Playlist

The Velvet Underground, Big Star, Guru, The Drop Nineteens

The Velvet Underground
Live MCMXCIII
(Sire/Warner Bros.)

Big Star
Columbia: Live at Missouri University 5/25/93
(Zoo)

The double-record set 1969 Velvet Underground Live, released in 1974, has gotten reams of critical praise over the years, in part because most reviewers have neglected to mention one important thing: It sounds terrible. For that reason alone, Live MCMXCIII is a valuable document. It's extremely listenable, and while the performances lack the drive and edginess evoked by the early Underground, the players compensate with confidence, dignity and an invigorating looseness. Moreover, even songs such as "Heroin," which seemed all but guaranteed to date badly, actually stand up. The same can be said of the tunes heard on Live at Missouri University: These Alex Chilton ditties sound positively contemporary (no surprise, given that groups such as Teenage Fanclub have made a career out of ripping them off). Of course, the band itself is barely Big Star at all--Chilton and Jody Stephens, the only participating original members, are supplemented by a pair of Pixies. Still, that probably won't matter to those who haven't heard Big Star's awesome oeuvre, and it might not matter to those who have, either. Even people hip enough to love these bands get nostalgic sometimes. They're just too cool to admit it.--Michael Roberts

Guru
Jazzmatazz: An Experimental Fusion of Hip Hop and Jazz
(Chrysalis)

The leader of Gang Starr has an okay concept: mix jazz musicians with programmed drumming and bass beats. This is an okay album, too, but since Guru was so bold as to call it an experiment, his fusion has to stand up against the work of jazz-rap groups such as Digable Planets, A Tribe Called Quest, Funkytown Pros and Showbiz and A.G. By this standard, Guru's music comes up short, failing to generate as much jazzy atmosphere as the first two groups, or as much swinging industrial noise as the latter two. Moreover, Guru's well-regarded soloists don't cut it: Donald Byrd's trumpet is useless, and alto saxophonist Branford Marsalis, vibist Roy Ayers and guitarists Lonnie Liston Smith and Ronnie Jordan sound like caffeine-free horseshit in this setting. Yet as rap, Jazzmatazz is all right, so long as you focus on Guru's vocals and forget the jazz bluff. Soloists such as Courtney Pine, whose alto is heard on "Sights in the City," still sound gently disorganized behind the session leader, and the beats don't swing. But they do slap straight ahead under the musicians, heard in a gentle mix that supports the mellow raps. Lyrically, Guru helps those who help themselves, and when he tells his woman he "doubts" there is another lady for him, it hardly sounds like an evasion at all.--John Young

Drop Nineteens
National Coma
(Caroline)

With three guitar players (four when bassist and co-founder Steve Zimmerman is sporting his six-string), Boston's Drop Nineteens could easily come off sounding like a pop version of Ministry. Fortunately, Greg Ackell, the reluctant mastermind behind the band, is too smart for that kind of sonic overkill. This young songwriter uses the resources at hand to weave terse, eccentric tunes that owe more to his fellow Beantowners in the Pixies than to Al Jourgenson. The Nineteens are at their best when they're deconstructing straight-up, sugar-coated raveups such as "limp" and "7/8," but "rot winter" and the quirky, Beatles-meets-Pere Ubu harmonies of "all swimmers are brothers" (featuring a rather skewed sendup of the Flipper theme song) are equally engaging. Why it takes three guitarists to fill out airy pop gems like "moses brown" is beyond me. But if that's what was required to create this truly cool record, Ackell needn't change a thing.--Brad Jones

Various Artists
Great American Songwriters, Volumes 1-5
(Rhino)

While the featured songwriters here (George and Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin, and Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn) have often been the subjects of tributes by individual artists, versions of their tunes by different performers have rarely been compiled. Yet what the concept gains in variety, it loses in consistency. For example, the fourth volume, dedicated to the work of Berlin, juxtaposes seminal covers by the artists you want to hear ("White Christmas" by Bing Crosby, "Easter Parade" from Judy Garland and Fred Astaire) with spottier performances by lesser vocalists (Dinah Shore's "Doin' What Comes Natur'lly," Bobby Darin's "Blue Skies"). Still, the good outweighs the bad on every volume other than the Ellington/Strayhorn package, which proves only that the Duke was his own best interpreter. Overall, this is an impressive collection of compositions your mother should know, delivered by vocalists who knew that romance was more than a Mickey's Big Mouth and a Trojan.--Roberts

 
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