Joko (Nonesuch 94172)
On a certain level, it would be hard to imagine a more unlikely pop star than Youssou N'Dour. A native of Senegal, he sings in Wolof (a local dialect) and performs a style of music called mbalax, which mixes traditional Senegalese styles with guitar-based Afropop. Does this sound like a guy who has even the slightest chance of cracking the Billboard Top 40?
If you said "no," you answered incorrectly. In fact, N'Dour has been in the Top 40 - as guest vocalist on Peter Gabriel's 1986 hit "In Your Eyes." He wound up on the record because Gabriel understood what every N'Dour fan knows: Even if you don't understand a word he's singing, it's impossible not to be moved by the beauty of N'Dour's voice.
That's especially true with "Joko," N'Dour's latest release. Recorded in Dakar, London, Paris and Los Angeles, the album has a strongly international flavor, augmenting the gentle percolation of mbalax with production tricks learned from European club music. There's a cameo by Gabriel (on "This Dream"), and even some singing in English (most notably in "My Hope Is In You" and "Red Clay").
It is the most accessible album of N'Dour's career in the West, yet even so, it does little to dilute his Senegalese sound or style. Nor should it, because even though N'Dour has an exceptional voice - breathtakingly supple, with a honeyed sweetness in the upper register that contrasts beautifully against the tart nasality of his tone - the most appealing thing about his singing is the singularity of his approach.
Where American R&B; singers draw from gospel roots to ornament their melodies, N'Dour takes from both African and Arabic vocal styles, using them to weave embellishments that are as richly detailed as the finest Persian carpets. Looked at through the lens of Western music theory, N'Dour's vocal lines seem to twist the music's logic inside out, pushing the envelope on harmony so far that the melody nearly spills out into a different key before N'Dour snatches it back.
So exceptional are these flights of melodic fancy that it's almost disappointing when N'Dour treats a tune simply. "My Hope Is In You" is a case in point. Apparently intended for the American market, it boasts a straightforward melody and a light, easygoing groove. It's the sort of thing that would fit easily alongside a single like Sting's "Desert Rose," and would, on any other album, be an immediate highlight.
Here, however, it pales in comparison with "Red Clay," a fervent, prayerful song that builds to such intensity that you may find yourself becoming a little verklempt by the final chorus. Unlike "My Hope Is in You," this song boasts a bilingual lyric and thus may not be an easy sell to radio. But its sound, which evokes the best of both Peter Gabriel and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, is so spectacular that its appeal is instantly understandable, even if the lyrics aren't.
But that's typical of N'Dour. At its best, his music seems to prove Longfellow's contention that music is a truly international language, one that respects neither borders nor cultural differences. If you seriously love music, you owe it to yourself to give this disc a spin. ****
In Blue (Lava/Atlantic 83352)
Americans tend to look down on pop, dismissing it as tuneful fluff that's lighter even than ABBA. But as the Corrs see it, pop can be anything from Fleetwood Mac to Shania Twain, which may be why "In Blue" is such an unexpected delight. Even though the quartet's songs are full of buoyant harmonies and melodic uplift, there's nothing saccharine about the music. Instead, tunes like "Give Me a Reason" and "Radio" modulate between minor-key melancholy and pure-pop cheer, grounding the music's melodic appeal in deeper emotions. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the four Corrs have such terrific voices, or that the arrangements occasionally veer off into instrumental lines redolent of Irish traditional music. But at bottom, what makes "In Blue" work are the songs, and from "Breathless" to "Rebel Heart," the album is packed with winners. ***1/2
Twisted Tenderness (Koch 8165)
Given the group's name, it's only natural to assume that Electronic is part of the electronica movement. Indeed, the duo - former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr and New Order vocalist Bernard Sumner - does rely heavily on samples and rhythm loops. Yet even at its most processed, the sound Electronic evokes is that of a rock and roll band. It isn't simply the amount of clangor built into "Haze" or "Like No Other;" Electronic prefers the rough-edged imperfection of live drums, and that lets the music breath in ways that club singles seldom do. That's not to say the group has no interest in club music - the bonus remix of "Make It Happen" is proof enough of that - but its best work is on tracks that blur the boundaries, as with its remake of Blind Faith's "Can't Find My Way Home." ***
Los Amigos Invisibles
Arepa 3000: A Venezuelan Journey Into Space (Luaka Bop 49541)
Mention Latin rhythm to most Anglos, and all that comes to mind is salsa. But there's more to South American music than that - just ask Los Amigos Invisibles. On "Arepa 3000: A Venezuelan Journey Into Space," the group indulges in everything from suave lounge music to Cameo-style funk to jazzy pop - and that's just in the first three songs! Yet no matter how wide-ranging Los Amigos' sound is, these Venezuelans never lose their musical identity or sense of humor. Even if you don't understand Spanish, it's hard not to be delighted by the wit of this sonic space trip - particularly if you're willing to get up and shake it from time to time. ***