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To Buy or Not to Buy

Various Artists
Evita: The Complete Motion Picture Music Soundtrack
(Warner Bros.)

According to the tabloid press, Evita is the most anticipated new film of 1996--although the people who seem most eager to see this musical biography of the late Argentinian Eva Peron are those who assume it will be more disastrous than Waterworld and Ishtar put together. The soundtrack doesn't guarantee such a debacle, but only the most passionate Madonna-philes would dare claim that it foretells a blockbuster. Madonna isn't the problem: While she can't roll her R's like co-star Antonio Banderas (who has an advantage over her in that he doesn't sound like he's from Michigan), she can handle the score. Her version of the soundtrack's showstopper, "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina," doesn't shoot Julie Covington's full of holes (Covington played Evita in the original London stage production, heard on a CD set just reissued by MCA), but it's no embarrassment. While her pipes aren't on par with those possessed by genuine divas, she's got an innate sense of drama that helps her glide confidently over the rough patches--of which there are many. While Andrew Lloyd Webber has been ballyhooed as the finest theatrical composer of his generation, his early and mid-period work remains an unholy blend of operatic pretensions and rock portentousness. Cuts such as "Eva and Magaldi/Eva Beware of the City" are decorated with "scorching" guitars straight out of a mid-Seventies Jim Steinman production, vocal interchanges of the sort that have helped art rock of the era date faster than a container of yogurt left in the middle of your driveway, and Tim Rice lyrics that are frequently cringeworthy: An example is the moment when Evita declares that she wants to be "a Buenos Aires big apple." The production, credited to Webber, Nigel Wright, David Caddick and Alan Parker (the film's director), is certainly sumptuous, and the singing of supporting players like Jonathan Pryce isn't as agonizing as expected. But if Evita becomes a smash, it won't be because these songs are all over the radio. It will be because Madonna has sold her daughter's soul to the devil.

Counting Crows
Recovering the Satellites
(DGC)

In an interview published in Time magazine earlier this year, Counting Crows lead singer Adam Duritz revealed that his band took so long to record the followup to its commercially successful debut album (August and Everything After) because of a case of writer's block spawned in him by the backlash against his work; he complained that he could hardly set foot outside his door without someone coming up to him for no other reason than to declare that he sucked. I wasn't among those who delivered their negative assessments to Duritz personally, but I understand how they felt. To me, August was musically derivative (Bob Dylan and Van Morrison were only the most obvious of the Crows' victims-by-association) and lyrically insufferable: Duritz came across as so self-pitying that it was surprising the creators of thirtysomething didn't offer to build a television show around him. Recovering indicates that Duritz took at least some of this criticism to heart: A number of the tunes, including "Angels of the Silences," are a bit tougher than their predecessors--meaning that they rip off latter-day R.E.M., not longtime inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (A notable exception is "Another Horsedreamer's Blues," in which Morrison is ransacked once again.) But aggressiveness is not a quality that Duritz wears comfortably; whenever he tries to rock out, he comes across like a eunuch boasting about the size of the balls he used to have. Hence, the bits of sonic filigree that work best are those that acknowledge, rather than deny, his wispiness: The Paul Buckmaster orchestration that highlights "I'm Not Sleeping" is a prime example. Words, however, remain an enormous snag for anyone trying to understand the Crows' appeal. Put another way, the lyric sheet reads like the poetic confessions of an eighteen-year-old Stevie Nicks. In "Catapult," Duritz whimpers, "What a big baby/Won't somebody save me, please"; in "Daylight Fading," he moans, "I am waiting for the telephone to tell me I'm alive"; in the title cut, he concludes, "All anybody really knows for sure is/That you're gonna come down"; and on and on and on. The nadir is "Have You Seen Me Lately?" and the lines, "These days I feel like I'm fading away/Like sometimes when I hear myself on the radio": After all, there's nothing more insufferable than a rock star whining about the pitfalls of worldwide acclaim. Adam, if I were you, I wouldn't leave the house for a while.

Wilco
Being There
(Reprise)

Virtually every recording made by Jeff Tweedy--including the collected works of his first popular band, Uncle Tupelo, and Wilco's bow, A.M.--has inspired reviewers to ejaculate more cream than is produced at your neighborhood Meadow Gold plant. But I've stayed off the Tweedy bandwagon for a variety of reasons, including the extraordinarily familiar quality of his songwriting (just because he exhibited great taste in American roots music didn't make his borrowings any more unconventional), a certain backwoods elitism and an essential humorlessness: I got the sense that he wouldn't crack a smile even if Buster Keaton returned from the dead and started doing pratfalls in front of him. But Tweedy's agreeably sloppy contributions to the two albums by Golden Smog suggested that he was finally loosening up--and Being There cinches the deal. "Misunderstood," the opening track of this two-CD set, symbolizes his new sense of adventurousness. The song opens with what sounds suspiciously like a wall of noise, then transitions into a piano ballad--but whereas Tweedy might have previously approached such a number with painful earnestness, he now smothers both his voice and his keyboard with a subtle splash of distortion that builds to a full-blown racket as the track reaches its conclusion. A similar bravado pervades many of the other offerings on display, including "Monday," which brims with Exile on Main Street horns; "Red-Eyed and Blue," highlighted by a ton of echo, a woozy organ and, of all things, a whistling solo; "I Got You (At the End of the Century)," a bar-band-ready rocker that brings a hitherto unknown goofiness out in these guys; "Outta Mind (Outta Sight)," a session inside Brian Wilson's sandbox; and "Kingpin," in which the guitar sound from the Band's "Up on Cripple Creek" in used in a saucy manner that, for once, doesn't make you suspect Tweedy resurrected it to prove how musically erudite he is. Being There contains a few songs (such as "Sunken Treasure") that test your patience and a few others (like "The Lonely 1") that smack of Tupelo retreads. But the nonchalance that pervades Wilco's latest takes the sting out of the misses. Much as I hate to follow the crowd, I guess I'll have to clamber onto that bandwagon after all.  

The Beatles
Anthology 3
(Capitol/Apple)

If the folks at Capitol Records are to be believed, this is the last Anthology we should expect from the Beatles for the foreseeable future, and although these two CDs aren't slipshod by any stretch of the imagination, their middling value implies that stopping now is a pretty good idea. Part of the reason for this judgment has to do with historical significance: It's more fascinating to hear work tapes from the sessions that produced "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" than it is to study an acoustic version of "Blackbird" that's not all that different from the one with which everyone in the whole damn world is already familiar. But there's also a matter of quality: While The Beatles and Abbey Road are good records, Let It Be is pretty spotty--so you can only imagine how scintillating the versions of songs that weren't quite good enough to make it on this last disc are. Quite a few of the alternate run-throughs of well-known ditties don't rate all that high on the allure meter, either. Upon reading in the extensive liner notes that the five-minute take of "Helter Skelter" on disc one is snipped from a twelve-minute jam that's attained legendary status among collectors, you may feel ripped off. But given the track's slack, meandering, strangely enervated feel, I'm betting even Susan Atkins won't be pining to hear the missing portion. The talents of John, Paul, George and Ringo shine brighter on other selections: I enjoyed the slightly expanded "Polythene Pam"; a full-bodied "Not Guilty" (which popped up as an acoustic ditty on a 1979 George Harrison album); Lennon's daft "What's the New Mary Jane" (featuring lyrics like "She jumping as Mexican bean/To making her body more theen"); a rehearsal of "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window"; and a loose oldies medley that consists of "Rip It Up," "Shake, Rattle and Roll" and "Blue Suede Shoes." But cutesy-poo McCartney pieces like "Teddy Boy" (heard solo on his 1970 platter, McCartney) haven't improved with age, and cuts such as Harrison's "Something" demo are primarily for completists, not people interested in listening to something while balancing the checkbook. As for me, my quota of Beatles rarities has been reached. Make that surpassed.

Luscious Jackson
Fever In Fever Out
(Grand Royal/Capitol)

There's no denying that Daniel Lanois is among the true wizards of the recording studio: His work on last year's Wrecking Ball, by Emmylou Harris, was so unremittingly gorgeous and evocative that listening to the album was something akin to an epiphany. But he needs to have the right canvas on which to paint--and Fever suggests that the music of Luscious Jackson isn't it. The band's debut, the 1993 EP In Search of Manny, worked so well because of its sheer dinginess; the prominent percussion and high spirits lent the pop-savvy hip-hop made by Jill Cuniff, Gabrielle Glaser, Kate Schellenbach and Vivian Trimble a freshness that was positively bracing. But Natural Ingredients, a full-length in stores the following year, was considerably less vibrant, in part because it was significantly more produced. "Energy Sucker" was ostensibly about men, but its moniker could also be read as a description of what a proper studio environment did to the players. Lanois's auteurism accelerates this process: One gets the impression while listening to Fever that the instrumentalists saw his sound as constraining but were too awestruck by his talent to mention it to him. "Naked Eye," the first single, sounds like Bananarama on a particularly lazy day (that's not a compliment), but compared to what follows, the cut seems like something by Ted Nugent. "Mood Swing," "Under Your Skin," "Water Your Garden" and others find Cuniff purring over gently percolating tracks of the sort you might associate with Antonio Carlos Jobim. So laid back is the feel that the semi-boisterous enunciation of the word "electric" during the song of the same name produces a genuine jolt. Lanois has not lost his touch: The sonic environments that rise and fall in "Don't Look Back" are deep and rich. But even the presence of Harris on background vocals throughout several numbers can't wake the musicians from their torpor. When this marriage breaks up, the reason will be incompatibility.  

Various Artists
Dr. Dre Presents...The Aftermath
(Aftermath/Interscope)

Various Artists
Death Row: Greatest Hits
(Death Row)

You know the gangsta genre has reached a crucial stage when even Dr. Dre, a man who's done more than any other single person to set the style's aural agenda, realizes that it's time to move on. Death Row: Greatest Hits is an utterly unessential collection--a two-disc package culled largely from five albums (Snoop Doggy Dogg's Doggystyle; the Murder Was the Case soundtrack; Tupac Shakur's Strickly 4 My Niggaz and Me Against the World; and Dre's The Chronic) that any real hardcore fan already owns. Moreover, its existence owes more to Death Row owner Suge Knight's lust for respectability (the liner notes resemble a corporation's annual report) than it does to any historical necessity. But if you're able to get past the set's lyrical shortcomings--a considerable obstacle in many instances--the compilation serves as a reminder of just how skilled at studio manipulation Dre is. The tracks from The Chronic and Doggystyle, especially, are effortlessly funky and exceedingly singular: Anyone can use a George Clinton sample, but the good Doctor manages to transform familiar sources into noises that are undeniably contemporary and wholly his own. He displays this aptitude again on Aftermath, a calling card for his new label. In the introduction, Dre's surrogates essentially stick a fork in gangsta rap; then, in "East Coast/ West Coast Killas," guest stars KRS-1, Nas, RBX and B-Real declare an end to the New York vs. Cali conflict that's blamed in some quarters for Shakur's assassination. Just as cagey is "Been There Done That," in which Dre brushes off hardcore cliches like so much dandruff: "A million motherfuckers on the planet Earth/Talk that hard bullshit 'cause that's all they're worth," he intones, as if he had never stooped so low. Otherwise, the disc is filled with Dre discoveries, not all of whom are worth discovering; for example, Mel-Man's "Shittin' on the World" deserves flushing. But RBX's "Blunt Time," Sharief's "L.A.W. (Lyrical Assault Weapon)" and RC's "Sexy Dance" and "Fame" (yep, it's a reimagining of the Bowie-Lennon single) leave one looking forward to their next installments--so long as Dre is twiddling the controls, that is. The hip-hop and R&B offerings on Aftermath are certainly street-ready, but they avoid indulging in the most overworked of gangsta's elements. In short, they really do feel like the next stage--and even if they're not, Dre deserves props for presenting such a convincing argument in their favor.

Bush
Razorblade Suitcase
(Trauma/Interscope)

You've got to give the members of Bush credit: Their approximation of the Seattle sound on their debut, Sixteen Stone, was as carefully manufactured as Pamela Anderson's bustline, yet it was so uncannily accurate that it fooled millions of grungers-come-lately into making them honorary Washingtonians anyhow. (At an appearance by the band in Boulder, a young woman standing next to me squealed with surprise at the discovery that lead singer Gavin Rossdale is British.) Now Suitcase is meant to establish these mooks as something other than impressionists--but even the importation of producer Steve Albini, whose work on Nirvana's In Utero struck even Kurt Cobain as too corrosive, can't make the band credible. On the positive side of the ledger, Albini does manage to give Bush's dual guitars an edge: The notes played by Rossdale and Nigel Pulsford slice through "Insect Kin" as if they're serrated. But the songs that don't prompt the words to "Everything Zen" to zip across your cerebellum sound so much like "Glycerine" that you're prepared to hear Rossdale mispronounce their titles, too. (Too bad "Straight No Chaser" is built on words too elementary for even him to fumble.) As for the lyrics, they mean absolutely nothing--maybe less. The initial couplets in "Personal Holloway" ("Tune my weaker eye/Spit white/ Hold the world up all day/She's blue in the face again") not only offer compelling evidence that Rossdale is indeed the airhead his handlers insist he's not; they also indicate that he's offering up thematic obfuscation in a desperate attempt to prevent the rest of us from discovering his shortcomings. Only one line on the album rings true: In "Greedy Fly," Rossdale sings, "We are servants to our formulaic ways." You said a mouthful, pal.  

Johnny Cash
Unchained
(American)

American Recordings, from 1994, was successful at bringing the Man in Black back to life for a very basic reason: He was never dead. His music is so singular, so raw and so beautifully simple that it defies time; it will sound just as ancient (and just as contemporary) tomorrow as it did yesterday. Understanding this, American entrepreneur Rick Rubin made certain that Cash's comeback platter contained nothing superfluous. Voice and guitar were more than enough. This time around, though, Rubin has brought along a crew of famous people (including Tom Petty and most of his Heartbreakers, Lindsay Buckingham, Flea and Marty Stuart) to supplement the star of the show. It's an understandable, completely defensible decision--who wants to make the same record over again? However, it tends to leave Unchained feeling smoother and less iconic than its predecessor. For instance, "Kneeling Drunkard's Plea," a Carter Family ditty that dates back to the late Forties, is a spare, emotionally acute lament that Cash sings knowingly, but the tasteful arrangement, pleasant vocal harmonies and tidy playing dilute its power. In other words, it's nice--a little too nice. If the album doesn't have as much punch as one might wish, though, it remains a solid piece of work. Two of Cash's three compositions--"Country Boy" and "Mean Eyed Cat"--are spunky and unrepentant; his remake of the Dean Martin standard "Memories Are Made of This" is witty and nicely understated; his run-through of Beck's "Rowboat" is so authoritative that the nonsensical lyrics seem almost beside the point; and "I've Been Everywhere" plays off his persona in all the right ways. The number that works best is "Rusty Cage," a Soundgarden song that brings out Cash's nasty side. As guitars growl and drumbeats crack with more force than anywhere else on the CD, he declares, "When the dogs are looking for their bones/And it's raining icepicks on your steel shore/I'm gonna break my rusty cage and run" like a modern-day John Brown railing against the sins of the world--and the sins within himself. On this track, at least, he truly is unchained.

The Presidents of the United States of America
II
(Columbia)

You had to figure the Presidents were in for some critical revisionism when "Weird" Al Yankovic made a parody of their first hit single, "Lump," that sounded almost exactly like the original. (Come to think of it, Chris Ballew's voice is a lot like Al's, isn't it?) Sure enough, the rise of II has prompted every journalist with typing skills to declare that PUSA is a novelty band, was always a novelty band, and will continue to be a novelty band until Ballew and company call it quits and take day jobs in our economy's service sector. And frankly, some of the numbers here do little to disabuse doubters of their misconceptions: Witness "Froggie," a rock-and-roll remake of the Chuck Jones cartoon "One Froggy Evening," and "Bug City," in which Ballew declares, "Well, I happened to find me a buggy/Comin' out from under a rock in the grass/He got his bug luggage/No time to talk--he's walkin' fast." (The bonus track, in which a little kid giggles for a minute or so, sends the wrong message as well--unless the message was intended to land these guys a guest appearance on Sesame Street.) So is there a way out of this conundrum? Sure there is--the Presidents can become Cheap Trick. They're halfway there already: The first song, "Ladies and Gentlemen, Part I," expresses pretty much the same sentiments that the Tricksters did on "Hello There" back in the power-pop Seventies. In short, the Presidents are ready to rock, and when they do so (as on "Lunatic to Love," "Mach 5," "Supermodel," "Puffy Little Shoes" and the inevitable "Ladies and Gentlemen, Part II"), they're every bit as enchanting as they ever were. During these moments, they provide good times--very good times. And if that makes these guys a novelty band, then we need many more like them.  

Journey
Trial by Fire
(Columbia)

Boy, did this CD take me back. It took me back to a time when album covers commonly featured allegedly surreal imagery that practically shouted, "Take me seriously!" It took me back to a time when corporate rock ruled the airwaves, and the chances of hearing a song that felt real and honest and true were none and none. It took me back to a time when power ballads like "When You Love a Woman" (in which Steve Perry croaks, "There's a band of gold that shines... waiting... somewhere...oh!") caused sentimental housewives to burst into tears while applying a second coat of Mop & Glo. It took me back to a time when young men wearing shag haircuts, muscle T-shirts and lots of English Leather actually spent hours trying to make their guitar solos sound as moribund and lifeless as the ones played by Neal Schon on banalities like "If He Should Break Your Heart." Yeah, Trial by Fire transported me to another time and place, all right. Now may I please come back?

Ghostface Killah
Ironman
(Razor Sharp/Epic Street)

Those of you with tender sensibilities would be well-advised to steer clear of this package: On "Wildflower," the second track here, Ghostface delivers a litany of misogyny and abuse (e.g., "Yo, bitch, I fucked your friend/Yeah, you stink-ho") that will make folks with the old-fashioned notion that women are every bit as deserving of respect as men nauseated with ire. However, if you're adept at blocking out or ignoring verbal anti-intellectualism (as any thinking person who believes that hardcore rap is worth exploring must be), you'll find a lot to like on Ironman. Ghostface doesn't provide many of the peaks, though: In terms of his microphone skills, he's among the weaker tribesmen in the Wu Tang Clan. (He hits his peak on "The Soul Controller.") Fortunately, he's wise enough to surround himself with some of the finest lips in hip-hop--like Raekwon, whose unparalleled delivery graces about half of these tracks (including the impressive "260"), and Method Man, who rules over "Box in Hand." Better yet, RZA handles the sonics, demonstrating once again that he's as adept at creating vivid soundscapes as anyone in hip-hop right now; his touch keeps "The Faster Blade," "Assassination Day," "Daytona 500" and the rest interesting even when the Killah is talking shit. Just as important, he's not a one-trick pony: On "All That I Got Is You," a smooch track with Mary J. Blige that's supposed to wipe away the sexism that's gone before it, he wields a mock string section like the eclectic conductor he is. If you wish that RZA would put his skills at the service of someone more interested in seeking wisdom than is Ghostface Killah, you're not alone. Until that day, though, this will have to do.

Blind Melon
Nico
(Capitol)

Since an artist's premature death tends to virtually ensure an inflation of his reputation, it says something damning about Shannon Hoon, who left Blind Melon the hard way (on a slab) last year, that the members of the media haven't risen as one to declare him a tragic genius. He may have lucked into a massive hit single ("No Rain"), but his work as a whole was virtually indistinguishable from a thousand other hyper-rock screechers. Which makes Nico, scraped together from the few odds and ends he left behind, even less compelling than Blind Melon's previous albums. "John Sinclair (John Lennon)" and a cover of "The Pusher" are tolerable but hardly revelatory: They resemble the work of the Black Crowes--meaning they share common ground with every rock ditty ever written. But "Soup" (the namesake song of the Blind Melon album that was flopping when Hoon breathed his last) is pretty flavorless, "Soul One" is an extremely tepid Robert Plant rip, "Life Ain't So Shitty" (recorded in a hotel room) is a throwaway that should have been thrown away, and "Letters From a Porcupine" is actually a fragment left by Hoon on bandmate Christopher Thorn's answering machine. (If it had been me, I wouldn't have called back.) The surviving Melons are clearly trading in pathos here: This album is named for Hoon's young daughter. But the primary emotion I felt after listening to Nico was a strong desire to remove it from my disc player as soon as possible.

Various Artists
Beavis and Butt-head Do America: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
(Geffen)

If MTV sounded a little bit more like this soundtrack, it would be considerably more tolerable. Beavis creator Mike Judge has always had better taste in exploitation fare than the nimrods who program the channel, and his instincts serve him well here. He successfully cajoles good sport Isaac Hayes into satirizing himself on "Two Cool Guys (Theme From Beavis and Butt-head Do America)," then turns around and repeats the trick with Ozzy Osbourne (his offering, the faux-spooky "Walk on Water," was produced by, of all people, Moby) and Engelbert Humperdinck, whose "Lesbian Seagull" is unlikely to be featured during his next stand in Vegas. Elsewhere, the Red Hot Chili Peppers contribute "Love Rollercoaster," an Ohio Players cover that's their most purely enjoyable number in years; White Zombie ("Ratfinks, Suicide Tanks and Cannibal Girls") and Butthole Surfers ("The Lord Is a Monkey") prove to be kindred spirits; and LL Cool J ("Ain't Nobody") and Madd Head ("Pimp'n Ain't EZ") provide the white kids with some catchy rap. I could have done without the selections by No Doubt ("Snakes" is lame, although not as bad as the Gloria Estefan imitation the band's got on the radio now) and Rancid (snooze), but I'm not complaining. The minds of America's youth must be poisoned by something; this is not a bad choice.  

Marilyn Manson
Antichrist Superstar
(Nothing/Interscope)

To get the obvious out of the way right at the outset: Antichrist Superstar is not scary. Artistic ventures desperate to shock seldom do, and the folks who make up Marilyn Manson (they go by cute pseudonyms like Twiggy Ramirez and Madonna Wayne Gacy) are more desperate than most. Therefore, the most trenchant question that can be asked about this recording is, Are its attempts at outrageousness amusing? The answer will differ from individual to individual, but I found at least half the package seriously lacking in yuks. Part of the problem is co-producer Trent Reznor, whose dour presence is more in evidence here than on the act's 1994 debut, Portrait of an American Family. A number of songs, including "Irresponsible Hate Anthem," sound like Nine Inch Nails hand-me-downs. Lyricist Manson tries to make up for this shortcoming through conceptualization--always a surefire laugh generator in the field of rock and roll. He divides the full-length into three cycles with suitably pretentious subtitles ("The Heirophant," "Inauguration of the Worm" and "Disintegrator Rising") and lards the tunes themselves with lines that are sure to thrill youngsters whose folks won't let them cuss around the house (e.g., "There's no time to discriminate/Hate every motherfucker," from "The Beautiful People"). But while much of the music is hook-laden (a good thing, as any Alice Cooper booster will tell you), it's only intermittently goofy. As a result, a listener is occasionally left with the uncomfortable feeling that these guys actually believe the clap-trap they're merchandising--and what fun is that? The best sections of the long-player are those in which even Reznor can't prevent a bit of campiness from floating to the surface. Particularly of note are three glam-rock-oriented airs from Cycle II--"Deformography," in which the vocalists chant "You're such a dirty, dirty rock star, yeah" like secret T-Rex fans; "Wormboy," which crosses early David Bowie with mid-period Herman Munster; and "Mister Superstar," in which Manson declares, "Hey, hey, hey, Mr. Superman/I want to be your little girl." Of course, if Manson admitted that all his talk about insects and scabs and so forth was essentially a shtick, the combo might not be selling so well to prepubescents pissed off that the members of KISS were already in their forties by the time they were old enough to buy their own cassettes. But it would make his routines more enjoyable for the rest of us.

Joni Mitchell
Hits
(Reprise)
Joni Mitchell
Misses
(Reprise)

Something that's frequently overlooked by those of us who look upon the singer-songwriter movement of the early Seventies with suspicion is the fact that Mitchell, who's come to epitomize the era, was a worthy, innovative performer far craggier and unpredictable than the mopey Ivy Leaguers with guitars who picked up her breadcrumbs. Even at this distant date, most of the albums she made between the late Sixties and early Eighties (even idiosyncratic projects such as 1975's The Hissing of Summer Lawns) hold up quite well--and several (especially 1971's Blue, 1974's Court and Spark, 1976's Hejira and the 1980 live recording Shadows and Light) sound far better than that. So it's not exactly astonishing that these discs are always listenable and frequently moving. But because Mitchell was never a singles artist in the strictest sense, the packages (which are sold separately but conceived as opposite sides of the same coin) can't help but give an incomplete picture of her. Hits has some, including "Big Yellow Taxi," "Raised on Robbery," "Help Me" and "Free Man in Paris." In addition, Mitchell includes her versions of self-penned compositions best known in other versions: Her "Woodstock" (from 1970's Ladies of the Canyon) kicks the crap out of the smash by Crosby, Stills and Nash, while "The Circle Game" (also on Ladies) surpasses the Tom Rush rendition. But the rest--"Carey," "California," et al.--are more properly described as "favorites," and they work better in their original settings. For this reason, Hits is more an introduction to Mitchell's oeuvre than it is a summation of it. Misses, by contrast, is dominated by selections from albums that Mitchell feels got short shrift: 1985's Dog Eat Dog, 1988's Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm, 1991's Night Ride Home and 1994's Turbulent Indigo. These are songs by a mature artist, and they exude intelligence, depth and seriousness of purpose. But "Passion Play (When All the Slaves Are Free)," "The Beat of Black Wings" and many of the rest are considerably less vital than her earlier pieces. They draw upon her achievements without surpassing them--or even attempting to do so, actually. It's a pleasant sampler, and it demonstrates that she remains a composer deserving of respect. But the recordings next to these in the Mitchell bin are the ones that most effectively encapsulate her skills.  

The Artist Formerly Known as Prince
Emancipation
(NPG Records)

Chaos and Disorder, the last Prince CD to come out under the auspices of his much-hated deal with Warner Bros. Records, earned devastating notices from nearly everyone other than me. To yours truly, the disc was worthy of note thanks to its anger and, paradoxically, its tossed-off quality: Because Prince wasn't trying to make a masterpiece, the album exuded a lack of self-consciousness that came as a relief after the pretense and narcissism that infused several of his previous offerings. Well, surprise: With Emancipation, a three-CD set issued on Prince's own NPG label (and distributed by Capitol/ EMI), the self-consciousness is back with a vengeance. During the Artist's creative heyday, he was buzzing with so many ideas that virtually each platter he put out felt fresh and exciting. That's not the case here; the superior songs on Emancipation recall previous, better Prince constructs, while the weaker entries leave you shaking your head and wondering: Did he believe that sheer volume--36 tracks' worth--would compensate for a lack of imagination? The majority of the new ballads definitely suffer from the latter--and because the second CD moves at a slow tempo pretty much from beginning to end, it's torture to get through. (The most notable catastrophe on disc two is "Curious Child," an excursion into the land of Donovan so embarrassing that you're left wishing someone had been bold enough to talk the Purple One out of issuing it in the first place.) Lyrically, the opus is no advance, either. In addition to the usual sex chat (heard to laughable effect on the moronically titled "Mr. Happy"), Prince offers up love songs that revel in their own corniness ("Let's Have a Baby," "Friend, Lover, Sister, Mother/Wife") and cuts in which he complains boringly about the inequities of the record contract he's finally fulfilled. ("Slave" and "Face Down," both on disc three, are the worst offenders on this last score, but they're hardly the only ones.) Prince is too talented a performer to make this much music without a portion of it being good: Tracks that work on at least some level include the opener, "Jam of the Year," the funk throwdown "We Gets Up," the Giorgio Moroder-esque "New World" and the extremely catchy "Sleep Around." In fact, a patient listener should be able to find a dozen solid bits o' Prince scattered throughout these three discs; it's the baggage that's the problem. Take the title track: While it's nothing new musically, it sports a groovy horn chart and an exuberant vocal. But the words, in which the Artist celebrates the freedom he's fought to regain, stop any delight in its tracks. I can understand why Prince didn't like being told by Warner executives that he should wait a year or two between albums. But Emancipation argues that they were right. The man could use a good editor--and an introduction to reality.

Phish
Billy Breathes
(Elektra)

At a recent Phish concert, I finally came within spitting distance of understanding what it is about this band that gets its devotees so worked up--or at least I thought I did. For me, the keys were the players' eclecticism and their willingness to take their music into new and offbeat directions--to challenge their audiences with invigorating sounds and juxtapositions. But if you come to this album with the expectation of hearing something along these lines, you're sure to be disappointed. To put forth a comparison that would no doubt make these musicians cringe, Billy Breathes is Phish's American Beauty. The platter is dominated by succinct numbers that gently explore the roots of American folk music through a contemporary perspective. Lead vocalist/guitarist Trey Anastasio dominates the album, offering up strong, sweet melodies on tracks like "Free," "Talk" and "Waste," which includes an invitation sure to become a mantra for Phish-heads ("Come waste your time with me"). A few tunes veer away from this formula, including keyboardist Page McConnell's "Cars Trucks Buses" (a modest soul-jazz workout) and "Steep" (a Beach Boys-circa-Smile pop fragment). Several other efforts are of a more adventurous stripe. But even "Theme From the Bottom" and "Prince Caspian," in which Mike Gordon, Jon Fishman, Anastasio and McConnell give themselves the opportunity to stretch into regions they commonly visit in a live setting, are curiously muted, as if their makers were afraid to give jam-band haters too much ammunition with which to pepper them. As for producer Steve Lillywhite, whose trademark percussion thwack was used to stirring effect on albums by U2 and XTC during the late Seventies and early Eighties, he's a master of restraint here, keeping the echo button on the standard setting. Listening to the album from start to finish is an agreeable experience--and the more attention you pay, the more intriguing tangents you discover (like the Keith Jarrett touches that animate "Taste"). But in the end, I found myself thinking more about how the instrumentalists would alter the songs on stage than I did about the songs themselves. And that's not a blueprint for winning over those folks who continue to think tongue-kissing Benji would be more enjoyable than attending a Phish concert.  

Tool
NIMA
(Zoo)

At first these lads seem like graduates from the Henry Rollins School of Angry Young Men: As evidence, please note that they named themselves after a particularly utilitarian slang term for the male member and chose as the moniker for their latest recording a word many of their followers will pronounce "enema." But the majority of these fifteen screeds stand apart from the three-minutes-and-a-cloud-of-dust approach favored by other Children of Punk Rock. A more apt comparison would be, of all acts, Rush. Like Canada's gift to art rockers everywhere, vocalist Maynard James Keenan, guitarist Adam Jones, drummer Danny Carey and new bassist Justin Chancellor seem congenitally incapable of starting a song at its beginning. Rather, they prefer to indulge in mood-enhancing noodling of the sort that introduces "Eulogy." (Later, a passage in which a pent-up crank leaves a ninety-second insult on an answering machine is so melodramatic a lead-in to the subtly titled "Hooker With a Penis" that it's been given its own handle, "Message to Harry Manback.") But at least Tool's material isn't burdened with lyrics about castles in the sky, unicorns or crying jesters, as were the fruits of the Seventies rock-meets-classical movement. While Keenan's words tend to be overwhelmed by post-metal guitar riffing when he's in his elfin mode, those moments that he builds to a shout (as he inevitably does) are suitably angst-ridden: Check his "Pushin' me!/Shovin' me!/Cheat on me!" bellowing during "Pushit." His hostility, as well as the clotted resentment that oozes out of his bandmates on a regular basis, keeps NIMA from being as pompous as most albums whose cuts average well over five minutes in length. But be warned: For a band that includes a work called "Die Eier Von Satan," this quartet takes itself very, very seriously. Geddy Lee would understand.

Babyface
The Day
(Epic)

Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds is the preeminent producer of the moment, having engineered hits for artists as disparate as Whitney Houston and Eric Clapton. But whereas previous dial-twisters honored with this mantle (like David Foster, the man who almost killed Ben Vereen) have generally been shlockmeisters of a particularly virulent sort, Babyface is something a bit more laudable: a professional. His songs are classically constructed, melodically impeccable and lyrically accessible. He focuses on that most universal of topics--love--in as universal a manner as possible. You won't hear any that-bitch-done-me-wrong tunes from this guy: The closest he comes to exploring an abusive relationship is "How Come, How Long," a track (featuring Stevie Wonder) in which he laments the fact that someone else did a good woman wrong. Elsewhere, he's gushingly romantic: In "Seven Seas," he bursts into tears when thinking about how much he cherishes the object of his adoration, while "All Day Thinkin'" finds him delivering sonnets like an R&B Shakespeare: "Your sexuality, it captures me/And blows me away/That I must think of thee at least a thousand/A thousand times a day." It goes without saying that Babyface's approach is willfully, relentlessly conservative: "Simple Days," one of his few trips out from beneath the makeout-music umbrella, is an exercise in nostalgia for an era when he "went to public schools/And followed public rules." As a result, The Day is utterly bereft of the unanticipated. Every rough spot is leveled, every note is precisely on pitch, and every guest star--from LL Cool J to (shudder) Kenny G--is kept on a short leash. This anal-retentive attention to detail ensures that the disc drifts by harmlessly enough, and on those occasions when you can will yourself to closely observe the pieces, you're apt to come away with an appreciation for Babyface's delicate, likable lilt and his indisputable mastery of the recording studio. But at other times, The Day seems like the most carefully conceived wallpaper of all time.  

Sheryl Crow
Sheryl Crow
(A&M)

On this self-titled disc, Crow does her best to prove that she's not Linda Ronstadt--an attractive gal with a big voice whose every move is carefully choreographed by string-pullers behind the scenes. She's banished David Baerwald (who gave her debut, Tuesday Night Music Club, at least a modicum of heft), and while three ditties were co-written by Tuesday vet Bill Bottrell, he's been shoved onto the shelf, too. Moreover, she's written lyrics that read like achingly earnest pleas for respect: Upon hearing the lines, "It's buried in the countryside/It's exploding in the shells of night/It's everywhere a baby cries/Freedom" (from "Redemption Day"), you half expect Tracy Chapman to order this makeup-wearing white girl off her turf. That said, Crow is no dolt. While hardly an original thinker, she's got a good sense of what to steal; "Hard to Make a Stand," for example, manages the neat trick of ripping off Lou Reed and the Rolling Stones in the same song. She's also enough of a modernist to have employed Tchad Blake to give the album's mix a comparatively quirky twirl. And despite her declaration of independence, she doesn't shy away from accepting the assistance of numerous worthy collaborators, including Mitchell Froom, Jim Keltner, Neil Finn and Steve Berlin. In the end, Sheryl Crow winds up seeming neither as retro nor as dumb as the vocalist's detractors might wish. Still, you get the feeling that "okay" is as good as Crow is going to get. If that meets your requirements, belly up to the bar. If not, there are plenty of singer-songwriters out there with a hell of a lot more to offer.

Van Halen
Best of: Volume I
(Warner Bros.)

I come not to bury David Lee Roth but to praise him. He may be tough to take in large doses, but he's got a sense of humor (a rarity in this genre), and he's not embarrassed at the thought of making an ass out of himself (an even scarcer commodity). Sure, Eddie Van Halen's flying fingers helped make the first six Van Halen recordings go, but Roth made them entertaining: "And the Cradle Will Rock..." (from 1980's Women and Children First) is a pretty good tune in and of itself, but the moment at which the music drops out and Roth asks, "Have you seen Junior's grades?" like a heavy-metal Ward Cleaver is what sticks in your mind. Which is why Sammy Hagar's phony, passionless scream and his generic delivery of the line "Here it comes/That funny feeling again" (from 1986's "Why Can't This Be Love") lets you know that the album's next section will be a stone drag. Hagar has always been a hack, and he proves it each time he opens his mouth. His anonymous yelping helped produce hits, sure, but it also allowed bandmates Eddie, Alex and Michael to devolve into mere craftsmen--players who were instrumentally skilled but more than a little bit dull. (It was no surprise when "Right Now" became a successful television commercial; it sounded like one to begin with.) The last Hagar recording here--"Humans Being," cut this year--is, if anything, even lamer than the material that preceded it: No wonder the Van Halen boys gave him the sack. And while neither of the numbers cut with Roth are any great shakes, at least they display signs of life: "Can't Get This Stuff No More" finds Roth boasting about dating a supermodel with such buffoonish sincerity (he hasn't had too many pairings like this lately, I'll bet) that it's rather charming. It's also Roth's last Van Halen hurrah; after announcing a new tour with their original lineup, Eddie and the boys showed Dave the door and named some poofter from Extreme as their new lead vocalist. That announcement implies that the two Best cuts on which Roth appears were made merely to sell copies of the album, an enterprise that already smacks of greed. (The package includes three of the first four songs from the act's 1978 debut but excludes the smash version of the Kinks' "You Really Got Me." Since the cover-dominated Diver Down platter is the only Van Halen studio album not represented here, it suggests that the boys didn't want royalties going to anyone other than themselves.) David may not get the last laugh--he's probably hanging out near Howard Stern's studio right now, hoping that someone takes mercy on him. But at least he has the satisfaction of knowing that Hagar's in the same boat--and that no one cares.  


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