The high Honorable Mention ratio means what you’d figure— I’ve been having a hell of a time finding new records to love, even a little. Especially records that sneak around and kiss me on the back of the neck, which is always the most fun. You’re cute too, Mandy.
MANDY BARNETT: I’ve Got a Right To Cry (Sire) The main thing her critics’-choice debut proved was that when you put a good young singer up against a bunch of Kostas songs, the Kostas songs win. Not that this 23-year-old Patsy Cline fan is any less produced or conceptualized here— more so, actually. But the conceptualization is so audacious, and so perfectly suited to her timbre and swing, that it’s more fun than what it rips off, by which I mean countrypolitan. The strings, the prefab licks, the rinky-dink beats, the hooks with exclamation points on them, the background singers going woo-oo-oo and whoa-oh— everything the late Owen Bradley did for and to country music is here, with Owen himself overseeing four tracks and his brother-partner Harold following his notes on the rest. Yet Barnett has these wonderful pipes, and not only does she sing as if she loves the songs, she sings as if she can scarcely contain her warm fuzzy feelings for the style itself. My fave is “Trademark,” originally a c&w No. 2 for the forgotten hit machine Carl Smith in 1952. But the new-growth corn tastes just as good with a coating of caramel. A Minus
KID ROCK: Devil Without a Cause (Atlantic/Lava) Wish this “illegitimate son of man” would stop pretending he’s a pimp— he tours so much he can’t possibly provide the necessary continuity. But not since great Motörhead has there been a hard rock album with so many laugh lines: “I don’t like small cars or real big women/But somehow I always find myself in ’em.” Belatedly fulfilling the rap-metal promise of Licensed To Ill, he makes the competition sound clownish, limp, and corny, respectively, and the Eminem cameo is a draw— Rock’s flow is surer even if his sound isn’t. Lickin’ pussy underwater blowin’ bubbles up your ass, he is, and I quote, all of that and a bag of chips. A Minus
BAABA MAAL: Live at the Royal Festival Hall (Palm Pictures) “My voice was always very loud but very thin,” so this border Tukolor bulked up his God-given instrument with the same conscious discipline that enabled him to attend law school and penetrate Wolof Dakar. But as with so many ambitious young men from the provinces, there’s always been an awkwardness about him, and his Chris Blackwellbacked attempts to follow Youssou N’Dour and Salif Keita into the so-called world music market have been cluttered with horns, stabs in the dark, and invited guests. The shows have varied, too, but this four-cuts-in-40-minutes EP is the heart of a good one. It’s got a montuno-driven salsa. It’s got reggae universalist Ernest Ranglin in Tukolor drag. And everywhere it’s got tamas wrangling into the night. A Minus
MEKONS: I Have Been to Heaven and Back: Hen’s Teeth and Other Fragments of Unpopular Culture Vol. 1 (Quarterstick) Once table scraps, now a damn fine buffet, ranging from superb songs done dirt by label politics to intelligent songs that never erupt to an outtake from The Mekons Story, which is kind of like saying a reject from the Bad News Bears (“Roger Troutman,” not a Zapp reference, worth preserving). Tastier oddments include the ghostwritten autobiography of Sally Timms, a Rod Stewart cover, well-conceived donations to Rock for Choice, and a techno-rock football cheer. A Minus
OLD 97’S: Fight Songs (Elektra) Now alt-country only by historical association, Rhett Miller Associates deliver what the No Depression crowd always wanted: a jangle-rock album worthy of the Byrds themselves. Miller’s no McGuinn. But his conversational ache sure beats McGuire, the perfect medium for unfaltering songcraft that ambles from Crazy Horse to Poco without ever turning fussy or eclectic, and in addition his guitarist likes Lynyrd Skynyrd. The whole doesn’t present itself as a concept album only because losing at love is a pop metatheme. Note, however, that for both touring postalt-rockers and the postcollegians who love them, the geographical distance these lyrics can’t stay away from is now a basic coordinate of romance— a love-wrecker, a pain in the heart, a way out. If you wanted to get fancy about it, and I do, you could then blame this emotional trap on the same untrammeled capitalism that turns every young job seeker into a freelance contractor and every aspiring artist into a media pro. So keep up the good fight songs, Old 97’s. We’ll lick this social problem yet. A
SEBADOH: The Sebadoh (Sub Pop/Sire) Apropos of I don’t know, and for whatever good it will do whomever, they remain, on this recorded evidence, as good a band as they ever were, and a better one than back when they were epitomizing indie’s recondite reticence. Yes, Lou’s songs are, on average, better than Jason’s. But Jason’s songs are, in general, a relief from Lou’s, plus that’s his Gang of Four intro— not gonna hear one of those from the Folk Implosion, are you? Maybe they’ll say bye-bye and go home, or maybe they’ll make records like this until they have grandchildren. Nobody knows, including them. A Minus
CHRIS SMITHER: Drive You Home Again (HighTone) Between his somnolent baritone, his blurred melodies, and his big easy guitar, Smither does fade into the background— hear him at a distance and you’d never suspect he was a moral philosopher. But in fact he is that even rarer thing, a moral philosopher with good values, and his seventh album is where his songwriting takes over a career marked by killer covers. From the title manifesto— “These are not petty pleasures/It’s a dance that slowly glides/In very complicated measures/That can’t be simplified”— to “Tell Me Why You Love Me,” he thinks on his butt while keeping the beat with his foot. He’s worth attending even if you think blues are history. A Minus
WACO BROTHERS: WacoWorld (Bloodshot) The more you listen to Jon Langford— or see him live, where he’ll spout wisecracks for hours— the more impressive his verbal facility seems. But Deano is an equal partner in this particular metaphor system, which defines country music as the great lost conduit of white male working-class desperation. Langford tends toward the grimly matter-of-fact: “That’s why they’re called bars, ‘cos they keep me inside.” “But I’ll paint myself back out/Of this corner everytime.” Deano is more visionary, as in “Pigsville,” where you wake up next to your own chalk outline, or “Hello to Everybody,” where aliens abduct you to “a warmer planet/Where there is no consequence.” Both sing so lustily that the band’s indifference to the niceties of country as it exists in history is of no consequence. When the milder-voiced mandolinist Mr. Tracey Dear takes the mike, however, the illusion pales. A Minus
TOM WAITS: Beautiful Maladies: The Island Years (Island) Whereas my favorite moments on Waits’s many inconsistent albums— the pop parody-throwaway “I’ll Shoot the Moon,” the rawly elegant “All Stripped Down”— avoid the American grotesquerie he’s overrated for, these 23 self-selections do not. As your designated bean counter I note that 10 of them come from Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs, which hold up as totalities. Yet even when I program around those 10, this also holds up as a totality, persuading me that the main reason Waits is overrated is that he’s never given up on himself. Over more years than most reprobates have in them he’s covered more ground than most boho-lowlife shtick has room for— in a cockeyed, wildly varied body of songs that find form in a music nobody dares call lounge-rock because Kurt Weill and Leadbelly will come back and feed them to the fishes if they do. This is a sound with no interest whatsoever in glamour, even as something to make fun of. When it meshes, who can niggle about the literary and vocal affectations of such a hell of a bandleader? A Minus
TOM WAITS: Mule Variations (Epitaph) Between 1985 and 1993 Waits managed to seem prolific while generating exactly one album that wasn’t tied to a film or theater piece. Between 1993 and 1998 he managed to remain mythic while generating occasional occasional songs and a rumor that he’d split with his wife. So it’s a pleasure to report that his best record since Swordfishtrombones has Ms. Kathleen Brennan all over it, which he’s proud to testify is why it’s also his kindest record ever: “She puts the heart into all the things. She’s my true love.” Together they humanize the percussion-battered Bone Machine sound, reconstituting his ’80s alienation effects into a Delta harshness with more give to it— enough to accommodate a tenderness that’s never soft. Sure “Eyeball Kid” is a sick joke about a freak show; sure “Big in Japan” is a send-up about a failure; and sure it’s a good thing they’re there. But by the blues-drenched reconciliation hymn “Come On Up to the House,” he knows how lucky he is: “Come down off the cross/We can use the wood/Come on up to the house.” A Minus
KELLY WILLIS: What I Deserve (Rykodisc) Still has that enormous voice. Still has big-time man problems. Still tries too hard to feel. Will never reveal how scared she is inside. Will never sweep all before her. Still tries to do the right thing. Still sounds better the closer you listen. Still has that enormous voice. B Plus
Dud of the Month:
B*WITCHED (Epic) In teen
pop as in world music, Gaelic signifies untouched by the tarbrush— Van Morrison, Phil Lynott, and The Commitments notwithstanding. And despite the saucy bits in “C’est La Vie” (first a “You show me yours,” then an “I’ll blow you [away]”!), this bid to whiten the Spice Girls is so clean you’ll be hard-pressed to remember it’s there— unless, like me, you get sick to your stomach at Uilleann hooks, mid-Atlantic brogues, and Enya lite. The obligatory rhythmic recitation, yclept “Freak Out” and declared “too hot for hip hop,” has less bottom than Audrey Hepburn and is over in two minutes. “Like the Rose,” unfortunately, takes four. C Minus
Additional Consumer News
Bottle Rockets, Leftovers (Doolittle): honky-tonk romance, laborious dirge, and caffeinated double-time the quality outtakes you’d expect, dining-car praise song and Chattanooga chantey the lost oddities you’d hope (“Dinner Train to Dutchtown,” “Coffee Monkey”); Jon Langford, Gravestone EP (Bloodshot): two enduring rerecorded highlights, one fine recycled obscurity, one excellent new song, mail-order only (“Nashville Radio,” “The Return of the Golden Guitarist”); TLC, Fan Mail (LaFace): just like you they are lonely too (“Silly Ho,” “Unpretty”); Corey Harris, Greens From the Garden (Alligator): the best thing he can do for his roots is grow new songs from them (“Honeysuckle,” “Basehead,” “Teabag Blues”); The Okra All-Stars (Innerstate): any friend of Jeb Loy Nichols is a friend of country music— especially Ricky Barnes (“Big Mistake,” “Shade Tree Fix-It Man”); Built To Spill, Keep It Like a Secret (Warner Bros.): like grunge never unhappened (“You Were Right,” “Center of the Universe”); Bloque (Luaka Bop): world-beat en español (“Daño en al Baño,” “Majaná”); Pearl Jam, Live on Two Legs (Epic): know more Mr. Nice Guy (“Given To Fly,” “F*ckin’ Up”); Real: The Tom T. Hall Project (Sire/Delmore/Kickstand): many titles skipped by the gemlike Essential Tom T. Hall and the softer two-CD box, but that doesn’t mean Johnny Polonsky and Ron Sexsmith are up to them (Iris DeMent, “I Miss a Lot of Trains”; Kelly Willis, “That’s How I Got to Memphis”); Total, Kima, Keisha & Pam (Bad Boy): bad girls (“Do Something,” “There Will Be No #!*@ Tonight”); Mase Presents Harlem World, The Movement (All Out/So So Def): can’t stand the way he fronts but I love to hear him talk (“Crew of the Year,” “We Both Frontin’ “); Wilco, Summer Teeth (Reprise): old-fashioned tunecraft lacking not pedal steel, who cares, but the concreteness modern popcraft eschews (“Summer Teeth,” “She’s a Jar”); Robbie Fulks, Let’s Kill Saturday Night (Geffen): “For a life of devotion the death blow He deals/We owe Him only hatred, but God isn’t real” (“God Isn’t Real,” “Pretty Little Poison”); Unkle, Psyence Fiction (Mo Wax/London): not beautiful (or weird) enough for its own beats (“Celestial Annihilation,” “Guns Blazing [Drums of Death Part 1]”); Alejandro Escovedo, Bourbonitis Blues (Bloodshot): No Depression‘s “Artist of the Decade” (it says here) gets help he needs from the Wacos, Ian Hunter, and the unsinkable “Pale Blue Eyes” (“I Was Drunk,” “Pale Blue Eyes”); Britney Spears, …Baby One More Time (Jive): Madonna next door (“…Baby One More Time,” “Soda Pop”).
Nicole Renée, “Telephone” (Nicole Renée, Atlantic); Hefner, “A Hymn for the Postal Service” (Breaking God’s Heart, Too Pure); Mekons, “Men United,” “Have a Go If You Think You’re Hard Enough” (Me, Quarterstick); the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, “Across the Alley From the Alamo” (Salute the Majesty of Bob Wills, Bloodshot).
Jeff Beck, Who Else! (Epic); Tommy Castro, Right as Rain (Blind Pig); Embrace, The Good Will Out (DGC); Patti Griffin, Flaming Red (A&M); John Wesley Harding, Trad Arr Jones (Zero Hour); Harvey Danger, Where Have All the Merrymakers Gone? (Slash); the Highwaymen, Super Hits (Columbia); Kelly Price, Soul of a Woman (Island Black Music); Cree Summer, Street Faerie (Work).
Alligator, Box 60234, Chicago IL 60660; Bloodshot, 912 West Addison Street, Chicago IL 60613; Doolittle, PO Box 4700, Austin TX 78765; Epitaph, 6201 Sunset Boulevard Suite 111, Hollywood CA 90028; HighTone, 220 4th Street #101, Oakland CA 94607; Innerstate, PO Box 411241, San Francisco CA 94141-1241; Palm Pictures, Rykodisc, 530 North 3rd Street, Minneapolis MN 55401; Quarterstick, Box 25432, Chicago IL 60625.