(As published in the Times of Acadiana unless otherwise noted…)
Eric Carmen: Boats Against the Current/Change of Heart (American Beat)--Two albums (from 1977 and 1978 respectively), one top-twenty hit (“Change of Heart”), several other songs that should’ve been (especially “Love Is All That Matters”), some gorgeous Bruce Johnston-arranged Beach Boys-like background harmonies, a way better “Hey Deanie” than Shaun Cassidy’s, and (I cannot tell a lie) some crap. Rating: Three Cleveland pop rocks out of five.
Mary Chapin Carpenter: The Calling (Zoe)—Carpenter is one of those dependable, talented singer-songwriters for whom the CD has been a curse: had she been limited by the restrictions of vinyl to ten songs instead of the thirteen that extend this album to almost an hour, her limitations would only be detectable as opposed to obvious. Or maybe all she needs is a sense of humor. No matter how empathetically observed, carefully sung, or lovingly crafted this album’s many worthy songs about middle-aged uncertainty, the seriousness begins to weigh heavily about half-way through, burdening the project beyond any relief that alternating the slow, quiet ones with the faster, louder ones can provide. The most regrettable consequence is that an excellent song like “It Must Have Happened” doesn’t stand out the way it should. Also, her “issues” songs (“Houston,” a.k.a. “Hurricane Katrina”; “On with the Song,” a.k.a. “Conservatives Suck”) feel included more for their change-of-pace potential than for their irrepressibility. And it’s too bad “Twilight” and “Bright Morning Star” weren’t covers (of Robbie Robertson and the old gospel tune respectively--she worked wonders with Lucinda Williams’ “Passionate Kisses” after all). Conclusion: what Jackson Browne would be doing were he a woman. Rating: Three habitats for humanity out of five.
The Best of the Johnny Cash TV Show 1969-1971 (Columbia Music Video/Legacv)--Unless you’re under forty, you never saw Cash’s show, and unless you’re under fifty, you didn’t grasp its entertainment value or its caste-system-defying nerve. Those understandably glutted on posthumous Cash can take or leave his dozen-or-so solo performances. But where oh where else will you find Bob Dylan, Louis Armstrong, Neil Young, Ray Charles, the Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, Stevie Wonder, Derek and the Dominoes, Pete Seeger, Neil Diamond, James Taylor, and a Who’s Who of future Country Music Hall of Fame inductees all in one place? Or learn that a mini-dress-wearing Linda Ronstadt was going to go on without panties until June Carter Cash had someone run out and buy her some? Rating: Four-and-a-half silver threads and golden needles out of five.
Chanticleer: And on Earth, Peace: A Chanticleer Mass (Warner Classics)--There are two problems with this ambitious and often enjoyable attempt to organize sacred compositions by an eclectic assortment of mostly contemporary composers around the structure of the Mass. The big problem is Kamran Ince’s “(Gloria) Everywhere,” a thirteen-minute piece the main idea of which is that Catholics, Jews, and Muslims are on equal spiritual footing. While such an idea might warm the hearts of those for whom “Why can’t we all just get along?” is a rhetorical question, it contradicts Catholic teaching and therefore has no place in a Mass. (For that matter, it contradicts Jewish and Muslim teaching as well.) On the other hand, given the Church’s recent attempts to establish a good-faith relationship with Jews, Shulamit Ran’s twelve-minute “Credo/Ani Ma’Amin,” which begins as a setting of Maimonides and segues into a Holocaust memorial, fits. That leaves fifty minutes of Catholic texts sung a cappella--and the small problem: Douglas Cuomo’s “Kyrie,” the opening (and recurring) notes of which sound like the beginning of the Star Trek theme. Rating: Three-and-a-half angels dancing on pin heads out of five.
Gene Clark with Carla Olson: In Concert (Collectors’ Choice)--The first disc of this belated testament to the late Byrd is an acoustic Carla Olson-free 1988 Mountain Stage performance padded with a few low-fi Carla Olson living-room recordings. The second disc is a reissue of the acoustic 1990 Clark-Olson show at McCabe’s Guitar Shop originally released fifteen years ago as Silhouetted in Light. These days only diehard Dylan fans remember Olson (for covering “Clean Cut Kid” as a Textone and miming Mark Knopfler’s playing in the “Sweetheart like You” video), and her deep alto harmonies do nothing special for Clark’s singing. Not that Clark needed much: even with one drug-and-booze-damaged foot in the grave, he could still out-sing Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, or Chris Hillman. Too bad his set list, which edges toward the upbeat only on the John Fogerty cover and “Feel a Whole Lot Better,” is so relentlessly slow and sad that it evokes Sandy Denny--whom Clark could also out-sing and who, had she not boozed both of her feet into the grave a dozen years earlier, could’ve out-sung Olson. Rating: Four-and-a-half miles high out of eight.
Gilby Clarke: Gilby Clarke (Spitfire)—Clarke will forever be remembered as the guy who replaced Slash in Guns N’ Roses, but this fourteen-track overview of his solo and Col. Parker recordings suggests that he deserves better. In keeping with Murphy’s Compilation Law, it could’ve been better, if only by including his cover of Bowie’s “Hang onto Yourself.” And it’s too bad that neither the Stones nor the New York Dolls hired him after The Spaghetti Incident? The glittery raunch of his playing, singing, and subject matter—as well as his relative youthfulness, his hooks’ serrated edges, and his willingness to play second fiddle—would’ve fit either act like a fingerless black-leather glove. Rating: Three-and-a-half monkey glands out of five.
The Clash: The Singles (Epic/Legacy)--For some, the lifting of these songs from the albums and politics that provided their original context deprives them of power and meaning. Eventually, though, every band must pass the greatest-hits test, and this re-sequenced reissue of the 1991 compilation of the same name--now enhanced with “Train in Vain” and “Groovy Times”--finds the Clash (still) doing so with flying colors. Rating: Four Hitsville U.K.s out of five.
Leonard Cohen: Songs of Leonard Cohen (Columbia/Legacy)--Already a relatively successful poet and novelist by the time he recorded this album in 1967 at the age of thirty-three, Cohen could’ve cemented the Christ-like status that he enjoys in the eyes of many by dying promptly upon its release. Instead, he embarked, armed with nothing more than his eerily deadpan voice and the soon-to-be-classics “Suzanne,” “Sisters of Mercy,” and “So Long, Marianne,” upon forty years’ worth of wandering in the desert, chronicling his romantic and spiritual revelations in a body of work that would eventually include eleven original albums, three live ones, and a proliferating number of best-ofs. That his revelations often turned out to be mirages is now apparent with hindsight, as is the sentimental tendency that once moved the critic John Simon to dismiss him as the “thinking man’s Rod McKuen.” Only Cohen could undo a clever line about “tarnish[ing] the golden rule” by rhyming it with “his spirit continues to drool,” and the inclusion of the two previously unreleased songs doesn’t help. Still, because I caught myself resenting having to slide the disc out of a sleeve and thereby risk scratching it, I guess I hope to play it again. And again. Three-and-a-half guilty pleasures out of five.
The Comfies: Close to Me (Livewire)—The milieu is power-pop, and, like most of their ilk, these Georgia boys don’t always achieve the balance of power and pop required to turn catchy songcraft into magic. Catchy songcraft, however, is nothing to sneeze at, and on a twenty-minute EP almost-magical songs like “Medicine” and the title cut loom large enough to make it easy to overlook the sole dud-on-arrival (“That’s What She Gets”). Meanwhile, “Your Sunshine,” “Understanding 23,” “In My Room” (not the Beach Boys’ one), and “Dear Miss Anderson” sound more magical with each listen. Rating: Three-and-a-half comfort zones out of five.
The Complete Motown Singles Vol. 8: 1968 (Hip-O Select)--If the five-disc Hitsville U.S.A. box demonstrated both the cream of the Motown crop and that cream’s depth, this six-disc box demonstrates the depth of the crop. Not that there’s no cream. 1968 was a very good year for Marvin Gaye and a pretty good one for Stevie Wonder and the Supremes. And although Smokey Robinson, the Four Tops, and the Temptations had begun to tail off, hearing their classic sound emerging from little-known songs is almost like discovering a parallel universe, an effect enhanced by discovering over six hours of “The Sound of Young America” from such all-but-forgotten performers as Shorty Long, Rita Wright, Paul Peterson, the Detroit Wheels without Mitch Ryder, the Fantastic Four, and the white Canadian R. Dean Taylor. Rating: Four-and-a-half Detroit pop cities out of five.
The Corigliano Quartet: Music for String Quartet (Naxos)--Although only time will determine John Corigliano’s true stature as a composer, some conclusions can already be drawn, if only in pencil, one of which is that he’s occasionally susceptible to composing under the influence of the trendy. His Symphony No. 1 was a response to the AIDS epidemic, his Mr. Tambourine Man a response to Bob Dylan. The three compositions featured on this disc derive to one extent or another from more traditional sources of inspiration--a Corigliano family heirloom (“Snapshot: Circa 1909”), a poem (Richard Wilbur’s “A Black November Turkey”), Bartok (String Quartet)--and, with the exception of the gimmicky use of violins to simulate police sirens in String Quartet, find Corigliano at his most serious, challenging, and evocative. The fourth piece, String Quartet No. 2, by the former Corigliano student Jefferson Friedman, is a worthy complement. Rating: Three strings out of four.
Elvis Costello: My Aim Is True (Deluxe Edition) (Hip-O/UMe)--One man’s largess is another man’s glut. So, although early Costello is the Costello on which to pig out if pig out on Costello one must, the two-disc, demos-and-all recontextualization--which results in nearly every song’s appearing twice if not thrice--sometimes makes what has seemed definitive for thirty years now seem somewhat haphazard. And the complete August 1977 concert on Disc Two makes the somewhat haphazard seem definitive. Rating: Four fingers lying in the wedding cake out of five.
Elvis Costello: Rock and Roll Music (Hip-O/Universal)--Fans already well-versed with the highlights of Costello’s first ten years should skip The Best of Elvis Costello: The First 10 Years, the twenty-two-track highlights compilation with which this twenty-two-track compilation is being simultaneously released and which is almost identical to Rykodisc’s The Very Best of Elvis Costello and the Attractions from 1993. Instead they should go straight to this “rock-themed collection of hits, key album tracks, B-sides and previously unreleased rarities” from those same first ten years. Back then Costello was a kind of pub-punk Ani DiFranco, recording way too many songs with way too many words but doing so with enough verve to make the overabundance feel more like enthusiasm than arrogance. The Attractions, of course, were co-billed for a reason: namely, that their stripped-down attack kept their boss’s delusions of genius from becoming too grand (and, now we know, from aging gracelessly). Meanwhile, as well-versed EC fans also already know, there’s a pretty good second volume of overlooked first-ten-year goodies waiting to happen too. Rating: Four kings of Britannia out of five.
Randy Crawford & Joe Sample: Feeling Good (PRA)--More smoke than fire, this is nevertheless sophisticated lounge-jazz by two performers who know how to sing it (Crawford) and play it (Sample). Not only is the album as a whole ideal for romantic dinners in upscale settings, but the covers (Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’,” Leo Sayer’s “When I Need You”) feel included less for their crossover appeal than because Crawford and Sample genuinely like them. Rating: Three-and-a-half midnight cowpeople out of five.