Be Here Now
Many reviewers tackling this disc have complained that it's too derivative. Well, duh. You're likelier to get a lie-detector test from John Ramsey than originality from these blokes. But such sniping entirely misses the point of Oasis. The Gallagher brothers, Liam and Noel, aren't trying to go where no one has gone before. Doing so would put their massive popularity at risk, and since success at any cost appears to be their raison d'etre, you can bet your last pound that they'll never do anything so foolish. Rather, their mission is to give people what they've purchased many times in the past, but to do so with such brashness and bravado that they won't mind shelling out for it again. And even if you find this stuff retrogressive as all get-out, you've got to give them credit for accomplishing their goal. When you hear it done well, Beatle-esque pop music seems like simplicity itself, but coming up with that perfect chord progression is no snap: Witness Matthew Sweet, an extremely talented fellow who nonetheless manages to make a good record an average of only one time out of four. By contrast, Oasis has put together three pretty irresistible packages in a row--and Be Here Now is actually more consistent than (What's the Story) Morning Glory?, which broke the band in the States. Which is not to say that the new disc is stuffed with tunes boasting a half-life of 10,000 years. Typical is "Stand By Me," a deliberate sing-along that sounds like hundreds of songs you can't quite remember. But the track also contains genuine pleasures--particularly a first line ("Made a meal and threw it up on Sunday") that discreetly undercuts the high-school-slow-dance quality of the melody. Other Noel touches, like the presence of the phrase "helter skelter" in "Fade In-Out" or the Sgt. Pepper's orchestration of "All Around the World (Reprise)," aren't quite as charming, but Liam's nasal yelping and the in-your-face hookiness of the guitar riffs provide ample compensation. While listening to the platter, the embittered among you may find yourselves compelled to play the guess-which-Paul McCartney-track-this-one-rips-off game. ("The Girl in the Dirty Shirt" should keep you busy for days.) But my advice for everyone else is to simply raise the white flag and surrender. Sure, Be Here Now is commercial product, but it's put together with a lot more verve, cheek, craftsmanship and moxie than the majority of items that fit that description. And sometimes, that's enough.
United Future Organization
After being asked to contribute a song to the soundtrack of the Brian DePalma film Mission: Impossible, the members of United Future Organization came up with a swinging, slinking ditty, "The Planet Plan." Unfortunately, the cut was ultimately replaced on the CD by a pulsing, plodding cover version of the Lalo Schifrin theme song done by Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. (U2's rhythm section). But U.F.O. gets its revenge on 3rd Perspective, a thoroughly enjoyable album built around the simmering grooves and jazzy froth that characterize "Plan." Tokyo residents Tadashi Yabe, Toshio Matsuura and Moroccan/French ex-patriot Raphael Sebbag, whose previous faves include "I Love My Baby (My Baby Loves Jazz)" and a rendition of Frank Foster's "Loud Minority (Moon Dance)," call their music "secret-agent swing," and that phrase neatly describes Perspective's appeal. For example, the excellent "Spy's Spice (Mon Espionne)" finds Sebbag rapping in French over a horn-laden, Sixties jazz backdrop accented by impressionistic drum programming. On other numbers, the three consolidate hip-hop, jazz, bossa nova, samba and dance music into a cohesive whole that has more in common with American bands like Digable Planets and Giant Steps than it does with Massive Attack or Portishead. Instead of jumping on the already overburdened drum-and-bass bandwagon, the DJs dive into the eternally cool reservoirs of jazz while refining an aesthetic that recalls Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville, a picture that will live on long after Mission: Impossible has been forgotten.
What does one of the contemporary folk scene's leading male voices do when he's run out of things to say? If he's David Wilcox and this album is any indication, he simply turns up the guitars and hopes no one notices. Sporting a hipper hairdo than he's had in years, Wilcox opens the disc with the electric-guitar-driven near-bravado of "Show Me the Key." But while the ditty is hummable, the lyrics quickly drift into the touchy-feely netherworld where his muse has been spending way too much time of late. "Glory," in which Wilcox makes a tongue-in-cheek case for the superfluity of living any longer than 33 years (the age at which Christ is said to have died), is a lighter confection; the songwriter reverses his position in the tune's final verse. But Wilcox has dealt with most of the disc's other subjects on previous recordings, and generally to greater effect. "Right Now" threatens to take off into the humorously noirish territory currently staked out by the Squirrel Nut Zippers, but Wilcox's decision to play the narrative straight kills all the fun. "Waffle House" also begins promisingly, but by the end of its first chorus, Wilcox has turned it into an angst-ridden investigation into the psycho-social ramifications of his favorite late-night eatery. His singing, which calls to mind James Taylor with a stick of butter in his drawers, doesn't help matters much, either. He still has a poet's eye for imagery, however: In "Spin," he lays the atmosphere on so thick that you can practically see the tattoos on the steely-eyed carny who swipes a glance at the "summer legs" of Wilcox's date. But too often, Wilcox fairly trips over his erudition; he sounds as if he's trying to pass an essay test without knowing any of the questions. If only his significant other really had run off with that carnival lecher--at least then Wilcox would have had something interesting to write about.
Talvin Singh Presents Anokha: Soundz of the Asian Underground
Singh, who's best known for his London club, the Blue Note, his work with Bjsrk, Adrian Sherwood and Courtney Pine, and his presence on David Bowie's 1997 European tour, is confident about his music; after all, he named this compilation of post-Bhangra works Anokha, a word that translates to "unique." Fortunately for him, the songs heard here more than live up to this claim. On the CD's lead track, "Jaan," the heavenly voice of singer Amar cascades over a brilliant blend of dance beats and syncopated vibrations emanating from a tabla, an instrument on which Singh was classically trained. Elsewhere, Kingsik Biswas's "K-Ascendant" and the Milky Bar Kid's "Accepting Tranquility" lean toward traditional Indian rhythms and instrumentation; Equal I's "Equation" and Lelonek's "Kismet" embrace the latest jungle and lounge-core tones; Future Soundz of India's "Shang-High" juxtaposes club-friendly bass and ancient hand drums; and soundtrack composer A.R. Rahman's "Mumbai Theme Tune" mingles ambient synths, flutes and quartet strings. The result fulfills one of Bill Clinton's campaign promises, by successfully connecting the past to the future. If you're looking for a bridge to the 21st century, here it is.
...Calling All Stations...
First Peter Gabriel left Genesis--but the group lived on. Then Phil Collins left--but it still didn't die. Then tiresome pomp-rockers Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks hired a new vocalist, John Wetton imitator Ray Wilson, who causes Stations to sound like warmed-over Asia. Isn't there anything that can kill this group? Really--I want to know.
Buena Vista Social Club
Buena Vista Social Club
(World Circuit Records/Nonesuch)
On this disc, amateur musicologist Ry Cooder produces and plays along with twenty of the most talented performers from Cuba's so-called golden age of music: the Fifties. But Buena Vista Social Club is far more than a mere curiosity. The players may be old, but they ignite a myriad of rhythms from classic Cuban compositions. On "Pueblo Nuevo," 77-year-old Ruben Gonzalez, who developed the Cuban urban piano style, gives the keys such a workout that it's hard to believe he gave up playing because of arthritis. His style, which combines James Booker's friskiness with Thelonious Monk's genius, is so riveting that you all but forget the trumpets, percussion and guitars vamping behind him. Vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer, age seventy, makes an equally strong impression: As a men's ensemble sings over a heavy, rhythmic riff, he croons with a potency that leaves Julio Iglesias sounding like a tired hen by comparison. Likewise, "Amor de Loca Juventud," an influencia americana country-blues number by Compay Segundo and his group, includes so many strolling guitars that the leftovers alone could feed a generation of musicians. As for Cooder, who has demonstrated his musical diversity throughout previous collaborations with African Ali Farka Toure and Indian V.M. Bhatt, he's difficult to identify in the mix. But in the end, it doesn't matter which guitar is his. What's more important is that his key has unlocked some of the most instantly accessible music I've ever heard. Delicioso.
Once upon a time, bad music was easy to hate. But as the blandification of Nineties music continues apace, I'm finding myself reacting to second-rate stuff masquerading as cutting-edge entertainment not with ire, but with boredom. The sounds made by these five nondescript sorts from Omaha, Nebraska, are a case in point. When touting 311's accomplishments, the act's supporters inevitably jabber about its eclecticism, and there's no denying that Transistor displays this quality: The 21 cuts on hand flirt with reggae, ska, metal, rap, funk, rock and plenty more, sometimes in the same song. But "flirt" is the operative word here. Vocalist/guitarist Nicholas Hexum and his crew don't dig into these formats in an attempt to discover their essences; they skim their surfaces, soaking up just enough flavor to impress naive listeners before moving on. In other words, they are just as guilty as Paul Simon of cultural appropriation, but they commit the act with infinitely more shallowness. It hardly seems worthwhile to call them dilettantes: The ultra-tepid reggae of "Light Years" and the snoozy Chili Peppers nod "Tune In" are too slack for that. An occasional tune (like the relatively punchy title track) stands out, but only because the majority of the ditties are so relentlessly lacking in heft--and lyrics like "I try to be not like that/But some people really suck" (from "Beautiful Disaster") only exacerbate the situation. The music is so disposable that it practically evaporates on the journey from the CD player to your ear--which explains a great deal about my inability to get worked up over its inadequacies. How can you despise something that's not even there?
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Ornette Coleman and Joachim Kuhn
Colors--Live From Leipzig
Coleman's alto sax sounds like a million dollars, and maybe more; melodies gush out of it like the ATM of your dreams spits out twenties. But Kuhn's piano playing doesn't pay off nearly as well. Previous Coleman duet partners such as bassist Charlie Haden and guitarist Pat Metheny have simulated the master's perverse amalgamation of intellectual rigidity and stylistic warmth when playing alongside him, but the chamber-jazz refrigeration of Kuhn's approach gets the balance all wrong. The production of Denardo Coleman, Ornette's son, only reinforces this impression. Because the saxophone is far louder than the keyboards, Coleman often sounds as if he's trying to give Kuhn the bum's rush.