Two decades ago, new albums from Feist, Hepcat, Little Feat, Joe Cocker 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):
Like the old soldiers they are, classic rockers never die — they just put out another greatest-hits live album. And almost without fail, they do it in summer. The period from May to September — the lazy, hazy days of state fairs, exhibitions and outdoor festivals — may be vacation time for you and me, but it’s the busy season for the Troopers, Doobie Brothers and .38 Specials of the music biz. Maybe Bruce Springsteen can tour whenever he wants, but if your last (and only) hit single was back in 1985, summer is your best chance to relive those rock star dreams — and maybe, if you’re lucky, hawk a few copies of that CD you recorded in your basement over the winter.
This year is no exception. Dozens of acts whose 15 minutes ended more than a decade ago have returned with new albums. Some are as enjoyable as a welcome visit from an old friend; others as horrifying as a car trip with your in-laws. Here are a few of this summer’s offerings:
It’s been a couple of decades since Paul Rodgers’ heyday with the likes of Free and Bad Company, but you’d never know it from his sixth solo album Electric. For one thing, his barrel-chested R&B bellow has barely changed since the days of Rock Steady. For another, neither has his songwriting. From the bluesy arena-rock of opener Deep Blue to the minor-key piano ballad closer Conquistadora, Rodgers sticks to his ’70s rock guns on Electric, paying no mind to contemporary sounds or styles. It’s a tad ballad-heavy, and frankly, none of these tunes measure up to Rock ’n’ Roll Fantasy, but for those who can’t get enough of Rodgers, Electric is all right now.
Chinese Work Songs
Few bands that lose their leader have been able to carry on as long as Little Feat. Two decades after fat man with the blues Lowell George went to that bathtub in the sky, the rest of the band — augmented by whiskey-voiced Bonnie Raitt clone Shaun Murphy — continues to plug away, issuing CD after CD of their loose-limbed syncopation and chicken-fried boogie-funk. Chinese Work Songs, their seventh since George’s death, is another competent if uninspired combo platter, with the band relying on a slate of diverse covers (The Band’s Rag Mama Rag, Bob Dylan’s It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry, The Hooters’ Gimme a Stone, Phish’s Sample in a Jar) to compensate for a lack of memorable originals. If you dig the near-telepathic interplay of these consummate jammers, Chinese Work Songs can be a tasty morsel.
Then and Now
It hasn’t been a good year for Ronnie Van Zant’s corpse. It was bad enough when trailer-trash imbeciles kicked open his crypt and hauled out his body to see if he was wearing a Neil Young T-shirt. But even they didn’t abuse his memory the way his old band does. Look, I have no problem with the surviving members of Lynyrd Skynyrd keeping the band alive — some of their new songs are just as good as the old stuff. And I understand they have to play Free Bird and Sweet Home Alabama live. But when it comes to this pointless compilation of cuts from the band’s most recent studio CDs laced with unnecessasry new recordings of classic tracks, well, the boys — especially Ronnie’s little bro Johnny Van Zant, the singer — should know better. If they haven’t reburied Ronnie yet, it might be because he hasn’t stopped spinning.
No Ordinary World
It’s no sin to make your career singing other people’s songs. Elvis did it; so did Sinatra. But they remembered something Joe Cocker seems to have forgotten: If you’re gonna do covers, make ’em damn good — and make ’em your own. On this 20th album, the man who rewrote The Letter and A Little Help From My Friends seems to have run out of steam and ideas. Returning yet again to the familiar ground of Leonard Cohen (First We Take Manhattan) and Steve Winwood (While You See a Chance), Cocker phones in an album of predictable — and yes, ordinary — R&B ballads that are heavy on the cheese-whiz and light on actual passion. With a voice this powerful, there’s no reason Cocker couldn’t come back as big as Santana. He just needs a little help.
Live From the Sun
Live albums are a safe bet for a classic rock act — there are no new songs to learn, no expensive studio costs, and since they’re usually filled with hits, fans eat ’em up. Nobody knows this better than enduring hair-metallists Dokken. Live From the Sun is their second live album in five years, and their third overall. By now they have the formula down cold: A couple of new tracks (Maddest Hatter and the title tune from last year’s Erase the Slate), plenty of old faves (Hunter, Breaking the Chains, Into the Fire, Too High to Fly, Tooth and Nail), some Van Halenesque shredding, between-song patter and an audience singalong. Maybe they have that formula down a little too cold — while it admittedly rocks, Live From the Sun has all the spontaneity and depth of a Paul Stanley monologue.
Push ’N Shove
Time Magazine picked this L.A. ska septet’s last album — 1998’s Right on Time — as one of the 10 best discs of the year. And with good reason. Unlike other pop bands who dabble in ska, Hepcat are purists, conjuring up the authentic sound of classic Jamaican blue beat and rock steady. This fourth album carries on the tradition, offering 14 tracks filled with simmering, skanking beats, island-party melodies and laid-back toasting vocals. Admittedly, these mellow, groove-oriented numbers sometimes lack the giddy spark that made Right on Time so, well, right on. Still, even if Push ’N Shove doesn’t make Time, I urge you to make time for it.
The link between punk and reggae goes back to the ’70s, when The Clash covered Junior Murvin’s Police and Thieves and jammed with various artists. Well, if Rancid are The Clash of the ’90s, ragga and dancehall vocalist Buju Banton is their Mikey Dread. He contributed vocals to Rancid’s 1998 album Life Won’t Wait; here, they repay the favour, backing him on the jangling jam-down No More Misty Days. Despite being issued on punk label Epitaph, however, the rest of Unchained Spirit is punkier in spirit than in practice. Once a hotheaded, controversial performer — perhaps you recall his homophobic Boom Boom Bye Bye from 1992? — Banton has since mellowed into a more traditional performer, praising Jah over a hazy, chukka-chukka backbeat. Rastaman Vibrations it ain’t, but Banton’s spirited delivery does occasionally manage to reinvigorate the moribund genre of reggae.
Curse of the Canadian Rock Star
Chris Houston of Forgotten Rebels. Brian Goble of D.O.A. Jon Card of Personality Crisis. Randy Bachman. Which of these things is not like the others? If you guessed Randy B., you’re wrong — at least, as far as their hilarious new combo Garnet Sweatshirt is concerned. Taking their name from the preferred wardrobe of late Guess Who guitarist Kurt Winter, these Canadian music vets put aside their musical differences and rock out on a batch of three-chord, garage-band tunes, the best of which laughingly lament the absurdity of being a rock musician north of the 49th parallel. Cockatoo compares lead singers to preening, high-strung birds; Idea So Stupid rails against the dumbing-down of culture; and the title cut makes its case plain and simple: “If you wanna be a big success, take your guitar and head to the U.S.” Sour grapes have never sounded so sweet.
The Official Soundtrack
Putting out this CD a month after the end of the series — and a month after everybody was looking for music to play at their Survivor parties — seems about as smart as bringing a ukulele to the island. Of course, for those who still haven’t had their fill of that “Hey-hey-oh, lay-lo, lay-lo lay-lah,” chant, now’s your chance to own it, along with a dozen or so other examples of the show’s ethnic mish-mash (jungle drums with penny whistles?) musical score. Frankly, I would rather have had some of Rudy’s wit and wisdom or Sue’s toxic snake-and-rat speech preserved for posterity. Better buy this one fast if you plan to — I bet it gets voted off the retail island pretty fast.
Cecil B. DeMented Soundtrack
Pop of trash John Waters bites the hand that feeds him once again with this new Hollywood spoof about a director who kidnaps a starlet and forces her to act in trashy movies. Like most of Waters’ output, this soundtrack is equal parts campy (Liberace’s Ciao!), subversive (filling-rattling grind-metal) and gloriously repulsive (see either of the above). Mostly, though, it’s bizarrely inspired, from Moby’s Opening Credit Theme, which slices and dices classic soundtrack snippets into dubby electronica, to No Budget, a knee-slapping gangster-rap sendup of Hollywood (“Ain’t nobody putting us in turnaround — you got that, motherf—er?”). Demented, indeed — but delightfully so.
Guitarist Kevin Quinn is a tattoo artist in Hollywood whose client list included members of Guns N’ Roses and The Cult. Obviously, their ink wasn’t the only thing that rubbed off on the young six-stringer. American Pearl, the band he co-founded with singer-guitarist Kevin Roentgen, packs all the sleaze-rock punch of GN’R and Mötley Crüe with the Sunset Strip sensibility of younger acts like Buckcherry. Expect to see these guys on MuchMusic, rocking out in black leather pants and sunglasses — but shirtless to show off their ink-stained bodies, natch. And expect to hear their crunching pop-metal anthems California, Free Your Mind and Automatic on the radio — to their credit, American Pearl are as talented with a hook as Quinn is with that needle.
Asides From …
Beloved by the college-music crowd and alt-rock underground but ignored by the mainstream, Boston’s Buffalo Tom were the classic example of a critically beloved band that never achieved the success they deserved. Now they’re history — or at least on extended hiatus — and this 72-minute compilation is their going-away present to celebrate their 12-year run with 18 prime cuts of their poignant, passionately powerful hybrid of folk, psychedelia, punk, noise-rock and pop. From their beginnings as Dinosaur Jr. junior (1988’s Sunflower Suit) and mid-period Westerberg rockers (1995’s Tangerine), on to their final offering (a brooding cover of The Jam’s Going Underground for a recent tribute CD), Asides is a fine souvenir of a sadly extinct wonder.
The Olivia Tremor Control
Presents: Singles and Beyond
With their albums Dusk at Cubist Castle and Black Foliage: Animation Music, this Athens, Ga., musical collective dragged the prog-pop concept album out of the ’60s and into the ’90s. This collection of obscure pre-Cubist Castle tracks proves they apply the same exacting musical and conceptual standards to their one-off singles as they do to their albums. Recorded in various basements and bedrooms on various four-tracks between 1992 and ’96, these 20 doses of lo-fi wonder combine tripped-out psychedelia (the buried vocals of California Demise), avant-garde experimentalism (the tape-spliced carol Christmas With William S.) and joyfully silly indie-pop (the strummy ditty Today I Lost a Tooth) in a way that would make both Brian Wilson and Frank Zappa smile. That goes for you too.
Playmate of the Year
No matter what anybody says, nobody really buys Playboy for the articles. Likewise, no one buys albums from rap-core bands like Zebrahead looking for introspective songcraft or deep meaning. Song titles like Wasted, In My Room (no, not the Brian Wilson song), Livin’ Libido Loco and, of course, Playmate of the Year tell you exactly what you’re in for — sophomoric humour, sexual innuendo and mass-appeal pop-rock content, perfectly arranged and retouched with layers of crunchy guitars, loads of harmonies and some hip-hop deejaying. Like the playmates they so droolingly desire, Zebrahead’s songs are pretty — but pretty vacant. Of course, that’s the whole point, isn’t it?
You need two things to be a power-pop band — pop and power. Sure, it sounds obvious, but it’s easier said than done, as this disappointing sophomore CD from Calgary’s Zuckerbaby demonstrates. Now down to a trio, the band seem to have lost much of their focus and momentum along with a quarter of their lineup. Instead of the shiny, bouncy pop of earlier tunes like, say, Shampoo, the over-reaching, Todd Rundgren space-pop of Platinum Again is more like Andromeda — moody, swirling midtempo numbers that aren’t heavy enough to grab the rockers, and aren’t melodic enough to hook the pop teens. A distinct lack of crisp, hummable choruses doesn’t help one bit. These guys have loads of potential, but it’s unlikely Platinum Again will live up to its title.
Monarch, Lay Your Jewelled Head Down
Doncha just hate it when you hear a great new band on the radio or at a friend’s house — only to find out they were in town the week before and you missed their gig? Well, here’s your chance to get in on the ground floor with two tremendously talented Canadian singer-songwriters: Dave Szigeti and Leslie Feist. Both are in town tonight, and if their sets are even half as good as their debut discs, this will be one awesome double bill. Szigeti, formerly of Son, is an orch-pop composer who layers drily wry Elvis Costello-style melodies and lyrics, lightly raspy Ray Davies vocals and lush, lovely strings into thick, rich blankets of sophisticated songcraft. Feist, who has toured with By Divine Right, takes a slightly more conventional path, offering up breezy, strummy alt-folk ballads in a clear, piercing tenor that falls midway between Cat Power on anti-depressants and a college-rock Edie Brickell. Catch either of their sets and you can be the one who tells your friends what a great gig they missed.
Mardi Gras Mambo
The recipe is so simple it’s downright brilliant: Take ¡Cubanismo!, one of Havana’s top musical exports, add some of New Orleans’ finest jazz players, and serve. After all, the spicy rhythms of Cuban mambo, son and descarga aren’t that far off from the synopated gumbo of Louisiana jazz and dixieland. Especially not in the hands of players like these who know how to cook. As they inject Cuban backbeats into bumptious N’Awlins classics like Mother In-Law and Iko-Iko, or bridge the two genres on jumping, jiving originals like Marie Laveaux (a tribute to The Big Easy’s voodoo mama) and Rampart Street Rumba, ¡Cubanismo! and co. dish up a combo platter guaranteed to perk up any party. Just add plenty of rum and cerveza and enjoy.
Just when we thought the French had outlawed all music except for disco duos, along comes Tahiti 80, a Parisian quartet that actually plays its own instruments and writes its own songs from scratch. If that doesn’t sound like your typical contemporary francophone combo, well, fair enough — after all, Puzzle doesn’t resemble your average Gallic groove-fest of late. Instead, these Belle and Sebastian-ish folk-popsters take most of their cues from across the English Channel, modelling themselves after ’60s Britpop idols like The Zombies and The Kinks. Especially The Kinks. If the twee, folky instrumentation, bouncy melodies and Xavier Boyer’s high, breezy croon aren’t obvious enough hints of his affection for Ray Davies, the jangly ode Mr. Davies makes it blushingly clear. “He gives me complexes,” breathily intones Boyer, “because he’s considered a songwriter and I’m not.” I doubt that will be the case much longer.
Up, Bustle and Out
Rebel Radio: Master Sessions 1
When discussion turns to politics, plenty of musicians talk a good game. Up, Bustle and Out mastermind Rupert Mould puts his money where his mouth is. A few years back, the Bristol musician and producer raised money for a Cuban radio station with a dance track in honour of rebel martyr Che Guevara. Last year, he and partner D. (Ein) Fell went one better, hauling a shipment of gear to Cuba to donate to the station — and using it to record some of Havana’s finest musicians. The genre-spanning Master Sessions 1 is the exotically appealing result. Taking the percolating percussion, jaunty melodies and jazzy vibe of Cuban Descarga and wrapping them in the psychedelic swirls and thumping grooves of the trip-hop sound of his U.K. hometown, Mould rolls up a darkly rich, groovalicious toe-tapper that burns as evenly and smokes as smoothly as an authentic Cohiba. As a bonus, the CD comes with about 10 minutes of studio and travelogue footage. The revolution may not be televised, but it will be multi-media.