Little Plastic Castle
One of my colleagues suggested that DiFranco is better than most of her Lilith Fair peers because she says "fuck" a lot more frequently than they do--and after a moment's reflection, I realized that there's something to that. A great many of today's singer-songwriters are so self-conscious in their attempts to create deeply personal poetry that their work frequently gives off the scent of passages from high-school diaries that no one in his right mind would want to read. Worse, such players are often so fixated on their own voices that they neglect to come up with accompanying sounds that are demonstrably different from those found on early-Seventies James Taylor records. DiFranco, by contrast, actually cares about her music and does her best to keep it stimulating; hence the perky horns that decorate the title cut and "Deep Dish," the clever arrangement and martial drumming that define "Pixie," and so on. As for her words, DiFranco is too busy spitting them out to fuss over them too much--and because she actually has something to say on most occasions, her natural mouthiness is undeniably refreshing. Her approach is epitomized by "Fuel," which expresses frustration with life in the Nineties in ways that far too few tunes attempt these days--yet it's so clever that it never seems dogmatic. Clearly, DiFranco trusts her spontaneity: Her delivery of the couplet "I keep hearing that damn song/Everywhere I go" is nearly swallowed by one of her infectious laughs. But this slip-up gives the next lines ("Maybe I should put a bucket over my head/And a marshmallow in each ear/And stumble around for another dumb numb week/For another hum drum hit song to appear") a conversational feel that bares not a trace of bitterness. Her melodies may not linger in your head for long after they've run their course, but they demand your attention while they're playing thanks to DiFranco's vivid personality, which demands your attention even when her lyrics are profanity-free. I'll be damned.
...With a Twist
In terms of classic tunes decently played, Rundgren's current project, on which he remakes his oldies with a bossa-nova beat, is certainly listenable. But if you put this on for fun's sake after a hard day of data entry, the main twist you'll get is pure lemon juice. Am I claiming that these renditions are sour? You bet. The juxtaposition of multi-percussion and Rundgren's croon on "I Saw the Light" can induce a wince that starts at the hips and stops at the eyebrows. Likewise, Rundgren fails to reclaim "Can We Still Be Friends?" from Robert Palmer, who turned it into a seductive come-on. That's strange, given that the majority of the lyrics here are about either threatening to screw around or begging forgiveness for having done so. (At least Todd gets his comeuppance in--ho, ho, ho--"Fidelity.") In the end, though, the only tune not swept away by the breeziness of its original version is "Never Neverland." The rest belong on the island of this particular lost boy.
This career-spanning retrospective of Tosh's classic reggae recordings is enchanting, edifying and meticulously researched, and although it ultimately fails to capture its subject's full essence, it stands as a good introduction to a complex artist.
The package's first disc details Tosh's early singles both with and without the Wailers, the group that eventually catapulted him to reggae fame second only to that achieved by bandmate Bob Marley. That's followed by a live CD, whose material, with the exception of one song, appears here for the first time, and a platter that contains most of his best-known, more polished hits. Such an approach to programming allows a listener to follow the progression of Tosh's career-long investigation of oppression. As he moves from an early rejection of Christianity ("You Can't Fool Me Again") to subsequent pronouncements of black power ("Rightful Ruler," "Black Dignity") and calls to action ("Arise Blackman," "Get Up, Stand Up"), one can trace the effects of the Rastafarianism with which brilliant tracks such as "Bush Doctor," "Mystic Man" and "Legalize It" are laced.
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As Honorary Citizen demonstrates, Tosh was the most musically sophisticated of the Wailers and arguably the best songwriter of the group. Whereas Marley and Bunny Wailer specialized in abstract prophecies, Tosh grounded his fervent pronouncements in everyday life: Witness the simple folk wisdom that distinguishes "Dog Teeth," the astute observations of ghetto life in "Lion" and the cleverness of "Here Comes the Judge," which indicts Christopher Columbus, Sir Francis Drake and Vasco da Gama--three villains of Jamaican history--by mockingly placing them in the type of local courtroom with which the island's poor were all too familiar.
The subtle humor and sarcasm of this last number--qualities that make Tosh's work so accessible--were beyond the reach of most of his peers. But this attribute is touched upon only briefly on Honorary Citizen. The compilation's chroniclers have chosen Tosh's militancy as the theme through which to present his work--as not so subtly evinced by the pictures of him with a guitar shaped like an M-16 rifle that are plastered across the set's rear cover and liner notes. But while Tosh was certainly a revolutionary, violence was never part of his message, and to suggest otherwise is misleading. The inclusion of "Hoot Nanny Hoot" and "Brand New Second Hand"--comic turns of the sort that are rare in roots reggae--would have provided a much-needed balance to the other aspects of his personality.
Despite these flaws, Citizen is a fine collection of Tosh's work. It would be narrow-minded to deny yourself its pleasures--but it would be narrower still to limit yourself to them.