Sunday, April 26, 2009

2007 Album Reviews: D-E

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

Daughtry: Daughtry (RCA)—The music: middle-of-the-road guitar rock with detours into mellowness and metal. The “artist”: the latest American Idol contestant to parlay his tube appeal into a major-label contract and thus to continue that show’s foisting of homogenized predictability upon the public. The lyrics: proof that there is too an upside to breaking up—the resulting loneliness and pain find perfect expression in the very clichés that come naturally to mediocre rockers like Chris Daughtry. Add it all up and what do you get? The best-selling CD in the country. What is wrong with you people? Rating: Two-and-a-half gong shows out of five.

Dave Davies: Fractured Mindz (Koch)--If dying is the best publicity stunt, then almost dying must be the second best. So although the Other Kink would’ve certainly preferred interest in this album to stem from something besides curiosity about his recovery from his 2004 stroke, at least people are curious, and, to Davies’ credit, Fractured Mindz is worth thinking about. The lyrics, while not deep, are serious and sometimes borderline insightful (in “Free Me” he wants to be freed “from the government”). The sound, however, will definitely raise questions, such as: Are Davies’ vocals, like every other sound on the album, heavily electronified to make up for lingering disabilities, or does Bowie-esque futuristic hard rock simply capture what it feels like to be given a second chance? Rating: Three recuperations of a clown out of five.

Miles Davis: The Complete On the Corner Sessions (Columbia/Legacy)--At six-and-a-half hours, this six-disc document of Davis’s three-year, post-Bitches Brew exploration of funk-fusion’s heart of darkness really is too much of a good thing. Disc One’s presentation of three of the original album’s tracks in all their unedited, twenty-minute glory will thrill fans of the original album (included in its entirety on Disc Six), but most of what’s documented on Discs Two through Five is sheer experimentation. As it was Davis who was in charge and the likes of Pete Cosey and James Mtume who were in tow, the experiments are usually interesting and only tedious if loaded into a multi-disc changer and plowed through in one sitting. Still, that the 3D metal-box packaging and the text of the 108-page booklet is equally interesting (and less tedious) tells you something. Rating: Three-and-a-half introverted modernists out of five.

Bo Diddley: I’m a Man--The Chess Masters 1955-1958 (Hip-O Select)--The only problem with this limited-edition, two-disc collection of all the Bo Diddley anyone ever need own is that instead of segregating the alternate takes from the official ones, the compilers give us the sessions in all their original chronological redundancy. So we get three “Bo Diddley”s and two versions of eight others, versions that sound for the most part identical. And you know what? Most of the repeated songs are good enough (by which, this being Bo Diddley, I mean funny enough) that hearing them twice or thrice in a row feels less like redundancy than like what you’d hear if Diddley had shouted, “One more time!” You know “Who Do You Love,” “Bo Diddley,” maybe “Hey Jerome,” and the famous beat, you can live without his versions of “I’m a Man” and “Love Is Strange,” and he didn’t record much else worth preserving. But he toured on the strength of these recordings until waylaid last May, and the rhythmic template he forged will be rocking the world long after he’s gone. Rating: Four-and-a-half great 48s out of five.

The Donnas: Bitchin’ (Purple Feather)--Their unsubtle sluttiness having become pure shtick, America’s answer to Girlschool celebrates its liberation from Atlantic Records by making an album that only women old enough (average age: twenty-eight) to have mastered the art of passing themselves off as hot children in the city could make--by making, in other words, their answer to Nightmare at Maple Cross. Except for “Don’t Wait Up for Me” (an obvious homage to Joan Jett’s 1988 “I Hate Myself for Loving You” that suffers by comparison), Bitchin’ is rooted in the glitter-metal ’70s, from the Sweet's “Block Buster” siren with which it opens to the Kim Fowley-worthy male fantasies with which it proceeds. Things take awhile to heat up. Only with Track Ten’s “Smoke You Out” do the hooks, power chords, and calls and responses get really bitchin’. But once they do, you can almost believe that bubblegum music (the self-consciously sleazy high-voltage kind anyway) really is the naked truth. Rating: Three-and-a-half electrocutes out of five.

Bob Dylan: The Other Side of the Mirror (Columbia Music Video/Legacv)--Seventeen Dylan performances from the Newport Folk Festivals 1963-1965, and, like The Bootleg Series Volume 4: Live 1966, what once was mythical seems fairly tame now. Dylan put on a black leather jacket and an electric guitar and performed “Maggie’s Farm” and “Like a Rolling Stone” with the Butterfield Blues Band--so what? The answer comes in the persons of Joan Baez and Peter Yarrow, the former of whom nearly ruins her Dylan duets by taking stentorian vocal propriety to heights that would be comic if they weren’t so painful and the latter of whom comes off like such an uptight square as the festival’s emcee that it’s hard to believe he was ever allowed anywhere near the counter-culture. (The forever-old Pete Seeger seems positively spry by comparison.) In other words, by 1964 (a year before he plugged in and went surreal), it was becoming apparent if not obvious that Dylan’s pretension-deflating sense of humor, of which his utilization of electricity was merely one aspect, posed a threat to the suffocating smugness of the Left. Bonus: the interview with director Murray Lerner proves that the Beatles weren’t the only ones to whom Dylan introduced marijuana. Rating: Four-and-a-half chimes of freedom out of five.

Electric Light Orchestra: Out of the Blue (Epic/Legacy)--Thirtieth-anniversary edition, bonus liner notes and songs (three, one good), proof of both Jeff Lynne’s superhuman pop wizardry and his all-too-human inability to resist overindulging it.

Electric Light Orchestra: Balance of Power (Epic/Legacy)—In 1986, having deep-sixed the actual strings and streamlined his “orchestra” to just keyboardist Richard Tandy, drummer Bev Bevan, and himself, Jeff Lynne whipped up the slickest and most relentlessly hooky of his many relentless ELO hookfests. But only “Calling America” dented the airwaves--in part because record-company problems hindered promotion, in part because even the sleekest hit machines eventually need more in the way of lyrics than rhyming fluff, and in part because, even newly streamlined, ELO seemed like a relic in the days when only acts broken by MTV were the rage. So the album became ELO’s least heard until 2001’s even less-heard Zoom. Heard now, what stands out about Balance of Power is not only how much its zippy ditties foreshadowed the full-time career as a producer of, and collaborator on, other people’s zippy ditties upon which Lynne was about to embark (especially the Roy Orbison-esque “Endless Lies”) but also how, even in ELO-swan-song mode, Lynne was a Brit-pop genius, channeling and synthesizing two decades worth of various British Invasions as if the sun would never set upon the empire he called home. And, except for three alternate takes, the bonus cuts belong. Rating: Three-and-a-half secret messages out of five.

Joe Ely: Happy Songs from Rattlesnake Gulch (Rack ’em)—Ely hasn’t stretched his recording career over thirty years by accident. He writes consistently, and occasionally brilliantly, enough to hold his own with Guy Clark, Lyle Lovett, and John Hiatt onstage and with Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock in the studio. And, if he sings less compellingly than Gilmore and Lovett, he’s a lot easier on the ears than Hiatt. Meanwhile, the stylistic restlessness of his early ’80s period has matured nicely into stylistic curiosity. But there’s also a reason that he’s recorded for over half-a-dozen labels: he’s not always consistent or occasionally brilliant, as this album proves. Only on the last song, “River Fever,” do its jaunty narratives and swaggering instrumentation come together with more light than heat. And, frankly, the heat of most of the others could be hotter. Rating: Three hard-luck saints out of five.

Endless Highway: The Music of the Band (429)—Composing with the singing of other Band members in mind, Robbie Robertson intended for his songs to be covered. Ditto for the songs Bob Dylan composed for The Basement Tapes, three of which appear here. So it’s no surprise that these versions, about half by performers who weren’t even born when The Last Waltz was filmed, hold up. What is surprising is how similar to the Band’s renditions they sound, with My Morning Jacket’s “It Makes No Difference” following the Last Waltz version right down to the smallest details. The exceptions (Jack Johnson’s “I Shall Be Released,” The Roches’ “Acadian Driftwood,” Rosanne Cash’s “The Unfaithful Servant,” maybe Death Cab for Cutie’s “Rockin’ Chair”) are by performers so distinctive that they couldn’t sound like Levon Helm, Rick Danko, or Richard Manuel if they tried. So they don’t, and, not surprisingly, it’s during their turns that this tribute takes on a life of its own. Rating: Three-and-a-half generic methods out of five.

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