Wrong Side of Memphis
When I began reviewing albums, I instituted a simple rule for myself: I must listen to at least three songs of every recording I receive before deciding whether or not to put it in my giveaway drawer. This doctrine has caused me no shortage of pain over the years. After all, it requires me to briefly lend an ear to Kenny G and Michael Bolton on a semi-regular basis. But every once in a while, it pays off--as it did with Wrong Side of Memphis. I have no idea how the CD made its way to me. Moreover, the liner is mighty skimpy with information; there's not even a record label listed. But it's the platter that matters, and this one contains fifteen songs in which Dowd proves himself to be a performer with a distinctively creepy vision. Against spare musical backdrops that draw from the blues and folk genres without being limited by them, Dowd growls, rumbles, whines and brays lyrics in which death and destruction are the most common ingredients. "Murder" ("There's a body in the bedroom/ And another one in the hall") is as disturbing a piece of reportage as In Cold Blood; "Just Like a Dog" gains power from the synthesizer of Jay Mendelson and Dowd's subtly psychotic intentions (after noting that he might be "better off dead," he pledges, "I won't leave here without you"); and "Wages of Sin" exhibits every bit as much dark power as the best of Nick Cave. The capper is "Welcome, Jesus," a visit to the apocalypse in which Christianity's savior stands in for the grim reaper: "Hey, buddy, you're lookin' kinda pale," Dowd growls. "Welcome, Jesus, to this dismal swamp." There's no telling if Dowd will get the chance to bring such sentiments to a larger audience; according to his wife (whom I phoned in order to get an address where folks can write to procure their own copy of this opus), he generally sticks close to his home base, Ithaca, New York. But at the very least, Memphis proves that there's plenty of art out there, as long as you take the time to look for it. (For more information, write to Dowd at 111 Coy Glen Road, Ithaca, NY 14850.)
Positive Black Soul
Here's a special group indeed--a lightweight but energetic Afro-Franco outfit that specializes in overlaying hip-hop beats with sampled African percussion and woodwinds. The opening cut, "Def Lo Xam (Do What You Gotta Do)," and the mid-point climax, "Djoko (Unity)," give off a hard, fast rap vibe and a sense of positivity that may or may not be undercut by "Le Bourreau Est Noir (The Executioner Is Black)"; it's hard to tell without a translation. But all three of these cuts are somewhat misleading anyway, since what these young singers are most interested in is stuffing one micro-melody after another into whatever cracks they can find between the harsh urban rhythms they favor. The members of Positive Black Soul take the same risks as the Fugees (check the string synthesizers and ballad tempos) and, musically at least, they hit pay-dirt.
Charlie Haden & Pat Metheny
Beyond the Missouri Sky (short stories)
Metheny and Haden recorded together for the first time in 1980, and since then, rumors of a duet album have circulated regularly throughout the jazz community. As a result, expectations for Beyond the Missouri Sky have been, well, sky-high--but somehow these artists have managed to exceed them. Originally, Metheny wanted to limit the scope of the performances to acoustic pairings of guitar and bass, but Haden argued for a broader palette, and his instincts were right: These thirteen tunes, which are split between straightforward acoustic offerings and tracks that incorporate elements such as synclavier orchestration and Metheny's new guitar/sitar, allow the players to stretch in ways that are truly inspirational. Highlights include "Moon Song," a never-before-recorded tune from the pen of Johnny Mandel; "Spiritual," a dynamic piece written by Haden's son Josh; "Message to a Friend," which Metheny composed with Haden in mind; and Jimmy Webb's "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress." But the performers shine even when the material is not up to their level; their renditions of two overplayed numbers from the Cinema Paradiso score are surprisingly satisfying. Taken as a whole, Missouri is American music at its inventive, refreshing best.
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Ben Folds Five
Whatever and Ever Amen
Yeah, I've read the good notices for pianist Folds and his associates, and I can understand why so many have come their way: Folds is a bright guy with a facile verbal sense, and he has a way with melody. But the critics who are most effusive about him are those who haven't liked pop music all that much since about 1975. That's Folds's dirty little secret, too: His version of rocking out is decidedly retro and considerably less clamorous than, say, Elton John's was a couple of decades ago. ("Song for the Dumped" is a case in point. By the standards of this album, it's pretty wild, but "The Bitch Is Back" kicks the hell out of it.) Not that Folds's influences are irredeemably noxious; "Kate" nicks Randy Newman, while "One Angry Dwarf and Two Hundred Solemn Faces" and "Fair" draw heavily from the oeuvre of early Todd Rundgren. But Randy and Todd have moved on, whereas Folds is content to recycle a past generation's clammiest conceits without the slightest attempt at innovation or surprise. I like songs you can hum as much as the next guy, but I draw the line when they start reminding me of Stephen Bishop. Save this for a rainy day, scumbag.