Inevitably, a few fools will argue that the youth marketers’ project of excising all meaning from their product is long overdue. But it can’t be done. In a pop of easy money and disposable delight, there will always be wise guys sticking some ideas in just to make things even more fun. And some of those ideas will be worth sharing.
Mary J. Blige
Rather than hating playas, she’s bored with them. Between Aretha and Lauryn and the sister who knocked on the door and just by being sincere convinced Mary she’d had Mary’s man’s baby, all that she can say is that she’s ready to love someone serious and walk away from anyone who isn’t. Unless you count Bennie and the Jets, her pop allies don’t do all that much for her song sense, which is why her live album is still where to begin. But two more like this and she’ll be ready for another. A girl who can come out of a Diane Warren song with no symptoms of soul death has performed a miracle that defied Al Green. A MINUS
Enema of the State
Ignore the porn-movie cover except insofar as it conveys terror. These guys are so frightened of females that they turn down sure sex from one hussy on grounds of name-dropping and reject another for being too quick with the zipper. There’s no macho camouflage— girlophobia is their great subject. And boy, have they worked up some terrific defenses. If preemptive jealousy doesn’t do the trick, there’s always suicide, or abduction by aliens. Yet note it well—
because they’re out front about their little problem, “Going Away to College” is the love song the Descendents put Green Day on earth to inspire. A MINUS
One Man’s Trash: The Charlie Burton Story: ’77’99
Since the dawn of the Sex Pistols, it’s been art-for-art’s-sake for this poet of song, whose evocations of succubi, coronary thrombosis, garbage, manners and morals, dead chickens in the middle of the road, and the varieties of romantic disaster have thrilled and enlightened music lovers in university towns cum state capitals from Lincoln, Nebraska, all the way to Austin, Texas. ‘Tis oft claimed he can’t sing a lick, but this well-culled collection demonstrates that he’s learned to croon a slurp, not to mention rock a bite in the ass. And lest anyone whine about perpetual adolescence, he goes out proving how much he’s grown in human understanding: “Without my woman,” he intones gravely, “I’d be a hopeless sack of shit.” A MINUS
THE COMEDIAN HARMONISTS
About 10 years ago, I fell for these Weimar pop phenoms in a five-hour documentary at the Public, where they performed American standards and trombone imitations in the vocal and sartorial regalia of the finest Lieder singers. The effect is somewhat less vivid on this, their first-ever U.S. release—
although their harmonies penetrate, their comedy sometimes doesn’t. But listen to them gurgle in tune before breaking into perfect German gibberish on “Kannst du pfeifen, Johanna?” and you’ll get the idea. Beautywise they lived off the tenor of restaurant singer Ari Leschnikoff, likened by archivist Joe Boyd to Edith Piaf and Oum Kalsoum, though the Klezmatics’ Lorin Sklamberg is more the point. A Bulgarian Jew, he was lucky to be merely deported when Goering broke up the integrated group in 1934. In the film, he’s a thin old man in a dreary Bucharest housing project. He hasn’t heard his own records in decades. He listens and weeps. A MINUS
DRIVE ME CRAZY
The time was right, so here it is— a concept album about teenpop. You get shameless, obvious, brilliant remixes on Britney (new jack title track) and BSB (“I Want It That Way” as cheese house). You get two excellent songs about how prefab teenpop is (by Barenaked Ladies and Silage, which means— I looked it up— “fodder converted into succulent feed”). You get an “I Want You Back” rip that reaffirms teenpop’s inimitability. You get the Donnas proving they’re whores by playing wholesome teenagers. You get Matthew Sweet sounding like an old man. You get Jive’s next big push, Steps, who I hope trip, and great lost tracks by Plumb (?) and Mukla (not African, I don’t think). And of course you get filler. B PLUS
Best of En Vogue
By way of the crass product advisory they deserve, let it be recorded that 1992’s Funky Divas captures their cultural moment and this one beats it song for song, including mild pleasantries from their undistinguished debut and adieu. Say ciao to the queens of air-kiss soul. B PLUS
Something has happened to David Thomas since this “special acoustic evening” in 1991, and though I’m tempted to call it art, it’s probably just the art world. Thomas has always fiddled with art-rock, but only when he hit the museum circuit in the ’90s did his respectable side get the better of him. It’s impossible to imagine him endangering an ICA performance piece with “mind-dead rock” like “Non-Alignment Pact” and “I Wanna Be Your Dog”— for one thing, no attendee would think of requesting such a thing. And it’s all too difficult to imagine him rocking a 1999 “acoustic evening” with such benign aggression and hang-loose cheer. “Enough fun,” he announces grumpily as he cuts Iggy off at 40 seconds— leaving us to discover that “We Have the Technology” is yet to come. A MINUS
Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons
First cut’s the worst, which I blame not on Chrissie Hynde but on “She,” the softest song Parsons ever wrote (and probably the only one about black people, too). Last cut’s the best, and though “In My Hour of Darkness” is anything but soft, I credit it primarily to Victoria Williams and a gang that owes Parsons everything, from alt-country lifer Mark Olson to Nashville darling Jim Lauderdale to in-betweeners Buddy and Julie Miller. There are plenty of great songbooks with plenty of great admirers, but damn few that define a sensibility, and even Elvis Costello and Evan Dando seem to have pondered Parsons all their musical lives— though not as much as Aunt Emmylou, who shares recipes with Beck H. and Sheryl C. As for Gram’s own kids, even the slow ones— parched Gillian Welch, sodden Whiskeytown, spaced Cowboy Junkies— designed their sounds for this material, which nails their identification-alienation harder than their own ever will. A MINUS
Spring Heel Jack
Its U.S. release a casualty of the UniMoth merger, this colors in the techno-classical duo’s sonic territory without putting any bells on it— except for the chimes and carillons that alternate with drunken brass sections, expensive faucets, and plain old synthesizers on the eight-minute “Winter,” which breaks into tradder drum ‘n’ bass, which gives way to a scary soundtrack explosion. Et cetera. Tops is “More Stuff No One Saw,” a rocky one. Its marchlike drum looping under a few phrases of noir saxophone, it crescendoes in grand faux brass-organ-triangle swells before scattering into the tail end of a gun battle. If you like these guys, you’ll love it all. If you’ve never heard (of) them, there’s no special reason to start here. A MINUS
The Andy Statman Quartet
The Hidden Light
Oldtime klezmer often sounds more devotional than celebratory to those comfortable with machine-age tempos, and rather than being coy about this commercial inconvenience, the mandolin-master-turned-clarinet-pro embraces it. The bio’s “spiritual jazz” IDs the result aptly enough, except that any Jew who feels like one will recognize its provenance at 50 paces, which helps explain how it avoids the New Age tinge you rightly fear. Those who don’t feel like Jews will be impressed enough that something so solemn can be so light— and glad that Statman isn’t above reprising traditional tunes or picking up his best axe. A MINUS
Whine de Lune
Melissa Swingle’s “got two long arms, and they’re as strong as they are thin,” but the boxcars are locked. So if you don’t let her work on the railroad she may just lay down on the tracks. Cursing snakes, crashing windshields, poking around for a minor chord, that’s her way— depressed but determined, with just enough guitar, banjo, and mandolin to make something of it. Slack-jawed mountain dolor in the age of Valium— a hyperconsciously eerie tour de force. A MINUS
Hank Williams III
Unlike so many musical scions, he’s got the equipment— songs he wrote, songs he didn’t write, lonesome whine, pissed-off groove, rebel drawl, rebel attitude. But except when it comes to devil’s daughters, he lacks the power to convince anyone that he’s reinventing rather than reclaiming— that this is expression as well as art. “I plan on livin’ long,” he boasts, and that’s something to brag about. But sometimes there’s a cost. B PLUS
The Magnetic Fields
69 Love Songs
Accusing Stephin Merritt of insincerity would be like accusing Cecil Taylor of playing too many notes— not only does it go without saying, it’s what he’s selling. I say if he’d lived all 69 songs himself he’d be dead already, and the only reality I’m sure they attest to is that he’s very much alive. I dislike cynicism so much that I’m reluctant ever to link it to creative exuberance. But this cavalcade of witty ditties— one-dimensional by design, intellectual when it feels like it, addicted to cheap rhymes, cheaper tunes, and token arrangements, sung by nonentities whose vocal disabilities keep their fondness for pop theoretical— upends my preconceptions the way high art’s sposed to. The worst I can say is that its gender-fucking feels more wholehearted than its genre-fucking. Yet even the “jazz” and “punk” cuts are good for a few laughs— total losers are rare indeed. My favorite song from three teeming individually-purchasable-but-what-fun-would-that-be CDs: the entire “The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure,” who has the savoir faire to rhyme with “closure,” “kosher,” and “Dozier” before Merritt offs him. A PLUS
Dud of the Month
Stay the Same
After taking in Girls Against Boys’ searing analysis of the culture-killing boypop scam in The Nation, which certainly needed the heads-up, I sought a class enemy to hit on, but the best I could do was this mildly annoying Old Kid. Featureless funk holds up an album that rode to gold on the back of the overstated title ballad. It’s not even tripe— more in the line of twaddle, only less pretentious. Right, he should act his age like his ex-bandmate Jordan, and deserves the obscurity to which he will soon return. But in a world that contains George W. Bush, we’re well advised to figure out at just what point bland feel-goodism becomes murder. B MINUS
Additional Consumer News
Honorable Mention: Meshell Ndegéocello, Bitter (Maverick): slow is beautiful (“Loyalty,” “Sincerity,” “Satisfy”); the Meat Purveyors, More Songs About Buildings and Cows (Bloodshot): bluegrass with attitude— radical, maybe even lesbian attitude (“More Man,” “Travel and Toil”); Michael Hurley, Weatherhole (Field): shoebox of American folk music (“Nat’l Weed Growers Assoc.,” “Your Old Gearbox”); Dixie Chicks, Fly (Monument): unlike three virgins (“Goodbye Earl,” “Sin Wagon,” “Ready To Run”); Jordan Knight (Interscope): a much tastier Michael McDonald than Duncan Sheik (or Michael McDonald) (“Give It to You,” “A Different Party,” “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man”); Grandaddy, Signal to Snow Ratio (V2): accomplished sound with not much new to say meets 12 minutes to say it in (“MGM Grand,” “Hand Crank Transmitter”); L7, Slap-Happy (Wax Tadpole/Bong Load): “Place my bet on my rockin’ machine” (“Livin’ Large,” “Crackpot Baby”); George Jones, The George Jones Collection (MCA): too obvious too often (“Wild Irish Rose,” “Golden Ring”); Len, You Can’t Stop the Bum Rush (Work): good clean fun, right— plus, it raps (“Beautiful Day,” “Cheekybugger”); Guitar Wolf, Jet Generation (Matador): is that a rocket in your pocket, or is this just a concept album about electric noise? (“Fujiyama Attack,” “Cyborg Kids”); the Beautiful South, Quench (Mercury): next stop AA (“Dumb,” “Your Father and I”).
Choice Cuts: Cher, “Believe” (Believe, Warner Bros.); Matraca Berg, “Back In the Saddle” (Lying to the Moon and Other Stories, RCA); LFO, “Summer Girls” (LFO, Arista); Lorrie Morgan, “The Things We Do” (My Heart, BNA); New Kids on the Block, “You Got It (The Right Stuff)” (Greatest Hits, Columbia/ Legacy); Jennifer Lopez, “Let’s Get Loud” (On the 6, Work); Silverchair, “London’s Burning” (Burning London: The Clash Tribute, Epic); Sugar Ray, “Every Morning” (14:59, Lava/Atlantic); Lee Roy Parnell, “On the Road” (Hits and Highways Ahead, Arista); Trailer Bride, “Quit That Jealousy” (Smelling Salts, Bloodshot).
Duds: Christina Aguilera (RCA); Mary Chapin Carpenter, Party Doll and Other Favorites (Columbia); Kim Richey, Glimmer (Mercury); Shinehead, Praises (VP); Talking Heads, Stop Making Sense (Special New Edition) (Sire/Warner Bros.); David Thomas, Mirror Man (Thirsty Ear); Underworld, Beaucoup Fish (JBO/V2); Usher, Usher Live (LaFace).
Addresses: Bloodshot, 3039 West Irving Road, Chicago IL 60618; Bulldog, 1514 Richcreek Road, Austin TX 78757; Field, 140 North 7th Street, Brooklyn NY 11211; Hannibal, c/o Rykodisc, 530 North 3rd Street, Minneapolis MN 55401; Matador, 611 Broadway, Suite 712, NYC 10012; Merge, Box 1235, Chapel Hill NC 27514; Thirsty Ear, 274 Madison Avenue, Suite 804, NYC 10016; Tugboat, 66 Golborne Road, London W10 5PS, England.