Record Reviews


KENNY WHEELER

Angel Song (ECM)

Trumpeter Kenny Wheeler's new recording finds him with a dream team band, yet remains as notable for what's missing as for what's between the grooves. Joined by Lee Konitz on alto, Bill Frisell on guitar, and Dave Holland on bass, the drummerless quartet features superlative and lyrical musicianship. Musical dialogues are seamless, particularly between Frisell and Holland, who should play together more often. Yet Angel Song begins with slow, muted shadings and warm tones -- à la Miles Davis' and Gil Evans' Sketches of Spain -- and never deviates. Wheeler's freer jazz explorations (often undertaken with Holland) are absent, leaving a band capable of virtually anything mired in a hazy sameness, curiously devoid of any real passion. Perhaps the blame can be laid on Manfred Eicher's production, whose singular trademark sheen lends a sense of artifice to the proceedings. Angel Song contains some gorgeous music, to be sure, but occasionally loses the tricky balance between subtlety and somnambulism.
3.0 Stars -- Jeff McCord


OP8 FEATURING LISA GERMANO

Slush (Thirsty Ear)

For those painfully unaware of the illustrious soul and output of Lisa Germano (for whom local demi-god Thor has drummed), and only marginally versed in the glory of Howie Gelb and the Giant Sand/Friends of Dean Martinez family, OP8 is the perfect intro to this delirious combination of indie heroes. As the mid-Eighties debut of Opal inspired eager new fans to explore the ancestral roots of Clay Allison and the Dream Syndicate, Slush will send new fans onto similar archeological digs. It may even send younger folks down paths exploring pre-"Hey Hey My My" Neil Young, Robin Lane (the original backup singer for Young's "Round and Round," lusciously covered here), and Lee Hazelwood. How slathered in slippery, sleazy cowboy mysticism is OP8's cover of his old duet with Nancy Sinatra, "Sand." Here, however, Germano takes the role of Hazelwood and Gelb takes Sinatra's place. Simply brilliant. All 11 cuts are stand-out material, but special mention must be given Germano's skin-crawling and provocative "Tom, Dick, & Harry," which the liner notes say was "inspired by Bob Guccione, Jr., and Toby Myers." She won't believe in love/Oh poor baby/'Cause he had some power, some power over her... Hmmmmmmmm.
4.0 Stars -- Kate X Messer


U2

Pop (Island)

Ten years after The Joshua Tree, U2 are still trying to save us from ourselves. Welcome to "Discothequé," a spot-on updating of "Where the Streets Have No Name." It's just as lonely, isolated, and searching as their earlier anthem, but this time with a crushing club groove and a wicked stutter-step guitar lick engineered to keep you dancing while Europe implodes. The rest of Pop follows suit, sin and decadence masquerading as earnest soul-searching (and vice versa). U2 want to keep "Staring at the Sun" because it may be their "Last Night on Earth," and they want to enjoy "Miami" and "The Playboy Mansion," but they still want to know "Do You Feel Loved?" and what it would be like "If God Will Send His Angels" -- closing the album pleading for Jesus to "Wake Up Dead Man." That most of this is played out over a bed of congestive electronic soundscapes (that are not techno, except maybe "Mofo") only makes the irony that much more delicious -- and poignant. Under all the artifice, Pop beats with a resolutely human heart; it is the same U2 after all. True, a lot of idealism and good intentions have fallen by the wayside since Boy, but U2 has more than compensated. By superimposing blatant commercialism and true faith until they are indistinguishable, Pop presents U2 as once again not only relevant, but absolutely essential.
4.0 Stars -- Christopher Gray


NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS

The Boatman's Call (Reprise)

"I don't believe in an interventionist God, but I know, darling, that you do. But if I did, I would kneel down and ask Him not to intervene when it came to you, not to touch a hair on your head -- to leave you as you are. And if He felt He had to direct you, then direct you into my arms." More a hymn than anything else, "Into My Arms," one of 12 ballads on the Bad Seeds' 10th studio album, not only outshines most everything else on the The Boatman's Call, it defines it. Among the creaking accordions, quivering violins, and murmuring organ, Cave's dark, penitent voice ruminates solemnly on God, faith, love, and devotion. True, he can't help veering into his patented dark profanity ("People Ain't No Good," "Where do we go now but Nowhere?"), but he spends most of the album being sincere -- "Lime-Tree Arbour" (song number two, both in sequence and quality), "Brompton Oratory," and "There Is a Kingdom." Nick Cave sincere? Hard to believe. And it doesn't always work. Still, these may be his real Murder Ballads, and where you currently stand on the issues of love and heartbreak will no doubt determine whether you fall into Nick Cave's open arms, darling.
3.0 Stars -- Raoul Hernandez


SO WHAT: A TRIBUTE TO THE REPLACEMENTS

(Dis Twin)

They should have called the record Stunk, but that's nit-picking. They should've gotten someone to cover "Color Me Impressed," but that's selfish trifling. And for a local comp, there's a fair number of bands whose names don't ring any bells, but the unfamiliarity doesn't detract from the performances or the gesture. So What: A Tribute to the Replacements is all about Bob (Stinson, that is, the Mats' original guitarist), and all the songs here are from that era; a bigger fan than I assures me the band did "Can't Hardly Wait" before Stinson's departure. The two best cuts are the one's that on paper look like the biggest mismatches: Fastball doing "Androgynous" and the Gourds taking on "Favorite Thing." Both bands turn the originals inside out, Fastball twisting the slow piano into erratic pop, and the Gourds gutting the frenetic in favor of a slow stomp. Despite a lack of similar creative rearrangements elsewhere, of the comp's 18 tracks (one "joke" is buried after the Dis Twins' "Answering Machine") there are just a couple of throwaways. Paul Minor sterilizes "Left of the Dial" a bit, and shitty production mars a few of the tracks, especially "If Only You Were Lonely." The only thing this album is really missing is the George Martin of the Replacements, alcohol. It doesn't sound as if anybody got drunk enough to do a Replacements cover properly -- supine and slobberingly incoherent.
3.0 Stars -- Michael Bertin


SPEARHEAD

Chocolate Supa Highway (Capitol)

In 1992, with the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, Michael Franti surfaced as a deadpan prophet, a sharp political pundit perhaps too serious for that album's overall good. Two years later, with Spearhead, Franti used the organic soul approach to stretch out, offering authentic wisdom on both AIDS and the NBA. Unfortunately, most of Chocolate Supa Highway, the follow-up who's timing seemed destined to fill the temporary Fugees' void, reverts back to disposability and is neither focused nor funky, wise nor wired. In fact, only an album with material this sterile and scattershot could allow hip-hop stranger Joan Osborne to steal the show, at least musically, with her compelling chorus to "Wayfarin' Stranger." And although Franti himself now seems entirely comfortable turning the light phrases, like "you look like Jimmy Walker wearin' Biggy Smalls' gear," it's as if he's traded the authentic tone of his political convictions for ganja imagery that's "blunted," not as in high -- as in dull. And while "Tha Payroll," a narrative on money, and the Stephen Marley-led "Rebel Music" could've made nice centerpieces on a better Spearhead record, ultimately, Chocolate Supa Highway is just the sophomore slump.
2.0 Stars -- Andy Langer


CHARLIE HUNTER QUARTET

Natty Dread (Blue Note)

Somebody's onto something here. Blue Note's cover series, which includes saxman Everette Harp's new agey take on Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, and guitarist Fareed Haque's flamencoesque reading of Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young's Déjà Vu, is an ingenius cross-pollination of jazz and rock. Unfortunately, only Charlie Hunter's mastery of Bob Marley's 1975 reggae classic, Natty Dread, turns high concept into high art. And praise Jah, does the guit-bassist deliver. If you're like me, you've nearly exhausted the Marley cannon, playing the 10 Island albums released during his lifetime (plus Rasta Revolution and African Herbsman) into the ground. Nevermind that in terms of songwriting, Marley's catalogue is every bit as strong as the Beatles' -- enough is enough. Bless Hunter then, for the languid fluidity of "No Woman, No Cry," a song FM radio ruined long ago. The quick, boppish riffing on "Them Belly Full" and "Natty Dread"? Marley like you've never heard him. "Lively Up Yourself," "Rebel Music," "Bend Down Low"? Standards done right. And isn't that what jazz does best? Interpret standards? Mr. Marley, meet Mr. Gershwin...
4.0 Stars -- Raoul Hernandez


BEN FOLDS FIVE

Whatever and Ever Amen (Sony/550 Music)

Whoa! Déjà vu. This Ben Folds Five albums sounds really familiar. It sounds like... It sounds like... It sounds like... Wait, got it. It sounds like the last Ben Folds Five album. Sure, you expect bands to sound similar from album to album, but listening to Whatever and Ever Amen feels just like listening to the band's self-titled debut. It's even sequenced similarly. The downside to this is that it will probably land the band a few more of those inexplicable Billy Joel comparisons; for the unfamiliar, Ben Folds Five is a deceptively named piano, bass, and drum trio. Within the context of a pop song, the sonic capabilities of a piano may be limited compared to the guitar, but likening Ben Folds to Billy Joel based on a musical instrument is a little like saying Fred Barnes and Rosie O'Donnell make similar contributions to social discourse because they both appear on a talk show. The upside is that the first album was such a brilliant collage of giddy and witty pop songs without the requisite guitar, drums, and angst formula, that a credible knock-off of it is still mostly original -- relative to standard radio fare. As long as you were good the first time out, you could do worse.
3.0 Stars -- Michael Bertin

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