CD Reviews

Orchestra Baobab
Pirates Choice
(CD, Nonesuch/World Circuit)
Over the last decade, lots of us have been introduced to some exciting African performers — people like Ali Farka Toure and Youssou 'Dour, and most recently Cheikh Lô, whose indigenous musical styles are colored by Western music as much as ours were, a century ago, by theirs. Many of us have wondered about how this cross-pollination takes place, when economic differences, governments, and an ocean stand between our continents.

Pirates Choice, by the Senegalese Orchestra Baobob, brings the curious one step closer to an answer. The packaging on this reissue is full of photos of young Africans posing with their favorite records in their hands: Latin bandleader Tito Rodriguez and Blue Note organist Jimmy Smith are prominently featured, but it's clear that these kids had access to records from all over.

Stick the disc in, and you may at first think you've switched it for your Buena Vista Social Club record; the groove is exactly the same. Turns out, Latin music — especially Cuban — was a staple of Senegal's nightclubs in the '40s and '50s. Filtered through these musicians, though, the music is more languid, relaxed, and sexy; that's true of this whole collection, whether the group is playing in a Cuban mode or in their own style. The Orchestra was one of Senegal's key big bands through the '70s, and laid the groundwork for the better-known (on these shores) bands that followed. These tracks were laid down, in fact, in the same year that 'Dour formed his famous Super Etoile De Dakar. It's the most danceable history lesson of the month.

Eartha Kitt
Heavenly Eartha
(CD, Bluebird/RCA)
She may be best known to Current readers for her stint as Catwoman in the old Batman TV series, but Eartha Kitt wore many hats in addition to those sexy little cat ears. In the '50s, for instance, she was a bit of much-needed spice in pop's vanilla mainstream; this new collection shows the breadth and breathiness of her output during that time. (But before praising it: Why must low-priced series always have lousy packaging?)

The opening track, "I Want To Be Evil," sums up the most memorable sides of Kitt's stage persona. The lyric starts with our narrator haughtily proclaiming her virtue, but even as she does we can hear the hedonist lurking beneath the surface. Soon she's joyously recounting the sins (make that "sinsssssss") she longs to commit. It's an exultation of self-interest that comes to fruition on the singer's most enduring tune, "Santa Baby" (one that Madonna covered back when her "persona of the month" strategy was halfway convincing). There, the original Material Girl molded her vocal delivery into the mainstream, purring a paean to sexual extortion that must've sounded great coming from Ward and June Cleaver's radio.

Between those bits of depravity is an illustration of Kitt's acting range; like Marlene Dietrich, she was at home in the myriad cultures of the cabaret, ranging from the Jacques Brel-ish "The Heel" to the broken-calliope dissonance of "The Day That The Circus Left Town" — with a break on Beale Street — without batting an eye. Her memorably campy voice, with a big, wide vibrato suits almost all of them well.

The very things that demonstrate her confidence, though, occasionally point in another direction. On "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes," her theatrics turn fragile, and the vibrato seems a prelude to tears. It's not the most beautiful rendition of this lovely standard, but it's one of the most convincing — whether that's a tribute to Kitt's acting, or a window into her soul, is anybody's guess.

Various Artists
The Big Beat of Dave Bartholomew
(CD, EMI Records)
Most casual fans of American roots music are about as familiar with the New Orleans R&B/rock 'n' roll scene as a hangover victim is with the strangers he met the night before: He remembers he had a great time, and recalls the odd detail, but the names and faces are a blur. But for every character so outlandish he couldn't be forgotten (Professor Longhair, say), there are a dozen others without whom the party wouldn't have happened.

EMI's new "Crescent City Soul" series may be anchored by the region's one bona fide star (the four-disc Fats Domino box Walking to New Orleans is indispensable for those who didn't pick up the set the label released a decade ago), but three various artist compilations provide a solid, rollicking introduction to the rest of the scene. This set has the fewest well-known names, but does the best job of painting the picture beyond "Blueberry Hill."

From novelty tunes like "The Monkey" (a hilarious commentary on the Scopes trial) to doo-wop mutants like the Spiders' "Witchcraft," a handful of genres are marinated in a sensibility — kind of sloppy, drag-footed even on uptempo numbers — that unites them without making them homogenous. The listener is treated to a number of Fats' hits done by other artists who relish the rough edges inherent in them — like Smiley Lewis' "Blue Monday," with a plodding rhythm section that evokes the start of the work week in a way Domino avoided.

More common, though, are the numbers that take weariness and set it on its head. In "Sick and Tired," Chris Kenner is exasperated with his lover, but the syncopated horns that accompany his complaint prove that he's not going to let her keep him from having a good time.

I'm exasperated with crappy CD packaging (this series is a prime offender, though at least they have decent liner notes). But the music here keeps me in the Kenner camp: I'm having too good a time to worry much about it.

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