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  Listen Up! 8/11/03 Listen Up!

Monday, Aug. 11

Youssou N’Dour, “Nothing’s In Vain,” Nonesuch Records. Youssou N’Dour’s best records go down sweet and easy, offering much pleasure. For some strange reason, though, I can’t seem to remember them a month later, when I hear them again. And, if I go three or four months, as I have with this latest album, it’s like I’m starting all over from scratch. This is one of his best records, that much I’m sure. His lesser albums don’t sound this vibrant, don’t have soaring vocal melodies, try too hard to reach out to American audiences. But, as much as I enjoy this when I hear it, I have to wonder why there is no staying power to this music.

Stephen Stills, “Manassas,” Atlantic Records. I’ve wanted to own this record for better than 30 years, and now I’m ready. I’ve heard bits and pieces before, but this is my chance to familiarize myself with a very fine collection of mostly country-rock ditties from this combination of Stills (on vacation from CSNY at the time) and ex-Byrd, ex-Burrito Brother Chris Hillman. I always thought it was cool that all the other guys in the band got their names on the front cover, but it’s still Stills and Hillman that were the stars. While this was a step on the devolution of the country and rock marriage – since this record is slicker than the Flying Burrito Brothers work – it’s still a delight to hear these guys figure out how to handle forms that seemed so fresh and exciting to them. And, there is still some rock to remind us where they came from.

The Temptations, “Psychedelic Soul,” Motown Chronicles. You know “Cloud Nine,” “Psychedleic Shack,” “Ball of Confusion” and “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone,” though you don’t always know the magnificent longer versions of some of these huge hits. Obviously, lots of people bought the albums from the Tempts Dennis Edwards as lead singer period which coincided with their Norman Whitfield as producer period. But, lots more, including me, only knew the singles. For us, this double CD set is a revelation, 24 masterpieces of psychedelic funk tailored to the talents of these magnificent vocalists. No, not just those vocalists, but the musicians as well, presumably sometimes being the Detroit crew we know as the Funk Brothers yet more often being the California bunch that took over when Motown went across the country. Whoever they are, they could lay down impeccable grooves with subtle shifts in intensity. There are often long stretches of several minutes where just a simple figure gets repeated ad infinitum, and you never get bored. In fact, you never want it to stop.

Guided By Voices, “Earthquake Glue,” Matador Records. Fifteen variations on the Who’s “Disguises.” Well, maybe two or three of these songs don’t quite fit the template. But, Robert Pollard’s melodies just all sound the same to me, and the messy unseparated sound ain’t doing him no favors this time around. Really, I don’t mind this record, but once again, I’m left completely stupefied as to why GbV get so many rave reviews from people I respect.

AC/DC, “Powerage,” Atlantic Records. I don’t care what your favorite AC/DC record is. Mine is “Back in Black,” followed by “Highway to Hell,” but really, why quibble? They all have good stuff on them. Anyway, whatever your favorite is, run out and pick up the newly remastered version of it. This is the first time I’ve heard one of these since they hit the store a few months ago, and holy cow! The band has never sounded better. AC/DC is all about the rhythm, that amazing riff machine named Malcom Young, that pulsating bass and drum tandem named Cliff Williams and Phil Rudd, that lead guitar that always hammers home the beat from Angus Young, and those four-on-the-floor screams from vocalist Bon Scott or later Brian Johnson. So, yes, some songs are better than others, but the basic template is always there, and if the sound gets this good, you might as well get some of it in your life.

--Steve Pick

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