By christening his latest opus with a title that boasts about his staying power, the Puffster (Sean Combs) is playing into the hands of those who hope he falls flat on his ass -- and many of his enemies think they smell blood. No Way Out, his 1997 debut, ruled the charts for months, but while Forever started strong, it entered the Billboard album charts behind the not-quite-timeless bow by Christina "Genie in a Bottle" Aguilera. Moreover, Rolling Stone, the publication that sacked a writer who wouldn't rave about perceived hot property Hootie & the Blowfish a few years back, shrugged off the disc with a mediocre two-and-a-half-star rating -- meaning that Jann Wenner and company are betting that Combs will turn out to be more MC Hammer than LL Cool J. But the real kiss of death is this: Forever is actually an improvement over its predecessor.
Granted, that ain't saying much. But Combs still deserves credit for backing away a tad from the hip-hop karaoke on which his commercial rep is based. Sure, he builds "Best Friend [303K aiff]" on a foundation supplied by Christopher Cross's "Sailing" (apparently he felt that "Arthur's Theme" was a little too ballsy), and his production on "Angels With Dirty Faces" could be duplicated by putting a copy of Earth, Wind & Fire's "Fantasy" into your CD player, hitting "start" and leaving the room. But most of the other songs employ comparatively obscure samples (like "Bamboo Child" by Ryo Kawasaki) with a little bit more subtlety, and a few are actually sample-free. That's not always a good thing: " What You Want," which features Combs sans any of the guest stars who regularly pull him out of the fire, is about as funky as Wayne Newton. Yet from a musical standpoint, " I'll Do This for You," with background seducing courtesy of Kelly Price, the hooky "Do You Like It...Do You Want It..." (featuring Jay-Z) and the all-star doomfest "Journey Through Life" provide a helluva lot more satisfaction than "I'll Be Missing You."
Now for the bad news. Rhyme-wise Puffy is still in the fat-cat-sat-on-the-mat stage, and although his rapping isn't quite as lifeless and phony as it was last time around, his delivery sure won't make you forget about Method Man. And he still relies too heavily on his connection with the late Notorious B.I.G., listing him as Forever's executive producer, using a second-rate Biggie rap as the excuse for the thoroughly mediocre "Real Niggas," and name-checking him in an intro that gives him an opportunity to take his persecution complex out for a walk. "What can mere mortals do to me?" he asks at one point, only to declare a moment later, "I will look in triumph at those who hate me." Hope you're right for your sake, Sean, because if you crash and burn, there'll be a lot of people slowing down to watch the carnage. -- Michael Roberts
The Vault...Old Friends 4 Sale
Five years after liberating the once and future Prince from his contract, Warner Bros. dug once again into his legendary hundreds of hours of unreleased material and came up with the ninth full-length CD of vault material to be released since 1994. And like any of the others (The Black Album excepted), it's a mixed bag.
If some new jack on the scene -- say, Usher -- were to come up with forty minutes of music as varied, well-played and occasionally plain weird as what's found here, he'd be heralded as a genius. But we've come to expect more from Prince. On this release, Prince is backed by the New Power Generation, and the band's playing is impressive throughout, from the brief funk-pop blast of the disc's opener, "The Rest of My Life," to the jazzy stroll of "She Spoke to Me." There are just no major songs here. Lacking is Prince's usual slew of phrases and melodies that sink into the mind and refuse to be dislodged. The soulful seven-minute jam "When the Lights Go Down," the mildly horny, horn-driven "Sarah," or maybe even the casually funky "5 Women" might have been treats if released as single B-sides, but even collectibility wouldn't improve "There Is Lonely." The song's snazzy guitar work is ruined by one of Prince's weakest lyrics in recent memory: "There is lonely and there is lonely and then there is how I feel now/Perhaps only Cain when he'd slain his brother could ever come close to knowing how."
Longtime Prince fans won't mind hearing these moderately interesting and pleasantly performed demos and outtakes "written during the period beginning 1/23/85 and ending 6/18/94 and...originally intended 4 private use only." Unfortunately, anyone who thinks Prince has lost his genius will find no evidence to the contrary here. This release makes you wish that he was still making lots of new singles instead of merely assembling his table scraps into full-length CDs. -- Patrick Brown
One Guitar, No Vocals
Lest ye, the hippie-come-lately, forget: Guitars begin their lives as plants. Ancient, wise and mystical plants. Living, breathing and towering plants. Then chop, cut, plane, sand, form, set, shellac. Add simple strings and...voilà! Place one in the proper hands and the tunes write themselves. Some players can even tap into that good, primordial sap with enough warmth and feeling to make the ghost of Sitting Bull smile.
Finger-style guitar virtuoso Leo Kottke has been combining uncanny heart and behemoth chops for over three decades, mesmerizing legions of faithful fans with his unique brand of self-effacing humor and humble genius. The Georgia-born artist started out playing trombone and violin and is today responsible for a staggering body of six- and twelve-string guitar work. Excluding soundtracks, singles and live and compilation recordings, Kottke has twenty albums in the vault. That's over 265 catalogued songs alone, folks. And he's still churning 'em out like sweet dairy butter.
"Tunes have a life of their own," Kottke offers via the Internet. He's an intrepid hermit with a curious Web site -- you guessed it: www.leokottke.com. "They change. Every once in a while, I'll discover much later what a tune was all about, and then I re-record it."
Partly sentimental, this new collection features predominantly new material. Notable reinterpretations of older pieces include "Three/Quarter North" and "From Little Treasure," both film scores from 1985's Little Treasure (featuring Burt Lancaster in one of his last roles). And at nearly ten full minutes, "Bigger Situation" (transmogrified from an earlier Rickie Lee Jones-produced piece titled "Big Situation") marks what is perhaps Kottke's longest recording to date. The rhythmic "Snorkel" (written in Sydney while his hotel room was flooding) and "Peckerwood" (a brief ode to white trash) burst with the ol' pro's customary colorful exuberance. His ability to project two or three voices coherently -- simultaneously -- astounds, and the beautiful, liquid fat-note music has an enormous sound, as robust and insistent as ever. Purely instrumental, consistently engaging, these delightful tracks confirm what longstanding Leoheads have known for ages: that One Guitar is always enough. -- John La Briola
Chris Gaines: Greatest Hits
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Sometimes you've just got to step back and ask, "What the hell?"
Nope, this isn't supposed to be a Garth Brooks album. Instead, ol' Garth, a man with one of the healthiest self-images in popular music, is an "actor" portraying Chris Gaines, a fictional performer whose albums, according to the bizarre liner notes, "defined our times over the last decade." (The project supposedly has something to do with a movie that Brooks, a man once described as looking like "a penis with a hat," wants to make.) The faux bio included with Greatest Hits, produced by good soldier Don Was, goes on to point out that Gaines's solo debut, 1989's Straight Jacket, spent 224 weeks on the Billboard sales charts and won a Grammy as album of the year; that successors such as Fornucopia and Apostle did almost as well; and that Triangle caused critics to call Gaines "The New Prince" because of the R&B influences that were cropping up in his music. But listening to the three alleged Triangle tracks -- " That's the Way I Remember It [245K aiff]," "Driftin' Away" and "Snow in July" -- doesn't exactly support this fantasy. The first tune is a generic acoustic shuffle, the second is a ballad that might appeal to, say, Garth Brooks, and the third is the sort of anglo-funk that looks mighty pale in comparison with the real thing. "The New Edwin McCain" is more like it.
More chuckles follow. " My Love Tells Me So [276K aiff]," supposedly a hit for Gaines's first band, Crush, is a moderately effective bit of power pop, but the trio of mock selections from Straight Jacket would never have been late-Eighties smashes: "Maybe" is a Beatles knockoff; "Digging for Gold" actually digs Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac; and "White Flag" suggests an emasculated Bon Jovi (there's a terrifying image). Elsewhere, "Main Street" -- an "instant classic," according to the CD jacket -- emerges as a blatant ripoff of "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," " Unsigned Letter [250K aiff]" boldly steals from U2's "With or Without You," and "Right Now" (a "new" track) interpolates Cheryl Wheeler's gun- control anthem, "If It Were Up to Me," and the Youngblood's hippie anthem "Get Together." And while it's kinda funny to hear Brooks imitate Foreigner on "Way of the Girl," it's not nearly as amusing as Foreigner all by itself. "Hot Blooded" cracks me up every time.
By the way, Greatest Hits is intended as a precursor to The Lamb, Gaines's upcoming solo album, "which the critics are already predicting will be the 'definitive album of the new millennium,'" according to the disc's anonymous scribe. Guess that means the rest of you musicians can take the next 1,000 years off. -- Roberts