Mellow Gold

Yes, this is a complete mess: sloppy, sometimes incoherent, always erratic. Yet these very qualities make Beck Hansen, most recent beneficiary of David Geffen's frightening hype machine, worthy of your attention. Because of the success of "Loser," an indie single that manages to be amusing without seeming (too much) like a novelty, this prematurely fried neofolkie was allowed to make available to Wal-Mart customers everywhere pretty much any song that popped into his head--and the recordings of said ditties leave the typical four-track demo tape sounding like Dark Side of the Moon by comparison. As for the tunes themselves, they are eclectic enough to give even the most seasoned observer genre whiplash. Beck pleasures us with slovenly variations on Bob Dylan ("Pay No Mind [Snoozer]"), off-the-cuff Syd Barrett ("Whiskeycyclone, Hotel City 1997"), aimless, goofball chants ("Sweet Sunshine") and, on "Soul Suckin Jerk," gargled lyrics that could be described as stream-of-consciousness only if they started flowing in the same direction, which they never do. Hell, this could be the laziest disc put out by a major label this decade--but even more aggressive tracks such as "Motherfuker" are so relaxed, spontaneous and charmingly dopey that you'll probably prefer them anyway to, say, Smashing Pumpkins. There's no telling whether Mellow Gold is a swell one-shot or the harbinger of an actual career. What is clear, though, is that Beck has made a lot of people in the record industry look stupid. And for that we should be eternally grateful.--Michael Roberts

Gabrielle Goodman
Travelin' Light

On her debut solo recording, vocalist Goodman showcases the fetching qualities that impressed audiences at the 1992 Newport Jazz Festival, where she served as one of Roberta Flack's back-up singers. While much of the work is pleasant, however, Goodman falters by gambling on too wide an assortment of material. Her scat climb through Clifford Brown's "Blues Walk" shows that she can work the outside edge, and her uncommon interpretation of Bill Withers's soul classic "Use Me" clearly displays her creative and interpretive skills. Yet on covers of the beaten-to-death classics "Over the Rainbow" and "My Funny Valentine," Goodman sounds like an irritating fusion of Betty Carter and soul vocalist Angela Bofill. Fortunately, the choice assortment of musicians found here--including guitarists Wolfgang Muthspiel and Kevin Eubanks, percussionist Don Alias, bassist Anthony Cox and saxophonist Gary Thomas--are worth listening to even when the songs themselves aren't. On Travelin' Light, these players take Goodman's promising voice on a largely enjoyable ride.--Linda Gruno

Latin Playboys
Latin Playboys
(Slash/Warner Bros.)

Usually when established artists experiment, the results are not very experimental--a new coat of paint slapped onto the same old crap. That's why this weird slab of plastic comes as such a legitimate and bracing surprise. Los Lobos' David Hidalgo and Louie Perez, joined by producer Mitchell Froom and engineer Tchad Blake, haven't simply reworked discarded tunes under a secondhand name; rather, they've taken the stylistic approaches found on 1992's Kiko (itself a notable stretch) to new and very strange places. Like Tom Waits's best Eighties and Nineties work, this disc hangs jagged guitar, bass and percussion figures on skeletal blues structures, allowing the musicians to find the sensuous centers of their compositions in a jarringly unconventional manner. Melodies veer toward atonality, only to metamorphose into riffs that sound utterly timeless; lyrics range from emotional haiku ("If") and boisterous babble ("Mira!") to the magic realism of "Rudy's Party"--whose words, though found only on the CD cover, seem ineffably right anyhow. Most important, the players perform these fourteen songs--fragmentary instrumentals, foreboding rockers, spooky blues--with a passion and conviction that show up U2's similarly ambitious Zooropa for the pretentious dodge it was. Latin Playboys is deeply felt, undeniably moving, thoroughly individual and otherwise so worthy of note that my dictionary fails me. If I've neglected to mention any appropriate positive adjectives, please let me know.--Roberts


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