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.

It doesn't hurt that Johnson's back-up musicians take on whatever the maestro dishes out and do a masterly job throughout. Whether this CD will show up in area stores is anybody's guess, or, more exactly, any distributor's guess; you may have to shop through the mail. If you don't, you might be waiting the rest of your life for a package like this. Send a check for $15 to 4411 20th Road, North Arlington, VA 22207.

Sebadoh
Bakesale
(Sub Pop)

For those of you still in the dark about Sebadoh, it's the brain child of Lou Barlow, who was kicked out of Dinosaur Jr. ages ago. Bakesale is what the current Dinosaur Jr. and Superchunk might sound like if they had singers who didn't grate on your nerves after a handful of songs.

This album de-emphasizes Sebadoh's once-prominent acoustic side, opening with a triple blast of breathless rock: "Licence to Confuse," "Careful" and "Magnet Coil." Just as the Velvet Underground once used furious strumming to approximate a heroin rush, Sebadoh plays "Chopsticks" as if it were "Kashmir" speeded up, until it sounds just like "Dramamine." "I need the Dramamine to be as crazy as your scene," Barlow sings, but all you'll need are your ears to follow this tray of goodies. Uncommonly good.

Anita Baker
Rhythm of Love
(Elektra)

Kick off your shoes and share yet another Dubonnet moment with this silky voiced siren. Five albums down the road, Anita Baker is incapable of turning in a less-than-spectacular vocal performance. On the other hand, her very consistency is what makes her albums interchangeable and ultimately unsatisfying as anything but background music for a dinner party. If only she would ditch the urban-adult-contemporary keyboard sounds more often, as she does on "Sometimes I Wonder Why"--which features an acoustic piano, standup bass, real strings and real drums--we'd get something that transcends the limited expectations of a Luther Vandross album.

Nathan Cavaleri Band
Nathan
(MJJ Music)

It's not nice to pick on little kids, but when kids record albums and labels send 'em in to be reviewed, I guess it's okay. Nathan is an 11-year-old Australian boy who is creating a small stir for his skills as a blues guitarist. Yes, he can play some blues guitar, damn well for a preteen, but in the grand scheme of things, it's doubtful he'd have ever been signed if he were a few decades older. We're talking predictable licks, and while everything sounds all right, this is Bud Light commercial soundtrack fodder at best. Give the kid a few years; maybe by the time he's 17 or so, things'll sound a bit better.

Big Maybelle
The Complete Okeh Sessions 1952-55
(Legacy)

Whoever gave Mabel Louise Smith her stage name wasn't toying with irony; it's said the lady tipped the scales at 250 pounds.

But body weight wasn't the only big thing about Maybelle. The R&B/soul singer had a voice that came wailing from somewhere deep in that chest cavity--capable of rattling highball glasses one minute and converting sinners the next.

A product of the Sanctified Church in Jackson, Tennessee, Maybelle eventually wound up singing wholly secular tunes in New York City, but she never left behind the religiously passionate delivery she picked up down South. After a string of blues-shouting gigs at one-nighters across the country, and a stint with jump legend Tiny Bradshaw, Maybelle recorded 26 sides for the Gotham-based Okeh label. Part of Legacy's ongoing rerelease of its rhythm and soul collection--check out the reissues of Cab Calloway, Chuck Willis and the O'Jays for more painless education--Maybelle's music is as pure an example of small-band R&B as you're likely to find.

Surrounded by honking tenor saxes and pumping rhythm sections, the tunes she laid down for the great Fifties R&B label are sassy, teasing, accusing, joyous examples of a belter in her prime. You haven't heard most of these titles--"Gabbin' Blues," "Hair Dressin' Women," "Jimmy Mule," "Ain't to Be Played With"--and Maybelle's name won't come to mind along with those of Ella or Billie, but don't let that stop you from slapping this one in the CD player. Be big about it; Maybelle certainly was.

Robbie Robertson & the Red Road Ensemble
Music for The Native Americans
(Capitol)

Despite what reservations (pardon the pun) you might have about Robbie Robertson since he turned into the Man Who Would Be Peter Gabriel, this album merits your attention. Essentially a documentary soundtrack, it has a unity of scope that Robertson's solo albums have sorely lacked. Interspersed with fine Robertson originals like "Skinwalking" and "Ghost Dance" are evocative chants performed by Aztec, Navajo, Cherokee and French Canadian tribes. So what if this album takes almost an hour to say what the Raiders' "Indian Reservation" said in three minutes? Consider this the scenic route, and an arresting one at that.--Serene Dominic

Lynyrd Skynyrd
Endangered Species (Capricorn)
You've got to wonder why Gary Rossington and company even bothered working up an acoustic set of old Skynyrd favorites; after all, MTV Unplugged is more likely to book Karen Ann Quinlan before these retro-rednecks. Maybe the 'nyrds just haven't been paying their electric bills. If there's somebody somewhere who wants to hear Johnny Van Zant sing "Heartbreak Hotel," somebody ought to take him out in the yard and just get it over with. And take these old liver-spotted owls with you.

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