Angels With Dirty Faces
Here's a lesson in artistic credibility. Ever since the release of 1995's Maxinquaye, which is among the best and most influential albums to pop up this decade, Tricky has been on a creative roll, but the tenebrous nature of his work has prevented it from being embraced by folks who just want something with a beat to play in their Jeeps. Instead of turning his frown upside down and making some happy ditties sure to get radio and club play, however, Tricky has remained on his own craggy path, and thank goodness. The closest thing to a concession to accessibility here is "Broken Homes," which is sung by PJ Harvey and sports a relatively tuneful refrain. But the tune moves at the tempo of a Bataan death march, and the phrase repeated again and again by a mock-gospel choir is decidedly unsunny: "Those men will break your bones." The lyrics to "6 Minutes" are equally cheerless (they include the lines "I'm premenstrual/I bleed because/I'm not a vegetable"), and "Record Companies," a slamming track in which Tricky accuses the music industry of celebrating every time a rapper winds up on a slab, certainly isn't calculated to make friends in high places. Still, what's most impressive about the disc isn't its language but its sound. Slice Tricky's numbers in half and you'll find fascinating ingredients layered on top of one another--treated samples, alternately funky and threatening grooves, rhythm tracks that slam ferociously or skitter along like lemmings heading for the nearest cliff, the otherworldly vocals of Tricky and longtime associate Martina Topley-Bird, and synthesized gloom that blankets everything else like a bad mood. Some of the offerings are extremely danceable, but that doesn't mean they're fun in the conventional sense: "Singing the Blues," for instance, might well have been beamed from the Disco of the Living Dead. To put it another way, Angels With Dirty Faces isn't easy listening, but its inventiveness and singularity are positively bracing. Tricky may be committing commercial suicide, but at least he sounds great doing it.
Ska After Ska After Ska
Ska's resurgence and incorporation by Top 40 bands like Smash Mouth and No Doubt created an unexpected demand for original Jamaican ska, and Heartbeat has been happy to oblige. But whereas last year's Foundation Ska, a double CD by the Skatalites, reintroduced some great material, this 21-cut compilation is considerably more dubious. All of the songs on the album were produced by Duke Reid, and some of them, like Justin Hinds's "Carry Go, Bring Come" and the Techniques' "When You Are Wrong," were bona fide hits. But the other material consists of numbers that are already available elsewhere, alternate takes of songs that don't demand alternate takes, and out-and-out garbage such as "Duke Reid Speaks"--literally, seven seconds of Reid mumbling to himself. (Even something by Gwen Stefani would have been preferable to that.) Like most ska from this era, the tunes are consistently good and often feature exuberant horn solos, and Heartbeat's typically stellar liner notes offer up all the information you'd want to know about Reid. But the only reason this hodgepodge of a collection exists is because someone figured it would turn a quick buck--and that sort of behavior is uncharacteristic of the folks at Heartbeat Records. You'd be better advised to hold out for something they've put their heart into.
Dave Matthews Band
Before These Crowded Streets
It's a predictable progression: Reviewers slag a group until it becomes popular, at which time they try to convince themselves that the music that initially struck them as unbelievably lame is actually pretty good after all. Hence the generally positive reviews that have greeted Before These Crowded Streets, an album that isn't much better than (or much different from) previous Matthews efforts, practically all of which scribes pounded like Jerry Cooney. In an effort to critic-proof the disc, Matthews signed up some tony guest stars, including the Kronos Quartet, whose work is excellent as usual, and he was canny enough to tap Alanis Morissette to assist him on "Spoon." But both that track and "The Stone" borrow so heavily from the work of Peter Gabriel that they left me wishing I were listening to the genuine article rather than a well-produced imitation (Steve Lillywhite, the man behind the boards here, also oversaw Gabriel's brilliant 1980 solo album). Elsewhere, Matthews and his ensemble (Carter Beauford, Stefan Lessard, Leroi Moore and Boyd Tinsley) dabble in jazzy jamming that's relentlessly lightweight, like something by the Yellowjackets, or indulge in the sort of cultural borrowing that seems intellectual on the surface but becomes less so the longer you examine it. (A case in point is "The Last Stop," which is built upon the most obvious Eastern motif imaginable.) The words, meanwhile, are nothing much: Matthews frequently embraces cliches--like "It was so hot outside/You could fry an egg," from "Stay (Wasting Time)"--that he tries to sell by roughening up his baritone and bellowing. There are some decent hooks on "Rapunzel," and I was won over despite myself by the faux-soul back-up vocals and punchy horns on the aforementioned "Stay." Moreover, only the aggressively stupid "Halloween," marked by the worst vocal of Matthews's career, proves unlistenable. But that's a long way from justifying the hosannas with which Streets has been met. When Johnny Clegg was doing this kind of stuff back in the Eighties, I thought it was showy and inoffensive but rather empty. Still do.
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