The Major and the Minor

A roundup of big-name recordings that live up (or down) to expectations.

If only as much attention had gone into the music. Double Live contains most of Brooks's best-known songs, including "Two of a Kind, Workin' on a Full House," but the theatrics that make him such an onstage marvel wear thin on disc. He's forever growling, yelping and exhorting--during "Callin' Baton Rouge," he shouts the word "LOUISIANA!" like a cheerleader at a pep rally--and his exuberance plays havoc with his sense of dynamics. "The Thunder Rolls," hardly a subtle composition, comes at listeners like a jet-powered steamroller, and "Friends in Low Places" (ominously subtitled "The Long Version") takes nearly a full minute simply to end. Brooks claims to love the little people, but he loves himself even more. Double Live is a bouquet from Garth to Garth--and you get to pick up the tab.

When heard alongside Brooks's latest, Pearl Jam's Live on Two Legs sounds positively modest, as well it should be; the group was once among the biggest acts on the planet, but its sales have been in steady decline for several years now. (Yield, released in early 1998, underwhelmed despite a huge ad campaign.) This disc, then, is a way for Eddie Vedder and his brethren to consolidate their fan base even as they strive to show that being in a band is just as important to them as saving the world and destroying Ticketmaster. Judged by this standard, Two Legs succeeds: The performers execute their songs in a simple, straightforward, no-bullshit manner. But their self-imposed earnestness brings out the dreariness in them. "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town," "Go," "Even Flow," "Nothingman" and "Better Man" don't illuminate anything about Pearl Jam that wasn't already evident in the originals, and the few twists--like the interpolation of some Neil Young lyrics into "Daughter"--fail to provide much evidence of creative growth. These guys have their style down pat, but if they don't freshen it up soon, no one's going to care.

Big Head Todd and the Monsters don't throw many curveballs during Live Monsters, either, but that's no shock: Todd Park Mohr, Brian Nevin and Rob Squires have been into standard-issue blues rock since they were playing bars, and they show no signs of suddenly reinventing themselves. Their new disc is less a declaration of purpose than a stopgap intended to sustain the band until it can release a new studio disc next year. As such, programmers have eschewed any and all risks by larding the package with the Monsters' most familiar undertakings. "Vincent of Jersey," one of Mohr's early I-wannabe-Bruce Springsteen moments, is about as obscure as it gets. Otherwise, Live Monsters is dominated by predictable run-throughs of "Bittersweet," "Broken Hearted Savior," "Sister Sweetly," "Circle," "Boom Boom" and "Tangerine," a Led Zep cover that definitely paints within the lines. That's what live albums are supposed to do, right?

Not necessarily. Virtually alone among the season's live offerings, Portishead's PNYC places art ahead of commerce, and it shows. The bandmembers--vocalist Beth Gibbons, drummer/turntablist Geoff Barrows, guitarist/synthesist Adrian Utley and sound guru Dave McDonald--refuse to simply clone their songs before an audience. Instead, they reimagine them with the assistance of a full orchestra manned in part by slumming members of the New York Philharmonic. The organic tones of the acoustic instruments bring out the humanity in music that's mainly machine-made, allowing listeners to confirm that some legitimately moving compositions were lurking inside the technology all along. "Humming" is fueled by an airy, jazz-like bass progression, "All Mine" adds unanticipated depth to its James Bond-ian structure, and "Sour Times" blends Nineties ennui with an intriguing dash of Philly soul. Such flourishes make PNYC more than just a good in-concert album. It's a good album, period.

Afghan Whigs

Unlike previous Caucasian soul men (such as, say, Daryl Hall and John Oates), Greg Dulli--who appears with his band on Wednesday, December 9, at the Ogden Theatre--has only a passing interest in the smooth, sensual side of the genre. He loves to play the seducer, but he never lets sincerity get in the way of a good hump. True love is nice, sure, but true sex is a lot more accessible--and given the choice between a quiet, romantic evening with a soulmate or an orgiastic frenzy, wouldn't the honest person pick the latter? The character Dulli plays in most of his songs certainly would. This swinging single seems to believe that anonymous relationships are the best kind, animal rage is a groovy turn-on, guilt gives the hunt for the next conquest a nice edge, and climaxing is more fun when you're screaming profanities at your sweat-soaked partner as it happens. To hell with the orgasm as a little death; Dulli wants it to feel like the biggest goddamn death in the history of humankind.

On previous Whigs albums, Dulli tempered his lover-man persona with noirish storytelling of the Jim Thompson stripe, but such changes of pace seldom turn up on 1965. With the exception of "Citi Soleil," a fantasia about shooting craps alongside the folks from the other side of the tracks (the type Dulli prefers), he concentrates almost entirely on luring women into the sack, super-heroically loving them up and then walking away like a post-punk Charles Aznavour--a sophisticated existentialist ready to use his godlike member to change the life of the next woman he meets (or meats, as the case may be). He's a specialist in sexual hyperbole, and the more overheated the better. During "John the Baptist," for instance, he brings a new object of affection to his pad ("Hey...welcome home") and softens up her defenses ("I got a little wine") before hitting her with the sort of erotic bluster that's generally considered the sole province of Marvin Gaye ("Come on and take me, I'm yours/Dance, little sister, dance")--and then, to top it off, he wins her over by quoting Gaye himself ("Let's get it on"). Just try naming another white male performer fearless and foolish enough to do something like that. Give up yet?

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