I’d worry that all the divas honored with A’s below are over 50 while several of their little sisters show up in Duds. Only (a) I’ve been dissing two of the former for decades and (b) some other little sisters are doing just fine without reference to the prerock repertoire—yet.
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai: The Album
Epic/Razor Sharp/Sony Music Soundtrax
After years of expressing his spiritual aspirations in the language of cinematic pseudosymphony, RZA’s own soundtrack proves pure r&b—less strung up than Curtis Mayfield’s (and Johnny Pate’s) Superfly, less underdeveloped than John Lurie’s Get Shorty, and topping both in the essential soundtrack service of consistent background listenability. Ranging beyond the Wu to rope in Jeru and Kool G Rap, fine femme crooners and a dead ringer for Burning Spear, he deploys voices for texture and structure—verbal content, suitable enough when you tune in, is irrelevant. Hip-hop as mystery, beauty, pleasure—as idealized aural environment.
Both Sides Now
My favorite Joni story is that they tried to do a TV special on her and none of her old friends would pitch in. Even if it’s a dumb rumor or a damned lie, it’s a hell of a metaphor for someone who loves herself so much nobody else need bother, and yet another reason to scoff at her concept song cycle about the rise and fall of an affair.
But after decades of pretentious pronouncements on art, jazz, and her own magnificence, this very if briefly great singer-songwriter proves herself a major interpretive singer. Lucky to write two decent songs a decade now, she instead applies her smoked contralto to a knowledgeable selection of superb material by mostly second-echelon Tin Pan Alley craftsmen (and I do mean men). Splitting the difference between pop and jazz like the Chairman himself, she doesn’t transform the melodies so much as texture them, and on a few highlights—on “Comes Love” and “You’ve Changed,” on “When love congeals/It soon reveals/The faint aroma of performing seals”—she bores so deep into the words you’d think she’d written them herself back when she had something to say. But no, that’s “A Case of You” and “Both Sides Now”—both of which, you can bet the mortgage, she makes sure belong.
Dee Dee Bridgewater
Live at Yoshi’s
After fruitlessly sampling whatever Bridgewater albums came my way for 25 years, I harbored few hopes that this one would escape decorum, delusions of grandeur, and/or commercial confusion just because it was live. But it does, and then it keeps on going. It’s funny, it’s sexy, it swings like crazy. Long workouts on “Slow Boat to China” and “Love for Sale” show off her fabled chops without dwelling on them. The many extended scats are worthy of Ella herself. Even the gaffe proves her heart is in the right place when she’s out there working the crowd—James Brown’s “Sex Machine.” A MINUS
The Firesign Theatre
Boom Dot Bust
“Everybody has one or two great thoughts and mine was simple—we’re all doomed,” reveals Nixon soundalike Dr. Guillermo Infermo, who adds a second: “Just because you’re surrounded by evil doesn’t mean you can’t make some money from it.” On their dead-in-the-concept Y2K comeback, the grand masters of pothead sound-effect comedy flirted with both canards; here they make fun of them, which doesn’t mean they’re bullish on America or donating royalties to Earth First! Their signature studio-layered cross-referentiality evokes a time-warped Middle American town on the edge of a tornado preserve where Dumber eventually prevails over Dumb. Before that happy ending they address such excellent paranoid themes as online investment, superglue, and that old reliable, the weather. A MINUS
Hip Hop 101
Tommy Boy Black Label
De La Soul’s (really Maseo’s) version of “real” and/or “underground” hip-hop, those bizarre virtual synonyms, eschews ascetic beats and fancy-ass scratching for an accessibility that recalls the ebullient old-school funk of Pumpkin and Hitman Howie Tee. About half the hooks are irresistible, the rest are at least hooks, and from metaphysics to dick grab, the rhymes honor black male expression in all its self-validating glory. A MINUS
Can’t Take Me Home
Armed with a Day-Glo dye job and some ace Babyface subcontracts, a tough talker diddles teenpop’s love button. In a world where the half-word “sh—” teeters on the edge of going too far, she and hers bet—correctly—that a simple “I’m pissed” will pack a wallop, and work from there. When she admits to the loss of her slurred “cherry” in the finale, you can only wonder how sexy she’ll be when she shows pink for real. B PLUS
Marc Ribot Y Los Cubanos Postizos
¡Muy Divertido! (Very Entertaining!)
Less enchanting than the first one, in part because it’s not a surprise and in part because the tunes are a touch duller and the playing is a touch broader. But the idea of subjecting presalsa to the affectionate indignities of a small, bent jazz ensemble remains muy divertido. And once you internalize the material—by Ribot’s beloved Arsenio Rodriguez and several other Cubans, with Ribot’s own “Las Lomas de New Jersey” and “Baile Baile Baile” holding their own—you’ll love the vamp-ups, the is-that-a-jokes, the getting loud but not that loud. A MINUS
Romeo Must Die
I’m not beatwise enough to swear that Timbaland is the first cause of all these tracks, but for sure all articulate a genrewide reaction to the textural overkill of the Wu-Tang imperium—a reaction that’s now gone on so long I bet something else replaces it soon. So rather than a key to the future, take this boldly amelodic soundtrack as a summing up and Timbaland’s titular executive production as an ascension into the noble realm of middle management. Note that all the lead voices and subproducers strutting their stuff add indispensable variety, and that it’s singers rather than rappers—executive producer Aaliyah, Playa hiding the best cut in the 13 slot, the well-monikered Destiny’s Child—who provide the high points. Are their half-tunes the future? Or is it possible that the earnest meaning mongers of the putatively old-school underground will pick up on a minimalism every bit as spare and considerably more meaningful than the retreads they’re riding? A MINUS
All Hands on the Bad One Kill Rock Stars
Locked into a visceral style and sound that always maximizes their considerable and highly specific gifts, they could no more make a bad album than the Rolling Stones in 1967. Unfortunately, that doesn’t render them immune to the experiential droughts that afflict all touring musicians, or to the media-studies clichés they fall back into when they get hung up on the meaning of their careers. So everything that’s right with the three-part synergy and herky-jerk dynamics of “Was It a Lie?” doesn’t convince me that the media victim it bemoans died so vainly or so significantly, and in general I prefer these songs as songs when they adduce the musicians’ separate lives rather then their collective mission. But play “You’re No Rock n’ Roll Fun” on your broadcast medium of choice and I’ll whoop and holler like I’d requested it myself. A MINUS
I’ll Be Easy to Find Verve
A veteran of polio, cancer, incarceration, and cabdriving whose perfect pitch and three-octave range were getting raves when she was in her twenties, Thornton transfigures the showboating artiness that puts pop fans off jazz singers. Since I’ve lived happily without Sarah Vaughan and Abbey Lincoln, at first I didn’t trust my pleasure in the soulful concentration, harmonic subtlety, and deliciously curdled timbre of Thornton’s first record since 1963. But from her self-composed blues to her rearranged “Lord’s Prayer,” her occasional piano to her consistent standards, this woman knows how to serve a song her way. If she’s making something of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “Nature Boy” at this late date, it’s only because she’s waited a long, long time. A MINUS
Yo La Tengo
And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out Matador
The main problem with this background tour de force is that you understand not just how good it is but how pretty it is only when you listen up. The whispered guitar and pattering drum patterns, the unattainable sounds, the details of a modest love for the ages—all mean what they mean in part because they’re so quiet. Yet if you don’t get it, all I can advise is: Play Loud. B PLUS
Dud of the Month
Tuneful, sturdy, unfaltering, bland, it’s the pioneering jam band’s bid for the market share located some years ago by Dave Matthews. Enthusiasts may even claim it proves they’re better than Dave Matthews, as indeed it does, though why that needed proving I couldn’t tell you. Inspirational Verse: “Each betrayal begins with trust/Every man returns to dust.” “One man gathers what another man spills” was taken. B MINUS
Additional Consumer News
HONORABLE MENTION: Ego Trip’s The Big Playback (Rawkus): in-crowd touchstones—essential hip-hop history, functional rap entertainment (Rammelzee Vs. K-Rob, “Beat Bop”; the Bizzie Boys, “Droppin’ It”); Latino Blue (Blue Note): ’50s and ’60s “Jazz con Sabor Latino,” a/k/a bongos (the Jazz Crusaders, “Agua Dulce”; Kenny Dorham, “Afrodisia”); Shane MacGowan & the Popes, The Crock of Gold (SPV): “F yez all, F yez all, F yez all” (“St. John of Gods,” “Paddy Public Enemy No. 1”); Quannum Spectrum (Quannum Projects): deepest grooves in the underground (Lyrics Born, “Hott People”; Divine Styler & DJ Shadow, “Divine Intervention”); Cub Koda & the Points, Noise Monkeys (J-Bird): living for the Saturday-night swindle (“Fast Food—Slow Death,” “Look at That White Girl Dance”); Patti Smith, Gung Ho (Arista): always took herself too seriously, still touched with the divine (“Persuasion,” “Gone Pie”); Beanie Sigel, The Truth (Roc-A-Fella): his beats are as tough as his rap, and damned if I know whether that’s good or bad (“What Your Life Like,” “Ride 4 My”); Clinton, Disco & the Halfway to Discontent (Luaka Bop): beats come easier than songs, which suits Tjinder Singh’s work ethic fine (“People Power in the Disco Hour,” “G.T. Road”); Anti-Pop Consortium, Tragic Epilogue (75 Ark): their beats are as abstract and chewy as their rap, and how good that is is up to you (“Rinseflow,” “Your World Is Flat”); Cadallaca, Out West (Kill Rock Stars): four songs boasting three cocomposers, and not necessarily better for the collective effort (“Fake Karaoke Machine,” “Out West”); Swollen Members, Balance (Battle Axe): hip-hop interlopers from Vancouver with more technique than content, which falls back on that old reliable, horror comics (“Front Street,” “Horrified Nights”); Ani DiFranco, To the Teeth (Righteous Babe): overreaching? her? just demonstrating her integrity is all (“Cloud Blood,” “Freakshow”); Sergent Garcia, Un poquito quema’o (Higher Octave): frantic salsa con reggae from, er, Paris—auténtico no, convincente yes (“Jumpi,” “Si yo llego, yo llego”); Jad Fair and Kramer, The Sound of Music (Shimmy-Disc): Kramer’s settings took three days, Fair’s words two listens and one day, and when they jell you’d think it was even less (“Sleeping Beauty,” “Elenor”); Sue Garner and Rick Brown, Still (Thrill Jockey): if Yo La weren’t so darn pop (“Asphalt Road,” “Fussy Fuss”); Dead Prez, Lets Get Free (Loud): pretty lively for socialist moralists with no sense of humor (“Mind Sex,” “It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop”); Mekons, Journey to the End of the Night (Quarterstick): they give a war and nobody comes (“Last Night on Earth,” “Last Weeks of the War”).
CHOICE CUTS: Everlast, “Life’s a Bitch” (Black and White, Loud); Green Velvet, “Answering Machine,” “Flash” (Green Velvet, F-111); Hoku, “Another Dumb Blonde” (Hoku, Geffen); the Lox, “Intro” (We Are the Streets, Ruff Ryders/Interscope).
DUDS: Lullaby Baxter Trio, Capable Egg (Atlantic); Boss Hog, Whiteout (In the Red); Ruth Brown, Here’s That Rainy Day (Garland); Killah Priest, View from Masada (MCA); Ute Lemper, Punishing Kiss (Decca); Audra McDonald, How Glory Goes (Nonesuch); Other Star People, Diamonds in the Belly of the Dog (A&M).
ADDRESSES: Battle Axe, 161 C Street, P.O. Box 3969, Blaine, WA 98231-3969; Higher Octave, 23852 Pacific Coast Highway, suite 2C, Malibu, CA 90265, higheroctave.com; J-Bird, c/o Navarre, 7400 49th Avenue North, New Hope MN 55428, j-birdrecords.com; Kill Rock Stars, PMB 418, 120 State Avenue NE, Olympia, WA 98501, killrockstars.com; Matador, 625 Broadway, 12th floor, NYC 10012, matador.recs.com; Quannum Projects, 360 Grand Avenue, suite 145, Oakland, CA 94610, quannum.com; Quarterstick, Box 25432, Chicago, IL 60625, southern.com; Rawkus, 676 Broadway, NYC 10012, rawkus.com; Righteous Babe, Box 95, Ellicott Station, Buffalo, NY 14205, firstname.lastname@example.org; 75 Ark, 77 Chambers Street, 4th floor, NYC 10007, email@example.com; Shimmy-Disc, 74 Leonard Street, NYC 10013, shimmydisc.com; Thrill Jockey, Box 476794, Chicago, IL 60647, firstname.lastname@example.org; V2, 14 East 4th Street, NYC 10003, v2music.com.