Echo & the Bunnymen
Most bands on the comeback trail attempt to reproduce their previous sound but don't quite manage it; an essential, ineffable something is missing. Not so the Bunnymen. Evergreen so precisely duplicates the act's classic style that it's downright astounding--and more than a little creepy. Listening to it, I imagined a team of white-coated technicians locked in a laboratory since 1990, when the group put out its last record. Suddenly, one of them held a test tube filled with bubbling liquid aloft and shouted, "Eureka! I've got it!"--and when he poured the solution into a petri dish, the sound of "I Want to Be There (When You Come)" filled the room. As scientific achievements go, it doesn't quite stack up to curing polio, but it could be worse. I mean, at least they didn't conduct the experiment using New Kids on the Block.
The first words out of Morrissey's mouth on his new CD are, "I wanna start from before the beginning." It's a surprising statement coming from a singer who is finally being recognized for his songwriting talents after spending most of his solo career in the shadow of a five-year stint fronting the Smiths. But it's also an appropriate one, since Maladjusted is an introduction of sorts--a collection of mature, intelligent, almost embarrassingly intimate songs that should help bring him broader respectability. Not that the album is free of rough spots. It's relentlessly mid-tempo, exuding a Valium-like haze at times, and "Sorrow Will Come in the End"--a piece of aural hate mail addressed to former Smiths drummer Mike Joyce, who was awarded a million pounds after suing Morrissey and onetime collaborator Johnny Marr for back pay--is easily the worst number he's ever written. (Talk about a song that says nothing to me about my life.) But the rest of the recording succeeds in large part because it's deeper than its predecessors. On many of his post-Smiths long-players, Morrissey relied heavily on his ability to serve up pithy, hook-laden singles that tested how much weight a catchy, three-minute pop ditty could bear. (Like Oscar Wilde one-liners, they were quick, clever, fueled by bitchy wit and more memorable than the material around them.) This time, however, the disc's initial single, "Alma Matters," is a radio-friendly yet disposable effort, while the other cuts deliver the goods by eschewing bouncy melodies and easy irony. Sure, the title track tells the same disaffected teen story that Moz has repeatedly explored, but its lyrics ("Jeer the lights in the windows of all safe and stable homes/But wondering then/What could peace of mind be like") exhibit an emotional palpability that previously seemed beyond him. The result is a "Sheila Takes a Bow" for adults. Other highlights include the rich, piano-based "Trouble Loves Me," which finds Morrissey at the top of his vocal game, and "Wide to Receive," a tale of sexual alienation for the Internet age. Maladjusted has its flaws, but ten years after the demise of the Smiths, it proves that the reports of Morrissey's creative death have been greatly exaggerated.
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Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup
Look on Yonder's Wall
The Magic Sam Legacy
Feel Like Blowing My Horn
Big Joe Williams
Piney Woods Blues
Slickness is bad for practically every type of music, but for the blues, it's fatal. The form's appeal is rooted in its primitive origins, and once those are scrubbed away, all that remains are rudimentary notes absent the emotionality that might have made them indelible. That's why so much modern blues, produced within an inch of its life in an effort to up its accessibility, is so lifeless. Swinging From the Rafters, a recent disc by Long John Hunter on the Alligator imprint, is a case in point. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with it; the playing is professional, the songs are competently structured, and Hunter's singing and guitar playing are up to industry standards. And yet the utter predictability of the disc makes it more suitable for the middle-aged tourists who visit Chicago's Rush Street in search of the exotic than for anyone hungry for the raw truth the blues is capable of delivering. Those interested in the latter should turn instead to these four new releases on Delmark. The Crudup collection is the least of the batch, in large part because he's the most lightweight of these performers; he prefers to skitter along the surface of a song rather than dive into its heart. But his versions of "That's All Right" (made famous by Elvis Presley) and "Rock Me Mama," a previously unreleased effort, find him at his roughest and most evocative. Samuel Maghett, aka Magic Sam, who was only 32 when he died in 1969, came to artistic maturity in a later era, and as a result, the songs on Legacy have more rock and roll in their soul. But Sam's secret was his wildness, a quality that distinguishes his race through John Lee Hooker's "I Feel So Good (Boogie Chillun)" and a dozen more exhilarating efforts. For his part, pianist Sykes demonstrates the range of the blues, tossing a dollop of New Orleans into his boogies, strides and rambles. But Feel Like Blowing My Horn certainly doesn't feel like musicology; there's nothing academic about Sykes's ecstatic wails on "Rock-a-Bye Birdie." Finally, Piney Woods Blues captures Williams in a relaxed mood; the material was taped in early 1958 at a record store and a private home. But his heartfelt nine-string guitar playing and guttural vocals even manage to put a charge into "Baby, Please Don't Go" and "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl," which have more mileage on them than Pamela Anderson Lee. Hell, "Big Joe Talking," which is just what its title says it is, displays more authenticity than half the blues CDs issued this decade. When it comes to the blues, the times, they are a-changin'--and they're getting worse.