By Brian Turk
By Drew AIles
By Taylor Boylston
By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
Although Jeffrey Katzenberg went to extraordinary extremes to ensure that his animated gloss on the adventures of the Old Testament's biggest name was an unprecedented multi-media blockbuster, it just didn't work. The picture was technically impressive, but the characterization of Moses as a rather tentative and conflicted prophet couldn't compare with the sight of Chuck Heston kicking pagan ass, and the narrative felt like a Cliffs Notes version of the Bible occasionally interspersed by the most ponderous music imaginable. It's no surprise, then, that the three (count 'em, three) discs issued in conjunction with the project are as weighty as a Sumo wrestler on a pastry binge. But listening to them against the backdrop of the movie's box-office under-performance is inspiring on at least one count: The albums prove that hype still has its limits.
On the soundtrack itself, composer Hans Zimmer works overtime to prevent any hook from being too catchy, as if hummability might somehow seem disrespectful, and lyricist Stephen Schwartz contributes words that are actually preachier than the politically correct dreck he whipped up for Pocahontas. "The Plagues," a duet of sorts that allows Moses to regularly apologize for the Lord's vengeance, is matched in cringe-worthiness by "Humanity," which appears to have been assembled from a variety of religious bumper stickers ("One people, one planet/Don't take your brother for granted"). Elsewhere, the Steve Martin/Martin Short change of pace, "You're Playing With the Big Boys Now," is anachronistic in a singularly unfunny way, and the Whitney Houston/Mariah Carey rendition of "When You Believe" contains a barrage of vocal showboating that ultimately overwhelms the slender melody.
Still, "When We Believe" hardly registers on the awfulness scale by comparison with the Prince of Egypt companion discs. Inspirational has a couple of semi-bright moments, like Kirk Franklin's lively "Let My People Go," and "God Will Take Care of Me," by Carman, whose egomania keeps dullness at bay, but offerings by Take 6 ("Destiny"), Boyz II Men ("I Will Get There") and Brian McKnight ("Father") are capable of making even true believers gag. Considerably worse is Nashville, during which Wynonna, Vince Gill, Faith Hill, Clint Black and other C&W types demonstrate their righteousness via a raft of extremely slow, stunningly monotonous tunes that had this particular lapsed Catholic ready to burn offerings to Lucifer if it would speed the recording to its conclusion. The only thing that prevented me from doing so was a glance at Billboard magazine, where I was cheered to see that the CDs seem on their way to sales oblivion. Obviously, God works in mysterious ways.
I'm So Confused
Richman has gotten by on sheer defenselessness for so long that I wish Mike Wallace would interview him just to see if he has any teeth at all. But his appearances in There's Something About Mary were great: He's every bit as cool and appealing while getting shot at the film's end as the majority of the music he's made since his high-water mark, 1982's Jonathan Sings, is annoying. There's even a reward for a former fan like me: By downplaying the cuteness that makes his solo albums so dull, he's produced the first batch of songs I've been interested in in years. Maybe a storm really is raging this way and that in Richman's heart, or maybe he's trying to be heard over producer Ric Ocasek's plain synthesizer hooks. But between his confident singing and the dour romantic longings in the lyrics, he convinces me that he's rarely been more vulnerable. The rockin' remake of "Affection" is as sweet as the original from one of his cuter albums, 1979's Back in Your Life, and "The Night Is So Young" makes looking for a party sound humbly miserable. Ben Stiller's Mary character definitely would have understood.
Pixies at the BBC
If listening to a Pixies studio album is like touching your tongue to a nine-volt battery, then hearing them live on Pixies at the BBC is a tad closer to French-kissing a light socket. Both will give you a shock, but one will knock you out of your shoes. Perhaps following a little too closely on the heels of the 1997 collection Death to the Pixies, which included a so-so-sounding in-concert disc, this latest release unearths songs taped live between 1988 and 1991 that range from angelic to incendiary. The recording doesn't have a corporate-mandated greatest-hits feel to it: "Monkey Gone to Heaven" will be the most recognizable cut to the casual fan. Instead, it showcases the on-stage power and guitar-bending skill of one of the most influential bands of the Eighties.
For those who've forgotten (or never knew), the Pixies were powered by Black Frances (currently known as Frank Black), whose voice is part semi-coherent cock rocker, part lounge crooner--but he was hardly the act's only attraction. Anchoring the band was Joey Santiago's impressive guitar work and the solid, singular rhythm section of drummer David Lovering, late of Cracker, and bassist Kim Deal, who went on to lend her opulent vocals to the Breeders and the Amps. During the first three songs of BBC, the group shows off more speeds than a household blender, pureeing the Beatles' "Wild Honey Pie," blending the lyrics of "There Goes My Gun" into a sonic smoothie and whipping through a bracing version of "Dead." The cascading "Wave of Mutilation" and the head-bopping "Is She Weird" also display a style that still sounds fresher than 90 percent of the music that passes for alternative these days.