It had to happen. The one remaining corner in the well-trodden room of pop music has finally been discovered. It was lurking over there behind cool jazz, gathering dust next to Muzak, and it took Boston's Combustible Edison to get wise and clean up the joint. What Com Ed unearthed is known by many names: easy listening, lounge exotica, cocktail music.
It's mood music, to be sure--as long as your mood is swinging.
But don't confuse this Lazy Susan offering of diabolically suave stylings with those old 101 Strings or Longines Symphonette Society albums your great-uncle has. This stuff was made to go with a cool highball and a hot low-cut dress, trade winds and tiki torches. Shaken, not stirred, thank you.
You'll hear broad strokes of Hawaiian lounge king Martin Denny (who made concept albums like Hypnotica, Exotica and Afro-desia throughout the Fifties and Sixties) all over I, Swinger, yet this is no hokey rip-off. The quintet creates its own delicious mood that is not nostalgic, cute or coy.
Thrill to the Polynesian angst that is "Breakfast at Denny's," the breezy sensuality of "Intermission," or the native succulence of "Guadaloupe," featuring the Polly Bergenesque vocals of Miss Lily Banquette.
I, Swinger is, quite simply, a titillating gem culled from a glorious, ancient time when cocktails induced a mood instead of altering it, and cigarettes were a tool of seduction instead of a stigma. You need this album like a martini needs an olive.--Peter Gilstrap
Crucial! Roots Classics
If the only reggae you've heard in the last few years has been tropical-fruit-juice jingles, the theme from Cops and UB40 sweating to the oldies, it's time to hear this potent music again in its original political context.
And what better way than via this essential collection of Bunny Wailer singles from 1979 to 1982? Wailer experimented with different instrumentation far more than his contemporaries did, making these sides sound fresh even today. Check out the raga-meets-reggae arrangement on "Old Dragon," a grudge match between Lucifer and Jah. Kind of a reggae variation on "The Devil Went Down to Georgia."
Unlike most political music, reggae is spiritually centered, so even songs about oppression and streets littered with innocent bodies hold out some hope for the future. Crucial? Jah, mon!--Serene Dominic Cheap Trick
Woke Up With a Monster
Pop font of hooks and wisdom Elvis Costello reviewed alongside--nay, along with--power-gum institution Cheap Trick? Before respective fans begin shrieking sacrilege, consider these surprising commonalities: 1. Both arrived on the music scene in 1977.
2. Both pay homage to/rip off Sixties Pop Icons like the Beatles and Stones.
3. Both began careers with strong, impressive albums. Then Costello got further out, thought he was Bob Dylan, resulting in a series of half-assed releases. Trick got further in, thought it was Journey, resulting in a series of half-assed releases.
4. Both were written off by critics at one point, yet have remained big live draws with devoted followers.
5. Costello wrote songs with McCartney, Trick did sessions with Lennon for his last album, Double Fantasy.
6. Cheap Trick influenced countless power-pop bands, such as the Replacements. Costello influenced countless wordy, clever songwriters, such as Paul Westerberg.
7. Both have just released alleged "return to form" albums.
8. The record label of each artist has the exact same amount of letters in its name.
So, on to the big question--are Youth and Monster any good? Are these vibrant, new works from old masters, or pathetic retreads?
Brutal Youth happily reveals that Costello is still capable of making a focused, kinetic album. The 15 songs are buoyed by tight playing and restrained arrangements (thanks to the return of the godlike Attractions), and represent his best work since 1983's Punch the Clock. Elvis is a man of many moods; in the past, that has produced a lot of muddled, half-erect work. Not so here. "Thirteen Steps Lead Down" has a chorus more contagious than swine flu, but the same could be said for "London's Brilliant Parade," "My Science Fiction Twin" and nearly all the tracks.
If you're in search of the Elvis of old (the one you heard on everything from My Aim Is True through Punch the Clock), look no further. This is as close as you'd want the man to get without rewriting his past catalogue. But after dipping into country, jazz, Broadway and classical, what will Costello do next? Maybe he'll start writing songs like Cheap Trick.
While Costello has felt compelled to borrow not just from groups but from entire genres, Cheap Trick has pretty much kept its pinching to the Beatles with a dash of Eric Carmen. But rarely has a band borrowed so blatantly and stayed so original, and Woke Up With a Monster is supreme testament to that.
Guitarist Rick Nielsen plays all those candy-metal licks you loved in "Surrender," and has his songwriting formula of hook-hook-solo-hook fully intact, Robin Zander's voice is still the one you want to hear screaming out of your car stereo, and Bun E. Carlos plays as heavy as his gut is wide.
There're a couple dogs on this album: "Never Run Out of Love" would be more suited to Michael Bolton, and "Ride the Pony" sounds like a bad TV-cop-show theme. But so what? The other cuts are vintage Cheap Trick, as cheesy and pure as rock can get.
The biggest thing Elvis and Cheap Trick have in common? Both have finally made albums worth listening to.--Peter Gilstrap ZZ Top
The last band in the alphabet is back home after a seemingly endless sojourn in FM hell, and ZZ Top wastes no time in getting its big self comfortable with the old, familiar ZZ sound.
"Pincushion," the CD's wonderfully musty opening cut, gleefully sprays around gobs of Billy Gibbons' guitar drool. From there, Gibbons goes on a restless prowl, resurrecting older riffs (Heard It on the X" is heard again) and coming up with new, invigorating squonk.
Gibbons and his bearded buddies also display an encouraging acknowledgment of reality. The aforementioned "Pincushion" touches on drug abuse (they're against it), and "Cover Your Rig" covers condoms (they're for em).
We're not talking bold statements here. But Antenna's sonic growl is statement enough that ZZ Top is finally finished with the disco-driven MTV mush they've been pumping out the last decade or so.
It's nice to have em back.--Ted Simons
High Priest/Black List
Feudalist Tarts/No Sex
(Razor and Tie)
Once upon a time, back in the early Seventies, Alex Chilton was in a band called Big Star. The group created a handful of gorgeous, wrenching albums, and nobody really cared. Big Star broke up. Chilton kept recording, though, turning out erratic, largely dull releases that seemed to be the legacy of an artist who was either falling apart or didn't give a shit. Maybe both. By the mid-Eighties, however, pop/punk bands (and millions of "hip" critics) started rediscovering the man and his work--particularly the Big Star stuff--and Chilton, who had been doing things like washing dishes to make a living, transformed into a three-chord icon. Paul Westerberg solidified the legend when he wrote "Alex Chilton" for 1987's Pleased to Meet Me. What the Disney TV theme did for Davy Crockett, the Replacements did for Mr. C.
By this time, though, Alex was into a different thing. He was recording albums of obscure soul songs, Sixties pop and R&B-tinged originals, and folks eager for anything the skinny legend did ate this stuff up. Now it's the mid-Nineties, and--though Westerberg has since said he's sorry he ever wrote "Alex Chilton"--people are still interested in Chilton. Hence the just-reissued Priest/List and Tarts/Sex compilation CDs.
Hence the question, why is anybody still interested?
Face it, nothing on either of these discs can touch the Big Star load; what we have here is a guy with an obnoxious, weak voice singing a bunch of lame, old B-sides, predictable, old A-sides, and novelty originals. What were we thinking ten years ago when this crap came out? Is this supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek joke, or does Chilton think he actually sounds wicked singing "Take It Off," "Make a Little Love" or "B-A-B-Y"? On songs like "Little GTO" and "Volare," the has-been guitarist and his group sound like a bad wedding band.
Stick with the Big Star stuff--or the Box Tops, for that matter--solo Chilton doesn't matter anymore; it's surprising it ever did.--Peter Gilstrap
Rhythm, Country and Blues (MCA)
If the thought of hearing another "duets" album nauseates you more than a replay of "Ebony and Ivory," relax. MCA has paired up its somewhat disparate R&B and country artists for this one, and the results hit the mark more times than you might expect. Al Green and Lyle Lovett turn in the best duet here, a transcendent but funky "Funny How Time Slips Away." Little Richard and Tanya Tucker come in a close second, yelping "Somethin' Else" in what sounds like the same cramped studio where Richard's classic "Keep A-Knockin'" was recorded. Plus, you get the soulful sounds of Sam and Conway; the late Mr. Twitty's last recorded performance is this touching duet of "Rainy Night in Georgia" with Sam Moore.
Low points include "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing," in which Vince Gill's thin reading invites unflattering comparisons to Marvin Gaye. And though you can't fault Aaron Neville's delivery, hearing him sing without thinking about the touch and feel of cotton is damned near impossible now.
Things get a little weird when B.B. King stretches out the spoken-word parts to "Patches" as if it were The Iliad, leaving poor George Jones with little to do but contemplate having a drinking problem again.
But it could've been worse. Just be thankful Julio Iglesias and Willie Nelson don't record for MCA.--Serene Dominic
Way Out Where
The Verlaines once deserved to be mentioned in the same sigh as the best of New Zealand's considerable pop corps--bands like the Bats, the Clean, Look Go Purple and, best of all, the Chills. Those names helped push guitar chords from Down Under to the very top of expressive songcraft.
But even the most ardent Kiwi-pop fans would have trouble with the overwrought song lyrics and brittle melodies littered on the Verlaines' latest disc.
Singer-songwriter Grame Downes has always dreamed with a high-minded muse, but most of the intended symbolism on songs like "Blanket Over the Sky" and "Cathedrals Under the Sea" seems trapped by excess verbiage. And there's little in the way of hooks to help pull the tunes up for air.
The Verlaines are better than this.--Ted Simons
The Most Beautiful Girl in the World
Prince threatened early retirement yet again last year, so why did he bother releasing bottom-drawer stuff like this? He should've surprised us all for once and recorded the Charlie Rich song of the same name. But no, our (symbol) seems bent on releasing only what he writes, and everything he writes. Everything!
Once upon a time, Prince maintained some mystique, but premiäring this new song on the Miss America pageant seems like a desperate bid for attention. Since Warner Bros. is dismantling Paisley Park, this is only available by dialing his 1-800-NEW-FUNK number. Judy the Pop Life operator will be standing by to take your order, but be warned. The deluxe-packaged single is just an oversize greeting card with a two-song CD shoved inside. The price? $11.99. Shame on U, Prince!--Serene Dominic
The Essential Gospel Sampler
When they named it "Essential," they weren't kidding, and it is, in more ways than one: Not only will this stuff convince you of the existence of a higher power (assuming you feel it's essential that you go to heaven), but this is truly a must-have helping of inspirational music from the late Forties through the mid-Sixties.
And if you think religious music is some staid, lifeless thing, you are sorely wrong, brother. This is not the soundtrack of a Methodist picnic.
To make it plain, artists such as Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, Sam Cook and the Wicked Wilson Pickett all began their vocal careers under a roof with a cross on it; the same spirit that imbues the great soul recordings is found here in equal--if not greater--strength. Only the words are different. Witness Marion Williams' testifying in "What Could I Do," a rollicking R&B hymn, complete with Hammond B3 organ burning in the background. The Golden Gate Quartet gives a tight, smoky reading of "Hush!" that'll bring to mind the Mills Brothers, and the great Mahalia Jackson leads a simple piano accompaniment in "How I Got Over," recorded live in Sweden. Her voice is bluesy, raw and filled with absolute holy attitude. But that is what this collection is all about, and--from the Staple Singers, Paul Robeson, and the Dixie Hummingbirds, to name but a few--you couldn't pray for more.--Peter Gilstrap
David Lee Roth
Your Filthy Little Mouth
Ten years after Van Halen replaced him with Hagar the Horrible, Dave's still the life of the party. If he'd never worn spandex or starred in the "Hot for Teacher" video, critics might realize that Roth is sometimes capable of almost Westerbergian couplets: "Before you make it, it's all hit or miss/After you make it, it's 'take a hit of this.'" More often than not, however, you'd think he swiped his lines off of jokey cocktail napkins. But then what do you expect from Diamond Dave, Stinglike introspection? Though he almost looks like the balding, blond ex-Policeman, check out the song "Experience" to hear Roth impart his worldly wisdom: "I'd love to talk philosophy, but I gotta take a piss." What a whiz!--Serene Dominic
Martinis & Bikinis
Phillips and husband/producer T-Bone Burnette tastefully decorate this fine collection with British psychedelic flourishes (harpsichords, backward guitars, cellos, Munchkin background vocals, etc.). Though the music recalls the Summer of Love, the lyrics paint a bleak winter of discontent. Phillips draws parallels between the bedroom and the boardroom, continually putting intimate relationships into contractual, businesslike terms. And she rarely comes out on top in the hostile takeovers.
But she doesn't take it all lying down, and gets in her best jabs on the confrontational "Baby I Can't Please You" (You say love when you mean control"). She also has the smarts to close the set with "Gimme Some Truth," a Lennon anthem which might prove to be more useful than "All You Need Is Love" ever was.--Serene Dominic
Roger Miller made some noxious noise in his prime. He waxed anarchic with the band Mission of Burma back in the postpunk early Eighties, then later toned it down and went instrumental with the chaotically minimalist Birdsongs of the Mesozoic. Miller's also been involved in numerous solo projects, most of which are essentially hybrids of his earlier machinations.
M-3, with brothers Ben and Larry Miller, is the latest Roger Miller venture. It's a collaborative collection of industrial doodlings, highlighted by "Lunge and Reel," a kind of spastic, postmodern square dance. The rest of the CD grinds closer to ambient machine-shop rattle with shards of rhythm bouncing off the sparks. Mildly accessible, considering the genre.--Ted Simons
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I have two words for you: Sooooooouuuuuullllll Train!! Was that really Don Cornelius doing that gripping falsetto intro every Saturday morning? Pick up the Soul Train Hall of Fame: 20th Anniversary Rhino collection and find out. If you grew up choosing Train over American Bandstand, you'll remember this stuff and be driven insane with joy hearing it again. If you missed it the first time around, then these songs are required listening. "Oh Girl," "Let It Whip," "Sweet Thing," "Love Train" and 55 others; now all they need to put out is a CD-ROM version of the Soul Train dancers.
From chaos comes order, they say; in this case, the chaotic brain of Tucson's own Dadagaga Acedo has produced a blistering pustule of rock. Acedo is the force behind Black Sun Legion's Psycho Master El (San Jacinto). He thanks his mom, three mental-health centers, Pima County Jail, and a number of prescription head drugs in the liner notes, which may serve as a better indicator of what the mostly instrumental music sounds like than a bunch of adjectives. It's metal, it's out there, it's good.
If diversity is what you're after, the Best of Mountain Stage, Volume Six (Blue Plate Music) will have you baying at the moon. Collected from the weekly radio show, this installation features Cracker, Bruce Hornsby, Barenaked Ladies, and Me Phi Me, among others, performing tunes obvious and otherwise, all with some of the best live recording you'll ever hear.
Rush to a CD store and trade in your copy of Duets for the last great unreleased Sinatra album, Sinatra in Paris (Reprise). Recorded in 1962 at an intimate club in Gay Paree, the set of 26 songs is Frank in top form, mature and confident. Backed by a swank, six-piece group, the Chairman croons standards, turning in goose-bump versions of "Day In--Day Out," "Night and Day" and "One for My Baby." And there're plenty of "koo-koos" and nods to Mr. Jack Daniel's. The French love it. You will, too.--Peter Gilstrap