Fun People Art(e) of RomanceLittle Deputy Records

If the Fun People ever played Orange County, even the most boneheaded blond-tips-and-board-shorts punk kids would flip for their classic combination of harmony, fierce energy and contagious charisma. But because they hail from a land far, far beyond even San Clemente—maybe you've heard of Argentina, if only in an Evita-related context?—few Yankees know the Fun People. Until now, perhaps: fighting against the punishing current of cultural imperialism, the Fun People have clambered aboard maverick Texas indie Little Deputy Records after 10 years of below-the-equator hazlo tu mismo punk and released The Art(e) of Romance. It's an expertly crafted record like the ones locals used to make, with a power-chord pop sensibility and perky melodies not far removed from the Simpletones or the Descendents. But while most poppy punk degenerates into something painfully predictable, the Fun People pry cliché apart with wild detours into everything from a cappella balladry to thrashcore to something like traditional Argentine music. Generally, of course, bouncing between genres is like randomly sampling pills from your medicine cabinet: sure, it's noble to experiment and pursue strange new sensations, but you usually just end up with a big pukey mess. But the Fun People somehow zigzag through it all with an easy fluidity, crafting not just an exercise in turning a distortion pedal on and off but stylish, graceful songs, all held together by singer Nekro's incongruously delicate voice. Finally, pop-punk is fun again. (Chris Ziegler)

YOUSSOU N'DOUR
JOKO (THE LINK
NONESUCH RECORDS

A slight name change—Joko (From Village to Town) to Joko (The Link)—wasn't the only alteration when Sony France licensed Senegalese musician Youssou N'Dour's latest CD to Nonesuch Records for American distribution. Released at the beginning of the year everywhere except here, the Sony version—his follow-up to 1994's bubbly Wommat (The Guide)—features appearances by Wyclef Jean, Sting and Peter Gabriel (who introduced many Westerners to N'Dour through his guest vocal on "In Your Eyes") in an effort to replicate the crossover success of Wommat's smash Euro hit, "7 Seconds," a duet with Neneh Cherry. The repackaged Nonesuch version, however, arrives in a less radical but admittedly more cohesive form: five songs trimmer, with Gabriel's raspy backup vocals on "This Dream" serving as the only celeb cameo, and with two new songs, Joko (The Link) offers a mellow blend of mbalax (which transposes traditional rhythms to electronic instruments) tinged with pop. Sung mostly in his native tongue, Wolof, but also with some English, N'Dour portrays a socially conscious, mostly positive view of people. His sandpapery voice urges politicians to stop their bickering and think of the "poor neglected" in "Mademba (The Electricity Is Out Again)." The undulating, high-pitched rhythms of Assane Thiam's fine tama (Senegalese talking drum) playing propels most of the album's songs, particularly the rolling wistfulness of "This Dream." In the hand-waving pop anthem "My Hope Is in You," N'Dour challenges Senegalese youth to "put down your guns and make learning your priority." His preaching doesn't go unheeded in the former French colony, where he's considered a national hero. Now if he'd only get more recognition here. (Anna Barr)

A GUY CALLED GERALD
ESSENCE
STUDIO K7

In Europe, A Guy Called Gerald is revered as one of the founders of the drum & bass scene, along with Goldie and Roni Size. But Americans are still just catching on to the style, and Gerald—knowing how we fear the strange and unrocking —tries hard here to make a smooth, soulful album that won't freak anyone out. The best way to do that, he thinks, is to add a lot of pretty female vocals. And it works—Wendy Page, Lady Kier (you'll remember her as Lady Miss Kier from Deee-lite) and Louise Rhodes (of Lamb, another group that uses drum & bass breaks to liven things up) belt 'em out beautifully, keeping things poppy and contemplative over Gerald's beats. He maintains a hypnotic control over his bottom end, rolling it around the vocals without ever squashing them out. The real surprise, though, is that Gerald knows how to arrange a song much better than most drum &bass producers, whose notions of creativity often involve nothing more than finding a good groove and looping it to death. Many songs on Essence take on a jelling trip-hop ambiance—"Multiplies" is like stripped-down Portishead, while "Beaches & Deserts" could be a Massive Attack B-side. He sometimes steps back to let his breaks speak for themselves, too: "First Breath" is a luscious bumper that bobs along sweetly, while the tempos rise to a more typical drum &bass pace throughout "Universal Spirit." Fans of harder drum &bass won't dig the mostly butter-soft breaks or the polished soul sensibilities Gerald employs, but the true essence of Essence is that it actually transcends its electronic roots, becoming something near-human—the hardest thing for any electronic songwriter to pull off. (Michael Coyle)

 
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