Youssou N'Dour

Nothing's in Vain (Coono du Réér)

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There's been a back-to-acoustic-roots trend among African artists recently, and even the big names don't seem exempt. Salif Keita's done it, and here Youssou N'Dour's at it -- which proves to be no bad thing. His recent output has been quite schizophrenic, divided between albums aimed at a Western audience and those for his native Senegal, with the more hardcore m'balax sound that made him popular in the first place reserved for the African releases. While the easy melodies of Nothing's in Vain (Coono Du Réér) place it far more within the Afro-pop category than much of his previous work, it's still a real gem, bringing in traditional musicians alongside his band, as on the opening "Tan Bi," which works gorgeously, the harp-like kora intersecting with N'Dour's rhythm section. The keening griot wail which has typified so much of his work is absent here, allowing for more subtlety of infection and tone. While that might be a bit of a necessity as he grows older, it also reinforces the fact that Youssou is one of the world's great singers, capable of wrapping and communicating emotion in a note or phrase -- even if you don't understand a word of Wolof (or French, since several of the pieces, like his version of "Il N'Ya Pas D'Amour Heureux," are in French). And when he does break into English, on "Look This Way" and "Africa, Dream Again," it's not the ridiculous, gushing lyrics that have appeared on some of his more recent discs. Yes, there are too many lush keyboards for it to fully qualify as a true acoustic release, and the low-key tamas juddering across "Yaru" do sometimes make you wish the band would kick into high gear, but overall this is N'Dour's most focused and accomplished disc in a long time. Maybe it's a new path, maybe it's a breathing space while he decides what to do next, maybe he just wanted a change. Whatever the reason, it works.

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