Two decades ago, new albums from Pantera, Tom Jones, Patti 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):
Reinventing the Steel
“Whiskey and weed and Black Sabbath” are apparently the secrets to eternal youth, if the legendary Dallas thud-metal foursome of Pantera are to be believed. And why not? The combination certainly seems to have worked pretty well for them over the years. Like their previous efforts, their latest 10-track offering packs enough hammer-of-the-gods thunder and Satanic invocations to rock Lemmy’s world, while their inventive songcraft and brain-cramping tempo shifts are smart enough to keep the Rush fans and guitar teachers glued to their headphones. Pantera may not have reinvented metal here, but they do continue to reinvigorate the old beast.
Some, er, older artists try to up their hipness quotient — and inject new life into their careers — by covering rock tracks. Others try dueting with contemporary artists. Trust Welsh panty-magnet Tom Jones to do both — and pull it off better than almost anyone has before. Except maybe himself. Picking up where his Art of Noise-teamed take on Prince’s Kiss left off, on Reload, Jones enlists a roster of Britpop stars to help him sweat, shout and let it all out on a set of inspired rock covers. There’s Tom getting down and dirty with The Cardigans on Talking Heads’ Burning Down the House; Tom trading lines with lounge-pop heir Robbie Williams on a killer version of Lennie Kravitz’s Are You Gonna Go My Way; even Tom rocking up Little Green Bag with Barenaked Ladies. What’s next? A cover of Iggy’s Lust for Life with Chrissie Hynde? Oh wait, that’s here too. And once you’ve heard Tom suavely coo, “I’m just a modern guy / Of course I’ve had it in the ear before,” you’ll be grinning from ear to ear and reaching for the repeat button. What’s new pussycat, indeed?
More than a title, Gung Ho also seems to be punk-poet priestess Patti Smith’s modus operandi again. It’s about time. After two understandably sombre, introspective albums following the death of husband Fred (Sonic) Smith of The MC5, Smith kicks out the jams and comes out swinging on this umpteenth studio album, making her way to the light as she weaves her streetcorner-shaman lyrics into transcendent tales starring Salome, Ho Chi Mihn and Custer’s widow. But the real stars are long-serving musicians like guitarist Lenny Kaye and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, whose seemingly telepathic interplay and grungy, hard-jamming style make them the world’s greatest garage band — and the perfect foil for Smith’s ragged, passionately possessed sound.
Both Sides Now
Hippie folkster, pop tunesemith, jazzbo diva — Joni Mitchell has been all of these (or at least portrayed that way) at one time or another during her decades-long career. Here, she adds another category to her resume: torch singer. Leading the 71-piece London Symphony Orchestra, Mitchell makes like Lady Day on Both Sides Now, pouring her heart, body and soul — to say nothing of her surprisingly strong voice — into a dozen classic romantic tracks that chronicle the arc of a relationship, from the flirtatious You’re My Thrill, through the disenchanted You’ve Changed and on to Stormy Weather and the inevitable I Wish I Were in Love Again. The closer, of course, is Joni’s own title track, delivered here with a new level of dark, Dietrich-like beauty and wistful insight. The perfect disc for the rainy days of the soul.
The Road to El Dorado
Elton, Elton, Elton. What has become of you? OK, I understand you’re not getting any younger. And I hear you need the money. But for cryin’ out loud, man, there’s got to be a better way than cranking out song after song and album after album of Broadway-style kiddie-tune drivel for anyone whose cheque clears. From this latest Tim Rice collaboration, it’s obvious you can still toss off winning melodies the way Stephen King cranks out best-sellers. And the rocky 16th Century Man (interestingly enough, a song that isn’t in the flick) shows you still remember when Saturday night was all right for fighting. But quite frankly, I bet you can’t even name the rest of these string-cheese ballads. Like your duet with Randy Newman (another velvet-handcuffed victim of cartoonland) says, It’s Tough to be a God. But for the love of your fans — and yourself — please swallow your pride, call up Bernie Taupin and write some real songs again.
War & Peace Vol. 2 (The Peace Disc)
Can a full-blown NWA reunion be far off? First, surviving core members MC Ren, Dr. Dre and Ice Cube put aside a decade of ill will to team up for a track on Cube’s Next Friday soundtrack. Now, here they are again, bragging about how they “started this gangsta s—” on the opening G-funk salvo from Cube’s Peace album, the second half of his ambitious War & Peace set. Of course, Peace is a relative term. Sure, compared to War, with its guest appearance from Korn, this is a lower-key, passive-aggressive affair. Even so, there are enough bumptious beats, foul-mouthed ferocity and ruffneck rhymes to ensure this isn’t exactly going to quality as soothing, New Age fare. And in the end, it’s better not to compare them but to look at the big picture — taken as a set, War & Peace is Ice’s strongest, consistent work since AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. It might even be the best album he’ll ever make — short of an NWA reunion disc.
The Covers Record
If the ability to cover someone else’s song — anyone else’s song — and claim it eternally as your own is a sign of artistic brilliance, then Cat Power is a freaking genius. Emphasis on the freak. Power, the nom de disque of New York folkie Chan Marshall, is by all accounts a woman who lives up to the title of tortured artist, her hesitant whisper of a voice and scab-rending songs reflecting her inner turmoil. Here, she applies the same fidgety, trepidatious touch to an armload of varied covers, with unanimously wonderful results. Whether the song is Bob Dylan’s Kingsport Town, Lou Reed’s I Found a Reason, Smog’s Red Apples or Nina Simone’s Wild is the Wind, they all come out with the compelling urgency of a desperate cry for help from someone singing with their eyes closed in a locked closet. Just listen to the first track: A quietly strummed, vaguely familiar acoustic riff that ambles and drifts along until Marshall intones, “I’m driving in my car, a man comes on the radio … ” That’s right. It’s Satisfaction, like you’ve never heard it before. And for lonely souls thirsty for a kindred spirit to hold them close in the dark of night, The Covers Record is sweet satisfaction indeed.
Jimmie Dale Gilmore
One Endless Night
If you live in Austin, Tex., you can find Jimmie Dale Gilmore plying his trade like any other local joe. The rest of us, sadly, have to make do with his all-too-infrequent recordings. One Endless Night, his first in four years, is, as always, well worth the wait. With his usual Zen-like serenity and simplicity, Gilmore takes his nasal, hill-country twang on a journey through a roots-rock landscape of the cursed and blessed, the drifters and downtrodden, the lovers and the brokenhearted. As always, he brings along his extended musical family — Emmy Lou Harris, Buddy and Julie Miller, Victoria Williams and Jim Lauderdale all pitch in on these loose-limbed, back-porch jams. And while Gilmore only penned two tunes, with the likes of Butch Hancock, Townes Van Zandt and John Hiatt picking up the slack, it’s hard to complain. Especially after hearing his high-lonesome covers of Mack the Knife and The Grateful Dead’s Ripple. They’re enough to tide you over till his next CD — or that trip to Texas.
The Reverend Horton Heat
Spend a Night in the Box
Seems the good Reverend has been born again. Taking one step to go one step forward on their latest disc, goofball guitar god Jim Heath and co. veer off the sludgy riff-rock path they’d been toeing for the last while — remember Lie Detector from ’98’s Space Heater? — and make a hard left straight back into the gonzobilly swamp from whence they rose. Aided and abetted by Butthole Surfer Paul Leary’s authentically slap-dash, reverb-and-echo-sodden production, the Rev kicks off the distortion pedals, cools his jets and turns in his least forced, most listenable album in years — 14 tracks of twangy surf guitar, slap-happy bass and thwacking, primal drums. Hallelujah!
The Million Dollar Hotel
Their name isn’t on the front, but expect to find this soundtrack in the U2 section. After all, Bono produced it. He and his bandmates contribute three songs. He croons by himself on a few more. Several of their long-time collaborators (Daniel Lanois, Brian Eno) pop up frequently. Heck, this Wim Wenders flick is even based on a short story by Bono. Going by the tunes, I assume it takes place in the form of a flashback — U2’s tracks suggest they’re trying to live down their recent unsuccessful flirtation with electronica and return to the guitar-based sound of their ’80s heyday. These gray and rainy ballads may not do the trick, but they’re still better than the rest of this disjointed, pointless affair. How pointless? Milla Jovovich warbles Lou Reed’s Satellite of Love — twice. Only Tito Larriva’s loco take on the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the U.K. will keep you from checking out early.
Rappers and DJs these days spend so much time trying to be harder and faster than each other. But hip-hop veterans The Jungle Brothers — Afrika Baby Bam (grandson of rap pioneer Afrika Bambaataa) and the blandly handled Mike G. — remember back in the day when you could play it soft and silly and still get props. Like their late-’80s contemporaries De La Soul, Fresh Prince and A Tribe Called Quest, this New York duo take a playful approach, patty-caking kitschy samples, kooky lyrics, helium-balloon voices and candy-coloured melodies into cartoon-pop sugar-rushes of sound. From the buzzing, I Dream of Jeannie-based bounce of the title track to the soulful, downtempo scritch-scratch of Strictly Dedicated, the Brothers’ funky, old-school flow is a cool breeze in the overheated hip-hop arena.
God & the FBI
For the last two decades, you would have needed at least one of the above agencies to help track down Janis Ian. Now, from straight outta nowhere, the singer/songwriter last heard from in the ’70s is back with a new album. Even more surprising? It’s a winner. Unlike so many of her nostalgia-circuit contemporaries, Ian has embraced current technologies — samplers, synths, sequences. But not only is God & the FBI fuelled by contemporary production; it’s also loaded with smart, exquisitely crafted song-stories — none of which sound like her nerd-folk classic At Seventeen. The title track is a jazzy slice of modern-day paranoia a la Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues. Memphis is a moody, sparsely touching duet with Willie Nelson. Play Like a Girl is a chunky serving of Stonesy California rock. Other tracks flirt with rootsy sass and even (no fooling) trip-hop. Oh sure, there are a couple of weepy-girl ballads like you’d expect of Ian. But really, God & the FBI is best summed up in one of her own lines: “I’m ready for the last comeback.” Hope you are too.
The Platinum Album
We have only ourselves to blame here, people. This fluffy dance outfit — two Dutch DJs and a pair of pop-tart vocalists — sold 300,000 copies of their debut disc The Party Album in Canada, the highest per-capita sales of any country in the world. If you bought one, you know who you are. So don’t act surprised that now they’ve released a second helping of the same sort of cartoon-disco piffle, with titles like Cheekah Bow Bow, Skinnydippin’ and 24/7 in My 911, and burrow-into-your-brain dance floor melodies that make Aqua seem like Black Sabbath. No, let’s not kid ourselves — the existence of dreck like this is really our own fault. Let’s just not make the same mistake twice, OK?
On the Floor at the Boutique
“I never worked a day in my life, I just lay back and let the big beat lead me.” That line from a vintage Jungle Brothers joint pretty much seems to sum up king DJ Fatboy Slim’s existence in a nutshell. So it’s only fitting that it kicks off this new dance-mix CD from former Housemartins bassist Norman Cooke. Like last month’s remix collection, this isn’t a true followup to 1998’s You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby, just a stopgap affair. Luckily, if anyone knows how to fill dead air, it’s Fatboy. Here, he takes some 20 typically obscure and oddball grooves (Incredible Bongo Band, anyone?) and, with his usual magpie mischievousness and stuttering, psychedelic style, expertly stitches them together into a hypno-go-go house party soundtrack. Sure, soon he’s going to have to get back to work on a new album, but for a lazy sod, so far, Fatboy’s doing all right. Praise him.