To Buy or Not to Buy

Reviews of 23 recent superstar recordings--just in time for your holiday purchasing pleasure.

Various Artists
Evita: The Complete Motion Picture Music Soundtrack
(Warner Bros.)

According to the tabloid press, Evita is the most anticipated new film of 1996--although the people who seem most eager to see this musical biography of the late Argentinian Eva Peron are those who assume it will be more disastrous than Waterworld and Ishtar put together. The soundtrack doesn't guarantee such a debacle, but only the most passionate Madonna-philes would dare claim that it foretells a blockbuster. Madonna isn't the problem: While she can't roll her R's like co-star Antonio Banderas (who has an advantage over her in that he doesn't sound like he's from Michigan), she can handle the score. Her version of the soundtrack's showstopper, "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina," doesn't shoot Julie Covington's full of holes (Covington played Evita in the original London stage production, heard on a CD set just reissued by MCA), but it's no embarrassment. While her pipes aren't on par with those possessed by genuine divas, she's got an innate sense of drama that helps her glide confidently over the rough patches--of which there are many. While Andrew Lloyd Webber has been ballyhooed as the finest theatrical composer of his generation, his early and mid-period work remains an unholy blend of operatic pretensions and rock portentousness. Cuts such as "Eva and Magaldi/Eva Beware of the City" are decorated with "scorching" guitars straight out of a mid-Seventies Jim Steinman production, vocal interchanges of the sort that have helped art rock of the era date faster than a container of yogurt left in the middle of your driveway, and Tim Rice lyrics that are frequently cringeworthy: An example is the moment when Evita declares that she wants to be "a Buenos Aires big apple." The production, credited to Webber, Nigel Wright, David Caddick and Alan Parker (the film's director), is certainly sumptuous, and the singing of supporting players like Jonathan Pryce isn't as agonizing as expected. But if Evita becomes a smash, it won't be because these songs are all over the radio. It will be because Madonna has sold her daughter's soul to the devil.

Counting Crows
Recovering the Satellites
(DGC)

In an interview published in Time magazine earlier this year, Counting Crows lead singer Adam Duritz revealed that his band took so long to record the followup to its commercially successful debut album (August and Everything After) because of a case of writer's block spawned in him by the backlash against his work; he complained that he could hardly set foot outside his door without someone coming up to him for no other reason than to declare that he sucked. I wasn't among those who delivered their negative assessments to Duritz personally, but I understand how they felt. To me, August was musically derivative (Bob Dylan and Van Morrison were only the most obvious of the Crows' victims-by-association) and lyrically insufferable: Duritz came across as so self-pitying that it was surprising the creators of thirtysomething didn't offer to build a television show around him. Recovering indicates that Duritz took at least some of this criticism to heart: A number of the tunes, including "Angels of the Silences," are a bit tougher than their predecessors--meaning that they rip off latter-day R.E.M., not longtime inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (A notable exception is "Another Horsedreamer's Blues," in which Morrison is ransacked once again.) But aggressiveness is not a quality that Duritz wears comfortably; whenever he tries to rock out, he comes across like a eunuch boasting about the size of the balls he used to have. Hence, the bits of sonic filigree that work best are those that acknowledge, rather than deny, his wispiness: The Paul Buckmaster orchestration that highlights "I'm Not Sleeping" is a prime example. Words, however, remain an enormous snag for anyone trying to understand the Crows' appeal. Put another way, the lyric sheet reads like the poetic confessions of an eighteen-year-old Stevie Nicks. In "Catapult," Duritz whimpers, "What a big baby/Won't somebody save me, please"; in "Daylight Fading," he moans, "I am waiting for the telephone to tell me I'm alive"; in the title cut, he concludes, "All anybody really knows for sure is/That you're gonna come down"; and on and on and on. The nadir is "Have You Seen Me Lately?" and the lines, "These days I feel like I'm fading away/Like sometimes when I hear myself on the radio": After all, there's nothing more insufferable than a rock star whining about the pitfalls of worldwide acclaim. Adam, if I were you, I wouldn't leave the house for a while.

Wilco
Being There
(Reprise)

Virtually every recording made by Jeff Tweedy--including the collected works of his first popular band, Uncle Tupelo, and Wilco's bow, A.M.--has inspired reviewers to ejaculate more cream than is produced at your neighborhood Meadow Gold plant. But I've stayed off the Tweedy bandwagon for a variety of reasons, including the extraordinarily familiar quality of his songwriting (just because he exhibited great taste in American roots music didn't make his borrowings any more unconventional), a certain backwoods elitism and an essential humorlessness: I got the sense that he wouldn't crack a smile even if Buster Keaton returned from the dead and started doing pratfalls in front of him. But Tweedy's agreeably sloppy contributions to the two albums by Golden Smog suggested that he was finally loosening up--and Being There cinches the deal. "Misunderstood," the opening track of this two-CD set, symbolizes his new sense of adventurousness. The song opens with what sounds suspiciously like a wall of noise, then transitions into a piano ballad--but whereas Tweedy might have previously approached such a number with painful earnestness, he now smothers both his voice and his keyboard with a subtle splash of distortion that builds to a full-blown racket as the track reaches its conclusion. A similar bravado pervades many of the other offerings on display, including "Monday," which brims with Exile on Main Street horns; "Red-Eyed and Blue," highlighted by a ton of echo, a woozy organ and, of all things, a whistling solo; "I Got You (At the End of the Century)," a bar-band-ready rocker that brings a hitherto unknown goofiness out in these guys; "Outta Mind (Outta Sight)," a session inside Brian Wilson's sandbox; and "Kingpin," in which the guitar sound from the Band's "Up on Cripple Creek" in used in a saucy manner that, for once, doesn't make you suspect Tweedy resurrected it to prove how musically erudite he is. Being There contains a few songs (such as "Sunken Treasure") that test your patience and a few others (like "The Lonely 1") that smack of Tupelo retreads. But the nonchalance that pervades Wilco's latest takes the sting out of the misses. Much as I hate to follow the crowd, I guess I'll have to clamber onto that bandwagon after all.

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