Record Reviews


SCREECHING WEASEL

Bark Like a Dog (Fat Wreck Chords)

Just why Chicago melodicore vets Screeching Weasel's back-from-the-dead platter is such a good one is a puzzler. Perhaps it's the in-depth study three of these guys put into Ramones LPs one through four as members of the Riverdales. That's doubtful, though. Why? 'Cuz all of the album's best moments sound like Sixties AM radio teen noise grown desperate and huge, as in "You Blister My Paint," with it's nagging "all the way up and all the way down" vocal hook, which gets under your skin like a bad case of mites, or the closing "Your Name Is Tattooed on My Heart" and its flawless evocation of Tommy James & the Shondells had they owned Marshalls. Then there's the grit of living through a really bad year that's rendered Ben Weasel even more cynical -- this from a man already more free with an opinion than my dad is with a buck. Cue up "Cool Kids" for a solid dose, as Ben dishes it out onto the backstabbing nature of punk rock in-scene politics. Solid, like Anna Nicole Smith's upper foundation.
(3.5 stars) -- Tim Stegall


EVITA: THE COMPLETE
MOTION PICTURE SOUNDTRACK

(Warner Bros.)

Just as the world is divided into Andrew Lloyd Webber lovers and Andrew Lloyd Webber haters, so exists the pro-Madonna and anti-Madonna factions. Count me in with the Webber lovers and pro-Madonna stance: When she started her campaign to play the lead in the film version of the fabulously successful Broadway musical Evita, I cheered her on. "You go, girl," I told her. Well, not exactly told her, but I'm sure Madonna sensed my approval. And Antonio Banderas! Ooh la la! How can you miss? Oooooh, by a mile, maybe more. This is magnificent music, unquestionably one of ALW's best, as good as Jesus Christ Superstar and Phantom of the Opera. Unfortunately, Our Lady of the Boy Toys just doesn't make the grade portraying the Latin American Queen of Boy Toys, Eva Peron, the ambitious lower-class girl who pretty much slept her way up to First Lady of Argentina as wife to dictator Juan Peron. Madonna's voice is pretty in this context, but as bland and milquetoast as can be, thin and limited in range in a role and in music that demands the ability to really sing. And that's part of the problem: This is a musical with a story, and the packaging should have included not only a plot synopsis but a libretto. No libretto! Banderas is primarily an actor and not a singer, so his equally off-target vocals are less disappointing, but really, somebody should have goosed Madonna at the beginning of "Buenos Aires." Don't avoid this soundtrack for that, though -- it will make Madonna and Banderas fans happy, and it's great music and great orchestration. Madonna does do a lovely "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina," but if you want to hear Evita sung right, I have two words for you: Patti Lupone.
(2.5 stars) -- Margaret Moser


ALFREDO RODRIGUEZ

Cuba Linda (Hannibal)

Havana remains among the major music centers in the Western Hemisphere, but recordings made by Cuban institutions cannot be imported legally into the USA. So Hannibal/Rykodisc producer Joe Boyd, a great fan of Afro-Cuban music, took matters into his own hands. He traveled to Havana and with the aid of the superb Cuban trumpeter Jesus Alemany, now living in London, assembled an all-star band. The results? Alemany's wonderful Cubanismo CD, released some months ago. Now, some of the same musicians, including Alemany, appear on Cuba Linda. For pianist Alfredo Rodriguez, who'd worked with Alemany earlier, recording in Havana was a highly emotional experience. He'd left there as a young man following the revolution, living and playing in New York and Paris, and returned after decades with white hair but undimmed enthusiasm. That enthusiasm is employed in a variety of forms here. "Tumbao a Peruchin" is a jam (descarga) dedicated to the legendary pianist Peruchin, "The Marquis of Ivory" ("El Marques de Marfil"). Rodriguez's group also plays a rumba-guaguanco, danzon-cha, guaguanco-Conga oriental, Palo, Yoruba-son and Afro ("Drume Negrita"). Though each track has different personnel, the level of musicianship remains high throughout. Rodriguez, Alemany, and percussionist Tata Guines have international reputations, but many other performers make spirited, valuable contributions. The embargo of Cuba doesn't make sense for a variety of reasons -- certainly keeping music like this from the American public accomplishes nothing.
(4.0 stars) -- Harvey Pekar


CHUCK D

Autobiography of Mistachuck (Mercury)

Ever wondered how Darth Vader would have sounded on Helium? Try listening to Chuck D at the tail-end of this justifiably indulgent solo album. His summary of the preceding 12 tracks, done in a computer-enhanced voice so authoritative and futuristic you're left pondering what "Mistachuck" will do next, is a litany of everything he resents, including the status black entertainers have achieved: "`Star' spelled backwards is `rats,' and the attitude of a rat is what many have adopted and portrayed to the public," he raves. "Slamdunking, rhyming, singing would have meant nothing 150 years ago in the U.S., so what's the big deal now?" Well, his own rhyming is enough of a big deal that he's put out an "autobiography" and to produce it he's brought in a special guest by the name of Isaac Hayes (don't worry, Eric Sadler's still in the mix!). Thankfully Haye's slow, deep grooves and Sadler's funky samples uphold and sometimes soften Chuck D's rants about the state of "niggas" in America. The result is a sound that's actually soothing -- more so than anything you ever heard on a Public Enemy record. Still, if it weren't for his historic leadership of P.E., Chuck D. wouldn't have anything to boast about, and his subtle and clever jabs at the likes of Digable Planets, Ini Kamoze, and Digital Underground are a humorous balance to his vitriol against the temptations of this world. Maybe he does resent the pedestal he's on, but if he weren't there he couldn't relax his tone, get all mushy and introspective, and ask on record, "Do I dare disturb the universe?" To which the rhetorical response is: "Come on, Chuck, you already have."
(3.0 stars) -- Melissa Rawlins


WAMMO

Fat Headed Stranger (mouth almighty/Mercury)

Love him or hate him, Wammo's always talked a lot of shit. So if you're the type that buys into Wammo's overblown, rapid-fire word schtick, then Fat Headed Stranger is a full-on success of a major label debut. If not, Wammo and co-producer Barbara K. still succeed more than half the time at a ambitious music/word hybrid, finding clever, retro-cowpunk backdrops that nicely match the irony-soaked tone of his poetry. Either way, though, Fat Headed Stranger is perhaps best taken as a semi-current Austin music yearbook, neatly setting a slew of "hey, I remember that" local scenes like Roadie or Slacker did on film. While the Asylum Street Spankers and Ed Hamell provide consistent backing -- evoking a 1994-1995 mid-week Electric Lounge flashback -- there's also Sixth Street party bands on "Open Letter '92," backstage Liberty Lunch in "Salty," and Lovejoy is in the quirky, Hamell-driven, mock-metal centerpiece, "There Is Too Much Light in This Bar." Will the rest of the country get the inside references to the Rockbusters and Guy Forsyth? Probably not. Will they find the landscapes interesting, or will they just be distracted by the bulk of one-listen Wammo-obsessed vignettes? It probably all depends on how much they love or hate Wammo talkin' shit...
(3.0 stars) -- Andy Langer


UTAH PHILLIPS & ANI DIFRANCO

The Past Didn't Go Anywhere (Righteous Babe)

Earlier this year, New York indie survivalist Ani DiFranco hit Congress House Studios with a batch of tapes that featured only the stage patter of underrated folksinger Utah Phillips -- mostly rants, stories, and legends. Stage raps as an album concept? Just three weeks later, however, the studio rat had concocted a compelling aural collage: his spoken words, her guitars, organs, drums, and bass. Damn right it's a concept. In the liner notes, DiFranco talks of "meditating on the rhythms of his speech," but it's just as easy to get caught up in both his free-flowing outlaw stories and her funky, jazz-inflected backing rhythms. In his matching liner notes, Phillips, characteristically cryptic, warns "never wear a hat that has more character than you." And sure enough, DiFranco and Phillips clearly have similar headware tastes, because the hefty conceptual challenges of The Past Didn't Go Anywhere never escapes either of their grasps. And while it's ultimately not the type of album you want to listen to a dozen times, it's exactly the type you want to sit and share a dozen times with a dozen different friends. And in today's state of disposable records, that truly is a concept.
(3.5 stars) -- Andy Langer


JOHNNY CASH

Unchained (American)

Once "Rowboat" is out of the way and Johnny Cash proves Beckspeak is no harder for him than Danzig was on his last record -- 1994's American Recordings -- there's no place left on the 101X playlist for the Man in Black to go. Well, okay, there's Soundgarden, but after "Rusty Cage," there just aren't any modern-rock icons left. So Cash goes back to being, well, Johnny Cash. "Sea of Heartbreak," "Mean Eyed Cat," and "Country Boy" could have come straight from 706 Union Avenue in Memphis. "The One Rose," written by wife June, and "Spiritual" prove The Cash isn't just whistling past the churchyard when it comes to gospel. Neither, surprisingly, are backing band Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, who turn in their best musical outing since probably Southern Accents (whose title song Cash covers) with a consistently precise, understated strain of country-rockabilly that could keep them working in Nashville for, like, ever. From the Lord God Almighty right on down to Petty and Beck, Johnny Cash knows how to pick his collaborators. Course, that should be obvious the instant he opens his mouth and Dean Martin's "Memories Are Made of This" spills out. Now, there's really nothing left for him to do.
(3.5 stars) -- Christopher Gray


BR5-49

(Arista Nashville)

Before listening to this album, I committed the most heinous crime possible for a critic -- I wanted to trash it. I have a serious case of sour grapes over these guys. While numerous "alt-country" bands have toiled away for years in Austin for little more than critical acclaim, BR5-49 sprang out of nowhere and into a cover feature in Billboard -- and the moron who wrote the story acted as though the quintet invented alt-country the day before. Witness the power of a good Nashville publicist. Well, these guys must be the real deal, because despite my prejudice, I am forced to admit they kick butt. They write originals that could be confused with classics, especially Gary Bennett's "Are You Gettin' Tired of Me," which sounds like something Molly O'Day or the Maddox Brothers could have done. And just to keep you guessing, they sprinkle 'em liberally between dead-on homages to Moon Mullican, Mel Tillis, Ray Price, Webb Pierce, and "Graham" (oops) Parsons. And just to keep themselves honest, they toss in "Little Ramona (Gone Hillbilly Nuts)," a reworking of the Blue Chieftans' "Punk Rockin' Honky Tonk Girl." Don Herron's steel guitar work is especially impressive -- he obviously learned a few Speedy West lessons. Yes, they do indeed deserve the praise they have received, but still, they aren't any better than Austin's cream; in a just universe, BR5-49, the Derailers, Walser, et al., would all be famous.
(3.5 stars) -- Lee Nichols

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