¡Viva el Amor! (Warner Bros.)
Fin de siecle -- end of the century. It's become a musical gauntlet to run, the last chance to make a statement about the century that spawned rock & roll and everything after. Punk-era new wavesters Blondie took the challenge earlier this year, anteing up two decades after the fact by delivering No Exit with flying colors. Here's to Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders for picking up the challenge in equally stunning turns of pop and rock on ¡Viva el Amor! Since the mouthy Miss Hynde was never one to mince words or riffs, she nails Nineties pop right out of the gate with the killer licks of "Popstar," and you wonder if the rest of the album will recover. It does, naturally -- would you expect anything less from Chrissie Hynde? She's the original tough girl of new wave and punk, neither as self-consciously arty as Patti Smith nor as endearingly slutty as Debbie Harry; she's kept up by not keeping up. To show for her 20 years of recording, Hynde and an ever-changing cadre of sidemen have seven studio albums plus a greatest hits package and a live CD. Like Lucinda Williams, she's unapologetic for the paucity of recordings, preferring quality to quantity. On her latest, first-generation Pretenders drummer Martin Chambers, guitarist Adam Seymour, and a revolving group of backup players, singers, and guests including David Johansen and Jeff Beck stand behind her for the dozen tracks of ¡Viva el Amor! The songs are reminiscent enough of her most memorable tunes to have that reassuring ring of familiarity, but it's her voice that's in such fine form here. It's especially evident on the numerous love songs that abound, such as the ethereal "Dragway 42," a straight-up love song just like Hynde -- no doubt a total romantic who probably reads love stories in secret. Slow, dreamy numbers like "From the Heart Down," "Samurai," and "One More Time" (which plays like a tribute to Janis Joplin) belie their author's leathery exterior. Hynde's classic crunching pop is in place with the radio-friendly "Human" and "Who's Who," but on the otherwise lovely "Rabo de Nube," even though she can trill because she's always had that great vibrato in her voice, her Spanish accent is dreadful. Fortunately, the woman can write a pop song, both "Nails in the Road" and "Baby's Breath" boasting her trademark brittle sentiment. "Why did you send me roses?" asks Hynde on the latter. "Save them for someone's death." For "Biker," she revisits her beloved "Tattooed Love Boys" with exquisite tenderness. As lush and inviting as Hynde's romanticism is, she's still at her most effective wielding her guitar in the same confrontational manner that began two decades ago with her telling everyone to fuck off in "Precious." The bravado of "Popstar" is a knife in the ribs of every Britney Jewel Morisette posing and preening for their 15 seconds of fame (15 minutes is simply too long these days). "They don't make 'em like they used to. You should have stuck with me" go the oft-quoted lyrics, but Hynde snarls just as rabidly on "Legalise Me," featuring Jeff Beck's sublime guitar. The one piece that doesn't fit her puzzle is the cover art. Hynde's power-to-the-people pose is more reminiscent of South American revolutionaries than this album's sentiments. Linda McCartney took the photo before she died last year and her daughter Mary McCartney took the rest of the pics in the booklet. Hynde's got a hell of a set of upper arms for a babe pushing 50. The Iggy Pop theory of old punks just getting better with age could just be the coolest trend of the millennium. Ramones, anyone?
3.75 stars --Margaret Moser
It starts in an ugly brown hotel/motel room, a wizened punk rock chick from 20 years back (S.F.'s Avengers) aching for her cheating man who's thousands of miles away: "We could slip on something naked, kissing by the light of race cars crashing on TV." Where was he when she called? "Wait and see. Until then I'll lie down, probably turn off the sound. Satisfy myself in the light of the French Grand Prix." Next, she's in a nightclub avec a couple of ex-Go-Go's (Caffey and Wiedlin), sitting between a brand-new bachelor and Miss Belle de Jour: "I'm smiling, thinking of your tongue. But mine has never touched it. I'd really like to suck it." Too bad he's "Scum" ("You're the scum of the earth. You're the worst mistake God ever made"), or worse, "Worm" bait ("All the love that you got, it used to make me so hot. Now I'm lower than a worm. Now I'm harder than a rock. Now I'm colder than the ice on your freezing cold cock"). By the chilling "Hundertwasser 567," it's all but clear he's a Nazi -- literally. If Penelope Houston was anything less than razor sharp, one might worry, but with collaborator/guitarist Chuck Prophet (Green on Red) manhandling his instrument ably, and lots of programmed beats belying the subject matter, this folk-riot grrrl is in command. Some of her vocal processing doesn't always work ("Frankenstein Heart"), nor do all the musical arrangements ("Dolly"), but the hooverphonic Eurobeats of "Subway" and a heavy remix of "Scum" help balance this front-loaded sophomore slam for Reprise. Tongue. In your ear, fella.
3 stars --Raoul Hernandez
Get Skintight (Lookout!)
Though the comic mythos of American Stoner Boy has been rubbed into caricature by popular culture, scant attention has been paid to his tight-jeaned female counterpart. When stoner girls do get portrayed, it's usually in less-than-positive roles such as fallow sperm receptacle or tragic, drug-addled waste of human potential. Palo Alto's Donnas tear into this vicious double standard with the first buzzsaw chord and don't stop until man and woman are equal in their heavy metal bad assness. Comparisons to the Runaways and the Pandoras are inevitable and somewhat justified, but that doesn't diminish the underage quartet's romp through the poison candy land of teenage debauchery. "Skintight" finds the girls trying to seduce some cute guy standing by the Slurpee machine at 7-Eleven, while "Hook It Up" captures the towel-under-the-door ambience of a clandestine pot party. The slow-down heartbreaker "You Don't Wanna Call" features the irresistible, Ramones-style couplet, "Am I not old enough, am I too young? You don't think I know how to eat dim sum." The Donnas' even give you a fist-pumping cover of Mötley Crüe's "Too Fast for Love." When it comes to mixing sneers, hedonism, power chords, and party action, Get Skintight pays off in French-cut spades.
3.5 --Greg Beets
Electric Honey (Grand Royal/Capitol)
"Abs and buns are so much fun," sings Luscious Jackson bassist Jill Cunniff on "Sexy Hypnotist." They certainly are when Electric Honey is pouring out of the speakers. A big, busy block party of an album, the NYC trio's fourth album dares you not to dance like a freshly poured patch of concrete just waiting for you to etch your name into it. Cunniff and drummer Kate Schellenbach get gold stars for distilling such a delicious groove out of LJ's trademark hip-hop/funk/rock/disco stew, but guitarist Gabby Glaser's flavorful contributions (and deadpan rap vocals) are hardly insignificant. The ladies are equally adept at pumping the club sounds of "Nervous Breakthrough," "Summer Daze," and "Gypsy" (even flirting with drum and bass on "Christine") as they are rocking out on "Devotion," "Fantastic Fabulous," and "Space Diva." When it's time to cool down, there's the Kravitz-worthy "Friends," the dreamy "Beloved," and some leftover swamp gris-gris from Daniel Lanois (who produced their previous album Fever In/Fever Out) on "Country's a Callin'" and the languid "Fly." Hardly a stitch shows through on this seamless collection, as sweet a taste of summertime honey as there's been in a long time. The dance floor beckons ...
4 stars --Christopher Gray
What? No in-between-song patter from an artist renowned for her live-set chattiness? The horror, the horror. Mirrorball is so close to one of the Canadian chanteuse's live performances that it's all you can do not to slip on a pair of Koss headphones, light up some sandalwood, and bask in the estrogen that flows from this disc like tears from a busted heart. Spanning the later years of McLachlan's career (the early Nettwerk days are sorely underrepresented, a bothersome oversight for fans of Vox and such), Mirrorball's breathy whisper underscores the tearjerk, heart-flutter, post-grrrl anthemics of Building a Mystery, Adia, and the woeful melancholia of Hold On. Lilith Fair's architect has admitted to going back in the studio for some post-concert overdubs to correct a couple of errors, which may be why the album sounds almost studio-like in its preternatural precision. There's none of the goofy banter she's known for, nor, apart from the cheering drone of the audience, is there any innate sense that this is a live recording. Fans may like the marginally live recordings as a footnote to the original versions, but many will find them sterile. There's much to be said for fumbles and missteps, since they're what separate the artist from the studio, but unfortunately, that's a distinction lost here.
2 stars --Marc Savlov
I'd Rather Eat Glass (Almo)
... than have to listen to this album again. The 12 torturous songs on I'd Rather Eat Glass are not fun enough to be mindless toe-tappers for pop radio, not pseudo-rough enough for alternative formats (though the two are, I guess, one and the same), and lastly, not maudlin enough for any adult stations. Bijou Phillips is the daughter of John Phillips of Mamas & Papas fame, which seems to be the only fragile link between the young supermodel-club kid and the world of music. These songs are bad, cliché-ridden poetry delivered in an overwrought and annoying snotty-kid whine that's pasted onto sterile backing tracks. Though I'd Rather Eat Glass might inspire indifference at first, if you're unlucky enough to listen to it more than once, neutrality will give way to a grating headache and a desperate need for a tune by Patty Griffin, Chan Marshall, or even Jewel, fer chrissakes. A third listen? I'd rather -- well, you know.
(No stars) --Christopher Hess
On the 6 (Work)
Ay caramba! The booty sings! Apart from her rightly famed posterior, screen diva Jennifer Lopez also possesses a decent set of pipes, which she puts to good use during this, her "dream project." Mining the territories of post-New Jack swing and the Danceteria pablum that passes for urban radio these days, Lopez belts out 14 tracks of lushly produced Latin pop, covering her bases from the classics ("Una Noche Mas") to cuts produced by Emilio Estefan and Bad Boy mogul Sean "Puffy" Combs, among others. The breezy, erstwhile single, "If You Had My Love" is inescapable both on MTV and local adult contemporary and urban outlets, and yeah, it's catchy in a late-night, South Beach kind of way, but if anything, Lopez hits her stride with several full-blown Latin numbers, including a lilting duet with hot boy of the minute Marc Anthony ("No Me Ames," performed once as a ballad and once as a remix), and the aforementioned "Una Noche Mas." The album's title track refers to the NYC transit line that ran through Lopez's old neighborhood, and is an inoffensive take on Latin pop from a woman who grew up on the stuff and clearly has an affinity for it. Overproduction on some of the tracks renders much of the disc patently annoying after more than a cursory listen, but when she's on she's on. All things considered, a far more admirable foray into music than so many of her thespian predecessors. And who's to say we won't be seeing a duet between Lopez and William Shatner anytime soon? Hey, it could happen.
2 stars --Marc Savlov
Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott
Da Real World (Eastwest)
Missy Elliott's 1997 debut, Supa Dupa Fly, came out of left field and immediately established the Virginia Beach rapper/songwriter/producer as a hip-hop playerette of the highest order. The disc's off-kilter, orchestral production injected much-needed vitality and variety into the wake of the Tupac and B.I.G. shootings, and provided the foundation for subsequent hits by Ginuwine, Nicole, and Aaliyah. Producer Timbaland is back on Da Real World, but sadly the Supa Dupa magic is not. Even of-the-moment guests like Eminem, Juvenile, and Beyonce from Destiny's Child can't drown out the sound of wheels spinning. On Da Real World, Elliott is mostly concerned with expropriating the word "bitch" from hip-hop's many misogynists. A worthy pursuit, to be sure, but she'd rather cuss with Lil' Kim than bust anything as indelible as her debut's "The Rain" or "Sock It 2 Me." Timbaland's skittery, syncopated beats -- no longer studio science's leading edge -- are in serious danger of deteriorating into self-parody, though a couple of bright spots are the way he builds "All N My Grill" and "Dangerous Mouths" around brooding cello lines the way DJs used to do with James Brown samples. Redman and Outkast's Big Boi wave their weenies around on "Mouths" and "Grill," respectively, and Lady Saw delivers a nice dance-hall turn on "Mr. D.J.," but ultimately Da Real World is a disappointment. Less bitching, more brainstorming. Surely they can do better than having Eminem rhyme over a reworked "Play That Funky Music." Duh.
2 stars --Christopher Gray
Rhythms of the Heart (Verve)
For artists who defy categorization, the only way to approach an album is to dazzle 'em with diversity. At least that's the way it is on Rhythms of the Heart, the latest dazzler from jazz violinist Regina Carter. Outside their native habitat of folk and classical music, violins have long been stepchild instruments in popular music. Often supplying drippy background in pop tunes, or stamping a song as country, those strings have found a curious refuge in Carter. With her swooping bow and butterfly touch, the violinist propels her playing across a myriad of musical landscapes but never strays far from her jazz roots. She has less in common with rock violinists like Scarlet Rivera, Sid Page, and Walter Stedding, finding a more kindred spirit in Jean-Luc Ponty, whose magnificent violin work subverted fusion and made its mark in the nooks and crannies of Seventies jazz-rock. With recording credits that include Max Roach, Dolly Parton, and Aretha Franklin, it's no surprise Carter can sail through George and Ira Gershwin's "Oh, Lady, Be Good" with the same graceful facility as "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," the latter featuring guest vocalist Cassandra Wilson. The divine Latin rhythms of "Mojito" and the wistful airiness of "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most" provide exhilarating contrast, which might just be another way of saying she really can dazzle with diversity.
3 stars --Margaret Moser
The Long Way Home (RCA Victor)
As good as Anita O'Day and her disciples Chris Connor and June Christy were in their heyday of the Forties and Fifties, sometimes it's impossible not to dismiss them as the safe, white, sanitized versions of the era's great black jazz divas: Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan. In the Nineties, one might say the same for the fair-haired Dominique Eade in relation to Cassandra Wilson. Like her older, more successful peer Wilson, Euro-bred/Boston-based Eade cut her teeth on jazz, releasing three strong albums this decade, including 1996's career-best, When the Wind Was Cool, a swinging tribute to Connor and Christy. As with her AAA-friendly Miles admirer, Eade's fourth and most recent effort, The Long Way Home, travels a path paved in part by pop. Opening with an elegant, cosmopolitan interpretation of Elton John's "Come Down in Time," Eade immediately trips herself up with the embarrassingly square "I'm Hans Christian Andersen." Two originals, "The Open Road" and "Rounding the Bend," both sail along on Eade's scatting skills, while a playful, impromptu version of Hoagy Carmichael's "Baltimore Oriole" is sleek and hip. Unfortunately, Eade pulls up with a flat in Henri Mancini's movie vehicle "Two for the Road," then suffers a major blowout on "All My Life," both tunes revealing Eade's serious shortcomings in range, and sometimes soul. Noted pop crossover producer Bob Beldon's use of electric guitar as lead instrument further waylays Home, lending it a New Age-y feel. Pick a route, Dominique, you've come to the crossroads.
2 stars --Raoul Hernandez
When I Look in Your Eyes (Verve)
Since its release early last month, Diana Krall's Verve debut has been the hottest jazz album in the country, racing to the top of the jazz radio airplay charts. The Canadian-born singer/pianist has been one of the true success stories in the genre over the past few years, her two previous albums for Impulse Records having been hugely popular due in no small part to her incessant touring across North America and abroad. On When I Look in Your Eyes, Krall's direct, listener-friendly small group sound that owes much to the Nat King Cole Trio's gentle, sophisticated swing, once again hits its intended target dead on. Guitarist Russell Malone has been an integral part of Krall's sound, his fluid runs contrasting nicely with the singer's alternating jaunty, seductive vocals and no-nonsense piano style. Unfortunately, this time out, Krall has added Johnny Mandel-arranged orchestration to half of the tunes, and in most but not all instances, these sappy superfluities do little more than turn her balladry into easy-listening, elevator pablum. Far better are the unadorned, straight-ahead tunes such as Bob Dorough's "Devil May Care," Michael Franks' "Popsicle Toes," and standards "East of the Sun (and West of the Moon)," and "I Can't Give You Anything but Love." With this album, Krall once again creates that elusive strain of jazz that's substantive yet highly accessible.
3.5 stars --Jay Trachtenberg
Rubies on the Lawn (Doolittle)
For most folks, 1997 doesn't seem like such a long time ago. For Trish Murphy's followers, however, it has seemed like forever. Her debut, Crooked Mile, released on her own label that year, caught Austin music fans of all stripes by surprise with its delicious hooks, simple melodies, and engaging stories, and Rubies on the Lawn feels like the perfect follow-up. There are a couple of missteps -- "These Boots Are Made for Walking," again?!? -- but overall this is no sophomore slump. Actually, the time has served Murphy well as she displays increased confidence and a more mature songwriting style. Songs like "Runaway Train," with its ringing guitars and lyrics of lost love, and "Vanilla Sun," with its psychedelic folk setting perfectly matching its trippy lyrics, are fine examples of how Murphy has retained her unpretentiousness while blossoming into an imposing talent. In fact, Rubies on the Lawn is chock-full of such moments, where Murphy shows she has more in common with such gutsy and accomplished artists as Lucinda Williams or Tom Petty rather than the anorexic waifs with chirpy voices that seem to be all the rage these days. While Murphy may have started in coffeehouses, she's moved beyond her rootsy blend of country, folk, and rock into pure pop territory; "Johnny Too Blue," "Go There," and "Concession Stand Song" stand out for their anthemic qualities. This is a direction Murphy only hinted at before, but with the help of producer Jim Ebert, she's arrived.
3 stars --Jim Caligiuri