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Back Stories | My Album Reviews From April 9, 1999

Rewinding some classic releases from Elton John, Nas, Mogwai and many more.

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Two decades ago, new albums from Elton John, Nas, Frank Black and others were spinning away in my portable CD player. Here’s what I had to say about them back then (with some minor editing):


Elton John & Tim Rice’s Aida
Various Artists

Talk about a pyramid scheme. It’s no secret that the real inspiration for this Disney-backed collaboration between Elton John and Tim Rice wasn’t Verdi’s operatic Egyptian romance — heck, you wouldn’t even know the old boy wrote it from the hubris-packed title. No, as Rice pretty much admits in the liner notes, in typical Mickey Mouse fashion, the motive wasn’t music, it was money. Even Goofy could follow the logic: The Prince Of Egypt raked in mucho dinero. The Lion King raked in mucho more dinero. So, get Lion King tunesmiths John and Rice to rock like an Egyptian, put it up on Broadway, slap it on a CD, and wait for the ka-ching! And to leave no demographic stone unturned, the Mouse shelled out some bucks of its own for a lineup of cross-generational stars, from old-guard faves like Tina Turner, James Taylor, Sting and Sir Elton himself to more current raves like The Spice Girls, Dru Hill and Boyz II Men. Like most Disney fare, it’s art by committee — the marketing committee. And it shows. With few exceptions, Aida is an hour-long mish-mash (the tunes don’t even appear in the proper order), full of bland, lowest-common-denominator treacle: Breast-beating, how-do-I-love-thee orchestral ballads, pointless superstar duets (Elton & LeAnn! Elton & Janet! Elton & Lulu!?) and ersatz reggae from Sting (who manages to make Sly and Robbie sound white). The exceptions are Lenny Kravitz, whose soulful Like Father Like Son recalls John’s flute-fuelled Philadelphia Freedom, and (amazingly) The Spice Girls, whose poppy My Strongest Suit is the only hummable song here. As for the rest, well, it sphinx.


Nas
I Am …

At a time when too many rap outfits consist of three guys yelling, New York emcee Nas has learned how to speak softly and carry a big shtik. Never raising his voice above a conversational tone, the motor-mouthed rapper holds forth on all the usual hip-hop topics — getting paid, getting it on and getting out of the ’hood — over kicking Timbaland beats and melodies that are equally calm, cool and collected. Even if he doesn’t have anything new to say this time out, Nas makes you listen to every word.


Frank Black & The Catholics
Pistolero

Now that he’s more or less given up the UFO-alien theme of his recent work, ex-Pixie king Frank Black has come back down to earth. Like last year’s self-titled disc, Pistolero — his fifth solo album — is a DIY affair that was recorded live to two-track over a handful of days with minimal production. And once again, less is so much more; the tension and energy inherent in the recording process imbue quirky guitar-driven
gems like I Love Your Brain and I Think I’m Starting To Lose It with a spark that Black hasn’t generated in years. He may be an old gunslinger, but Black can still nail the bull’s-eye when it counts.


Pizzicato Five
The International Playboy & Playgirl Record

For a long time, Japan’s P5 were content to live in their own little kitschy world of go-go beats, bossa nova romance and chilled martini lounge melodies. Lately, though, they’ve discovered there’s a big world out there. And with The International Playboy & Playgirl Record, they’re out to conquer it, baby. Savour the candy-floss Beatle-pop of Magic Twin Candle Tale, marvel at the Mozart-goes-pop intricacy of Concerto, sip the cool jazz of Drinking Wine or soak in the soulful horns of Such A Beautiful Girl Like You and you too can expand your horizons with the fabulous Five.


Mogwai
Come On Die Young

Hello … is there anybody out there? You bet there is. Straight from the dark side of the moon — well, actually Glasgow, but close enough — comes Come On Die Young, the sophomore disc from Mogwai, a quartet of post-modern, post-rock visionaries gaining a reputation as indie rock’s Next (Relatively) Big Thing. And no wonder; one listen will convince you these boys are onto something. Like Low, Arab Strap and recent Mercury Rev, silence, subtlety and space are as prominent on Mogwai’s pallet as notes and noise. And these dozen lysergically dreamy instrumentals, interrupted only by the occasional voice or tape-loop vocal, are like clouds, floating along and slowly changing shape over time. And, every once in a while, like clouds, they turn dark and electric, discharging their wrath in a cyclone of energy before becoming comfortably numb once again. Shine on, you crazy diamonds.


April Wine
Jon Butcher
King Biscuit Live

In one form or another, the King Biscuit radio show has been broadcasting live music for decades. (I have an old Sonny Boy Williamson LP with pictures taken at a show in the ’30s.) Lately, it’s begun to release some more recent recordings on CD — like these two discs featuring Can-rockers April Wine and Hendrix-loving Jon Butcher. Why these two? Your guess is as good as mind. The April Wine disc is a fairly bland outing from the ’82 Power Play tour. It’s hit-packed to be sure — I Like To Rock, Roller, and Oowatanite are all on the set list — but hardly a spectacular gig. Even more unspectacular are the liner notes, which misidentify two band members (Miles instead of Myles Goodwin, Johnny instead of Jerry Mercer). Butcher, on the other hand, acquits himself more capably — for what that’s worth. Sure, he’s a gifted rock guitarist, a soulful singer and a sensitive, intelligent blues-rock songwriter. But I’m still willing to bet even his mother can’t name any of his songs. The King Biscuit boys have to have better tapes in the vault than these. (F’rinstance, how about that old Sonny Boy gig?)


David Sylvian
Dead Bees On A Cake

Fresh from the Whatever Happened To Dept., former Japan vocalist David Sylvian returns with his first solo studio album in more than a decade. And it turns out that what happened to him was that he grew up, trading in his former band’s shallow artifice for depth and spirituality. Coming off like Tom Waits on Prozac, the dusty-voiced Sylvian emphasizes texture and mood over melody and hooks as he takes listeners on a languorous, relaxed world tour through the dry desert blues of Midnight Sun, the Indian spice of Krishna Blue (with the help of tablatronicist Talvin Singh), and the Far Eastern plink-plunk of Pollen Path. Take it from us; it’s worth the trip.


Buck-O-Nine
Libido

These SoCal ska-popsters say they wanted to push the envelope on their fourth release. Well, they don’t exactly shred it, but maybe they tear it just a tad. Without straying too far from the frantic, choppy herky-jerk ska foundation, they manage to spice things up with some slower grooves and poppier melodies, occasionally achieving a Caribbean lilt that recalls some of the old 2Tone acts from the ’80s. Proof that even old dogs can learn new tricks now and then.


Latin Playboys
Dose

This latest in the long list of Los Lobos offshoots features David Hidalgo and Louie Perez, along with gringo partners Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake, who produced the band’s watershed Kiko album. Although it’s the second Playboys outing, Dose picks up right where Kiko left off, as these musical mad scientists offer up a freaky Frankenstein monster of styles, sounds and sources. As flamenco guitar meets spoken word, trip-hop goes Mexicali, tape loops duel with buzzy, fuzzy guitars and surf twang bounces off pot-’n’-pan percussion. This Dose of intriguing weirdness is like a border radio broadcast from the Twilight Zone.


Baz Luhrmann
Something For Everybody

Everybody’s Free To Wear Sunscreen (The Speech Song) — a list of advice to a fictitious graduating class (wrongly attributed to Kurt Vonnegut) over a lulling, trip-hoppy track — has got to be the most unlikely hit single in years. Nor is it the only oddball outing on this year-old collection of remixes, leftovers and odds ’n’ ends from director Baz Luhrmann’s various projects, including his films Strictly Ballroom and William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet. Other tracks, like a superfly disco version of Hair and a gospel-funk version of Prince’s When Doves Cry, show that Luhrmann brings the same cheeky irreverence to music as he did to the Bard.


Never Been Kissed
Various Artists

The soundtrack for Drew Barrymore’s reporter-in-high-school rom-com offers a refresher course in Pop 101, featuring study aids from Semisonic’s Never You Mind and R.E.M.’s At My Most Beautiful all the way back to John and Yoko’s Watching The Wheels and The Beach BoysDon’t Worry Baby. Typically, however, most kids will skip over the required reading and go straight to the predictably catchy new single from teenypoppers The Moffatts. Either way, Never Been Kissed passes the test.


The PJs
Various Artists

Now here’s a match made in gangsta heaven. Rappers — who are always getting dogged for supposedly glorifying drugs and crime — provide the music for Eddie Murphy’s foamation comedy The PJs — which has been getting a bum rap from humour-impaired types for poking fun at life in the ’hood. This hour-long collection is basically one long street party featuring the cream of the G-rap crop — Snoop Dogg, Da Brat, Timbaland, Raekwon and so on — churning out block-rocking beats, slinky bass grooves and ghetto-centric lyrics. It’s a beautifully funky day in the neighbourhood.


Go
Various Artists

This soundtrack for director Doug (Swingers) Limon’s latest flick has a cast of 14, but there’s no doubt who the stars are — No Doubt, unveiling their first song in two years, a track fittingly titled New. Sadly, there’s nothing new about the track, a piece of Missing Persons-style pop fluff that gets upstaged by the rest of this stellar crew. Toronto’s LEN come off as a Bran Van 3000 for the year 2000 with the groovy Steal My Sunshine, Goldo Humpty Humps his way through To All The Lovely Ladies, and even Steppenwolf’s Magic Carpet Ride gets rewoven into electronica. Go for this stuff instead. No doubt about that.


Melky Sedeck
Sister & Brother

Superstar sibling albums can be a dicey affair. Two words: Frank Stallone. But Melky and Sedeck Jean, younger sister and brother of Fugee Wyclef, show they’re no LaToya and Jermaine on their debut. Sure, for the most part, these 15 songs are what you’d expect from Fugees’ kinfolk — soulful vocals, lazy hip-hop grooves, stylized production and even a classic cover (To Sir, With Love). But here’s something you don’t expect from these tracks: They’re also eminently listenable.


Gardener
New Dawning Time

Former members of Washington punk bands Screaming Trees and Seaweed lead the beat farmers in Gardener. But you won’t find any grunge riffs or angst-overdose lyrics on New Dawning Time. Like the title implies, vocalist Aaron Stauffer and guitarist Van Conner are hoeing a fertile new patch of land, digging up the roots of ’60s garage rock and replanting them into a stark, raw crop of acoustic emotion. These organic, all-natural songs sound like they were penned in a cabin in the middle of nowhere — which they were.


David Hillyard & The Rocksteady 7
Playtime

Even ska fans probably haven’t heard of David Hillyard — but they have heard him. The talented saxophone player has played with California’s Hepcat, New York City’s Slackers, and pretty much every band in between that knows how to skank. On his debut solo disc, Hillyard calls in his favours, recruiting members of several bands to back him on a series of breezy, bouncy instrumentals — and a couple of vocal numbers — that deftly toe the line between funky jazz and sophisticated ska. Your rude-boy nephew will dig it. Then again, so will your jazzbo grandad.