A tourist is someone who thinks New York is Lady Liberty and Miss Saigon. Travelers are more sophisticated; they roll into Katmandu and do their best to blend in. Tourists are easy to laugh at, but travelers who pass themselves off as natives are even more misguided. David Byrne thinks he's a musical traveler because of the frequent-flier miles he's logged in the two decades since the Talking Heads' debut. Sometimes he's right (the African/funk fusion of Speaking in Tongues), but sometimes he's painfully wrong (his arch attempt at salsa on Rei Momo).
When Byrne began mixing styles in the late '70s, he was an exotic bird, a rock musician who roamed the world musically. Today it's hard to imagine Beck, Bjsrk and Cibo Matto without Byrne's pioneering work, but that's the rub, too: With a few exceptions, their experiments seem fresher and less forced than his. On Feelings, you can hear Byrne toiling overtime to create New World pastiches. In London, he worked with trip-hoppers Morcheeba; in Miami, he hooked up with Angelique Kidjo producer Joe Galdo. He teamed with Black Cat Orchestra in Seattle, then found a couple of former Devo members in Los Angeles. Give Byrne credit for trying to stay vital through collaboration, but at times he sounds like Paul Simon leaning into an Afro-Brazilian groove: The notes are in the right places, but the hips are missing.
The six tracks recorded with Morcheeba work best, especially opening track "Fuzzy Freaky" and the woozy grace of "Amnesia"; the last track, "They Are in Love," is just as strong, with Byrne sounding at ease in the cabaret company of strings, horns and accordion. But lyrically, the album strives for sophistication while too often feeling obvious, especially the enemy-is-within conceit of "You Don't Know Me" and a ho-hum attack on the Religious Right, "Dance on Vaseline." Feelings reaches its nadir on "Daddy Go Down," an attempt to marry Cajun fiddles and Indian sitars in a shotgun ceremony that patronizes both cultures. "Miss America" is almost as bad, in part because Byrne's voice doesn't lend itself to rich Latin rhythms, but more because the song uses a duplicitous beauty queen as a metaphor for What's Wrong With This Country.
Like a lot of other New Yorkers, Byrne is more provincial than he realizes. He didn't get Texas right in True Stories, and he's even more off the mark with a bigger target. Feelings isn't a bad album, but it's not as much fun as it should be, sounding as tightly wound as Bryan Ferry's version of funk. Since I also find more meaning in Beck's new pollution and Cibo Matto's sugar water, there's no need to bow to a master--not when the disciples are even better.
Slinky, straight-out sexy and enormously likable, En Vogue makes you wonder at least one thing: What would the world be like if there were no music videos? For one thing, a perfectly talented group such as En Vogue might be forced to work harder without the playful showmanship it musters for the visual idiom, the overripe diva come-ons both funny and seductive. Onscreen, the members toy with the power of feminine sexuality: There was always the dimpled calm of Dawn Robinson as she curled a finger at the lens, showing some self-awareness; and the group's video aplomb, among other things, bounces around in your head as much as the beats and grooves. Too bad the album EV3 is just that--a mere album, a collection of songs desperately in search of a three-minute video.
The title refers to the group's diminished number; now it is three (Terry Ellis, Cindy Herron and Maxine Jones), down by one (the sorely missed Robinson). It features the kinds of songs you mostly hear as a few bars in some movie background--the kind that, when you sit through the closing credits on HBO, you suddenly realize, "Damn, I didn't know there was an En Vogue song on the soundtrack." The irony is, of course, that the best song on EV3--"Don't Let Go (Love)," which gives the group a chance to show off its wide-awake harmonic muscle--does indeed come from a soundtrack, Set It Off. But even it sounds a little secondhand, vaguely reminiscent of Gladys Knight's bang-up bang-out of "License to Kill," as well as serving as a reminder that En Vogue pulled up on a hot-burning version of "Something He Can Feel"--from the Sparkle soundtrack--a few years ago. At the very least, it seems a pity that no one has pushed the movie connection further by actually putting the group in one.
When it comes to the original tunes on EV3, it feels as though the group has been losing to the sistas with attitude. L'il Kim has cut away all the girlishness and struck right to the bone, wielding a do-me-do-me vibe; and Zhane's new album shows that almost anyone can give En Vogue a reason to sweat it out somewhere other than between the sheets. Given the uninspired professionalism in girl-group pop-funk these days, Robinson got the message. During what seemed like an interminable recording period before the release of EV3, she chose to bail and join Dr. Dre in whatever he wants to do to her. (Word is he'll be producing her solo album himself--which, considering the success of The Aftermath, won't result in the kind of confidence that makes folks sleep well at night.)
EV3's most purely enjoyable moment comes on the sweet, pop-gospel vocalizing on "Does Anybody Hear Me," and En Vogue breaks out with showstopping assurance on the a cappella workout "Let It Flow." But during the latter, the group sings, "What you need/Yes, indeed/Is a little funk from EV"--and the members could use a little bit of that themselves.
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Summercamp's Tim Cullen seems to delight in tweaking listeners' expectations of his band's presumably warm sound. For every fleeting moment of churning, dreamy, melodic fare on the Santa Barbara quartet's debut album, Pure Juice, there are leagues of dour instances of downbeat non-fun. "I'm becoming a little stressed out/And it's all because of you," from "Nowhere Near," is nowhere/anywhere near Todd Rundgren's "Hello it's me/I've thought about us for a long, long time . . ." You feel a little gypped, as if by false advertising: Did they switch MPAA ratings on this film without telling anyone?
"I wish I knew you well enough," Cullen sings near the end of the recording, "but I'm quite convinced I'm alone at last." The song "Thing of the Past" is a yearning remembrance of suburban boyhood fantasia--lawns and yawns, parks and larks. Yet Summercamp refuses to stay in that time, choosing--mournfully, begrudgingly--to stay in the present day: In Cullen's eyes, youth is more than a paradise lost; it's also an unpleasant reminder of the death of his now-adult soul. Produced by Chris Shaw (Weezer, Redd Kross), Pure Juice is a bracing recording, not always pleasant, and far more challenging than the cushioned tones of other S.B. bands, such as Dishwalla or Toad the Wet Sprocket. Pure Juice is also aptly named: Cullen and co-songwriter Sean McCue keep wondering who the wise guy is who keeps ruining the lemonade with all that unwanted sugar--and water--but they should look into throwing a party the whole family can attend. "The Bright Side" starts with a peppy jangle that soon becomes perverse; just when you want it to make you dance, it turns inward upon itself, sadly becoming a shoegazer ode that only a failure (or--alternately--Failure, the band) could love.
Better are "On Her Mind" and "Drawer," which bring to mind the Goo Goo Dolls with tans, or the riffy "Ninety Nine," a song that makes everything else here soggy by comparison. The band needs far more hooky ammunition in its arsenal, despite the fine performances and pretty harmonies. If Pure Juice were a picnic, you'd leave it to the ants: Sure, the food's okay, but Summercamp makes it awfully tough to eat enjoyably under those gray clouds it's summoned with its rain dance.