MTV Unplugged in New York
Too much is being made of this, and for reasons that are rather hard to fathom: I mean, I can't be the only person in America to have caught this performance during one of the 10,000 or so times it's been aired since Kurt Cobain ate lead last April. Then again, there's a tradition in rock-and-roll criticism of viewing whatever project an artist completed prior to his demise as an indicator of the direction he would have followed for the remainder of his career: Buddy Holly's use of strings guaranteed a lifetime spent churning out Vegasy MOR, Jimi Hendrix's turn away from pop songs ensured a move into jazz fusion, John Lennon's happy, domestic last album meant he never would have written an angry tune again, etc. Which means, I think, that this acoustic package, recorded around the same time as interviews with Cobain that indicated his dissatisfaction with punk rock, could just as easily have been a momentary side trip as a profound shift in approach. Keeping that in mind, Unplugged is a pleasant disc--nothing more and nothing less. These fourteen cuts should make it clear to those put off by Nirvana's more aggressive studio projects that Cobain was a terrific songwriter and a fine singer. But anyone already fond of his work will probably find that Unplugged serves best as a souvenir--one not unlike the posthumous releases cranked out by most record companies fortunate enough to have under contract the work of the right cadaver. Nirvana was a great band, and Cobain was a great talent; I'm glad he left this behind. But Nevermind it's not.--Michael Roberts
Peppermint Tea House
(Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.)
As a singer and composer, Kina is a damn sight more representative of Japanese pop than Shonen Knife or Ryuchi Sakamoto--or, for that matter, Kitaro, Yutaka or Hiroshima, any of which could be from Marlboro Country for all the cultural identity they express through their music. By the same token, the polish exhibited by these groups may initially make you feel less tolerant of the rickety, banjolike bark of Kina's shamisens and the soprano chorales that discredit his attempt at a folk-country ballad--sounds that you'd never notice if they were used in a production of, say, M. Butterfly. What you will notice about Peppermint Tea House is how much Kina's versions of Okinawan folk tunes resemble sprightly American mountain music, how the aforementioned sopranos on the 1980 Japanese club hit "Jing Jing" call to mind the B-52s, and how 1982's "Celebration" sounds as anthemic as his 1966 boozing song, "Haisan Ojisan," seems tipsy. Unlike the creators of American and European world music, Kina never looks for the dark cloud on the silver lining, which means the music never cuts the overly cute singing with even a hint of gloom. Still, the CD's programming--disco numbers, rockers and folk tunes zip along in just that order over the course of the entire disc--is a great way to showcase Kina's Pacific Rim composing.--John Young
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And She Closed Her Eyes
This second recording from Nordenstam, a 25-year-old singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist from Sweden, is an exercise in polarity--it's both irritatingly vile and hypnotically perfect. Nordenstam's compositions reveal her as a lyricist talented in veiled illusion and stark simplicity, as well as a musician whose pieces are organic, fresh and filled with elements Frank Zappa might have created had he worked during the birth-of-the-cool era. Topping off these tracks are vocals that represent one of the oddest singing styles this side of Chinese opera: With her womanly sensibilities and fetching, childish voice, Nordenstam sounds like a surreal music box that's sometimes appealing, sometimes revolting. Still, Eyes merits attention because Nordenstam's oddities combine to create a vivid, if two-dimensional, portrait of underlying passion that stays with you long after the songs have ended.--Linda Gruno
The Genius of Marion Williams 1962-1992
Yeah, I'm a heathen: Force me to attend a church service, and within five minutes I'm apt to storm the altar and demand that religious groups be taxed just like you and me. Then again, brothers and sisters, even a heretic would have to admit that Marion Williams rocks. Much of this sampler from the vocalist's vast library of recordings initially resembles standard gospel--the arrangements, dominated by unadorned piano lines, are spare, and the background singers preaching on the choruses follow long-established formulas to the letter. What makes this stick in your cranium, then, is Williams herself. She can croon Thomas Dorsey's "Precious Lord" and the deliberate "Stretch Out" as prettily as any choir director, but when she chooses to belt, her wailing is powerful enough to cut the balls off Roger Daltrey. "In the Upper Room" exemplifies her approach (it's a full-bore raveup in which Williams's "wooohs" make Little Richard seem mousy by comparison), but numbers such as "I Looked Down the Line" and "Can't No Grave Hold My Body Down" are feverish and otherworldly enough in their own right to make Yasir Arafat accept Jesus Christ as his personal savior. As for me, I'm still resisting the Word, but only because I've got access to a few Slayer albums.--Roberts