(As published in the Times of Acadiana unless otherwise noted...)
Abba: The Definitive Collection (Polar/Polydor)--The definitive "video" collection, that is, and definitive proof that never were more attractive people made to wear such unattractive outfits. It’s almost as if Fate, having decided she’d gone overboard with the foursome’s looks, decided to overcompensate with clothing. It’s not so much a ’70s look or even a ’70s pop-star look as a Swedish approximation of a ’70s pop-star look. Yet, given that Abba outsold everyone else during the ’70s--the Bee Gees, Elton John, Fleetwood Mac, Rick Dees and His Cast of Idiots--perhaps it was right. Or perhaps the sales would’ve been even better had the videos that were this seldom-touring group’s main medium of international exposure not disseminated the look worldwide. Did matters improve with the ’80s? Clothes-wise, yes; hair-wise, no. Meanwhile, film majors will note the occasional Bergman homage, and the music, as always, sparkles. And the kimonos--I like the kimonos. Rating: Three-and-a-half don’ts out of five.
Abandoned Pools: Humanistic (Extasy International)--Slightly anachronistic, thoroughly catchy, and occasionally beautiful one-man-band electronica.
The Acoustic Folk Box (Topic)--Ultimately, you don’t warm up to a four-disc, eighty-five-track, five-hour box such as this for of its historical, anthropological, or even aesthetic value, considerable though its value in these areas may be. You warm up to it for the same reason you warm up to any album: the songs. These being primarily British Isles folk (and folk-based) songs recorded primarily by British Islanders ’tween 1960 and 2000, the order of their appeal to Americans is likely to be melodies (sing-along) first, vocals (astringent) second, instrumentation (unplugged and largely drumless) third, and words last (if at all)--been a long time since anyone I know got too worked up about the agonies and the ecstasies of the Labor Party. The archetypical stuff of which the trad. ballads are made, however, endures, especially the stuff involving tales of adultery, murder, corrupt clergy, and other topics of contemporary interest. Spend a few weeks with this collection and at least one eighty-minute homemade CD’s worth of tunes will have burrowed themselves into your head. And while Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny, and Maddy Prior do appear, the emphasis is on heroes and heroines of the genre heretofore unsung by those of us this side of the Atlantic. The Incredible String Band obscurity is amazing, the Martin Simpson instrumental a real ear opener. And I definitely intend to track down more of Nic Jones, Fernhill, and Kate Rusby. Rating: Four-and-a-half lucky charms out of five.
Air Supply: Yours Truly (Giant)--This audio valentine came and went last year without so much as a yawn from any discernable segment of the music-buying audience, yet it (the record, not the audience) deserved better. Close your eyes at almost any point in this swoonfest and you’d swear you were hearing the latest comeback single from the Bee Gees or the Moody Blues, neither of whom appears to be in any hurry to score with such prime fluff these days. So why not settle for the stuff as purveyed by these inspired phonies? And why not admit that “Learning to Make Love to You” cuts closer than “How Deep Is Your Love” and “Your Wildest Dreams” combined? Rating: Three-and-a-half nights in white satin and-or on Broadway out of five.
Eric Alexander: Summit Meeting (Milestone)--The Young Man with a Sax keeps on coming, although what elevates this one above his first two is admittedly a matter of perspective.
The Rev. Vince Anderson and His Love Choir: The Thirteenth Apostle (Dirty Gospel)--Those who consider it foolhardy to weld Tom Waits to gutter-gospel themes are directed to the fifth and sixth movements of Gavin Bryar’s Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, after which this raucous shouter’s descent into a booze-fueled hell will feel purgative indeed.
Badly Drawn Boy: About a Boy (XL/Artist Direct)--I haven’t actually seen the movie--you think I’m a nut?--but this evocative Manchester pop is worth a matinee ticket at least.
David Ball: Amigo (Dualtone Nashville)--Finally free of his major-label obligation to follow up “Thinkin’ Problem,” Ball eases into a Western-swing so easygoing it could accompany siesta and fiesta time both. Those of us in-between get the dual pleasure of hearing Ball sing and hearing him sing lyrics worth attending to, including but not limited to the hit friendly-ghost narrative “Riding with Private Malone” and the soon-to-be bumpersticker classic “When the Devil Wants to Wrestle (Put Jesus in the Ring).” Rating: Three-and-a-half Texas echoes out of five.
Jason Becker: Perspective (Warner Bros.)--For most of the ’80s, Becker was just one more hard-rock guitarist racking up notches on his axe, eventually replacing Joe Satriani in David Lee Roth’s band. Then in ’91, while in the initial stages of Lou Gehrig’s disease, he began composing on the computer, getting other people and machines to play the music, and coming up with songs so soaring, celestial, moving, and strange that at times they sound like what post-Vatican II Catholic composers might have come up with had they spent less time honing the folk mass and more time listening to progressive rock. Independently released in ’96, Perspective came out last year on Warners at the behest of another hard-rock guitarist with an intimate knowledge of ravaging illnesses, Eddie Van Halen. A portion of the proceeds go toward the ALS Therapy Development Foundation, but this is one fund-raising album you don’t need a well-formed conscience to enjoy. Rating: Four luckiest men on earth out of five.
Bellamy Brothers: Redneck Girls Forever (Curb)--“Let’s Roll America,” “The Andy Griffith Show,” and “Come Back Gene and Roy” may capture common sentiments, but sentimentality has never been a Bellamy strength. What has been is satirical songs like “What I Used to Do All Night,” credited here to David Bellamy although Billy C. Wirtz copyrighted a similar Viagra anthem under the exact same title four years ago. I’m glad these fellas are back on Curb, and I wish them the best. But even more I wish us their best. This isn’t it. Rating: Three Rafael Palmeiros out of five.
Ron Block: Faraway Land (Rounder)--Don’t be fooled by the inside photos of Block’s Inklings library; these country-bluegrass gospel songs are as sweet, simple, and American as any he’s recorded with Union Station.
Blues Around the Clock (Pablo)--From Joe Turner's "Blues Around the Clock" to Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson's "Just a Dream on My Mind," raunchier, funnier, and more rockin’ than Marshall Mathers.
David Bowie: Heathen (ISO/Columbia)--Bowie recently told Vanity Fair that his music has always been “about style,” an admission, perhaps, of what those of us who liked him when he was good have long maintained: that he has nothing to say and (sometimes) cool ways of saying it. The cover sticker proclaims Heathen “classic Bowie circa 2002,” and to the extent that he’s still saying nothing in cool ways, I guess it is. But little in its dark, carefully wrought electronic suavity will endear it to today’s youth, for whom “cool” requires profanity, rapper cameos, and a look entirely at odds with Bowie’s dapper elegance. And while the Neil Young, Frank Black, and Legendary Stardust Cowboy covers go with the flow, neither they nor the flow shed light on why the album’s called Heathen when it should be called Pagan. Classic Bowie would’ve known the difference. Rating: Three golden years out of five.
Randall Bramblett: No More Mr. Lucky (New West)--Bramblett’s been around a while: solo debut in ’75, member of Sea Level, oft-covered singer-songwriter. The album with which he finally returned to solo recording in 1998, See Through Me, was O.K. but hardly adequate preparation for the depth, catchiness, and masterly execution that radiates from these songs at nearly every point. “Hard to Be a Human” aside (Bramblett should try being a panda), the Georgia native’s eminently replayable rock and soul hooks, mystic sax, and funk pulse constitute the ideal backdrop for a wisdom that’s freshly phrased, well sung, and eminently plainspoken. As for the Van Morrison fan in me, he’s happy to report that “Peace in Here” is a perfect song. Rating: Four-and-a-half Veedon fleeces out of five.
Brandy: Full Moon (Atlantic)--If teachers have to pass certification exams before gaining access to the classroom, shouldn’t pop singers, who wield a far greater influence on the young than teachers ever will, at the very least have to fail an airhead test? Writes Ms. Norwood: “I have been on a journey to search for my higher self, bring my life into harmony, transform my perceptions, and expand my awareness of love.” And, believe me, it shows. Rating: Two-and-a-half one-way tickets out of five.
The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir: Be Glad (M2)--In which the number-one multi-racial pop-gospel ensemble in the land seeks beauty and joy in the middle of the road and finds it.
Stephen Bruton: Spirit World (New West)--The albums of sidemen who go front and center after years of toiling in the shadows tend to be dreary affairs, and until now the output of this Texas axeslinger-for-hire has been no exception. This time, however, he beats the jinx. He still goes on too long (only one song under four minutes) and is content to let sleeping clichés lie when he should be kicking them in the head, but these defects are portable with other graces, and Bruton finally has some. For one thing, he now writes melodies that stick. For another, his backbeats groove and shuffle a little when they absolutely must. Third, and most pleasantly surprising of all, Bruton is now singing less like a guitarist and more like the relaxed, confident, and sometimes even thoughtful 54-year-old he is (when he’s not singing exactly like Mark Knopfler, that is). Rating: Three-and-a-half dire straits out of five.
the b-sides: Yes, Indeed, the b-sides, quite (Rock)--Who says punky, rinky-dink nerd-pop is dead? Certainly not this rag-tag collective of indie-rock cast-offs and hangers on, whose passionate commitment to the residual sweetness at the bottom of the bubblegum barrel is positively bracing. The collective thinness of the three main voices makes for unnecessarily prepubescent-sounding harmonies, but the infatuation with cool effects that results in the occasionally gratuitous deployment of vintage electronic doodads lends the fun-sized hooks and melodies a winsomely adolescent urgency. Recommended to fans of the Cowsills, the Pooh Sticks, the Vandalias, Poole, the eels, and Throw That Beat in the Garbagecan! Rating: Three-and-a-half Ron Dante’s Infernos out of five.
B2K: B2K (Epic)--I know, they’re just kids (average age fifteen according to b2klovesyou.com, which also says they’re home-schooled, yeah right), but seeing as how their legal custodians see nothing wrong with their singing about wanting a girl “so damn bad” or assuring her it’s O.K. to play Truth or Dare after school, they may as well learn that part of what it means to be a big boy is occasionally being told that J-Boog, Lil Fizz, and Raz B are really stupid-sounding nicknames. Rating: Two spur posses out of five.
Built to Spill: Ancient Melodies of the Future (Warner Bros.)--Going from imitating Neil Young to imitating the Buggles may not be an improvement, but it certainly increases the catchiness quotient.
Jonathan Butler: Surrender (Warner Bros.)--Albums recorded in the afterglow of religious conversion can be bracing, as fans of Bob Dylan, Al Green, Maria Muldaur, Arlo Guthrie, and Van Morrison know. Why Butler, a forty-year-old South African nearly a decade past his Jive Records best-of, is more bracing than his jazz-lite settings at first make him seem is his Stevie Wonder of a voice, which makes his Scripture-lite (and romance-lite) clichés go down easy. Of course, he’d be more bracing without any clichés at all, but giving up pat phrases cold turkey is a lot to ask of someone who’s re-learning the language of love from scratch, and his foregoing of words altogether on the five instrumentals suggests he’s more aware of his verbal limitations than the average enthusiast. Rating: Three-and-a-half revivals-lite out of five.
J.J. Cale: The Best of J.J. Cale: 20th Century Masters, the Millennium Collection (Mercury)--Budget prices or no, Universal’s Millennium Collections are often too little of a good thing or just plain redundant. In the case of this Oklahoma miniaturist, though, the format makes sense; much more Cale would require a warning against operating heavy machinery. He gave Clapton "After Midnight" and "Cocaine" (both included) and did them as well if not better. He gave Knopfler a voice, a shuffle, and a picking style. Too bad Knopfler refused Cale’s humor--"I’ll Make Love to You Anytime" is a real fanny slapper. Rating: Three-and-a-half moneys for something out of five.
Calliope: Braille (Thick)--There’s genuine ebb and flow in the way Andy Dryer’s languorous whisper floats atop the hazy electronic washes, and when these boys set their guitars on “chiming,” their brass on “oracular,” their tempos on “bouncy,” and their melodies on “upbeat,” they open up their hearts and let the sun shine in. As for “Detroit Girl,” it’s the slacktronica masterpiece you always hoped someone had in him. Rating: Three-and-a-half Motor City mad chicks out of five.
Eliza Carthy/Nancy Kerr: On Reflection (Gadfly)--A boiling down of Carthy and Kerr’s traditional, acoustic, fiddle-and-vocal ’90s, the logical next purchase for fans of Carthy’s cuts on The Acoustic Folk Box.
Johnny Cash: Ride This Train (Columbia/Legacy)--The corniest of the seventieth-birthday reissues, but what would you expect from a “stirring travelogue[s] of America in story and song”?
Johnny Cash: Hymns by Johnny Cash (Columbia/Legacy)--The second-corniest of the seventieth-birthday reissues (“Johnny’s second Columbia album,” says a sticker on the promo copies, “the album he came here to make!”) But what would you expect from an “all-time country classic” containing “Johnny’s originals and his take on his favorite gospel songs” and an “alternate version of ‘It Was Jesus’ (previously unreleased in the U.S.!)” and a “new personal reflection by Johnny Cash” and a “new essay” and the “original liner notes and many previously unpublished photos!”? Rating: Two-and-a-half sweet chariots swung low out of five.
Celebration of America (Music for Little People)--Music for Little People’s concept albums often list toward the sentimental Left. The recently reissued Peace Is the World Smiling (sic), for instance, features Holly Near, Pete Seeger, a Harry Belafonte lyric, and enough puerile self-esteem to make Oscar the Grouch kick the can. Thus it is that this compilation’s unabashed patriotism, best exemplified by the robust triptych of “America the Beautiful,” “Stars and Stripes Forever,” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic” that closes it, comes as such a pleasant surprise. And there’s plenty of pluribus amid the unum: hitmakers (Ray Charles, Randy Newman), Broadway (James Cagney, “Seventy-six Trombones”), even Commies (Paul Robeson, the Weavers). I’d replace Linda Ronstadt’s Chuck Berry song with Chuck Berry’s, Jane Siberry’s “Shenandoah” with Bob Dylan’s, and Buckwheat Zydeco’s “Cotton Fields” with Leadbelly’s (or Al Jardine’s), but until Ken Burns documents 9/11, this album is an attractively efficient way to introduce American tykes to their musical roots. Rating: Three-and-a-half cheers for excluding Lee Greenwood out of five.
A Cellarful of Motown! (Motown)--Because Berry Gordy always had his performers put their best feet forward, this two-disc collection of recent vault findings that were never released because they were nobody’s best foot contains no revelations. Plenty of pleasant surprises though (Brenda Holloway, "Who You Gonna Run To"; Barbara McNair, "Baby a Go Go"; Kim Weston: "Don’t Let Me Down"; the Contours, "Danger, Heartbreak Dead Ahead").
Kasey Chambers: Barricades and Brickwalls (Warner Bros.)--This attractive lass from Down Under has been accumulating kudos for her somewhat edgy take on the Appalachian sound, and kudos she deserves. But the sound’s not hers, it’s Julie Miller’s. Program this album’s “Not Pretty Enough,” “On a Bad Day,” “Nullarbor Song,” and especially “Runaway Train” and “I Still Pray” as bonus tracks on any of Miller’s recent Hightone albums and no one would notice the sleight-of-hand, probably not even Miller’s husband Buddy, who sings on some of these tracks just as he does on his wife’s LPs. As a longtime fan of First Class’s Beach Boys rip, the Knickerbockers’ Beatles rip, Billy Joel’s Four Season’s rip, etc., I willingly admit that there’s nothing wrong with a musician’s looking around, noticing less of the music she loves than she’d prefer, and making more of it. I cannot, however, blame those who find the dopplegänger effect a little creepy, or deny that Chambers’ suggestive cover poses and occasionally dirty mouth are hers alone. Rating: Three-and-a-half O sisters where art thou out of five.
Cher: Living Proof (Warner Bros.)--One expected a bad album, but not this bad. One expected more techno-disco, but not this much. One expected more electronically treated vocals, but one also hoped one would be wrong, that in attempting to stretch her hit-making into decade number five Cher would avoid repeating the same gimmick twice in a row so as not to seem crass. No such luck. And no sneaking into the Vocoder Hall of Fame on the coattails of Roger Troutman and Laurie Anderson either. Rating: Two dying proofs out of five.
Chumbawamba: Readymades (Republic/Universal)--These anarchists must be doing something right because you don’t have to buy into their notion of the ideal society to get with their notion of the ideal music. So skillful is their deployment of gentle techno touches and pretty-sad melodies that to sense the gravity of their concerns you need no more be moved by the details of the real-life injustices behind “Without Rhyme or Reason (The Killing of Harry Stanley)” or “Don’t Pass Go” (way to get in a side dig at “monopolies,” guys) than with the New York mining disaster at the heart of their last album’s Bee Gees cover. In the end, of course, you might be moved anyway. And if you think they have no sense of humor, check out “Ask Britney Spears” at chumbawamba.net. Rating: Four-and-a-half slaves 4 U out of five.
Bruce Cockburn: Anything Anytime Anywhere: Singles 1979-2002 (Rounder)--What would you think of a woman who, having been raped, reproached herself for bringing out the animal in her attackers instead of organizing a posse and going for their gonads? What do you think of Arthur Miller, who in discussing the WTC attacks recently said, “I think that more people are prepared now ... to inquire as to why [Americans] are so hated in so many places”? What did you think of Bruce Cockburn’s “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” back in ’84, when those opposed to the Contras could wish violent death on U.S.-backed forces without seeming unpatriotic? What does Cockburn himself think of the song now, or is his inclusion of it on this, his third or fourth best-of (and his second best-of to include it), answer enough? Do you think maybe if he had a hammer he’d hammer out love between his brothers and his sisters all over this land? Or would he just use it to beat dead horses? And although “Wanna Go Walking”--the catchiest song he ever recorded -- was never a single, don’t you think someone could’ve snuck it on? Rating: Three MIA’s out of five.
Counting Crows: Hard Candy (Geffen)--“People began taking melody for granted when they started thinking of songwriters as poets,” says Adam Duritz, and he’s right. “Poetry is great,” he continues, “but I haven’t the slightest interest in being a poet.... I’m a songwriter, and I want to engrave my songs in people’s heads.” The problem is, Duritz does have the slightest interest in being a poet, hence the evocative but ultimately unfocused pictures presented by these songs. He likes girls, he loves travel, he hates sleep, and he wishes he still liked getting high--from a younger man, such shamblings might come off charmingly waifish. From a thirty-eight-year-old whose real-life rootlessness comes fully funded by royalties and major-label advances, they come off immature, even irresponsible, and as a singer the head Crow’s still no songbird (compare his “Big Yellow Taxi” with Joni’s). Still, he does well by details (n.b.: the Band-like piano on “If I Could Give All My Love or Richard Manuel Is Dead”), and he has quit taking melody for granted--“Why Should You Come When I Call?” and “Butterfly in Reverse” could engrave themselves in the head of a pachyderm. Rating: Three brain salad surgeries out of five.
Hank Crawford and Jimmy McGriff: The Best of Hank Crawford and Jimmy McGriff (Milestone)--We’re sorry, all of our operators are currently busy helping other customers. Please stay on the line, and your call will be answered in the order it was received.
Sheryl Crow: C’mon, C’mon (A&M)--As long as she retains her gift for the hook, Sheryl Crow will make for a livelier aging party girl than Joan Jett has in a while, though not than Joan Jett ever did. Although Crow appears fated to out-point Jett in terms of hit quantity, there are no junk-culture totems on the scale of “I Love Rock ’n Roll” on her horizon. She still wants nothing more than to have some fun, and with breezy-lightness the secret of her charm, ambition is gone with the wind. Even the lasting-relationship business that informs her ballads seems little more than a reason to duet with Don Henley. Will she ever dig deeper? Probably not as long as the air-brushing of her beauty mole remains a priority. As for the over-eagerness to please implicit in her swimsuit-issue booklet photos, it puts me in mind of an answer song I once composed: “Amazons, they make me sick. / Are you weak enough to be my chick?” Rating: Three-and-a-half cock-a-doodle-doo’s out of five.
¡Cubanismo!: The Very Best of ¡Cubanismo!: ¡mucho gusto! (Hannibal/Rykodisc)--Leading off with a definitively classic mambo followed by a definitively classic descarga followed by a definitively classic Arsenio Rodríguez composition, this compilation comes on like Jesús Alemañy’s answer to Bob Marley’s Legend and doesn’t so much let up later on as level off. Not that it levels off much, not with a definitively classic salsa ending things with a bang and two well-done Bob Marley covers keeping the legend alive (always nice to hear a Cuban telling his brethren to stand up for their rights). Rating: Four-and-a-half upside-down exclamation points out of five.