By Noah Hubbell
By Kiernan Maletsky
By Tom Murphy
By Noah Hubbell
By Alex Distefano
By Darryl Smyers
By Jon Solomon
By Britt Chester
Considering the one-dimensional press Elliott Smith has been receiving of late, you can be forgiven for assuming that XO captures the sound of a strange, homely man sobbing himself to sleep over his acoustic guitar. Not that the album will be mistaken for something by Up With People. If Smith has oodles of reasons to be cheerful, he chooses to keep most of them to himself. But the songs on hand are generally rich with melody and rife with hooks. No kidding: When a co-worker walked by my desk and heard "Waltz #2 (XO)" playing, she asked if I was listening to the Partridge Family.
Okay, Smith and David Cassidy weren't separated at birth, but the comparison is not entirely off the mark. "Bled White" starts quietly--just some unobtrusive minor-key strumming, that's all. Within seconds, though, light-fingered pianistics, a warm wash of organ and a vigorous beat enter the mix, followed closely by Smith, whose voice (cushioned by his own layered, contrapuntal back-up crooning) is wistful yet impossible to ignore. Moreover, what he sings is too complex to be dismissed as the morose maunderings of a man trying hard to sell himself as a symbol of generational distress. Certain somber images--like "The city's been bled white/And the doctor orders drinks all night to take away this curse/But it makes me feel much worse"--chafe against the catchiness of their settings. But the effect is usually more intriguing than incongruous. Smith, meanwhile, refuses to wilt in the heat of modern life. The couplet that concludes the tune ("I may not seem quite right/But I'm not fucked, not quite") is simultaneously realistic, black-humored and oddly brave. Smith may prefer gentleness over bombast, but he's not going to roll over for anyone.
Although reviewers may claim to treat music and lyrics equally, most of us don't: It's a lot easier to reprint a dour line like "What a fucking joke," from "I Didn't Understand," and then imply afterward that it's characteristic of a disc as a whole. But such a tack is useless when it comes to a production like XO, which operates on several levels at the same time. Sure, "Sweet Adeline" starts slow and sad, but after a minute and a half, the chorus swells into a pop celebration that battles Smith's offhand grimness to a draw. Similar is "Baby Britain": Its words look bleak on the page, but the bouncy keyboards over which Smith delivers them are anything but. Rather than hectoring members of his audience, he allows them to take what they want from his creative plenitude. The repressed anger of "Pitseleh" may jump out during one spin, the Raspberries-like ecstasy of "Amity" or "Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands" during another. So do yourself a favor, and don't weep for Elliott. Listen to him instead.
Full of catchy melodies, smart production, smooth love songs and sentimental ballads, Faith has all the ingredients of a smash seller filed under Country. Add a can of cream of mushroom soup and crumble some potato chips on top, and you get comfort food for the soul--bland but predictable. "Just to Hear You Say That You Love Me," a duet with Hill's husband, country superstar Tim McGraw, is peppered with cliches that were already old by the time Bonnie Tyler spread her schmaltz over the early Eighties. "Let Me Let Go," sung with Vince Gill, is about as exciting as lime Jell-O with grapes in it. But the album's familiarity is its secret weapon. A marketing person out there somewhere is probably negotiating with Hill to use the snappy "This Kiss" and "The Secret of Life" for TV ads even as we speak; after all, they're nearly commercials already. "The secret of life/Is a good cup of coffee," she sings. Hmmmm. Would someone please pass the tuna casserole?
There was a time when a putdown of the Allmans could get a fight going in the high-school parking lot, as I know all too well. But, people, I had reasons for starting such rumbles. Gregg Allman's voice got thick in the throat way too often, while Dickie Betts's uniquely sweet-toned guitar still grew tiresome after a while; like too many of his peers, he seemed to play out his blues in approximately one-fifth of any given solo. Besides, "Ramblin' Man" and other Allman classics were played to death on album-oriented radio, just like songs by Jimi Hendrix, the Stones, Santana, Led Zeppelin, Cream, Foreigner, Deep Purple, Yes, ELP, Pink Floyd, Lynyrd Skynyrd, etc. (The more things change, the more they stay the same.) As a result, I never voluntarily listened to the Allmans after 1979. Their 1980 breakup and 1989 reunion went right by me.
So why does this compilation of the Brothers' Nineties work make me feel sheepish for ragging on them for so long? The addition of guitarist Warren Haynes as Betts's helpmate was crucial. But more important, the band's good ol' Seventies jams have deepened with age. Gregg sings older, bluer and clearer than ever, even compared to the 1970 live version of "Every Hungry Woman." As for Betts's guitar solos, they still slip in on a single sweet, bent note only to unfurl and snap like a flag in a stiff wind that's provided here by the dual drumming of Jaimoe and Butch Trucks. Routine studio cuts, such as the country-ish "Seven Turns" and the greasy "Good Clean Fun," are perfect setups for epics like "Nobody Home" and "No One to Run With." The latter's lyric, in fact, inspires the players' liveliest-ever merger of redneck desires and elegiac C&W. But whereas the Allmans have grown up with age, I haven't: No matter how much I enjoy Mycology, I'm still not eager to hear their full albums. One more long jam might prompt me to start running my mouth in the wrong parking lot again.
Some days, this job isn't as much fun as everybody thinks it is. Like, for instance, when I have to listen to albums by professional soccer players...