Backstreets of Desire
Since DeVille's last effort, Tower Records stopped stocking vinyl, Doc Pomus passed away and John Cougar went Mellencamp. What hasn't changed is DeVille's voice (except it's got a lot more phlegm in it now) and his overriding passion for Brill Building songwriting (he dedicated the CD to the late Pomus). Like Mellencamp, DeVille stirs lots of accordions and mandolins into his roots-rock mix. "Even While I Sleep" is Ben E. King's "Spanish Harlem" as seen through zydeco eyes, while "Hey Joe" is given the full "Guantanamera" treatment with a mariachi orchestra. Once, during the dawn of Springsteen, the playing field was overcrowded with "tough but tender" daddies singing about the street and their place in relation to it. Now that they're a dying breed, DeVille merits a second look. Unlike the Boss, Willy's never gonna get rich helping people who want to remember the past or forget the future. If street credibility still means anything to you, DeVille's heart is closer to the curb than Bruce's could ever be again.--Serene Dominic Marty Brown
Cryin', Lovin', Leavin'
Fact one: Marty Brown is the finest country-western stylist this side, that side or inside of Nashville, Tennessee. Fact two: Unless you buy Cryin', Lovin', Leavin', his third album for MCA, you won't get to hear him because the radio won't play him.
Lordy, it's a cryin' shame, too. Yet aficionados who "discovered" Brown through his ethereal debut disc, High and Dry, or the follow-up, Wild Kentucky Skies, are going to positively wahoo over the Maceo, Kentucky, boy's latest. Truthfully, too, y'all probably don't mind much having this secret to yourselves.
From the Fifties-style billy blues of "Too Blue to Crow" (featuring brother Mike Brown's sassy mouth harping) through the sparely arranged weeper "Summer's Gone" to the Buddy Holly-style, rocking title track, Brown displays his wealth of talents as a performer, musician and writer. Those who appreciate his mournful, mountaintop wails, la "High and Dry," will find cause to play "Shameful Lies" again and again while bawling into a Bud. Co-written with Odie Blackmon and caressed by Melba Montgomery's sublime vocal accompaniment, this is rich, powerful balladeering, as is "Why Do You Crucify Me," a Luke the Drifter-flavored complaint that will make you so lonesome you could cry.
Richard Bennett again defies the Nashville norm by producing Brown with kid gloves. There was a bare-bones minimum of overdubbing and other studio trickery involved in creating Cryin', Lovin', Leavin', and for a label notorious for heavy-handed, string-machine production, MCA is to be most enthusiastically applauded for continuing its policy of letting nature take its course with Marty Brown. The yield here is no less than unadulterated, old-timey country music, like it used to be and like it ought to be.
South Central Cartel
N Gatz We Truss
Guns, gatz, glocks--the title says it all. Without question, South Central Cartel--composed of six brothers hailing from south central L.A.--is by no means upholding the imagery of the successful, refined, happy, "proud to be Black" blacks.
Instead, SCC reports on the nuances and resilience of America's best-kept secret, the Black ghetto. The brothers' lyrics drag you onto their turf and educate you about all facets of neighborhood realities, from how they deal with their enemies and what kind of guns they pack to how they (mis)treat their women. Listeners are taken on a trip via nothing but the usual, blood-soaked gangsta lyrics, and the beats often sound like reject sound effects from The Chronic and Doggystyle. No wonder N Gatz We Truss comes off as generic gangsta rap; we've heard Ice Cube do it and Snoop Doggy Dogg say it all before.
Musically, SCC's medley of tight snippets of George Clinton played by live musicians gives you something to ride to in your drop top, but lyrically, the album is no different from any other gangsta CD. While tracks such as "U Couldn't Deal Wit Dis" assume a recognizable funk groove and "Gang Stories" is a definite head nodder, the rest slips away and lacks originality. You'd be better off catching this on the airwaves than purchasing the CD in its entirety.
Word has it that this could be the last hunk o' Superchunk we'll ever hold in our hot little hands, but it's hard--based on this offering--to figure whether the band's potential breakup is a foolish move. This batch of tunes is not without its highlights--both "Saving My Ticket" and "Driveway to Driveway" rank up there with other great Superchunk faves like "Slack Motherfucker." "Driveway," in particular, chugs along like a grungy revisitation of Them's "Here Comes the Night," and is the obvious single choice here. Although the material starts wearing thinner than Mac's reedy voice midway through, it recovers in time for a grand finale. If this is really the end of the line, "In a Stage Whisper" provides a suitably chilling and paranoid final bow to the fans. Here, Mac wonders which malevolent admirers have his telephone number and are packing clippers to better secure a lock of his hair. "Paint a target on your chest to make it easy for the hunters," he sings, making you wonder if he's leaving for a solo career or another profession in which he won't be so readily admired. Like, oh, rock criticism?
Ten Feet Tall and Bulletproof
Ever since his famed and feted "No Hats Tour" with fellow neo-outlaw Marty Stuart, Travis Tritt has trod the path less taken--especially by Nashville standards. He's done duets with Patti LaBelle and David Lee Roth. He joined Madonna, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Tom Petty on a tribute CD to George Harrison. Remember, too: This is the fella who got Music City all riled up when he dared question the talent quotient of 15-minute darling Billy Ray Cyrus. Tritt was right, of course.
And, surely to Nashville's grief, he's continuing his wicked, wicked ways with his most recent Warner Bros. release, Ten Feet Tall and Bulletproof. Mostly written by the Marietta, Georgia-born Tritt, this is a collection of traditional, stone-country rock and soul, with a bit of blues and a Nineties attitude. "Walkin' All Over My Heart," for example, is a classic cheatin' number effectively punctuated by Billy Joe Walker Jr.'s mean electrified guitar, and the title track tangles with the ramifications of fortifying oneself with liquid courage. Tritt's native-son affinity for grits rock is apparent in the rollicking "Wishful Thinking," co-written with Lynyrd Skynyrd legend Gary Rossington.
There are a couple of ballads here, too, which aren't necessarily Tritt's strongest suit. But the album's first single, the wistful "Foolish Pride," is a fine sample of what Tritt can do with his gravelly twang in softer circumstances, and the tune has become a big radio hit. As usual, however, Tritt is a treat with the blues, especially in "No Vacation From the Blues," which includes a Marty Stuart solo at no extra charge.
The most entertaining, if not the swellest, track on Ten Feet Tall and Bulletproof is Tritt's latest ode to the odd, "Outlaws Like Us," featuring outlaws emeriti Hank Williams Jr. and Tritt hero Waylon Jennings.
Good, ornery stuff here, best listened to with a cold beer and a hard scowl. And leave your Stetson at home, dude.
Fans of the Howard Stern radio show will probably welcome the opportunity to hear Stuttering John Menendez's debut CD without the King of All Media stopping it every three seconds to offer criticism. Surprisingly, no novelty, this; John's come up with a decent batch of music. "Get Off My Lawn" and "Guilt" reveal the heady influence of both Nirvana and Enuff Z'Nuff. Elsewhere, "Gypsy Morning" displays Aerosmith sensibilities, sounding like a Pump outtake right down to the mandolin interludes bookending the song. In light of John's speech impediment, listeners may find "Talk My Way Out of It" a little hard to believe. Equally puzzling is that S.J. has no problem doing the spoken ad-libs on "Guilt," but gets stuck on the chorus (F-F-F-F-F-GUILT!"). Menendez even turns in an articulate rock ballad/anthem, "The Place." The real question raised by this disc begs asking--if this takes off, will Howard send Stuttering John out to interview himself?
Heavy D and the Boyz
Nuttin' but Love
Looking for a recipe for romance and relaxation that doesn't involve incense and Calgon? Try Nuttin' but Love, the fifth album from Heavy D and the Boyz, a sensual mix of soft, bubble-bath beats oozing with do-good lyrics. While most rappers curse out everybody but their mothers, Heavy somehow manages to keep his lyrics clean and free of vulgarity. Even your grandmother could chill with Heavy.
The previous album, Blue Funk, was as hard-core as the rapper is ever going to get; listeners got a taste of the Boyz's emotional side as they reminisced after the tragic death of a group member. The album did all but hold a funeral. Nuttin' but Love is just as funky, but holds a more upbeat tempo and a happier motif.
On "Somethin' Goin On," Heavy employs notorious producer Marly Marl to drop old-school beats behind his woeful confessions of lost love. No, you won't be forced to swallow violent, misogynist lyrics on Heavy's tracks; as an ode to women of color, "Black Coffee" praises black women as "sexy souffls with no sugar no cream . . . the backbone of the black home." This is one of the feel-good CDs of the summer, offering a soulful blend of flossy jazz/funk melodies and rhythm that adds up to Nuttin' but Love.
Last of the Independents
Despite this album's title, it became necessary to call in outside tunesmiths Billy Steinberg and Tim Kelly (Madonna, Cyndi Lauper) to help Chrissie Hynde out of her songwriting slump. Happily, it worked. Not since the Pretenders' debut has it been this easy to fall in love with Hynde's sultry voice and her world-wise lyrics. Whether you interpret "Night in My Veins" as a sex-is-heroin analogy or the other way around (unlikely, since two of the original Pretenders OD'd), it's a gorgeous single, on a par with "Talk of the Town" and "Kid."
Unlike the material on Hynde's last few albums, nothing on Last of the Independents sounds like a rewrite from the first album. The soul-mama delivery of "Money Talks" is another welcome surprise, and lyrical boasts like "You can buy a squeegy little silicone sack, but it won't feed the world like the ones that I pack naturally" prove Hynde really is P.J. Harvey's spiritual godmother.
As on the best Pretenders recordings, there are subtle special effects and background vocals that reveal themselves and hook you in after repeated listenings. One sour spot: "I'll Stand by You" starts off as an intimate pledge from Chrissie to her man, but collapses when a choir lines up behind her like the International Ladies Garment Workers Union to scare the poor guy off. Steinberg and Kelly sold their song "True Colors" to Kodak, but you can bet Hynde's co-writing credit will prevent this anthem from ever becoming a jingle for Prudential.
Let the Picture Paint Itself
In Crowell's inaugural effort for MCA and his first album since Life Is Messy--a morose whine fest that followed his noisy divorce from Rosanne Cash--the veteran Texas singer-songwriter attempts to resurrect a stellar career. That career includes a Grammy for "After All This Time" from 1988's monster Diamonds and Dirt, plus the penning of such songs as Waylon Jennings' "Ain't Livin' Long Like This," Crystal Gayle's "Till I Gain Control Again" and Bob Seger's "Shame on the Moon." Yes, Crowell's credits are as long as his legendary temper is short.
Yet while this particular collection shows flashes of the Crowell of old, it is neither the "positive" work his publicists are eager to portray it to be nor the full-bodied artistry we're used to hearing from the man. Let the Picture Paint Itself is, however, a creditable effort for an artist undergoing a tough transition.
Crowell credits fellow Texan and living Austin legend Guy Clark for priming his pump again, and the pair of co-written tracks--the upbeat "Rose of Memphis" and "Stuff That Works"--are the prime pieces of the album. The latter especially shines, featuring super studio stud Paul Franklin's pedal steel and lyrics that seem to betray Crowell's supposed new happy-go-lucky, que sera, sera world view:
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There's a woman I love, she's crazy and she paints like God,
She's got a playground sense of justice and she don't give odds,
I've got a tattoo with her name right through my soul,
I think everything she touches turns to gold.
The reference is clearly biographical--Rosanne Cash sought postdivorce solace by setting up an easel in a Big Apple loft--and forces us to listen askance to the balance of the work, especially "The Best Years of Our Lives" (with Patty Loveless) and the danceable, thoroughly featherweight, first-single title track.
In fact, Let the Picture Paint Itself simply isn't the light-of-heart, forward-thinking work Crowell's spin doctors purport it to be. But it is a significant move away from the gloomy Life Is Messy, and a large leap toward a musical recovery. If Let the Picture Paint Itself is uneven--and it is--we can understand, and we'll just be patient. We know what this guy is capable of.