"Reggatta De Blanc (or `White Reggae') was the foundation on which the Police established their unique musical sound. Now with Reggatta Mondatta the music of the Police has come full circle as the world's greatest reggae artists interpret their songs." Is it just me, or does this CD insert capsule sound menacing -- like a threat? Imagine Maxi Priest slicking up "Message in a Bottle," Steel Pulse slicking up "Can't Stand Losing You," or Pato Banton featuring Sting slicking up "Spirits in the Material World." Sounds like getting black-jacked in a hotel elevator. Yet that cracking whip on Sheila Hylton's rompy "The Bed's Too Big Without You," the horns riffs on Aswad's "Roxanne," and Courtney Pine working his sax on Jazz Jamaica's instrumental "Wrapped Around Your Finger" are sort of sexy in a travel poster kinda way: Sail the Caribbean with Sting! Captain G. Sumner does make a couple of appearances here, the notable one being with Ziggy Marley on "One World (Not Three)." Shinehead's slick, scratchy take on one of Sting's better Cole Porter-isms, "Englishman in New York" (done here as "Jamaican in New York") even manages to remind you why they play Sting in elevators -- the man can write a song. Still, is it just me or does the Ramones play Green Day sound like a bad idea?
2 Stars -- Raoul Hernandez
WE WILL FALL: THE IGGY POP TRIBUTE
We Will Fall is not a "greatest hits" package by other bands, because Iggy Pop has had almost nothing in the way of "hits" to show for his nearly 30 years of recording. And that lack of hits, in all likelihood, has been what's kept Iggy on the edge, consistently blasting album after album of some of the toughest, most cutthroat rock & roll ever made. Small wonder then that We Will Fall carries a nuclear punch that explodes with Joey Ramone's "1969" and fades to a quiet roar with Lenny Kaye's title track. Between those muscular bookends lie 18 more ass-kickers from the Misfits ("I Gotta Right"), Monster Magnet ("Gimme Danger"), Pansy Division ("Loose"), Nada Surf ("I'm Sick of You"), Blanks 77 ("Funtime"), Sugar Ray ("Cold Metal"), and Holy Bulls ("TV Eye"). That said, what's really impressive is how many female musicians also accepted the challenge and came out swinging: witness the Lunachicks ("The Passenger"), Joan Jett & the Blackhearts ("Real Wild Child"), 7 Year Bitch ("Shakes Appeal"), Bush Tetras ("Sister Midnight"), and the mysteriously named Adolf's Dog performing "Ordinary Bummer" ( I believe Adolf's dog was named Blondie...). Within the almost 73 minutes of sonic Pop songs lie a couple of clunkers, namely the Red Hot Chili Peppers sleepwalking through "Search and Destroy," and NY Loose, who were somehow given the flagship Iggy song "Lust for Life" and should be beaten with the tambourine they feature so prominently on the track. NY Loose should have taken a cue from Jayne County, whose "Down on the Street/Little Doll" is itself a blistering tribute: loud, sloppy, and visceral. Just like Iggy.
4 Stars -- Margaret Moser
REFLECTIONS IN THE LOOKING GLASS: A TRIBUTE TO SIOUXIE AND THE BANSHEES
Tributes are a mixed bag at best, full of grimy cast-offs and abysmal clunkers that have no business even being B-sides, and while this Cleopatra compilation has its dodgy moments, there's also a surprising core of vital gothic music on Reflections in the Looking Glass. Foremost is the fact that all the bands represented here are led by female vocalists (hardly surprising given the subject matter), making this a sort of dark companion to the upcoming Lilith Fair live release; think McLachlan moribund, Colvin creepified. Standouts include Switchblade Symphony's spare, haunting take on "Israel," Collide's effortlessly ethereal "Obsession," and Edera's Enya-esque "Last Beat of My Heart" (one of the few later Banshees songs included -- much of the disc is devoted to the band's seminal Juju album). Then there's the crap: Deep Red's "Silly Thing" is just that, and Inkubus Sukkubus reduces the classically eerie "Spellbound" to off-kilter yowlings backed by a tinny rhythm section. Blah. Granted, the whole notion of covering the Queen of Goth presents a monumental task to begin with; there was only one Siouxie, Budgie, Severin, and whatshisname, and nothing else has ever come close since. Nice try, Cleopatra, but I'd really rather hear Carl McCoy and the Nephilim do Kurt Weill, if it's all the same to you.
2 Stars -- Marc Savlov
SEPTEMBER SONGS: THE MUSIC OF KURT WEILL
German composer Kurt Weill (1900-1950) intertwined disparate elements from classical, jazz, and camp music to create a body of work that is as malleable as it is unique. It takes both eccentricity and accessibility of the highest order to bring opera sopranos like Teresa Stratas and New York Dolls alumni like David Johansen onto the same page, but that's exactly what September Songs does. This eclectic treat is the audio portion of Larry Weinstein's cinematic tribute to Weill, which in turn was inspired by producer Hal Willner's 1985 Weill tribute album, Lost in the Stars. Although every artist here pursues an entirely different interpretation of Weill's work, the songs all work together to create a sort of melancholy netherworld where struggle begets an almost magical sense of clarity. Johansen's "Alabama Song" revels in a chugging aural rumble that leads to a promised land of inebriation, and Nick Cave's "Mack the Knife" strips the Threepenny Opera tune of Bobby Darin and Louis Armstrong's cocktail appeal to leave nothing but glorious, bleeding insanity. The Persuasions' "O Heavenly Salvation" cloaks Weill in deep a capella gospel, while PJ Harvey's "Ballad of the Soldier's Wife" employs hints of torch and twang to heighten the haunting atmosphere of loss. September Songs ends powerfully with playwright Bertolt Brecht's 1930 version of "Mack the Knife" followed by William S. Burroughs' reading of Brecht's "What Keeps Mankind Alive?" The latter, with its refrain "For once you must try to face the facts: Mankind is kept alive by bestial acts," is perfectly suited to Burroughs' style. Given Weill's songs and a roster of performers spanning the stylistic globe, September Songs has more than enough enlightenment to go around.
4 Stars -- Greg Beets
VIOLENT WORLD: A TRIBUTE TO THE MISFITS
What a banner year for `Fits fans: the reformed Misfits put out their first solid release in 15 years, the "lost" Static Age album finally sees the light of day, and bulk-up casualty Danzig manages to keep his trap shut for five minutes straight. Will wonders never cease? Nix on that -- this 14-track comp is chock full o' ghoulish goodness, with nary a fuckup in sight (Prong's grindy "London Dungeon" comes close, though, and Tanner? They just plain suck on a good day). Oddly, the marriage of the Misfits to reggae/ska rhythms crops up unexpectedly toward CD's end (and really, who could have predicted Danzig dub?), with NOFX doing a hilarious "Last Caress" and Farside's endearing "Return of the Fly" (perennial winner in the Most Uninspired Lyrics Contest). The whole spectrum of Misfits releases is represented, from Therapy?'s "Where Eagles Dare," off Legacy of Brutality to 108's shred-happy "Death Comes Ripping" from the Spot-produced Earth A.D. All in all a nifty package, despite the glaring lack of liner notes. Now where's that Samhain tribute I've been waiting for?
3.5 Stars -- Marc Savlov
THE INNER FLAME: A RAINER PTACEK TRIBUTE
As morbidly thrilling as getting a date at a funeral, discovering an underrated songwriter from a tribute album is a thrill nonetheless. Thankfully, Rainer Ptacek, a songwriter, dobro virtuoso, and National Steel enthusiast from Tucson, is not only still alive, the brain cancer that necessitated this stunning collection is in remission. While not an official Sweet Relief product, The Inner Flame is presented in much the same way, placing the importance of finding the right artist to cover the right song above simply getting the right names on the contributors' list. As such, sales-challenged but artistically viable performers such as Evan Dando, Kris McKay, Bill Janovitz, and Jonathan Richman thrive on opportunities most major label wank n' thank tributes wouldn't allow. Equally appropriate is the fact that the album's co-producers Robert Plant and Howe Gelb get off the collection's best tracks. But if The Inner Flame illustrates anything better than Ptacek's songwriting depth and flexibility (Emmylou Harris to PJ Harvey), it's that every tribute should include performances from its subject whenever possible; Ptacek's appears on a half dozen tracks, his dobro bridging a sultry Madeleine Peyroux performance and the ultra-raw blooze of a Plant solo track. Now, if only a quarter of the other tributes flooding the market could cover half as much ground as The Inner Flame, it would be sweet relief indeed.
4 Stars -- Andy Langer
ONE STEP UP/ TWO STEPS BACK: THE SONGS OF BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN
(The Right Stuff/ Capitol)
Not your same old boring tribute record, One Step Up/ Two Steps Back: The Songs of Bruce Springsteen is kind of a "concept" tribute album. The first disc ("One Step Up") is all material done just for the project, while the second is all material recorded long ago ("Two Steps Back"), much of which Springsteen wrote but never released himself. Aside from those songs that Springsteen was never on to begin with, there's something missing from almost every track on this collection: the Boss himself. Springsteen always was the best thing about a Springsteen song; he's probably the only guy who could sell the melodrama of "Jungleland," and the only one who could put the right whispery tension into "Candy's Room." The 30-or-so imitators here just blow it more often than not. Paul Cebar giving a laid-back tiki torch send-up to "One Step Up"? Maybe not. The Smithereens' dull pop take on "Downbound Train"? Definitely no. Even when they try to play it straight, they don't quite pull it off; see Syd Straw's take on "Meeting Across the River." Even the on-paper perfect match of John Hiatt and "Johnny 99" fizzles before it can burn. As a collection, the second disc is worth having. As a gesture, the first disc is passable. As a whole, though, the coolest thing about One Step Up/ Two Steps Back is that it might get you to dust off your vinyl version of The River.
2.5 Stars -- Michael Bertin
THE SONGS OF JIMMIE RODGERS: A TRIBUTE
Cops, trains, and girls. For someone who has influenced every great American lyricist, Jimmie Rodgers didn't write about much. It was the way he wrote. "Gonna buy me a shotgun with a great long shiny barrel" isn't that much different from Wu-Tang bragging about their hardware. But don't expect The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers to draw those kinds of parallels. This is pretty scrubbed-up, GOP-friendly stuff; John Mellencamp sneers about "smokin'" someone over a keening violin on "Gambling Bar Room Blues," Dwight Yoakam hasn't quite gotten over Sling Blade on "T for Texas," Willie Nelson's got that ol' gleam in his eye on the mating ode "Peach Pickin' Time in Georgia" (heh-heh), and Steve Earle's "In the Jailhouse Now" is appropriately raw, but Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Allison Krauss, Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, Iris Dement, Aaron Neville, Bono, and Van Morrison are around to suck in those VH-1 and Triple A demos. True, the results can be beautiful -- especially Bono's "Dreaming With Tears in My Eyes" and Neville's "Why Should I Be Lonely." It's just that it all seems a little too contrived -- as if, according to Columbia, only certain people are allowed to share Rodgers' boundless legacy. Above all else, that was not who the Singing Brakeman was. He was a man of the people -- all people -- and that album has yet to be made. Listening, Beck?
3 Stars -- Christopher Gray