Short Cuts 

Classic Afropop comp gets a sequel.

The Music in My Head 2

Various Artists

(Stern's Africa)

The Music in My Head (1998), an anthology compiled by British writer Mark Hudson to accompany his novel of the same title, is one of the great African compilations, riding a hectic, transfixing groove mostly from the Senegalese mbalax style that is the book's primary object of desire. Along with a couple of terrific ringers from Congolese giant Franco and Mali's Salif Keita, the disc's tough groove is grounded in great songs, many of them Youssou N'Dour-related, with a handful of tracks from N'Dour's early band, Etoile de Dakar, or its spinoff, Etoile 2000.

Similarly, the recently released The Music in My Head 2 centers on West Africa exclusively. But this time around, Hudson's selections sprawl a bit more: Instead of a song album stuffed with killer grooves, this is a groove album full of desirable songs.

Etoile de Dakar's frantic, head-spinning "Dom Sou Nare Bakh" throws you directly into the field of action: Horns hurtle forward, guitars slant right, percussion spins left, and call-and-response vocals hop all over, nasal and thrilling. It calms down with repeated plays, but not by much. Just as wild is the guitar line that hooks Thione Seck's "Diongoma" and the percussion on just about everything, which pushes the beat in odd directions without quite decentering it.

The basslines, especially on the Rail Band's "Jurukan" and Super Diamono's "Bass," lurch and thrust in a similar fashion; as a result, the songs seldom stand still, even when they get as contemplative as N'Dour's "Pitche Mi" or Ousmane Kouyate's "Beni Haminanko." The latter also boasts a horn part that lays you as flat as a classic Stax chart; so does Keletigui et ses Tambourinis' "Demba Ti," a calypso-flavored swing number. If The Music in My Head 2 isn't quite as good as its predecessor, it comes impressively close.

-- Michaelangelo Matos

Grade: A-

American IV: The Man Comes Around

Johnny Cash

(American Recordings)

Toward the end of his life, Rembrandt painted a series of self-portraits that attempted to document and defy death through artistic expression. The beauty of these harsh, shadowy works comes from both the age of the artist and the cosmic futility of his task: In each successive portrait, Rembrandt's facial expressions grow more impenetrable as the lighting grows more grotesque and the brush strokes grow less steady.

If pop music were like oil painting, then Johnny Cash's erratic American IV: The Man Comes Around -- with a cover portrait of the country legend in Rembrandt-esque chiaroscuro -- might be valuable as a document showing the indomitable spirit of an influential pop-cultural figure in decline. The big difference is that Rembrandt's works have a silent majesty, whereas every time Cash opens his mouth on the new record I want to shriek -- I thought Johnny Cash was dead until this new album came out!

The most striking error on the new record is the atrocious song selection. Along with two or three Cash originals, "Bridge Over Troubled Water" (my least favorite song ever;there are dictators I like better) is included, as are tracks penned by the likes of Don Henley, Sting, and Trent Reznor. Cash tries to embrace every tune with his once-mighty baritone, but at this stage he sounds literally toothless.

This is one of the most depressing albums I've ever heard. Look away, look away. -- Addison Engelking

Grade: C

One Bedroom

The Sea & Cake

(Thrill Jockey)

The Sea & Cake is a sorta-supergroup consisting of Chicago solo artists Sam Prekop and Archer Prewitt, as well as musicians Eric Claridge (formerly of Shrimp Boat) and John McEntire (Tortoise). Together they make a brand of breezy pop that is often called "post-rock" but might be more accurately described as "background music" -- fine to listen to while cooking or cleaning, not quite so compelling for active listening.

It's not that the S&C are bad. In fact, they're all technically proficient musicians, and their past work shows they can be innovative and inventive (see Prewitt's solo album White Sky and Shrimp Boat's forgotten Duende, if only for the Holiday Inn lounge decadence of "What Do You Think of Love?").

But between conception and execution, something goes well, not wrong, just awry. Or perhaps askew is a better word. One Bedroom is a little bit poppier than its predecessor, Oui, but it still doesn't manage to grab your attention. Squiggly guitar lines and fluttery drums abound, and there's even a cover of David Bowie's "Sound & Vision," which seems a little hopeful, I think, given the band's minimalist style. The result is a respectable dullness -- not a can't-be-bothered or a jaded-beyond-exertion dullness, but a mellow-to-the-point-of-oblivion dullness, a dullness that took some work.

-- Stephen Deusner

Grade: B

Morvern Callar

Various Artists

(Warp)

Well, what do you know? It's our old friend, the soundtrack as aesthetic defining point and semi-pop marketing device. In the case of the disc accompanying director Lynne Ramsay's acclaimed Morvern Callar, there's something of a twist to the usual soundtrack CPR: The disc serves to reposition Can, the early-'70s German prog-rock group, as a pop band. By including Can's two most immediately memorable songs (1972's "Spoon" and 1976's "I Want More," the latter an actual hit record in England) and two similarly hooky cuts by bassist/producer Holger Czukay ("Cool in the Pool" and "Fragrance"), it offers Krautrock at its friendliest. For record geeks who've been attempting to foist this stuff on people for years, it'll serve as a godsend.

It's helped along by a bunch of other hipster-friendly selections. As befits a Warp records release, there's plenty of that Sheffield label's avant-electronica, with smart selections from Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada, and Broadcast. We also get a welcome edit of Stereolab's endless "Blue Milk," some dub from Lee Perry, some gamelan, and a pair of country parodies, one good (Ween), one stupid (Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood). But considering what mishmashes soundtracks tend to be, one that keeps its focus as straight as this one is a blessing, even when it stumbles. -- MM

Grade: A-

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