Randy Newman's Faust
Haven't seen the stage version of this piece, but the disc is just the kind of mild disappointment that's to be expected from a concept this goofy. Newman is certainly among our greatest living songwriters, and nothing in his satirical deconstruction of Goethe's signature piece suggests that he's entirely lost his touch: The arrangements are clever, the orchestrations impressive, the melodies witty and diverting. The problem, then, is that Newman shares with us only a small part of his gifts; Faust is like "God's Song" (among the more obvious offerings on the must-have Newman platter Sail Away) rewritten more than a dozen times. This one-dimensionality is exacerbated by casting. On one level, having James Taylor sing the role of the Lord is funny--but for some of us, the mere thought of hearing Taylor's voice for all eternity is more frightening than the prospect of life in hell. Likewise, Don Henley (as Faust) brings little of interest to his characterization. Other vocalists fare better--"Feels Like Home" is the best tune Bonnie Raitt's gotten ahold of in years, while "Sandman's Coming" is good enough to make most listeners temporarily forget how annoying Linda Ronstadt can be. Newman (as Lucifer) is in good voice, too, but tracks such as "Can't Keep a Good Man Down" and "Happy Ending" sound like toss-offs in spite of the fact that Newman has reportedly spent most of the Nineties bringing them to fruition. The result is diverting, but never as hilarious, moving or shocking as this artist can be when he puts his mind to it. Because Faust's story line allows Newman to distance himself from his themes and his audience, he doesn't seem fully engaged; he hides behind stock characters rather than climbing inside them. Perhaps the devil made him do it.--Michael Roberts
Tomorrow the Green Grass
For many fledgling rappers and rockers, depression and pessimism are the soul of wit and insight--until, that is, contract advances and gold albums create a comfort zone that causes them to lose the white-knuckled grip on their bona fides. Such dangers haven't been lost on mid-thirtysomethings Mark Olsen and Gary Louris, who on Tomorrow the Green Grass establish the continuing integrity of their work with dueling vocals, rough-n-pretty guitars and soulful songwriting. The disc is marked by a sense of discovery; for instance, Olsen finds that love can't stop tragedy but can outlast it (see "Miss Williams' Guitar"). He also seems to have realized that 1992's Hollywood Town Hall sounded as flat-footed as it did heavyhearted, because Tomorrow is filled with faster tempos and occasional bursts of guitar noise that symbolize the group's renewed creative pleasure. The Jayhawks' stylistic mix of Neil Young, Gram Parsons and inventions of their own is now so spirited that they don't need the sense of humor they never had.--John Young
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As with the Replacements, Soul Asylum, the Goo Goo Dolls and Dinosaur Jr. before them, Buffalo Tom appears to have secured a major-label connection long after the party ended. Sleepy Eyed's "Tangerine" and "Summer" are snappy, somewhat hard-edged examples of the college-radio fare that has become this trio's staple, while "Sunday Night" is an effective brooder until its length causes it to overstay its welcome. But cut number three--"Kitchen Door," sung by bassist Chris Colbourn--symbolizes the troubles to come: Lines such as "I'm the number on your kitchen door/I'm the gifted son who cannot score" make even less sense in their proper context than they do here. For his part, lead vocalist Bill Janovitz pushes his pipes so hard that they'll probably burst three weeks into the act's next tour. Some may chalk up the new album's weaknesses to the group's heavy preference for one-syllable end rhymes, but whatever the cause, it's disconcerting that three apparently passionate and articulate lads can put out fourteen new songs that manage to say almost nothing.--John Jesitus
All in the Mind
(Henry St./Big Beat/Atlantic)
Those of you under the delusion that disco died shortly after Staying Alive, the hilarious sequel to Saturday Night Fever, went into the toilet are in a major state of denial: Half the dance ditties packing clubs right now have the same one-two-three-four beat that powered thumpers by Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor. Moreover, the rhythm still works, as the Bucketheads--meaning mixers Kenny "Dope" Gonzales and "Little" Louie Vega, plus various comrades--establish over and over again throughout this package. In spite of a weak horn pattern, the fourteen-minute-plus version of "The Bomb! (These Sounds Fall Into My Mind)" is an opus with the power to hypnotize hedonists and other strangers; "Whew!" merges random exotica with relentless drive; and "You're a Runaway" makes a Linda Clifford sample breathe again. In spite of its title, Mind won't give you much to ponder--other than the stunning resilience of disco, that is. Now, where did I put that Village People album?--Roberts