As useless as Toby Keith's last album was, one almost wishes he'd just kept on "rapping" about himself on Unleashed. While there is some guilty pleasure to be taken from "Beer For My Horses (Whiskey For My Men)," a swaggering duet with Willie Nelson, the remaining dozen tracks are forgettable at best. It's all slick Southern rocky-tonk, and not one of the songs could compare favorably with the brilliant Nelson's most hastily scribbled grocery list. "Who's Your Daddy" is as muscle-headed as it sounds, and "Good To Go To Mexico" is like some forgotten Jimmy Buffet tune the Coral Reefer band dropped their veto on. Keith's reactionary, supremely juvenile response to 9/11, "Courtesy Of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)" is, of course, included on the lackluster Unleashed. Here's a little country tune I wrote in reaction to it. It's called "How Toby Keith Made Me an Angrier American." It goes like this:
On the 12th day of September in the year 2001,
The sun came up like thunder just like it had always done,
And America awoke and hoped it was an awful dream,
When those jets brought down the towers, right there on the TV screen.
When they turned lower Manhattan into a smoking ditch,
A lot of folks fell down and prayed,
And a lot of folks got rich.
It struck us dumb and somber, it cut us to the core.
We cried out, Give us justice, but we wanted something more.
There's a dirty little secret in this land of the free:
We've even learned to turn our dead
That's the American way.
-- Chris Davis
As self-insulated as America insists on being from the music of the rest of the world -- not counting England and Ireland -- and as virtually nonexistent as radio exposure for foreign music is here, we naturally miss out on some pretty great stuff. Scaling the fortress of the mainstream U.S. music industry, the sole focus of which is the quick million, is a formidable gig, and as devoid of anything resembling soul or intellect as most that darkens its drawbridge is, it's a wonder any of the rest of the world's brilliant musicians are even remotely interested in this market and its glut of Insipid Pop.
With no pesky foreign language to alienate the listener, nonvocal international music (read: jazz and its hybrids) will sometimes find a mass audience. But rare is the foreign artist who, like Edith Piaf or Jean Sablon, sings in his or her native tongue and still garners widespread recognition in America. With huge sales stateside and five Grammy nominations, West African archipelago Cape Verde's "barefoot diva" Césaria Évora is a rare bird indeed.
Évora didn't really hit the world's radar until the mid-'80s, when she traveled to Portugal to record two songs for an anthology of female Cape Verdean singers, but she had been singing throughout her island home since she was 16. Making a family and not much money interrupted that first career, but she's been recording regularly since her return to music at the age of 45. Known primarily for her bluesy mornas, postcolonial tunes blending African beats and Portuguese fado, Évora sings in a Creole dialect that makes her extremely accessible in Portugal, specifically, and Spain and France, and this is probably what we have to thank for the worldwide dissemination of her beautiful music.
The Very Best Of Césaria Évora is composed of tracks -- some bluesy, some inflected with Brazilian samba -- from the albums she released between 1991 and 2001, with three previously unreleased songs, the best of which is a new version of her '92 hit "Sodade" recorded with Angolan vocalist Bonga Kuenda. "Sodade" is the lead track and rightly so. The marriage of Évora's soft, melancholy utterances and Kuenda's anguished, broken tenor is positively sublime. The rest is far from silence.
-- Jeremy Spencer
The pressure of the indie-rock game must be getting to Spoon frontman Brett Daniels. "Small Stakes," the lead track on the Austin band's fourth album, Kill the Moonlight, is an ode to obscurity: "Small stakes leave you with the minimum blues/Can't think big/Can't think past one or two." Built on a simple keyboard riff and a tambourine, the song conveys the frustration of trying to build a career out of music (or out of art in general).
But songs about lack of fame are just as boring and grating as songs about fame, even if the singer is justified in his disenchantment: Spoon's major-label debut, A Series Of Sneaks, should have been a breakout, and the follow-up, Girls Can Tell, was similarly sadly overlooked. But "Small Stakes" is still a misstep, especially at the start of a crucial album in the band's career, and Kill the Moonlight takes a while to recover. The first single, "The Way We Get By," sounds like an anthem of teen rebellion ("We get high in backseats of cars/We break into mobile homes"), but it gets bogged down in pretentiously abstract lyrics ("We rarely practice discern we seek out the taciturn").
Fortunately, the album has enough highlights to maintain Spoon's rising career arc, which is modest but steady. "Stay Don't Go" builds its beat on a percussive exhalation that sounds almost like a human beatbox; it's easily the most surprising element on the album and suggests these guys have a few Prince albums in their collection. Elsewhere, "Jonathan Fisk" works the classic Spoon formula (straightforward guitar riff + propulsive drum beat = elemental, frictional pop), and Daniels gets extra points for rhyming "Jonathan Fisk" with "speaks with his fists."
Moments like these make you wish Daniels would stop bemoaning his career woes and concentrate on making good, distinctive pop music. It's what he does best.