Recordings

The Smithereens
Attack of the Smithereens
(Capitol)

The same day Capitol issued its much-ballyhooed first installment of The Beatles Anthology, it also put out a cache of rare, unreleased Smithereens recordings. But unlike Anthology, which has the Beatles paying tribute to rock pioneers with covers of Chuck Berry, and the Coasters, Attack of the Smithereens finds the band's New Jersey sons actually jamming with some of their boyhood heroes, including the Kinks, the Beau Brummels and Otis Blackwell. The band also performed on the second installment of MTV Unplugged before you-know-what became such a dirty word, and Attack features the group backing up Graham Parker as he rips into a blistering acoustic version of the Smithereens hit "Behind the Wall of Sleep."

It's not every band that has a tape of its very first live show. The Smithereens do, and it captures the fledgling group slaying "Girl Don't Tell Me" in a Hillside, New Jersey, bar with no monitors. Leaping from that modest start to a recording of the band jamming with a buoyant Ray and Dave Davies live on "You Really Got Me," Attack of the Smithereens is proof irrefutable that (ugh, I'm going to quote Jim Steinman) rock 'n' roll dreams do come true (pass the smelling salts--I feel woozy).

Besides showcasing a humorous side of the band usually not found on its regular releases--such as a strip-club rendition of "A Girl Like You" and silly covers of "Something Stupid" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"--this set's unreleased, low-fi and four-track recordings bring the Smithereens technologically and sonically closer to the beloved '60s garage bands they grew up emulating. Included here is a "Time and Time Again" demo that wouldn't have sounded out of place on Nuggets, and a grungier-than-grunge early pass at "Blood and Roses" (recorded in singer/guitarist Pat DiNizio's father's basement on a boom box) that cuts the official version to ribbons. Makes you kinda wish the Smithereens would do a whole album on a boom box next time out, and give Guided By Voices a run for the money.--Serene Dominic

Down
Nola
(Elektra)

This disc sounds like its creators--Pantera's Phillip Anselmo and Corrosion of Conformity's Pepper Keenan--composed it while staring out the rain-streaked windows of a funeral parlor. It would take a pharmacyload of antidepressants to perk up Nola's dismal mood. "Losing All" nails the tone: "My wrists are slit/I'm losing all/Gun at my head/I'm losing all."

Gratuitous morbidity? Sounds like it--otherwise, why are Anselmo and Keenan still suffering through their stardom? Not to say that songs such as "Losing All" make Nola a total loss. The album (whose title stands for New Orleans, Louisiana, the two metal men's hometown) rocks like granite: hard and sharp. The drums, though, often fall slightly behind the beat, creating a laid-back feel underneath the frenzy. In fact, the ominous instrumental "Pray for the Locust" and the bleak, watery soundscape of "Jail" sound eerily like lost Sabbath tracks. Other cuts, such as the opener, "Temptation's Wings," and "Eyes of the South," with its insistent shuffle, conjure the complex, stop-start rhythms of Soundgarden.

Anselmo and Keenan have said their studio side project may eventually ferment--or, rather, decompose--into a self-styled live unit. In the meantime, the duo has at least cracked the collaborative code for recording tough, no-chaser metal.--Leigh Silverman

Tracy Chapman
New Beginning
(Elektra)

Whether Tracy Chapman's latest CD, her fourth, lives up to the promise of its title remains to be seen. Or, rather, heard. And that's where its problems begin. After exploding out of a modest Boston-area folkie scene with her self-titled debut, which produced the hit "Fast Car" and went on to sell more than ten million copies, Chapman seemed poised to conquer the genre of message music. Her understated style, bolstered by powerful melodies and brutally honest lyrics, opened the door for the wave of female singer/songwriters that are all the rage today. But what was once her strength--low-key sincerity--has been twisted into a glaring weakness.

On New Beginnings, Chapman pours her little heart out, but the listener only gets truckloads of heartache. "At This Point in My Life" laments that "I've done so many things wrong, I don't know if I can do right." "Give Me One Reason" contains the caveat "I don't want no one to squeeze me/They might take away my life." Even the title track, with its promising premise, opens with the admonition "The whole world's broke, and it ain't worth fixing." Ouch.

"Cold Feet," for one last example, is about a poor kid with said feet who grows up to be a hard worker and marries a woman who'll keep him warm at night, only to do a crime so he can offer her the world. Guess what? He gets killed. Come on, already, Trace--have a couple of hot dogs and a root-beer Slurpee once in a while. Chapman's sentiments are in the right place, and her distinctive, braying style properly lacks the sheen of a buffed-up studio phony. But such single-minded wretchedness quickly collapses under its own lofty weight.--Michelle Tardif

 
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