Songs recorded far from home.

Songs you've got to hear.
May 27 2004 1:35 PM

Have Music, Will Travel

Songs recorded far from home.

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Serge Gainsbourg Aux Armes Et Caetera (Sunnyside) Click here to listen to "Aux Armes Et Caetera."Over his 30 years as France's pre-eminent pop crooner, Serge Gainsbourg applied his disarmingly handsome baritone to subjects as diverse as incest, the Nazis, the heights of love, and the decadence of modern life. Gainsbourg was playful and loved booze, which means he was equally prone to bouts of inspired, focused clarity and episodes of free-swinging, try-anything bravado. The two albums of creepy, come-hither reggae that stemmed from his 1979 jaunt to Jamaica (reissued here with a bonus disc of remixes and cover versions) have yet to be satisfactorily classified, but the trip certainly produced one of the stranger moments in French pop history: "Aux Armes Et Caetera" features Gainsbourg muttering the words to "La Marseillaise" (the French national anthem) over a slinky, smoked-out Sly and Robbie riddim. Meanwhile, Bob Marley's backup singers, the I-Threes, butcher the chorus, abridging the original's haughty, nation-building call to arms with a dismissively flat, "Et cetera."

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Loretta Lynn Van Lear Rose (Interscope) Click here to listen to "Portland, Oregon."In which a country icon makes a very short trek to the garage. After spending much of the past decade caring for her dying husband, Loretta Lynn is just now getting her props from a generation of alt-yokels, thanks largely to the cheerleading efforts of the White Stripes. On Van Lear Rose, Jack White—still waiting patiently for science to build him a working time machine—plays producer and outfits Lynn's walloping warble with a classy helping of garage-rock grime. The sloppy electric honky-tonk of Rose recalls the Delta-by-way-of-Detroit sound of the White Stripes' discs: Both feel familiar without submitting to full-on nostalgia. The clunky, driving "Portland, Oregon" is a tender duet between Lynn and White that imagines a textbook country-music moment: the one-night stand. Fittingly, Lynn belts out the fierce lead while the boyish White plays the awestruck lay.

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Savath & Savalas Apropa't (Warp) Click here to listen to "Te Quiero Pero Por Otro Lado," here to listen to "Víctima Belleza," and here to listen to "Por Qué Ella Vino?"Atlanta's Scott Herren has never been one for convention—he issues his challenging, vocal-free electronic compositions through at least three alter egos (Prefuse 73, Delarosa + Asora, Savath & Savalas)—but his most recent album finds him engaging in one of youth's most predictable pastimes: searching for his roots. Pursuing the branches on his father's family tree, Herren moved to Spain, where he befriended a little-known Catalan artist named Eva Puyuelo Muns. Herren forgoes his usual frenetic, cut-and-paste approach, instead offering patient layers of crackles and strums that seem to evoke the laidback pace of his newfound home. But though Herren is both Savath and Savalas, these shy, wandering electro-acoustic ballads are delicately propelled by Muns' breezy, rootless murmurs. While Herren and his compositions drift toward some imagined destination, it is Muns' rich, undeniable voice that keeps them tethered to this world.

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Regina Spektor Soviet Kitsch (Shoplifter Records) Click here to listen to "Ghost of Corporate Future," and here to listen to "Chemo Limo."When Regina Spektor was a small girl growing up in Moscow, she imagined she'd have a future as a classical concert pianist; some years later, she finds herself living in the Bronx and betraying her carefully learned chops through the idiom of antifolk. Spektor's singing is never effortless; her voice claws and struggles as she follows jagged piano lines that somehow seem beyond her control. And despite the crisp, sprightly aura of her songs, she traffics exclusively in non-sequiturs: The hilarious "Ghost of Corporate Future" recasts the prophetic apparition from Dickens'A Christmas Carol for the Wall Street set, while "Chemo Limo," a reckless spree of a song, compares the cost of cancer treatment to that of a limousine ride. Through it all, Spektor's polite snarl suggests that she has no qualms about her musical life's unplanned turn.

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Caetano Veloso A Foreign Sound (Nonesuch) Click here to listen to "Come as You Are," and here to listen to "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)."The elegantly sly Brazilian singer and composer Caetano Veloso has made a career out of subversion. As a cornerstone of Brazil's short-lived Tropicalia movement in the late-1960s, Veloso smuggled politics into his joyous, leggy pop songs, became a national hero, and then an exile. This collection of American standards, Veloso's first English-language album, suggests both reverence and revulsion for the land of Cole Porter, Stevie Wonder, and DNA (on the album, he covers songs by each). He refits Nirvana's "Come as You Are" with a perky wobble that seems to mock the original's self-righteous awkwardness, and infuses "Love Me Tender" with a flickering desperation lacking in Elvis' original. The collection's title is lifted from Bob Dylan's "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)," an antiwar tune Veloso recasts with a more deliberate enunciation that calls attention to the lyrics. Where Dylan's "foreign sound" referred to a soldier-boy's deflated sigh, Veloso's kittenish voice and odd, sparse arrangements—foreign sounding, all—pursue alien aspects of these modern American treasures.

Hua Hsu teaches in the English department at Vassar College. He is completing his first book, A Floating Chinaman, about H.T. Tsiang, his imagined rival Pearl Buck, and the often contentious community of Americans writing about China in the 1930s and '40s.