The hype, the hype, the hype. Regular reports over the course of a year about the making of U2's latest--who was producing, who was mixing, who was standing in the spotlight, who was standing on the sideline. Internet leaks (which were probably intentional). Cease-and-desist orders (which were unquestionably two-faced). The appearance of a single that radio-station lackeys in virtually every format embraced not because it fit their sound, but because they didn't want to seem out of the loop. The announcement of a North American tour at a press conference that received more attention than the Pope's last visit stateside. Saturation coverage and ticket sales on VH1 and MTV. Lengthy reviews in publication after publication by reviewers who seemed to be under the delusion that they were analyzing the Magna Carta, not a damn CD. And for what? For a U2 album. And make no mistake, friends--that's all this is. There are no shocks here, and no surprises, either. Like Achtung Baby, which was ballyhooed as a radical departure without actually being one, Pop is essentially ordinary U2 product tricked up to give it a modern feel. Of course, the actual contemporaneity of the presentation is open to question. "Discotheque," the designated harbinger of U2's new look, could pass for an EMF track from 1991, while "Staring at the Sun" nods to that most radical of all Nineties acts, the Beatles. But the primary influence is U2. "The Playboy Mansion" is "Angel From Harlem" sans the please-consider-nominating-us-for-the-Rock-and-Roll-Hall-of-Fame pretentiousness, while "Last Night on Earth" and "Gone," if recorded more traditionally, would have fit in just fine on every U2 platter since The Unforgettable Fire. Bono's lyrical concerns remain much the same, too: When he wants to let you know he's serious, he mentions God ("Mofo") or Jesus ("Wake Up Dead Man")--and when he's really serious, he mentions God and Jesus ("If God Will Send His Angels"). The result is certainly listenable, and producers/co-conspirators Flood and Howie B manage to give the proceedings a nice flow. But this isn't a remix disc--or it's not supposed to be, anyway. Instead, it's an album of all-new material--and judged by that standard, it's familiar fare. When it comes on the radio, you probably won't lunge at the dial to switch stations, and when it's played in concert, it'll probably sound okay as long as you got your ticket for free rather than paying $45 for it. But if you're looking for the revolution, you're not even in the same time zone, dude.
Guys like Hicks aren't supposed to make rock-and-roll records, let alone pretty decent ones. Looking like a cross between Neil Young and the Arvid character from Head of the Class, this artist cranks out toe-tapping party pop with self-explanatory song titles such as "Governor of Fun," "Screw You (and Screw Your Friends)," and my personal favorite, "Don't Worry (Everything Will Turn Out Bad)." A funky horn section that seems perpetually torn between structured ska arrangements and rockabilly-style improvisation powers many of Hicks's three-chord treatises. The best of these, the rollicking and unexpected "Hal Blaine," seeks to do for the obscure session drummer what the Replacements did for songwriter Alex Chilton. And while the ditty might not singlehandedly revive interest in the percussionists's career, that hardly matters, since the song's lyric hook--a cheeky blend of Midwestern sincerity and knowing overstatement--is as catchy as genital warts. As for the record's blemishes, they're fairly minor: "Galaxy" is a nondescript attempt at psychedelia whose vocal track sounds so much like Mick Jagger that you half-expect Jerry Hall to subpoena it, while "You Make a Better Door" offers little besides punchlines that you'll see coming all the way from Minneapolis, Hicks's hometown. But if such limitations make his muse something of a one-trick pony, at least it's an entertaining trick.
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Scud Mountain Boys
The Boys play an extremely low-key brand of acoustic music that's perfect for the kitchen table around which the group often records and performs. But a listen to Massachusetts makes it clear that this table does not hold a coffeepot. Of the fourteen songs here, only one staggers to anything beyond a plod, while the most impressive aspect of the others is their steadfast refusal to move. The disc is like driving in bumper-to-bumper traffic when you're late for work: With each song, you're urgently hoping for an increase in speed that simply never arrives. The act's quiet sound does achieve a certain gracefulness and melodic beauty at times, but waiting through the cuts' gasping tempos is a hefty price to pay for such a modest reward. Vocalist/songwriter Joe Pernice's limited, breathy rasp and weary emotional reach don't help matters much, nor does the relentlessly sleepy strum of acoustic guitars, mandolin and pedal steel that the Scuds serve up. And while such instrumentation has caused the band to be lumped into the Americana category, America (as in "Horse With No Name") is more like it. This is slowed-down Seventies country rock filtered through narcotic Nineties lo-fi production. The result is a dynamic-free indulgent mix that happily embraces the questionable musical gifts of everyone from Poco to Bread. All of which leads to a couple of burning questions: Didn't we all agree that these bands were dull and vapid the first time around? And why has it suddenly become cool to emulate them today?