Two decades ago, new albums from The Pretenders, Missy Elliott 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):
¡Viva El Amor!
Nobody says the F-word like Chrissie Hynde. Or at least like she used to. For my money, that moment in Precious — the first song on The Pretenders’ first album back in 1980 — when she spits out, “I’m too precious, so f— off!” is a classic bit of rock rebellion, right up there with Little Richard’s “Wop bop a loo bop, a lop bam boom” or The Who’s “Hope I die before I get old.”
Sadly, it’s been a while since Chrissie was that gal with so much brass in pocket. As early as 1983’s Middle Of The Road, she was complaining “I’m not the cat I used to be, I’ve got a kid, I’m 33.” Assuming she wasn’t fudging her age, that means Hynde is pushing 50. Not quite the middle of the road anymore, even if it is still a fair distance from the end of it.
But no matter where she sees herself on the road of life, it’s pretty clear from the lacklustre, downbeat ¡Viva El Amor! — her first studio album since 1995’s Last Of The Independents — that she’s running out of steam. Never mind the leather pants, the raccoon eyeliner and Bettie Page bangs she still sports; the reality is that Hynde seems to have completed her metamorphosis from the party-animal rock goddess of her youth into the hopeless romantic / dope farmer / Earth mother of records like Independents or the unplugged live album Isle Of View. In other words, she’s traded sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll for love, homegrown and light rock.
And we do mean light. Of the slightly slim pickings on !Viva El Amor! — a dozen tracks over just 45 minutes — the bulk are lightweight mid-tempo janglers or full-blown ballads. Worse, many feel tossed off or half-finished, as if Hynde (who once again co-wrote half the album) either cranked them out on deadline or just lost interest midway through. Only a few rock out with enough spirit to make decent use of drummer Martin Chambers’ powerhouse pounding: The sardonic Popstar, with its sneeringly nostalgic chorus of “They don’t make ’em like they used to,” and the pro-dope anthem Legalize Me, which is basically a mish-mash of riffs from Middle Of The Road and her 1981 track Louie, Louie.
At least she also brought along something from the ’80s that’s far more welcome: Her one-of-a-kind voice, long one of the finest in rock, has lost none of its spine-tingling power, crystal-clear tone or heart-tugging vibrato.
It’s just too bad that on !Viva El Amor!, she doesn’t say much with it.
The Soft Bulletin
When your last release was a mammoth, psychedelic opus covering four discs — and meant to be played simultaneously on four CD players — how do you go back to making a “normal” album? Well, if you’re visionary Oklahoma alt-rockers Flaming Lips, you don’t even try. Although they’ve scaled back technically on The Soft Bulletin, artistically the disc picks up where 1997’s breathtaking Zaireeka left off, with the Lips tossing out the rock ’n’ roll rule book and going wherever the muse and the music leads them. Orchestral strings, choir-sized vocals, hallucinatory effects, fuzz-tone guitars and just about anything else you can conjure up all combine here into cosmic, acid-pop soundscapes that somehow manage to be challengingly avant-garde and addictively commercial simultaneously. And you only need one CD player to hear it.
Da Real World
The always-outrageous Missy Elliott is a sista doin’ it for herself once again on this funky followup to her acclaimed and influential 1997 debut Supa Dupa Fly. Well, almost for herself — trackmaster Timbaland still has Missy’s back, laying down his often-imitated, never-duplicated backdrop of off-balance, skittering drum beats, whumping basslines and spooky strings. But make no mistake, this is Missy’s show — and she shows she can beat testosterone-fuelled gangsta rappers at their own game, verbally pimp-slapping cheating dogs, lovers who don’t call and her many musical imitators with her low-key, high-intensity wordplay. Da Brat, Lil Kim, Redman and Eminem drop by to help Missy keep it real.
Great Big Sea
Just call them the Great Big Barenaked Ladies. On their fourth disc, Newfie folk-popsters GBS tilt their sails slightly toward a BNL-style mainstream sound, sweetening their traditional, Celtic-fuelled style with some summery, quirky ditties like the single Consequence Free. At times the two genres mix as well as a Black & Tan — those who like Consequence or the Brian Wilson pop harmonies of Feel It Turn may not dig the rest of the Irish Roverish selections here (and vice versa). But at least the lads seem to be evolving as songwriters, making this album a Turn for the better.
Now that Black Grape has split up, leader Shaun Ryder has apparently decided to revive his old dance-pop outfit Happy Mondays. Or maybe he just has too much free time. Either one could explain this out-of-the-blue hits set from a band that hasn’t existed for several years and never made a dent in North America when it did. In any case, as best-ofs go, it’s your typical collection of must-have classics (W.F.L., Step On, Kinky Afro), padded out with remixes, leftovers and the mandatory One New Track — a dance-floor revamping of Thin Lizzy’s The Boys Are Back In Town (get it?) that’s a cute-enough novelty, but nothing to base a reunion on.
Black Box Recorder
England Made Me
As we all know, when jets crash, the Black Box Recorder often explains why, offering up cold, clinical assessments of what went wrong and how everyday events ended up horrific tragedies. The same could be said of the seductively scary sounds of this U.K. trio featuring two ex-members of The Auteurs and Jesus And Mary Chain plus a female vocalist. Although their style recalls a trip-hoppier Cowboy Junkies — dreamy, languid melodies, sparse arrangements, bleak, icy vocals — dive beneath the surface and you’ll find these still waters run plenty deep. And plenty creepy; these 16 disturbing tracks cast an unflinching eye on everything from domestic violence and disturbed children to missing murderers, summing up the world’s horrors with inspirational epigrams like, “Life is unfair — kill yourself or get over it.” Fasten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a bumpy flight.
Bob Marley & The Wailers
Destiny: Rare Ska Sides From Studio One
Laurel Aitken & The Skatalites
They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Maybe that’s because old dogs already know all the tricks they need. Take Jamaican musical pioneers The Skatalites — they haven’t changed a bit after more than three decades together. The proof? These two recent ska releases. Destiny captures the group’s early sound as studio rats backing a teenage Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer on some ultra-rare tunes from the mid-’60s. Although The Wailers’ talents barely hint at the greatness yet to come — Marley sounds more like Frankie Lymon and most of the songs are disposable love ditties — The Skatalites already have their jaunty blue-beat groove down cold. And they’re still going strong, as the Laurel Aitken collaboration Ska Titans indicates. Whether on an Aitken original like It’s Too Late or a classic like the Motown great Same Old Song, the band’s exuberant, gimmick-free style is still the musical equivalent of pure joy. Today’s young pups could learn a thing or two.
Laid In Full
Thematically, most hip-hop compilations don’t have much holding them together. Usually, all the artists are from the same city or on the same label. Not so this exceptional, star-studded set featuring singers, rappers, MCs and deejays from all over the map (musically and geographically). The glue that binds them is some dude named M-Boogie, the Cali producer/remixer/deejay behind Laid In Full. I’ve never heard of him either, but obviously plenty of folks have — Beat Junkies, Defari, DJ Spooky, Kool Keith, N’Dea Davenport, Peanutbutter Wolf and Mos Def are just some artists who contribute tracks of soulful vocals, righteous rapping, superlative scratching or funky freakouts. Boogie on, M.