Matches made in Heaven and 'Bizarro World'
Rapper Kanye West's infectious new outing with chamber-pop innovator Jon Brion, Late Registration `see "True West," September 15-21, 2005` is hardly the only odd collaboration to bear unpredictably enjoyable fruit lately. The release I've been spinning the most is another rap record, and in fact is a team-up squared: On Danger Doom: The Mouse and the Mask (Epitaph), two of hip-hop's hottest pseudonymed stars - MF Doom and Danger Mouse - join forces for the first time, which is a party in itself. But the two talents, Doom with his densely packed rhymes, Mouse delivering madcap '70s-happy production, are joined here by characters from the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim programs. The result is a fantastic hip-hop disc whose comic breaks work better than almost any I've heard.
A few recent reissues celebrate landmarks in the history of un-intuitive team-ups. In the jazz world, Song X (Nonesuch) finds Pat Metheny, the guitarist whose most successful records have been, almost to a fault, easy to listen to, co-leading a quintet with an artist known for difficulty, saxophonist Ornette Coleman. On the decade-old masterpiece Dead Dog's Eyeball (Bar None), an outsider songwriter who seemed destined to a life of cult stardom, Daniel Johnston, found an interpreter, K. McCarty who could show music lovers what the cultists saw: McCarty and co-producer Brian Beattie bring sharp arrangements and a full band to Johnston's unpolished pop gems, while the singer's voice is stage-trained but still vulnerable enough to capture the desperate mix of emotion behind the writer's lyrics.
On reissues of the first four Run-DMC records (Arista/Legacy), the unusual pairing isn't between artists so much as between musical worlds. The first real crossover stars of rap, the Queens trio embraced rock 'n' roll brashness (collaborating famously with Aerosmith on "Walk This Way") and delivered a string of hits whose lasting pleasures aren't mere nostalgia. Twenty years later, these albums - Run-DMC, King of Rock, Raising Hell, and Tougher Than Leather - still sound like a wake-up call.
The Kronos Quartet has made a career out of ignoring classical music's boundaries, so their new recording with singer Asha Bhosle comes as no surprise. On You've Stolen My Heart (Nonesuch), they enter the exotic wonderland of R.D. Burman's Bollywood soundtracks, adding synthesizers, tablas, and sitar to the string-quartet format; together they prove it's possible to make this music even stranger to Western ears than it was already.
Other non-English-language tag-teams of the moment include Dos Amigos (Back Porch), a what-took-them-so-long pairing of Freddy Fender and Flaco Jimenez, recorded in SA, that looks back fondly to the players' border-music roots; and In the Heart of the Moon (World Circuit), on which Mali's musical ambassadors, Ali Farka Touré and Toumani Diabaté, collaborate for an intimate session that occasionally features Ry Cooder.
The most surprisingly successful cross-cultural effort of the moment, however, is Throw Down Your Arms, a full-on reggae record on which Sinéad O'Connor fronts a band with Sly and Robbie. Sound crazy? Not so much when you think about the singer's career-long willingness to go out on a limb for her political and religious convictions; singing here about the oppressed and judgments to come, she sounds like she's found a second home.
Finally, two more obvious teams that produce great music:
Calexico drags Iron and Wine frontman Sam Beam's music out into their big-horizon, cinematic Western world on In the Reins (Overcoat), and the landscape proves wide enough that nobody steps on anyone's toes. On the teasingly short record (seven songs, under 30 minutes), they play as one band, with Beam providing most vocals and the Calexians painting in a pedal-steel backdrop.
Two other inhabitants of the vague and sprawling Americana scene, Richard Buckner and Jon Langford, might seem (despite their overlapping fan bases) like voices too distinctive to sit comfortably in one studio. So it's a happy shock that Sir Dark Invader vs. The Fanglord (on Langford's homegrown Buried Treasure label, buriedtreasurerecords.com) is among the most successful work either man has done in the last few years. Taking turns at the pen and on lead vocals, the duo wanders back and forth from the familiar territory of Buckner's lonely romantic histories ("Stayed") to Langford's sardonic, imaginative rave-ups ("The Inca Princess") and, even within the confines of a half-hour record, makes them fit nicely. The recordings have taken three years to make their way from Sally Timms' apartment to compact disc, which suggests that this pairing didn't sound like much of a bet to record labels. The leap doesn't seem so weird compared to other current releases, though - especially since Buckner and Langford steered clear of sitars, dreadlocks, and cartoon space-villains. •
By John DeFore