The Major and the Minor
Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie
When it comes to Morissette, there's definitely such a thing as too much information. The gazillions who bought her American breakthrough disc, 1995's Jagged Little Pill, were probably inspired to make their purchases as much by her "You Oughta Know" confession about giving a blow job in a theater as anything else, but she has chosen to interpret their patronage as proof that she's now the voice of her generation. To that end, she's spent the years since her fame blossomed turning herself into the alterna-Oprah--a newly enlightened woman of the Nineties who believes that by sharing her experiences with those who have yet to be touched by angels, she will be able to spawn a new age of openness and self-actualization. Eeesh.
The words that pour from Morissette seem less like lyrics than diary entries--run-on observations that she doesn't even bother to shape into artful constructs. As the repository of such uncensored ramblings, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie (even the title is overwritten) feels slightly embarrassing, like a soul-baring note that should have been thrown away but somehow missed the trash can--a concept Morissette surveys in "Unsent," a tune during which the singer shares excerpts from letters she neglected to mail. The notion might have intrigued had she revealed a fascinating side of herself that had heretofore been hidden from view, but no such luck; the secrets she shares are as banal as an episode of Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place. Had I died without knowing that she would be open to spending quality time with "Matthew," thinks of "Jonathan" whenever the early Nineties come to mind and had her world rocked by "Marcus," I don't think I'd be spending a lot of time griping to St. Peter about it.
Musically, most of the tracks are stupendously tedious--long, meandering collections of notes in search of songs. The wholesale distribution of trite Indian motifs doesn't help much, either (do ya suppose she did it to impress her label boss, the suddenly mystical Madonna?). So for me, the only fun I had while listening to Infatuation Junkie was when I decided to look for the CD's single most moronic line. There was no shortage of candidates: Finalists included "You needed a health scare to reprioritize" ("Front Row"); "How 'bout that ever-elusive kudo?" ("Thank U"); "I was afraid of your testosterone" ("Sympathetic Character"); "That I would be great if I was no longer queen" ("That I Would Be Good"); "All hail the goddess!" ("Heart of the House"); and practically all of "UR," in which our Alanis sounds like a Canadian Yoda ("Precocious, you are/Headstrong, you are/ Terrified, you are"). But the topper was the instant during "Can't Not" when Morissette wonders, "Would I be whining if I said I needed a hug?" I haven't laughed so hard in ages.
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star
In the flood of press that accompanied the spectacular chart rise accomplished by the Fugees after 1996's The Score, Lauryn Hill came across as the lesser of the group's three equals--an actress (she was in Sister Act 2) who was cast in the group by big thinker Wyclef Jean and Pras, his cousin and co-conspirator, by virtue of her big voice and attractive exterior. But Hill has always been a lot more than a sonorous prop, as she demonstrates with a vengeance on Miseducation, her solo debut. "Lost Ones," the first song on the disc, reads like a direct assault on Jean--"My emancipation don't fit your equation.../Everything you did has already been done/I know all the tricks from Bricks to Kingston/My thing done made your kingdom wan' run"--and the songs that follow make it abundantly clear that this sister can do it for herself.
"Doo Wop (That Thing)" has become the album's signature cut, and it's a fine one: Throughout it, Hill dissects superficial relationships, chiding men and women alike against a backdrop of infectious harmonies and a warm horn chart. But there are plenty of other colors in this particular rainbow. "Ex-Factor" is a nu-soul excursion in which Hill comes across as a one-woman Emotions; "To Zion," featuring some deft picking by Carlos Santana, places her at the center of an affecting narrative about her decision to have a child; "Every Ghetto, Every City" overflows with urban detail as rich as anything by Stevie Wonder; and "Everything Is Everything" dispenses knowledge ("I wrote these words for everyone/Who struggles in their youth/Who won't accept deception/Instead of what is truth") that walks hand in hand with alluring grooves. Rhymes like these are more likable than those in "Superstar," which also seems to target her fellow Fugees ("Just as Christ was a superstar, you stupid star/They'll hail you, then they'll nail you, no matter who you are"). But the modicum of bitterness on Miseducation is far outweighed by Hill's wisdom. Who says there aren't smart people in hip-hop?
Mos Def and Talib Kweli, the men behind Black Star, certainly qualify. Their new full-length is an invigorating tribute to cultural awareness and refusing to underestimate the audience. The rappers' ambitions are obvious from the start: During "Intro," a sampled voice says, "We feel that we have a responsibility to shine a light into the darkness," and the very next track, "Astronomy (8th Light)," establishes a link between hip-hop and musical art with the declaration, "I love rockin' tracks like John Coltrane loved 'Naima.'" The risks they take later are just as thrilling. In "Definition," they dare to take a shot at the post-death deification of Notorious B.I.G. ("Brooklyn, New York City, where they paint murals of Biggie/In cash we trust, because his ghetto fabulous life looked pretty/What a pity"), and "Hater Players" brilliantly satirizes the all-good crowd ("Come on, everybody/Show the love"). Just as key, the duo has found a musical equivalent to its lyrical insights--a sound that recalls the work of the Native Tongues clique without duplicating it. By daring to challenge the status quo, Mos Def and Talib Kweli are turning their backs on the monetary booty they could reap by employing the lowest common denominator. But knowing what a terrific record they've made, I'll bet they can look at themselves in the mirror without flinching--and that's a reward in and of itself.
The Best of 1980-1990/The B-Sides
Over time, record-company executives have learned that greatest-hits collections sell better if they're supplemented with extras--a new single, random oddities that failed to earn their keep or, ideally, both. It's a formula that's worked to perfection for U2, whose latest package entered the Billboard charts in the number-two position and is still lingering in the top ten. But don't expect any revelations from The Best of 1980-1990/The B-Sides, my nominee for the laziest compilation of the season.
How lazy is it? The accompanying booklet contains no liner notes whatsoever, and only a few of the photos included would qualify as unusual or even interesting. Likewise, the smashes on the first of these two CDs aren't sequenced in a manner that shows evidence of the slightest thought; they're not in chronological order, and there are some quizzical omissions (like nothing from 1981's October) and odd inclusions (such as a whopping four tracks from Rattle and Hum, the weakest U2 album of the Eighties). The B-Sides companion disc is just as sloppy. Only "Trash, Trampoline and the Party Girl" was made prior to 1985, and the majority of the other fourteen songs will be familiar to even a casual Bono booster. And while it's possible to tell the differences between 1987's "Sweetest Thing" and the new, spiffed-up recording of it being promoted to rock radio, it takes a little work.
Once upon a time, the men of U2 did everything they could to let the music lovers who paid their bills know that they were appreciated, but now they announce tours at K-marts and present themselves as the disposable consumer products they are. The Best of 1980-1990/The B-Sides belongs on the shelf right beside them.
Beck Hanson has always been a contrary cuss: After "Loser" became a radio staple, he made certain that his live performances of the song were all but unlistenable. Mutations is a similar act of perversity--a disc that does everything it can not to satisfy fans who climbed aboard the Beck bus following 1996's Odelay. Gone are the hip-hop beats and Dust Brothers sparkle that made that album so irresistible, replaced by a batch of tunes that lope along like a tortoise with no interest in winning races. This effect is exacerbated by Beck's decision to kick off the proceedings with "Cold Brains" and "Nobody's Fault but My Own," arguably the platter's two dullest efforts. If you can't pass this test, he seems to be saying, you might as well be listening to the other Hansons--the ones who look like teenage girls.
Those who stick around past the second song will find their persistence rewarded, but only modestly: Mutations, which Beck co-produced with Nigel Godrich, is a mostly pleasant collection of shaggy throwaways. Still, its charms may not hit home with people addicted to immediate gratification. "We Live Again," a lovely bit of Sixties psychedelia, has grabby lyrics ("Over the hill, a desolate wind/Turns shit to gold and blows my soul crazy") that Beck undercuts by way of the most laconic delivery imaginable; "Dead Melodies" slows a Robyn Hitchcock-by-way-of-"Lady Jane" melody to a beauteous crawl; and "Sing It Again" is drunken rhapsody presented with the utmost sobriety. The music occasionally cracks a smile: "Canceled Check" is a countryish air that collapses in a swirl of synthesizers. But "Tropicalia" hides some typical barbs behind its sassy Brazilian arrangement. As Beck puts it, "Love is a poverty you couldn't sell/Misery waits in vague hotels/To be a victim."
Our hero isn't always so glum: In the irresistible "O Maria," he declares that "the fabric of folly is falling apart at the seams" in the full knowledge that the image is more than a little ridiculous. But at the same time, he doesn't exactly knock himself out trying to entertain his loyal followers, which is why the David Geffen Company is promoting the album with all the enthusiasm of Newt Gingrich at a Bob Livingston rally. Nonetheless, there's something cheering about Beck's refusal to get with the program. Throughout Mutations, he dares to be quixotic--and in a scene with plenty of followers but precious few leaders, that's a very good thing.
Elvis Costello, With Burt Bacharach
Painted From Memory
More You Becomes You
Elvis Costello, once the brashest of blokes, has become one of the most self-conscious artists in music. He no longer writes songs because he must--because he's got to get them out or perish in the process. Rather, he dabbles in conceptualization in an effort to please forty-plus reviewers who keep their snoots permanently raised (or younger scribes who merely think like them). He struck the mother lode in this regard when he hooked up with Burt Bacharach, an aging tunesmith whose rich but cheesy melodies have recently been rediscovered by journalists too cool to admit liking them the first time around. The partnership profited both parties: It allowed Costello to place himself on the popular pantheon alongside the Broadway/Tin Pan Alley divinity even as it freed Bacharach from the campy trap that he'd stepped into via his cameo in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.
Unfortunately, the promise of "God Give Me Strength," a first-rate song Costello and Bacharach penned for the soundtrack of the semi-flop Grace of My Heart, is not fulfilled by Painted From Memory, an album that's as pretentious as it is disappointing. Bacharach at his best gives pop a patina of seriousness, but here Costello reverses the equation, emphasizing Significance at the expense of hooks. Not one of the tunes is up-tempo, and the medium-speed introductions to "Tears at the Birthday Party" and "Such Unlikely Lovers" slow down considerably before long. Worse, the arrangements mistake lounge instrumentation for suavity, thereby serving as an uncomfortable reminder of Bacharach's "Arthur's Theme" period. And while Costello tries to create lyrics that are less verbose than those for which he's known, the strain is as obvious as when he's puckering his sphincter in an effort to hit notes that are just beyond his natural range. Bacharach's ability to make a hackneyed melody seem tonier than it should hasn't left him yet, but rummaging around for such moments on this disc is far more trouble than it's worth.
The emotionality of Plush's More You Becomes You only accentuates the shortcomings of Painted From Memory. Liam Hayes, the vocalist/pianist/ organist who's the sole member of this one-man band, has a taste for all things Bacharachian, but he knows better than to slather the songs in muted cornets, background warbling or other studio goop. The title cut, "Virginia," "(See it in the) Early Morning" and a two-partner dubbed "The Party" are lo-fi in the extreme, putting no barriers between Hayes's unaffected voice and the people at whom he's directing it. The words he sings may not seem all that profound on the page (e.g., "I feel I'm ignoring/My time in the world," from "Soaring and Boring"), but the relaxed intensity he pours into them doesn't lack for juice. More You Becomes You is an irresistibly morose valentine from an artist driven by a passion that Costello can no longer even simulate.
Manson has never shied away from appropriating other people's shticks, but this CD is his most audacious act of thievery yet. The cover shot, in which Marilyn appears as a nude, paler-than-pale anthropoid, is such a David Bowie ripoff that I assumed even he wouldn't attempt to match it musically. How wrong I was: Mechanical Animals is so obviously Manson's distillation of Bowie's aliens-and-outer-space years that the former Ziggy Stardust deserves royalty payments. Maybe Marilyn figured that since Bowie isn't using this particular persona anymore, it was available.
From the first verse of the album-opening "Great Big White World" ("In space the stars are no nearer.../And I dreamed I was a spaceman") to "The Speed of Pain," which begins with a strummed acoustic guitar that will prompt practically anyone born during the last five decades to start singing "Ground control to Major Tom," Manson rifles through the Bowie catalogue looking for usable material, and he finds plenty. "Posthuman," "New Model No. 15" and "The Last Day on Earth" aren't titles that were chosen at random, and in "Dissociative," he sings, "I don't want to just float in fear/A dead astronaut in space" like the reverential acolyte he still is. Thank goodness, then, that Manson is a talented mimic who knows that subtlety can sometimes get in the way of pop delight. "The Dope Show" saves some dull verses with a chorus that could have come from the Sweet, "Rock Is Dead" contradicts itself with a guitar figure that works as well now as it did back in the Seventies, and "I Don't Like the Drugs (but the Drugs Like Me)" is a hip-shaking, boa-wearing, boys-with-lipstick throwback that still dresses up fine. "Mechanical Animals" is even better: Manson sounds like Aladdin Sane when he's mouthing witty puns such as "you were phenobarbidoll/A manniqueen of depression."
None of this means that Manson has come into his own as an artist, or even as a provocateur; his supposedly upsetting "User Friendly" declaration--"I'm not in love, but I'm gonna fuck you/'Til somebody better comes along"--could be an outtake from The Wall that Roger Waters prudently left on the cutting-room floor. Marilyn has never had much to say, and that's not going to change. But the man's a survivor. It'll take more than a shortage of ideas to kill his career. Because he can always swipe someone else's.
Enter the Dru
Unlike most of the other contestants in the smooth soul sweepstakes, the members of Dru Hill don't look like urban Eddie Haskells: Frontman Sisqo wears his Afro dyed bright white, and he and his comrades favor love-god threads that practically demand worship from the female portion of their congregation. But the latest disc's cover shot is brasher than the music beneath it. Enter the Dru aims to appeal equally to macho men and the ladies in the house, and it succeeds about half the time. But in the end, there's too much commercial calculation and not nearly enough get-down.
Even hardcore rappers are subsumed in Enter the Dru's sweeping sensuality. "This Is What We Do," a partial reshaping of Montell Jordan's "This Is How We Do It," features Method Man, but this Wu-Tang Clan vet's drop-your-drawers rap ("Throw your panties over there/You won't need those") barely manages to poke its engorged head above the surface sheen of Dru Hill's trademark harmonies. That's not always a bad thing: "How Deep Is Your Love," a jumbo smash originally heard on the Rush Hour soundtrack, is four minutes of velvety freakiness, and both "Holding You" and "I'm Wondering" are sincere without inducing sugar shock. But "These Are the Times," which was churned out by the Babyface factory, and "What Do I Do With the Love," scribbled by Mistress of Shlock Diane Warren and produced by the evil David Foster, is as soupy as anything from the Boyz II Men kitchen. Folks brave enough to listen to them back to back had better have a hypodermic filled with insulin handy just in case.
These last two cuts are apt to become big hits: After all, stereotypes sell. But Enter the Dru is far more effective when its quartet of crooners is concentrating more on the crotch than on the heart.
A Little South of Sanity
Not since the late Seventies, when in-concert recordings were as plentiful as tacky polyester fashions, has there been such an onslaught of big-name live sets as the one that struck during the final quarter of 1998. The explanation for this phenomenon has a lot to do with the changes that have taken place of late in the U.S. touring environment. Many new acts are struggling to convert their healthy CD sales into sold-out arenas, but the dinosaurs of rock continue to draw throngs eager to hear yet another rendition of the ditties they loved way back when. Moreover, these graying ticket-buyers have little interest in checking out new material by the icons of yore, because if they did and it sucked, the nostalgia balloon would be punctured. As a result, musicians are surrendering to this change-is-bad mentality in droves, knowing that by doing so, they'll get paid for playing the same old shit one more time.
This description implies that all live packages by veteran artists are essentially pointless, and for the most part, that's true. But some collections are less deserving of ridicule than others. Although Rush's Different Stages--Live is a fans-only affair, as are most albums in this format, at least it's a generous one: Two well-recorded discs captured between 1994 and 1997 are supplemented by a third CD from a 1978 date at London's Hammersmith Odeon that manages not to repeat any of the newer selections. Furthermore, Different Stages presents evidence that Rush has actually become a more listenable band over the years. The singing of today's Geddy Lee is infinitely more tolerable than the squealing, helium-esque vocals in which the bassist specialized two decades back--and thank goodness.
Black Sabbath's Reunion has a reason for being as well. The group technically existed well into the Nineties, but lead demonologist Ozzy Osbourne checked out in 1979, taking much of the act's personality with him. Since then, however, Ozzy, Tony Iommi, Bill Ward and Geezer Butler have been greeted with some serious (and appropriate) historical revisionism in the wake of the grunge movement, thereby transforming them from a critically reviled joke that only solvent huffers could love to an officially sanctioned influence. But despite the fact that Sabbath's 1997 performances demonstrated that the players haven't lost one ounce of their heaviness over the years, Reunion is still more of a souvenir than anything else. All the old faves are here--"War Pigs," "Black Sabbath," "Iron Man," "Paranoid"--and the musicians are in good spirit. Too bad Ozzy frequently sounds drunk (especially during the rambling monologue that precedes "Fairies Wear Boots") and the playing is more than a bit sloppy. Bottom line: The original versions of these songs are better. A lot better.
That's not always the case on Aerosmith's A Little South of Sanity. Considering the over-production that's marred the band's recent platters, it's nice to hear guilty pleasures such as "Falling in Love (Is Hard on the Knees)" sans the unnecessary studio sheen. But that's not enough to justify another you-were-there compilation from a combo that's already got three under its belt (1978's Live Bootleg, 1985's Classics Live! and 1987's Classics Live II, to be specific). The group is lively, sure, but the song choices are safer than sex with an inflatable doll. If there's anyone out there who really needs another copy of "Walk This Way," "Dream On" or "Sweet Emotion," either speak now or spend your money on something you don't already have.
Which brings us to the Rolling Stones, the kings of the live album. Probably even Mick Jagger and Keith Richards have forgotten by now how many of these babies they've manufactured, and in my estimation, anyone who has 1970's Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! really doesn't need another one. No Security is typical of the rest--adequately played, rough around the edges and filled with performances in which the musicians fail to top themselves. (The routine Xerox of "Gimme Shelter" is the primest of examples.) As for "Flip the Switch," "Saint of Me" and "Out of Control," a trio of newer compositions, they aren't bad, but neither are they benchmarks. Not that it'll bother Stones fanatics. They'll buy No Security out of habit, listen to it once and put it away forever, leaving them happy but a little poorer--and leaving the Stones with a few more gold coins in their vaults. Nice work if you can get it.
Live on Two Legs
Big Head Todd and the Monsters
PNYC: Roseland NYC Live
Live albums aren't only for the elderly: Younger artists are making plenty of them as well, albeit for different motives than the average old-timer. With Garth Brooks, numbers are the main rationale. He's absolutely obsessed with racking up more sales than any performer who's ever carried a tune, and of late, he's expended even more energy than usual in coming up with ways to push product. Brooks refused to allow the release of his CD Sevens until the new management at Capitol Records demonstrated its fealty to him, and he subsequently assembled a boxed set, The Limited Series, that was intended to entice buffs into purchasing catalogue albums they already had. But Double Live may be his cleverest marketing gambit to date. Each million copies of the package that are sold will include different CD booklets, with the first dedicated to a career overview, the second commemorating his 1997 concert in Central Park, and so on. (Six variations have been planned to date.) In its promotional material, Capitol publicists claim that Brooks is giving people extra choices, but he's also providing an incentive for completists to buy six copies of the same set, thereby assisting him mightily in his assault on music-business history. Alan Greenspan should be worried.
If only as much attention had gone into the music. Double Live contains most of Brooks's best-known songs, including "Two of a Kind, Workin' on a Full House," but the theatrics that make him such an onstage marvel wear thin on disc. He's forever growling, yelping and exhorting--during "Callin' Baton Rouge," he shouts the word "LOUISIANA!" like a cheerleader at a pep rally--and his exuberance plays havoc with his sense of dynamics. "The Thunder Rolls," hardly a subtle composition, comes at listeners like a jet-powered steamroller, and "Friends in Low Places" (ominously subtitled "The Long Version") takes nearly a full minute simply to end. Brooks claims to love the little people, but he loves himself even more. Double Live is a bouquet from Garth to Garth--and you get to pick up the tab.
When heard alongside Brooks's latest, Pearl Jam's Live on Two Legs sounds positively modest, as well it should be; the group was once among the biggest acts on the planet, but its sales have been in steady decline for several years now. (Yield, released in early 1998, underwhelmed despite a huge ad campaign.) This disc, then, is a way for Eddie Vedder and his brethren to consolidate their fan base even as they strive to show that being in a band is just as important to them as saving the world and destroying Ticketmaster. Judged by this standard, Two Legs succeeds: The performers execute their songs in a simple, straightforward, no-bullshit manner. But their self-imposed earnestness brings out the dreariness in them. "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town," "Go," "Even Flow," "Nothingman" and "Better Man" don't illuminate anything about Pearl Jam that wasn't already evident in the originals, and the few twists--like the interpolation of some Neil Young lyrics into "Daughter"--fail to provide much evidence of creative growth. These guys have their style down pat, but if they don't freshen it up soon, no one's going to care.
Big Head Todd and the Monsters don't throw many curveballs during Live Monsters, either, but that's no shock: Todd Park Mohr, Brian Nevin and Rob Squires have been into standard-issue blues rock since they were playing bars, and they show no signs of suddenly reinventing themselves. Their new disc is less a declaration of purpose than a stopgap intended to sustain the band until it can release a new studio disc next year. As such, programmers have eschewed any and all risks by larding the package with the Monsters' most familiar undertakings. "Vincent of Jersey," one of Mohr's early I-wannabe-Bruce Springsteen moments, is about as obscure as it gets. Otherwise, Live Monsters is dominated by predictable run-throughs of "Bittersweet," "Broken Hearted Savior," "Sister Sweetly," "Circle," "Boom Boom" and "Tangerine," a Led Zep cover that definitely paints within the lines. That's what live albums are supposed to do, right?
Not necessarily. Virtually alone among the season's live offerings, Portishead's PNYC places art ahead of commerce, and it shows. The bandmembers--vocalist Beth Gibbons, drummer/turntablist Geoff Barrows, guitarist/synthesist Adrian Utley and sound guru Dave McDonald--refuse to simply clone their songs before an audience. Instead, they reimagine them with the assistance of a full orchestra manned in part by slumming members of the New York Philharmonic. The organic tones of the acoustic instruments bring out the humanity in music that's mainly machine-made, allowing listeners to confirm that some legitimately moving compositions were lurking inside the technology all along. "Humming" is fueled by an airy, jazz-like bass progression, "All Mine" adds unanticipated depth to its James Bond-ian structure, and "Sour Times" blends Nineties ennui with an intriguing dash of Philly soul. Such flourishes make PNYC more than just a good in-concert album. It's a good album, period.
Unlike previous Caucasian soul men (such as, say, Daryl Hall and John Oates), Greg Dulli--who appears with his band on Wednesday, December 9, at the Ogden Theatre--has only a passing interest in the smooth, sensual side of the genre. He loves to play the seducer, but he never lets sincerity get in the way of a good hump. True love is nice, sure, but true sex is a lot more accessible--and given the choice between a quiet, romantic evening with a soulmate or an orgiastic frenzy, wouldn't the honest person pick the latter? The character Dulli plays in most of his songs certainly would. This swinging single seems to believe that anonymous relationships are the best kind, animal rage is a groovy turn-on, guilt gives the hunt for the next conquest a nice edge, and climaxing is more fun when you're screaming profanities at your sweat-soaked partner as it happens. To hell with the orgasm as a little death; Dulli wants it to feel like the biggest goddamn death in the history of humankind.
On previous Whigs albums, Dulli tempered his lover-man persona with noirish storytelling of the Jim Thompson stripe, but such changes of pace seldom turn up on 1965. With the exception of "Citi Soleil," a fantasia about shooting craps alongside the folks from the other side of the tracks (the type Dulli prefers), he concentrates almost entirely on luring women into the sack, super-heroically loving them up and then walking away like a post-punk Charles Aznavour--a sophisticated existentialist ready to use his godlike member to change the life of the next woman he meets (or meats, as the case may be). He's a specialist in sexual hyperbole, and the more overheated the better. During "John the Baptist," for instance, he brings a new object of affection to his pad ("Hey...welcome home") and softens up her defenses ("I got a little wine") before hitting her with the sort of erotic bluster that's generally considered the sole province of Marvin Gaye ("Come on and take me, I'm yours/Dance, little sister, dance")--and then, to top it off, he wins her over by quoting Gaye himself ("Let's get it on"). Just try naming another white male performer fearless and foolish enough to do something like that. Give up yet?
To put it another way, Dulli feels absolutely no shame over his obsessions, sexual or otherwise; at times, 1965 suggests a remake of Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song with Matt Damon in the title role. But if his lack of subtlety frequently makes him seem a bit ridiculous, his band is pretty irresistible anyway. While other acts that came to prominence during the fly-the-flannel revolution have either folded up their tents or are currently struggling to find a new identity that will prevent them from seeming like anachronisms with guitars, Dulli and the Whigs have come up with a brand of honky jive that's wholly their own. So don't scoff at Dulli when he sings, "I wanna feel everything aboutcha, girl" in "Somethin' Hot," and don't jeer at him when, in "66," he tells some babe, "I'll be down on my knees/Screamin' take me, take me, take me, take me." Just lie back and enjoy it. Because you're in the hands of an expert.
Vol. 2...Hard Knock Life
War & Peace, Vol. 1 (The War Disc)
Prognosticators who figured that the assassinations of Tupac Shakur and the aforementioned Mr. Smalls spelled the end of the I'm-the-Baddest-Motherfucker-on-the-Block school of hip-hop were sadly mistaken. The term "gangsta rap" may now be in mothballs, but there are still plenty of emcees around who know how to make murder, misogyny and moola sound mighty attractive, and millions of music-buyers willing to pay them handsomely for doing so. Witness Jay-Z, whose latest was the nation's top-selling joint for a month, and earned a double-platinum certification in just its seventh week of availability.
This accomplishment is far from inexplicable. Jay-Z is a daunting presence--his voice is brawny, his intonation is crisp and confident and his delivery stings like a bee--and the raft of producers who assist him on Hard Knock Life serve him very well. "Hand It Down," overseen by Premier, rests upon choppy keyboards and a bottomless hook that makes the introductory phrase "bring the drama" ring true; Timbaland puts a lethal riff at the service of "Nigga What, Nigga Who (Originator 99)" and keeps the funk coming on "Paper Chase," with Foxy Brown; and Erick Sermon lays down a bed borrowed from Isaac Hayes's "Theme From Shaft" on "Reservoir Dogs." The canniest display, though, is the title track, which makes bizarre use of a sample from, of all things, "It's the Hard Knock Life," a song from the Broadway production of Annie. As a children's chorus chirps for the blue hairs in the balcony, Jay-Z snaps off couplets such as, "Where are my niggas with the rubber grips?/Four shots/And if you're with me, mama, I'll rub on your tits/And what not." That's funny stuff, but because such street cliches are the rule here ("How many y'all wanna ride tonight?/How many y'all gonna die tonight," from "Ride or Die," is typical), they eventually become as wearying as they were during the last hardcore wave. Vol. 2 is that all-too-common contradiction--a rap album that can best be enjoyed by turning a deaf ear to the words.
Ice Cube, who practically founded this game back in his N.W.A. days, has been coasting on his rep for quite a while now, and on The War Disc (the first half of a proposed opus that will be completed next year with the arrival of--you guessed it--The Peace Disc), he doesn't always rise to the occasion: I dare you to listen to him bark, "I'd rather eat piranha from Benihana/Smokin' marijuana in my sauna" (from "Ask About Me") without guffawing. Bluntly stated, there are simply too many moments when his attempts at steeliness seem just plain dumb--like the monster-movie noises that decorate "Dr. Frankenstein" and the opening passage of "Fuck Dying," in which Cube threatens to kick the crap out of the Angel of Death ("I ain't goin' nowhere with your ass, and if you put your hands on me, we're gettin' down right here," he says). The CD isn't a total washout: "3 Strikes You In" is a righteous attack on current sentencing practices, and "Ghetto Vet," in which Cube portrays a paralyzed Vietnam survivor fallen on tough times, finds him at his most incisive. But in an effort to give his songs a cinematic feel, Cube falls prey to overproduction that makes him sound as if he's trying too hard. When War was over, I can't say I was looking forward to giving Peace a chance.
Longtime R.E.M. drummer Bill Berry doesn't play on Up; he bowed out in the wake of a brain aneurysm, causing the first personnel shift in the band's eighteen years of life. But Up is so down that it makes most funerals seem like a rave full of ecstasy-heads by comparison. By the middle of the disc, I wanted to take Michael Stipe by the shoulders and shout, "Bill's not dead! He's doing just fine!"
Things don't start off badly. The opener, "Airportman," is a bit of a trial, what with its mopey atmosphere, overt drum machine and failed poesy ("Labored breathing and sallow skin/Recycled air"), but it's followed by "Lotus," an off-the-cuff quasi-glam workout probably inspired by Stipe's role as producer of the film Velvet Goldmine. Then the good times pretty much end. When heard outside the context of the disc, a few of the tracks are passable: "Suspicion," "Hope" and "At My Most Beautiful" (which sports Stipe's most treacly lyrics ever) are mournful but fairly effective pop, and "Parakeet," which sounds like the Beach Boys as portrayed by Procul Harum, doesn't wear out its welcome. But the decent ventures are bogged down by scads of draggy patience-testers. Stipe may see "The Apologist" as ironic, but that doesn't make his repetitions of "I'm sorry" any less irritating. Even more annoying is "Sad Professor," in which the all-knowing Michael takes on the sins of the world, and "Why Not Smile," a fake ode to cheerfulness that might well cause the residents at the terminal ward to contact Jack Kevorkian.
No one says the members of R.E.M. should keep strumming those twelve-strings until they wind up on the oldies circuit: Experimentation is to be applauded. But Up is hardly a bold step in a new direction. Monotonous and one-dimensional, the album strands the players in their own navels--and they seem too filled with ennui to bother trying to escape.
Josh Davis, aka DJ Shadow, received critical huzzahs for 1996's Endtroducing..., a far-reaching instrumental hip-hop collage that expanded the use of turntables and mixing decks as compositional tools. Certain tastemakers in the hip-hop community looked upon the project with suspicion, complaining that Shadow was trying to improve a genre that was wonderful the way it was. But Paul D. Miller, who goes by DJ Spooky, hasn't been scared off by this backward thinking (which, in the case of Shadow, a Caucasian, had a racial component). With Riddim Warfare, he has made a full-bodied extravaganza that picks up where Endtroducing... left off--and while the album doesn't skimp on theory, Spooky's willingness to pull others into his orbit makes the piece more accessible than Shadow's challenging opus.
Miller completes this neat trick with a little help from several rappers, who provide a sense of shape and symmetry that Spooky's free-flowing soundscapes might otherwise lack. The guests are a fine lot, and the DJ pushes them to the limit: Kool Keith more or less maintains his sanity on "Object Unknown" and "Riddim Warfare," Prince Poetry and Pharoah Monch of Organized Konfusion spark "Rekonstruction," Killah Priest lends an eerie buzz to "Degree Zero," and Japanese artist Moriko Mori adds to the exotic atmosphere that suffuses the concluding "Twilight Fugue." Spooky is an ideal host on these occasions, making room for vocal contributors amid the beeps, blips and beats swirling around them. But when he's in the spotlight, his graciousness is replaced with bravado. The three-part "Dialectical Transformation" moves from space noises to waves of doomy synthesizer and guitar drone contributed by none other than Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, "Post-Human Sophistry" pits a semi-operatic voice against apocalyptic tones, and "Theme of the Drunken Sailor" invites acid jazz and dub to the same party.
Most albums show listeners their knickers during the first spin, but not Riddim Warfare. The CD's design is so dense that it requires repeated explorations to unearth all of its treasures. But digging into it is a pleasure.
A compilation consisting entirely of other people's songs, Garage Inc. may be seen as an acknowledgment that the last couple of Metallica albums suffered from a severe lack of respectable tunes, and perhaps it is. But it also serves as a reminder that these speed-metal popularizers are, first and foremost, a rock band, with everything that definition implies.
Disc two here pulls together previously released covers cut between 1984 and 1995, and with the exception of Queen ("Stone Cold Crazy") and Killing Joke ("The Wait"), the outfits Metallica honors make perfect sense considering their sound: the Misfits, the Anti-Nowhere League and Motsrhead. But the first CD, laid down mere weeks ago, is another matter entirely. The band sounds as muscular as it did in its nascent stages during fierce variations of Discharge's "Free Speech for the Dumb" and "The More I See," Black Sabbath's "Sabbra Cadabra," the Misfits' "Die, Die My Darling," a Mercyful Fate medley and "It's Electric," by Diamond Head. In addition, they find a way to make Nick Cave's "Loverman" Metallica-ready; Hetfield grumbles, "I am what I am what I am what I am" like a hard-rock Popeye. But what's even more startling than the presence here of Bob Seger's "Turn the Page" is the musicians' decision to play it pretty much straight. No kidding: Hetfield, who's quoted in the extensive liner notes as saying that he wishes he'd written the number, is so respectful of the man who sings about trucks built "like a rock" that he seems to be imitating him half the time.
Couple "Turn the Page" with an acoustic take of (really) Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Tuesday's Gone" and you'll be able to guess why Metallica is still prospering while so many of its Eighties peers have gone the way of the eight-track tape. Deep down, these four aren't revolutionaries but committed conservatives who just happen to like it loud and proud. And they're not going anywhere.
Is This Desire?
Harvey is a rarity--a raw-boned performer who actually benefits from a bit of slickness. Her first album, 1992's Dry, and Rid of Me, a Steve Albini-helmed successor from the following year, were harrowing, emotional journeys into the land of punk blues and rock trauma. But 1995's To Bring You My Love, partially produced by sometime Depeche Mode cohort Flood, was even worthier. It gave Harvey the opportunity to use a broader palette, and she knew precisely what to do with it.
Flood is back on the team for Is This Desire?, but the new recording features fewer dance rhythms than did its predecessor. On this occasion, Harvey and gifted instrumentalists such as Captain Beefheart veteran Eric Drew Feldman, Tom Waits associate Joe Gore, Mick Harvey of the Bad Seeds and longtime sidemen John Parish and Rob Ellis stake out a middle ground between her edgiest instincts and the requirements of radio, and the location turns out to be a very good one indeed. The first two songs establish the parameters: "Angelene," a somber but gorgeous tale about a woman of easy virtue ("Love for money is my sin/Any man calls, I'll let him in") leads directly into "The Sky Lit Up," a chugging gloss on the Velvet Underground's "I'm Waiting for My Man" that builds until Harvey is practically shrieking. Her sense of dynamics elsewhere is just as provocative. "The Wind" is a sinister duet between a singing Harvey and a whispering one, "My Beautiful Leah" allows the vocalist to plunge to the bottom of her range, and "Catherine" quietly makes the most out of an ominous scenario ("Catherine De Barra, you've murdered my thinking/I gave you my heart/You left the thing stinking").
The sadness that imbues Desire is unrelenting; in this setting, even "Joy" is tragic (the song is about a "pitiful" woman who "never danced a step"). To Harvey, sex is creepy (check out "The River" and "Is This Desire?") and love is the cruelest of illusions. But artistically, she's operating on such an elevated plane that her most dour moods are still riveting. Don't visit the darkness without her.
Visit www.westword.com to hear sound samples from many of the recordings reviewed above.
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