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Santana

Shaman (Arista)

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It's easy to be cynical about this repeat of the Supernatural formula that sold 25 million records and revived Clive Davis' Arista label. On that level, the whole thing's pretty crass: Couple the legendary guitarist with teen icon Michelle Branch for the first single, and pack the album with critical favorites like Macy Gray and Wyclef Jean or happening rock stars such as P.O.D. and Chad Kroeger (of Nickelback).

But here's what redeems it -- Carlos Santana might be the least cynical artist imaginable to be placed in such a position. Call him flaky, but he takes his role as a shaman seriously. That trademark guitar burns steadily here, like a ceremonial fire, fading at times to little more than a point of light and building at others to star-licking heights. On the Grammy-nominated single, his exuberance matches the play in Branch's voice, and on "Victory Is Won," he allows keyboardist Chester Thompson to push him places he doesn't want to go, that place Hendrix scouted with "Machine Gun," where the madness of war takes over and there is no honorable path home.

That sense of melancholy provides the major difference between this record and Supernatural. Musiq, Seal and Citizen Cope contribute extraordinarily sad testaments to heartache fueled by the cry of Santana's guitar. The album's centerpiece collaboration with P.O.D., "America," personifies a nation that's lost its way and cries out, Won't you come back to me, baby? The album ends triumphantly, with Ozomotli's refusal to give up hope for a just world, and Placido Domingo's dream of revolution. In a climate of cynicism, madness and grief, Santana proves himself a distinctly sane and visionary conjurer.

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