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For the Love of Harry: Everybody Sings Nilsson
MusicMasters

Harry Nilsson was a performer who never toured, and even if he firmly established himself behind the scenes as a left-of-the-Atlantic songwriting soul mate to the Beatles, he never built a presence in the public eye to match his talents. His biggest hits as a singer, "Everybody's Talkin'" and "Without Her," were other writers' songs. Nilsson's own tunes earned him the respect of peers and the admiration of critics, but for better or worse, none of that translated into star power. You've likely heard versions of Harry Nilsson's songs on the radio, but there's a very good chance that you don't match the tune with the name.

Nilsson died last year, and this posthumous tribute is a good measure of industry admiration toward him. Unlike most current tribute albums, which are either self-mythologizing vanity projects or thinly disguised launching pads for alt-rock bands who can't write a decent song of their own, Everybody Sings Nilsson trusts the Nilsson legacy to a stable of interpreters -- most of them renowned songwriters in their own rights -- more than capable of conveying Nilsson's multistyle mastery.

The disc opens strong with Randy Newman's reading of Nilsson's signature "Remember," and other obvious selections are here, such as Aimee Mann's sweet take on "One" (it's the loneliest number) and former B-52 Fred Schneider's "Coconut" (you take it with lime and call him in the morning). Everyone from Victoria Williams to Brian Wilson to Jellyfish to Adrian Belew takes a shot at a favorite tune, but the standouts are oddballs such as Joe Ely's "Joy" and Peter Wolf and the Houseparty 5's "You're Breakin' My Heart." The material seems dated, in the same way that much of the most beautiful Beatles material sounds dated -- perhaps too accomplished to meld into the amateur Zeitgeist -- but with a few exceptions, you haven't heard these tunes ten thousand times before. And the way they're covered here, they're very much worth hearing.

-- Brad Tyer

Duran Duran
Thank You
Capitol

It was easy to welcome the Durans' '93 comeback: older and wiser, heavier and humbler, and sporting a fine single, they were the likable John Travoltas of pop. Apparently, though, the band mistook their reinstatement on the charts as a sign that we considered them '80s survivors -- or worse, elder statesmen. Thus, with confidence regained, they felt qualified to reflect on all the greats that had come before and deliver the tragic act of hubris that is the covers album Thank You.

The arrogance of a thank-you album is that it assumes the audience cares enough about you to care about the songs you love. With Duran Duran, the sting is twice as great because they couldn't pull off these covers even if we did care. Perhaps we'll never know what convinced LeBon and company that they were even remotely dynamic enough to cover Grandmaster Flash ("White Lines"), Led Zeppelin ("Thank You"), Elvis Costello ("Watching the Detectives") and -- eek! -- Public Enemy ("911 Is a Joke") without sounding utterly pathetic.

What's more, if Thank You presumes to acknowledge the songs that shaped the band's musical education, then not since Guns 'N' Roses' punk tribute has an album so bizarrely engaged in historic revisionism. Perhaps it was meant to amuse, but Thank You isn't even good for a laugh.

-- Roni Sarig

Pavement
Wowee Zowee
Matador

My upstairs neighbor, who wields a formidably eclectic musical palate, listened to the first two tracks of this, stood up from his chair and declared: Sounds like boring music for a boring generation to me. The snail-pace country rock montage of those early tunes lends credence to the idea, but still, I can't agree. I'm not about to admit affiliation with a boring generation of appreciators of boring music. Not when singer Stephen Malkmus is chanting "fight this generation, fight this generation" like he's yelling at the world and a mirror at the same time. No, I think Pavement's on to something, something that started in obscurity with the Perfect Sound Forever EP, graduated to instant cult status with the vastly more accessible Slanted and Enchanted, rebounded from borderline stardom with the dense and self-referential pressure valve of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain and now seems to be plodding happily along at a 180 degree contraflow to contemporary musical fashion.

The breakthrough Slanted and Enchanted sounded like nothing more than a Velvet Underground rip-off to some people, and that flavor is still more than evident, but much of Wowee Zowee sounds more like a slack '90s version of the Band, coiling through gorgeously lucid, loose-limbed rockers. What doesn't nod toward country strays too far from any standard to bother with comparison, and the album bumps along like a line of hand-laid fence posts along some rural route, holding each other up with strands of barbed guitar lines and slanty melodies. Lyrically, Stephen Malkmus' weirdly earnest irony and elliptical tone poems screw up any comparison to influences past, and that's where the band's charm moves beyond that of a merely talented rip-off artist. It's not loud, and even when it's fast it's somehow creeping. It's not macho, and it's not really cute, either. All of which moves Pavement outside the bounds of popular favor, where it's turning out to some of the most contrarianly vital modern rock not (yet) on the radio.

-- Brad Tyer

 
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