Feel the Power
If you're wondering where opportunity ends and exploitation begins, the answer is...here. Willis, for the handful of you who have not yet been subjected to him, is a Chicagoan with a potpourri of mental problems who scribbles songs about whatever pops into his head--and because he is flamboyantly, proudly insane (as opposed to being quietly, sadly insane), he eventually earned a following among alterna-types like the Beastie Boys. What followed was a major-label record deal, consistent exposure on MTV, guest spots on radio stations across the country (he appeared on KBPI-FM several times during the much-loathed reign of Dean and Rog) and a public profile that, for a time, threatened to make him the second-most-famous crazy person in the United States (after Ross Perot). So why is the Willis phenomenon already on the wane? The utter unlistenability of this record might have something to do with it. The Dust Brothers, who are listed as Power's producers (and are lauded by Willis on the album's last track), do their best to give the tunes some musical heft, but there's no point in that. To put it plainly, Willis can't sing in the conventional (or unconventional) sense, and all of his songs sound the same (babbled observations, several shouted repetitions of the title, more babbled observations, several more shouted repetitions of the title, fade out). A few of his non-sequiturs (like his declaration of Budweiser as "the king of beers" at the conclusion of "Shoot Me in the Ass") might strike some as amusing. But by the time you've suffered through Willis's tributes to "Jello Biafra," "Alice in Chains," "Rick Rubin" and seemingly every other person he's met in the past year, even the least sensitive and empathetic of you will have tired of playing the laugh-at-the-lunatic game. Pray that Willis is managed by someone honest and caring enough to have put his record-deal advance in the bank, or else this guy's going to wind up dead on Michigan Avenue in a couple of years. And then we'll see how funny everyone finds him.
The Radics (featuring bassist Flabba Holt, lead guitarist Dwight Pinkney, keyboardist "Tee Birdd" Johnson, drummer Carl Ayton and rhythm guitarist Steve Golding, who replaces the late Bingy Bunny) are best known as one of reggae's finest studio bands. But the players are also a live force thanks to their tours with Bunny Wailer, Gregory Isaacs, the Itals and, most recently, Israel Vibration, and they've got a string of impressive, if frequently overlooked, albums under their belts. Radically Radics, the combo's sixth disc, is typical of its predecessors: It's always solid and at times superb. The musicianship throughout is impeccable; as verified by an instrumental called "Skettle," the performers can shift tempos and beats in an instant, thereby creating tight transitions that are beyond most reggae units. But what's more unexpected are the vocal tracks. While Holt and Pinkney, who handle most of the singing, can't match the quality of the singers they back up, they prove themselves more than capable of carrying a tune. Furthermore, they display a considerable range on tracks as varied as the snappy, upbeat "Dancehall Massive" and the sunny, laid-back "Water More Than Flour (Be My Queen)," a lovely throwback to one of reggae's earlier periods. Other offerings aren't quite so memorable: "Reggae for Kids" sounds like just that, and the well-intentioned "Medley of Hits (Tribute to Bingy Bunny)" is, like all medleys, trite. (In the Radics' defense, trying to cover such disparate artists as Eek-A-Mouse, Wailing Souls and Michigan & Smiley within a single cut would be a formidable task for anyone.) But overall, Radically Radics is a pleasant surprise from a group whose talents should no longer seem so surprising.
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The Way I Should
That the folks at Warner Bros. are actively trying to make DeMent a star is a good sign: It indicates that there are still a few people in the music business who would like to see an obscure artist blessed with tremendous gifts get a break or two. But the way in which these corporate types have gone about boosting DeMent is counterproductive to her abilities. Her voice, as cutting and cool as an Appalachian breeze, doesn't need adornment; rather, it demands instrumental backing as spare and straightforward as she is. But that would be too easy--and so DeMent has been surrounded by a batch of studio types (sometime Rolling Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell among them) and numerous "special guest stars" (such as Delbert McClinton, Billy Burnett and Mark Knopfler) whose presence results in a conventionally busy mix that puts her light under a sizable bushel. DeMent's occasional stab at topical songwriting doesn't help matters much, either: "Wasteland of the Free," in which she bemoans societal ills like Tracy Chapman in a predictably grumpy mood, re-creates the most pedantic sort of typical Seventies folk-pop. Still, DeMent has not lost one iota of her singing talents--she remains one of the true vocal wonders in popular music--and given the right material, she proves capable of overcoming every obstacle placed before her. "When My Mornin' Comes Around" is a spunky psalm (an odd combination); "I'll Take My Sorrow Straight," co-written with Elmer McCall, is an anti-weeper of considerable strength; "This Kind of Happy" (a collaboration with Merle Haggard) is beautifully, delightfully twangy; and "Letter to Mom" is a contemporary tale of child abuse delivered in the clear-eyed style that "Jolene"-era Dolly Parton would have used. These cuts and others are so good, in fact, that they make you salivate at the thought of a DeMent album in which she is simply left alone. No doubt it would be better than this one.