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Molten Wax

The Promise Ring: Coming soon to late-night TV?
Andy Mueller

The Promise Ring
Very Emergency!

(Jade Tree)

Sad to say, the American emo scene is quietly turning into what will most likely be the next decade's nostalgia-tinged Monster Ballads compilations pitched on late-night TV. You may argue the point, of course. Emo fans are nothing if not fiercely protective of their turf. But then, so are unreconstructed cheese-metal buffs, too.

Tellingly, then, the third Promise Ring album wheezes along like scarves flapping listlessly in a tepid fall breeze, its musical clichés at least as tiresome as its lyrical bons mots. Of the former, well. . . . With precious little variation, every song here features virtually the same 4/4 beat; this isn't writing to proven formula, just a dully repetitive experience for the listener. Secondly, guitars have a kind of homogenized melodic punk blur, a choppy Jam lick in "Arms and Danger" and a riffy Ramones groove in "Happy Hour," for example, that comes across as squeaky-clean efficient and utterly devoid of any dynamic tension, making things as numbing as a Weezer boxed set. And thirdly, the vocals are all delivered in that follow-the-bouncing-melody-ball-exactly style that passes for singing these days. Sorry, but Steely Dan did the same 20 years ago, and it was pretty annoying then, too.

Lyrical scrutiny doesn't offer much payoff, either. Somewhere along the way, somebody must have given the Promise Ring a crash course in Hallmark card rejects. "I'm losing my voice talking to you about talking to you." "If I come to New York, can I sleep on your floor?" "My heart skips a beat over you." "Sometimes I wake up early to say goodbye just in case you don't come back." Sheesh -- it's about as profound and moving as Poison's "Something to Believe In," Whitesnake's "Is This Love" or Winger's "Headed for a Heartache." While it may seem unfair to take rock lyrics out of context, in emo's case, the singing is deliberately up-front and meant to be heard clearly. Such no-subtext literalism offers a withering experience for anyone interested in curling up with a good metaphor.

Bands like the Promise Ring and their ilk may have the dork eyeglasses, thrift-store shirts and jarhead haircuts to set them apart visually from their '80s metal counterparts, who had their eyeliner, silk blouses and poodle 'dos, but in terms of musical resonance (you know, the kind that kids semi-wistfully and semi-uncomfortably look back upon when they reach their 30s) and cultural relevance (if Weezer is emo's ultimate legacy -- Cap'n Jazz is already long forgotten -- then there's something pathetic going on, Mr. Jones, and you don't know what it is), not a quantifiable whit of difference exists.

But hey, some folks love this stuff, right? Coming to a late-night commercial very soon. . . -- Fred Mills

Iggy Pop
Avenue B

(Island Records)

Face the facts: Iggy Pop hasn't been the same since he recorded for Arista in the early 1980s, when he began confusing punk rock with hard rock and found neither wanted him anymore. Turns out he was the idiot after all, too dumb to give it up when he discovered the times had changed and, too bad and too sad, so had he. Now all we're left with is this record, on which an old man (he's 50 now, for chrissakes) squares off against his mortality and loses the fight before the first-round bell rings. Hasn't been an ex-punker's record this moribund on arrival since his old pal Lou Reed sold Magic and Loss in the cutout bins. Or since Ig's own Instinct in 1988, and a more inappropriately titled record there hasn't been since. Don't know how to take Avenue B's opener "No Shit" -- as profound revelation or self-serious laffer. Over some Twin Peaks strings, the former rant-and-raver ponders his middle age like some dude on his deathbed. "It was in the winter of my 50th year when it hit me," Iggy croaks, as though reading from a dusty diary. "I was really alone, but there wasn't a hell of a lot of time left. Every laugh and touch that I could get became more important. Strangely, I became more bookish, and my home and study meant more to me as I considered the circumstances of my death. I wanted to find a balance between joy and dignity on my way out. Above all, I didn't want to take any more shit, not from anybody." Pretentious and ponderous -- say farewell to relevance, old friend.

Next up: "Nazi Girlfriend," whom Iggy wants to "fuck . . . on the floor among my books of ancient lore." She can't cook, she's elegant, she wears two crosses "tangled up," and she ain't dumb -- just a Nazi girl who stole his heart and his talent. And then: "Avenue B," rendered as lounge-pop paean to Pop's old stomping grounds in NYC -- lotsa organ and acoustic-guitar ramblings set to a shuffle-skuffle beat. "Rappers standing on the corner," Ig begins and ends, because damned if I can make it 53 seconds into this dreary neighborhood. Afraid of getting mugged by formerly interesting musicians looking for spare change and stale ideas.  

Later on: "Afraid to Get Close," a 59-second strings-and-things interlude in which Ig admits he's afraid to get close to people and afraid not to, followed by "She Called Me Daddy" ("I didn't touch her in bed"). Lord, there's nothing in this world worse than an aging punk trying to make amends, come to grips, confess in public; just because it's important to you doesn't mean anyone else gives a shit. Closest thing to a "rock" song: "Shakin' All Over." Fuck, it barely twitches. -- Robert Wilonsky

Various artists
Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles (1921-1956)

(Rhino)

Soon after I began to seriously check out jazz in my teens -- this would have been the 1960s, if you must know -- I drew several unyielding conclusions: Charlie Parker was the greatest saxophone player who ever lived. Duke Ellington led the best big band that ever was. Jelly Roll Morton didn't invent jazz, as he so often claimed, but he was one hell of a piano player. Charles Mingus was a dangerous S.O.B., on and offstage, but, man, could he play that upright bass. Jazz musicians from Los Angeles -- I thought they all were charter members of the so-called "cool school" -- wouldn't know a razor-sharp beat if it sliced them in the neck. I was way off on the last one.

My mind started changing (a big deal for music freaks of any particular genre) in the late 1970s, when I had the pleasure of spending hours at different times with Mingus and the wonderful tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon.

Each regaled me about the L.A. jazz scene in the '40s and '50s. Though he was born in Nogales, Arizona, Mingus had migrated west with his family at the age of 2. He told me in 1978 of a magical street on which he had honed his craft: "It was all going on Central Avenue, which ran on for miles and miles. It had the clubs, the women, the smells, the sounds. And the jamming down there would kick your ass if you didn't know your shit."

Now, two decades after the inimitable Mr. Mingus educated me, a four-CD boxed set recently released by Rhino Records has reminded me that I didn't have a clue about L.A.'s rich jazz and R&B heritage. The collection titled Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles (1921-1956) is a sprawling, eclectic gem.

The outstanding 92-page liner notes (which include a number of remarkable photographs as well) tell wild tales of a vibrant street that ran from downtown L.A. through Watts. The latter in the 1920s was the rural equivalent of, say, the Valley's far west side. Central Avenue provided a fabulous social and cultural mecca for the city's black population and others eager to broaden their horizons.

In those pre-World War II days, L.A. was akin to Kansas City in the 1930s -- a wide-open town controlled by a powerhouse mayor who didn't know much about jazz, but loved the kickbacks that the clubs' owners remitted to keep their liquor licenses intact. Los Angeles, too, was rife with political corruption, and clubs and other entertainment venues up and down the Avenue had to share their proceeds with the powers-that-were.

Musically, the result was a hothouse environment in which burgeoning and already established artists could flourish.

The Avenue inspired some cool tunes, such as Joe Turner's 1941 "Blues on Central Avenue" (not to be confused with another oft-recorded number, "Central Avenue Breakdown"), which included the lyrics: "I'm in the land of sunshine/Standin' on Central Avenue/I was doin' all right/'Til I fell in love with you/Never had so much sport, babe/Anywhere in my life/'Til I fell in love with you/And found out you were someone else's wife."

A few highlights of the rich collection include: "Kansas City Stomps," a 1928 romp by Jelly Roll Morton and His Red Hot Peppers; "If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight," by a 30-year-old Louis Armstrong; "Tiger Rag," a solo piano effort by Hall of Famer Art Tatum; "The Man I Love," by the Nat Cole Trio, which shows off the King's piano virtuosity; "Swingin' the Boogie," a 1945 single by the pianist Hadda Brooks (who is still going strong, by the way, in her late 70s).

The set also boasts "A Night in Tunisia," a classic from Charlie "Yardbird" Parker, recorded shortly after he detoxed at a Southern California mental hospital; "Please Send Me Someone to Love," a strangely beautiful 1949 blues vocal by the transcendent Percy Mayfield; and "3-D," a wild R&B sax workout by the legendary showman Big Jay McNeely.  

Like any good historical overview, Central Avenue Sounds is a revelatory musical study which, in its vast scope, makes a strong case for an often unfairly derided period in jazz music. -- Paul Rubin


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