RECORDINGS

Liz Phair
Whip Smart
(Matador)

Just because her first album was Exile on Main Street with a Tampax doesn't mean this is Phair's Goat's Head douche. If anything, "Super Nova" and "May Queen" are what "Jumpin' Jack Flash" might have sounded like if Lesley Gore had been singing instead of Mick. Phair's melodies can sound like three different songs strung together without causing your attention to wander. Witness "Nashville," which sounds like nothing you'll ever hear on Music Row. The title cut is an irresistible combination of township jive and slightly obtuse lyrics like "I'm gonna tell my son to be a prophet of mistakes." Liz Phair moves to the head of the class with this sophomore effort. Easily one of this year's best.

Tony Bennett
MTV Unplugged
(Columbia)

It's not like master crooner Bennett had to go to any great lengths to disengage any plugs for this performance; his microphone was fully electrified throughout the set. But who wants to nit-pick? The man's voice has only become richer with time, and it seems somehow proper that the MTV generation should give him his due before he falls into the nebulous world of forgotten lyrics and missed notes that Mr. Sinatra now calls home.

What the hell. It's time the kids heard some real singing, and ol' Tone gives it to 'em with both barrels. Backed by the Ralph Sharon Trio, an ultracapable bunch of saloon-jazz pros, Bennett brings to vivid life standards like "Old Devil Moon," "Body and Soul" and a transcendent take on "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" that shows the singer has lost none of his sensitivity or panache.

And a couple of the hip voices of today showed up at the taping to pay homage. k.d. lang spreads her pipes thick and lovely, dueting on "Moonglow," and Elvis Costello, the closest thing the rock generation has to a true vocal stylist, takes on Tony in "They Can't Take That Away From Me."

To many MTV viewers, Bennett's music may be the stuff of cocktail lounges and "music of your life" stations. Now they know differently.

Peter Criss
Criss Cat #1
(Tony Nicole Tony)

Remember when the Star printed a story that Criss had squandered his Kiss millions and become a drug-crazed freak living under the Santa Monica pier? Some homeless guy got a free meal or two out of all the confusion, which is more than this litter box full of mildewy cat droppings deserves.

Rock's most pathetic loser drummer since Pete Best, Criss chronicles his 15 minutes of post-Kiss tabloid fame in "Bat Attitude." Despite Criss' having lived through this rich experience, this song is bereft of any real insight ("It doesn't matter at all, until it happens to you"). More telling is that he steals its first three lines from Wings' "Picasso's Last Words." Bad kitty!

Maybe Criss is better off remaining vague than showing us what a jerk the man behind the cat really is. First, he remakes "Beth" ("Me and the boys will be playing all night"), then he rewrites "Beth" and names it "Good Times" ("I gotta play what I play even if it takes my dyin' behind my drums"). Both songs reveal that Criss' two marriages went cat-put because he was a little too involved with his career. Likewise, the press release refers to "Blue Moon Over Brooklyn" as "a haunting ballad written the night [Criss'] mother died." Wotta rotten kid--thinking up insensitive songs like this while his mama's croaking ("Why she had to leave this place behind, knowing that we'd all be hurt")!

It doesn't matter that his old Kiss cousin Ace Frehley is given second billing, since the CD doesn't list what songs Frehley plays on, and he's hardly Eric Clapton, anyway. Any album that starts out with the premise that it's gotta be as good as the original Kiss is already operating at a severe disadvantage. Bad as that band was, this Love Gun shoots nothing but blanks.

Kevin Johnson
The Rest of Your Life
(Sam)

Chances are, you have no idea who Kevin Johnson is. And the evil, unfair music business being what it is, you may never find out. But that'll be your loss; Johnson has just released a little, glowing gem of an album that shines brightly among the piles of independently produced muck that slide across a reviewer's desk. (Of course, there's plenty of major-label muck sliding around, too, but that's another story.)

An Arkansas transplant who now resides in Arlington, Virginia, Johnson has a full, tenor voice with its roots and nuances in country. The real attraction, however, is his songwriting. Judging from the eclectic mix of genres represented, it's a safe bet that the man has one hell of a record collection--with an accent on pop--and applies himself to it with both ears.

From the Marshall Crenshaw-style, soaring back-up harmonies of "She Turns Me On" to the John Hiatt-inflected "Motel Six" to the bossa nova beat of "Leave Me Tender" (it takes more than just a good voice to take on the subtleties of a gorgeous tune like this; it takes balls!), Johnson proves himself worthy. The soft, mood-inducing "Wouldn't Be Easy" by Scott McKnight, co-writer on "Tender," is a lovely kick, complete with accordion intro and noodling lap steel.

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