If you could take the many sounds of Manhattan -- from the pick-up lines of a Latin lover to the indecipherable accent of a cab driver -- and fuse them all together, the result would be something akin to Yerba Buena's Island Life. The second album from this eclectic ensemble is so packed with worldly rhythms that it begs for new dance moves. Seemingly dissimilar sounds such as hip-hop and flamenco converge perfectly. Plus, guest appearances from world-renowned musicians including Latin rappers Orishas, Spanish flamenco singer Diego El Cigala and the late, great Celia Cruz give it true authenticity. Yet this album is much more than an experimental fusion of rhythms and melodies; it is a true compilation showing all the different faces of America, from the Latino teen whose primary language is Spanglish to the Cuban grandmother whose homemade remedy -- tea made from yerba buena leaves -- will cure anything that ails you. Island Life is an homage to diversity that's best summed up in the lyrics of its eighth track, "Bilingual Girl": "All I want is a bilingual girl... / 'Cause two tongues are better than one."
Track to burn: "Bla Bla Bla"--Ailen Jardines
This 12-track compendium of some of primal rap's original building-block tracks is more than an endlessly interesting game of Spot the Sample -- it's both a piece of hip-hop history and a collection of mostly great R&B and beat-worthy rock and pop tunes. Instantly recognizable beats and sounds come courtesy of Lyn Collins' oft-lifted, JB's-backed "Think (About It)"; Bob James' Timbaland fave "Take Me to the Mardi Gras"; James Brown's "Give It Up or Turnit A Loose" and many others. Billy Squier's "The Big Beat" is a head-scratcher until you realize how popular the beat has been in rap, from LL Cool J to Jay-Z. And the Monkees' "Mary Mary" immediately recalls Run-D.M.C.'s track of the same name. Rather than provide a lesson in the evolution of rap, this anthology simply offers songs that played a part in that evolution, to celebratory effect.
Track to burn: "Think (About It)"--Scott Harrell
Since the Chapel Hill-based Superchunk hasn't been touring or recording much lately, front man Mac McCaughan's had more time to tinker and refine the sound of his side project, Portastatic. On its last couple of albums, Portastatic has transformed from its beginnings as a lo-fi, keyboard-driven act whose shimmery, watercolor numbers resembled Lou Barlow's early solo recordings to a guitar-driven band similar to the 'Chunksters on their 2001 album, Here's to Shutting Up. McCaughan hasn't fully committed to the rock, though, so Bright Ideas is dotted with gentle indie-pop numbers that co-exist a little uncomfortably with the Chunk-ier attack of other songs. The title track has a downbeat, bossa nova feel and slinky charm that is nicely bookended by the album's folk-pop-ish closer, "Full of Stars." Those are the only two non-rock tunes that really succeed. "Through With People" works a mid-tempo bounce and slowly builds to a big chorus, like Superchunk's "Art Class," while "White Wave" recalls the classic punch of Superchunk's earlier albums. A good, but not great album.
Track to burn: "White Wave"--Chris Parker
The solo debut from the former lead singer of Mexico's alternative-pop act La Dosis spins an evocative album that is at once eerie and calming, and softer overall than her work with her old band. The frequent appearance of words like pain, hurt and fear, framed by Valenzuela's evocative voice and moody pop-electronica, and complemented by the talent of Downtown NYC guitarist Marc Ribot (Elvis Costello, Tom Waits), entices even the most cynical listener. The intense, yearning vocals on "Llover" oddly lure you into the haunting world of the protagonist, who is suffocating in the thralls of nightmares. But it's not all gloomy. Valenzuela offers trembling lips and sex in "Tócame"; funky, syncopated rhythms, jazzy sax and flute in "Para Qué"; the sweet acoustic guitar and thumping bass of "Dejar Entrar"; the club beats of "Recuperar" and a voice that is at once airy and intense, silky and raspy, passionate and dreamy.
Track to burn: "Llover"--Sarah Atkinson