Two decades ago, new albums from Fiona Apple, Korn, Prince, Will Smith 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):
When The Pawn …
Fiona Apple knows how to get your attention.
She did it back in 1996 with her riveting first disc Tidal, an album of intense, intimately revealing piano-rock ballads that made you sit up and listen — whether you wanted to or not (“This is great, but why is she telling us all this stuff?” was my friend’s reaction to Apple’s unflinching tales of anger, depression and seduction). Then she did it in 1997 with the cheap-motel porn video for Criminal. Now, three years later, the 22-year-old has done it again — with just an album title. As you may have read, and as those three little dots up top indicate, When The Pawn’s full handle is the longest album title in history, a 90-word eye-roller that goes like this (take a deep breath): When The Pawn Hits The Conflicts He Thinks Like A King What He Knows Throws The Blows When He Gets To The Fight And He’ll Win The Whole Thing ’Fore He Enters The Ring There’s No Body To Batter When Your Mind Is Your Might So When You Go Solo, You Hold Your Own Hand And Remember That Depth Is The Greatest Of Heights And If You Know Where You Stand, Then You Know Where To Land And If You Fall It Won’t Matter, Cuz You’ll Know That You’re Right.
Self-indulgent and audacious as that mouthful is, it’s also the perfect name for an album as ambitious, uninhibited and uncompromising as this. In the same way that Apple’s titles have progressed from five letters to a paragraph, her talents have increased manifold since her debut. Where Tidal centered around minor-key piano balladry — with the notable exceptions of the singles — on Pawn, Apple has found her feet as a songwriter. She’s confident and comfortable with rockier numbers and able to incorporate everything from electronica keyboards to a drum solo into her songs without sounding trendy or pretentious.
As a singer, Apple has also added a few new colours to her palette. On Tidal, her rich and husky voice — truly remarkable at age 19 — seemed almost beyond her control. But her subsequent years of performing have helped her master her instrument, and here she knows when to expertly rein it in to a sensual whisper, when to flutter it for effect and when to just open up and let loose. And as for those lyrics, well, let’s just say Fiona hasn’t lightened up. Pawn is another chronicle of dark days and darker nights, most of which come during an apparently doomed relationship. “You’re all I need,” is the chorus she repeats like a mantra on the opening track On The Bound. But things go downhill fast. First she sneers “you wanna make me sick / You wanna lick my wounds / Don’t you baby?” on Limp, and soon after, in Love Ridden, it’s “only kisses on the cheek from now on / In a little while, we’ll only have to wave.” Eventually, she cuts to the chase: “How many times do I have to say / To get away?” she demands in Get Gone. But it’s all for the best, she concludes in The Way Things Are: “I couldn’t take the embrace of a real romance / I’m much better off the way things are.”
If that doesn’t get your attention, nothing will.
Despite being transformed into a Scoobie Doo-inspired, ghostbustin’ rock band on a recent South Park episode, Korn are still the least cartoonish band on the rap-metal slate these days. Their fourth studio album, Issues, draws on the same primal emotions — anger, angst, frustration, paranoia — as their earlier works, including last year’s chart-topper Follow The Leader. But Issues seems to be more darkly animated, with a few more quiet passages and discernible melodies poking their heads out amid the squall of detuned guitars and plate-tectonic rhythms. Still, there’s plenty of mosh-worthy shreddage in tunes like the single Falling Away From Me. Colour me impressed.
Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic
After selling his CDs over the Internet for four years, The Squiggle Formerly Known As Prince comes in from the cold with this major-label release. And not surprisingly, he tries to party like 1999 here, turning in the usual assortment of freak-you-all-night soul and neck-snapping funk. But like the middle-aged guy he is, His Glyphness isn’t the party animal he once was. Instead of the hepped-up James Brown beats and Jimi Hendrix licks of old, Rave tends to rely on laid-back P-Funk grooves and Stevie Wonderful melodies. Even with the help of guests like Sheryl Crow, Chuck D, Gwen Stefani and Ani DiFranco, none of these tunes are going to knock Purple Rain or Raspberry Beret off the greatest hits list. Still, it’s nice to be able to buy a Prince album without having to log on to your computer.
Will Smith knows he’s won the pop culture lottery — hit TV series, movie stardom, recording career, talented and beautiful wife, $20-million paycheques. And since he’s having so much fun, he’s decided to throw a bash. Like his last few discs, Willennium is pretty much a non-stop party, fueled by Will’s clean-cut, rap-lite grooves and the occasional syrupy ballad. The guest list is a hip-hop who’s who: Lil’ Kim, Tatyana Ali, Slick Rick, Eve, Kool Mo Dee. There’s no politics, no guns, no drugs and no drive-bys. Of course, you won’t remember a thing about it the morning after. But some folks would say that’s the sign of a good party.
6:66 Satan’s Child
Pity Glenn Danzig and his old Misfits bandmates. Together, they were the heaviest horror-punks this side of Hades. When they split, it pretty much killed all their careers, at least in the short term. Yet they continue to lumber along like zombies in search of brains. Sadly, there ain’t much of that on either of these CDs. Musclebound midget Danzig’s 6:66 Satan’s Child continues his slide into the primordial ooze of Sabbathy sludge. As the drums plod like Frankenstein and guitars grind like the plumbing in Ozzy’s outhouse, Glenn wails like an evil Jim Morrison about death, devils and apocalypse. Sure, it’s heavy as elephant dung, but frankly, next to the likes of Marilyn Manson, it’s as scary as an old mummy flick. The Misfits, meanwhile, refuse to give up the ghost — or the werewolf, the vampire, and the rest of their Halloween-rock shtik. They still have the skull makeup, bare chests and foot-long forelocks. And they’re still churning out crypt-kicking cheese-metal with titles such as Crawling Eye, Die Monster Die and Fiend Club. It wouldn’t be so bad if singer Michale Graves wasn’t a vocal dead ringer for Brian Setzer. Hey boys, why not bury the hatchet or stake or whatever and reunite? After all, if it’s brains you’re after, four heads are better than one.
All The Way: A Decade Of Song
On this final disc before her self-imposed sabbatical from the music biz, megastar chanteuse Celine Dion divides her time between looking back on her career and giving her fans something to tide them over. First are the hits — nine of her biggest tunes, including The Power Of Love, Beauty And The Beast and some obscure ditty called My Heart Will Go On, from some movie about a boat or something. Not surprisingly, Dion’s style goes on much the same way in the seven new tracks, most of which are ballads that follow her whisper-to-a-chest-pounding-bellow template ad nauseam. Still, the only real clunker is the pointless title cut, where Celine duets with Frank Sinatra from beyond the grave. With that, Dion definitely leaves you wanting less.
Timeless: The Classics Vol. 2
If the Isley Brothers could sue Michael Bolton for allegedly ripping off Love Is A Wonderful Thing, why can’t Al Green, Bob Dylan and Procol Harum sue him for forever tainting their masterworks — specifically, Let’s Stay Together, Like A Rolling Stone and Whiter Shade Of Pale — by covering them on this unlistenable wad of shopping-mall muzak? I’d be happy to testify for the plaintiffs. In fact, I may launch my own suit: Ever since I accidentally listened to him butcher Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing, I’ve been incessantly nauseated and can’t stop shuddering. Somebody, please, stop him before he record cover tunes again.
Greatest Hits 1969 – 1999
At first, an orchestral composer and soundtrack staple like John Williams would seem an unlikely candidate for a two-CD best-of set. But think about it: I bet the themes from Star Wars, Superman and Jaws are lodged in your head just as permanently as Satisfaction. All of those (except, of course, the last one) are included here, along with pristinely re-recorded themes from pretty much every other Steven Spielberg and George Lucas flick, from Sugarland Express and Raiders Of The Lost Ark to Saving Private Ryan and The Phantom Menace. Two CDs might be a bit much — are songs from 1941 and Hook really “hits?” — but the film buff in your family might love to find this under the Xmas tree.
He flashed a TV audience while going commando under his kilt. He bought one of Elvis Presley’s Cadillacs. He’s owned up to a crack addiction. There’s no doubt fiddlin’ magician Ashley MacIsaac has the star part of rock star down pat. Sadly, on Helter’s Celtic, his music displays the same level of childish flamboyance and mischief. As befits the title, MacIsaac spends most of the disc arbitrarily bolting from style to style — traditional Celtic melodies, bar-level funk-rock, cheeseball metal, drums ’n’ bass. If you’re charitable, you could call it eclectic and daring, but the half-baked feel of many of these tunes betrays the truth — he’s just undisciplined. MacIsaac has tremendous talent; what he needs to do is put down the pipe, get out of the Caddy, put on some underwear and start putting it to better use.
MTV Celebrity Deathmatch
An unreleased track from Marilyn Manson — the Antichrist Superstar-style industrial rocker Astonishing Panorama Of The Endtimes (which is nowhere near as astonishing and apocalyptic as its title) — is the heavyweight contender on this companion album to MTV’s claymation combat series. However, some of the competitors on the undercard are worth checking out. Xzibit’s title track has a cheeky jab; Canibus and Rakim work the mic like tag-team ninjas on I’ll Bust Em, You Punish Em; and Kool Keith’s Bow To The Masta is another of his rope-a-dope raps. There isn’t a true champ in the bunch, but a few of them might knock you out.
The World Is Not Enough
The Best Of Bond … James Bond
The twangy noir-surf guitar. The skulking melody line. The swaggering Vegas horns. Is there any cooler movie music than the James Bond Theme? Except, perhaps, the immortal title tunes, from Shirley Bassey’s Goldfinger to Paul McCartney’s Live And Let Die. The must-have set The Best Of Bond collects the tunes from 18 official pix (sorry, fans of Casino Royale or Never Say Never Again). Some numbers, like those, are unforgettable. Others, like a-ha’s The Living Daylights and Louis Armstrong’s We Have All The Time In The World (from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) are unremarkable. But this is still the perfect gift for the Bond fan in your house. All that’s missing is the new Garbage track for The World Is Not Enough. Which, surprisingly, is one of the low points of the official soundtrack CD. Don’t blame Shirley Manson and co.; they didn’t write this shmaltzy ballad. Still, you’re better off skipping to the World soundtrack’s later tracks, which drag James into the new musical millennium by adding vibrating trip-hop synths and funky scratching to the sweet violins and orchestral manoeuvres. Garbage may not deliver, but the rest of this disc is easily good enough.
King Of The Hill
“Well, that song was meaningless,” dryly drawls the voice of cartoon crackpot Dale Gribble after Get In Line, Barenaked Ladies’ poppy contribution to this cartoon companion CD. As usual, he’s got it backwards: BNL’s typically sunny pop offering is one of just a few original and worthy tunes here. Otherwise, this is just another so-so set of mixed-marriage cover tunes. You know the drill: country stars do rock tunes (Deana Carter tackles Tom Petty’s Free Falling) and vice versa (Sugar Ray’s Mark McGrath duets with Willie Nelson on Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground). Some work, Old 97’s cowpunk take on Marty Robbins’ El Paso; others, like Deana or Faith Hill’s glossy version of Piece Of My Heart, are aptly cartoonish. But none moreso than Mike Judge singing Red Sovine’s Teddy Bear in his Hank Hill voice. Speaking of meaningless.
Symphony No. 1
With his classical training and lounge lizard sensibilities, Joe Jackson the Pop Star was always a bit of an imposter. But since he resigned from the rock world a few years ago, he’s returned to his true roots in contemporary symphonic music — with impressive results. Like his last work Heaven & Hell, this 43-minute symphony straddles the fence between classical and pop. Musically, explains Jackson, this four-movement work’s themes parallel a journey through life — the chaotic simplicity of childhood, the exuberance of youth, the thoughtful period of maturity and the search for balance with age. But don’t let this high-falutin’ description intimidate you. Even to an unsophisticated ear like mine, it’s still an intriguing, well-crafted composition that bears Jackson’s unmistakable melodic stamp and wit. He may not Look Sharp anymore, but he sounds as sharp as ever.
The punny title Working Classical is meant to remind us that even though he’s a former Beatle, a zillionaire, and a knight, Paul McCartney is still a blue-collar bloke. But the music on Working Classical reminds us of something else Paul will always be at heart: A pop songwriter. Unlike his other recent forays into contemporary orchestral music, Working Classical is a more light-hearted affair, balancing new symphonic pieces with chamber-music versions of pop chestnuts like Maybe I’m Amazed, My Love and Lovely Linda. Predictably, the more recent stuff is somewhat serious, although still hummably melodic. The cover tunes, unfortunately, come off as kitschy as 101 Strings Plays The Beatles. It’s hardly the work of a serious composer — but acceptable for a blue-collar bloke.
It’s official: The New Wave revival has begun. Look no further than this sophomore disc from Portland popmeisters Sunset Valley. Lead singer Herman Jolly is obviously some sort of musical sponge who’s absorbed the best of The Cars, Talking Heads and The Pixies — not to mention David Bowie, Marc Bolan and John Lennon for good measure. Here, he squeezes out track after juicy track straight from 1980, brimming with choppy power chords, quirky vocals and howling Candy-O synths that pack the sugar rush of a mouthful of pop rocks and Pepsi. It’s just what I needed.
Live From a Shark Cage
Guitar albums can often be pretty irritating affairs. Often they’re loaded down with wanky, gunslinger-style solos whose only real purpose is to show off to other six-stringers. But obviously, Papa M alter-ego David Pajo prefers to use his talent for creation instead of competition. Instead of wielding his axe like, well, an axe, this former Slint and Tortoise player uses it like a paintbrush — a soft tone here, a bold colour there, even a wide swath of feedback every now and then. On these 11 tracks he creates vivid, captivating portraits of landscapes filled with everything from pyramid-shaped Jimmy Page riffs and post-rock cathedrals of haunting Robert Frippish harmonics to gothic Appalachian shacks. With all this, who has room for wanky solos — and more to the point, who needs ’em?
You might know bookish guitarist Arto Lindsay from his envelope-pushing work with downtown New York performers like Golden Palominos and John Zorn. What you might not know is that he grew up in Brazil. As he has on his past few albums, Lindsay combines the best of both worlds on the exquisite and captivating Prize. As acoustic guitars (played by Vinicius Cantuaria) pluck out fiery melodies over a bed of funky Latin rhythms and alien soundscapes, Lindsay’s hesitant, fragile tenor offers up intimate melodies that soothe the atonal scrape of his fractured, noise-rock guitar. If you can imagine a jam between Sonic Youth, Aphex Twin and Os Mutantes — or even if you just own albums by them — you won’t be disappointed in this stunning pan-cultural achievement.