New Radicals
Maybe You've Been Brainwashed Too
(MCA Records)

I've never had a lot of faith in the old adage about not judging a book by its cover. This has been especially true when it comes to music. I've always believed that if they look like a "hair band" and dress like a "hair band," they probably are one.

I make the point because every now and then the opposite happens to be true. Such is the case with the New Radicals and their debut album from MCA, Maybe You've Been Brainwashed Too. The group is the brain child--and moniker du jour--of musical wunderkind Gregg Alexander, and if you see the record in stores--don't be fooled. Alexander's gangly, slightly dazed, hip-hop/Beastie Boy look belies the ambitious social and sonic resonance of his songs.

It doesn't take long to find out that Alexander has the kind of vocal and musical sensibilities sure to intrigue pop aficionados. Tracks like the disc opener, "Mother We Just Can't Get Enough," and the first single (and surprise hit) "You Get What You Give" showcase his ability to meld rock and funk grooves with lush and dense pop arrangements. The result is a collection of songs that are immediately appealing, but with enough depth to keep you listening.

Alexander is a Michigan native who earned a recording contract with A&M at the age of 17, producing Michigan Rain, his R&B-flavored solo debut in 1989. That record met an unhappy fate after getting lost in the all too common "corporate shuffle." Two years later, Alexander signed with Epic and released Intoxifornication, which was met with resounding commercial indifference during the height of the grunge explosion. However, Alexander's experience as a two-time loser in the record business has paid off creatively. Maybe You've Been Brainwashed Too is miles ahead of his debut, and presents a more fully realized musical demonstration of what his sophomore release only hinted at.

The vocals are the album's real highlight, serving as a perfect complement to Alexander's well-informed musical approach. The influence of Jagger, Bono and other distinctive rock, pop and soul voices is clearly present in Alexander's impassioned delivery.

While there's little doubt that Alexander has a keen ear for creating a variety of pleasing pop sounds and textures, his lyrical content is subject to greater debate. Alexander squarely focuses his gaze on a range of social, political and economic issues.

Railing against what he sees as the false illusion of the American dream, the corporate co-opting of rock music, and the mass media's complicity in perpetuating these "evils"--Alexander seems to be fashioning himself as a young, musical Noam Chomsky in baggy jeans and Pumas. There's something especially earnest, if almost goofy, about the level of passion behind Alexander's musical agenda. It would be easy to knock Alexander for his sometimes pretentious musical and lyrical ramblings--but the history of rock music has been largely defined by artists who were frequently self-indulgent. While Alexander may not be in that class, this record is convincing proof that, at the very least, he has the potential to keep listeners interested for a long time.

--Bob Mehr

Randy Newman
Guilty: 30 Years of Randy Newman
(Warner Archives/Rhino)

When Randy Newman's self-titled debut album showed up in 1968, he was one of a very few in American pop uncolored by the psychedelia all around him. The album bombed. He was a black-and-white figure in a paisley Technicolor world. What was this business of being humorously cynical? Only Frank Zappa was allowed to do that.

More than a few people who first heard him on underground FM radio thought he was an old, black blues player gone intellectual. The limited range of his voice, the accent and his New Orleans-tinged piano all contributed to that impression. What a rude shock to see a nerdy, bespectacled white boy on the album cover.

The only rude shock on this four-CD retrospective is "Golden Gridiron Boy." This 1962 recording is similar to Brill Building teen exploitation records, except it's on the downside--the guy loses his girl because he's too small to be a gridiron hero. This, of course, was a strong omen of Newman's career path.

He wasn't following anybody else's formulas by the time he emerged with such tunes as "Davy the Fat Boy," "Yellow Man," and "I Think It's Going to Rain Today." In retrospect, it becomes clear that Newman's cynicism wasn't Zappa's brittle irreverence or the jaded, world-weariness of Steely Dan.

Instead, his cynicism came from a parental compassion for his characters (and, by extension, for the rest of us). He expected better things from them. Instead, they did shameless things, like creating slavery and the atom bomb. He wasn't simplistic--no good guys and bad guys for him, just flawed human beings. On occasion, there were innocents like "Davy," who's exploited as a side-show freak by his best friend. Still, there's no hint of malice or greed in the friend's actions. He's just trying to figure out how to get by.

Newman usually sings from a character's point of view, which has caused him problems along the way. "Rednecks" derides bigotry, but because the character sings about "keeping the niggers down," many people missed the barbs he tossed at American racism--Northern style as well as Southern-fried.

The first two CDs offer a generous recap of his 10 albums. His songs focused so tightly on characters that it was easy to miss the cinematic scope of his music as these records came out over the years. Here, though, it's plainly apparent. (It shouldn't be surprising, of course, since he was born into a family of film musicians that included Alfred Newman.)

The third CD presents outtakes and unissued material, including a group of surprisingly light-hearted tunes recorded but not used in Three Amigos. The fourth concentrates on his film music, and it is the hardest one to swallow.

Musically, Newman is as complex as ever, and the instrumental compositions are the most successful part of the disc. However, there isn't much room for his challenging characterizations in such movie tunes as "You've Got a Friend in Me" (from Toy Story). It almost sounds too happy, and that's just not Randy Newman's strength.

--Salvatore Caputo


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