According to Up Up Up Up Up Up, an album partly recorded right here in Austin, drugs are bad, the homeless have been criminalized, and the erosion of America's industrial base coupled with a shift to a more service-oriented economy has caused great hardship in certain regions of the country. Wow. Really? Alright, so Ani DiFranco is someone who writes lines with nothing to read between them. Actually, that's not even Up Up Up Up Up Up's biggest failing, because as readily apparent as some things might be, it's still helpful to bludgeon people over the head with them occasionally. No, the album's fatal flaw is a bit more mundane (Yawn-i DiFranco?). The arrhythmic saunter of "Come Away From It" drags on interminably, the sparse faux funk of "Angel Food" runs its course listlessly, and the 12-plus minute closer "Hat Shaped Hat" mistakes piling on for establishing a groove. Not without a couple of small saving graces, such as "Jukebox" and maybe the title track -- and the delightful banjo-aided "Angry Anymore" -- Up Up Up Up Up Up reaffirms that DiFranco's revelations about herself are far more interesting than those about the world around her, but sitting around waiting for those few precious moments can bring you, well, down, down, down.
2 stars -- Michael Bertin
BABE THE BLUE OX
The Way We Were (BMG/RCA)
Seven axhandles high and a plug o' tobacco wide between the eyes, this burly Brooklyn threesome has dug a mile-wide trench, filled with fans dear and true, from Babe's many modest, yet decibel-blaring van tours across the USA. And Loyalty begets loyalty, see, so the band is loyal-is-as-loyal-does when it comes to their roots, their music, their mission. So, while everyone claims to be the first ones to gaze at their own shoes and turn the volume down, Babe's been frolicking happily, oblivious to the New Modern Sound and leaving divots, craters, and bloody eardrums every time they roll over on their back and kick up their hooves in mid-Eighties indie rock glee. The Way We Were furthers the argument that Hanna, Tim, and Rose are the barnyard genetic mutation of a playfully naughty experiment combining elements of Prince, pre-Combustible Edison Christmas, and d.boon. Last track "Plan B" is an almost perfect psychedelic monster, merging funk and weirdo-pop, as is the head-bopping, new-wavy "Lotto Train," featuring some of the finest dueling bass, guitar, and octave harmonies this side of Michael Cudahy's smoking jacket. The entire album choogles along like a newly souped-up Ford Econoline courtesy of the empathic, gentle tweakings of producer Steve Thompson (Madonna, Metallica). All in all, it's a cross-country joyride, pushing a back-in-time agenda into the modern world. (Babe the Blue Ox opens for Cake Friday, February 5 at the Austin Music Hall.)
3 stars -- Kate X Messer
No Exit (Beyond)
Blondie hits the floor pulsing on No Exit with the trashy ska-pop of "Screaming Skin," which should scare the bleach out of Gwen Stefani's crew and prove to Madonna that old babes don't go gently into that good night. Isn't sneer and bounce all we ever wanted from Debbie Harry and company before we were so rudely interrupted by the Eighties? Oh yes, and that's why tracks such as "Forgive and Forget," "Double Take," "Nothing Is Real but the Girl," and "Under the Gun," are classic Blondie pop confections while the title cut pays homage to its own past, offering Coolio in "No Exit" for Fab 5 Freddy in "Rapture." Harry's sultry voice is highlighted in the "Fever"-ish sound of "Boom Boom in the Zoom Zoom Room," co-authored with Harry and Clem Burke by former Austinites Kathy Valentine and Denny Freeman. One of Blondie's most appealing qualities was their unabashed love for the girl groups and here they deliver Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry's "Out in the Streets" with Brill Building aplomb. No Exit isn't all retro rage, though; songs like the marvelously loopy funk of "Happy Dog" and the sweet country air of "The Dream's Lost on Me" are what you'd expect from a band who once made the jump from CBGB's to disco charts. And it's nice to see Blondie still knows how to end an album: The crescendo of "Dig Up the Conjo" is sublime -- startlingly Talking Heads-like. It's always so risky to say this a month into a new year but here goes: Top Ten for 1999. Easy.
3.5 stars -- Margaret Moser
REAL -- THE TOM T. HALL PROJECT
The tribute album has had its highs and lows in the past couple of years, equally dependent on who's being feted and who's doing the recognition. This one is one of the highs and for all the right reasons. The only real surprise here is that it's taken anyone this long to recognize Tom T. Hall, one of America's greatest songwriters. The artists appearing on Real -- The Tom T. Hall Project, range from the venerable, Johnny Cash and Ralph Stanley, to the cream of today's alternative country, Whiskeytown, Kelly Willis, and Iris DeMent, to some fine singer-songwriters in their own right, Freedy Johnston and Ron Sexsmith, and even some names that most folks won't recognize, R.B. Morris and Joel R.L. Phelps. The real strength of this collection is that despite each artist putting their own spin on Hall's tunes, each song's down-to-earth nature shines through. Hall has become known as "The Storyteller" and nearly every song he's ever written is a brief vignette, a glimpse of everyday life that might have escaped our eyes if Hall hadn't been around to capture it with wit and stylish simplicity. The adaptability of his art is evident in such widely diverse readings as Cash's reverent and straightforward, solo acoustic reading of "I Washed My Face in the Morning Dew," Syd Straw & the Skeletons' high-energy lyrical re-write of "Harper Valley P.T.A.," Calexico's Mariachi-influenced reading of "Tulsa Telephone Book," and Whiskeytown's perfectly mournful country rock take of "I Hope It Rains at My Funeral." With such divergent styles, one might think that Real -- The Tom T. Hall Project is a difficult listen, when in fact it's a pleasure that proves tribute albums, when done right, are still alive and well.
4 stars -- Jim Caligiuri
BLAZE FOLEY: IN TRIBUTE AND LOVING MEMORY, VOLUME ONE
Blaze Foley was one of those people about whom everyone seems to have a story, and I have mine: As young scribe with The Daily Texan, I went to catch Timbuk 3 one night at Hole in the Wall, only to find some homeless-looking person opening for them. He blew me away. I left talking more about him than T3, and immediately decided to do an article on him. A week later, a gun got to him before I could. I had caught his final performance. Friends came out of the woodwork to lament the loss of the Austin Outhouse icon and praise his songwriting abilities. It was quite an outpouring of love, and that's the best way to describe this tribute album -- an outpouring of love. Critiquing the performances themselves almost seems beside the point; while there are varying degrees of success in interpreting Foley's lyrics, every track seems layered with truly heartfelt care. A perfect balance seems struck between mourning Blaze (Jubal Clark's "Blaze Ablaze" poem) and celebrating his life with humor (such as the the silly "Springtime in Uganda," an ode to Idi Amin as performed by Townes Van Zandt), and while a few of the performances here fall flat, several seem perfect: Kimmie Rhodes sings "If I Could Only Fly" (recorded in the Eighties by Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard) as if it were written specifically for her; Michael Reed Barker does a straight-up "Christian Lady Talkin' on a Bus" that could pass for Foley's original; and the contempt for social expectations in"Small Town Hero" is perfectly suited to Timbuk 3's temperament. The final track ("Our Little Town") is from Foley's Live at the Austin Outhouse (and Not There), with a few dozen friends dubbed in as a chorus. Thus far, no one has released that album, but you might find a few people around town with copies of it on tape. For now, this is as close as you'll get to a Blaze Foley album, so take advantage of it, and discover what death has ensured will always be Austin's best-kept secret.
3 stars -- Lee Nichols
THE JIMMY ROGERS ALL-STARS
Blues Blues Blues (Atlantic)
When Jimmy Rogers played Antone's in the spring of 1997, six months before he died at the age of 73, the Mississippi-born/Chicago-based blues guitarist and last living member of Muddy Waters' first great band put on a show. It wasn't a Buddy Guy extravaganza, but then that was good; Rogers at least played his guitar, those old hands doing their best to coax the same electric fire he virtually introduced to modern blues and rock. Rogers gave it a valiant effort that night and the results were heartening, if not completely satisfying. Same goes for this all-star tribute album put together by legendary Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun just prior to Rogers' death. At least half the guest spots are superfluous; Jeff Healey, Taj Mahal, Lowell Fulson, Stephen Stills, and worst of all, the always whining, mewling Robert Plant. Appearances by Eric Clapton, however, and a quartet of tunes with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards (Muddy Waters' great "Trouble No More," Sonny Boy Williamson's "Don't Start Me Talkin'," and Rogers' own "Goin' Away Baby"), light a fire under the name on the marquee (nee James A. Lane), while Kim Wilson on harp, and Chuck Berry's pianoman Johnnie Johnson contribute some kerosene. It's Rogers, though, you always want more from, and if Blues Blues Blues isn't one of those great John Lee Hooker duets albums of the past decade -- or even the 1990 Antone's release, Ludella -- then it's a heartening salute to a bluesman who was everything this LP title proclaims.
2 stars -- Raoul Hernandez
All Over You (Antone's)
When you first bite into All Over You, you might want to have your bib on, or at least a few napkins close at hand. It's not that it's a sloppy album; on the contrary, it's well-played and smartly produced. It's just that All Over You is a touch on the juicy side. Much of that juice comes from Lazy Lester's drunken voice, a soulful warble that's always sounded like he's taken a few too many hits off of the peach brandy. The rest comes from a harmonica style that's as greasy as a plate of Detroit city greens. Loping, fluid, nonchalant, Lester clearly knows his way around the blowhole, sliding from the easy shuffle of "I Need Money" to the swamp pop of "Irene" to the how-do boogie of "Hello Mary Lee." He also knows his way around a fretboard, as he proves with some mean country blues on two of the album's standout cuts, "Nothing but the Devil" and "My Home Is a Prison." Lester says it best on "I'm a Lover Not a Fighter," a sharp tune in itself and a classic bit of blues braggadocio. "People say I'm lazy, but there's a lot that they don't know/ When I'm in the mood, I can go cat go." Cat gone.
3 stars -- Jay Hardwig
The Salesman and Bernadette (Capricorn)
Whether due to the pained and emotive tenor of Vic Chesnutt's voice or its unlikely and striking blend of country and soul, The Salesman and Bernadette leaves a resounding impression the closer one listens. On his latest effort, Nashville misfit Chesnutt puts his voice out in front of that city's most interesting anomaly, the soul-inspired country orchestra Lambchop, and the results are a tight-cornered maneuvering through the scenes and characters of a dour and colorful lyrical narrative. Though "Replenished" and "Until the Led" are bigger, louder numbers than you might expect, Chesnutt's stripped-down sensibilities survive the filled-out pop arrangements for a series of songs that never, despite the number of players, sound cluttered. The story is, predictably, a sad one, but its telling is so lacking in mask or shield, its teller so isolated and vulnerable, that the pathetic salesman and his booze-infested frustrations take on full dimensions, more like a well-written novel than an album. When he speculates, bellowing, that "It's gonna be bad no matter what, so I might as well go ahead and act like a butt/ Any ol' way, I'm still gonna pay," in "Maiden," he colors despair with a shit-eating grin, offering some of the dark comic relief that makes all of Chesnutt's music so compelling.
4 stars -- Christopher Hess
BONNIE "PRINCE" BILLY
I See a Darkness (Palace Records)
Of all the name changes his royal kinglet Will "Palace" Oldham has undergone, this one seems unbearably pretentious. Considering, however, the twisted sea-shantys ("Madeleine-Mary") and nursery-rhymes ("Another Day Full of Dread") on this album -- the first since Oldham's exile from Drag City -- the new name makes more sense. Oldham has forsaken the strained-through-a-cheesecloth vocals and crisp production of 1997's Joya, but the post-apocalyptic sitcom theme "A Minor Place" and "Today I Was an Evil One," which sounds like Oldham interpreting a posthumous Randy Newman like Billy Bragg did Woodie Guthrie, remain wantonly satisfying. Likewise, "Raining in Darling" and the title track are two of the most searingly beautiful ballads in Oldham's entire kingdom. Throughout the album, Colin Gagon's piano is exquisite, each chord a nail to the psyche on which Oldham hangs his guttural enunciation and tortured-genius visions. Still, "Death to Everyone," with its dark-comic aspirations, is barely saved from must-skip status by a cool, deconstructed wah-wah guitar, and there's no such redemption for the acoustic "Black." Fans of Oldham are used to a little unevenness, though; those who can see through (or embrace) the pathos will find some unforgettable songs.
3.5 stars -- Kim Mellen
Beats and Breaks From the Flower Patch (Kindercore)
Like a precocious child who dips french fries in chocolate ice cream, Kitty Craft mixes a turntableful of disparate elements to create something new and strangely wonderful with no seams and nary a hint of irony. Minneapolis-based Pamela Valfer started Kitty Craft in 1993 as a vehicle for her solo-fi pop aspirations, and '96's Three Below Average EP (on Soda Girl) was a righteous example of her homemade bubblegum ingenuity. By contrast, Beats and Breaks finds hip-hop beats driving sample-rich pastiches of finely layered harmony, faraway folk-pop, and supper club psychedelia. Think of Cornershop sharing the bill with De La Soul, Cocteau Twins, and the Association. Valfer's delicate high notes play yin to the yang of phat, scratchy beats, and while there is balance, it's a skewed, parallel universe kind of balance. "Alright" and "Locked Groove" contain tip-of-the-tongue melodic snippets you've heard before, but Valfer stamps the final product with an underlying uneasiness that makes her songs resonate on a more visceral level. Perhaps it's that home-baked, four-track flava reasserting itself.
3.5 stars- Greg Beets
Tical 2: Judgement Day (Def Jam)
Blaow! Wu-Tang Killer B Master Meth, recently glimpsed thuggin' it up in Belly, rolls up his first solo joint in four years, and boy is it a doozy. Blaow! Iron Lung, one of this Ghost Rider's myriad noms de rap, blazes like Jonathan for 28 tracks, nearly 80 minutes' worth of skits, guests, answering-machine messages, apocalyptic proseletyzing, and 1,000,000 rhymes that never stray far from Shaolin standbys Staten, styles, sex, sess, streets, and seeds, yet still bounce off Shakespeare, the Constitution, Dick Clark, 'Pac, Poe, Lex Luger, Lysol, and Star Trek. No wonder it took so long. Save a light rash of unfortunate, unnecessary gay slurs, it was worth it. Meth's rhyme vocabulary is positively Websterian, his vocals smooth as silk Wu Wear boxers, and his loyalties to his Clan(s) 360 degrees and 100%. Left Eye lends feminine swagger to "Perfect World," blaze buddy Redman sparks up "Big Dogs," Wu bangers Inspectah Deck, Raekwon, Masta Killa, Killer Sin, and Streetlife make "Spazzola" wild for the night, "Retro Godfather" pop-locks back to 1982, RZA's mystery melodies and bludgeoning bass echo everywhere, Mobb Deep and D'Angelo aren't wasted (Chris Rock is), and still, still T2 is all Meth. The Panty Raider has more flavors than ODB has outstanding warrants. So Heatmiser, Ticallion Stallion, Hot Nikkels, Party Crasher, whatever the fuck he's calling himself today, don't sweat it, because 'One of the finest MCs in hip-hop' will more than suffice. Blaow!
4 stars -- Christopher Gray
MUSICIANS OF PEACE
por estos pies que aun caminaran mucho ... (Ruta Maya)
Long before 1994's New Year's Day indigenous revolution, Mexico's poorest state -- Chiapas -- has been embroiled in a struggle between selfishly evil privileged powers and the mass of suffering people they exploit. In January 1998, a benefit performance was organized for Chiapan refugee children and thanks to Bikes Not Bombs of Texas, the Chiapas Bicycle Project, and the Ruta Maya Coffee Company, a recording of this benefit -- por estos pies que aun caminaran mucho ... -- has been produced to benefit these refugee children. The album, recorded in San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, brings together musicians from Argentina, Israel, England, Nigeria, Holland, United States, Guatemala, Spain, Denmark, and Mexico. There's a definitive DIY-aesthetic here, and the album is not without an occasional misstep (the flat vocals on the well-produced "Lugar Distante" for example), but then again, all 19 tracks were recorded in one take. More importantly, the passion behind the words and music shine through, particularly in Maruca's Lisa Gerrard-esque "Yo Te Nombro" and Tim Trench and Melissa Schatz's version of "Masters of War," a tune that sounds just as relevant and meaningful today as when Dylan originally wrote it in 1963. As the album title says, these feet have walked a long way, but for a great cause.
3 stars -- David Lynch
Eye'll Be Seeing You (Knitting Factory)
Bassist Mark Dresser, who previously recorded music to accompany the silent masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, has here cut his own soundtrack for the controversial Luis Buñuel/Salvador Dali film short Un Chien Andalou as well as one written by keyboardist Anthony Coleman for Jean Vigo's A Propos de Nice, both surrealist masterpieces. Dresser, Coleman and clarinetist/tenor sax-man Chris Speed work splendidly together in trio format, and both pieces are lovely. Dresser's method of composition is unique in that he brings music to band members, takes note of their suggestions for additions, deletions, and changes, and reworks the piece with them in mind. Perhaps this has something to do with the nice balance between instrumentalists and the excellent group interplay on his compositions. Here, parts for two instruments are written and the third improvises. Some of Coleman's writing has a Stravinsky-like quality, due to his use of repeated, driving rhythms, and as an ensemble player, he turns in outstanding work; he's a masterful colorist. Speed does a great job on clarinet and tenor; his work has a light, supple quality that connects it with the Lester Young tradition, and he combines excellent chops with great musicality, which seems to improve with each recording. One of the major bassists to emerge in decades, regardless of genre (and he combines a few), Dresser performs both arco and pizzicato here with economy and great power and presence, and does a fine job of integrating his playing with Speed's and Coleman's.
5 stars -- Harvey Pekar
Live at Royal Albert Hall, October 10 1997 (Arista/Dedicated)
Spiritualized are notorious for their extravagant light show, but the lights aren't necessary, nor is it necessary to be under the influence to enjoy their music. They want you to be transported; you just have to be willing to meet them halfway. Actually, singer-guitarist Jason Pierce wants a little more: He wants you to feel his pain. Whether performing a postmortem on his broken heart or exploring the absurdity of his drug addictions, Pierce is not afraid to exploit his own weaknesses for the sake of his art. This one-two punch is Spiritualized -- lulling you into a meditative stupor, then whacking you over the head with the brutal honesty of a full confession. Disc one of this 2-CD set stands alone as a well-balanced live album: three tracks from Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, a pair of tunes from the previous two albums, and a Spacemen 3 classic thrown in for good measure. Disc two features five Floating in Space tracks, kicking off with the instrumental "No God Only Religion," complete with horn and string sections. "Come Together" introduces a full choir, which brings the call-and-response foundation of "I Think I'm in Love" to the fore, and makes "Oh Happy Day"a truly religious experience as the closer. This album will make you wish you'd been there to see it.
3 stars -- Brian Barry