

Jessamine alums navigate a spacey musical maze.

If we humans have a collective fear, it's admitting our own fallibility—owning up to the fact that we sometimes get trapped in mazes, bumping senselessly and hopelessly against dead ends, searching for ways out that don't exist. It's a chilling theme, and one that fascinates Portland space rockers Fontanelle. On their second release, F, this six piece—featuring Rex Ritter and Andy Brown of Jessamine—craft abstract soundscapes in the vein of Can, Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis, and Tortoise. But where those artists focus on open space, Fontanelle cultivate claustrophobia, much like TV's The Prisoner: Unseen hands seem to be manipulating the flanged guitars and thick keyboards, setting trip wires and booby traps. On "Floor Tile," the record's six-minute standout, two guitar lines become progressively more frantic as they race for an open exit, but just as escape is imminent, the motif dissolves into nothingness. With the wall of white noise that remains, Fontanelle imply that resolution would only bring the realization that we are trapped by our own need for release. As the motto that appears on various set pieces throughout The Prisoner states, "Questions are a burden to others, answers a prison for oneself." Fontanelle couldn't agree more. Tizzy Asher

 
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