Two decades ago, new albums from BSB, Geddy Lee, Jay-Z 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):
Black & Blue
Looks like ’N Sync can say Bye Bye Bye to that sales record.
It’s only been eight months since Lance and co. floored the music industry by selling 2.5 million copies of their No Strings Attached CD in one week — but if the hype, hoopla and hormone-charged hysteria that greeted the unveiling of The Backstreet Boys’ fourth CD Black & Blue in New York this week are anything to go by, Brian, Nick, A.J., Howie and Kevin are about to make that figure look like a statistical blip. First, the Boys have already put more than twice that many CDs into stores, shipping 5.5 million copies throughout North America. Second, Black & Blue is coming out during U.S. Thanksgiving week, the biggest shopping period of the year down there. Third, it’s four weeks till Christmas. If that doesn’t make the little girls spurn Bye Bye Bye and Buy Buy Buy, nothing will.
As for the music that goes along with this marketing campaign, well, put it this way — the loyal Backstreet girls will not be disappointed by Black & Blue. They’ll get another batch of high-tech hip-pop tracks like The Call, Everyone and Not For Me, all of which mine the same glam-slam dance-groove vein of Backstreet’s Back and Larger Than Life (although none of the new tracks is as good as those old ones). They’ll get another slate of insiped ballads such as Shape of My Heart, I Promise You (With Everything That I Am) and How Did I Fall In Love With You Again, which tug at the same heartstrings as I Want It That Way and Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely (although, once again, this year’s models pale next to the originals). And — most important of all — they’ll get an equal number of kissable new pictures of each of the boys with this year’s cuts, piercings and duds.
But the Florida fivesome’s fashions and facial hair aren’t the only changes since last year’s Millennium album. Despite their continuing reliance on formulaic songwriting and production of Max Martin, Timmy Allen and Kristian Lundin, it’s obvious BSB are trying to grow up and assume more control of their music. Of B&B’s 13 cuts, the members supposedly had a hand in writing nearly half, including two (Time and The Answer to Our Life) credited solely to the quintet. Sure, they’re both fairly syrupy midtempo ballads, but they’re no worse than the syrupy midtempo ballads they’re paying other people to write (including Canuck folkie Dan Hill, who hit the songwriter Lotto by getting the boys to record his number I Promise You). On Time, they team up with Babyface, who not only produces the track, but plays, programs and provides background vocals. Taken into account with the ballad-heavy weight of the disc and the mature arrangements — more strings and flamenco guitars, fewer synthesizers — Black & Blue hints that the Boys are looking to lay the groundwork for a segue from the teen-pop ranks to the adult-contemporary charts.
Which raises two questions: How old can you be and still call yourself the Backstreet Boys? And how long before their teenage crowd says Bye Bye Bye once and for all and moves on to the next cute boy band?
Badlands: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska
Nebraska is the Bruce Springsteen album that separates the dilettantes from the diehards. Released between his beloved double-album The River and his commercial juggernaut Born in the U.S.A., it was a bleak, haunting collection of powerful ballads, starkly recorded on a deck in The Boss’s bedroom. Some folks loved it; others still can’t stand it. I expect the same sort of battles to erupt over Badlands, an intriguing tribute with singer-songwriters covering Bruce’s tunes under the same four-track limitations. Naturally, most of the pack echo, emulate and embrace the sombre, muted vibe of the originals, from the buzzy swirl of Chrissie Hynde’s take on the title track to the languid opiate beauty of Dar Williams’ Highway Patrolman and the slapback-echoed Chuck Berry licks of Deana Carter’s Used Cars. Nothing wrong with that. But for my money, the best tracks come from the artists who put their own stamp on the proceedings. Like Hank Williams III, who turns Atlantic City into a two-step bluegrass hoedown; Los Lobos, who slip Johnny 99 a shot of tequila; or American icon Johnny Cash, who delivers I’m on Fire (which appeared on U.S.A., but was written at the same time as these tunes) with the darkness, depth and danger he brings to every song he sings. Some of the diehards may view this Badlands as sacrilege, but ignore them — for the average Springsteen fan, it’s worth the trip.
The Dynasty Roc La Familia (2000 – )
For a while there, it looked like Shawn (Jay-Z) Carter was heading for Puff Daddy territory. Between his dependence on show-tune samples, his ostentatious bling-bling lifestyle and his clubland rap sheet, it only seemed a matter of time until he started dating a big-booty Latina starlet. Well, it finally seems Jigga has got a grip. Despite its ridiculous title, Roc La Familia etc. is a big step back to reality — the reality of the streets, that is. With the help of crewmembers, proteges and guests including Beanie Sigel, Memphis Bleek, Scarface and Snoop Dogg, Jay digs deep and throws down 16 hard-nosed old-school gangsta rap blasts with titles like Streets is Talking, Guilty Until Proven Innocent and This Can’t Be Life. And while Jay frees your mind with his rhymes, the smoking blaxploitation grooves, p-funky soul and bouncing hip-hop beats that anchor these tracks make sure your ass follows. Unlike most rap albums these days, Dynasty brings you back for more. Which is more than you can say about Puffy’s last CD.
Nobody expects romantic subtlety from the man who sang Hump Bounce, Sex Me (Parts I and II) and Bump N’ Grind. But even for infamous horndog R. Kelly — and especially after his attempt to clean up his image on more recent tracks like I Believe I Can Fly — TP-2.com is blush-inducingly blatant. Song titles like Strip For You, The Greatest Sex, Like A Real Freak, Don’t You Say No and the absurd Feelin’ On Yo Booty make it pretty clear what R. is after. At least he has some stylish game, huskily breathing and sweetly crooning his lewd and lascivious suggestions in your ear over a warm bed of smoove-groove R&B, soul and funk. Still, after you finish listening to TP-2.com, you can’t help but feel that he should be sending you flowers.
He sings a bit like John Hiatt. He plays guitar a bit like Ry Cooder. And he writes songs with all the soul-man troubadour presence of a young Van Morrison. Why the hell Martin Sexton’s name isn’t on everyone’s lips is beyond me. Maybe this tremendous little gem of a disc will help. This second major-label outing from the Syracuse, N.Y., singer-songwriter packs 11 slices of intimate honesty, hip-shaking roots-funk and breezy folk-pop into 47 minutes — and from the rollicking opening blues groove of Angeline to the lazily flowing closing balladry of Golden Road, there’s nary a misstep. Certainly not in the gospel-infused southern funk of Faith on the Table, the last-call guitar-jazz of Where Did I Go Wrong or the quietly scratchy hand-jive of Things You Do To Me. And you’ve gotta love a guy who name-drops Satan, Larry Flynt, Elvis and Hef all in the same song, like he does on the wah-wah bouncer Hallelujah. If there is a God, everyone else will be dropping Sexton’s name just as freely very soon.
Rian Murphy & Will Oldham
All Most Heaven
You can’t argue with the talent on this charmingly odd little EP. Along with Palace tunesmith Will Oldham (aka Bonnie “Prince” Billie) and indie producer Rian Murphy, this four-track lark co-stars a bizarre, genre-spanning who’s who of Chicago underground scenesters like David Grubbs, Jim O’Rourke, Kelly Hogan Steve Albini. The tunes aren’t quite the post-rock-meets-alt-country train wreck you might fear, but they are pretty damned weird nonetheless. Not so much for the bluesy, twisted-roots songcraft or the strangely grand chamber-folk orchestrations that go along with them; no, what really sets All Most Heaven apart are the James Joycean lyrics. “All day so, they boge in do bo … I bmal bahl,” goes the chorus to Fall Again — and I’m quoting from the lyric sheet here, people. Or how about these sentiments from the starry-eyed piano ballad Song of All: “Ess for the beda, basted ada deedle eye.” Who can argue with that?
The Fifth Release from Matador
True to its title, this is Pizzicato Five’s fifth CD on U.S. indie label Matador — but the 16-year-old Japanese kitsch-pop duo passed that milestone a long time ago back home. In Tokyo, Konishi Yasuharu and Nomiya Maki have long been king and queen of the trendy Shibuya-kei scene. It’s no wonder their reign has lasted — as Fifth Release points out, when they’re at their best they’re the most tuneful group on the scene. Sure, they can cut, paste, loop and sample ’60s pop and ’70s disco tracks with the best of ’em — and do plenty of it on this groovy disc, which returns to their zippy early sound after a few more cinematic recent releases. Thing is, they also write songs to go with the high-concept deconstructionism and charming pidgen-English lyrics. A Perfect World layers syrupy strings, flutes and bells atop flailing go-go drums and a swinging London melody; Roma shuffles be-bop piano in with cartoon-soundtrack xylophones and stabbing horns; LOUDLAND! is a buzzing, throbbing sugar cube of heavy metal and airy pop. But you can still hum every one of ’em — and that’s just the first three songs. As long as they can keep genre-splicing like this, you can probably expect a 25th release from P5 one day.
My Favourite Headache
When you subrtract the mathematically hyperkinetic percussion and post-grad poetry of Neil Peart — not to mention the laser-beam guitar-god riffs of Alex Lifeson — from the Rush recipe, whaddaya end up with? Not much, judging by this bland, disappointing solo debut from screechy singer-bassist Geddy Lee. Teaming up with Ben Mink, the k.d. lang songwriter who got his start with underappreciated ’70s Canuck proggers FM, Lee hauls out 48 minutes’ worth of rubbery, treble-charged bass lines, skillful but passionless musicianship, soaring but hook-free melodies and turgid new age/sci-fi/supernatural lyrics (is it just me, or does every song have the word “universe” in it?). In other words, it’s basically all the worst and wimpiest parts of Rush without the mighty and majestic saving graces. “The moment can be so real, you almost can’t stand it,” yelps Geddy at one point. I know just how he feels.
Allman Brothers Band
Peakin’ at the Beacon
Everybody knows that the Allman Brothers Band’s live show has always been their strongest suit. And I appreciate the fact that these days, the band pretty much sustains and supports itself by staying on the road forever. But still, there has to be a limit to the number of live albums one band can put out — especially after they’ve already made Live at Fillmore East, one of the finest concert discs ever recorded? Peakin’ at the Beacon, documenting their latest annual residency at New York’s Beacon Theatre, is the ABB’s fifth officially sanctioned live disc in the past decade by my count. And by any but the most forgiving fan’s estimation, it shoulda been called Creakin’ at the Beacon. Sure, the set list is full of classics (Don’t Want You No More, It’s Not My Cross to Bear, Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More), but the production is murkier than Gregg’s memory and many of the performances sound like they were phoned in from the tour bus. The one exception — Dickey Betts, the guy the band temporarily sacked for alleged substance problems, ironically has no trouble playing rings around most of his cohorts. Bottom line: If you don’t own Fillmore, buy it. If you already have it, you probably don’t need this.
Queen of the Meadow
Outside it was pouring faster than a barkeep on St. Patrick’s, so I ducked into the joint to dry my bones and wet my whistle. It was the kind of dump where people pay to get the hell out. Then I saw her. You couldn’t miss her. And not just because she was on the bandstand. With her raven hair and Bettie Page pout, she was a girl you don’t take home to mother — and that goes double for father. When she opened those crimson lips, it was enough to make you forget everything that was wrong with the world. In a husky purr that could separate any red-blooded man from his common sense and wallet, she slow-burned her way through a pack of late-night post-millennial torch ballads while the downtown lounge lizards behind her played just enough to maintain consciousness. When she asked me to “surrender to debauchery,” I was ready to put my hands up. When she told me “our hearts are open graves,” I wanted to climb right in beside her. Between songs, she looked my way with a sneer. She said her name was Jennifer Charles and her band Elysian Fields’ new album was called Queen of the Meadow. Right. And I’m crown prince of the Munchkins. I drained my bourbon and went back out into the rain. I barely felt it.
Check Your People
Not long ago, it seemed Downset were down for the count. After issuing two albums in ’94 and ’96, the L.A. rap-punk-metal quintet got stuck in major-label limbo when Polygram merged with Universal. Now, after battling for years to extricate themselves, the ’set return to the indie-punk trenches with this long-overdue third album. And the blistering Check Your People definitely makes up for lost time. Heavier and more crushing than a safe dropped on your foot, these 13 cuts are packed wall-to-wall with walloping drums, chugging and snarling Sabbath-sludge guitars and Rey Oropeza’s spleen-venting, eardrum-busting bellow. Combined, it makes all the Korns and Bizkit boys look like the sissypants trendies they are. Bonus points for their motivational lyrics, which focus not on nookie and breaking stuff, but on unity and building a better system. They may have been down, but they’re a long way from out.
Does the title refer to the hardships this Huntington Beach, Calif., outfit faced while making this album? Or to the fact that singer Johnny Miller’s blood-curdling, white-noise scream sounds like somebody undergoing dental surgery without Novocaine? Either way, you gotta hand it to Straightfaced. Despite losing two members in a year — or perhaps because of it — they’ve managed to unleash an album that’s not only their most destructive and powerful, but also their most innovative. In just 11 punishing tracks that take barely half an hour, they manage to erase the line between punk, hardcore and metal. How do they do it? Volume, volume, volume — and the insanely magnificent fretwork of newly minted guitar god David Tonic, who eschews cliche buzzsaw grinds for distinctive, syncopated riffs that fuel Miller’s vocal blowtorch. Between the two, they keep Pulling Teeth as intense as yanking an impacted wisdom tooth.
OK, so Abba turned down $1 billion to reform. Here’s the next best thing — and I bet they come a whole lot cheaper. Liverpool’s Ladytron are your classic co-ed foursome with two guys who program the beats and punch the buttons while two gals sweetly croon icy cool vocals. Commodore Rock is just a four-track EP that precedes a full album due early next year, but in only 13 minutes, its electro-pop melodies, swirly dry-ice grooves and robotic sheen invoke memories of everyone from Human League and Kraftwerk to Nico and Devo. So forget about Frida and Agnetha; Mira and Helena are the new dancing queens.