TEN YEARS AGO, you could walk into any record store in America and be sure of getting the pop record you wanted for no more than $4.98. These days, though, list prices of $7.98 and even $8.98 are common, and now that the OPEC price rise on oil is obviously here to stay, everyone agrees that the era of cheap records is over.
Everyone except Island Records that is. With their budget Antilles label, the people at Island have attempted to turn back the clock to the time of bargain album hunting - and done rather a good job of it. Granted, the Antilles roster doesn't include Bob Marley, Steve Winwood, Robert Palmer or any of the other big stars who record for Island, but low prices and a policy of seeking out overlooked music of quality from all over the world has in just a year's time made Antilles the pop equivalent of the classical record buyer's delight, Nonesuch Records.
What other pop label, for example, would have thought it rewarding to issue Assalam Aleikoum Africa (Antilles AN-7032 and 7033), an anthology of contemporary West African music? Divided into two volumes - the first giving an overview of "Progressive and Popular Music of West Africa," the second a sampling of "Traditional and Modern Folk Music of West Africa" - the set is acoustically rather low-fi, but features a fascinating variety of styles and talents from the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Guinea, Sengal, and Nigeria.
The material presented here ranges from the percussion-heavy Asifatu Alayo and Sita, a lovely ballad played on traditional harp-like instruments and sung by a member of the National Senegalese Theater Group, to Victor N'Guini's "Ode to Hendrix" - inspired by Jimi Hendrix's "Hear My Train A Comin.'" Volume One of the collection contains several other examples of how American and Caribbean music has influenced West Africa pop music nearly all of them including jazzy horn arrangments in the Miles Davis style.
Not all of Antilles' offerings are as esoteric as this, of course. Island Records is London-based, and over the years has developed a large catalogue of traditional English folk and folk-rock albums. Most of these records feature members of groups such as Fairport Convention or Steeleye Span and assorted friends - the Albion Country Band's Battle of the Field (Antilles AN7027) being a typical example.
The songs here are traditional folk tunes, performed with a rock 'n' roll backbeat by members of the Fairport Convention circle. On The Time Is Right (Antilles AN 7029), Gay and Terry Woods, founding members of Steeleye Span, add some of their own songs and a bit of country to the mix and end up sounding a lot like Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. June Tabor's Airs and Graces (Antilles AN 7043) and Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick's Selections (Antilles AN 704) hew a bit closer to the traditionalist line, drawing from the Child and similar collections.
Most traditional of all is The City Waites' A Gorgeous Gallery of Gallant Inventions (Antilles AN 7039), an anthology of bawdy and otherwise amusing English tunes from the 12th through the 17th century. That it could be released at the same time as Nick Drake's sensitive set of originals, Bryter Later (Antilles AN 7028) gives some idea of the variety and breadth of the Antilles approach as do these other recent releases:
Jan Steele/John Cage: Voices and Instruments (Antilles AN 7031) and Brian Eno: Discreet Music (Antilles AN 7030). Through his Obscure Records label, Brian Eno, formerly of Roxy Music, has attempted to bring together European art rock and avant-garde electronic and classical music. The Steele/Cage effort, which features jazz pianist Carla Bley and singer Robert Wyatt reciting Cage's musical arrangements of poems by James Joyce and E.E. Cummings, is slightly more successful in this regard, but Eno's own Discreet Music is also a fascinating pop-tinged exploration of aleatory and electronic music.
Gary Shearston: Diago (Antilles AN 7040) and Tom Newman: Fine Old Tom (Antilles AN 7042). It's hard to explain why these two albums weren't issued on Antilles' parent label, Island Records. Shearston sounds like an Australian Gordon Lightfoot, especially on "Back of Beyond" and "Aborigine," a song in praise of the residents of the outback that uses native instruments, Newman is a specialist in pop collages whose fondness for overdubbing brings to mind the style of his friend Mike Oldfield. Both records are more accessible to pop audiences than the usual Antilles fare.
Mongezi Feza, Okay Temiz and Johnny Dyani: Music for Xaba (Antilles AN 7035) and Don Cherry: Eternal Now (Antilles AN 7034). Here is a pair offbeat jazz albums with a Third World flavor, both featuring trumpeters. African trumpet player Mongezi Feza performs with Turkey's Okay Temiz on the first, and Don Cherry, formerly of Ornette Coleman's group, teams up with a Swedish rhythm section on the second.The emphasis in both records is on Afro-Asian instrumentation and non-Western concepts of rhythm and melody.
Allen Fontenot: Country Cajun (Antilles AN 7026). Fontenot is a fiddle player from Ville Platte, Louisiana - the heart of Cajun country. From that area has emerged a unique musical style that stresses fiddles, accordions and two-step dance tunes, often with a little bit of the country sound thrown in for good measure. Fontenot is especially receptive to country influences, but his "Gabriel" is about as traditional a waltz as you can get.
Earl Hooker: Funk (Antilles AN 7024) and Detroit Junior: Chicago Urban Blues (AN 7025). Antilles' two latest forays into the world of the blues feature a splendid guitarist and a rather ordinary pianist. The guitarist is Hooker, and these sessions, recorded just before his death, are full of his gritty, stinging solos - and even a few of his vocals. Detroit Junior's album, on the other hand, is undistinguished except for the performance of guitarist Mighty Joe Young.