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Tuesday Reviewsday: Belle and Sebastian, Swamp Dogg and Zomba Prison Project

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Music video for "The White Man Made Me Do It" by Swamp Dogg.
Swamp Dogg (via YouTube)

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Music journalist Steve Hochman joins A Martinez with some brand new music for this week's Tuesday Reviewsday.

Steve Hochman

Artist: Swamp Dogg
Album: "The White Man Made Me Do It"
Songs: "The White Man Made Me Do It," "Lying, Lying, Lying Woman"
Forty-five years ago, songwriter and producer Jerry Williams Jr., under the name Swamp Dogg, released "Total Destruction" to Your Mind, one of its era’s most dynamic mixes of soul, rock, funk, psychedelia and even country, all bound with a biting socio-political edge. Pretty much no one noticed.

Over the years, though, "Total Destruction" won a small, but impressive and influential cult of fans, who equally cherished further Swamp Dogg albums, even if he was obscured behind such kindred spirits as Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield and George Clinton.

Now the original D-O-Double-G has released what he’s billing as the long-awaited sequel to that masterpiece. And you know what? "The White Man Made Me Do It" lives up to that hype.

Dogg/Williams is now 72, but this album taps into the same feisty spirit and ambitiously wide reach of the original, right from the intensely buoyant opening salvo of the title track — seven minutes-plus of pointed, stinging, rockin’ funk. It does kind of pick up with "Total Destruction" left off, but with a new vitality. Some of that comes from young musician known as MoogStar, who has been leading Dogg’s band as he’s returned to active performance in recent times and co-produced the album. But anyone who’s seen Swamp Dogg in those shows knows that he’s got no lack of energy or wild spirit. Not to mention a caustic, provocative take on things, as the title and video for the title song make clear. This is not a nostalgic look back, but a statement of how he sees things right now.

That said, there are ties to the past in this album, with homages to hero Sam Cooke with a tasty "You Send Me," and to the great ‘50s doo-wop and R&B with witty renditions of the Clovers’ "Your Cash Ain’t Nothin’ But Trash" and the Jerry Lieber-Mike Stoller classic "Smokey Joe’s Cafe." There’s also a nod to his penchant for controversy and shock-value cover art, such as his old Rat On on which he was pictured riding a giant, you guessed it, rat. The rodent makes a return appearance here, normal sized and being walked by Swamp Dogg on a leash.

And then there’s a tribute to someone who serves as both a role model and cautionary tale, Sly Stone, with the original "Where Is Sly?" Well, Sly is a lost soul. But in such songs as "Lying, Lying, Lying Woman," politically incorrect as it may be, the soul of Swamp Dogg is very much found.

Artist: Zomba Prison Project
Album: "I Have No Everything Here"
Songs: "A Message (I Will Take You)," "Forgiveness"
From the guy who brought us the Malawi Mouse Boys — Christian gospel music by three young men in Malawi whose day job is selling the local snack of roasted, yes, mice on the roadside — comes a powerful new collection, with a different tone. While in Malawi in 2013, On one of his trips to Malawi, Bay Area producer-musician Ian Brennan and Italian filmmaker Marilena Delli were granted access to the Zomba Central Prison in exchange for giving violence prevention classes to prisoners and guards.

There they found a decaying, desolate, horribly crowded facility with horrible crowding, brutal conditions and a paralyzing bureaucracy that has kept inmates there for many years without trial. Some of the prisoners are children serving for the crimes of their mothers. But they also found music, the means in which inmates are able to express their fears, regrets and despair — and even a little hope.

In an endeavor recalling John and Alan Lomax’s recordings at the Parchman Farm prison in Mississippi in the ‘30s (where they discovered the bluesman known as Leadbelly, among others), Brennan and Delli filmed and recorded inmates performing, often their own compositions. The titles tell much of the story: "Listen to Me (Or I Will Kick Your Ass)," "Please Don’t Kill My Child," "Give Me Back My Child," "Taking My Life," "Don’t Hate Me," "Prison of Sinners," "Last Wishes," "I Am Alone," "I Kill No More," "Forgiveness," just to cite some.

But the performances, even without knowing what the words mean, are the story, heartfelt, intimate, gripping, even as they are often low-key and casual. Brennan reports in the liner notes that the men in the prison had better access to instruments and more time to work on music in a semi-formal way. That shows in some at least rudimentary arrangements, as on the song "A Message (I Will Take To You)," written and sung by prisoner Ben Masekese. The women have to get by with less, but that often gives the songs a raw immediacy that is devastating. These are compact, direct songs, often less than a minute long, as when a woman named Elube Chalema asking for "Forgiveness."

Brennan has long had an ear for beauty and meaning in sadness and hardship, but perhaps never as movingly as with this project.

Artist: Belle & Sebastian
Album: "Girls In Peacetime Want to Dance"
Songs: "Nobody’s Empire," "The Cat With the Cream"
 The first line of the album is a giveaway: "I was lying on my bed reading French," delivered in a slightly disaffected, nostalgic, effete tone with a bit of a Scottish lilt. If you’re even a little familiar with the band Belle & Sebastian, recognition should be immediate. The song, "Nobody’s Empire," kicks off the new album with the mix of literary sensibilities, backward glances, faded colors and blurred lines between personal and political conflicts, all in nicely catchy pop settings. This sort of thing has been the signature of founder/leader Stuart Murdoch since he made the band’s first album nearly 20 years ago — as a college music business class project.

As with that opening line, much of what he writes still calls to mind collegiate scenes — students exploring life in dorm lounges and library conversations. And yet as you listen further, you’ll find that "Girls in Peacetime" goes some new places for the group. The big chamber-pop sounds of the past, with horns and strings, gives way to a leaner lineup, and a good portion of the songs sport are built on ‘70s-‘80s dance rhythms, even some electronics here and there.

It’s a mixed bag. The pulse of "Enter Sylvia Plath" (as we were saying) contrasts nicely with the evocations, but the light disco of "Perfect Couples" is a bit mundane (though come to think of it, that could well be intended as a portrayal of a “perfect” couple….. hmmm). And the pop hooks always break through, not matter how straight the beat might be. Glorious choruses rise up throughout, and the judicious use of Sarah Martin’s voice as a female foil to Murdoch (another B&S signature) keeps things from ever getting glum.

Recorded in Atlanta, of all places, the album gives up none of the band’s essential U.K.-ness. "Party Line" refers to the Tories. And this doesn’t really sound "American." That’s good. Perhaps Murdoch still sees Georgia as a colony. The sun never sets on "Nobody’s Empire." Or something like that.

It’s not the spritely pop and dance-y beats that provide the album’s highlight, though. That comes with Murdoch at his most somber, most atmospheric, most pensive in the muted yet still verbally playful "The Cat With the Cream." If even mentions a library. Perfect stuff for when you’re lying on your bed reading French.