Two decades ago, new albums from Garth Brooks, Chantal Kreviazuk, Sting 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):
In The Life Of Chris Gaines
I have to confess, I was dying to get my hands on this album. No, I’m not a closet Garth Brooks fan. I didn’t buy seven copies of his last live album just to get all the different covers. In fact, like a lot of people, I’m fairly disgusted by Garth’s greedy manipulation of his blindly faithful audience, along with his vain obsession with possessing every sales and chart-position record ever set — even if it means cooking the books. (Example: He pre-sold his previous CD at Wal-Mart for weeks before its release and then claimed all the orders as first-day sales to beat a record held by Pearl Jam.)
But the fact that Brooks is one of the biggest megalomaniacs in the music biz (which, need I say, is no small feat) is the reason I’ve been rubbing my hands in glee and giggling like a schoolgirl for weeks. Because let’s face it: There’s nothing more fun for a critic than watching the pompous prima donna of Ropin’ The Wind finally get enough rope to hang himself. Which is precisely what Brooks has done with his laughable, ludicrous and just plain lame crossover album In The Life Of Chris Gaines.
For most artists, crossing over is a fairly simple process: Write some songs in another genre, release them and hope for the best. But not Garth. Garth doesn’t do simple. He only does ridiculous and overblown. So to go with his new sound, he’s created a persona: Pop singer Chris Gaines. And he hasn’t stopped there. The packaging — a faux greatest-hits set — includes a bio (Chris is Australian, his parents were Olympic swimmers, etc.) and Spinal Tap-worthy covers from fictional previous albums. To complete the illusion, Brooks even sports a silly soul patch and a glammy wig. It would be funny — the first time I saw his video, I thought it was a Ben Stiller parody — if it weren’t all so sad.
Saddest of all: The music is just as calculated. In The Life has a clutch of teen soul-pop ballads, some vaguely funky grooves, a couple of Tom Pettyish roots-rockers, a Shawn Mullins-style folk-rap, some XTC-like orch-pop and even some R&B-based guitar rock — in other words, every possible permutation he could cram in there. You can practically see the marketing plan; release them all as singles and one is bound to be a hit. (There are also a couple of country songs, which you can bet will be rush-released to Brooks’ fan base if this disc tanks in the pop world.)
Ultimately, all this premeditation tells you about the world according to Garth. For him, it isn’t about music anymore. It’s about chart positions, sales figures, world records, awards. And to be sure, some fans will shell out for this silly ego massage. Even if they don’t, no matter — his label will just invent some award like Best One-Day Sales Of A Pop Album By A Solo Male Country Artist Using a Pseudonym And Wearing A Wig and give him a giant oversized trophy to appease him.
Truth be told, they might want to start working on that award — it seems pretty obvious that most of Brooks’ pop dreams won’t come true. Especially this one: Garth says the album will also be the soundtrack for a yet-to-be-shot Gaines film called The Lamb. Expect to see that in theatres on a double-bill with another don’t-hold-your-breath rock flick — KISS’s The Elder.
Colour Moving And Still
Back in 1997, just weeks after Chantal Kreviazuk’s debut CD Under These Rocks And Stones came out, I was browsing in New York’s mammoth Virgin Megastore in Times Square when I heard a song that sounded oddly familiar. When I looked up at the jumbo TV screen filling most of the store’s back wall to see what was playing, I did a double-take — there was the video for Chantal’s This Is The Way (God Made Me), two floors tall and blaring away in one of the largest record stores in the world. Wow, I thought — she’s going to be huge.
And now she is — in a low-key, laid-back, Canadian kinda way. Along with that song, Kreviazuk had a hit with Leaving On A Jet Plane, from the monstrous Armageddon soundtrack. She also had a tune on a Dawson’s Creek companion album. Another track was used as the theme for NBC’s drama Providence. Despite all that exposure, Kreviazuk, like a good Canadian star, keeps a lower profile than her American counterparts. You don’t see her mugging on late-night chat shows every week, leaping out from the cover of Entertainment Weekly, or playing at every cheeseball award show. In a way, we still don’t really know her very well.
Colour Moving And Still, her followup album, goes a long way toward righting that situation. Far less slick and studio-polished than Rocks And Stones, this 10-song disc is a more intimate, informal affair that seems to reflect both her growing confidence as a songwriter and her label’s growing faith in her abilities. Instead of trying to command your attention with big production and extravagant arrangements, Colour Moving goes in the opposite direction, turning down the volume with simpler melodies, simpler emotions and simpler songs, from the guitar-strummed folk-pop touches of tracks like Blue and Before You to catchy, elctronica and trip-hop-flavoured FM fare like Soul Searching or the infectiously hummable Dear Life. Fittingly, the production is sparser and often playful, with dial tones, doors slamming and Chantal singing backwards.
Which is not to suggest Kreviazuk has given up serious songwriting for superficiality. Musically, she still occupies a spot somewhere between the fiery ambition of Alanis Morissette and the ethereal mysticism of Tori Amos, without the former’s angst or the latter’s flakiness. By lowering the background noise and loosening the reins a little, Colour Moving And Still doesn’t dilute Chantal; if anything, it brings her more to the forefront, giving a clearer glimpse of her than before. Sure, it might not have as many songs that cater to the jumbotron crowd — but far as I’m concerned, that’s another plus.
Brand New Day
In the press bumpf for Brand New Day, Sting says writing pop songs over complex time signatures is a lot like doing crosswords. Well, that seems appropriate: For most of this sopping dishrag of an album, he displays as much excitement as a man doing a Sunday puzzle. Although it’s an album ostensibly about love, Brand New Day is a startlingly passionless affair, consisting of nothing more than Sting’s eternally pretentious musings set to a smorgasbord of his milquetoast, ethno-jazz noodlings. It’s all so smooth and bland an infant could suck it through a straw and digest it without a burp. Twenty years ago, it was cool to like Sting. Nowadays, he’s just a five-letter word for boring.
Just like the myriad of identities she listed on her breakthrough single Bitch, Meredith Brooks is many things on this eclectic followup. On the opening track Shout, she’s a scrappy, Liz Phair-influenced rocker; then, on her cover of the classic Lay Down, she’s an emotive, gospelish belter. On other tracks, she’s a Chrissie Hynde pretender, a Luscious Jackson funkateer and an angst-burdened Alanis-style belter. All of which she pulls off passably well, albeit with ever-diminishing returns. You kinda wish she spent as much effort constructing her own persona as she does deconstructing all those others.
A Love Like Ours
If you believe the lyrics of her long-ago hit People, butter-voiced Barbra Streisand is the luckiest woman in the world these days. So this CD is a combination first anniversary gift to hubby James Brolin and a souvenir for all the fans who didn’t get an invite to their nuptials. Along with a dozen diabetes-inducing ballads — including two she sang at the wedding — you get plenty of pix of the happy couple: Babs in her wedding dress, Babs and Jimbo cavorting on the beach, or walking in the sunset, or gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes, or … oh, there I go, I’m getting verklempt. Excuse me for a second. Talk amongst yourselves. I’ll give you a topic: Barbra’s new wedding album is neither a wedding nor an album. Discuss …
Sure, Chris Difford and Glenn Tillbrook — the singers, songwriters, leaders and two remaining original members of Squeeze — might be a wee bit past their prime. Then again, you could say the same of many of their peers. Like their English pop brethren, however, it’s not that D&T have changed; the times have changed around them. The duo still have a way with a wry lyric, a deft touch with a bright, bubbly melody, and those instantly identifiable, desert-dry harmonies. OK, so none of these tracks is quite as memorable as Tempted or Cool For Cats. But in a year when pop is tops again, Domino is a pleasant reminder of who got the ball rolling.
For years, this hard-rocking Seattle quintet has fallen between the cracks — they’re too metal for the grunge crowd and too alt-rocky for the purist metalheads. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise; despite the death of grunge and the roller-coaster fortunes of metal, Queensrÿche has managed to survive and thrive. Their millennial outing Q2K aims to keep that streak going with the usual mix of guitars by Soundgarden and mood by Alice In Chains, swirling around in a slow, slamming vibe as strong and black as a quadruple shot of Seattle’s Best espresso. Hey, why try to fix what ain’t broke?
SNL 25: The Musical Performances Vol. 1 & 2
For a quarter-century, along with being TV’s sketch-comedy showcase, Saturday Night Live has been a premiere forum for music on the tube — usually timely, often intimate, and sometimes even unpredictable. Which is what makes these compilations of on-air performances such a monumental disappointment. Both discs — Vol. 1 skews to the boomers with Paul Simon, James Taylor, Jewel and the like, while Vol. 2 leans toward the kids with Nirvana, Oasis, Beck and Green Day — are more geared to crowdpleasing than completism. Which means that for every historic moment — like Elvis Costello’s impromptu performance of Radio, Radio — you get pointless inclusions like Eric Clapton’s Wonderful Tonight or Counting Crows’ Round Here. As the liner notes proudly point out, The Rolling Stones, The Replacements, The Pogues, Sun Ra, Patti Smith, Ornette Coleman, The Band and Miles Davis all played SNL. Too bad the powers that be weren’t proud enough to include any of them here. Ditto Frank Zappa,Tom Waits, Fear, Pearl Jam, John Belushi and Joe Cocker, The Blues Brothers, Ray Charles and dozens of others. As Roseanne Roseannadanna (and Kurt Cobain) would say: Never mind.
Open All Night
If anyone knows all there is to know about the crying game, it’s Marc Almond. And after eight years, the Soft Cell co-founder is back in business with Open All Night, a set of dreamy, trip-hoppy Euroballads that sound as far from Tainted Love as Metallica. In spirit, though, he still doesn’t know whether to run from you or for you as he prays at his bedroom shrine, wraps his broken heart in velvet and puts it away for a rainy day. “I’ll always sing a song that’s sad, for all the loves I ever had,” croons Almond. This is what it sounds like when doves cry.
Street Art Gallery
59 Times The Pain
End Of The Millennium
Punk rock never dies. Especially not in Sweden. Bombshell Rocks and 59 Times The Pain are just the latest acts to come storming out of the frozen wastelands with all the spit ’n’ grit of Brits circa 1977. The Bombshell boys boast a singer with Joe Strummer’s razor-blade rasp (and latter-day Mohawk), a guitarist with Mick Jones’ cheeky metal riffs and anthemic choruses straight from Stiff Little Fingers, all crumpled into a manifesto of sneering nihilism and unyielding idealism. Swedish meatballs 59 Times The Pain, meanwhile, land somewhere between metal and the blitzkreig bop of The Ramones. Speed is the main weapon in their arsenal, and brevity the soul of their wit — the 13 songs on this 27-minute album (if that isn’t a contradiction in terms) explode one after the other like a string of firecrackers. Strummer, Jones and The Ramones may not write ’em like that anymore, but somebody still does.
The Fidelity Wars
“I don’t want to stay in love,” claims Hefner singer/songwriter Darren Hayman minutes into his U.K. pop trio’s sophomore CD The Fidelity Wars. He’s lying. Love is all Hayman is after — that is, when he’s not desperately chasing every woman who catches his fancy. That’s the battle at the heart of Fidelity Wars, and these insistent guitar-pop nuggets are like Hayman’s dispatches from the front lines: Clever, well-crafted stories of runaway brides, gap-toothed women and clandestine affairs, set down in bittersweet rhymes and delivered in the aching, fragile voice of a serial romantic who’s finally figured out that it’s “just wishful thinking that all this hard drinking might lure you back.” Turns out he can’t live with ’em — and can’t live without ’em.
Type O Negative
World Coming Down
When Type O Negative’s Peter Steele roared “I know you’re f—ing someone else!” at an unfaithful lover on his Noo Yawk goth-metal outfit’s debut, the sheer intensity of his white-hot anger was captivating — and frankly, kinda scary. But even muscle-bound vampires like Steele mellow with age, it seems. World Coming Down, Type O’s latest, is less driven by hatred than sorrow, as Steele laments lost loves, lost friends and lost minds — along with a hefty dose of self-loathing tossed in for old times’ sake. Don’t be fooled into thinking Pete’s wimped out, however; wave after wave of churning guitars, recycled Black Sabbath riffs, faux-Bela Lugosi vocals and lyrics such as “with every breath, I pray for death” keep World Coming Down as creepy, dark and twisted as the road to Vlad’s castle.
Gene Loves Jezebel
Voodoo Dollies: The Best Of
Identical-twin pretty boys Jay and Michael Aston led U.K. dance-popsters Gene Loves Jezebel to the top of the charts in the ’80s with hits like Desire and Jealous, combining the yelping, earnest vocals of a young Bono with the club-floor hooks and Goth-rock grooves. Eventually, thanks to ego clashes and all the classic rock star tribulations, the lads also made their way back to the bottom of the charts. This set chronicles that career arc on 17 tracks from their 15-year on-and-off career, along with one new song that’s actually better than some of their older hits. Too bad it’s probably too little too late to keep GLJ from going down in history as just another set of also-rans.
Mingus Big Band
Blues & Politics
Trailblazing bassist and composer Charles Mingus has been dead for more than a decade, but his majestic music lives on in The Mingus Big Band, an ever-changing group of former sidemen and devotees who perform his tunes — and even use his old standup bass. Now, thanks to technology, the big man himself jams with his proteges for the first time on Blues & Politics. Using an unreleased live rap from 1965 and Mingus’ vocals and bass track from the classic Freedom, Randy Brecker and the rest of the band rework the tune, one of several Mingus favourites covered here (including his Lester Young tribute Goodbye Pork Pie Hat). The grooves simmer and smoke, the horns percolate and gleam, and Mingus’s son Eric steps into his dad’s vocal shoes (and is a perfect fit) on Don’t Let It Happen Here and others. A must for fans.
Charlie Haden & Quartet West
The Art Of The Song
Baby-faced bassist Charlie Haden’s long musical road has led him from the Grand Ole Opry (as a child singer in his family’s bluegrass act) to the forefront of jazz (with innovator Ornette Coleman) to the halls of music academia. On his new disc, Haden touches all those bases as he and his Cali trio celebrate some of his favourite compositions. Bolstered by a 30-piece string section and the smooth vocals of jazz legends Shirley Horn and Bill Henderson, Haden proffers a string of musical pearls: Gently swinging gems from Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Kern, grandly sweeping classics from Ravel and Rachmaninov, and even a compelling vocal performance — his first since childhood — on the 19th-century ballad Wayfaring Stranger. Long may his journey continue.
Albert King With Stevie Ray Vaughan
If you’re Canadian, you probably saw (or flipped by) the musical-jam series In Session at least once. And if you’re an insomniac music freak like me, you probably sat through umpteen 2 a.m. reruns of various episodes — Dr. John and Johnny Winter, Burton Cummings and Don Everly, or this 1983 pairing, arguably the best of the bunch. But even if you know this episode backwards, this companion CD is still worth a listen, mainly for extra tracks cut from the broadcast, between-song patter and production that’s a vast improvement over the mono TV mix. Naturally, Stevie Ray Vaughan — heard here at the first flush of success — often steals the show with his enthusiastic, fiery technique. But old bluesmaster Albert King is no slouch either, rising to the occasion and matching SRV lick for lick on jams like Blues At Sunrise. Tune in if you haven’t already.