Music News

MUSIC BY FAMOUS PEOPLE

part 1 of 2
The Beatles
Anthology, Volume 1
(Capitol/Apple)

Anyone who expects this to be filled with fresh revelations is hereby advised to travel to India, track down the nearest maharishi and meditate until the delusion passes. To put it another way, the Beatles are arguably the most heavily bootlegged artists in pop-music history, and while some of the material collected here (chiefly the earliest stuff) may come as a surprise to Fab Four fanatics, a lot of it won't. And fanatics are whom Anthology will appeal to most: The average listener is unlikely to care that the version of "Please Please Me" included here lacks the harmonica accompaniment of the previously available take and features a slightly altered drum track. Moreover, the "group's" recasting of "Free As a Bird"--a 1977 John Lennon discard to which Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr added their bits nearly two decades later--won't change any lives. It's listenable, but even with the Herculean efforts of producer and onetime Beatles imitator Jeff Lynne and additional lyrics by McCartney, whose new words tug vigorously at the nostalgia string, the track still sounds like it wouldn't have made the final cut for Let It Be. But since we're talking about the Beatles (and not, say, Herman's Hermits), these problems aren't fatal. To put it mildly, this was a worthy band--so worthy that even their demos, live tapes and random throwaways (like the germinal instrumentals "Cayenne" and "Cry for a Shadow") are of considerable appeal for the most basic reason: They sound good. The spoken-word interludes, included in an effort to replicate Anthology's television twin, can sometimes be obtrusive if you're wanting to listen to this set rather than to study it. But with the exception of "Bird," the surviving boys have resisted updating their rareties; they simply let it be. Of course, they've also made an order form for band merchandise a part of the Anthology liner notes; the Beatles mini-backpack, made of hemp and tinted forest green, is only $40. As the Rutles put it so well, "All you need is cash."

Red Hot Chili Peppers
One Hot Minute
(Warner Bros.)

The Peppers are a fine band that broke through at the wrong time. Their early albums, though erratic and sometimes clogged with extraneous flotsam, were entertaining and quite promising--1985's Freaky Styley, produced by George Clinton, especially so. By contrast, 1991's Blood Sugar Sex Magik was easily the Peppers' worst, a capricious recording in which the funk seemed forced, the rock wasn't raucous enough and Anthony Kiedis's attempts at confessional poetry called to mind Janis Ian on a bad day. But because it was also a commercial breakthrough, the disc has had the unfortunate effect of convincing the players that they were moving in the right direction. It's no surprise, then, that we get more of the same on Minute. Rick Rubin's production isn't half as biting as on Blood, but neither are the scraps he has to work on, which are more calculatedly adult (read: "bland") than ever before. "Warped" and "One Big Mob" have their loud moments, but they also contain lyrical segments meant to showcase the instrumentalists' newfound maturity; instead, they bring the proceedings to a screeching halt. The grooves are equally flaccid--"Aeroplane" and "My Friends" never rise above lukewarm pop, and "Walkabout" couldn't get someone suffering from Saint Vitus' dance on his feet. Part of the blame can be ascribed to new guitarist Dave Navarro (the Jane's Addiction veteran), who finds it difficult to sharpen his riffs to their essences, as funk guitarists must. But the real culprit is Kiedis, who's so in thrall to his own junior-high emotions that he can't even use the title "Tearjerker" ironically; he actually seems to believe that Hallmark-reject lines like "Lows are the way/So hard to stay/Guess now you know/I love you so" will cause listeners to puddle up. The disc has a few highlights--"Shallow Be Thy Game" sounds all right--but not nearly enough. One hot minute in an hour's worth of music isn't a very impressive percentage.

Bruce Springsteen
The Ghost of Tom Joad
(Columbia)

Didn't like Nebraska much. Back in 1982, when journalists were gushing over it, I resisted mightily. It was too self-conscious for me, too obviously an effort to use primitivism to achieve a highbrow literary end. And the music? Well, the music seemed tacked on, unnecessary, one grim strum indistinguishable from the next. I wasn't in love with Reaganism either, but it seemed to me that there were more entertaining, less pretentious ways of attacking it. So why am I more favorably inclined toward Joad, which might as well be called Nebraska, Part Two? For one thing, the relative polish of the production and the inclusion of backup musicians on about half the tracks indicate that Springsteen '95 isn't so lost in a pose; he's revealing more of himself rather than merely pretending to be Woody Guthrie. There's also alluring detail and a reportorial air in tunes such as "Sinaloa Cowboys"--about two Mexican brothers running a methamphetamine lab in the middle of nowhere--that proves Springsteen isn't engaging in dilettantism. He's so committed to his subjects that he doesn't mind getting his hands dirty. As before, a lot of the ditties blend into each other, in part because of the monotony of tone, in part because many of these tales of desperation are shaped by comparable narrative devices and wind up in pretty much the same place: hell. But this time around, Springsteen offers a few careful embellishments, with stirring results. "Youngstown," in particular, benefits from this loosening-up; Marty Rifkin's pedal-steel guitar and Soosie Tyrell's violin swathe this portrait of a dying Ohio industrial town in an atmosphere that's rich and bona fide. Just as important, the songs are generally stronger. "Highway 29" is a noir straight out of James M. Cain--I'd love to see the movie version--while the concluding "My Best Was Never Good Enough" bears some of the songwriter's flintiest lines ever: "Now life's like a box of chocolates/You never know what you're going to get/Stupid is as stupid does/And all the rest of that shit/Come on, pretty baby, call my bluff/'Cause for you my best was never enough." Springsteen delivers these words gently--he doesn't rub your nose in them--but underneath them is an anger we haven't heard from him in a long, long while. Not as many people are listening to him now as they once were, but that hardly matters. Because Springsteen is trying again.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts