Recordings

The Refreshments
Fizzy, Fuzzy, Big & Buzzy
(Mercury)

There's nothing like success to bring out the muttering bastards. Instead of celebrating this ubiquitous Tempe bar band's major-label debut on Mercury, outspoken members and fans of less-fortunate local acts have taken to branding the three-year-old quartet's sudden success as grossly undeserved.

The knock against the Refreshments centers on the band's considerable ASU fan base, which includes a heavy following among members of the university's Greek system (read: beer-happy Kens and Barbs who just totally love those peppy, major-key ditties). Hence the term "Refratments," so often employed as the rhetorical launch pad for another round of "can't believe it/don't deserve it" Tempe bar chat.

Granted, the Refreshments don't pack the kind of heat that's likely to overwhelm jaded indie rebels too busy playing their Minutemen recordings backward to care anyway. But just because sorority chicks can shake their hips and hair to the beat doesn't mean the Refreshments suck.

Far from it.
On Fizzy, Fuzzy, Big & Buzzy, the Refreshments kick out quality, up-tempo fare that combines wry lyrics with what's become vogue to term "Southwestern jangle pop." While Brian Blush's six-string work doesn't necessarily deserve to represent an entire region, his sound resonates with a Nashville-in-exile twang.

Several of the songs on this album resemble Cracker in theme, structure and vocal inflection, except the Refreshments replace Cracker's neurotic edge with incorrigibly pleasant melodies. The best cut here is also the one garnering early radio play; "Banditos" is a clever bit of storytelling that somehow incorporates pistols, pesos and Jean-Luc Picard under its crackling pop umbrella. And "Mexico," a slower number that explores the south-of-the-border ennui of a lonesome loser, would make Jimmy Buffett proud. The Refreshments sound self-conscious presenting "another song about Mexico," but by the time it's over, you feel like cracking a Corona (sans lime, gringo).

The Refreshments got their break after the December 1994 release of Wheelie and a subsequent run of tight gigs with Dead Hot Workshop that helped land the band a slot in several ASCAP talent showcases and a spot at SXSW '95 in Austin, Texas. Early Refreshments shows were more sketch comedy than rock concert, but after Wheelie, the band got a bit more serious, and cute gimmicks like passing out Funyuns and chocolate milk to the audience took a much-needed back seat to the music. The band hasn't totally lost its taste for yuks, however--FFB&B's inside art has the men of the Refreshments sporting giant sombreros and mariachi costumes. To their credit, the outfits look pretty good, even if they don't exactly match the musicians' ratty Chuck Taylors.

A different shot of the band on the CD jewel's backside yields more insight into the music within. Grouped under the sun-yellowed sign of an old restaurant advertising "live music" along what looks like a stretch of Route 66, the foursome is trying to hitch a ride with no cars in sight. The nostalgic feel of the image recalls a time--perhaps mythical--when people could hit the open road without fear of getting picked up by Jeffrey Dahmer's hungry chocolate-factory helpmate. It's this naive sense of optimism and fearless exploration of exciting, but hardly dangerous, terrain that imbue FFB&B's best songs with a charisma that's tough to resist, even if feedback and anger are parts of your regular diet.

Call it as you hear it, but know this: Frat following or not, the Refreshments are no overnight sensation. The band's members have honed their individual chops for years in these parts. Whether the Refreshments become the first Tempe pop outfit to claim the title of "the next Gin Blossoms" obviously remains to be seen, but at least one Valley club owner is banking the band will bust out. Electric Ballroom owner David Seven recently made a $1,000 bet with a music-industry heavy that Fizzy, Fuzzy, Big & Buzzy will be certified gold a year from now. If he wins, Seven should take the dough and buy the Valley's passed-over poor sports a set of cry rags.--Matt Golosinski

Various artists
Twisted Willie
(Justice Records)

No one this side of Hades ever professes their enjoyment of tribute albums--sucker punches for completists, performed by opportunists and false worshipers (can I getan "Amen"?). Yet despite our pleas for mercy, these testimonials continue to washup weekly, like hypodermic needles on a beach, determined to infect our memories and take our heroes down a notch by making their songs sound like utter excrement.

I practically could've penned this review before taking the shrink wrap off Twisted Willie, but judging from the disparate talents listed on this Willie Nelson love-in (the Reverend Horton Heat, X, Waylon Jennings, L7, plus the novelty of Kris Novoselic and Johnny Cash doing a session together), I thought that maybe, just maybe, this one wuz gonna be a little different.

Fooooooool! Optimistic, masochistic, demented, what-was-I-thinkin' fooooool! To paraphrase the Red-Headed Stranger, I'm crazy for tryin', crazy for ... buyin'.

Given the tragically hip roster of artists, compilations like Twisted Willie always sound more like celebrity roasts than tributes. Far more people purged that Carpenters tribute than binged on it, if you catch my drift. And, hey, Willie Nelson doesn't need L7 to be hip.

As with most albums of this ilk, the tributee's own original recordings piss on even the best of covers from substantial heights. Willie pokes his ponytailed head in here twice to help the Supersuckers and the Reverend Horton Heat try to redeem this stinker. The results are pretty good, but I have the sneaking suspicion these tracks may have been hijacked from one of those zany duet albums Willie's so fond of.

Besides, the few good cuts on Twisted are easily eclipsed by the album's closer--Kris Kristofferson and Kelly Deal skeet shooting at "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground." Any Willie Nelson fans brave enough to stick around to this point will probably yank this CD out of their players and huck it. Hello, walls! Kerrrang!!!!

How long, oh Lord, how long? And where's twisted Julio Iglesias when we could really use him?--Serene Dominic

Maze (featuring Frankie Beverly)
Anthology
(The Right Stuff/EMI)

While late '70s/early '80s funkified R&B orchestras like Earth, Wind & Fire, and the Commodores made frequent appearances on the pop charts, Maze holds a special place in the hearts of R&B/soul nostalgiacs for staying exclusive to its fiercely loyal core audience: the many thousands of mostly adult, mostly black, mostly working-class fans who made each of the band's ten albums gold without the help of a hit. Soul fans who never got turned on to the San Francisco septet's medium-funk grooves and the thick, buttery Philly-style vocals of featured performer/band leader Frankie Beverly now have a chance to redeem their ears with this two-disc compilation.

Covering all of Maze's recordings for Capitol in chronological order--from 1977's self-titled debut to 1986's Live in Los Angeles--Anthology provides all the Maze anyone but a collector could ever want. Disc One is the better of the two, matching classic '70s soul ("While I'm Alone") with down-home funk ("Workin' Together") and gritty, deep-fried jams ("Southern Girl"). Disc Two features Maze's bigger R&B chart climbers, including the late-career highlight "Back in Stride," but is marred by overproduction. During the mid-'80s, Beverly's band turned most of its up-tempo material into synth-ridden pulp ("Love Is the Key") and its slower numbers into doctor-office slush ("Your Own Kind of Way").

Despite these shortcomings, Maze's Anthology is a good chance to discover a species of music that is sadly endangered intoday's new-jack, studio-processed R&Bworld. By all means, relive the sound of this full-scale, from-the-heart R&B act.--Roni Sarig

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