(As published in the Times of Acadiana unless otherwise noted....)
Dash: Sonic Boom (Write On)--Dash is the latest incarnation of Dash Rip Rock, the little Baton Rouge band that not only could but also did and still does. Album number nine leads off with ten new Bill Davis originals, the least of which echo his betters (e.g., Marshall Crenshaw and the Beach Boys on “Dream Together”) and the best of which give off Southern pop, rock, country, folk, and bar-band-boogie vibes as only songs awash in references to Mississippi, Evangeline, waltzes, and the South can. Then, in the true spirit of lagniappe, the album concludes with three covers that, name change or no name change, rip and rock: Rufus Jagneaux’s “Opelousas Sostain” (sic), the Beatles’ “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party,” and Steve Poltz’s “Monkeys,” which begins “Well, I went to the Zoo the other day. / I had seven hits of acid. / I was on my way” and ends with primates out the wazoo. Rating: Four jewels out of five.
Neil Diamond: Play Me: The Complete Uni Studio Recordings ... Plus! (MCA)--I used to think I had a soft place in my heart for Neil Diamond, but now I realize the soft place was in my head. I used to think that by playing his Jonathan Livingston Seagull for my dying parakeet when I was in the seventh grade I’d helped the little guy hang on a little longer, but now I think I probably hastened his end. I used to think I’d find lots to like on Diamond’s late-’60s/early-’70s LPs once I had the chance to investigate, but now that MCA has collapsed six of them into this three-CD set I realize I was wrong. In short: some hits, some oddball curiosities (e.g., “The Pot Smoker’s Song”), some O.P.K. (other people’s kitsch, e.g., “Mr. Bojangles”), and lots and lots of crap. Rating: Two counts of involuntary budgieslaughter out of five.
Celine Dion: A New Day Has Come (Epic)--With Barbra Streisand a political blowhard, Whitney Houston a (Bobby) brownnosing crackhead, and Mariah Carey a woman under the influence, Celine Dion is easily the most likable of her ilk. But except for her understated treatment of the jazz standard “Nature Boy” and maybe the temptation-acknowledging “When the Wrong One Loves You Right,” there’s no reason to listen to this hackneyed comeback twice. The gimmick is to graft gospel lingo onto secular schmaltz in a blind grope for something generically “inspirational.” Hence, references abound to “prayer,” “faith,” “miracles,” “heaven,” and being “touched by an angel,” but they’re really just metaphors for the chanteuse’s happy marriage, her baby boy, and her upcoming three-year concert engagement at Caesar’s Palace. She’d be more interesting if she’d sing about those topics directly. Rating: Two more Grammies anyway out of five.
Dirty Vegas: Dirty Vegas (Capitol/Credence)--The style is that trance-like brand of modern disco beloved of Ecstasy addicts, and although there’s no objectionable material as such, the limp philosophizing of lyrics like “There must be a better way / There must be a way to change ... Leave the past ’cos it don’t mean a thing” does get annoying. Actually, I’d prefer annoying to mechanical, which along with monotonous is what this disc nearly winds down to before the unannounced Pink Floyd cover at the end. In case you’re wondering, the Dirty Vegas guys don’t need no education. Or so they think. Rating: Two-and-a-half Wayne Newtons out of five.
The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (DMZ/Columbia/Sony Music Soundtrax)--I haven’t actually seen the movie--you think I’m a nut?--but the event is too overwhelming to ignore altogether. Don’t know whether this soundtrack will follow its predecessor, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, to Grammy glory, but moving units should be no problem, not with three new Ann Savoy cuts helping sales in Acadiana, new Lauryn Hill, Macy Gray, and Tony Bennett betokening demographic criss-crossover, some classic blues and Alison Krauss ensuring AAA airplay, and a new Dylan recording hooking the many unwilling to wait for Greatest Hits, Volume Four. Rating: Three-and-a-half platinum magnolias out of five.
Dixie Chicks: Home (Open Wide/Monument/Columbia)--Having been granted the serenity to accept what I cannot change--specifically, that this album will no doubt rule the roost for the foreseeable future--I’ve decided to make my peace with it early and hunker down while the hunkering’s good. Surprisingly, the experience has been largely pain free. Though the vocals are still as tightly strung as the mandolins, dobros, and banjos that bind the Chicks to country-music tradition, only on “White Trash Wedding” do they threaten to turn into the Cyndi Laupers of studied hickdom. Elsewhere they sing convincingly, if not always well, of love, home, pearls of water on their hips, and a soldier who’s no 9/11 stereotype. They also steal “Landslide” from Stevie Nicks. Can a reclamation of Patti Smith’s “Godspeed” be far behind? Rating: Three-and-a-half Easter eggs out of five.
DJ Sammy: Heaven (Robbins)--A novelty, yes, but one that by draping its gimmickry across the time-tested hooks of the Mamas and the Papas, Paul Simon, Bryan Adams, and Don Henley ("The Boys of Summer") affirms the durability and necessity of melody.
Donna the Buffalo: Live from the American Ballroom (Wildlife)--What does it mean that a band can exist for fifteen years, record four studio albums, tour never-endingly, achieve an impressive ragged-right balance, yet never show up on one’s radar until it plays the Festival International? Or that the Village Voice can compare it to “Ralph Stanley sitting in with Bob Marley and the Zydeco All-Stars” when its real synthesis is obviously the Grateful Dead (average song length: eight minutes) and BeauSoleil (accordion, Step Rideau cover, song called “Revelation Two-Step”)? Or that my classical-musician wife can enjoy these spirited jams as much as I do when nearly everything else in the review pile drives her nuts? Rating: Four Godchaux’s out of five.
Donovan: Pied Piper (Music for Little People)--This album is allegedly for children, but when Donovan sings “The sun is a very magic fellow” on track three, you can’t help thinking, “Yes, but the sun’s yellow is most definitely not mellow.” At which point you realize that Donovan’s music has always been child-centered, that the aesthetic accomplishment of songs like “Mellow Yellow,” “Sunshine Superman,” and “Jennifer Juniper” is their transformation of the nursery rhyme into a folk music that--with no sacrifice of naïvety, whimsicality, or charm--can retain its appeal even when sequenced between mannish boys like the Rolling Stones and Eric Burdon on oldies radio. Several of these songs, re-recorded here, did, in fact, begin their lives on Donovan’s ’60s albums, but the best ones sound as timeless as Donovan’s voice. Rating: Four epistles to Dippy out of five.
Bob Dylan: Live 1975: The Rolling Thunder Review (Sony/Legacy)--The tour this box commemorates has become legendary not on the strength of Dylan’s then-current sound but on the strength of his then-current look and his then-current friends/band. In theory, the spectacle should’ve been as fun to hear as it was to look at, but even “Isis,” this collection’s one undeniable highlight, sounds better on Biograph. And Hard Rain, the single-disc LP that Columbia released from this tour’s 1976 leg in ’76, preserves more must-hear performances. On the plus side, this box includes a bonus DVD with a video of the Biograph “Isis,” thus preserving the look. Rating: Three-and-a-half Renaldo’s and Clara’s out of five.
Echobrain: Echobrain (Chophouse/Surfdog)--If this trio sounded even a teensy bit like Metallica, the mere mention of Jason Newsted’s presence in it might move metalheads to illicitly download its music. But this trio sounds nothing like Metallica: “Keep Me Alive” has the kind of acoustic guitars and violins that have been coloring ace melancholia since “As Tears Go By,” the acoustically wispy “We Are Ghosts” feels every bit as spectral as its title, and the mellotron-like sounds of “The Feeling Is Over” recall days of future past. Even “Highway 44,” a song with obvious roots in Cream-era electric blues, emphasizes melody, hook, and Dylan Donkin’s almost effeminately vulnerable Left Banke singing over brawn. The words make no sense (they’re supposed to, I think), so I guess the group’s more echo than brain. But what echoes! Why, the whimsical untitled hidden track even sounds like a Paul McCartney outtake. Rating: Three-and-a-half swapped MP3s out of five.
Walter Egan: Apocalypso Now (Gaff)--“Magnet and Steel” fans not-shy enough to give this solid and consistently entertaining modern-rock album a try (and to overlook the absence of Buckingham and Nicks) will be abundantly rewarded--not only by the Mac-ish “Only Love Is Left Alive” and the very pretty “Better Days” but also by the surfin’-Byrdsy “The Reason Why” and the hard-rocking, organ-driven “Stubborn Girl.” Who says heroes are hard to find? Rating: Four future games out of five.
Eminem: The Eminem Show (Aftermath)--Legend has it that in the days of royalty common folk had no qualms about proclaiming naked emperors to be well dressed. In our day, when Jerry Springer is king, it’s rappers to whom we attribute imaginary qualities. Mathers has been misidentified by many who should know better as an artistic genius. Still, as a case study in the extremes of mass-marketable pathologies, he’s not without interest. Those who listen between the lines will note that he fully acknowledges his own wretchedness, considers homosexuality abnormal, claims he won’t let his own daughter listen to him, warns parents that if they’re not careful their kids could turn out like him, and otherwise seems one with the conservative Republicans he criticizes for criticizing him. But conservative Republicans don’t criticize him for what’s between his lines; they criticize him for the lines themselves, lines which in their relentless profanity, vulgarity, obscenity, and narcissism provide overabundant evidence of an intelligence too underdeveloped and solipsistic to take seriously. Conservative Democrats would probably criticize him too--if there were any. One-and-a-half James Trafficants out of five.
Evangeline Made: A Tribute to Cajun Music (Vanguard)--Having married into Cajun music instead of absorbing it as part of the atmosphere in which she grew up, Ann Savoy loves and champions the tradition with an erstwhile outsider’s awareness of what it takes to get the attention of the world-at-large. And never before has she made as much of that awareness as she has on this future winner of a Best Traditional Folk Album Grammy. First, with haunting ballads interspersed among the waltzes and two-steps, there’s simply a greater variety of music than one usually encounters on Cajun albums. Second, with singing courtesy of a veritable folk, rock, and country Who’s Who, there’s a greater variety of voices as well. Oddly, with the exception of Richard Thompson and maybe Patty Griffin, none of the singers sound particularly like themselves; even the usually irreducible David Johansen and John Fogerty take on the nature of their surroundings. What the singers do sound like is natural-born Cajuns, a testament, perhaps, to their acting as much as to their singing. And the music, performed as it is by ensembles of “all-star Cajun musicians” (Steve Riley et. al in the case of Nick Lowe) is never anything less than worthy of the attention of the world-at-large. Rating: Four-and-a-half French immersions out of five.
Freddy Fender: La Musica de Baldemar Huerta (Back Porch)--Not until he hooked up with the Texas Tornados was Freddy Fender considered much of an album artist, and even then he had to wait for the best-of. Now, after more than four decades of striving for hits and with the government-mandated retirement age just around the corner, he relaxes, settles back into the music of his youth, and comes up with the best album of his career. I always knew he could sing, but I never knew that he or anyone else for that matter could ever sing well enough to make me put on a traditional conjunto album of my own volition and enjoy it all the way through. Beautiful and haunting, the drumlessness a gift to the violins, guitarron, and muted trumpet, the album is so of a piece that by the time the bonus cuts (“Wasted Days and Wasted Nights,” “Secret Love”) bring the program to a close, they feel like the nice but extraneous encores they are. Rating: Four-and-a-half lone stars out of five.
The Flying Burrito Brothers: Sin City: The Very Best of the Flying Burrito Brothers (A&M)--In case you don’t know, the first eleven tracks (out of twenty-five) are Gilded Palace of Sin, a seminal masterwork long considered the touchstone of much of the best country, rock, and country-rock of the past thirty years, with a bona fide dead avatar front and center to boot. That’s a lot of hype to hear through, but the music (especially “Wild Horses” and “If You Gotta Go”) rewards the effort.
The Forever Fabulous Chickenhawks Showband and All-Star Revue Starring Big Luther Kent: Live from the Gypsy Tea Room (Louisiana Red Hot)--It’s like this, fellas: I only get 480 words per column, and there are twenty-one in your group name, album title, and record company alone. That leaves barely any room to tell folks that this live disc, like the two you licensed to CSP in ’99, proves you’re the real-life Commitments; only instead of soulful amateurs you’re soulful pros. Meters, Bland, Melvin, Wither, King (Albert)--where else can a poor boy go to hear them together again for the first time? But what happened to Al “TNT” Braggs? And why not identify the sister doing Etta on “Tell Mama”? I mean, any dozen-or-so-member all-male revue will smell fishy enough to the Title IX gang as it is. Rating: Three salmon daves out of five.
John Fred and His Playboy Band: Somebody’s Knockin’ (TJ)--I respond readily to the slow pretty songs and can relate to the ones that boogie. In between I note synthesizers and programmed drums (apparently the Playboy Band is a fiction these days), religious-conversion songs (apparently sixty-two isn’t too old to be reborn), and songs about partying in the South during the summer (apparently sixty-two isn’t too old to appreciate girls in bikinis). As for the nostalgia and LSU references, I can relate to those too. Rating: Three Judy’s in disguise with Botox out of five.