Playlist

Big Head Todd & the Monsters
Beautiful World
(Revolution)

A new Big Head Todd album? Well, sort of. These are certainly new songs--or at least songs that haven't turned up on previous albums credited to the band. (Three cuts bear 1989 copyrights.) And they've been produced by a new guy--the Heads' Jerry Harrison, who tries but fails to give the proceedings a little funk value. (Importing Bernie Worrell to play keyboards was a good idea, but even he can't rescue the title cut, which Todd Park Mohr sings with all the R&B nastiness of Merv Griffin.) There's even a new guest star--John Lee Hooker, whose unmistakable growl is so much more authentic than Mohr's vocalizing on their duet of Hooker's trademark track "Boom Boom" that it's hard to believe the blues master didn't collapse in a fit of laughter midway through it. There's also new cover art, new photographs in the CD liner and a new name for the act's old record company, which until recently was known as Giant. But that's where the newness ends. Mohr's deep-as-a-thimble lyrics, delivered with maximum seriositude, remain as soporific as ever: You'd have to be grading on a curve the size of the Grand Coulee Dam to give high marks to "True Lady" lines such as "Has your memory of me died?/Am I just blowing in the wind?" As for the music, it runs the gamut from predictable mid-tempo rock ("Resignation Superman") to predictable mid-tempo rock ("Heart of Wilderness")--and while some of the tangents (such as Hazel Miller's singing on the deliberate "If You Can't Slow Down") are okay, they're seldom more than that. Drummer Brian Nevin is a top-notch timekeeper, and both bassist Rob Squires and guitarist Mohr remain capable of blues-based playing of the sort that aims for the lowest common denominator and smacks it on the noggin every time. But unless your idea of musical adventure is a couple of hours spent listening to classic-rock radio, you're going to find this stuff to be mighty conservative and mighty tired. It's not the worst album you'll hear this year--I mean, at least it's in tune--but it's about as fresh as two-decade-old bread. Give my slice to someone else.

--Michael Roberts

Tonic
Lemon Parade
(Polydor)

Tonic's debut record says almost nothing about anything except the propensity of Los Angeles to spit out regularly spaced gobs of test-marketed mediocrity--but what's left to say about that? And so, after half a dozen dutifully agonizing listenings, I've found another slight peg that might connect this boys' club of guitar rockers to some small chunk of sad reality. To wit: These guys epitomize the Dishwalla Principle, which calls upon musicians to write a song so bursting at the seams with sonic and lyric cliche that no one other than an accountant could listen to it without plotting suicide. Tonic's entry in the radio sweepstakes is "Open Up Your Eyes," a swaggering piece of arena crock that speaks for the album surrounding it by being a thoroughly homogenized malt of Led Zeppelin and Live. The Tonic four know how to get the pre-approved sounds out of their amplifiers, and like Pearl Jam, they'll coast for a while on the presence of an exceptional guitarist. But Tonic mistakes competence for profundity every time. "Mountain," for instance, begins with "She came down the mountain," a line that should be followed with something heavy (but isn't). The same can be said about "Celtic Aggression," with its musings on "the death of culture," and pretty much everything else here. It's always been the goal of cover bands to sound as much as possible like the original music they mimic, but Tonic's only innovation is making original music that sounds like someone else's generic cover tunes. It's tempting to call Lemon Parade faceless and let it rest at that. But Tonic does have a face--several pretty ones, in fact. May they stick them between their legs and kiss their asses goodbye.

--Brad Tyer

Teacher Ras Sam Brown
History Past & Present
(RAS)

This is one of the most fascinating and unusual reggae projects to come along in quite a while. The disc is less a traditional album than it is a chronicle of world events from Biblical times to the present set to reggae music, and it's narrated by Brown, one of thirteen recognized elders in the Nyahbinghi order, a prominent Rastafarian sect. Obviously, this is an ambitious undertaking: Brown, a onetime candidate for Jamaican prime minister who recently spent time wandering the remote hills of his country in search of a plant that will cure AIDS, makes aspiring rockers such as Billy Corgan seem like pikers by comparison. But what's most surprising about History is how often it succeeds. "From timeless antiquity I came," Brown chants at the beginning of the CD--and over the course of 22 continuous stories, he touches on Rastafarianism, sure, but also Nero, Buddha, Christopher Columbus and the stock market crash of 1929. The music that accompanies these observations is first-rate--players include reggae veterans Dwight Pinkney and Carl Ayton--and Brown's patois is smooth and easily understandable. The result may still disappoint people looking for a less wordy platter: After all, the CD's text fills fifteen pages of liner notes. But Brown is such a captivating storyteller (imagine a Rasta Yoda and you're on the right track) that he's capable of mesmerizing anyone. That's a little piece of history in and of itself.

--Joshua Green

 
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