Holiday Box-Set Roundup

Listening to the three discs composing Farewells and Fantasies can be heartbreaking. Following Ochs's path from witty, hopeful numbers like "What's That I Hear" and incisive barbs like "Love Me, I'm a Liberal" to the baroque Scott Walker-styled sorrow of "Pleasures of the Harbor" and "Rehearsals for Retirement" is like sputtering down an off-ramp to nowhere. Perhaps it's the grimness of Ochs's later numbers that prompted the set's compilers to skimp on the songwriter's final work in favor of the earlier, easily digestible protest songs.

Yet, while the mid-'60s songs are undeniably powerful, the darker-hued, more musically complex material that followed strikes the deepest chord. Particularly gut-wrenching is his final studio recording, "No More Songs" (1970), an ironically exquisite examination of Ochs's artistic block. Against a majestic backdrop of timpani, horns, and strings, Ochs hauntingly apologizes to the listener for surrendering his muse with "a white flag in my hand." Today it rings reminiscent of Kurt Cobain's reading of Lead Belly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night." You can almost hear Ochs dying in his song. If you listen hard enough, you might hear the '60s go with him. (Ruttenberg)

various artists
Holding Up Half the Sky: Women's Voices from Around the World

YES, I KNOW: You're sick of women's film festivals, women's art collectives, goddess cults (which I swear have more variants here in Northern Cali than Mickey D's has national franchises), and "Women in Rock" magazine covers. Me? It's all fine: Art and culture need marketing hooks, and goddesses--like all deities--need worship. So aside from the chintzy Gaian new-age bookstore packaging, I heartily endorse Holding Up Half the Sky, a four-CD box, which sets out to (re?)expose far-flung artists that you'd probably never get to hear if they didn't come on a record bearing Sky's subtitle.

The music gets parsed into Asian, Celtic, Reggae, and African sets, and while the samplings aren't definitive, they're well-informed. The standout African disc bypasses Egypt's Om Kalthum--probably the continent's biggest star ever--but does include a delicious mid-'70s recording by South Africa's Miriam Makeba, probably the continent's second biggest star ever. I don't know where Zaire's Tshala Muana charts, but this set includes the boffo "Tshibola": Originally from 1991's Soukous Siren (easily one of my all-time favorite Afro-pop recordings), it has her representing tougher than L'il Kim in a Don King pay-per-view, and rocking harder than Shania Twain on a mechanical bronco. You also get girl-group mbaqanga from South Africa (the Mahotella Queens, with a little number about ritual circumcision), girl-group juju from the Lijadu Sisters singing about God-knows-what, and stranger hybrids like Malika's Swahili wedding-band pop and Malouma Mint Miadeh's Arabic-inflected take on Quiet Storm. It's all primo.

The other sets do right by their traditions, too. The Celtic disc gets points for capturing talented artists like Clannad and Mary Black before they got crossover sticky. The Asian set scores by hopping the frisson between decorum and passion (and also for how darn avant-garde it all sounds). And the reggae collection is recommended for reinvigorating history and avoiding cheese--though it should be docked for using the edited version of Rita Marley's "One Draw," which cuts out the midsong skit where the school marm gets turned on to ganja by her red-eyed Rasta pupils. Maybe the producers were worried about C. Delores Tucker? Cowards. They could always have pleaded sisterhood. (Will Hermes)

various artists
I Am Time
Blue Jackal

I AM TIME attempts the near impossible feat of compiling the history of Cuban music into one neat four-CD package. And, consequently, it fails. The greatest singer in Cuban music, supa soulsista Célia Cruz, is not here; neither is its most famous salsa bandleader, Tito Puente--assumedly for copyright reasons (Rhino has recently released excellent compilations of both). Bassist-bandleader Cachao, frequently compared to Mingus, is here, but only once. (Get to know him through Epic's Super Sessions.) Same holds true for legends like Bene Moré, and key players like Arturo Sandoval. And though its century of song reaches well into the '90s, the white-hot, genre-hopping singing star Albita Rodriquez is, sadly, not in the house. Yet, while this may not be the best possible pop-music passport to a country whose riches are known only too vaguely by most Americans (thank you "cultural boycott"), it still stands out as an excellent introduction for any curious Yan-qui, and an inexhaustible pleasure-listen, regardless of where you're from--or how much you already know.

Divided into four programs--"Bailar con Cuba," "Cantar en Cuba," "Cubano Jazz," and "Cuban Invocations"--I Am Time finds that socio-musical sacred space where Hispanic Catholicism and West African tribal religions miscegenate. My favorite song here is Merceditas Valdés's goody basket, "Osain," in which a stately, Eurocentric wash of piano and acoustic guitar fades into a sublime Afro-polyrhythmic bump-and-grind sheared by West African, call-and-response sing-chants. It comes on the "Invocations" disc, along with 12 other love-sexy Afro-Cuban prayer-jams--all of which are thoroughly discussed in Time's 112-page liner notes. As are all the different drums, dances, artists, and singing styles that crop up on the other three discs. But the notes are inessential. Bene Moré's breezy big-band beats, Ñico Sequito's spare, plaintive ballad "Maria Christina," and Irakere's acidic jazz-funk all speak for themselves, and they do it in tongues. Wild ones, and weird ones too. Oh yeah, and it comes in a cigar box. Essential. (Dolan)

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