Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: The Original Trance Music

To call a concert, especially that of a singer of religious songs, a “revelation” is beyond cliché. Yet there is no better term to describe the first time I saw the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

In his prime, the Pakistani qawwali singer was one of the most passionate and imaginative vocalists of his time, and that night in October 1992 at the Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., he sang his Sufi devotional music with full-throated abandon. Qawwali ‘s purpose is to bring people closer to God, and hearing Mr. Khan belt out wildly careening lines with you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me rhythmic flair, it was clear that some sort of transcendence was taking place. Some folks got so excited they set off the fire alarm, and the building had to be evacuated. Close to an hour passed before we were allowed back inside, but nobody went home in the interim.

I saw Mr. Khan in concert twice more, at Town Hall in 1995–where I sat next to the rabid fan Jeff Buckley–and at Radio City in 1996. At that later show, it was clear that something was wrong. Mr. Khan was now so heavy that he needed to be helped onstage. His performance, though peppered with genius, was comparatively subdued. Within a year, his kidneys had succumbed to long-standing diabetes. He was 49 years old.

Shortly before his death, Mr. Khan entered the studio with producer Rick Rubin to record eight tracks that have just been released as a double-disc set, The Final Studio Recordings (American/Legacy). Mr. Rubin may seem an odd choice for a qawwali album, but his recent work with Johnny Cash shows that he refrains from diluting traditional music. The sound here is crisp, and the tabla and harmonium–the only instruments besides voice–are pumped high in the mix, all the better to hear how they delicately shadow every inflection of the singer’s improvisational flights.

With a few sublime exceptions, Mr. Khan lays back for most of the first disc, leaving the greater share of the vocal fireworks to his younger brother, Farroukh Fateh Ali Khan, and his nephew, Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. (In accordance with family tradition, Mr. Khan had already named Rahat as his successor. He has just released an excellent album of his own, also on American and produced by Mr. Rubin; he will perform at the Bowery Ballroom June 13.) On the second disc, Mr. Khan seems to warm to his task, firing off rounds of daredevil scat singing as the chorus grows more fervent behind him. It’s marvelous stuff, but it takes a while to get to it.

Mr. Khan was at his best when pushing his raspy, soulful voice to the breaking point and beyond, but by the time he recorded these tracks, he was too ill to do that consistently. Newcomers to this remarkable man’s work should first find Shahen-Shah , his 1989 debut on Real World, or any of the five En Concert à Paris discs on Ocora. Unlike the merely very good Final Studio Recordings , those albums contain the kind of music that sets off fire alarms.

–Mac Randall

The White Stripes: Great White Mopes

There must be something in the Schlitz. The Midwest has been pumping out cars and grain and hazardous chemicals and crop after crop of pasty-faced hayseeds since the 50’s. It’s also the swath of the country that has clung the hardest to a brash, gritty form of white rock–no matter that most of the acts were English. By the early 1970’s, they’d all settled in for a prolonged gasfest that has yet to peter out. The MC5. The Stooges. Neil Young. Black Sabbath. The list goes on, and most of the walking dead are still on the road.

So it’s about time we had a fresh reincarnation to stoke the hearts and minds of our culturally starved youth. For all the Velveeta the Midwest has produced, it sometimes comes up with a fine Limburger–raw, pungent, kinda sloppy. That’s the White Stripes.

Ever since their buzz-friendly showcase at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin in March, this brother-sister duo from Detroit has been pushed to the forefront of a “new” garage-rock trend. “Will garage rock be music’s next big thing?” the wags at Entertainment Weekly recently wondered. Oh, come on. Everybody’s heard about the bird. The most significant thing you can say about garage rock is that there’s never been anything new about it; it’s always reveled in a tinny, stripped-down, blues-based skronk. Singer Jack White, who plays guitar and piano while his big sister Meg pounds the drums like a Sasquatch, seems to know this in his bones.

Aside from their modish predilection for dressing only in white or red and invoking the hallowed names of Blind Willie McTell and Loretta Lynn, the White Stripes come across refreshingly uncooked on their third album, White Blood Cells (Sympathy for the Record Industry), with a whiff of the Buzzcocks here (“Fell in Love With a Girl”), a vintage Iggy Stooge bleat there (“Expecting”) and some of the best crunge riffs since Jimmy Page was still in control of his bowels. And they do this without projecting any of that tired scuzz-rock ‘tude emanating from Mr. Blues Punk His’sef, Jon Spencer.

“Well I’m sorry / But I’m not interested in gold mines, oil wells, shipping or real estate,” Jack White proclaims (albeit via lyrics lifted from Citizen Kane ) during an interlude in “The Union Forever.” “What would I liked to have been? / Everything you hate.” The White Stripes sound as if they’ve yet to have their dreams crushed, and that’s a great way to go through life.

–Jay Stowe

The White Stripes will play the Bowery Ballroom on June 16-17, and the Mercury Lounge on June 18.

Ron Sexsmith: Little Boy, Blue?

It happens all the time in movies: The gentle-hearted poet falls in with the dark-souled rebel, and before you can say “Sal Mineo,” the little lamb is staggering around his hometown in a leather jacket, stinking up the place with bourbon breath and dime-store nihilism. Before you’ve finished your popcorn, he’s dead–a symbol of innocence lost, or some crap like that.

This scenario crossed my mind when I saw that the dark prince of Nashville, Steve Earle, had produced baby-faced bard of Ontario Ron Sexsmith’s new album, Blue Boy (Spinart). Actually, my first reaction was: intriguing combination. As singer-songwriters go, Mr. Earle and Mr. Sexsmith are some of the best we’ve got, guys who consistently create four-minute worlds that seem as emotionally vivid as the one going on outside our apartment doors.

Then I remembered that these men have significantly different worldviews. Mr. Earle is a pragmatist–his last album featured a lovely song called “I Don’t Wanna Lose You Yet”–while Mr. Sexsmith remains an optimist, even when he’s foundering in the shadows. “As far as I can tell / The dark as well / Wears a thinly veiled disguise,” he sang on his excellent second album, Other Songs.

The good news is that Mr. Sexsmith does not pull a Mineo on Blue Boy . Mr. Earle drags in his love of layered Beatles psychedelia, reggae and snare drums and gives Mr. Sexsmith a musical kick in the pants. Though the album has its sinister moments (listen to “Parable,” in which the “poor loser” wonders: “What if that bad winner / Were to have a little accident?”), Mr. Sexsmith’s plain-spoken romanticism wins out.

That struggle between dark and light can be found on the very first track, “This Song.” In a voice that sounds like a smooth hybrid of Van Morrison and Chet Baker, Mr. Sexsmith sings of bringing a fragile song “into this world,” asking repeatedly, “How can this song survive?” But he also declares: “I’ll never leave this song alone / I’m gonna keep it / Safe and warm / For hate is strong / And darkness thrives.”

Not every song on Blue Boy is a gem. The mournful organ and guitar line of “Cheap Hotel” sound great, but the lyrics, about a woman fleeing her abusive husband, feel wan. But there are no real clunkers. Mr. Sexsmith continues to pack his beautifully simple lyrics with little surprises. On “Fallen,” for example, he uses the image of autumn leaves to symbolize not the predictable specter of death, but an intense love: “And the leaves have lost hold / Of the branches as always / Which leaves us with gold / And wine-colored pathways / In the same way, I’ve fallen for you.”

There are moments–such as on “Don’t Ask Why” and “Just My Heart Talkin'”–when the music sounds so much like Mr. Earle’s that you half-expect to hear his world-weary voice over the jangly guitars. Then Mr. Sexsmith shows up and makes you believe that optimists can operate in a dangerous world.

– Frank DiGiacomo