LEE ROY PARNELL
Every Night's a Saturday Night (Arista/Career)
Warning: This album causes drowsiness. Do not operate heavy machinery while under the influence of Lee Roy Parnell. My apologies to Austin's new homeboy, but it has to be said. Not only is there a total lack of originality on his latest release, but it's infuriating that artists like Parnell seem oblivious to their singular failure to move country music beyond the same old formula. To make matters worse, Parnell is not solely responsible for this, yet another country CD I longed to frisbee out onto the highway (hey, I'm getting a song here). Background vocals were provided by such country biggies as Trisha Yearwood and Guy Clark, who oughta know better. Yeesh. Parnell manages to yank out some of his deeply buried talent on two tracks: "All That Matters Anymore," a sweetly sung ballad with decent lyrics, and "Mama, Screw Your Wig On Tight," a traditional, folksy instrumental that brings out the best in the Hot Links. But that's about it. We, as listeners, need to take a stand. Go to your window, throw it open, and yell out loud: We're tired as hell, and we're not going to take it anymore. Go ahead. It just might work.
2 Stars -- Louisa C. Brinsmade
Stranger's Almanac (Outpost)
Behind most great albums is a great producer. Jerry Wexler, Phil Spector, George Martin -- even Don Was -- their contributions to modern music are incalculable. Genius takes shaping, and two things readily apparent on Stranger's Almanac, Whiskeytown's major-label debut, are that Ryan Adams is very likely the former and in great need of the latter. His way with melodies, as on the near-exquisite "Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight" (featuring a priceless turn by Alejandro Escovedo), "16 Days," "Houses on the Hill," and "Dancing With the Women at the Bar" (the latter two found on a near-perfect Bloodshot double 7-inch), surpass the brilliance found on the North Carolina group's indie debut, Faithless Street. On that release, the cohesion of sound, songs, and sequencing delivered one of alt-country's defining albums. On Stranger`s Almanac, however, a certain aimlessness prevails, like no one knew quite how to harness the gifts that the 22-year-old Ryan possesses (apparently three albums' worth of material was recorded). This doesn't ruin the album -- many groups should hope to make an album this good -- but it does undermine the can't-go-home-again melancholy that Ryan seems to be conjuring. Worse still, the latter half of the album peters out quickly. Ryan is most certainly the real deal, but maybe it's time to call Wally Gagel, who produced the Old 97s' Too Far to Care, the type of twangy, rock & roll album that Whiskeytown so clearly have in 'em.
3 Stars -- Raoul Hernandez
Calling Over Time (Drag City)
The chill of Edith Frost's Calling Over Time seems as natural as seasons passing, as stark as the white beauty of winter's bitter landscape. The quiet howl of this former Texan, now Brooklynite recalls the Smiths -- not the Morrissey Smiths, although fans of the Morose One will relate to Frost's anguish, though not to her dead serious deadpan. No, Frost's work recalls three other Smiths: Kendra Smith, the wailing wall of Dream Syndicate, Clay Allison, and the first incarnation of Opal; Patti Smith, at her most innocent and childlike, taking cues from the mysterious gnashings of dead poets like Baudelaire and Rimbaud and awkwardly striving to find some contemporary kinship; and the elusive Linda Smith, an influential home-bound recording artist (a warm memory to anyone involved in the important yet often forgotten four-track cassette underground of the mid-Eighties), whose personal essays smack of the same disquiet, discomfort, and resonant emptiness. For more modern corollaries, one might mull over Barbara Manning or Lisa Germano. Frost's first full CD on Drag City does, as its title signals, give the impression of calling over time, checking in at various intervals with the ebb and eddy of terminal love and tortured solitude.
3 Stars -- Kate X Messer
Like snowflakes, no two people are exactly alike. Because this is true, there's absolutely no way to predict the outcome of any union -- it's a chemical reaction of two elements whose properties cannot be properly catalogued. Harmonies are that way; whatever the individual voice, it changes when paired with another. In the history of popular music, the incidence of family members transcending their individual gifts when singing with blood relations is well-documented: from the Carter Family to the Partridge Family (doh!), Jackson 5 to Hanson. Deborah Kelly and her sister Amy Boone, ostensibly the Damnations, are such a pair. Live, their individual voices are at times, suspect. In tandem, they're magic. Ironically, here, on a set recorded live at KUT's equally magical Studio 1A, they sound fine singing solo. Nevertheless, it's their harmonies -- often compared to the Carter Family -- that shine, like the sun glistening off a dead armadillo. Whether they're working up a traditional song ("John Hardy"), covering Lucinda Williams ("Happy Woman Blues"), and the Carter Family ("Lonesome For You"), or hot-footin' it through lively originals like "No Stompin' Around," "Unholy Train," and "Half Mad Moon" (it's a 50/50 split of material), the Damnations, enhanced immeasurably by banjoist/guitarist Rob Bernard, speak volumes about chemistry.
3.5 Stars -- Raoul Hernandez
THE GERALDINE FIBBERS
This is not a pretty album. It's sordid, messy, and brutal. It's also glorious. With a Courtney Love-meets-Wilco alterna-trashy aesthetic, Butch does loud and obnoxious proud. Gone are most of the lethargic meanderings that slowed down the group's debut, Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home. Instead, Butch has that rare quality not seen since P.J. Harvey's To Bring You My Love. It sounds like an album that had to be made -- one of smart, sloppy punk and white-trash country swill. You can almost smell the sleaze and see the sneer on singer Carla Bozulich's upper lip as she pulls off a raunchy Dorothy Parker with a guitar jones. And even though Bozulich spills her sexuality all over parts of this album, to peg the Fibbers as another part of this whole chick explosion is to miss-identify what's going on here, as well as unfairly ignore the other (male) members of the band. Too tough, too loud, and too void of tenderness for Lilith (I keep having this wonderful vision of Bozulich, one strap of her dress off her shoulder, beating the shit out of Jewel), Bozulich is using gender not in the name of sisterhood, but in the name of rock. Butch isn't pretty, but revel in it as the blueprint for all good cowpunk to come.
4 Stars -- Michael Bertin
Pure Chewing Satisfaction (Alternative Tentacles)
After eight years of on-and-off existence as a side project, Lard is still nothing more (or less) than the sum of its parts. It sounds exactly what you think it would sound like if Jello Biafra started singing for Ministry -- an ugly, grease-splattered occupational hazard with Biafra playing the role of Upton Sinclair. Al Jourgensen and Paul Barker's lock-step overload compliments Biafra's outrage, but it also circumvents the underlying sense of humor that makes his rants tolerable. Tomes like "War Pimp Renaissance" and "Live Free or Die" come off more like bully-pulpit fodder than genuine social satire. On the other hand, "Generation Execute" presents televised execution-as-infotainment with the deft blend of horror and macabre comedy that eluded Oliver Stone in Natural Born Killers. Though neither Biafra or his Ministry/Revolting Cocks collaborators are poised to break any new ground, Pure Chewing Satisfaction manages to deliver enough juice to stave off irrelevancy for the time being. You won't be surprised, but if you're already a die-hard fan, you probably won't be too disappointed, either.
2 .5 Stars -- Greg Beets
The Fat of the Land (Maverick/Warner Bros.)
Nestled between heavy, thudding beats and looping guitar samples, I swear you can hear the sound of cash registers ka-chinging on this, the third CD from Essex wunderkinds Prodigy. Techno, ambient, and house have suddenly become big news under the umbrella moniker of "electronica," and Prodigy are leading the way. No longer the straight-ahead techno of '91's Experience nor the hip-hop influenced hardcore of '94's Music for the Jilted Generation, Prodigy Act III relies heavily on vocalist/clown Keith Flint's thoroughly punk rock persona and Liam Howlett's ongoing fascination with hip hop. Don't let anyone tell you different, The Fat of the Land is infused as much with punk sensibility as it is electronica. From the distressingly named opener "Smack My Bitch Up," with its propulsive, grating chorus, to the sprawling, Underworld-like dirty epic of "Climbatize," this is the fusion of punk rock guitar with attitude and daring sampling and beat mastery. Howlett gives you nil time to catch your breath in between hyperactive looping and furious, way-too-catchy snippets of Flint's gravelly hollerings. And it's all set on 11.5, rushing at you like a freight train, making your head ache and your ass move. Delicious chaotica.
4 Stars -- Marc Savlov
Wu-Tang Forever (Loud/RCA)
It's Wu-Tang, motherfucker, so either run and hide or get ready to party. And don't ask too many questions. Keepin' it surreal, packing as many contradictions as the beats do heat and lyrics do images, Wu-Tang Forever chains hip-hop to the rack for devolving into "R & B -- rap `n' bullshit ... turnin' into some kind of fashion show," while hawking the Clan's own highly lucrative Wu-Wear clothing line inside the CD booklet. It's like that. This two-CD "Killer B Invasion" is loaded with kung-fu sound bites, wrestling checks, graphic raps about every kind of violence imaginable, and just as much cautionary advice about building "A Better Tomorrow" -- a stirring dedication to the Wu's locked-down brothers set over a mournful saxophone lament. From sex to salvation to celestial science (according to "Bells of War," their next album will appear in 2000 with a corresponding comet), the Wu's world is their exclusive domain; everyone else is simply friend or foe. It's not like they didn't say it before on Return to the 36 Chambers that they were set on hip-hop domination. Now, four years and God knows how many millions of albums sold later, they've done it. But being self-appointed saviors carries a heavy price; they are the next level, what becomes important now is how they use what they've been blessed with. Judging from Wu-Tang Forever, they can do whatever they damn well please.
4 Stars -- Christopher Gray
Cabo Verde (Nonesuch)
When the Portuguese discovered the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Northwest Africa around 1460, they were uninhabited. As they populated it, slaves were brought in from the continent, so that today, the culture and population are derived from two sources. Cesaria Evora, now in her sixties, had been regarded on the islands as an outstanding vocalist for years prior to recording in France during the late Eighties. Before long she'd built an enthusiastic audience there and in other European nations, and is currently gaining popularity in the Western Hemisphere. Evora specializes in the melancholy Morna form, which has been described as a kind of Cape Verdean blues. (Jazz pianist Horace Silver, whose ancestry is Cape Verdean, actually wrote a tune called Cape Verdean Blues, the title tune of the album on which it appears.) She has a full, pure timbre and her enunciation is precise but relaxed. Overall, her singing has a laid-back, plaintive quality. She's often accompanied by guitar, violin, string bass, and accordion, which is partly why this album has more of a European than African quality.
4 Stars -- Harvey Pekar