Stay the Same
If you needed any more proof that musical cycles are swirling faster than ever before, look no further than Joey (formerly Joe) McIntyre. This scrumpdillyicious hunkaroo was part of New Kids on the Block, which captivated the nearly pubescent crowd between 1988 and 1990. After a laughable attempt to sneak back into the good graces of a demographic that had outgrown them by changing their name to NKOTB, the Kids set sail for the Land of Impossible Trivia Questions, sans any apparent prospects of returning. But wait: Like a particularly ripe zit, a new teen craze recently erupted on the face of popular music, and Our Man Joey, who's 26, was still young and perfect enough to cash in. With this album, he has. Betcha he's glad he didn't give up the skin conditioner and Nautilus machines during the lean years, or else his only chance at gainful employment would have vanished when the new version of Fantasy Island got canceled.
What about the music? Well, "Couldn't Stay Away From Your Love" is reminiscent of the Backstreet Boys' theme song (talk about the snake eating its own tail), the lachrymose Top Ten single "Stay the Same" made my inner-eight-year-old girl burst into tears, and "Because of You" comes across like a secret love song aimed at co-writer Donny "Brother of Marky-Mark" Wahlberg: "When I think of the past few years, and what I've been through, I know I couldn't have done it without you," McIntyre intones, adding, "My life is like a resurrection!" But much more important is the poster-sized photo of the Man himself--hair tousled, feet bare, the V-neck of his sweater dipping low enough to tempt admirers to fantasize about the shapely pectorals beneath it. Whew. I need a cold beverage.
Warning: Even if Joey disappears at year's end, he'll be back by 2005. And he'll still look hot.
John Brown's Body
There are two very good reasons why John Brown's Body would seem to have more riding against it than the average roots-reggae band: First, the players are from Boston, not Kingston; and second, they're white. Yet the crew has managed to sign with Shanachie, a label that earns high marks from reggae purists, and its debut, Among Them, is a solid, conscious exploration of the genre's sound circa the late Seventies.
As was standard of reggae in that era, the music on the new disc is fervently political. However, the group gives many of its tunes an interesting twist by delivering lyrics about black liberation from a Caucasian point of view. (Their moniker makes reference to John Brown, a white abolitionist who died a famous death prior to the start of the Civil War.) "This Is Not the End" is just one of the tracks here that benefits from this unlikely perspective. But that doesn't mean the band is incapable of tackling subjects from other angles. Like their Rastafarian role models, they whip up Old Testament righteousness on numbers of hope ("Among Them"), praise ("Love Is a Fire") or celebration ("Play On").
Throughout, the music is as important as the messages. An unshakably positive, forward-thinking vibe jumps out of the floating harmonies heard on "Thank You, Oh Lord" and the soft, spiritual lilt that distinguishes "Rainbow Chariot" and "Play On." But the production is the disc's most immediately engaging feature. The CD is shot through with spooky melodica riffs and punchy brass lines (even a flYgelhorn is represented), and its echo-rich, reverb-drenched mix creates a heady, disorienting effect.
Of course, all of these attributes would come to naught if the singing sucked. But vocalist Kevin Kinsella neatly sidesteps the quandary that plagues all white reggae bands--whether or not to cop a fake Jamaican accent--by opting for his natural, reedy tenor. This wise choice is one of many. Among Them doesn't break any new ground, but its attention to form and musical spirit make it a great listen.
The Salesman and Bernadette
Although Chesnutt creates a jagged, super-soulful kind of alt-country sound, such facile labels actually do him an injustice. The Salesman and Bernadette, the sixth album by this wheelchair-using singer-songwriter from Athens, Georgia, only reinforces his more relevant status as a lyricist possessed of keen insight and rare expressiveness.
Recorded with Nashville's Lambchop, Salesman is a general store filled with musical rewards: unrequited rock-and-roll guitars, up-tempo brass sections, crying lap-steel passages, playful organ sounds ready-made for dirges, and a few slabs of musique concrete attributed as "atmosphere." Chesnutt croons as we've rarely heard him before on "Maiden," and "Old Hotel" features a multi-tracked, Leonard Cohen-like deadpan. But the disc's text is even more vital. To his ragged eloquence, Chesnutt ties tragic threads for listeners to hang by that have more in common with the work of poets from the American South than they do with that of musicians in general. The connection is more natural than it might initially seem: Robert Penn Warren, whose aristocratic drawl relied on clever intonation as strongly as Chesnutt's voice does, drew inspiration from both romantic verse and Appalachian folk ballads.
Using first- or second-person forms and omniscient narrators that he tastefully peppers with fifty-cent words like "Faustian" and "catharsis," Chesnutt quickly sets up Salesman's impressionistic plot, which revolves around the boom and bust of personal fortune. During "Square Room," Chesnutt gloomily recalls, "Last night I nearly killed myself chasing rum with rum/There were crows flying all around my head/And I sure caught and ate me some." The sparse, gut-wrenching "Parade" is equally impressive. With as minimal a sound as a fourteen-person ensemble can make, Chesnutt ruminates, "Weather, barometric pressure push me to the ground/My stomach is growling/I always heard this was such a festive town/ But everybody over ten years old is frowning."
Thanks to his musicality, Chesnutt has been assigned strange Southern bedfellows ranging from Otis Redding to Michael Stipe. But his peers just might be in the Pulitzer Prize winner's circle.