Playlist

Better Than Ezra
Friction, Baby
(Elektra)

Dear friends, this CD represents everything that's wrong with alternative music in 1996. Not that it's obviously abysmal. Far from it: The songs here are tuneful and hooky, and the players (guitarist/vocalist Kevin Griffin, bassist Tom Drummond and drummer Travis Aaron McNabb) deliver them in a thoroughly professional manner. "King of New Orleans," the single that's being spun frequently on today's modern-rock radio, is indicative of the band's approach--if you're not careful, you may wind up humming it. But for God's sake, be careful, because this tune and others here are utterly and entirely empty, and so generic that they could have been made by any of a thousand similarly vapid groups. The insistent mediocrity that permeates Friction, Baby--a title these guys cannot live up to--is so all-encompassing that it will leave even a slightly critical listener feeling as if he's being smothered. But that's not the worst of it. Even more disturbing is the fact that this stuff is selling. Apparently, huge numbers of record buyers out there don't care that Better Than Ezra is cranking out warmed-over spit. So long as a record's got an accessible tone and an overall sense of competence, they're happy--and Friction, Baby has all of these qualities in spades. So who cares if bland nonsense like this reduces the genuine passion and ingenuity exhibited by the Nirvanas of the world to mere formula? No one, I guess, except people who see music as something other than a disposable product. Which side of the fence are you on?

--Michael Roberts

Jeanne Lee and Mal Waldron
After Hours
(Owl Records/EMI)

In 1961 vocalist Lee made a significant contribution to the art of jazz singing with an innovative, unsurpassed recording for RCA, The Newest Sound Around. But while this work and others contributed to her reputation as one of the finest vocalists to emerge from Sixties-era new music, she has thus far failed to receive the widespread popular recognition she deserves. Pianist/composer Waldron has fared slightly better in this regard, but even though he's written scores for films and ballets and worked with artists such as Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy and Billie Holiday (whom he accompanied during the last two years of her life), he's far from a household name. After Hours may not change this sad state of affairs, but the quality of the collaboration between Lee and Waldron is impossible to deny. The disc features eight recordings, including two Waldron tunes, two Ellington pieces, Mingus's "Goodbye Pork-Pie Hat" and three staples from the classic-jazz repertoire. However, the subdued elegance displayed by the artists makes these standards anything but. Thanks to the duo's flexibility, complexity and precision, each song is thoroughly revitalized. After Hours reminds us that the beauty of jazz is often found not so much in what performers say, but how and when they say it.

--Linda Gruno

Adrian Sherwood and Company
Pay It All Back, Vol. 5
(On-U Sound/Restless)

Sherwood, the former producer/engineer for the Fall and the Meteors, is nothing if not loyal to both his musical vision and his fellow musical visionaries. For more than a decade he has sought to meld reggae, funk, rock, industrial electronics and sampling into a world-encompassing whole. Unfortunately, his On-U Sound acts (with the exception of Tackhead, whose 1990 album Strange Things represents Sherwood's peak) have generally proven too tense and anonymous to make it past the "interesting" mark. Take Mark Stewart's Maffia, the Dub Syndicate and African Head Charge, to choose three apt examples: Their recordings feature the same tart, harsh edge, but picking and choosing among them is like rating competing brands of lemon juice. However, Pay It All Back is a big exception to this rule. Without composing a note or touching an instrument, Sherwood proves himself an auteur in the best sense, inspiring Little Axe, Gary Clail and others to actually write songs--or at least catchy grooves. These acts especially benefit from the producer's relaxed touch. The thorniest patches of noise--like Clail's "Another Hard Man"--exude a bit of a glow, while the spaciest ballads seem virtually weightless. Bim Sherman's exhausted "Can I Be Free From Crying?" is beautiful, Little Axe's "Outsider" will please lovers of Seal, and Little Annie's "I Drop Your Name" sounds like Sandra Bernhard impersonating Grace Jones (only it's funny). Why this sudden improvement? Did Sherwood and his charges have a collective near-death experience or something? Just wondering.

--John Young

Robyn Hitchcock
Moss Elixir
(Warner Bros.)

Particularly during his stint with the Soft Boys and his early years fronting the Egyptians, Hitchcock made music with a bright, shiny surface; it had its melancholy moments, sure, but the persuasive pop riffs, twisted wordplay and metaphorical references to iron sledges and men with light-bulb heads gave much of his material a humorous, dadaist gloss. So while Hitchcock aficionados will likely be cheered by the caliber of Moss Elixir, the songwriter's finest recording since jumping on the major-label bandwagon, they'll also feel heavy-hearted, because Hitchcock is in what may be his blackest mood yet. On previous excursions into dourness, he was able to momentarily puncture the gloom; "Uncorrected Personality Traits," on 1984's brilliant I Often Dream of Trains, is a case in point. But this time around, the best he can manage is "Alright, Yeah," a melodically bouncy piece that nonetheless sports lines such as "I've gotta laugh/But there's part of me that wants to sit and cry." Elsewhere, Hitchcock uses spare instrumentation to achieve a potpourri of stunning effects: Check out the enigmatic, charmingly sympathetic "Man With a Woman's Shadow" (co-produced by Calvin Johnson, of K Records fame), the rich, gentle "You and Oblivion" (featuring the acoustic strumming of Morris Tepper) and, especially, "Sinister but She Was Happy," a string-laden opus that puts the John Cale style at the service of a mysterious and compelling tale. None of these tunes are apt to set radio programmers to salivating, which may not bode well for Hitchcock's relationship with Warner Bros. (this is his first release for the mega-label). But Moss Elixir suggests a way out of the creative cul-de-sac in which he's been trapped of late. Clearly, depression has its good side, too.

--Roberts

 
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