Eight Arms to Hold You
In my review of Veruca Salt's much-ballyhooed debut, 1994's American Thighs, I lamented the band's derivative nature (the Breeders and Sonic Youth were among those paid homage via imitation) but suggested that, given some time, the players might eventually develop into an intriguing ensemble. Well, I take that back. This album's title, which was conceived by the Beatles for their second film (the one that wound up being called Help!), isn't the only Fab Four citation here; "Volcano Girls," the disc's first single, tips its hat to "Glass Onion," from the White Album. But the cheeky "Volcano" reference to "Seether," the only tune by Veruca Salt that a sizable percentage of the listening audience has heard, serves mainly to underline this quartet's creative bankruptcy. Several of the fourteen songs here are so unbelievably lame that they practically come across as parodies ("Awesome" is a prime example), while more "sensitive" offerings such as "Benjamin" make "Walk Like an Egyptian" seem like "Doll Parts" by comparison. Producer Bob Rock, who made his reputation putting the "corporate" in corporate rock, spreads his trademark smarm over every note here, but the notes are so tepid that it's hard to imagine anyone doing much to improve them. Can you say "poseurs"? I knew you could.
RORX: Tenth Annual Reggae on the Rocks
If live albums are generally a risk, quality-wise, live reggae albums are an even bigger one; watered-down medleys, pick-up-band sloppiness and bad sound systems frequently mar such discs. RORX manages to avoid these pitfalls thanks to a strong cast, excellent performances and encyclopedic liner notes by reggae guru/RORX emcee Postman Roger Gillies that include more pertinent information about the artists than any other living person could have crammed into a five-inch-by-five-inch booklet. Also noteworthy is the acute song selection, which balances hits and lesser-known gems. Burning Spear's "Marcus Garvey" is a strong track made even stronger by a live horn section; Israel Vibration's tight rendition of "Rudeboy Shufflin'" is every bit as enjoyable as the act's versions of its older material; and the Skatalites' lone contribution, "Guns of Navarone," is just the kind of ska changeup that this heavily roots-oriented album needed. Not everyone on the bill appears here: Contractual difficulties prevented headliner Jimmy Cliff from participating. But despite his absence, RORX offers compelling proof that Reggae on the Rocks isn't getting older, it's getting better.
Free Bird--The Movie
Part of Skynyrd's appeal was the bandmembers' willingness to bite the hands that fed them, whether it be by baiting the gun-toters in the audience with "Saturday Night Special" or nipping at their label on "Workin' for MCA." MCA's pissy little revenge? Waiting twenty years to issue this fine album--and then not giving the film from which it sprang a proper release. Free Bird was recorded in 1976 on the Isle of Man, and it does a good job of capturing the players' reliable stage belligerence and hit-filled set list. Most of the material duplicates the lineup of 1976's live One More From the Road, but true fans won't mind, especially given additions like Jimmie Rodgers's "T for Texas," which appears in full rave-up form, and a pair of cuts from 1977's Street Survivors that the crowd was hearing for the first time. Although lead singer Ronnie Van Zant sounds a little self-conscious (the cameras, no doubt), the performances as a whole are tough and hairy-assed. As for the title cut, which long ago became as classic a jam as Derek and the Dominos' "Layla," it still holds up, believe it or not. For this guitar armada, at least, life goes on.
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Mark's Keyboard Repair
A lot of artists act as if making fresh, innovative music were an impossibility--after all, they mince, everything's been done before. Mark's Keyboard Repair puts the lie to this rationalization--and it does so in such a casual and relaxed manner that it leaves a listener wondering why others find it so difficult to follow suit. Money Mark (born Mark Ramos Nishita) is best known as the unofficial fourth member of the Beastie Boys; he helped shape the sonics of discs such as Check Your Head and Ill Communication. Left to his own devices, he tends toward the fragmentary--the album contains thirty tracks, most of which clock in at around two minutes in length. But despite these self-imposed time restraints, tunes like "Have Clav Will Travel," "Ease" and "Hard Ass" manage to pack subtle snippets of jazz, funk, rock, R&B, hip-hop, exotica and plenty more into their confines. A few vocal tracks, like "From the Beginning to the End," appear, but this is primarily an instrumental showcase that's as languid and seductive as a gentle breeze. From a technical standpoint, Money Mark isn't doing anything especially radical; all of these sounds have been around, some for a very long while. But he makes them seem new again, which is an accomplishment in itself. What's stopping the rest of you?