Recordings

Dadawa
Sister Drum
(Sire)

Her name is Dadawa. She's the 25-year-old singing daughter of a science magazine editor in the Canton province of the People's Republic of China.

And she's about the biggest thing to come up in her homeland since the Great Wall.

Dadawa is the People's choice by virtue of Sister Drum, a pseudospiritual CD of neo-Western sounds based on her apparently sudden discovery of Tibetan culture. The album's formula recently won over China's mainland masses in a big way. Similar success in areas beyond the Great Wall may prove harder to achieve.

Dadawa's attraction is her considerable singing voice. She croons like a stir-fry of Kate Bush, Tori Amos and Sarah McLachlan, with a dash of Sheila Chandra's Eastern aesthetic in the mix. The seven songs on Sister Drum set Dadawa's vocals amid a mist of new-age ambiance, which makes for moments both mundane and moving. The good stuff happens when Dadawa's singing plays touch-and-go with bliss--agame she wins when she catches hold of distinctive, melodic hooks. Dadawa adds to the evocation by adapting her voice to different world-music styles. She assumes an almost Gaelic flair on the title cut and comes off like a member of a Bulgarian Women's Choir on the pithy, catchy chorus of "Paradise Inferno."

But Dadawa's charm literally disappears when her chameleonic voice gets lost in her album's heavily synthesized background. The soupy atmosphere is the work of producer HE Xuntian, a gurulike presence in Chinese pop-music circles. He overwhelms the star singer on the opening cut, "Home Without Shadow," by hammering away with percussion that rumbles like distant hydrogen bombs. The song is also burdened with repetitive background vocal chants that only a fan of Laurie Anderson or Philip Glass could stomach.

"Home Without Shadow" is the only song here that Dadawa wrote herself. Almost everything else was penned by Xuntian and his brother, lyricist HE Xunyou, which adds a palpable sense of calculation to a disc that's supposed to represent Dadawa's epiphany at having discovered Tibetan culture. That Xuntian trusted his brother--and not Dadawa--to put the singer's spiritual experience to words says something of the nagging contrivance surrounding this project.

That the Tibetan subject matter has apparently gripped the Chinese public says even more. Chinese oppression of Tibet is a long-running cold sore in the world community. By embracing Dadawa's fawning "pilgrimage," Chinese listeners perhaps feel as though they are sympathizing with the Tibetan "troubles."

It's doubtful such a guilt trip can work similar commercial wonders on this side of Katmandu.--Ted Simons

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Murder Ballads
(Reprise)

A Nick Cave album called Murder Ballads--what else is new? Cave's been writing songs about killing and other evils since he first arrived in 1980 as Birthday Party's pale and skinny goth-punk version of Jim Morrison. But wait--these murder ballads are different; tantalizingly deliberate. Sure, there's plenty of trademark Cave here, but this is a fascinating concept album that literally uses the ballad form--simply structured narrative songs in the English folk tradition--to tell of murder in a variety of ways: random deaths, passion crimes and killing sprees, all wrapped up in one bloody parcel.

Cave clearly thrives in this genre, and he produces some of his sharpest and most facile writing to date. "Song of Joy," a genuinely scary campfire mystery about a murdered family and an unnamed killer, chillingly weaves clues into the lyrics, while "Where the Wild Roses Grow" is a narrative duet where killer (Cave) and victim (pop star Kylie Minogue) reveal parallel tales. Cave even shows his knack for adaptation on Dylan's "Death Is Not the End," recontextualizing a song of heavenly comfort into a zombified "We Are the World" (featuring Minogue, PJ Harvey and Shane MacGowan, among others), where "death is not the end" of pain and suffering.

Above all, Murder Ballads should be heard as a work of pulp fiction--as essentially funny as it is harrowing. In Cave's hands, the violent traditional song "Stagger Lee" becomes gangsta folk, as ridiculously chocked with obscenity and brutality as any of the Geto Boys' rap. And Cave's (unintentional?) point--that badass songs existed long before Snoop Doggy Dogg shot up theairwaves--deserves not to be missed.--Roni Sarig

Mephiskapheles
God Bless Satan
(Pass the Virgin)

Faster than you can say "the dark lord is my shepherd," God Bless Satan will work its way into your heart like a candy-coated pitchfork. This joyous, satirical proclamation of love for the horned one sets forth 13 tracks of goofy-but-potent hard ska.

It's hard--no, make that impossible--to take seriously any album whose title track spotlights the lyric "My bologna has a first name, it's S-a-t-a-n/My bologna has a second name, it's D-e-v-i-l." No matter. The real meat here lies in Mephiskapheles' rapid-fire delivery, peppered with wicked-hot guitars and horns.

Belying their jazz and hard-core roots, the eight members of Mephiskapheles break from the traditional pogo-bop favored by fellow New Yorkers the Toasters and the Slackers, opting instead for a brisk ska/punk backbeat overlayed with experimental jazz riffs and lush horn harmonies, all executed at diabolical speeds. Especially good is "Satanic Debris," which has lead vox, the Nubian Nightmare, caterwauling over a syncopated slam. On "Bad John" and "Finnigan's Froth," Mephiskapheles abandons the ska sound altogether for breezy reggae stylings--a much needed reprieve on this otherwise fiery, frenetic disc.

Lord knows how it found its way onto the recording, but "Bumble Bee Tuna Song" closes out this tour de force with a jingly, sickening, sing-along ode to tuna fish sandwiches. Forgive them, Father--the devil made them do it.--Leigh Silverman

 
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