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Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars

LIVING LIKE A REFUGEE

Amidst Sierra Leone’s devastating civil war and the consequent displacement of citizens throughout refugee camps in neighboring Guinea and Liberia, the musicians of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars joined together to form a band. And recently, international audiences have gladly met their acquaintance.

The All Stars’ recognition is largely indebted to Bay Area artists Zach Niles and Banker White’s celebrated documentary. The film recounts the bands musical evolution and return to ruined Freetown. But Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars’ debut album, Living Like a Refugee, validates their acclaim.

Oddly enough, music created in the face of internal strife sounds like a cheerful blend of roots reggae and West African folk-pop. Bandleader Reuben Koroma initiates their project saying, “I just take all the problems, the suffering of the people, and then make some music.” While calling for justice, thanking the U.N. and reproving a “weapon conflict for the sake of power,” the tracks sustain a lively, danceable melody.

The band recorded their title track long before signing with Anti. Truly the lowest of low-tech, the song was laid down in a wood hut. Acoustic guitar and makeshift percussion set the beat while the voices of Reuben, Mohammed, Arahim “Jah Voice”, Franco, Black Nature and Sister Grace deepen the sound, harmonizing in the chorus: “Living like a refugee is not easy.”

Relying solely on vocal harmonies, acoustic instrumentation and original songwriting, their honest sound might be the happiest on earth.

Lauren Gallo

Sparklehorse

DREAMT FOR LIGHT YEARS IN THE BELLY OF A MOUNTAIN

In 2001, Sparklehorse released It’s a Wonderful Life, an album full of ballads and waltzes, “piano fires” and “seas of teeth.” Every review in America rightly called it “sad,” “dream-like” and “beautiful.” The album’s success laid in bandleader Mark Linkous’ ability to distill the discrepant elements of his band’s early work into a focused statement. It all sounded like a pretty amazing dream.

Dreamt for Light Years Inside the Belly of a Mountain, Linkous’ first work in five years, opens with “Don’t Take My Sunshine Away,” which sets the tone for the rest of the album—alternately chaotic and subdued, richly produced, partially amazing but also incidental. Song movements transpire readily and in abundance, but they do so with a strange listlessness. It’s as if Linkous has spent the last five years insulating himself so deeply into his work that his artistic logic is now nearly impenetrable.

Frustratingly, there is only one great song here: the momentous “Some Sweet Day.” Here, Linkous creates what appears to be his goal throughout the album: a truly beautiful pop song with many complicated conveyances, all encapsulated by a great couplet: “I was the one who loved you most/you can’t put your arms around a ghost.”

But too often, these moments feel either forced or completely accidental, and Linkous rarely feels in control of the process—evidenced most clearly in the overlong title track, which starts with a fragile piano figure that is quickly buried in false-sounding synthesizers.

In this case, hearing someone talk about their dreams is pretty boring.

Jonathon Atkinson

Sean Lennon

FRIENDLY FIRE

Sean Lennon has always been the most fashionable Beatles child—look no further than his resume of hobnobbing with the likes of Dan the Automator and Cibo Matto—but one gets the feeling that if he was dying to prove himself as a solo artist, he would have followed up his debut Into the Sun sooner than eight years after the fact.

Luckily, Lennon’s eclectic posse and affinity for quirk have found him a niche that appeals to a generation that maybe isn’t as hung up on his mom and pop. This freedom has allowed Lennon modest success as a songwriter in the vein of Elliott Smith and Jon Brion, the latter of whom appears here with cohort Matt Chamberlain, giving Friendly Fire a much-needed musical backbone.

And at first glance it’s Jon and not John who seems to haunt this album the most. Brion’s typically heavy-handed take on vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley often threaten to upstage Lennon on songs such as “Dead Meat,” but the ear candy is the saving grace of an album full of charming but perhaps meek songs that need the extra push. On “Tomorrow,” the pair finds the perfect note. Lennon sings gently while an unmistakably Brionesque music box twinkles in the background, stirring up images of Jeremy Blake’s technicolor artwork from “Punch Drunk Love.”

And while the album does have its charms, it’s often laid back and easy to a fault. Lennon sounds wistful and whimsical, so much that it’s easy to tune his thin and nasally voice out and get lost in the accomplished instrumentation, which is a weakness that Lennon will have to hammer out if he wantes listeners to be impressed by his songwriting and not just his list of collaborators.

Sean Manning

The Scissor Sisters

TA-DAH

The Scissor Sisters release their second album, Ta-Dah, on precarious grounds. The uber-flamboyant disco band’s self-titled debut made an impression, but now they must hope that their new release will establish them as respectable modern pop artists.

The verdict is, unfortunately, bought time. They’ll coast on some airplay from the album’s more inspired tracks, but Ta-Dah ultimately disappoints because where their brilliantly infectious debut spread disco fever like the plague, the second just isn’t quite as contagious.

Still, the album is occasionally wonderful. Songs like “Don’t Feel Like Dancing” have got it all. The bouncy backbeat, the joyful Jake Shears falsetto and a groovy piano melody banged out by Sir Elton John all combine for a song that will even bring dead stiffs to disco.

All the same, it’s hard not to feel like they’ve lost that loving feeling. They strike gold less often and when they do, it merely sounds like they’re mimicking their previous efforts.

Take each album’s principle ballads. The debut brought us the heart wrenching “Mary.” Its pulsing piano chords, tender lyrics, and fleshed-out chorus created an utterly human song with an epic sound. The new “Land of a Thousand Words” follows that formula, but lacks the emotional backdrop so apparent with “Mary.” Rather, as with most of the songs from Ta-Dah, the motivation here is based on trying to match the success of its predecessor.

Colin Sweeney

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