Saturday, April 25, 2009

2006 Album Reviews: S-T

(As published in the Times of Acadiana unless otherwise noted...)

Paul Simon: Surprise (Warner Bros.)—“I don’t pretend I’m a mastermind with a genius marketing plan,” Simon sings in “Wartime Prayers,” and the speed with which this album charted then vanished would seem to prove him right. But it’s not as if he isn’t trying. If in 1986 World Music blew fresh wind into his sails (and sales), he’s clearly hoping that Brian Eno’s “sonic landscapes” will do the same twenty years later. That they haven’t should not put off anyone who’s learned something from Simon in the past. Although, like the songs on 1983’s Hearts and Bones, these are more thoughtful than catchy, they’re plenty enjoyable as music in their tentatively experimental way, and their thoughtfulness, which finds Simon thinking both locally and globally and sometimes both at once, deserves attention. Rating: Three-and-a-half dangling conversations out of five.

Slayer: Christ Illusion (American)—Araya, King, Hanneman, and Lombardo are back, and boy are they pissed. “There’s no future. / The world is dead. / So save the last / bullet for your head,” they announce at the outset, and they only get angrier from there. In one speed-metal battering ram after another, they pummel Western culture with a relentlessness and a ferocity that bely their forty-something average age. As the album title indicates, the main target of their assault is Christianity. “You’ll never taste God’s breath,” shouts Araya in “Skeleton Christ,” because you’ll never see the Second Coming.” Interestingly, their take on militant Islam (“Jihad”) is ambiguous. Sometimes it sounds as if they’re mocking the terrorists, sometimes sympathizing with them. Less ambiguous is “Cult,” which contains the couplet “The target’s f***ing Jesus Christ. / I would’ve led the sacrifice.” Anyone concerned about whether Slayer gets a nuke? Rating: Two-and-a-half imminent interviews with Mike Wallace out of five.

Chris Smither: Leave the Light On (Signature Sounds)—Smither’s recent tour with Steve Forbert last spring was a rare treat, and those who caught one or more of the shows will be pleased to know that Smither’s new album contains the excellent new songs that he was road testing onstage. Although slightly enhanced with drums and backing musicians, the mixed filial emotions of “Father’s Day” retain their poignancy, the creationism-vs.-evolutionism jokes of “Origin of Species” retain their humor, and the waltz-timed exotification of Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna” retains its patina of genius. Even the lesser material comes to life on the strength of Smither’s folk-blues facility on various acoustic guitars, his smoky baritone voice, and his stomping foot. Previously, home compilers could squeeze the highpoints of Smither’s post-alcoholic years onto one eighty-minute CD-R. Now, thanks to the quality not only of the three aforementioned songs but of the title cut as well, we’ll need two. Rating: Four skeleton keys in the rain out of five.

Rick Springfield: We Are the ’80s (RCA/Legacy)—Sure Springfield was the ’80s, but he was the ’70s too, and here’s hoping his teen-idol highlights get a similarly refurbished single-disc showcase. Meanwhile, were he not a soap-opera idol (i.e., uncool) while he was racking up these ’80s hits, he’d have probably already been immortalized on power-pop compilations on the strength of “Jessie’s Girl” and “I’ve Done Everything for You” alone. The other dozen songs here prove he wasn’t too shabby as a power-pop mortal either. Rating: Three-and-a-half working-class dogs out of five.

Bruce Springsteen: We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (Columbia)—When Springsteen first came up, people pegged him as a “New Dylan,” but it’s been clear for years now that he was really an “Old Bono”: Earnest, uninhibited, and idealistic, he brings as much passion to his lousy albums as he does to his masterworks. The difference between the two therefore stems not from his heart but from his brain; when he engages the latter, he’s the boss, but when he doesn’t, he makes passion seem like a clinical disorder. We Shall Overcome isn’t devoid of entertainment value as pointlessly belated exercises in roots discovery go. The material is so time tested that no one could ruin it. The problem is that one has to listen past Springsteen’s messianic sense of self-importance. He needs “John Henry,” “Jacob’s Ladder,” “Shenandoah,” and “Erie Canal” more than those songs need him, but you’d never know it from the way he and his large band of acoustic-instrument-toting fellow travelers beat them into dead horses and then beat them some more. Meanwhile, the DualDisc format in which this album is solely available (unless you count the vinyl) renders its CD side unplayable in some CD players. (Get out a magnifying glass and read the disclaimer on the back.) Rating: Two-and-a-half blessings in disguise out of five.

Chip Taylor: Unglorious Hallelujah/Red Red Rose (And Other Songs Of Love, Pain, And Destruction) (Back Porch/EMI)—Sure he wrote “Wild Thing” and “Angel of the Morning”—about forty years ago, when he knew how to craft hooks and had sense enough to let other people sing them.

Susan Tedeschi: Hope and Desire (Verve Forecast)--Currently beating Bonnie Raitt at her own sweetness-and-grit game.

Beth Thornley: My Glass Eye (Stiff Hips)—On her second album Thornley demonstrates why her songs have become sought-after items among compilers of TV and cinematic soundtracks. Namely, her musical ideas and her skills at fleshing them out exceed those of the major-label competition. The hooks, the shifting tempos, and the singing on the title track and “You’re Right Where” fulfill the hopes of Juliana Hatfield fans who never went all the way (so to speak) with her feminine-sensitivity side, while “Mr. Lovely” and “Done” rock out with a natural fierceness that vanquishes both gender issues and any questions about Thornley’s physical well-being implied by her album title and record-label name. So solid is the album as a whole that the excellent acoustic “Eleanor Rigby” cover at disc’s end feels more like an encore than a highlight. Rating: Four names able to be pronounced without embarrassment by lispers out of five.

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