The Holmes Brothers
Most of the CD stores that stock material by the New York-based Brothers Holmes--and not nearly enough of them do--place it in the blues section, as if that's the only kind of music that three African-Americans of a certain age could possibly be making. But while cuts such as "Start Stoppin'" and the ultra-nasty "The New and Improved Me" include persuasive blues licks from the ax of guitarist Wendell Holmes, Promised Land doesn't truly belong in that category. That's because the disc is dominated by soul music of the sort that was so common during the Sixties and early Seventies that most observers made the mistake of taking it for granted. The title cut is a modified gospel raveup distinguished by the thrillingly gruff shouting of pianist Sherman Holmes and background exhortations by Wendell and drummer Popsy Dixon; "Train Song," from the canon of Tom Waits, is a spare, deeply emotional track in which Dixon's high, light voice cuts to the heart of the matter; "You're Good for Me" recalls the glory days of Sam & Dave and Percy Sledge; and "Thank God for You" is a neo-spiritual that builds to the sort of tender climax that's become all too rare. You wouldn't call this material cutting-edge--the style has been around for at least a couple of generations now. But during a musical period when the smooth, slick, sweat-free tunes of Babyface have become the model for Nineties rhythm and blues, it's nice to know that there are still people out there who realize that doing it as Otis did can still sound very good indeed.
The members of BR5-49 sharpened their impressive honky-tonk sensibilities during two years of playing for tips at a Nashville boot store and bar. But in spite of the rabid following the band quickly developed, it took Music City's A&R types almost as long to finally walk down the street to see what the fuss was about. Given the mindless nature of so much mainstream country, such wing-tip dragging is no surprise--but the major-label deal that these reformed punks ultimately landed certainly is. If only the players' debut full-length lived up to the expectations of their alt-country fans. BR5-49 delivers a respectable selection of vintage-sounding originals and well-chosen covers from the likes of Johnny Horton, Gram Parsons and Webb Pierce, but it's not without its limitations. The rendition of Ray Price's "Crazy Arms" is a prime example: While Price turned the song into an urgent, gut-wrenching weeper, BR5-49's sweet take doesn't deliver the emotional punch of the real thing. Ballads like "Lifetime to Prove" and "Chains of This Town" also lack guts and grit. Granted, the playing on upbeat stuff like Mel Tillis's "Honky Tonk Song" is smart and authentic. But the overall effect is one that leaves you hungry for a raw edge and some reckless abandon. It's not until the disc's closer, the barn-burning "One Long Saturday Night," that listeners will get an idea of what's made this group's live sets a thing to behold. Let's hope BR5-49's next disc offers more such evidence.
Fire on the Mountain: Reggae Celebrates the Grateful Dead
The idea of a reggae-based Grateful Dead tribute album sounds great in theory--but in this case, theory doesn't hold up in actual practice. The lineup for Fire on the Mountain definitely isn't the problem: The presence of harmony groups such as the Wailing Souls and the Mighty Diamonds and classic crooners like Dennis Brown and Freddie McGregor raises hopes. But as is the case with most reggae covers of American pop or rock tunes, their renditions seldom work. The Diamonds' attempt to capture "Touch of Grey" recalls Muzak more than it does Jerry Garcia; Steel Pulse's techno take of "Franklin's Tower" suggests a cheap Caribbean lounge act with a used drum kit; and McGregor's "Eyes of the World" finds the singer seemingly mutating into Al Jarreau. Far better by comparison are "Row Jimmy," a showcase for the soaring vocals of Judy Mowatt, and "Uncle John's Band," sung by the melodically gifted Joe Higgs. Even these last two tracks, though, demonstrate how difficult it is to translate the Dead's extended improvisational jams into the synaptic, accented backbeats of reggae. Even more troublesome is the fact that none of the artists involved in the recording seem to know much of anything about the songs they're supposedly saluting. Steel Pulse's David Hinds is quoted in Fire's liner notes as saying, "In all honesty, I couldn't relate to none of them." It shows--which is why this commercially inspired project is also a disappointing one.
Most obscure acts championed by famous ones bite, but not the Frogs. Although the duo of vocalist Jimmy Flemion and his drumming brother Dennis have been getting ink of late mainly because of the patronage of Smashing Pumpkins members D'Arcy and James Iha, who are part owners of the Scratchie imprint, they've been making oddly enjoyable goofs for thirteen years--and Star Job, a six-song, sixteen-minute mini-suite satirizing the music industry, serves as a reminder that they're hardly charity cases. The set kicks off with an introduction to "Lord Grunge," a character whose music is described by Jimmy as "Black Sabbath, Black Flag meet the Beatles." Later, the Lord takes advantage of his fame during "Raped" ("Everyone's making a big deal that we raped someone...After all, she was a nun/And the priest wanted to watch"), the Big Star-like "Weird on the Avenue" ("Not only cavemen enjoy pulling hair"), and "I Only Play 4 Money" ("Don't you love the star/When he's a prick?"). But even though he ultimately dumps "Stargirl" ("You've had your dream"), he has to pay a high price for his popularity; the title track includes the lines "Executive behind a desk with his pants down/'How bad do you want to be a star, boy?'" It's all quite silly, and the primary musical influence seems to be Styx's Mr. Roboto. But for all that, the cheerful rudeness of the entire enterprise is quite entertaining. Given a choice between spinning this EP again or plumbing the lyrical depths of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, I'd jump on the Frogs.
Yardbird Suite: The Ultimate Charlie Parker Collection
When it comes to the work of saxophonist Parker, the only collection truly deserving of the descriptor "ultimate" would be one that contains everything he ever recorded. However, record-company politics have ensured that none of the compilations on the market, including several mammoth Parker boxed sets, encompasses the width and breadth of Bird's music. Yardbird Suite is far from an exception to this rule; because it contains only two CDs, 38 tracks and just a smidgen of the work he did for one of his primary labels, Verve, it's actually more of a sampler than the be-all and end-all implied by its title. Still, the package is not without appeal for jazz novices or Parker completists. First of all, its sticker price is nowhere near the triple-digit figures attached to many Parker items. Secondly, the accompanying sixty-page booklet, built around text by Ira Gitler and Bob Porter and a slew of wonderful photographs, justifies the purchase all by itself. And finally, the music is peerless. Among the lineups heard here are the Ree Boppers, the Ri Bop Boys, the All Stars and Parker's principal quartet, quintet, quintet with strings, sextet, septet and orchestra, all represented by final studio or in-concert versions of various tunes--no alternate takes are present. For those already acquainted with a good portion of Parker's catalogue, most of the songs (such as "Salt Peanuts," cut under the leadership of Dizzy Gillespie) will be familiar, but they retain their power more than two generations after Parker breathed his last. Aficionados know that Parker sounded better during some of his creative phases than during others, but he never sounded bad. It's the rare artist whose every cut deserves to be heard. And Charlie Parker was rare indeed.
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Judging from this disc, Sobule found herself torn between writing the best tunes that she possibly could and trying to recapture the success of "I Kissed a Girl," the ex-Denverite's MTV-approved alterna-hit of a couple years back. As a result, her finest moments are relegated to the disc's second half, hidden behind several lame, Generation-X-friendly cuts intended to appeal to her youthful fan base. With their catchy choruses and canny (if superficial) nods to jazz and hip-hop stylings, "Bitter" and the title selection prove listenable enough, but they pale in comparison with stark ballads such as "Little Guy" and, especially, "Soldiers of Christ," a left-wing commentary that's rendered all the more chilling by the Kewpie-doll voice in which Sobule can't help but deliver it. Also noteworthy are "Underachiever," which should cement Sobule's status as an honorary big sister to legions of awkward teenage girls everywhere, and the spunky "Love Is Never Equal," a duet with the scene-stealing Steve Earle. Of course, even the best of Sobule's material remains an acquired taste: If, for example, "Attic" borders on sentimentality, the wistful "Super 8" fairly wallows in it. But at least these tunes bristle with honesty--a characteristic that's almost entirely absent from Sobule's more overtly commercial offerings.