PLAYLIST

Bill Nelson
Practically Wired, or How I Became... Guitarboy!
(Gyroscope)

Hard to know exactly how Nelson avoided becoming the kind of six-string hero who appears on the cover of Guitar Player two or three times a year. Maybe it's because his best-known band, Be-Bop Deluxe, was too resolutely English for Yanks. Perhaps his growing command of melody, lyricism and song structure, captured on late-Seventies Be-Bop releases such as Modern Music, Live in the Air Age and Drastic Plastic, came at precisely the time that a disc or two of fluid Hendrix skronk would have catapulted him to the ax-man summit. Or, as Practically Wired suggests, he may be too adventurous, too musically ambidextrous, to sit still for pigeonholing. Nelson dubs this an all-instrumental album, but there's more gamesmanship involved than that tag implies. Samples, synthesized voices and random noises pop up in compositions such as "Roses and Rocketships" and "Pink Buddha Blues," with even the most seemingly straightforward sonic fragments (like the lovely snippet "Kid With Cowboy Tie") frequently divulging unexpected delights. "Royal Ghosts" offers an indication of Nelson's range: During its five-minutes-plus, it hops from riff-dominated racket to heavily textured blocks of sound in a fashion that's both unexpected and perfectly logical. The impressive variety of this disc no doubt will prevent Nelson from reaching a wide audience, but it serves as a reminder that simply playing thousands of notes really, really fast isn't virtuosity. It's jerking off.--Michael Roberts

Bruce Springsteen
Greatest Hits
(Columbia)

No greatest-hits package will please everyone, and since this release skips "Rosalita" and "Jungleland" in favor of way too much material written after 1985, it's no exception. But for fans, rock historians and anybody too young or out of touch to appreciate what all the fuss was about in 1975, when Springsteen graced the covers of Time and Newsweek simultaneously, Hits displays the Boss and his E-Street brethren in all their ham-handed glory. For example, "Born to Run" still sets my pistons pumping some two decades after its original appearance, while "The River" points out the Reagan-Bush era's downside more viscerally than anything the Clinton campaign cooked up. And although the kinder, gentler, adult-contemporary Bruce we've had to endure since Tunnel of Love is featured prominently, the disc closes with the unexpectedly bracing "This Hard Land," a tune that shows that the now-balding brawler is not quite ready to hang up his Telecaster. For those who remember the FM-radio days when Springsteen was virtually the only worthy alternative to Journey, Boston and their antiseptic ilk, that news is as welcome as a Clarence Clemons sax break.--John Jesitus

Kim Fowley and Ben Vaughn
Kings of Saturday Night
(Sector 2 Records)

Musical marriages of ego and ability usually go one of two ways: either embarrassing failure or creative spectacle. This one, featuring punk scenester Kim Fowley (who's worked with everyone from Frank Zappa and the Byrds to Nirvana and L7) and singer/songwriter Ben Vaughn (a guitarist and sometime writer of TV-commercial jingles) falls in the middle of these descriptives but leans toward the latter. The match works best when Vaughn's bluesy, cool instrumental work puts Fowley in a straight mood--and since most of Fowley's lyrical topics are textbook Americana, they fit the recording's rootsy feel perfectly. Still, it's Vaughn's liquor-inflected folk sound, full of riffs and attitude, that drives Saturday Night. The creative tension that arises when he and Fowley stretch into territory defined by the other results in the high points here; the record slips only when the two walk their separate ways or when Fowley poses and his words overreach. The liner notes, penned with minimum humility by Fowley, are an added bonus. You've got to love anyone with the chutzpah to write, "I encourage any girl who isn't brilliant enough to love me to find someone who is as interesting as me." And so goes this album: Ego works, but only when skill comes along for the ride.--Steve Boland

Chris Mars
Tenterhooks
(Bar/None)

During the mid-Eighties, a lot of us thought the Replacements would wind up as the era's Rolling Stones--a shaggy but compelling lot destined to make swell records year after year after year. Wrong. Shortly after hitting their creative stride, the 'Mats collapsed amid personality conflicts, substance abuse and leader Paul Westerberg's unstated desire to turn himself into Joni Mitchell. Critics continue to hold out hope that Westerberg eventually will shoot the moon, but while he remains an intermittently brilliant live performer, his recordings on his own have been snoozy. And now, to compound Westerberg's ignominy, Mars--the Replacements' drummer, for Christ's sake--has made a better solo disc than his former band's leader has managed. Tenterhooks is a sloppy, inventive mess of a platter in which Mars plays everything from guitars and kettle drums to his neighbor's lawn mower and writes lyrics for songs like "White Paddy Rap" ("Yo, everybody say heck/Gosh darn, it's naughty as heck") that are as funny as they are brainy. This may be a one-shot--after all, Mars's previous efforts have been fairly lackluster. But if the man can make a CD as good as this one, maybe there's still hope for Ringo Starr.--Roberts

 
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