Taking the blues back home.
On his sixth release, Markus James returns the blues to its homeland in Mali for a hypnotically sensual experience and touches something deep. While he's not the first to connect the musical dots between America and Africa—there's Ali Farka Toure's electric monochordal blues and Taj Mahal's Kulanjan, for example—but this acoustic outing seems to pierce to the root. James subsumes himself in Africa; the simple click of a calabash supplying a rhythm is as important to a song as his mesmerizing guitar riffs or vocals, with each layer fitting together to form the song. The kemele n'goni (young man's harp) of southern Mali plays stunning leads on "Are You Thirsty (Land of Plenty)," while the tama, or talking drum, offers its punctuations and speech on "Awo." The fact that the songs are all originals means they come without the baggage of history; they're built in Africa and thoroughly African—even the way James sings, in a slurred growl, makes the words seems like another instrument, another African language with its repeated images of night. A subtle, complex masterwork. Chris Nickson
Trouble Every Day
British chamber-pop outfit plays well with sex-crazed cannibals.
With a cult-inspiring career that includes nearly 10 years of gothic lounge pop, it was a fairly safe bet that when Britain's Tindersticks decided to leap back into the soundtrack game, it wasn't going to be for the much-anticipated remake of Scooby Doo. Instead, they've again been tabbed by French director Claire Denis to add a little mood and atmosphere to her already moody and atmospheric Trouble Every Day, a film that inspired walkouts and controversy at Cannes for its graphic depictions of sexual obsession and cannibalism. Rather than continuing to explore the slow-motion soul of 2001's "Can Our Love . . . ," however, the Tindersticks use Trouble Every Day to indulge their fascination with classical composition, creating a string-heavy score that revels in its tender restraint as much as the film revels in its horror. The predominantly instrumental collection touches upon similar musical passages throughout (it is a soundtrack, after all), but the effect is more reassuring than repetitive, particularly on the slow burning and vaguely sinister "Killing Theme." Of course, this means that fans of Stuart Staples' distinctive croon—a velvety smooth and oddly addictive concoction that sounds like Leonard Cohen and Freddy Fender arguing over the last barbiturate—may be disappointed, as he is only heard on the title track (but what a track). Throughout three subtly different versions, his voice floats between anguish and regret, proving as the rest of the album does that a good soundtrack doesn't need a multiplex to inspire emotion. Chris Barton
THE PINE VALLEY COSMONAUTS
The Executioner's Last Songs
Oh, Death, won't you spare me for another year?
Jon Langford—Mekon, Waco Brother, and 魩nence grise of the Chicago alt-country scene—is a busy man. In addition to the above-mentioned bands and a burgeoning painting career, he also leads the ragtag Pine Valley Cosmonauts, who provide the backing band for most artists on this anti-death-penalty benefit collection. And a wonderfully dark collection it is, too, whether it's Brett Sparks' simple but powerful take on the traditional "Knoxville Girl" or Dean Schlabowske's deconstruction of the Adverts' punk anthem "Gary Gilmore's Eyes." It wouldn't be an album of death songs without yet another cover of "Oh Death," but Diane Izzo's incredibly spare offering puts it back in fertile soil. There are even a couple of surprises on the record—a lovely reading of Cole Porter's bleak "Miss Otis Regrets" by D.C. post-punk icon Jenny Toomey and a marvelously straight rendition of "The Snakes Crawl at Night" from Freakwater's Janet Bean—while Neko Case simply excels at being Neko Case on the all-too-brief "Poor Ellen Smith." Ignore the sole clunker of "Idiot Whistle" and you've got a deep listening experience. Just keep the razor blades in the other room. Chris Nickson
THE BOTTLE ROCKETS
Songs of Sahm
Paying tribute to Texas Tornado Doug Sahm.
The late San Antonio songslinger Doug Sahm crammed a legacy equal to at least two musicians into his 58 short years. He left behind a r鳵m頴hat included forays into not just the British Invasion (Sir Douglas Quintet) and Tex-Mex twang (the Texas Tornadoes), but solo smatterings of blues, folk, roots, psychedelia, and garage rock, as well. Two and a half years after his death, Missouri's Bottle Rockets tip their ten-gallons to Sahm in a 13-song collection that uncovers this unbridled versatility. From the opening riffs of "Floatway" through the double-tracked vocal rants of "I'm Not That Kat Anymore," the tribute is as cohesive as it is commanding. The Rockets make the sublime ("Stoned Faces Don't Lie") as infectious as the familiar ("Mendocino"), hitting the target with straight country ("Be Real"), '60s folk ("At the Crossroads"), floozy blues ("You Can't Hide a Redneck Under That Hippy Hair"), romping Tejano ("Nitty Gritty"), and a Ray-Charles-meets-the-Animals rocker that was Sahm's only Top-20 hit ("She's About a Mover," with its rollicking sing-along chorus "Hey hey/That's what I say"). Guitarist/vocalist Brian Henneman ascends the Lone Star mountaintop for the frenetic "Song of Everything," a Skip Spence freakout groove under Crosby Stills & Nash vocal textures. Followed emphatically by the sweet, bouncy "Sunday Sunny Mill Valley Groove Day," it's a two-song perfecto that aptly captures the irresistibility of the entire record—and of Doug Sahm himself. Scott Holter