Playlist

Pat Boone
No More Mr. Nice Guy
(Hip-O)
Jimmy Webb
Ten Easy Pieces
(Guardian)

By most measures, rock and roll is over forty years old--meaning that at least two generations of performers have grown old as part of this young person's universe. Only a tiny percentage of these artists have done so gracefully: For every Neil Young or Marianne Faithfull, you can name a dozen Dave Masons or Grace Slicks. Moreover, there's no single right way to go about sustaining one's viability, as Boone (who made his name during the late Fifties and early Sixties by releasing heavily bleached versions of rock-and-roll classics) and Webb (author of middle-of-the-road smashes for the likes of Glen Campbell and Richard Harris) demonstrate on their latest discs. The former has spent most of the past thirty years as a grinning, even-tempered apologist for various right-wing Christian causes, but a couple of recent appearances on Politically Incorrect showed that he also possesses a quick and pleasantly self-deprecating wit. No More Mr. Nice Guy expands on this persona with purposefully dopey lounge versions of "Smoke on the Water," "Enter Sandman," "The Wind Cries Mary" and other paragons of heaviosity. The result is amusing, but not for very long: If you actually get to the end of Boone's "Stairway to Heaven," you're a better man than I, Gunga Din. Still, those critics who insist that this platter is a bitterly cynical attack on popular music as executed by the man who figuratively gutted Little Richard would be well-advised to stop reading so much Dave Marsh. The CD, simply put, is a joke Boone is telling about himself--and given the generally humorless state of popular music today, no gag (even one as thin as this) should be sneezed at. Ten Easy Pieces has far more: It's good enough to inspire you to seriously consider upgrading Webb's reputation. The tunesmith turns out to be a sturdy, pensive vocalist who recalls Warren Zevon in a depressed mood--a style that matches up perfectly with his spare, piano-only arrangements and preference for deliberate tempos. He infuses "Galveston," "Wichita Lineman," "The Moon's a Harsh Mistress" and even the most frightful of Webb's chestnuts, "MacArthur Park," with a striking intensity that forces listeners to hear them with fresh ears. This is a completely unexpected achievement, and while it's unlikely to vault Webb to the top of the charts, it proves that, artistically speaking, there's a lot of life in him yet.

--Michael Roberts

Various Artists
In Their Own Voices: A Century of Recorded Poetry
(Rhino Word Beat)

Rebekah Presson and David McLees, the producers of In Their Own Voices, took on an enormous task in trying to represent the width and breadth of recorded poetry on the four discs allotted by this set. Because modern poetry spans a range of writing styles and voices every bit as vast as those found in the world of music over the same time period, doing justice to each movement is impossible. But that's not to suggest that the compilation is without merit. Rather, it's damnably uneven, featuring verse that ranges from superb to highly questionable. Likewise, some of the authors of these works read their efforts passionately, while others deliver them in so lifeless and droney a manner that most listeners will wonder how they managed to pen such meaningful lines in the first place. There are also a number of weaknesses inherent in the presentation of the material. For example, the very first selection--a recitation of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" that Thomas Edison captured on wax cylinder around 1890--seems like a find of monumental significance until you read the liner notes and discover that no one has been able to confirm if Whitman himself is the man doing the reading. The accompanying booklet is similarly problematic. Along with a sizable amount of fascinating information, consumers will encounter a hefty essay by the perky princess of the "I'm a Babe" school of poetry, Erica Jong, whose presence calls the credibility of the project as a whole into question. Almost as lamentable is "Words You Might Hear Other People Use When They Talk About Poetry," a condescending section excerpted from John Timpane's book It Could Be Verse: Anybody's Guide to Poetry. The definitions of terms such as "satire," "couplet," "sonnet" and "haiku" will cause the blood of anyone with even a marginal familiarity with poetry to boil--and since neither Beavis nor Butt-head is likely to pick up a collection like this one, it serves virtually no purpose. The same can be said of some of the selections on Voices--and not just those by Jong and Anne Waldman. Why, for example, did the producers include five David Ignatow works, two cutesy Lawrence Ferlingetti interpretations and the supposedly hip but generally insipid offerings of Gary Snyder? Perhaps because the rights to material by T.S. Eliot and Gwendolyn Brooks, two of the finest poets of the twentieth century, could not be secured. Fortunately, Presson and McLees had better luck with many of the other great poets of our time. The discs move in roughly chronological order and feature the contributions of 80 different bards, 27 of whom were awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Robert Frost's three pieces, including his rendering of "A Road Not Taken," are among the highlights, but they're hardly the only ones. Also splendid are readings by Langston Hughes, Charles Bukowski, Sylvia Plath, Amiri Baraka and a cadre of powerful exponents of so-called ethnic poetry: Rita Dove, Luci Tapahonso, Carolyn Forche and Luis Rodriguez. And while Gertrude Stein doesn't come close to matching the verbal sensuality of, say, Theodore Roethke, the sheer absurdity of her voice--she sounds like a literary Tweety Bird chirping something by Dr. Seuss--makes her track a rare treat. The compilation as a whole isn't quite that outstanding; it's both delightful and curiously disappointing. But portions of it can be deeply satisfying when savored a few poems at a time.

--Linda Gruno

 
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