Robbie Robertson
Contact from the Underworld of Redboy

There must be a few folks out there still pining for the simpler days when Robbie Robertson wasn't such an insufferably pretentious do-gooder. For those disenfranchised followers of his no-frills roots-mining with the Band, it must feel like forever since Robertson succumbed to his baser rock and roll instincts. Well, prepare for another letdown: Contact from the Underworld of Redboy is as stilted, oblique and unrocking as its title.

It's not that Robertson's heart isn't in the right place. Part Native American, the 54-year-old singer/songwriter/guitarist was born to a Canadian father and a mother of Mohawk descent, and it was during summer visits to his mom's reservation that he learned to play guitar. Airing ideas that first came to the fore on his 1994 documentary soundtrack, Music for "The Native Americans," Redboy is Robertson's attempt to make peace with his past -- and, in effect, cozy up to his diverse cultural heritage. But unlike Music, this latest project isn't bound by any medium other than Robertson's imagination, which is as vast as it is unfocused. Redboy is a heady, atmospheric work in the extreme. And that's the problem: It's all atmosphere, and few real songs.

Ten years ago, Robertson was onto something a little more tangible. Robbie Robertson, his brilliant 1987 solo debut, and -- to a lesser extent -- the subsequent Storyville were deeply lyrical, stylistically expansive works that portrayed an aging journeyman sharpening his awareness of the world around him. Here was a proven veteran who craved fresh inspiration and displayed a God's-honest humility in regard to his near-mythical elder-statesman status. More to the point, both releases proved that in the years he'd been laying low after the Band's late-'70s breakup, Robertson hadn't misplaced his narrative edge or his feel for rock.

But on Redboy, Robertson seems to have lost his grip on those essentials, drifting in and out of touch with the song structure that would keep him grounded (he forgets, for instance, that repetition isn't always good, especially when what's being repeated lacks substance to begin with). The characters portrayed -- a political prisoner, tribal chiefs, peyote healers and various other tragi-spiritual figures of the sublime Native American universe -- ought to move us. But, in most instances, they fail to do so, because Robertson provides only detached, thumbnail sketches, seemingly random symbolic debris devoid of any living, breathing connection.

Redboy's few lasting insights come when the subjects speak for themselves, as on "Sacrifice," a drowsy spoken-word exercise that centers around a taped conversation with Leonard Peltier, an Indian activist imprisoned since 1976 for his questionable role in the murder of two FBI agents. Yet the distant, echoey chants of vocalist Bonnie Jo Hunt and the sterile R&B groove that accompanies Peltier's account do nothing to enhance its power; in fact, they detract from it. When Robertson chimes in with the refrain, "Sacrifice your freedom / Sacrifice your prayer / Take away your language / Cut off all your hair," the effect is more chilly than chilling.

More often than not, the cutting-edge production assistance of Howie B (U2, Tricky) and Marius de Vries (Bjsrk, Massive Attack) seems like an afterthought. Try as they might, the ambiguous pitter-patter of techno-beats, turntable scratches and looping effects fail to transport Robertson's search-and-recover mission to any place transcendent -- or even all that exotic. Indeed, Robertson often seems so distracted with conveying the importance of his overall premise -- essentially, preserving Native American music in a thoroughly modern context -- that he's lost sight of the means to make it work in practice. Mostly, he just sounds lost.

It could be that Contact from the Underworld of Redboy makes more compelling sense as a companion piece to Robertson's new hourlong PBS special, which documents a 1996 visit to his mother's homeland, the Six Nations Indian Reservation. Still, it's fairly evident that Robertson wanted this album to stand on its own. As it is, though, Redboy is a monument to grand intentions run amuck.

"The sound is fading away," declares Robertson ominously in a near-whisper on Redboy's opening track. Sadly, what that sound might be remains anyone's guess. (**)

-- Hobart Rowland

Ani DiFranco
Little Plastic Castle
Righteous Babe

It's all but impossible to talk about Ani DiFranco as a musician without also discussing Ani DiFranco as a phenomenon. On Little Plastic Castle's title track, DiFranco even does it herself: "People talk about my image like I come in two dimensions. / Like lipstick is a sign of my declining mind. / Like what I happen to be wearing the day that someone takes a picture is my new statement for all womankind."

It's a bitch, isn't it -- being the poster child for musical and sexual independence in the modern-rock world? Implicit to DiFranco's success, however, is that it validates not only her art -- a smart, alternative take on folk-rock -- but also her determination to maintain control of her own destiny. The rock-critic party line is that Castle is DiFranco's "happy" album -- though a reading of the lyrics, with their frequent expressions of alienation and more than a few mentions of bad choices in love, shatters that notion. "Life keeps getting harder," she moans on "Glass House"; on "Fuel," she laments, "Maybe I should put a bucket over my head." Not exactly upbeat stuff.

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