Two decades ago, new albums from The Wallflowers, Slash’s Snakepit, Green Day, Mark Knopfler 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):
Being Jakob Dylan probably isn’t as easy as it looks. Oh sure, he’s a rich, famous, handsome, beloved rock star. But like any kid who goes into the family business, it’s gotta be a grind sometimes trying to follow in the old man’s footsteps. Especially when that old man is Bob Dylan — poet, legend, icon, superstar, voice of his generation, yadda, yadda, yadda. Think about it: If you were little Willie Shakespeare Jr., would you really have the guts to try to earn your keep as a playwright?
Not only did Dylan the younger have the guts to try — and the determination to pull it off — but on Breach, his band The Wallflowers’ third album and Jakob’s most personal work yet, he also has the guts to write openly about the difficulty of living in his father’s giant-sized shadow. “You won’t ever amount to much / You won’t be anyone / Now tell me what you were thinking of? / How could you think you would be enough?” he asks himself in the revealing track Hand Me Down, a thinly disguised interior monologue cloaked in a rootsy, slide-guitar topped jangle. “It’s not that you’ve done something wrong / It’s not your fault that you embarrass us all … You feel good and you look like you should / But you will never make us proud.”
Pretty revealing stuff from a guy who — like his father — often delivers his messages wrapped in layers of camouflage to preserve his privacy. Why the big change? Who knows — maybe he had a breakthrough in therapy or something. Or maybe he just decided that it’s time to stop couching his phrases and denying the musical heritage that’s encoded on his DNA.
Not that Jake has suddenly strapped on the acoustic guitar and harmonica and started wheezing away on Breach. Sure, here and there he delivers a line in a raspy whine that brings to mind ol’ Zimmy. But hell, if anybody has a legitimate right to sound like Bob Dylan, it’s his son. Besides, half the time he reminds you of Warren Zevon, Tom Petty, Shaun Mullins and a handful of other singers who were also majorly influenced by Mr. Tambourine Man. Ditto for the music here. With its burbling, swelling organ lines, relaxed, loping beats and rootsy acoustic guitars, Breach definitely comes across as the work of a man whose childhood lullabies included Like a Rolling Stone. But the new-wave pop-punk of Murder 101 makes it obvious that after lights-out, he was listening to Elvis Costello (who fittingly supplies background vocals on the cut). As for singles, well, Breach doesn’t have another One Headlight. But it does have plenty of highlights: the dark ’n’ moody opener Letters From the Wasteland (featuring Frank Black on backup vocals); the sombre California folk-pop of Witness and Up From Under; the quietly venomous love-gone-sour lament Some Flowers Bloom Dead. And speaking of lullabies, Jakob even delivers one of his own here, the delicately sweet hidden track Baby Bird, featuring the plink-plunky keyboards of a child’s music box and a simple, innocent melody.
Bottom line: He still wants to be his own man, like he wishes on the chiming, poppy single Sleepwalker. “Maybe I could be the one they adore / That could be my reputation,” he thinks. But it seems that these days, he’s willing to acknowledge that being his own man and being Bob Dylan’s son aren’t mutually exclusive. That might very well be his gutsiest move yet.
Ain’t Life Grand
In the beginning, Snakepit was a side project, a way for guitarist Slash to burn off a little excess energy between Guns N’ Roses albums. A decade later, he and Axl Rose have officially parted ways — but Slash still doesn’t seem to treat Snakepit as much more than a lark. Like Rose, he changes lineups more often than he removes that ridiculous top hat and those skanky leather pants. And while he’s undeniably the funkiest blues-rock guitarist since Joe Perry, he doesn’t seem interested in writing material that breaks any new ground. Ain’t Life Grand’s dozen tracks are all standard-issue Sunset Strip sleaze rock, virtually indistinguishable from the likes of Buckcherry or American Pearl, save for Slash’s virtuoso, riff-riddled axe work. Axl, Slash; you may not be able to live with each other — but judging by your latest output (or lack of), it seems you two can’t really live without each other either. Kiss and make up, boys.
Billie Joe Armstrong has always seemed smarter than yer average punk. Back in Green Day’s early years, he was savvy enough to parlay the fury and idealism of ’70s punk into million-selling popcore singles like Longview. More recently, he’s figured out nobody likes an angry old man. So he’s spent the last few years and albums gently sanding the edges off Green Day’s sound, producing more mature fare like Time of Your Life. Warning: continues along the same path, with Billie Joe ditching his Strat for an acoustic guitar on most of these tunes and tempering the music’s punkier elements with catchy melodies and harmonies, slower tempi and restrained performances. Along with the piss and vinegar of rockers like Castaway and Deadbeat Holiday, sweet and simple tunes like Warning:, Hold On and Church on Sunday (“If I promise to go to church on Sunday, will you go with me on Friday night?”) are powered by passion and sincerity. Dookie it ain’t, but Billie Joe is obviously being true to his vision. And that’s a smart move for any artist.
Sailing to Philadelphia
There were two distinct versions of Dire Straits — the scrappy pub-rockers who gave us melancholy gems like Sultans of Swing, and the head-banded pop gods who did the Walk of Life. This latest solo album from Dire Straits architect Mark Knopfler is definitely a return to the old school. With the notable exception of the poppy, contractual obligation single Do America, Sailing to Philadelphia is devoid of the choppy, Morse-code guitars of Money for Nothing. In their place, Knopfler weaves a blanket of understated, rootsy picking and sincere, irony-light lyrics, fashioning tracks like What it Is, Speedway at Nazareth or The Last Laugh (a duet with Van Morrison), none of which would have been out of place on Love Over Gold. It doesn’t hurt that his voice is still a Dylanesque croak, and he can still make that burbling guitar cry or sing at will. Those who think Dire Straits began and ended with Brothers in Arms can skip this, but anyone who own the band’s first four albums may want to visit Philadelphia.
Van Morrison & Linda Gail Lewis
You Win Again
Goodness, gracious, what a bizarre pairing — legendary troubadour Van Morrison and Linda Gail Lewis, the piano-playing little sister of legendary hellraiser Jerry Lee. What’s behind it? With Morrison, who the hell knows? Probably for the same reason he made a skiffle album with Lonnie Donegan in 1999 and did a whole album of Mose Allison covers in ’96. The 13-track You Win Again certainly does seem to be another walk down memory lane for Van the man, with him belting out ’50s country, rock and boogie-woogie classics like Let’s Talk About Us, Jambalaya, Old Black Joe, Cadillac and Boogie Chillen while Lewis double-fists that piano like a lightweight version of her bro and adds sweetly sassy vocals like a mellower Wanda Jackson. Few besides Van would have the urge to do it — or the means to pull it off. Sure, I’d rather hear an album of new material. But until that comes along, this will tide me over just nicely, thanks.
LL Cool J
No, LL hasn’t gained any newfound humility. Far from it — G.O.A.T. stands for Greatest Of All Time, and James T. Smith makes it Cristal clear that’s how he sees himself on his eighth studio album. And given that he’s managed to remain one of rap’s top artists for a decade, maybe he has a point. Trouble is, it seems he’s decided being a celebrity can substitute for songwriting. Like many a star before him, Smith seems to have crossed the line from self-absorption to narcissistic delusion, spending most of G.O.A.T. prattling on and on about his limos and gold and jets and women and yadda yadda yadda over a dry, underproduced beatbox-and-keyboard backdrop that aims for high-tech minimalism but just sounds weak. Only a few tracks like the sizzling funkers Take it Off and Farmers manage to mine a decent groove. Even fewer — like Homicide, which notes “Columbine happens in the ghetto every day” — actually say anything. Compared to Rock the Bells, Mama Said Knock You Out and Goin’ Back to Cali, G.O.A.T. is pretty blaaaaah.
You’re the One
“I am heading for a time of quiet,” sings Paul Simon on You’re the One, and man, he ain’t kidding. Simon’s first solo album in a decade (not counting the soundtrack to his ill-fated Capeman Broadway show) is nothing if not a tranquil, restrained affair. There are no African choirs or Brazilian percussionists on these 11 grooves; just Simon’s quiet strumming, sweetly longing lyrics and modest vocals, tastefully backed by the elegantly arranged, lightly produced world-beat folk of crack session players like drummer Steve Gadd. Compared to the elaborate, panoramic artistry of Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints, the endearing You’re the One is an artist’s sketchbook, filled with self-portraits of the artist as a content, middle-aged man enjoying the sounds of silence.
If I Could Only Fly
The Hag still knows how to make an entrance. “Watching while some old friends do a line / Holding back the want to end my own addicted mind,” are the first lines of Merle Haggard’s new CD If I Could Only Fly. And the bald-faced candour of those words is pretty much par for the course on this satisfying comeback album from the country outlaw, now recording for maverick punk label Epitaph. Like Johnny Cash and George Jones, Haggard has never separated his life from his music, nor has he bowed to trends. These 12 tracks stick to that program as the 63-year-old Bakersfield legend reflects frankly on the good times (Wishing All These Old Things Were New, Thanks to Uncle John) and not-so-good (Leavin’s Getting Harder, If I Could Only Fly) in his world-weary whiskey voice over an Americana soundtrack that includes, blues, ragtime, honky-tonk, country swing and simple, old-school country. And as long as he can write opening lines like, “I knew some day you’d find out about San Quentin,” he’ll remain the last word in musical integrity.
Milk Cow Blues
Some folks say country music is the white man’s blues. If so, Willie Nelson could be its Muddy Waters. On this laid-back offering, the red-headed stranger puts that theory to the test, teaming up with blues players like B.B. King, Keb’ Mo, Jonny Lang, Dr. John, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Susan Tedeschi to jam their way through classic blues tracks like the title cut, Kansas City, Texas Flood and Outskirts of Town. Willie even puts some of his own tracks to the test, letting Francine Reed wail on Funny How Time Slips Away and dueting with Tedeschi on the lightly brushed Crazy. As art it really doesn’t add up to much — a longer list of collaborators might’ve helped these songs from sounding so repetitive — but as a relaxing bit of party music, it works just fine. And if there’s anybody who knows how to relax, it’s Willie.
The Harsh Light of Day
Remember Fastball? They burst on to the radar a coupla years back with The Way, an enchilada of Tex-Mex melody and roots-pop jangle. Well, the good news is they don’t waste their time on this followup album trying to duplicate it. On The Harsh Light of Day, this Austin, Tex., trio make the most of their success and all the perks it brings — like being able to hire that string section for that ballad or bring in Billy Preston to add some piano gloss on your poppy new single. For this third album, the band also broadens its horizons, venturing into heavier guitar-rock terrain (This is Not My Life) and keyboard-driven pop (Goodbye), while adding plenty of sonic weirdness to the mix. But if that’s the good news, the bad news is that none of these songs (including that single, titled You’re An Ocean) has the same sort of undeniable magic of their last hit. Much as they want to avoid it, Fastball might have to find another Way to keep from striking out.
These are not your older brother’s Meat Puppets. Hell, for a while there, they weren’t anybody’s Meat Puppets. When the psychedelic metal-punk trio from Arizona went on hiatus in the mid-’90s, singer-guitarist Curt Kirkwood moved to Austin and started a band called Royal Neanderthal Orchestra. Now that it’s obvious his old bandmates aren’t coming back — drummer Derrick Bostrom is heavy into multimedia; Curt’s bassist brother Cris is apparently heavy into heroin — Kirkwood has reclaimed the title. And since he wrote most of the old band’s material, Golden Lies has all the bleached-bones, desert-dry twang and fuzzed-out sunstroke haze of later albums like Too High to Die. No, the new players (including Doug Sahm’s son Shandon on drums) can’t take the place of the original Pups, especially when it comes to the band’s trademark harmony vocals. Still, I’d rather have these Puppets than none at all.
Damn. I was all set to write this off as The Moffatts Grow Facial Hair, based on the downy little sprouts these teen-poppers sport on the cover of this CD. Then I played it — only to find that Submodalities is (and man, I hate to say this) not half-bad. Sure, there are a couple of syrupy teen ballads and the addictive pop fluff hit Bang Bang Boom. But unlike the relentless bubblegum of Chapter One: A New Beginning, the Bob Rock-produced Submodalities is an ambitiously varied set, with the four siblings expanding their pop-rock universe to include surf (California), roots (Just Another Phase), Britpop (Antifreeze & Aeroplanes) and even Rubber Soul sitars (Life on Mars). Final track Spy is a seven-minute space-rock opus Kula Shaker would have been happy to write. And then there’s the hidden track, a slow-burning, nine-minute jam powered by brooding strings and spacy solos that suggest The Moffatts are interested in Radiohead along with radio hits. Looks like facial hair ain’t the only growth on The Moffatts.
Living Off the Radar
It isn’t quite a Payolas reunion, but it does qualify as a Rock & Hyde reunion. At least technically. For his first solo album in six years, singer-guitarist Paul Hyde not only hooked up with his old songwriting partner Bob Rock, he also convinced the superstar producer to leave the booth and join in the fun for old times’ sake. Although Rock stops short of singing, he plays guitar, bass and even drums on these 12 tracks, helping the raspy-throated Hyde revisit the ’80s on strummy guitar-rockers like The Snake and This is a Love Song, along with Eyes of a Stranger-style new wave ballads like The Fireman Rushes In. Now and then Hyde tries to get contemporary with a dab of hip-hop or fuzzed-out grunge, but for the most part Living Off the Radar is a rocker’s roll down memory lane. And it pays off here and there.
Great Big Sea
The thousands that jammed Winnipeg’s Forks in 1999 for Great Big Sea’s free Pan Am Games gig are already well aware of the Newfoundland Celtic quartet’s magnetic live show. For those who missed the affair — or want to relive it — Road Rage is as close as you’ll get. Its 19 tracks were taped during the group’s 1999 cross-country tour, and although you can’t tell if any of the cuts were from Winnipeg, Road Rage has all the raucous drinking songs (The Night Pat Murphy Died, Old Black Rum) and tender ballads (Boston and St. John’s) that define their party-hearty sets. Plus the stripped-down, acoustic-guitar setting gives tracks like Consequence Free an intimate spontaneity that bests their well-produced studio versions. Even when they’re playing for thousands, Great Big Sea sound like they’re jamming at the world’s biggest kitchen party.
“You’ve heard this 1,000 times before … you’ll hear it at least a million more.” The hunky heartthrobs in 98° — Nick, Drew, Jeff and the suspiciously hat-loving Justin — are talking about how many times they’re going to tell you they love you, want you and need you, girl. But the statement applies equally well to their ridiculously hackneyed new album. I thought it was bad enough that they spent most of the disc regurgitating the same syrupy ballads, swooning a cappella and hard-slamming hip-hop of Backstreet Boys and ’N Sync. But their lame attempts to branch out are even worse — could anything be less original than being the 250th band to do a faux Latin-pop number and put your voice through AutoTune a la Cher? If 98° jump on any more bandwagons, they’re going to need a parade permit.
Love and War
California has Brian Wilson. Athens, Ga., has Olivia Tremor Control. And Steinbach has The Pets. Granted, these four Manitobans aren’t as celebrated as the other folks on that list. But they deserve to be, thanks to the magnificent Love and War, a jaw-dropping magnum opus of multi-dimensional pop genius that holds its own against anything either of those acts have released — especially when you consider these guys spent months painstakingly recording it in the basement. Factor that in and these 14 acid-drenched hits of swirling, sunny psychedelia, hazy fuzz-tone garage-pop and tape-loop sonic horseplay are easily the most impressive indie-pop album since OTC’s Dusk at Cubist Castle. Think I’m kidding? Buy it, wade into the waist-deep vocal harmonies, flowing ’60s pop and limitless invention of Welcome to the End of the World and Somewhere in Tomorrow and tell me I’m wrong.
Free the West Memphis 3
Benefit CDs are almost always for a good cause. But often, the albums themselves just aren’t that good. Here’s one that rewards the listener as much as it aids its beneficiaries. The West Memphis 3 are Arkansas youths who — according to supporters — were railroaded for the murders of three kids, convicted mainly on a preference for Satanic heavy metal and black T-shirts. With one awaiting execution and the others doing life, their case has become a counterculture cause celebre, spearheaded by Supersuckers’ Eddie Spaghetti, who helped assemble this disc’s sterling lineup of exclusive tunes. Steve Earle’s gritty Appalachian jailhouse lament The Truth kicks off the disc, which also boasts quality new material from L7 (the metal-flake dirge Boys in Black) and Mark Lanegan (Untitled Lullaby), bolstered by covers from Joe Strummer (The Harder They Come), Zeke (Iron Maiden’s Wrathchild), Nashville Pussy (Highway to Hell) and plenty more. It’s worth buying for the content alone; the cause just seals the deal.