Two decades ago, new albums from Cafe Tacuba, Richard Thompson, Megadeth 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):
Revés / Yo Soy
If you’re looking for mariachis, you’ve come to the wrong place. Not that Mexico City’s Café Tacuba don’t know how to pluck a pretty fine acoustic guitar. It’s just that these guys are just as familiar with Revolver as they are with Volver.
Café Tacuba, you see, are part of the Rock en Español movement — a new wave of hispanic and Latino alternative acts that are slowly making inroads into Anglo North America. Like their fellow countrymen Molotov, who won a Grammy for their debut rap-metal disc ¿Donde Jungaran Las Niñas? (Where Will The Girls Play?). Or South America’s long-running Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, whose Latino ska-punk has also earned them Grammy nods. Or rappers Todos Tus Muertos. Or Maldita Vecindad, El Tri, Tijuana No! … and plenty more. The list goes on an on.
And right now, Café Tacuba are at the top of it. Their previous album, 1996’s acclaimed Avalancha De Exitos (Avalanche Of Hits), was Rock en Español’s first breakthrough disc, earning its crossover appeal thanks to a bizarre, intriguing fusion of traditional Mexican melody and avant-pop eclecticism. But if Tacuba helped define a genre with Exitos, their fourth album — the two-CD set Revés / Yo Soy (Backwards / I Am), which is also their first Canadian release — seems designed to redefine not only Rock en Español but also their place in it.
The first disc, the 47-minute Revés, is all-instrumental, a soundtrack to a film only they can picture. True to form, it once again relies on the juxtaposition of traditional instrumentation (acoustic guitar flourishes, simple classic melodies) and cutting-edge technology (drum ’n’ bass loops, samples, edgy noise rock). In a strangely fitting touch, its tracks are titled only with (apparently) random numbers, thwarting any attempts to read meanings into their names.
Not that the titled tracks on the 50-minute alterna-pop disc Yo Soy provide much insight (although, to be fair, this is mainly due to my pathetic bar-level Spanish — the only Tacuba song I could understand would be one called Cerveza, Por Favor). But it doesn’t matter if you can’t speak the lingo; Tacuba’s delicious guac-rock says it all. Spontaneously veering from a gentle, flowing bolero ballad to an experimental electronic art-rocker to a sneering punk riff and back with all the restraint of Tijuana at rush hour, Café Tacuba continues to be a band that is many things — energetic, artistic, even downright freaky — but predictable ain’t one of ’em. Heck, every now and then, they even pluck a pretty fine acoustic guitar.
Mary J. Blige
“I’m just plain ol’ Mary,” proclaims hip-hop diva Mary J. Blige on Deep Inside, the third track on her eponymously titled fifth album. And as befits the title and Mary’s claims, this is Blige’s most casual and intimate offering yet, light on annoying diva histronics and heavy on sweet urban soul, flowing melodies and irresistible hooks. And despite her assertion that “I don’t have many friends,” she didn’t seem to have trouble enticing a who’s who of pop (Elton John, Eric Clapton, even Queen Aretha) into the studio to add a few licks and vocals here and there. They make it clear that no matter what she says, Mary — the album, the singer and the woman — is anything but plain.
In My Hands
As a rule, most folks enjoy fiddle music as much as gum surgery, lineups at the DMV and surprise visits from the in-laws. But for Natalie MacMaster, they’re prepared to make an exception. And rightly so. This fiddlin’ step-dancer (or is that step-dancin’ fiddler?) from Cape Breton isn’t just reeling off rewarmed Pig ’N’ Whistle licks; she always finds ways to breathe fresh life and relevance into her traditional Celtic melodies. On this fifth CD, she experiments with country, recording with Alison Krauss in Nashville; tackles flamenco with the help of Toronto guitar virtuoso Jesse Cook; tests the techno waters in Space Ceilidh; and most promising, jumps straight into the ’90s with a trip-hoppy title track featuring folktronica stylings and dreamy, smoky vocals. If you buy one fiddle record this year — and most folks can’t imagine why you would buy more — In My Hands is the one to get in yours.
The Fifth Element: Make The Music 2000
What do you call a rapper without a beatbox, a turntablist without any records, an emcee without a posse and a mixmaster without any equipment? Well, normally, you’d call them unemployed. But not Rahzel (rhymes with gazelle), human beatbox for The Roots. Armed with just a microphone and his mouth, he can (and on this jaw-dropping debut, does) duplicate the sounds of drum machines, synthesizers, various pieces of percussion, skipping records, revved-up (or slowed-down) turntables and multiple studio effects. And he does it all at once — and while rapping. Rahzel must be heard to be believed — and even then, it’s still pretty unbelievable.
Asleep At The Wheel
Ride With Bob
It’s been a helluva year for Bob Wills. The Texas western-swing pioneer has been toasted on two tribute CDs: Last fall’s first-rate effort from Chicago’s Pine Valley Cosmonauts, and now this star-studded party hosted by Austin’s Asleep At The Wheel, who play house band as country royalty line up to pay their respects to the smooth countrypolitan sound of Wills and his Texas Playboys. Dwight Yoakam, Dixie Chicks, Lee Ann Womack, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Reba, Merle, Lyle and Willie all bop and grin their way through Wills classics such as Roly Poly, Right Or Wrong and Take Me Back To Tulsa. And while it doesn’t have the tipsy exuberance of the PVCs’ outing, Ride With Bob is still a fun trip that takes you back to the good ol’ days.
He started off sounding like his old pals Metallica, but lately Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine has been morphing into another metal icon: Alice Cooper. At first, it seemed like coincidence: They both live in Phoenix; they both go to Coyotes games; they’re both born-again former substance abusers. But on Megadeth’s surprisingly cruddy (and ironically risk-free) ninth album Risk, Mustaine takes it to an unignorable level: His new drummer used to play for Alice; his voice is a Xerox of Cooper’s sneering, nasal whine; he uses cheap horror-rock shtik; and riff-rock tunes like Prince Of Darkness and The Doctor Is Calling could easily be Alice’s outtakes. At this rate, you almost expect to see musclebound axeman Kane Roberts in the band soon. Welcome to his nightmare — and yours.
Richard Thompson rocks: How’s that for three words you don’t often read in the same sentence? Don’t get me wrong; Mock Tudor, his first album in three years, isn’t exactly Shout At The Devil. But it is this reserved, cynical British folk legend’s most upbeat affair — musically and emotionally — in a good long while. On this nostalgic, three-act concept piece about growing up in London, Thompson gets back in touch with his inner rocker, revisiting the skiffle rhythms, blues harps and bash ’n’ pop of his youth, pushing his guitar to the forefront, cutting loose with blistering solos and generally behaving like a man half his age. “Hope you like the new me,” he sings on the album’s closing cut. What’s not to like?
Sean (Puffy) Combs has never been much of a performer, but he’s a maestro at orchestrating publicity. His 1997 CD No Way Out dropped shortly after pal Notorious B.I.G. was killed, and scored thanks to the tribute track I’ll Be Missing You. Forever takes a similar approach, kicking off with news clips of B.I.G.’s death and Combs’ arrest for assault. Oddly, those are the most recognizable samples here — Puffy’s reined in his penchant for copping licks from old pop hits, switching to more obscure funk and soul chestnuts. Otherwise, Forever is a surprisingly typical rap disc — a mix of hyper Timbaland funk, smooth soul and gangster-rap, driven by a posse of guest stars (Jay-Z, Redman, even B.I.G. from beyond) who pick up Puffy’s slack. Combs has the money to buy the best, and on Forever he’s done just that. But he’ll never have enough cash to buy himself some true talent.
Edge Of Forever
You’ve gotta feel sorry for the Lynyrd Skynyrd boys — and I’m not talking about you-know-what. Tough as that was, it also has to be rough for the survivors to keep slogging on year after year, playing the old hits and knowing nothing you do can ever top ’em. Case in point: Edge Of Forever, a solid outing with three original members (guitarist Gary Rossington, bassist Leon Wilkeson and incredible pianist Billy Powell), the vocals of Ronnie Van Zant’s little brother Johnny, and a band made up of the cream of the southern-rock crop. It’s got a whole lick o’ spit-kicking tracks that are so close to vintage Skynyrd you can almost see the Confederate flags waving. But even with all that, they can’t reawaken the band’s rebel spirit; the devil-may-care swagger and bravado that Ronnie and the boys — and thusly their music — had back then. It’s close, but it just ain’t the same.
Nash The Slash
Nash The Slash was way ahead of his time. In the ’70s, a decade before Nine Inch Nails, the Toronto multi-instrumentalist was the original one-man electronica creep-show, performing spooky art-rock opuses while wrapped in Invisible Man bandages, backed by banks of synths and blanketed in swirls of fog. When NIN came along, however, Nash kinda vanished. And after hearing his dismal CD Thrash, you almost wish he were still in hiding. In today’s world of Doom, deathtronica and televised massacre, Nash’s gothy synths and cheesy shtik are as menacing as a Bela Lugosi flick. Even worse, Thrash doesn’t have any of the inspired covers — like previous efforts Dead Man’s Curve, Baba O’Reilly and (my fave) I’m An American Band — that you used to love. Time to hang up the bandages, big guy.
The Meat Purveyors
More Songs About Buildings And Cows
Like The Knitters, Austin’s raucous, co-ed Meat Purveyors deliver their traditional country licks with a dash of punk rock sass and a tongue firmly lodged in cheek. So along with George Jones and Bill Monroe tunes, you get Lou Reed and Daniel Johnston covers. And along with gospel harmonies, freight-train fiddles and lickety-split mandolin virtuosity, you get devilish lyrics about backwash beer, little white pills and singer Jo Walston’s love of tallboys — in every sense of the word. And even though there isn’t a drum to be found here, the Purveyors still kick harder than 10 hair metal bands. All that’s missing is their bring-the-house-down cover of Like A Virgin. Lord only knows what Madonna would say about that.
Phil Collins Big Band
A Hot Night In Paris
The good news: Phil Collins stays behind the drum kit and doesn’t sing any insipid ballads. In fact, he doesn’t sing a note. The bad news: A Hot Night In Paris is so inessential and self-indulgent you’ll wish he had. These pointless, lifeless jazz adaptations of his songs — does the world really need big-band versions of Sussudio and Against All Odds? — sound like something you’d hear at a halftime pep rally or from a talk-show band during commercials. The surprising news: Despite being one of rock’s top stickmen, as a jazz drummer, Collins’ high-school band chops make Charlie Watts look like Gene Krupa. Hot? Not.
Linda Ronstadt & Emmylou Harris
Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions
Linda Ronstandt and Emmylou Harris are no strangers to harmonizing — teamed up with Dolly Parton in Trio, they’ve put out two acclaimed albums of traditional country fair fare. On this debut disc as a duo, however, they’ve taken a hard left into more adventurous surroundings, intertwining their wondrous, complementary tones — Linda’s dark and earthy, Emmylou’s refined and angelic — on a baker’s dozen of gently flowing, rootsy ballads from songwriters you’d expect (Jackson Browne, Leonard Cohen) and some you wouldn’t (Luscious Jackson’s Jill Cunniff, Sinead O’Connor). Neil Young and Kate and Anna McGarrigle even drop by to lend a hand. As if they need it.
Let’s Get A Groove On
Spike’s Choice: The Desco Funk 45s Collection
Good God! Lee Fields has stolen James Brown’s mojo, baby. Heh! Uh-huh! Fields, leader of The Soul Providers, has mastered the Godfather Of Soul’s style, from the percolating organs, chicken-picking guitars and punchy horns of his syncopated old-school funk down to the natty suits and cries of Yee-oww! he drops at the end of every line on Let’s Get A Groove On. Can he take it to the bridge? Yes, he can! Is he a sex machine? Yes, he is! Can he hit it and quit it? Yes, he can! And he’s not alone: Just check out Spike’s Choice, a compilation of artists from the Desco roster, including Fields, the Providers, sassy Sharon Jones, sitar funketeer Ravi Harris and others. From top to bottom, they got soul — and they’re superbad. Ow!
Royal Grand Prix
If The Ramones had spent their youth reading Hot Rod instead of Fangoria, they could have ended up like Royal Grand Prix — a quartet of Vancouver speed demons with a goofball vibe and an auto-erotic fixation. High Performance, their disc, is a pedal-to-the-metal joyride of motor-metal mayhem (Well-Oiled Machine), dumb-dumb ditties (My Baby’s Got Scabies), pop-punk power (Let The Games Begin) and even ridiculous rap-metal (Squeegee Boy). Sure, sometimes it veers perilously close to self-parody, and it’s doubtful they could pass a sobriety test. But somehow, they manage to keep it on the road.
Like plenty of bands in the third-wave ska-punk scene, this Guelph, Ont., foursome falls between the musical cracks — they aren’t ska enough to rock the rude boys and they aren’t punk enough to get the pit churning. What sets them apart however, is an offbeat sense of humour to go with their offbeat rhythms. This self-released second CD is loaded with looney tunes about babes who smell, dudes who look like ladies and odes to New York City — even though the boys have never been there. If you like a band that prefers spit over polish and knows how much fun it is to be dumb, check out Flashlight.