Spice Girls

So what do you want to hear? That the Spice Girls suck? That they're nothing but shills pandering to 12-year-old girls and brain-dead listeners to Top 40? Sure, I could say that about the Spice Girls, but at this point, bashing them seems senseless. The fact is, the new Spiceworld, their sophomore CD, is pretty damn listenable.

Like most commercial pop-music manifestations, Baby, Scary, Ginger, Sporty and Posh are a collective guilty pleasure; five million American units sold prove that it's so. And what makes the Spice Girls' latest release such fun is the sheer simplicity of it. They've already proven that they can cut it vocally -- especially Sporty Spice, whose singing is the most soulful of all -- and at a time when most uppity girl groups want to be En Vogue, this quintet prefers to ape the Supremes.

The modest charms of Spiceworld are briefly overshadowed by two grating songs: the spasmodically tuneless "The Lady Is a Vamp," on which the Girls attempt to be the Andrews Sisters, and "Move Over," an elongated version of their Pepsi jingle. Still, with their unequivocally British sense of style and cute sophistication, gummy pop confections such as "Stop" and "Too Much" more than tip the scales in the Spice Girls' favor.

Anyone expecting a maelstrom of artistic evolution from these women ought to relax a little; it's only music, for chrissakes. And the Spice Girls and their handlers deserve bonus points for showing a little common sense. After all, if this were seven years ago, they might have taken their precious time releasing Spiceworld, while the group's hype was irreversibly extinguished. You go, girls! (***)

-- Craig D. Lindsey

Paul Simon
Songs from the Capeman
Warner Bros.

It's easy to understand why Paul Simon would be attracted to the story of Salvador Agron, who in 1959 stabbed to death two innocents caught in a New York City gang war. Agron, then a 16-year-old who was a member of a Puerto Rican gang called the Vampires, was sentenced to die for his actions, even though he was a juvenile. When he was caught, Agron -- referred to in the press as "the Capeman" because he was draped in a black cape with red lining at the time of the murders -- exhibited no remorse. But no matter: A group of wealthy patrons convinced New York's governor to overturn the death penalty. Agron instead served 20 years in prison, where he was "rehumanized," as he called it, turning to poetry instead of violence. When he died in 1986, worn out at 43, Agron was nothing more than a forgotten symbol.

Simon was a teenager at the time of the murders, and he recalls reading about the story and watching it nightly on television. Yet he wasn't necessarily drawn to Agron's plight -- merely to the fact that the boy was a slicked-back teenager, a "rock and roll hoodlum," as Simon refers to him in his new CD's liner notes. Simon saw in Agron something he'd never become but always wanted to be -- someone dangerous. And so Songs from the Capeman, a sampler of tunes contained in the musical that Simon and co-writer Derek Walcott will debut on Broadway next month, is less about Agron than it is about Simon's wish-fulfillment. Now, 38 years later, Simon finally gets to become Agron, a poor Puerto Rican from the barrio who's "running with a gang" and saying fuck a lot.

There was a time when Simon could tell a story with a few words and a simple, beautiful melody; think only of "The Boxer" and its opening words about a poor boy whose "story's seldom told," or the heartbreaking instant in "America" when he sings, "Kathy, I'm lost." But The Capeman plays more like a parody of West Side Story. It's soulless, overwrought, laugh-out-loud funny, a musical mess and a lyrical joke.

In attempting to fuse Puerto Rican strains with the street-corner doo-wop of his youth, Simon has created a sterile soundtrack of the 1950s. His mean streets sound like Sesame Street; he's betrayed by whitewashed melodies and flat-footed rhythms, by a memory of a time that never really existed. Songs such as "Adios Hermanos," "Born in Puerto Rico" and "Sunday Afternoon" are the musical equivalent of particleboard made to look like real wood; they're thin and intangible, the results of a man who can't make his own music and must now fake others'.

Even worse, Simon simply can't play it tough. He pronounces fuckin' -- as in, "Now it was time for some fuckin' law and order" -- almost as though he's never heard the word, much less used it in a sentence. Simon tries to portray himself as "just some spic they grabbed off the sidewalk," but there's no getting past the short, bald pop star singing those words in that familiar, pretty high voice. Once a masterful storyteller, Simon has become a lousy performer who on occasion sings like William Shatner acts.

Funny thing is, Simon treats Agron as the victim -- as a good guy dealt a bad hand, a murderer with a heart of gold. It's comforting to know that Agron likely would have hated this musical more than anyone else. (*)

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