People Get Ready: The Curtis Mayfield Story
Curtis Mayfield (Rhino 72262, three CDs)
You don't have to be a rock historian to appreciate the breadth and depth of Curtis Mayfield's achievements, but until recently you did have to have a pretty good album collection. Even though Mayfield's influence reverberates through the work of such contemporary pop stars as Ice-T, Speech and Lenny Kravitz, as little as five years ago, there was precious little of his work available on CD. Although a 1992 anthology called "Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions" offered a reasonable overview of his early soul-harmony work, it terrifically shortchanged his solo career. Fortunately, "People Get Ready: The Curtis Mayfield Story" helps redress that error. This three-CD set starts off with the best of the Impressions, and then follows through with more than three dozen selections from his solo work. So in addition to all the obvious stuff -- "Superfly," "Freddie's Dead," "Future Shock" -- we hear lesser-known gems, such as "Sweet Exorcist" and "Mr. Welfare Man." There's even enough from his disco-era work to suggest that those recordings (particularly his duets with Linda Clifford) have been unjustly underrated. Get ready to be impressed!
Fugees (Refugee Camp) (Ruffhouse/Columbia 67147)
American pop culture has long benefited from the ideas brought in by immigrants, so it makes sense that the Fugees (a trio whose name derives from its members' status as Caribbean refugees) would have one of the freshest sounds in rap today. The surprise lies the way the group's influences play out in "The Score." "Zealots," for instance, balances a plaintive, reggae-style vocal by Wyclef and a bluesy interlude by Lauryn Hill against a slow-thumping beat and a moody sample from the Flamingos' "I Only Have Eyes for You" -- not your typical combination of rap ingredients. But that's the point. Because the Fugees refuse to keep their sound neat and predictable, it ends up seeming as broad as the American experience itself, leaving room for everything from the Delfonics' "Ready or Not Here I Come" to Rockwell's "Somebody's Watching Me." Credit the Fugee crew's extraordinary taste for some of that, but don't discount its innate musicality. Hill alone does the work of three people, not only co-producing the album but uncorking complex rhyme cadences and singing like a pro -- her rendition of "Killing Me Softly" is so convincing, you'd think it was a sample. No wonder "The Score" puts the Fugees on top.
Dadawa (Sire 61889)
It's tempting to think of Dadawa as the Chinese Enya. Like her Celtic counterpart, Dadawa uses her voice as a bridge between the high-tech sound of synthesizers and the age-old feel of traditional folk music -- in the case of "Sister Drum," the music of Tibet. But unlike Enya, who makes all the music herself, Dadawa worked with several collaborators on "Sister Drum," most notably composer HE Xuntian, and they bring a broader range of colors to the music. Thus, "Sky Burial" balances monk-like male chanting with the angelic harmony of a women's choir, as Dadawa's plangent voice twists bluesily through the main theme, while "Di Wei Shin Kan, New Wei Shin Kan" layers tuned drums, drone-like chanting and antiphonal vocals beneath her bright, breathy lead vocal. It makes for music of astonishing richness and beauty, offering a surprisingly accessible glimpse of the ancient majesty of Tibetan culture.
Tiny Tim & Brave Combo (Philo 9050)
Are you ready to take Tiny Tim seriously? Of course not. If ever a singer were destined for dismissal as a novelty act, it would be him. Yet "Girl," his new album with Brave Combo, sounds like nothing so much as a bid for respectability. Although the album clearly has its comedic side, such genuine joke songs as "Sly Cigarette" are far outnumbered by such seemingly earnest efforts as the title tune, a relatively straight reading of the Beatles song, or his tremulous falsetto rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." Trouble is, Tim just doesn't sing well enough for those attempts ever to amount to much. It isn't just that his bleating, billy-goat vibrato regularly wanders off-pitch; his interpretations are equally misdirected, as with his bizarre, swing-inflected take on "Stairway to Heaven." But it would unfair to place the blame entirely with him, because Brave Combo compounds the damage by fleshing out Tim's ear-torturing warble with irritating electronic effects (as on "Stardust" and "Hey Jude") and painfully inappropriate instrumental arrangements (for instance, "Bye Bye Blackbird" done as a Mexicali twist). Haven't music fans already suffered enough?