Recordings

Maya Angelou
Miss Calypso
(Scamp)

Robert Mitchum
Calypso Is -- Like So ...
(Scamp)

Proud race man that he was, Harry Belafonte certainly intended nothing of the kind, but it's hard not to think of the late-1950s calypso craze as shelter for whites terrified by the explosion of the civil rights movement into public consciousness. Dousing the political rage burning through the music's Caribbean home, Belafonte sold his listeners a vision of simple black folk content to pick bananas and drink all night -- that is, displaced plantation nostalgia. Which makes Miss Calypso, a mostly unlistenable Maya Angelou reissue, disquieting at best.

The cover delivers maximum exoticism by forcing her to contort by firelight in a "savage" posture, wearing what I presume is supposed to represent native garb; inside, the then-27-year-old poet and future memoirist, a ferociously curious reader of Dickens and Hardy, deliberately enunciates every "dem" and "dey" with the studious care of the star of an elementary-school history pageant. Her backup combo does lend the proceedings a jazzy bounce with light tints of bongo and guitar, and I can even conceive of listening to a few of these songs again, particularly "Mambo in Africa," a shout-out to the entire black diaspora. But you've got to be a pretty dedicated ironist, or -- more to the point -- privileged enough to be able to toss history out the window of the Cocktail Nation's ocean liner, to pretend there's no odor of minstrelsy tainting this spectacle. This isn't an exotic novelty, even of the pallid '50s flavor; on the contrary, it's all too familiar.

Though its racial subtext is no less troubling, Robert Mitchum's Calypso Is -- Like So ..., cut at about the same time, has the signal virtue of being far more pleasurable to listen to. (To Mitchum's credit, he also seems to recognize it as the joke it is.) A dope-puffing hipster who'd been busted for possession in 1948, when only sailors, criminals, and jazz musicians were succumbing to reefer madness, Mitchum swaggers through these standards with a jigger of rum in one hand and a copy of Norman Mailer's "The White Negro" in the other.

You could, I suppose, get angry at his shameless appropriation of black culture, but why bother? Since Belafonte had already taught Americans that calypso was mostly contentless, Mitchum went ahead and made a surprisingly catchy pop album that never musters the self-importance to take itself seriously or pretend to anything beyond self-parody. Singing about as tunefully as you'd expect from a craggy Hollywood leading man attempting a Trinidadian accent, he has a wry authority with this music, perhaps because it's only tourist kitsch to him. But at least there's a lighthearted and joyful quality to it, something true to calypso's upbeat spirit. (Angelou didn't have the luxury of joking; even so, her record is no fun, but dour, lugubrious, even arid.)

So take your pick -- black woman in blackface or white man's negritude -- but remember that with either album, you're buying much more than a mere soundtrack for your next party.

-- Jesse Berrett

Jonny Polonsky
Hi My Name Is Jonny
(American)

The PR line has it that would-be Wunderkind Jonny Polonsky ruthlessly foisted his home recordings upon any and every industry insider within mailing distance before crossing paths with former Pixie Frank Black, who eventually convinced Rick Rubin to sign 22-year-old Polonsky to his American label. So much for Frank Black's credibility. Or, for that matter, Rick Rubin's.

After a quick glance at the CD cover art for Hi My Name Is Jonny -- the first-day-of-kindergarten-name-tag title graphics and a photo of the doe-eyed, brillo-domed Polonsky, lip curled in bemusedly beatific grin -- it's clear that the Chicagoan is being cast as the latest grad of the Perpetually Longing Yet Somehow Eternally Whimsical School of Quirky Naif Pop established by Jonathan Richman circa 1972. (Never mind that Polonsky more closely resembles former sweathog Arnold Horshack than Richman; the likeness works just as well, if not better, in cementing the singer's geek credentials.) The trouble is, it's hard to play the innocent when your music is as insidiously contrived as the campaign of self-promotion that accompanies it.

Throughout Hi, Polonsky wears his influences on his poly-blend sleeve like so much crusty pablum, masking rote stylistic plagiarism as keen pop sensibility. If Nick Lowe has any sense, he'll consult his lawyer about the album-opening "Love Lovely Love." Likewise, "Gone Away" and "It's Good to Sleep" demonstrate Polonsky's affinity for grave-robbing, the former song a wholesale plundering of the Roy Orbison catalog and the latter a shameless appropriation of John Lennon's "I'm Only Sleeping," breathy delivery and all.

Worse yet are Polonsky's lyrics, which, to the extent that they read like an entry in a sixth-grade poetry contest, capture the childlike quality so calculatedly striven for (see "Sleep": "It's good to sleep when you're tired/ Sleep when you're sad/ Sleep when you're mired/ And things make you feel bad" -- yeesh!). Even the quirks seem canned, coming off as Northern Exposure to mentor Black's genuinely bizarre Twin Peaks. "Uh-Oh," a tale of astral projection following the ingestion of a bad batch of souvlaki, is pure inanity, possessing none of the fill-in-the-blanks charm of father figure Frank's elliptical weirdness.

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