THE CD EQUATION REVEALED THEY RECORD'EM, WE REVIEW'EM
It's the Stones. It's great. Buy it.
Little Jimmy Scott
America is a wonderful place. A country that, no matter how much misfortune comes your way, no matter how much you just plain fuck up, if you hang around long enough, things just may turn out all right in the end. Take Little Jimmy Scott. They don't call him "Little" for nothing; a nasty thing called Kallman's Syndrome left his height permanently stunted, and when he was 13, his mother died (55 years ago), forcing him out on his own. Things weren't too red hot after that; divorces, depression and sour business deals plagued the man.
But Scott had one thing going for him: a beautiful, soaring voice, with pitch and pain somewhere between Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. He had an up-and-down career for decades, singing with the likes of Ray Charles and Lionel Hampton, but by the Seventies he'd entered semiretirement.
Then, in 1991, a Sire Records bigwig heard the diminutive singer perform at the funeral of songwriting legend Doc Pomus, and the next year Scott found himself with a Grammy-nominated album, All the Way, and a second career in high gear. He packed shows, was acknowledged by Lou Reed, Madonna and the Grateful Dead; he even serenaded Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger at the couple's holy coupling.
And now Scott gives us Dream, an album by an artist who simply must be heard to be believed, singing songs to break your heart. These are ballads that make depression and misery a fine art; not since Sinatra's In the Wee Small Hours has there been anything quite as magnificently blue as this. Though many of the tracks on Dream may be unfamiliar to some, the feeling Little Jimmy Scott captures is not.
Pure and Simple
Rock's spiritual heir to Leather Tuscadero occupies a strange place in our black hearts. We like the idea of Ms. Jett more than we actually enjoy listening to her. Basically, Jett's a tough chick to fathom, especially for kids too young or insulated for P.J. Harvey, L7 and Courtney Love. She comes close to reclaiming her former Runaways toughness with the "Maybe I don't wanna, maybe I don't wanna wanna FUCK YOU!!!" chorus of "Spinster," and with her promising "I've got a gun!" on the sassy "Activity Grrrrl." But she proceeds to blow the image with "I'm Rubber, You're Glue," a schoolyard taunt to a former lover that sounds ridiculous coming from anyone older than 10. Why not just threaten someone with a brutal session of patty-cake?
Bad as that song is, Jett's attempts at being topical (read: important) are what undermine the best efforts of her more noteworthy (read: teen trash) material. On "Wonderin'," Jett asks if anyone sees the starving, homeless people that only seem visible to her. But you never get the sense that she's willing to give any of them the leather jacket off her back; at least, not without a video shoot scheduled around it. She collaborates with seasoned songwriting hack Desmond Child for the even worse "Brighter Day"--more of Joan watching the homeless suffer, the politicians lie, the bullets fly in our nation's playgrounds. Thank goodness Joan's doing her bit for humanity by telling us "we've got to find a way." When the military drums start to rat-a-tat behind her, as if it's "Ballad of the Green Berets" time, one thing is clear: Jett is a lot farther off track than the country.
Now that the Cocktail Nation has become the latest little wedge in the great pie of hipness, it's about time for the fabulous Esquivel to take his rightful place among the Martin Dennys, Les Baxters and Korla Pandits. These names came from the Fifties and early Sixties, the era of Easy Listening and Mood Music, a period where a good hi-fi was as important a tool of seduction as a dimmer switch and a highball.
While most artists back then were intent on putting across an exotically mellow atmosphere, Esquivel was making wrenching, fantastic stuff, throwing in sounds that moved across a good sound system like bold strokes across a canvas. Sure, the Mexico-born arranger/composer covered well-known standards--Begin the Beguine," "Bye Bye Blues," "Who's Sorry Now?"--but after additions of pumped-up bongos, pedal steel guitars gone mad, female choruses singing nothing more than zu zu zu or pow pow POW, all within unexpected ebbs and flows of volume and intensity, they seemed like completely new songs.
Variety magazine called him "the Mexican Duke Ellington . . . Esquivel is to pop music what Aaron Copland is to serious music or what a John Coltrane is to jazz." Bar None has compiled an excellent collection of 14 cuts of the maestro's best "space age bachelor pad music." A CD, quite simply, that no space age bachelor should be without.
In the early Eighties, Killer Pussy was Phoenix's homegrown answer to the B-52's, the Waitresses and the Bush Tetras. Lucy La Mode and company had a decidedly different agenda from their New Wave brethren, namely taking taboo subject matter like unsightly pubic hair, body odor, zits, masturbation and herpes out of the closet and onto the dance floor. Each song is a Jenny Jones show set to music. "Teenage Enema Nurses in Bondage," the band's national underground hit, is here, as well as "Dildo Desire." In today's "no sex is safe sex" climate, advice like "Depend on a dildo and you'll come with delight" is ripe for revival. Face facts--grunge, gloom rock and industrial music have turned today's alternative scene into one big, miserable gripe session. This CD reissue clearly demonstrates the fun that once could be had in dance clubs, whether it was fruggin' to the boss surf sounds of the title track or forming a conga line to the cleansing sweep of "Moist Towelette." If you want to hear New Times' Thrills Editor, Robert X. Planet, in his former Pussy glory, make tracks for Bikini Wax!
33 Revolutions Per Minute
Rap music is continually crossing international borders, and Marxman's blend of socially conscious lyrics and Irish musical influences is no exception to the migration. Just when rappers with no soul for the essence of hip-hop have turned street poetry into gangsta rap, Marxman comes to save the art form.
Smashing political and social systems of the world, Marxman incorporates bagpipes and Celtic bass beats into this CD's Irish identity. 33 Revolutions Per Minute is one big, wake-up-and-smell-the-Irish-coffee poem, jam-packed with songs about life and politics.
On track after track, from crack addiction to fatherly love, Marxman sheds light on issues affecting the downtrodden in society. For example, "All About Eve," a defense of women and an indictment of woman-beaters, sets off this ethical-message mix of club beats with a comment on the O.J. Simpson era. This sort of thing has been tried before. Arrested Development made attempts at being the better half of hip-hop, but came across as righteous and sometimes overbearing. Marxman's declarations give food for thought, without the nauseating preachiness.
Ron Holloway makes what comes from his tenor sax sound like something you could eat.
Rich, thick, filled with life-giving nutrients and natural energy.
Slanted is the musician's debut as a bandleader after stints with Dizzy Gillespie's final quintet and Root Boy Slim's Sex Change Band (to name but a few jobs). He fills the role, big-time.
The album includes standards by Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins and Duke Ellington, along with three originals by Holloway that, while unspectacular, fit in well enough with the compositions of the heavyweights. Holloway isn't breaking new ground here, but he manages to make everything sound fresh, no easy feat when you're playing oft-covered tunes like "Autumn Leaves" and "In Walked Bud."
He is a player's player. Taking his cues from Hawkins, Webster and Rollins, Holloway also tosses in his own unique personality, developed from years of performing everywhere from cocktail lounges to early-Eighties punk joints in his hometown of Washington, D.C. Holloway is backed up on the release by small, topnotch bands and varying names--bassist Keter Betts, pianists George Colligan and Bob Butta. Now all he needs to back him up is a following, a problem Slanted might straighten out.
On Another Level
If you're tired of the usual blood-soaked, bitch-slapping, booty-call lyrics spilling from the mouths of current rap artists, let Another Level take you to a higher ground. This new five-man rap crew is one of the first rap-a-lot groups to step into the hip-hop arena without gangsterism and gun boasts. Though Another Level hails from the West Coast, the quintet possesses a bicoastal sound that's all its own. Utilizing Ice Cube's hip-hop expertise as executive producer, the CD taps into a broad range of old-school beats and features an impromptu, freestyle type of humor. This is music to the ears and plenty of laughs, as well. And just when you thought humor was becoming as frequent as respect for women in hip-hop.
The stripped-down approach of Dance Naked gives Mellencamp his most spontaneous and vibrant album yet, despite the repetitive sleigh bells clanging in the back of nearly every song. Recorded in 14 days, Naked displays a healthy shedding of excess and the shortest playing time of a full-length CD this year (29 minutes and 12 seconds). Like a pre-1968 album, this set offers a bunch of swell A-sides (Too Much to Think About," "When Margaret Comes to Town") as well as attention-worthy B-sides (The Big Jack, "The Breakout"). Lyrically, "Brothers" is Juliana Hatfield's "Sister" song with all the bile, but none of the sugar coating. Mellencamp still holds grudges over things his no-good sibling did when they were kids: "I don't approve of anything you do," he grumbles. "On my birthday, don't bother to call." Mellencamp has made an honest record everybody but his mom and pop will be glad to hear.
New Wave Hits of the 80's, Vols. 1-5
The title says it all. There is no denying that these are New Wave hits of the Eighties, 80 of em, to be exact. With, uh, ten more volumes to follow. As with any summing-up-of-an-era, greatest-hits package, you could have two different takes on the contents. Number one: If you lived through the time period, if you went to school, got laid, hated life, whatever; if you did something significant when you heard the songs the first time around, there's no escaping a nostalgic reaction.
Number two: If you're hearing the songs for the first time, you may be awakened to a wonderful hunk of something that passed you by. Or, you might scoff at the horrible, dated, ludicrous music that defined an odd niche in rock history. And where does that leave us? The folks at Rhino have done an admirable job of corralling about as many of these Eighties tidbits as you'd probably care to hear, whichever of the above categories you fall into.
Some of the tunes have lost whatever spark they had in the first place. From Volume 3: Toni Basil's cloying "Mickey," Frank and Moon Zappa's God-awful "Valley Girl," and the dull techno disco of Soft Cell's "Sex Dwarf" are glimpses into things better left in the dusty record bins of time. But stuff like "867-5309/Jenny" by Tommy Tutone, the Jam's "Town Called Malice" (back when Paul Weller could still write a great song--and that was a long time ago) and Marshall Crenshaw's "Someday, Someway" stand tall as hell, even in the heady world of Nineties Alternative Rock. Whew. Enough analysis--remember, folks, these were the days of New Wave! Folks were happy! Kurt Cobain was still in high school, safely stoned in some little logging town in Washington; if you wanted to go on a bummer, you just whipped out some Joy Division! New Wave Hits of the 80's is not a history lesson; the real message here is unadulterated fun. Sometimes stupid unadulterated fun, but that's not always a bad thing.--Peter Gilstrap Various Artists
Symphonic Music of the Rolling Stones
Remember when the Stones used to release their own Muzak versions of the Jagger-Richards songbook? If you're looking for something as bad as the Andrew Loog Oldham Orchestra ravaging "Heart of Stone" with screeching female voices, check out opera star Jerry Hadley and the chorale bluster of "I killed the czar and his ministers," and "I'm in need of some restraint" on the compleeeeetely over-the-top "Sympathy for the Devil." Who'd have thought that "a man of wealth and taste" would ever sound like he was trying out for the lead in Les Miz? Equally hellish is Michael Hutchence's out-of-hand performance of "Under My Thumb." If they ever remake Mel Brooks' The Producers, there's no question of who should reprise Dick Shawn's role.
Yet all is not grounds for "camp" counseling. Jagger himself turns in a fine rereading of "Angie," and his former flame Marianne Faithfull croaks a sad and moving "Ruby Tuesday." Marianne's hit "As Tears Go By" is given a faithful treatment by Clannad's Marie Brennan. While "Paint It Black," "She's a Rainbow" and "Dandelion" all sound like appropriate choices for the London Symphony Orchestra to interpret, less melodic numbers--Street Fighting Man" (yeah, right--what melody?)--sound indistinguishable from the overture to Cats without Charlie's whomp and Keith's furious strumming. That the opening of "Gimme Shelter" still delivers the same thrills, sans Stones, is this collection's biggest surprise. And, in case you were wondering, there's absolutely nothing here from Exile on Main Street.
Willie Wisely Trio
Every once in a while, a music critic gets the opportunity to start a review with something like this: Every once in a while, an album comes along that jumps out of the speakers, off the turntable, that will change your life, etc. This is one of those whiles.
The Minneapolis trio plays wisely indeed; all ten songs on the disc were written by the clever and talented Mr. Wisely. The guitarist/vocalist mixes genres--and gets away with it--like you wouldn't believe; vivid jazz changes crop up next to soul/blues jams next to Neil Youngish acoustic passages next to hillbilly jug-pop next to hooks, hooks, hooks.
To make this perfectly clear in a name-dropping context, Parlez-Vous is sort of like NRBQ playing the White Album. But the standup bass/drums/guitar threesome is not merely another bunch of pop classicists relying more on calculation than feel; each song is rife with emotion and humor that come across perfectly through the beautifully lo-fi production values. Wisely's crystal vocals at times are almost falsetto monklike, especially on "No Surprise." Many of the tunes--the Lennonesque "So Alone" (the Girl-From-Ipanema-gone-nuts title track) and "Robe of Glory," a shuffling spiritual with the chorus of the year--were recorded "at home" on four-track.
There's only one problem here: There are only ten songs.
Has it been seven years already?
It only took Tom Scholz two years to rewrite "More Than a Feeling" the first time around, but that's progress for you. Music hasn't changed much since Scholz last set foot on Earth, at least not on his limited palette. His self-inflated liner notes inform you that "the hand claps are actually people clapping, not a drum machine!" Furthermore, every Hammond B3 organ and piano passage was performed in real time, "not flown in by computer"; all played on "vintage instruments . . . not a synthesizer!" Yet there isn't one drum sound on this entire record that isn't being computer-triggered. Whoever heard of being halfway purists? The band's original lineup, save for Scholz, has abandoned ship, and the new lead singer is as bland as a melted, gray crayon on the sidewalk. If you need a generic Rockman demonstration disc, by all means grab your boarding pass. But you're better off taking the advice offered by two of Boston's album titles--Walk On and Don't Look Back!
Webster's dictionary defines magnum opus as "a great work, especially of art; a masterpiece." In Top Quality, rapper Magnum Opus belies his name.
Magnum's skills don't live up to his moniker. Top Quality is stuffed with musically disappointing selections; the title track is the only cut that stands out with its vicious loops and jazzy sample of Roy Ayers' "Step Into Our Lives." During the second track, "Someone So Fly," it becomes evident Magnum Opus could have used additional production time to create better rhythms. His lyrical style has potential, but the beats don't match. And the CD goes straight into the ground after that. Top quality? This is barely bargain basement.
Like Belew's work with the Bears, Here recalls the adventurous spirit of pop music circa 1967, while still sounding thoroughly modern. On this one-man travelogue, Belew plays every instrument, from toy koto to cello to African log drums.
He's all over the place lyrically, as well. On "Brave New World," he's bursting with enthusiasm about the advances we've made in technology; on "Burned by the Fire We Make," he's condemning these advancements for disfiguring Mother Earth. On the title track, he tells his lover he "swam across the sky" to be with her, but on "Fly," he concedes he's afraid of air travel and would rather be on terra firma, cutting himself shaving. It's these contradictions that make Belew's persona endearing; the melodies make that persona enduring. Forget he was ever in King Crimson--this man is a pure pop visionary.
Sunny Day Real Estate
The artwork on this CD, depicting the harrowing daily events of little Playskool figurines, is worth the price of admission. Sunny Day's material is a lot less funny; sort of like Tiny Tim's little crutch being consumed by termites on Christmas Eve. Lyrics are of the "you cut, I bleed" variety. Taken one track at a time, this CD's simple virtues reveal themselves. Taken as a whole, this collection will remind you why you got rid of that first Cowboy Junkies album.
If you're one of those people who's always found Boingo's music as annoying as its name, take heart. They've become less annoying! The cloying cleverness of yesteryear still manifests itself with "Insanity," the opening track. On this ode to mental instability, Danny Elfman momentarily forgets where he is and starts playing incidental music he's already scored for Batman: The Animated Series. But the spookiness of "Lost Like This," and the pop sheen of "Mary" and "Spider," more than make up for prior deficiency. Other shrewd pop turns include the single "Hey!", which has probably already fooled fans of Smashing Pumpkins. You'll also find a perfunctory cover of "I Am the Walrus" (which sounds like Paul Shaffer between commercial breaks) and "Change," a 16-minute opus that doesn't seem 16 minutes long, mainly because it keeps fading in and out.