Nina Simone
Anthology: The Colpix Years

This two-disc compilation is neither a satisfactory introduction to nor a true anthology of Nina Simone's career. It only covers her late-'50s and early-'60s tenure with Colpix Records--her early, formative years--and so omits such important original compositions as "Mississippi Goddamn" and "Young, Gifted and Black," not to mention her defining cover versions of "I Put a Spell on You," "Strange Fruit" and "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood." The material here is largely jazz-oriented and generic, inferior to her later, more idiosyncratic output. Yet, as always, Simone's regal voice works its wonders.

In Simone's massive pipes lie untold suffering and a huge capacity for love, the weight of the world and the flight of angels. Always difficult to define, her vocals bespeak the influence of gospel and blues as well as jazz, and foretell to a degree the sound of the soul-music explosion that was yet to come. Simone's sinewy, masculine contralto operates with such force it can make one believe her contention that she is the reincarnation of Nefertiti. Forty tunes and a lavish booklet with touching notes by David Nathan hallmark Anthology, and there's scarcely any filler.

Highlights include "Blue Prelude," "Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair" and a take on "House of the Rising Sun" that supposedly was the inspiration for the hit version by the Animals in 1964. Weirdest cut: "Come on Back, Jack," a long-out-of-print 1961 answer to Ray Charles' "Hit the Road, Jack," which positively reeks of some A&R man's misguided meddling.

--Buddy Siegel

Dinosaur Jr
Hand It Over

You can almost picture our ol' pal Joseph Mascis as he stands at the door of the recording studio ready to record this, Dinosaur Jr's ninth album since 1985. He grabs the handle with reluctance, knowing deep inside that he has absolutely nothing to say. A dedicated student of rock history, he ponders that all of his favorite albums have been the result of artists who are virtually exploding with passion or pain. It's been so long since he felt that way he's not even sure he ever did. But then another thought crosses his mind: What on Earth would I do if I stopped making albums? The prospects are too frightening to contemplate, so he hustles his butt inside.

Herein lies the problem with Hand It Over: Mascis doesn't care anymore, so why the hell should we? His initial contribution to indie/alternative whatsis--resurrecting the dread cult of the guitar god--was slim to begin with; he could never sing or write lyrics worth a damn, and if you really paid attention, his much-ballyhooed guitar thrashing wasn't that great, either. Granted, he occasionally roused himself from his terminal couch-potato slackerdom to produce a rollicking tune like "Freak Scene" or "Little Fury Things." But mostly he just built massive walls of noise behind which he and his fellow social misfits could cower instead of interacting with the outside world.

In the past few years, Mascis has made stumbling moves toward civilization. He wrote the faux Pet Sounds tunes that Matt Dillon lip-synched in the abysmal film Grace of My Heart, and he made the embarrassingly bad "Martin + Me" on a 1995 acoustic tour during which he tried to reinvent himself as alternative rock's James Taylor. Hand It Over is being trumpeted as Mascis' triumphant return to guitar chaos--as if that's an accomplishment in 1997--but with new songs such as "I Don't Think" (no kidding) and "Nothin's Goin' On" (ditto), he sounds as if he's just going through the motions.

Nearly everything here was done better on 1987's You're Living All Over Me and 1988's Bug. The twist is supposed to be that this time, the walls of noise are decorated with snatches of Mellotron, a toy that Mascis acquired because everybody in indie rock had to have one in 1996. Plus there's some goofy banjo-pickin' on "Gettin Rough," and Kevin Shields makes some cameo performances in backing vocals. (The leader of My Bloody Valentine, Shields is the only person in rock lazier than Mascis: He has been locked up in his home studio since 1991.)

These are pretty narrow hooks on which to hang a continuing career, and, like it or not, Mascis is going to have to deal with the question of what he does next sooner rather than later. Hey, J, it's not so bad, working for a living.

--Jim DeRogatis

Chocolate Supa Highway

Michael Franti isn't half the rapper Snoop is, nor is he the poetic equal of his hero, Gil Scott-Heron. But on Spearhead's 1994 debut, Home, he transcended those limitations to produce his best album. Mostly forsaking the agit-pop that dragged down his Disposable Heroes of HipHoprisy, Franti led his seven-member band through a set of '70s-inspired funk fueled by black pride ("Of Course You Can") and astute social commentary ("Hole in the Bucket," "Caught Without an Umbrella").

Having befriended Stephen Marley on last summer's Smokin' Grooves tour, Franti seems to have discovered ganja and Rastafarianism. Big surprise, then, that much of Chocolate Supa Highway sounds like it was recorded in a blinding Indo haze. If Home was a convincing testament to what it's like to be young, black and highly educated in the '90s, Supa Highway sounds like a guy trying to find premillennial salvation in the fattest spliff imaginable. As Franti sees it, the "Chocolate Supa Highway" is the black equivalent of the info-age Autobahn; unfortunately, the "Africa Online" intro that opens the album already sounds dated, as AOL loses importance with each passing hour. Oral traditions survive by being timely and topical, but Chocolate Supa Highway doesn't deliver on either count--unless references to Johnnie Cochran, Mark Fuhrman and the Oklahoma City bombing qualify. When Franti reaches for more personal subject matter, he trips on his own awkward phrasing. "Why, Oh Why" should be touching--it's about guys who excel on the basketball court but fuck up everywhere else--but Franti isn't nimble enough to make his wordy tale come alive. The truth is, Franti is smarter than he is smooth, even if he wants to convince us of the opposite.

The dominant midtempo grooves are pleasant enough, but most of them meander. You may not notice if you're stoned, but it's annoying if you're not. There are nice touches throughout--the loose swing of "Madness in the Hood (Free Ride)," the sitar on "Comin' to Gitcha"--but not enough of them. The cover of Bob Marley's "Rebel Music" feels rote rather than revolutionary, and "Wayfaring Stranger" is simply bizarre. While Joan Osborne tries to imitate Emmylou Harris singing gospel, Franti offers a ghetto-ized version of the Old Testament: "You can take my life, but there's no escape/'Cause you can't shoot yer way through the Pearly Gates/So swing low pink Cadillac/Coming for to carry me home."

It used to be that Franti was one of the few hip-hop artists willing to speak out when his peers indulged themselves in blunted reality or unrepentant misogyny. Now he's more interested in easy solidarity than hard truths. In "Gag Gauge," the guy who gets gunned down by racist cops while reaching for his wallet sounds more like a cartoon than a real-life casualty. The only time Franti completely connects is on the sweet soul closer, "Water Pistol Man." It's about a revolution that begins--and maybe ends--in a backyard, proving that sometimes a squirt gun is more powerful than a Tek-9.

--Keith Moerer


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