To put it as plainly as possible, the last Metallica album, 1996's Load, made me angry: To see a band that I had always valued for its integrity change its music for what appeared to be commercial reasons was deeply frustrating. But after catching the quartet in concert earlier this year, I was able to listen to Reload with fresh ears--and after doing so, I appreciated the decent band Metallica is rather than pining for the really good band it used to be. Make no mistake--the speed-metal days are a thing of the past for these guys, replaced by boogie tempos, cleaner riffs, and vocals from James Hetfield that only occasionally growl. Hetfield's new style of singing can be disconcerting at times: He actually croons the opening section of "The Unforgiven II," which sounds for all the world like Elton John's "Funeral for a Friend (Love Lies Bleeding)"; executes an unexpectedly accurate Robin Zander impression in the Beatles-by-way-of-Cheap-Trick middle section of "Carpe Diem Baby"; and willingly gives himself over to the Alice in Chains harmonies that mark "Where the Wild Things Are." But in the tidy sonic environment created by producer Bob Rock, this approach is not only apropos--it's notably effective. Although a few nods are made toward Metallica's once-relentless style, most of them are purposely brief, like the Lurch tones that accent the hook line of the otherwise standard-issue rock of "Better Than You." However, the playing of Hetfield, drummer Lars Ulrich, guitarist Kirk Hammett and bassist Jason Newsted remains slashing and concise, and there's still passion in their professionalism. If you're waiting for another Master of Puppets from this foursome, disappointment will be your only friend. But considering how little of today's heavy rock is worth its weight in beans, Reload is well above average. So live with it or move on.
Tibetan Freedom Concert
Had these events, which took place on June 15 and 16, 1996, in San Francisco, and on June 7 and 8, 1997, in New York City, been put together by, say, Sting, a three-CD commemoration of them would have been sheer agony. But fortunately, the man behind the fundraisers was Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys, who has good, eclectic musical taste and isn't afraid to put it on display. Hence, the package is both a good way to learn about the oppressive situation in Tibet without paying attention to Richard Gere and confirmation that disparate forms of music can and should co-exist. The chanted prayers that lead off the first two discs are present mainly for show, but the juxtaposition on the initial platter of cuts by vocalist Yngchen Lhamo ("Om Mani Padme Hung"), Patti Smith ("About a Boy"), Radiohead ("Fake Plastic Trees") and A Tribe Called Quest ("Oh My God") is extremely purposeful: It symbolizes a shared humanity that goes beyond skin color, national origin, religious preference and the fondness for or dislike of power chords. My teeth ached while listening to Alanis Morissette's "Wake Up," and I could have done without "Electrolite," in which Michael Stipe and Mike Mills are backed up by a rinky-dink rhythm track; given drummer Bill Berry's recent departure from R.E.M., the song does not bode well for the band's future. But although efforts by Noel Gallagher and Porno for Pyros ("Cast No Shadow" and "Meija," on disc one), Pavement and Bjsrk ("Type Slowly" and "Hyper-Ballad," on disc two), and Cibo Matto and De La Soul ("Birthday Cake" and "Me, Myself & I," on disc three) fall short of classic status, they are more than spirited enough to get by. Because good-cause albums tend to be listened to once and then shelved for all eternity (see the blurb below), I usually approach them with trepidation--which makes the amount of enjoyment I derived from Tibetan Freedom Concert even more surprising. But I'm still not going to see Red Corner.
The Bridge School Concerts, Vol. One
Some of the same artists who appear on Tibetan Freedom Concert (specifically Patti Smith, Beck and Eddie Vedder) also turn up on this CD, which benefits an innovative California institution dedicated to children with what the liner describes as "severe speech and physical impairments." But the celebratory feel that marks Freedom is largely absent on Vol. One, replaced by the sort of singer-songwriter earnestness that can turn these projects into chores. The focus is on acoustic presentations, and in capitulating to this concept, the performers slow everything down to a speed closely resembling stasis. You don't expect Tracy Chapman to rock, so the fact that her "All That You Have Is Your Soul" doesn't comes as no surprise. But Ministry's version of the Grateful Dead's "Friend of the Devil" is so somnambulant that even Jerry Garcia might have been bored by it. Elsewhere, David Bowie's "Heroes" falls flatter than Kate Moss's chest, and Smith's "People Have the Power" suffers from an unexpected energy crisis. A couple of tunes hold up: Tom Petty, who offers "Shadow of a Doubt (A Complex Kid)," manages to make the languid setting work for him, Bonnie Raitt's "The Road's My Middle Name" recalls the wonderfully spare blues of her early days, and the Heart spinoff called the Lovemongers does a nice job reproducing "Battle of Evermore" (even Robert Plant can't sound as much like Robert Plant as Ann Wilson does these days). But when even Neil Young, the impetus behind the album, can't light a fire under "I Am a Child," you know you're in trouble. The Bridge School, which can be reached at www.bridgeschool.org, is a great cause, but this record is a bridge not nearly far enough.
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.
Songs From the Capeman
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.
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.
As this recording spun, I couldn't help but think of the Knack--you know, the proto-new wave act that put out an incredibly popular major-label debut (Get the Knack), a much less successful sequel (...but the Little Girls Understand) and a desperate attempt to establish some artistic credibility (Round Trip) that was followed immediately by the group's dissolution. Green Day hasn't broken up yet, so perhaps this model will not prove to be accurate. But nimrod., the trio's third CD for Reprise after one huge record and one stiff, suggests some correlations. In addition to the trio's usual melodic punk, of which "Nice Guys Finish Last" and "Platypus (I Hate You)" are only two examples, Billie Joe, Tre Cool and Mike Dirnt offer a couple of mid-tempo pop turns ("Redundant" and "Worry Rock") that conjure up thoughts of the Brill Building, a deliberate, tremolo-drenched rock instrumental ("Last Ride In"), a de facto tribute to the Who ("Haushinka"), a bit of rock sensitivity ("Walking Alone"), and an honest-to-goodness ballad ("Good Riddance [Time of Your Life]"). Because Billie Joe is a gent who knows a good hook when he hears one, the album has its share of catchy segments, and although his lyrics sometimes mistake drippiness for depth (e.g., "I've got some scattered pictures lying on my bedroom floor/Reminds me of the times we shared/ Makes me wish that you were here," from "Scattered"), he more frequently is pithy and profane: In "The Grouch," about a punk grown old, he barks, "The world owes me/So fuck you" in the full knowledge that the knife cuts both ways. In short, this is not a bad record--but it's all over for Green Day anyhow. Goodbye.
In some ways, Streisand has too much skill: Her gifts are so enormous that she thinks she can do anything. She's a fabulous Broadway-style chanteuse with a rare aptitude for comedy; when she's in a light mood, you can literally hear the smile in her voice. But because these pursuits are so easy for her, she's moved away from them in search of new worlds to conquer--and more often than not, she's pulverized them instead. Her most recent long-player finds her eschewing entertainment for soul enrichment: In the liner, she writes, "I believe it is incumbent upon each of us to put positive thoughts out there in the universe, where they can be free to do their good work. The power of prayer is extraordinary. These songs, to me, are like prayers." This ambition sentences listeners to sledding that goes so far beyond heavy that Higher Ground may be the first CD that's actually fattening. Each of the numbers here is a ballad that the various producers, including Arif Mardin and David Foster, weigh down with a symphony's worth of instrumentation. Predictably, Streisand is seldom buried by this accompaniment; she's capable of out-wailing a police siren. There's some interest, therefore, in the way that she mows over every sonic obstacle in her path. (Her last note in "On Holy Ground," which dwarfs the exertions of an oversized gospel choir, is staggering.) But the material is samey and sometimes hackneyed (why, oh why, didn't someone stop her before she cut "You'll Never Walk Alone," the song with which Jerry Lewis ends all of his Labor Day telethons?), and the constant focus on spiritual uplift eventually becomes exhausting. If she were the star of Touched by an Angel, a new title would be in order: Having the Hell Beaten Out of You by an Angel might do nicely. Higher Ground is obviously a deeply felt piece of work, but in the end, it left me with a hankering to hear some show tunes.
Let's Talk About Love
Dion's album shares one track with Streisand's--"Tell Him," in which the up-and-coming songstress and the definitive prima donna pair their pipes. It's not really a fair fight: Streisand's belting has so much body, vigor and character that Dion's big but comparatively flavorless voice is left to flit around her partner's like a piglet unable to muscle her siblings away from mom's nipples at feeding time. Bloodied but unbowed, Dion subsequently challenges Luciano Pavarotti on her own turf in "I Hate You Then I Love You," and although his formidable tenor pounds her trilling into submission, he sounds so ridiculous turning his accent loose on soap-operatic lyrics such as "No matter what you do you drive me crazy" that you can't help snickering. And so it goes on Love, an album in which shlock is given top-drawer treatment. To her credit, Dion tries on several hats, and every so often, one fits her: She does a decent job with "Immortality," a Bee Gees composition on which the brothers Gibb guest. But "Treat Her Like a Lady," a faux-dancehall stomper that she actually tries to rap, is a laugh riot, and her mimicry of soul on "Love Is on the Way" left me hungry for the real thing. As for her rendition of "My Heart Will Go On," subtitled "Love Theme From Titanic," it proved that Dion is not the next Streisand but the next Maureen (The Poseidon Adventure) McGovern. If anyone ever makes another movie about a big boat that sinks, he'd do well to give her a call.
The current theory on boxed sets is that they are primarily purchased by loyal fans of the act in question--and since such folks already own all the band's releases, leftovers from the vaults must be used to induce them to lay out their folding green. For the most part, Bonfire follows this formula closely. Aside from the inexplicable inclusion of 1980's Back in Black, probably the most widely owned AC/DC album in existence, it is made up of unissued live recordings and studio flotsam that hadn't been judged good enough for sale in the first place. Completists will probably be pleased by the lineup, and although it's hard to imagine that dudes who were into Highway to Hell when they were seventeen fit this description, some must. But for anyone seriously interested in re-evaluating these mad Aussies, Bonfire is an expensive way to do it. The first CD, a live-in-the-studio album made for a radio show in 1977, has some of the tunes that made the band's reputation, including "High Voltage," but they aren't really produced in the usual sense; when all of the instruments drop out, leaving only Angus Young's guitar, a palpable emptiness seeps in. The sound is crisp, and singer Bon Scott, who died in 1980, yowls as energetically as ever, but the versions aren't revelatory. Ditto for CDs two and three, recorded in Paris in 1979 and used as the soundtrack for a 1981 concert flick, Let There Be Rock. There's no shortage of song duplication: "Live Wire," "Hell Ain't a Bad Place to Be," "The Jack," "Whole Lotta Rosie" and "Rocker" all appear for a second time. And although the production is fuller on the latter session, it's also more sodden, less immediate. AC/DC's idea of nuance is to bludgeon you slowly rather than double-time it, and while these raveups don't seem notably weakened as a result, neither will they blow you out of your seat. Finally, the fourth CD, subtitled Volts, deals out rarities that aren't that rare--like "Dirty Eyes," which is nothing more than "Rosie" with different lyrics, and "Back Seat Confidential," an early version of "Beatin' Around the Bush"--along with songs from TNT, High Voltage and Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap. Even so, Bonfire provided me with a good time. Because I never much liked the strangulated screeching of Bon Scott and his successor, Brian Johnson, and because the people I knew who were into the band during its late-Seventies/early-Eighties heyday were absolute morons, I never really gave AC/DC a fair shake. But after listening to this set, I was able to appreciate the group as a spiritual cousin of the Ramones--unsophisticated, dopey, impressively one-dimensional and, most of all, louder than Ethel Merman on crank. Then again, I got my copy of Bonfire for free. Had I not, I probably would have selected a single AC/DC album from the bargain bin and left it at that.
The Velvet Rope
Jackson's last album, 1993's janet., contained her finest moments on wax; it was confident, sexually frank and thematically consistent. But with The Velvet Rope, she seems to be suffering from one of brother Michael's many maladies--a desire to be all things to all people. The album finds her trying on more personas than Sybil, including hip-hop hep cat, soulful mama, adult-contemporary crooner and social commentator, but she spreads herself far too thin. In contrast to the effortless flow of janet., Rope is herky-jerky, directionless. The worst moment is the single "Got 'Til It's Gone," which contains perhaps the single most aggravating use of a sample yet accomplished by professional musicians (Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi" is the victim), but it's not alone on the lower end of the scale. Jackson's decision to tinker with the lyrics of Rod Stewart's dreadful "Tonight's the Night" doesn't justify her remake of it, and the several seducers that follow it (even "Rope Burn," in which she pleads to be tied up and dripped with hot candle wax) are so musically nondescript that they bleed anonymously into one another. "Free Xone," a Princey plea for greater tolerance of homosexuality, is livelier (co-producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis can still get nasty), but it doesn't add up to much, and "What About" is a sonic mutt; its funky groove and angry words ("What about the times you said you didn't fuck her/She only gave you head/What about that?") are repeatedly interrupted by the sound of waves lapping on a beach and, of all things, a mellow Spanish guitar. Janet would do far better in the future if she would focus her energies on something specific rather than trying to top her boy-diddling big bro. One Jackson like that is more than enough.
The individuals who art-designed this disc's liner were up front about Kettle Whistle; they placed an admission in plain view that only four of the recording's fifteen tunes are new. But it's still something of a disappointment to discover that the disc is dominated by odds and ends--live tracks, demos and outtakes. The alternate versions of "Ocean Size," Had a Dad," "Jane Says," "Mountain Song," "Been Caught Stealing" and other familiar Addiction fare are okay--how could they not be, given what good songs they are?--but they aren't so radically different as to give you greatly enhanced insight into them. Moreover, two of the "virgin" tracks have been around the block a time or two: "Slow Divers" and "My Cat's Name Is Maceo" were initially laid down in 1986 and 1987, respectively, before being fooled with in the studio again this year. But the other pair of unused compositions (featuring original members Perry Farrell, Dave Navarro and Stephen Perkins, with supplementary bass playing by the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea) deserve your attention. Because it spends a lot of time meandering in an often gentle way, the title cut isn't all that different from much of Farrell's work in Porno for Pyros, but its occasional instrumental flareups spark more flames than usual. Better still is "So What!" a propulsive live workout that sheds the Porno malaise in a burst of crazed guitar gymnastics and vocal exorcism. Whether Farrell has any interest in finally trying to fulfill the act's promise is an open question: In interviews, he's implied that the Jane's reunion was merely a ploy to gain attention for several of his loopy projects. But "So What!" demonstrates that he has a strong foundation on which to build. Kettle Whistle isn't what you'd call the bargain of the season, but if it helps Jane's Addiction become a going concern again, it will have been worth it.
Slip Stich and Pass
To get a handle on the aesthetic of choice on Phish's latest recording, cut live in Germany earlier this year, you need only listen to the first track, a cover of the Talking Heads' "Cities." As David Byrne boosters know, the song is among the jitteriest and most intense in the Heads' oeuvre, but guitarist Trey Anastasio, bassist Mike Gordon, drummer Jon Fishman and keyboardist Page McConnell slow it down until it becomes positively relaxed, then ride it for more than five minutes. "Jesus Just Left Chicago," from the ZZ Top library, gets the same treatment--gutbucket blues it ain't--and "Mike's Song," in spite of the slightly distorted Anastasio lick that leads it off, ambles along at a casual gait that probably didn't require anyone dancing to it to break a sweat. But just when you're ready to repudiate the last ditty as filler, Anastasio offers a brief parody of Jim Morrison's "The End" ("Father," he says, "I want the keys to the car") that reminds you that these guys are smart, witty and knowledgeable about their rock history. (So, too, does "Weekapaug Groove," an energetic jam that concludes with some riffing that references the Rolling Stones circa Sticky Fingers.) No new ground is broken here, and the package is so laid-back that the demanding among you may find yourself wishing that a few more curveballs had been thrown. Slip is meant not as a bold artistic statement, but as a memento aimed at true believers. And on the latter count, it succeeds.
You've got to wonder: Can Sean "Puffy" Combs make anyone a star? That's the way it seems right now. Most people who listen to Puff Daddy's recordings for more than a couple of minutes come away with two discoveries--that Combs is among the weakest rappers of all time, and that his production acumen begins and ends with his willingness to sample more blatantly than any of his peers. And yet Mase, a Combs protege whose flow is only moderately more convincing than that of his mentor, is the latest member of the Bad Boy stable to break out big. (Harlem World entered the Billboard charts at No. 1 a few weeks back.) It makes sense on some level: "Feel So Good," the most popular rap single in the land at press time, is certainly engaging, thanks to the extremely liberal use of "Hollywood Swinging," an old Kool & the Gang song. But time and again, artists in cameo roles (Lil' Kim, Billy Lawrence, Eightball & MJG, Busta Rhymes, Lil' Cease & Jay-Z) make stronger impressions than the man whose name is on the marquee. Virtually the only guest Mase out-rhymes on a consistent basis is Combs, and that's not much of a challenge: If he were still among the breathing, I'll bet Lou Costello could have taken Puffy, too. Mase's best performance is on "Niggaz Wanna Act," because he seems to connect to it more than to, for instance, "Wanna Hurt Mase?" which is inspired by that hip-hop exemplar, Culture Club's "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me." On "Act," about those jealous of his success, Mase concedes, "Niggaz say they love me/They don't love me/I know deep down they want to slug me." That knowledge will serve him well, because when Combs's ride ends, he'll be left high and dry. So sock those profits away while you can, Mase. You're going to have to make them last a long time.
The 18th Letter/The Book of Life
Everything that Mase is not as a rapper, Rakim is. It's not hyperbole to say that he is one of the five finest vocal presences ever in hip-hop, and in conjunction with Eric B., he made several great albums that still stand up: If you don't already own Paid in Full and Don't Sweat the Technique, do yourself a favor and pick them up, pronto. But Rakim's return, delivered several years after his split from Eric B., is not the bold salvo for which a lot of us have been hoping. Part of the problem is that Rakim's words are so overly concerned with reintroducing himself ("It's Been a Long Time" and "Guess Who's Back" aren't titles chosen at random) that he doesn't get a chance to display the full range of his prowess. Given his verbal facility, this isn't a fatal flaw: He sounds so strong flipping a boast like "They said I changed the times/From the rhymes that I thought of" that you can't do anything more than agree. But more damaging is the inability of the assembled producers to key into Rakim musically with the ease that Eric B. exhibited. I liked "The Saga Begins," helmed by Pete Rock, "Stay Awhile," put together in conjunction with DJ Clark Kent, and the DJ Premier-directed "New York (Ya' Out There)," but these high points border too much filler, including a couple of alternate mixes that are only present to make the album seem more generous than it is. But if The 18th Letter is spotty, The Book of Life, a companion disc, is a beauty--fifteen Eric B. & Rakim gems, including "Eric B. Is President," "Casualties of War" and "Lyrics of Fury." Rakim may not be all the way back yet, but if his past victories are any indication, he'll get there before long. And when he does, watch out.
Like it or not, you've got to give Carey some props: It would have been easy for her to do a Whitney Houston and drift off toward the middle of the road, but she's made an effort to remain contemporary. Too bad her choice of collaborators is a bit suspect. She practically hands "Honey" over to the ubiquitous Sean Combs, and on "Breakdown," rappers Wish Bone and Krayzie Bone, under Combs's direction, don't exactly lift the tune to another level. But more problematic is Carey's insistence upon tonal smoothness. Although she's got a voice that can cut glass, she generally keeps it under wraps on Butterfly, choosing instead to coo her leads or quaver in the background as harmony singers handle the hooks. Furthermore, the instruments and the vocal contributors are layered so thickly that the songs themselves seem like glass figures packed in an oversized shipping crate jammed with Styrofoam. It's all quite comely, and sometimes it's more than that: "The Roof" sports a penetrating groove that pulls you deeper and deeper into one of Carey's typically lush lyrics ("Every time I feel the need I envision you caressing me/And go back in time/To relive the splendor of you and I/On the rooftop that rainy night"), and "Babydoll" is a lavish exploration of horniness. But most of these muted lovefests are indistinguishable from one another, ultimately causing the album to sink into a pile of fluff. Like Babyface, Carey has rounded off every edge of her music in order to make it utterly unobjectionable. If only she'd stopped before there was nothing left.
It's rather poignant how desperate Gavin Rossdale and his minions are for respect. For the act's previous package, Razorblade Suitcase, they hired producer Steve Albini, a man who even Kurt Cobain felt was too extreme at times. Now, on Deconstructed, the lads have lined up every hotshot studio jockey on the A-list to make their iffy tunes as current as trip-hop. Since the first step toward a strong mix is strong material, this task was a difficult one, but a few dial-twisters were able to come up with some intriguing concoctions anyhow--especially those who took the quite logical step of tossing out as much of the songs as they could. "Swallowed" becomes a moody but still danceable sonic slab after being overhauled by Goldie and Rob Playford; "In a Lonely Place" is infused with creepiness by Tricky; and "Everything Zen" is completely subsumed in beats and beeps cooked up by Derek DeLarge. (A second, far-less drastic variation on "Everything Zen," refurbished by Greg Brimson and Pete Coyte, leads off the disc.) But despite such exertions, this undertaking remains a waste of time--the sort of thing record companies put out for no other reason than to assuage bruised egos. Why? Because people who actually like Bush are apt to hate the changes, and people who don't like Bush will see Deconstructed as the vanity project it is and leave it on the store shelves. Coming soon to a cut-out bin near you.
All for Nothing/Nothing for All
The Replacements' story is a cautionary tale about believing your own press. The band, led by master songwriter Paul Westerberg, was formed in 1980, and an argument can be made that its first releases (1981's Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash and the 1982 EP The Replacements Stink) are too silly--although I wouldn't make it myself. By the time of 1983's Hootenany, however, Westerberg had found a way to write serious songs in the context of drunken, primordial rock and roll. What followed were three exceptional albums--1984's Let It Be (the peak, in my opinion), 1985's Tim and 1987's Pleased to Meet Me--and oodles of mainstream critical accolades that started coloring Westerberg's work. He began to moan in interviews about feeling hemmed in by the band's slatternly reputation and told the public about his love for the catalogue of Joni Mitchell. These were danger signs, but Westerberg ignored them, and as a result, 1989's Don't Tell a Soul and the 1990 swan song All Shook Down were severe disappointments--not bad, really, but hollow, studied, and wholly lacking in the spontaneity that had characterized the Replacements in their prime. This progression can be traced on both disc one, a compilation of the quartet's studio creations beginning in 1985, and disc two, a roundup of unreleased oddities. The first half of All for Nothing contains only one truly raucous Replacements moment ("Bastards of Young") and a fistful of more sensitive numbers of the sort that first got journalists' attention ("Here Comes a Regular," "Skyway") before segueing into the "respectable" tracks that signaled the beginning of the end. Similarly, Nothing for All kicks off promisingly with the likes of "Beer for Breakfast" ("All I want to eat is those barbecue chips!"), "Till We're Nude," "Jungle Rock" and the Chris Mars declaration "All He Wants to Do Is Fish." But following a wonderful demolition of Disney's "Cruella DeVille," Westerberg steps to the fore with "We Know the Night," "Portland" and other literary excursions that are easier to respect than they are to enjoy. "Like a Rolling Pin," based on Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone," is the last truly sloppy moment, but its pedigree shows how much Westerberg had changed: In the old days, he would cover KISS. How much you enjoy this set, then, will depend on which Westerberg you like best. Fans of Westerberg-the-misunderstood-artist will find plenty to love, but aficionados of the Replacements' indie-smartass period will probably wind up feeling depressed. I know I did.
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Portishead's first album, Dummy, and its lead single, "Sour Times," left me feeling a bit underwhelmed: I decided that they were forced and affected, and I left it at that. But in retrospect, I think that their ultra-stylized sounds baffled me. Now, on Portishead, I get it. The doomy programming favored by Geoff Barrow, Adrian Utley and Beth Gibbons--thudding beats and synthesized fanfares sprinkled sparingly over a landscape that's otherwise almost barren--may be theatrical, but its restraint prevents the atmosphere from growing banal. Likewise, Gibbons's vocals are terrifying in their blankness; she sounds as if she's gone beyond fear and pain into a unknown realm that's simultaneously desolate and clinical. Her relentlessly dour worldview can be suffocating: After hearing Gibbons battling more demons than there are in both houses of Congress during "Over," many people will want to peruse the obituaries to make sure she didn't climb into a steaming tub and slash her wrists. But any band that can render the James Bondy "All Mine," the harrowing "Seven Months" and the otherworldly "Elysium" on the same disc is one that demands attention. Easy listening it's not, but Portishead's ability to create an alternative universe as logical and vast as the one in which you live is a striking achievement--a vital repudiation of the Prozac nation.
As the Girls prepare to go down for the last time (in a career sense), consider this CD for what it is--not an album, really, but an intriguing artifact from the tail end of the second millennium after Christ. On it, despite the social progress that has supposedly marked the American century, the archetypes that have haunted Western civilization for decades remain firmly in place. For example, a woman of African descent is allowed to be part of the Spice Girl sorority, but she's made to conform to hoary jungle cliches (she's Scary Spice). Her four Caucasian sisters are mired in stereotypes of their own: The blond member is infantilized (she's Baby Spice), the redhead is sexualized (she's Sexy Spice), and the two brunettes are relegated to secondary roles (they're Posh Spice and Sporty Spice). These male-fantasy characters were created, appropriately enough, by a male, Simon Fuller--and because the Girls sacked him on the eve of the Spiceworld movie, its impending failure will further reinforce the outmoded belief that women can't really do it for themselves. Spiceworld's lyrics, meanwhile, pretend to be about empowerment (for substantiation, turn an ear toward the lines "Keep your head up high/Don't you know you are the superfly/And that ain't no lie," from "Saturday Night Divas"). But these bold statements are undercut by meager harmonies and the fact that all the tunes are largely written by dudes. (The Girls get co-writing recognition, but Elvis did, too, and you and I both know how many tunes he really composed.) And the music? It's like a cross between second-rate Bananarama and the musical interludes on The New Mickey Mouse Club. But that doesn't mean that Spiceworld is worthless, because it's not. I won't be listening to my copy anytime soon, but I plan to keep it in a very safe place. And fifty years from now, when I want to remember what it was like way back in 1997, I'll be very happy I did.