The Charity of Night
L. Ron Hubbard should be as cult an artist as Bruce Cockburn. Cockburn's only "hit" singles are diametric opposites--1979's "Wondering Where the Lions Are" was a jaunty bit of religious poetry, while 1984's "If I Had a Rocket Launcher" threatened to blow up some sons of bitches. Another reason to like Cockburn: He's the only guy who has covered "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" (from Monty Python's Life of Brian) on a live album.
Though he's never registered more than a blip on America's pop-culture radar, Cockburn (pronounce it genteellike, COE-burn) has been at it for a quarter century. His '70s albums were sweet, sometimes saccharine, folky efforts tinged with jazz and drenched in a Christianity that became increasingly liberal-minded. But he hit his stride in the early '80s, with a few brief, brilliant moments--Humans, Inner City Front and The Trouble With Normal. These albums placed personal concerns within a broader political context and fretted, honestly and with torment, over the incongruity between the loving God Cockburn believed in and the increasingly bleak global landscape. And yet this period was sprinkled with Cockburn's most playful shoulda-been hits--"Tokyo," "Wanna Go Walking," "The Trouble With Normal," "Peggy's Kitchen Wall."
Later albums became more aggressively political, to the point of outright pedantry. Cockburn traveled the world's trouble spots and reported back what he had seen, but with decreasing musical invention. Indisputably, Cockburn is a committed humanitarian, but the effect on his music has been underwhelming--he's closer to a Nobel Prize than a Grammy. Through it all, Cockburn has bopped from label to label. With The Charity of Night, his new home Rykodisc faces the difficult task of getting American toes tapping to accounts of human-rights violations in East Timor.
The new disc, Cockburn's 23rd, is a predominantly acoustic effort--a good move since his acoustic material has tended to be more distinctive than his electric. It opens with "Night Train," conjuring up exotic and menacing imagery, something Cockburn can do in his sleep. It's pushed along, however, by a smooth, agreeably less-than-urgent shuffle, which returns a few tracks later in "The Coming Rains." These are pleasant enough tunes, but they find Cockburn spouting such mouthfuls as: "Hot breeze ran its fingers through the long grass of a thatched-roof eave/Stepping in the only chair they had while they cooked casava and a luckless hen/They asked for one, well, three lanterns and two hundred liters of fuel and I said, Who me?" Um--can you run that luckless hen bit past us again?
No wonder Cockburn's started using spoken-word monologues backed by instrumentation--they convey the more sophisticated ideas he's after. But musically, they're a bit of a cheat. No fewer than four tracks here include bits or large chunks of unsung narrative. "I woke up this morning thinking about Turkish drummers, which didn't take long since I don't know much about Turkish drummers," he begins, promisingly enough, seemingly poking fun at some of his previously pretentious spoken-sung tracks. But soon he's off again, discussing Afghan secret police, refinery fires, military police pistols and eco-tragedies.
"Pacing the Cage" or "Night Train" seem the best choices for the single from this package, but Rykodisc gave that honor to another rambling tune, "The Mines of Mozambique." In fact, the label has pledged five dollars to charity every time the song is played on the radio--call it socially aware payola. Much of Cockburn's recent work has been championed by his enduring admirers as having a ripped-from-today's-headlines quality. But, perhaps unwittingly, that's part of the problem--what do you do with yesterday's newspaper?
If Steve Earle hadn't already claimed the tag, Chris Whitley could easily bill himself a hard-core troubadour. Born in Texas but raised in rural Vermont and central Mexico, Whitley learned blues the hard way--from Jimi Hendrix records, his own lonely childhood, and a decade of playing on the streets of New York and Brussels, Belgium. His 1991 debut, Living With the Law, introduced Whitley as a pastoral loner, a poet armed with a National Steel guitar. It was even a surprise hit, thanks to a tour with Tom Petty and the inclusion of "Kick the Stones" on the Thelma & Louise soundtrack.
Whitley's 1995 album, Din of Ecstasy, was a more challenging listen. Between albums, the guitarist ended a 13-year romantic relationship, and it shows in the blasts of dissonance and disturbing imagery--a hint that his gaunt good looks might be the product of a habit darker than a low-fat diet. Naturally, the recording was a commercial flop. If "Big Sky Country" from Living offered an endless horizon and limitless love, Din's "Narcotic Prayer" was all rough sex and cold-sweat addiction.
Terra Incognita finds Whitley trying to crawl back to middle ground. It opens innocently enough with "Flat As the Earth," a solo acoustic ballad that lasts barely a minute but captures a sense of how the absence of a loved one (whether human or chemical) can leach the vivid textures from everyday life. Many of Terra Incognita's other songs are built around longer incantations that gather power with each repeating figure. For lack of a better term, "Gasket" and "Aerial" are both dark blues boogies, but clearly Whitley has listened to John Lee Hooker and Sonic Youth more than Southern rock bands. "Immortal Blues" comes the closest to the rustic atmosphere of Living With the Law, but it's not as satisfying as "On Cue," which opens with the rhythmic flutter of what sounds like a movie projector before snaking steadily toward a harsh metallic solo that takes its cue from industrial music.
Terra Incognita sounds like the work of someone struggling to cap a deep well of sadness. If "Automatic Love" is any indication, the price of taming desire is exhaustion and routine. The song isn't bad--it's the closest thing to a conventional pop song--but I prefer "Still Point," which uses feedback guitar, banjo and bass to produce a sound that's equal parts bluegrass, blues and noise-rock. Amazingly, it manages to sound weirdly natural, a temporary triumph in a life of impulsive action and long, lingering regret.
Eight Arms to Hold You
Pardon the mistake. At first it appeared Veruca Salt (its name a swipe from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) was a cynical Breeders knockoff, just another prefab product that fell off the alternarock assembly line into the cutout bin, where people mistakenly paid full price. From the start, Veruca Salt smelled like suspicious secondhand goods, garnering buzz before anyone even heard a note, and its indie-to-major debut American Thighs (its title a swipe from AC/DC) sounds like it was recorded not by musicians, but by A&R cronies with an expense account. "Seether" wasn't a single; it was a career.
Then, last year's Blow It Out Your Lame Ass It's Veruca Salt EP was given the Steve Albini treatment, which was like putting salt on a chocolate bar. Veruca Salt presumably wanted Albini for the indie-rock cred he can no more deliver than a Domino's pizza in 30 minutes; he presumably wanted to prove he could still fuck over a band on a major label's dime. The result was more garbage than garage, a recording split between Nirvana outtakes and Olivia Newton-John remakes. Nothing salvageable, so on to the next mess.
Which leads to Eight Arms to Hold You, where Nina Gordon and Louise Post do a 180, round up producer Bob Rock, and spin the dial on the Way-Back Machine to 1980. Forget the Breeders, this is pure Heart--the alternarock Bebe Le Strange, where the only thing it's the alternative to is good music. Rock, a man so wimpy his idea of hard-core is Def Leppard, is just the kind of producer Veruca Salt needed to illuminate its fatal shortcomings: He's a tech-head whose obsession with finding the "right" sound drowns out his ability to perfect the "wrong" sound; every song is crafted with an architect's steady hand, every note secured in its proper place. Eight Arms (the title a swipe from the Beatles) is sterile, self-contained rock 'n' roll--the sound of guitar and harmonies duking it out in a vacuum.
Lyrically, it's a mess ("Words won't do/Can't stay true"--sing it, sisters!), and musically, it's a wash; Eight Arms is really no different from its predecessors, split between postpunk by-the-numbers--the singles "Volcano Girls" and "Don't Make Me Prove It" sound like "Seether" broken into two parts--and power ballads. Save for the David Bowie homage, in which the women imagine themselves singing for the Thin White Duke and no one else, there's never any sense Gordon and Post need to make music. They seem to stand on the stage just to "hear the crowd" (as they sing in "Earthcrosser," doing their Wilson sisters act to perfection), not to feed it. Rock 'n' roll's not a spectator sport, but Gordon and Post are distanced from their own music--perhaps because of the production, perhaps because they put nothing of themselves into it from the start.
One of the rock biz's most prominent urban legends posits that Brian Wilson used to mix singles through car-radio speakers to make sure they sounded good on the road. Ben Vaughn's Rambler 65 takes this legend and runs with it: Vaughn claims the album was recorded in a studio constructed in the back of his beloved AMC Rambler.
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Of course, the Rambler is the central metaphor of the entire album. Luckily for Vaughn, the gimmick works: By attaching the jumper cables, Vaughn has given what might otherwise be a pretty ordinary recording an added jolt of energy. And while not every song on Rambler 65 is about cars--that would make it a "concept album"--those that aren't, such as "Song for You" and "Rock Is Dead" (both album highlights), would sound awfully good on a road trip.
Other songs, such as "Heavy Machinery," "Levitation" and "Perpetual Motion Machine," use car metaphors to describe love--and they try their damnedest to sound like songs you might have heard in a '65 Rambler back in 1965. But near the end of the recording, the gears shift a little too often: The instrumental "Soundtrack Music" (reminiscent of the surf-rock album Instrumental Stylings Vaughn released last year) is a by-the-numbers '60s radio jingle, and "Rambler Spot" is an actual ad for the car.
But Vaughn has never been an innovator; indeed, the more retro he tries to sound, the better he is. But the real beauty of his work is the very fine line he runs between basic rock 'n' roll and overintellectualized hogwash. Unlike that of other clever songwriters--Elvis Costello and John Hiatt pop to mind--Vaughn's rock is simplicity itself. He ain't verbose, and he never gets too deep, yet the light of his big brain shines through every number.