After Further Review

Putting the season's major releases to the test.

The Verve
Urban Hymns
(Virgin)

There's something exciting about a veteran band suddenly making its best record; it gives you hope that groups that have been treading water for ages will enchant and surprise you again. Not that England's Verve is ancient--the combo was founded in 1990. But its previous work, which has long existed in the shadows cast by competitors Oasis, Blur and Pulp, was mere prelude to Urban Hymns. By contemporary Brit-pop standards, the disc doesn't really rock in the usual sense of the word ("The Rolling People" and "Catching the Butterfly" probably come closest). Instead, vocalist Richard Ashcroft, guitarist Nick McCabe and their brethren knit a dense psychedelic sound that has something in common with the recordings of the Doors and Echo and the Bunnymen, but with a hallucinatory darkness all its own. It's a delicate amalgamation, like sweet-smelling smoke that might drift off at any moment, and producers Chris Potter and Youth deserve plaudits for capturing its essence without blowing it away. But the lion's share of the laurels is owed to the musicians, who are confident enough in the quality of their material to let it build slowly, intoxicatingly. "Bitter Sweet Symphony," which features a riff cribbed from the Andrew Loog Oldham Orchestra (following a legal scrap, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were listed as songwriters), is a fitting introduction: "Sonnet," "Space and Time," "Lucky Man" and "One Day," in particular, use its sweeping, stately feel as a taking-off point for journeys that are as moving as they are radiant. The album reminded me a bit of Big Star's wondrously odd Sister Lovers, but even that analogy isn't quite right. In the end, Urban Hymns is one of a kind.

Paul Simon
Songs From the Capeman
(Warner Bros.)

Simon has always been a bookish sort: His early compositions have overwritten lyrics that call to mind high-school essays put together by the most sensitive boy in class, and many of his mature works (such as Hearts and Bones) are so carefully assembled that there's little juice left in them. His forays into the music of other cultures have frequently been just as academic: A disc like The Rhythm of the Saints, for instance, utilizes the music of Brazil so austerely that it feels less like an album than an assignment. Simon is clearly a major talent--a fine singer and melodist who's come up with more memorable turns of phrase than practically any pop-rock veteran this side of Randy Newman. But 1972's Paul Simon and 1973's There Goes Rhymin' Simon prove that he's best when he loosens up a little. On The Capeman, Simon's first Broadway musical, some of his self-consciousness lingers, but he takes a step in the right direction. The saga of Salvador Agron, a sixteen-year-old gang member who stabbed two teens to death during the late Fifties, gives Simon the opportunity to explore musical styles--doo wop and Latin music, specifically--that he experienced firsthand long before he became an amateur musical anthropologist. For that reason alone, songs like the pleasantly shaggy "Virgil" and the loping "Killer Wants to Go to College II" are warmer and more immediately accessible than anything he's come up with in years. And even though the structures here aren't all that compact (numbers are stretched out to accommodate numerous characters), they never lack for vocal or instrumental hooks. The words, though, are more erratic. Simon is most effective when he shoots for simplicity. Witness the evocative couplet "I want you to be my movie/I am Sal Mineo and I need you so," from the tuneful "Bernadette." But his stabs at profundity, epitomized by the lines "Correctional facility/That's what they call this place/But look around and you will see/The politics of race," from "Time Is an Ocean," are much too obvious. He also has difficulty fully getting into Agron's character. When he says "I ain't giving you my fucking money" in "The Vampires," his delivery apologizes for the profanity; he's like Little Lord Fauntleroy trying to teach himself how to curse. Of course, this last problem will be eliminated on the stage, when actors will be singing the parts. Perhaps they'll be willing to let down the hair that Simon seems determined to keep up.

Garth Brooks
Sevens
(Capitol)

That booklet that accompanies Brooks's latest includes several laughable photos of the show's star, but my favorites are a cover shot of the slimmed-down singer modeling a tight white T-shirt and resting his thumb on his belt buckle (take note, Freudian psychologists) and one on the liner's back page that mates an image of a glowering, tough-guy Garth with the announcement "This one is for our moms." Conveniently, the songs are poses, too. When he exhibits sensitivity, as on "You Move Me," "She's Gonna Make It" and "When There's No One Around" (co-written by Denver-scene graduate Tim O'Brien), Brooks gives little indication that he's actually feeling the emotions he's portraying; rather, he's using them for melodramatic effect. He trots out his ersatz sincerity on a slew of other numbers as well, including "I Don't Have to Wonder," a soppy narrative about a rejected suitor reacting to the marriage of his beloved; "Fit for a King," about the only homeless street-corner preacher who's not pathologically insane; "Belleau Wood," which casts Garth as (seriously) a soldier during World War I; and "In Another's Eyes," a duet with Trisha Yearwood that makes "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" seem restrained by comparison. But as Brooks understands, restraint doesn't sell--and sales are his primary focus. (Why else would he delay the release of this disc until the new executives at his record company verified their fealty to him?) Allen Reynolds's overproduction and Brooks's allergy to finesse, epitomized by a voice that breaks more often than Alfalfa's ever did, may seem like transparent manipulation to pointy-headed intellectuals, but the average American slurps it up--which is why the damn thing is the smash of the season. Nevertheless, the song I liked best on Sevens was "Longneck Bottle," a brief, spirited throwaway that's entirely without pretensions. I knew you could do it if you tried, buddy.

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