Traveling Miles (Blue Note)
In 1982, when Mississippi-born Cassandra Wilson moved to New York City via New Orleans, she apprenticed with two jazz icons, vocalist Abbey Lincoln and bassist Dave Holland. Nearly two decades later, the 44-year-old Wilson, now both of her mentors' peer, enlists the help of Holland in paying tribute to his onetime employer, Miles Davis, but it's actually Lincoln whose help she should have enlisted. As with her last outing, 1997's Rendezvous, a pairing with pianist Jacky Terrasson, Wilson's latest project, Traveling Miles, sounds like the singer is wandering. Still not the follow-up her back-to-back Blue Note beauties Blue Light 'Til Dawn ('93) and New Moon Daughter ('95) demand, Traveling Miles nevertheless takes a cue from those previous albums -- which included covers from the catalogs of Van Morrison, Neil Young, and U2 -- and rides a one-way rail to the land of adult contemporary radio. Sounding readymade for KGSR (particularly "Right Here, Right Now"), Traveling Miles covers the ground between blues and contemporary R&B/soul music expertly, Wilson's thick, smoky voice curling around simple, acoustic arrangements, but its final destination isn't Jazzville. Considering the album's focal point is one of the singular talents of the genre's history, Wilson setting new lyrics to Davis' compositions or those associated with the trumpet player, this is more or less irreconcilable; only the warm delta broil of opener "Run the VooDoo Down," featuring Holland, and its end-of-album reprise with the ever beguiling Angelique Kidjo capture anything close to the brooding intensity associated with Miles. What Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time," a latter-day (and ill-advised) Davis cover, is doing among more classic material like "Someday My Prince Will Come" and "Sky and Sea (Blue in Green)" is anyone's guess. By contrast, Abbey Lincoln, a passionate, gifted interpreter of other people's material, penned seven of the 10 compositions on her latest in a long line of Verve releases, Wholly Earth, a deep, rich, ultimately sublime work that's sure to stand among the 69-year-old singer's finest albums in a distinguished recording career that spans more than four decades. "I finally figured out what a song is," states Lincoln in the album's press, and Lincoln's not kidding; her songs, lyrics, and voice -- cured by age like an antique mahogany armoire -- channel Wholly Mother Earth herself. Vibes vet Bobby Hutcherson sets a magical, intimate mood from the word go, adding marimba to the wonderfully playful opener "And It's Supposed to Be Love," a duet featuring Lincoln and Maggie Brown, while Nicholas Payton, his trumpet, and his flugelhorn make excellent use of their two guest spots. The title track, a romantic ode to Jimmy Scott, "Look to the Star," and the jazz lullaby "Conversation With a Baby" -- which segues nicely into a lovely take of The Wizard of Oz's "If I Only Had a Brain" -- sway and breathe with a spirit the album title evokes. Johnny Mercer's "Midnight Sun" burns. "I think my songs are the songs of a woman of my years and experience," says Lincoln at the end of her bio, noting she started writing down the songs "coming out of her" at the age of 42. Several decades and many miles down a well-traveled road, these are the songs of someone who truly embodies the title diva. "I'm learning how to listen," sings Lincoln, echoing the title of Wholly Earth's last song. "How to hear a melody, how to hear the song I'm singing. How to feel and let it be, and listen to the song knowing how it goes. And listen for the melody that flows. Listen for the melody that flows."
(Wholly Earth) 4 stars
(Traveling Miles) 2 stars -- Raoul Hernandez
Things Fall Apart (MCA)
Deep inside the urgent liner notes accompanying Things Fall Apart, the Roots' fourth album and first that's better than their stage show, drummer ?uestlove brilliantly defines his band as "Radioactivity +'88 + black to the future + the Nineties + maturity -- corny names + instruments + fools that can make any noise with their mouth + square roots + copyright infringement -- square x dopeness to the power of Phily = the Roots." Later in the notes, there's a pair of equally telling quotes: one from Lauryn Hill saying "alternative rap" means "no skills" in the ghetto, and another from Common's "Act Too" cameo that admits "coffee shop chicks and white dudes" pay their bills. Contrast all three assessments and you've got the battleground for Things Fall Apart: innovation vs. old-school tradition, hip-hop underground vs. whitebread mainstream, live vs. studio. As both a fully realized concept album (urban truths 'n' consequences) and a collection of fine singles (see the Erykah Badu-et "You Got Me"), Things Fall Apart finds harmony and reconciliation in each of the Roots' career skirmishes and ultimately yields hip-hop's first true "underground superstars." Not only do the Roots maintain the frenetic be-bop aesthetic of their live image, from the tasty instrumentation to an array of integral freestylers (D'Angelo, Beenie Siegal, Ursula Rucker, and Zap Mama's Marie Daulne), they finally seem just as loose behind the board; one classic-to-be, "Step Into the Realm," features powerful pauses that become more powerful when you realize players with just one turntable and a cassette deck typically extend the drum break by pressing, yes, the pause button. Add the typically casual brilliance of MC Black Thought (aka Tariq) to an atypically challenging landscape and you've got one last equation: Things Fall Apart = 1999's most innovative, invigorating, and indispensable hip-hop album.
4 stars -- Andy Langer
LINTON KWESI JOHNSON
More Time (LKJ)
Dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson is perhaps the most literate, compelling performer in reggae music today. A Jamaican expatriate living in England, his wedding of politically charged poetry and crunching instrumental "dub" riddems was a blast of fresh air when it exploded out of the U.K. on a series of outstanding albums from 1979-84 on Island Records (reissued last year on the 2-CD Independent Intavenshan). Unfortunately, LKJ has recorded only sparingly since the mid-Eighties, so any new release is noteworthy. More Time, then, finds the performer on familiar terrain, the medium and the message tempered by time and the maturing of an artist. The barely-contained anger and razor-sharp political commentary that dominated his earlier work is still in evidence on tracks like "License Fi Kill" and "New Word Hawdah," but these are the exceptions, as even the title track, with its plea for less work and more time for family, is hardly in league with his most riveting work. Still, this new material retains the intelligence we've come to expect from LKJ. Instead of hammering the listener with overt political struggles, he has opted for a lighter tone that reflects more personal concerns. Love, friendship, admiration, and self-deprecation are the emphasis here, while the music sways with a more relaxed feeling. The tribute to Guyanese poet Martin Carter, "Poems of Shape and Motion," is simply beautiful, with LKJ's haunting incantation riding a lilting riddem. Producer Dennis Bovell & his Dub Band provides his usual solid underpinning, with the alternating use of flute, violin, sax, and keyboards on extended solo flights adding a nice touch. LKJ may have mellowed somewhat over the years, but haven't we all.
3.5 stars -- Jay Trachtenberg
DRUMS AND TUBA
The Flying Ballerina (T.E.C. Tones)
On their second release, Drums and Tuba don't emulate Tortoise by going completely off the map from their earlier recorded work. Instead, the trio picks up where their preceding T.E.C. Tones release, Box Fetish, left off: unconventional melodies, criss-crossing interplay, and snap-crackle-pop rhythms. A dense and interesting musical landscape warranting further exploration. The group, Anthony Nozero (drums, alto sax, vibraphone, brushes, spare change, and duct tape), Brian Wolf (tuba, trumpets, and whistles), and Neal McKeeby (guitars), began in Austin, but now splits its time between Chicago, Austin, and New York. The distance hasn't mattered, though: Mingus' aptly tagged "Boogie Stop Shuffle" is the type of breakneck, seat-of-their-pants group improvisation the band is known for. Similarly, "Kermit" sports a hunkering, shoulder-bopping groove, while "Chummus, a Challah, and a Whole Lot of Chutzpah" features through-the-tuba impressionistic vocals. Other treats are the Minutemen's "God Bows to Math" and Joey Baron's "Scottie Pippen." And as with Box Fetish, the band's latest effort owes much to the feather-touch and discriminating ear of Jason Ward, who manipulates knobs and faders throughout. Box Fetish may sound a notch fresher, but The Flying Ballerina comes across more developed and poised. Drums and Tuba, for the second time in as many years, give the term experimental a good name.
3.5 stars -- David Lynch
Charting Blur's improbable creative arc since their 1991 debut Leisure reveals a schizoid, Sybil-esque pop group overly fond of self-reinvention and rarely if ever concerned about marketing abilities. That's as it should be. Still, it's hard to reconcile the beat-happy, radio-ready Britpop of Leisure with last year's "Woo-hoo!"-laden, eponymously titled Blur, much less with this muddled, oddball collection of tracks that run the gamut from outright space rock to gospel-influenced choir music to unclassifiable noise. The truth of the matter is that frontman Damon Albarn -- the anti-Noel Gallagher -- separated unamicably from longtime paramour Justine Frischmann of Elastica, and it shows. 13 is rife with allusions to love gone awry, and though Albarn, wearing his heart on his sleeve as always, still has a clever turn with the lyrics, Graham Coxon's guitar is all over the place this time out, and the end result is a stylistic mish-mash that's more like love in a blender than love in a vacuum. There are some high spots, notably the opening "Tender," which mixes Albarn's plaintive vox with that gospel choir, and "No Distance Left to Run," a languid, sorrow-strewn mix of Albarn and Coxon's bittersweet guitar. Besides that, though, 13 is a mess, cluttered with tracks that sound suspiciously like cast-offs from previous outings. Boys who like Blur who like girls who like boys who like Blur (etcetera) are likely to be disappointed. C'est l'amour, Damon, c'est l'amour.
1.5 stars -- Marc Savlov
MOJO NIXON & THE TOADLIQUORS
The Real ¡Sock Ray Blue! (Shanachie)
Although Mojo Nixon often gets written off as a novelty act, this pigeonhole doesn't do justice to his extra-fiery brand of populist vitriol. Nixon's sexcretory lyrics bring instant gratification to the dumb-and-dumber set, but his wild-eyed performances have the air of a tent revival. You won't get that from the guys who did "The Curly Shuffle." Citizen Mojo's righteous indignation toward popular culture has only sharpened with time, and perhaps his sharpest jab of all comes on The Real ¡Sock Ray Blue! when he calls Princess Di a "drunk dee-vorced floozie" and paints the hysteria surrounding her death as "A pitiful public display of unwarranted grief/A sure sign that our emptiness is complete." The late Beat Farmer Country Dick Montana gets off much easier with a rambunctious rock & roll elegy ("Country Dick Montana"), highlighted by the couplet, "Country Dick played the drums/like he was fucking nuns." "I Don't Want No Cybersex" wins points for rhyming "cybersex" with "Malcolm X" and "herpes simplex." The Toadliquors back Mojo with the full country butt-rockin' treatment, which is quite a departure from the days of Skid Roper and his washboard, and while some of the songs on ¡Sock Ray Blue! benefit from the added noise, Nixon's clarion-call vocals just as often get diluted by the hot mix. Listeners will have to dig a little harder to find every last pearl of bathroom wisdom here, but no true-blooded maven of prurience should mind a bit.
3 stars -- Greg Beets
Notes Campfire (The Catamount Company)
Chicago-based Souled American faded from public view in 1991, and after a long absence Notes Campfire happens upon the cult alt.country band wandering aimlessly with molasses rhythms, warbling hippie vocals, and meandering arrangements that lie as flat and dead as roadkill. "Flat," for instance, employs a seasick-sounding phase shifter that becomes as irritating as a squeaky Styrofoam cooler in the back seat of a car. The vocals sound unsure throughout, and the production comes off as though the album was recorded from over in the next building. "Country/roots" should conjure up images of sweaty bands toiling away in juke joints, not lazy neo-Deadheads lying around on pillows with the lights dimmed and incense mingling with hash smoke as they groove on blacklight posters of wizards and unicorns. An acquired taste, perhaps, but Notes Campfire is so unengaging even that's hard to imagine. As for Souled American having a cult following, well, so did Jim Jones. Whatever direction this band was going in before, they should probably go back to it. Dull stuff, this.
1.5 stars -- Jerry Renshaw
At Station Four (Side 1/Dummy)
Brendon Massei, the lone member of Supperbell Roundup, has been putting cash on the barrelhead and riding Greyhound buses around the country since the age of 16, and as such, he's not really from anywhere. "I guess I wasn't supposed to know that you'd grown attached to me," sings Massei on the Carter Family-infused "The Night Before You Had to Leave." Though the world-weary 19-year-old exchanges banjo for the Carters' harmonies, the timeless melodies and three-chord simplicity remain powerful tools. Massei, however, only occasionally manipulates them effectively, and when he fumbles, the result is more Mel Bay folk instruction tapes than country's first family. The Supperbell also rings of early, Kentuckified Palace; Massei's banjo is similarly sparse, more about atmospherics than acrobatics, but his vocals (oddly similar to They Might Be Giants) are easier on the ears than Palace's Will Oldham. On the At Station Four album cover, Massei, all Oliver Twist-like in his Thirties streetclothes and tweed cap, gazes off to another place and time. On this debut, he's not always seeing it, but he's staring hard nonetheless.
2 stars -- Kim Mellen
Where Wilco's second album, Being There, presented a definitive step away from the country roots that have anchored lead man Jeff Tweedy since his tenure in Uncle Tupelo, the band's third release, Summerteeth, obliterates any trace of twang, offering instead a strikingly linear and cohesive construction of pop-oriented rock & roll. Emotions are more truthfully exposed, the characteristic ironic detachment replaced by an introspective and often discomfiting vulnerability. The bouncy melody and catchy alliteration of the opening track, "I Can't Stand It," nearly belie the edgy and slightly off-balance sense that Tweedy's songs usually evoke. But the repetition of the closing line, "Our prayers will never be answered again," casts a shadow of suspicion in the corner of the tune, and by the next song, the haunting and beautiful layers of the melancholy "She's a Jar," there's little doubt more is going on here than the ear can quickly grasp. Summerteeth is a long-playing document of a stormy relationship -- of every stormy relationship -- that lays bare the awful cycles of end and renewal that make life so ugly but real. Songs like the upbeat "ELT" and "When You Wake Up Feeling Old" create direct contrasts between their light tone and the sad truths they conceal, but it's the more subtle and half-hidden lights that emanate with the overwhelming sense of the soul that define this album. When Tweedy sings "Nothingsevergonnastandinmywayagain," you want with all your heart to believe him -- and you do -- but it doesn't last. "Pieholden Suite" punctuates breathy pillow-talk with a confession of infidelity, and "How to Fight Loneliness" makes plain the necessary conclusion, the dark, pretty, song sounding like a long drive on an empty highway when you just left a lover for the last time and you're still kidding yourself. The album hits its peak (and valley) on the emotionally exhausting "Via Chicago," a tortured, searching stretch of poetic lyrics, acoustic guitars, and a rolling, melancholy bass line. The muted, fuzzed-out guitar buried under the chorus provides a moment indescribably outside the realm of mere pop music, and that's the feeling, which comes over and over with this album, that sets Wilco on a higher plateau than most other bands. It feels important, like a point in time and memory that you know you'll revisit, over and over, like it or not.
4.5 stars -- Christopher Hess
Apple Venus (TVT)
Where does a rocker-who-never-wanted-to-be-a-rocker go when he matures? In Frank Zappa's case, it was on to classically based, symphonic music. For Police's leader Sting, it was smooth jazz. But where to go if you're XTC's Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding? Since the band's late-Seventies appearance, wobbling uneasily between the U.K. factions of punk and New Wave, Partridge and Moulding have become increasingly Lennon & McCartneyesque, to the point where at times it seemed that XTC's ultimate evolution would be to actually become the Beatles. That, of course, would be physically impossible, so it's fortunate that Apple Venus gives us a clear view of what a mature Partridge/Moulding union should be -- as well as what they've always been. Sometimes irresistibly catchy ("It's Like That"), sometimes somber ("Harvest Festival") -- and always compelling musically -- Apple Venus is packed with ingenious lyrics exuding innocuous charm rather than calculated cleverness (they even pull off the likes of "High, really high, like a really high thing, like a sunflower" without revealing a chink in their innocence!). With a higher-than-usual ration of gems that sound like they just fell from the band without provocation, Apple Venus illustrates well that the direction this band seems to be headed is one that should've been obvious: total XTC.
4 stars -- Ken Lieck
Suicaine Gratifaction (Capitol)
The appeal of Paul Westerberg's music has always been that of a soiled beauty -- the cries of an angel caught in a sewer grate. As the days of the Replacements move farther and farther into history, however, the demons that choked the punk-pop genius from his soul recede with them, leaving the songwriter and the rock & roller to contend with clarity and normalcy. On Suicaine Gratifaction, his third solo release, it just doesn't seem to be working. The album gets off to a good enough start, as the raw, acoustic blurtings of "It's a Wonderful Lie" make for a far more clever and biting tune than its title might suggest. Beyond that, though, moments of emotional connectivity between the singer, the song, and the audience are significantly tougher to come by, largely because it just doesn't feel bad enough. "Self Defense" comes off as too contrived and "Best Thing That Never Happened" feels like it's been done before. There are some swell moments on the album, like when Westerberg's voice meets Shawn Colvin's on "Born for Me" and the barely tuned recollections of "Bookmark," but mostly it sounds unremarkable. The edge has been filed from his songs, and it's gone from his voice too, as the cracking rasp of his youth has given way to the much smoother tone of Anyman. In fact, were his name not printed right on the CD, it might be tough to tell it's Paul at all.
2 stars -- Christopher Hess
Low Down and Up (Antone's/Sire)
Just in case the title and smoky blue cover aren't clue enough, Toni's gone torchy on her fourth full-length album, in the way that only she can. Price has always come off like the bad girl who's the most fun to know, the honky-tonk angel with a voice made in heartbreak heaven, so it's no surprise when a smooth electric piano primes the listener from track one. Once Price's miraculously malleable vocals slide easily "Out the Front Door," the local singer slides from it to the bluesy, affectionate caution of "Foolin' Around" and the jazzy "Comes Love" with all the tenderness of a lullaby. Price's reputation as an uncompromising vocalist is legendary -- she doesn't tour and prefers her Tuesday "hippie hour" gigs at the Continental to weekend headline slots -- but her exquisite taste in songs is also without peer. Nashville songcrafter and longtime collaborator Gwil Owen returns to bestow upon Price four of the album's 13 cuts: "Anything," "Loserville Blues," "Feel Like Cryin'," and "Lonesome Wind," while Dr. John steps in with the absolutely gorgeous "Remember Me?", his distinctive piano stroking her husky pipes like a fingertip to velvet. Steve Doerr's "Wishing Well" is as close to the Continental shows as you'll get without being there. Her label may have trouble getting her to play outside Austin, but Price seems supremely content in her own kingdom of edgy country blues. And if Toni Price can make music this good her way, who are we to argue?
3 stars -- Margaret Moser
JIM HALL AND PAT METHENY
Though guitarists Jim Hall and Pat Metheny are listed as the co-leaders on this date, it's got all the characteristics of a Hall session. The New York-based jazzman has made several exquisite albums in a row for Telarc, and this effort can be added to the list. The two musicians are the only participants here, playing duets, although Metheny uses a fretless classical and 42-string guitar in addition to a standard electric instrument, so a much larger palette of textures is produced. "All the Things You Are," "Summertime," and Attila Zoller's "The Birds and the Bees,"are covered, but the rest of the compositions are credited to Hall, Metheny, or both. Five brief pieces, "Improvisation No. 1" through "Improvisation No. 5," feature collective improvisation and seem to involve little or no planning. Typical of a Hall-led session, the playing here is very thoughtful and lyrical. Metheny, who's worked in a large variety of contexts and is a brilliant musician, doesn't imitate Hall's quality; his folk-like strumming on "Summertime" is something you don't hear from him every day. As for Hall, he just keeps evolving and getting better, which is a tall order since he was already very good when he gained national attention in the mid-Fifties. Every note he plays makes sense and seems carefully considered. The two guitarists' mutual admiration can be heard in their interplay, which is sensitive throughout. Even on the dissonant "Improvisation No. 2," during which what some listeners might consider the creation of pure noise occurs, everything seems logical.
4.5 stars-- Harvey Pekar