When a colleague of mine who'd heard an advance copy of this disc told me that it was essentially a Go-Go's record, my first reaction was relief: Thank God it's not a heartfelt screed about how Courtney Love really didn't kill Kurt Cobain, I thought. But when, after more than a few spins, the album steadfastly refused to provide any more kicks that it had delivered during the first listen, I found myself wishing that Love had bothered to include a few assaults on critics, or the occasional mea culpa, or something. Instead, the long-player offers up a dozen slick, pop-oriented ditties that are different enough from those on 1994's Live Through This, the group's last platter, to lend credence to the theory that Cobain was the creative force behind the previous CD and that Billy Corgan was the primary musical motivator on this one. (Corgan receives five co-writing credits.)
More important than who's responsible for what, of course, is whether the tunes are catchy, and on that score, Celebrity Skin passes muster: The title cut is effective power pop, "Hit So Hard" sounds like mid-Eighties Joan Jett (a good thing), and although "Heaven Tonight" won't prevent Cheap Trick from coming to mind when you hear its name, its sing-songy chorus has a swinging Sixties feel that's undeniably groovy. Lyrically, however, Love seems more interested in playing games with expectations than in actually saying anything substantial. She kicks off "Hit So Hard" with a couplet that seems to reference Cobain--"Pull me up above the boy/The one I love I should destroy"--but the song turns out to be more about present horniness than past tragedy. Later, in the not-so-subtly monikered "Dying," the person supposedly on the cusp of perishing isn't Cobain, but Love, who desperately wants to get "under your skin."
Instead of peeling back her own epidermis, Love pretends to provide insight into the new world of Hollywood glamour and Versace gowns that she's been inhabiting of late via cautionary tales like "Malibu" ("Come on, be alive again/ Don't lay down and die"). It's all very theatrical, and there's no denying that Love's delivery makes some of this hokum work. But when she stages her own private version of A Star Is Born on "Northern Star" ("I wait for you/And it's cold in here/And there's no one left...I cherish all my misery alone"), she finishes a poor third to Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand.
Obviously, Love is under plenty of pressure to prove that she hasn't sold out, and no one should pretend that being in her position is easy. But that's no excuse for portraying Celebrity Skin as a bold statement. In truth, it's an expert piece of product that should solidify Love's place in the public eye. Which is precisely where this particular celebrity wants to be.
This electro-pop trio, which stormed the world's clubs in 1991 with its cover of Neil Young's "Only Love Can Break Your Heart," has returned after a nearly five-year studio hiatus with a first-rate album that represents a fairly radical departure from the group's dance-scene roots.
The changes aren't entirely evident at first: With the boys, Pete Wiggs and Bob Stanley, constructing the music, and Sarah Cracknell tossing out pithy lyrics in that breathy voice of hers, the gang appears to be back working in its usual mode. Saint Etienne has always been the aural equivalent of cruising through the Alps in an Alfa-Romeo convertible wearing sunglasses and a fluttering scarf, and the ravishing rhythm beds and unashamed hooks of tracks like "Mr. Donut" and "Sylvie," the first single, do nothing to dispel that image. But in place of the extended sampling and dance-music guests like Shara Nelson and Original Rockers/Lionrock that distinguished earlier efforts, Good Humour substitutes a Scandinavian studio crew. Furthermore, the bandmembers have handed over the production chores to one Tore Johansson, who comes up with a sound that's similar in tone and style to the work of such recent Viking imports as Komeda and the Cardigans.
Under Johansson's supervision, Saint Etienne's fondness for Sixties kitsch and Sergio Mendes-like flourishes come to the fore, and sweet-and-sour elegies "Erica America" and "Lose That Girl" benefit immensely as a result. Dance-music fans may be mystified by this smart band's defection to the mainstream, but music lovers with a more varied palette will find themselves listening to this beautiful recording over and over again.
In the World: From Natchez to New York
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Dara has been around: He's contributed to over fifty albums since the Sixties, including works by Brian Eno, Cassandra Wilson and Art Blakey. But In the World: From Natchez to New York is his first recording as a bandleader--and a dazzling debut it is. His blending of bayou blues, citified jazz, thoroughly modern hip-hop and African tribal influences makes it clear that he's learned a thing or two hundred from all those years spent playing on the road. He knows enough, for instance, to open the CD with a celebration, to end it with a lullaby, and to offer to the listener alternately dark and bright sounds in between.
While Dara is primarily known as a jazz artist, he hasn't skimped on words here. "Okra," the first cut, is a typically delightful example--an exuberant catalogue of soul food, complete with "good lookin' ears of corn" and "green peanuts from Miss Mary's backyard." Just as charming are "Your Lips" and "Harlem Country Girl," a pair of love songs filled with honest sentiment refreshingly expressed through his warm, mellow voice and moody coronet. (They'll make girls swoon without inducing guys to puke.) On "Jungle Jay," Dara steps back from the microphone in favor of his son, rapper Nas, for a seamless blending of musical genres. But he's front and center for the concluding "Kiane," a nap-time tune that will probably keep Junior awake; the company is just too good. "My little baby boy, I've told you some good stories tonight, haven't I?" Dara asks during it. "But you just don't want to go to sleep--it's all right. Do you need something else to eat? I think I gave you everything."
Dara's right--he's provided everything In the World.