Goo Goo Dolls
Dizzy Up the Girl
Warner Bros.

My first clue that the Goo Goo Dolls had completely lost touch with their working-class garage-band roots came by way of a brief backstage conversation with bassist Robby Takac back in 1996.

Me: "So, how about those Sabres?"
Takac: "Huh?"
Me: "You know, the hockey team."
Takac: "Oh ... yeah. I haven't really been following 'em this year."

As any resident of the Goo Goo Dolls' hometown of Buffalo, New York, will tell you, failing to keep tabs on a playoffs-bound Sabres team is akin to a crime against the city itself. It's also a pretty good indication that the Goos have other things on their minds these days --like arena tours with No Doubt, contracting high-dollar help in the studio and hiring former Green Day producer Rob Cavallo in hopes that some of Dookie's multi-platinum mojo might rub off on them. Which brings us to the second clue that the Goo Goo Dolls have finally lost touch with their working-class garage-band roots: the unequivocally bland Dizzy Up the Girl.

Not that there's anything wrong with selling out -- from a practical standpoint, anyway. Given their belated success, it's easy to forget that the Goo Goo Dolls have been making albums for 11 years. And they've spent more than half of that time trying to perfect a compromise between accessibility and credibility. They accomplished as much with 1990's Hold Me Up, a well-delivered major-label party invitation that reconciled the band's beer-basted, prank-punk roots with its potential future as a tough, savvy hard-rock band with hooks aplenty.

But that's pretty much where the Goo Goo Dolls' creative evolution ended. It was only a matter of time -- and money -- before the group succumbed to the sway of the formulaic power ballad: "Name," from the band's 1996 breakthrough A Boy Named Goo, put the band on the mainstream map. It didn't seem to matter that the tune was essentially a reworking of "We Are the Normal," the sobering hymn to the masses singer/guitarist John Rzeznik co-wrote with Paul Westerberg for 1993's Superstar Carwash.

Further along the Goos' de-evolutionary scale is "Iris," a saccharine, strummed ode to some hypothetical movie-house diva plucked from Rzeznik's short-sighted imagination. Listening now, it's almost impossible to connect with the approachably idiotic Goo Goo Dolls of old, a freakish power trio partial to ludicrous high-speed renditions of classic rock hits, often sung by a lounge singer pal named Lance Diamond. But everyone's got to grow up sometime, and now that Rzeznik, Takac and drummer Mike Malinin have families and other loved ones to worry about, the pre-Dizzy success of "Iris" on the City of Angels soundtrack must have seemed like a revelation. It was also the green light, no doubt, to pad the next album with slower numbers -- most of them sensitive and serious, all of them diabolically dull.

For an album that was (technically) two years in the making, Dizzy Up the Girl sounds like it was written in a week -- the work of a band phoning it in, the product of three bodies barely breaking a sweat. Even Takac, usually good for one or two exhilarating numbers per album, seems listless, bored, unamused. It's as if the band's aggressive instincts have completely shut down. There's the feckless, chug-a-chug opener, "Dizzy," where Rzeznik runs down a list of the things he digs most about his lady, doing so with little more enthusiasm than a talk-show host reading off a teleprompter ("You're dirty and you're sweet / You know you're everything to me"). He turns dispassionately somber on the day-in-the-life serio-snoozer "Broadway," singing, "See the young man sittin' in the old man's bar / Waiting for his turn to die," as if still peering down from his observation tower in the "Iris" video. As for the aforementioned smattering of ballady nonsense ("Black Balloon," "Amigone," "Full Forever"), it succeeds only in giving the album its sagging, jelly-belly middle.

Rzeznik has said that the Goo Goo Dolls aren't kids anymore, that they need to act their age. If anything, Dizzy Up the Girl proves that adulthood is overrated.

-- Hobart Rowland

UNKLE
Psyence Fiction
Mo Wax

A startlingly ambitious release, Psyence Fiction is less a soundtrack for a movie never made than a wonderfully cinematic fluke of nature. UNKLE's director (so to speak) is James Lavelle, owner of trip-hop's influential Mo Wax label and remixer of Everything But the Girl and Tortoise, among others. Its script was co-written by him and master sampler/turntablist DJ Shadow. Both principals have shown vision in the past, but never would you have thought this sort of pairing capable of anything this spectacular.

Psyence Fiction is a dreamy, meandering masterpiece that encompasses trip-hop, symphonic pop, heavy rock and hip-hop. Woven into the ambitious mix are inspired appearances by an unlikely lineup of signature vocalists, including Kool G Rap, Mike D of the Beastie Boys, Thom Yorke of Radiohead, Richard Ashcroft of the Verve, Jason Newstead of Metallica and Mark Hollis of Talk Talk. UNKLE makes the most of its star power: Mike D shows up, in part, on the opening track, "Guns Blazing (Drums of Death Pt. 1)," in snippets of a fully evolved performance we hear later on ("The Knock [Drums of Death Pt. 2]"). Richard Ashcroft's contribution on "Lonely Soul" drifts out of a passing ambulance on "Chaos," five songs after it originally appears.

"Lonely Soul" is, in fact, the album's brilliant touchstone. A nine-minute epic that makes the most of the London Session Orchestra, a quick-step backbeat and Ashcroft's meditations on dying "in a place that don't know my name," it crescendoes as the strings wipe the slate clean. Because it employs a variety of singers (there are three vocalists in addition to the big names), Psyence Fiction lacks consistency, but its recurring cast of characters helps maintain a compellingly weird continuity. One of the year's best.

-- David Simutis

Des'ree
Supernatural
550 Music

I risk catching flack for saying this, but it's true: Des'ree was doing the soulful existentialism thing before Erykah Badu lit her first incense stick. There, I said it.

Sure, the mystical Badu never slammed a song down your throat as incessantly as Des'ree did four years ago with "You Gotta Be." But with that one atrocious novelty number, Des'ree laid the groundwork for Badu and other exotic ingenues too numerous (and unpronounceable) to mention.

Des'ree is more like the foremother of new age soul than new soul, per se -- her boho lyrics are so achingly, disturbingly uplifting. Her filmic counterpart might well be something like Drew Barrymore, an unswayable optimist who tells cynics like yours truly to go, as one comedian recently put it, "take a big dip in Lake You."

With all that said, Des'ree's sophomore album, Supernatural, is just fluffy enough to be likable, with enough folky melodies and pacifist verse to stay wedged in heavy rotation in the VH1 jukebox for all of eternity. Indeed, Supernatural is an adult-contemporary radio listener's wet dream. If there are any rough edges, Des'ree keeps them neatly tucked away, like the wrinkles on Downtown Julie Brown's bum. She maintains a restrained sense of poetic purity throughout, her gossamer-winged vocal stylings never waning.

"I don't wanna see a ghost / It's a sight that I fear most / I'd rather have a piece of toast," she, coos, waxing empty on "Life." The dry ballad "I'm Kissing You" and the orchestral, seven-minute "Indigo Daisies" have her vocals flourishing amid a bare musical accompaniment. Light on pretension and heavy on hope, Des'ree has perfected on Supernatural what could be called peace pop. Ben and Jerry might even want to name a flavor after her. Des'ree Deluxe, perhaps?

-- Craig D. Lindsey

Clay Blaker
Rumor Town
Neobilly

Clay Blaker is one of the more successful songwriters to come out of Texas in the past 20 years. Yet, mention his name to anyone outside his south-central Texas home base or beyond the writing cliques in Nashville's Music Row, and you're liable to elicit a blank stare.

Blaker and George Strait are old buddies from the dance-hall circuit where they both came of age in the 1970s. Strait has cut seven of Blaker's tunes over the years, and in the recent past, Blaker's songwriting career has taken off as some of Nashville's biggest artists -- folks like Tim McGraw, LeAnn Rimes, Mark Chesnutt and Clay Walker -- have all included his songs on their releases.

But don't let those big names scare you into thinking that Rumor Town, Blaker's first release in five years, is loaded up with neo-country fluff. Though in the past, the singer/songwriter has leaned more toward western swing, here he delves into a rock-influenced brand of C&W that recalls the work of Foster & Lloyd, Jim Lauderdale and Kevin Welch, pulling off the likeness with charm to spare. Lauderdale is actually a featured presence on Rumor Town, lending his vocals to one track, the twang-filled ballad "I May Be a Fool," while co-writing three others, including "It's Only 'Cause You're Lonely," a honky-tonk-flavored ditty with a big beat and some fine steel-guitar work from Blaker's longtime partner Tommy Detamore.

Despite considerable success as a writer, Blaker can't escape the rush of performing live, and he and his Texas Honky Tonk Band continue to slug it out on regional stages on a weekly basis. Let's hope that Rumor Town's approachable combination of heart and grit will bring his talent as a bandleader to a wider audience.

-- Jim Caligiuri

The Jazz Passengers
Live in Spain
32 Jazz

Forget, for the moment, your Alanis, your Fiona, your Courtney or any other '90s alternative whiner. The simple truth is, none of them can hold a candle to what Debbie Harry did with Blondie 20 years ago. One of new wave's most commercially viable bands, Blondie combined a pop sensibility and musical versatility with Harry's seductive voice and Playboy Bunny good looks. A tremendous vocalist, Harry fit naturally into every musical context Blondie pursued, whether it was power pop, '60s girl group cutesiness, disco, reggae or rap.

Since Blondie's breakup, Harry's output had been mostly of the dance-music variety until she hooked up with the Jazz Passengers on last year's Individually Twisted CD. Fronted by saxophonist Roy Nathanson and trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, the Jazz Passengers have an avant-garde sound that might be compared to Charles Mingus and Sun Ra collaborating on a comedy soundtrack. A versatile performer, Harry sings jazz well enough to ride along with the Passengers, which is why Individually Twisted probably got better reviews than it deserved. But once that novelty wears off, the Jazz Passengers just aren't happening, as Live in Spain demonstrates. Cacophonous, rambling and rarely engaging, Live in Spain is more noise and less swing -- boring dissonance, if you will. Harry's voice is often deliberately frail, with a tiny and tinny sound. Imagine a movie starlet trying her (weak) hand at the standards, except that these aren't standards. Only on the dramatic "When the Fog Lifts" does Harry really show off her pipes.

Fans of the Jazz Passengers' theatrical style will undoubtedly enjoy Live in Spain, and the album does have a few moments. But Debbie fans are better off waiting for the Blondie reunion album, No Exit, due out early next year -- or, better yet, snatching up the few remaining copies of last year's limited-edition Picture This Live, a collection of Blondie concert performances from '78 and '80.

-- Paul J. MacArthur

Alpha Yaya Diallo
Aduna the World
Tinder

Composer, singer and guitarist Alpha Yaya Diallo -- who was born in Guinea-Conakry, and now lives in Vancouver, British Columbia -- may well be the harbinger of a new kind of international pop music, a mellow hybrid that combines African, Caribbean, Arabic, Black American and European elements in a seamless manner that will appeal to listeners no matter where they come from -- musically or geographically. Diallo is part of a new generation of African musicians, folks like Angelique Kidjo, Wasis Diop and Youssou N'Dour, who are able to retain their African roots, even as they take the traditional sounds they grew up with and blend them with global influences. Diallo's father was a traveling doctor who exposed his son to the various tribal rhythms of Guinea, as well as the music of Cape Verde, Senegal, Cameroon and Cuba. When Diallo began playing, all these currents flowed effortlessly into his music, giving his style a bright, cosmopolitan feel.

On Aduna, Diallo uses both acoustic and electric guitars, but his playing is always subtle and understated, each note ringing as clear as a bell, even when he's tackling the syncopated leads that mark the fretwork of most African guitarists. The tracks here, culled from the two albums Diallo has released in Canada, are all gems. Highlights include "Gogha," on which Diallo plays with the gentle percussive quality of a kalimba (thumb piano), picking out a melody that sounds like it could have come from Zimbabwe; "Dewe," a tune that combines the rhythms of black and Arabic Africa; and "Debo," a quiet acoustic-guitar showcase that mixes bluesy bent notes with subtle flamenco flourishes. Diallo's singing is never less than astonishing throughout, rife with grace notes and ululating ornamentations. The way global hit-making ought to sound.

-- j. poet

Shaver
Victory
New West

Modern living has a way of making even the simplest stuff complicated -- especially things like God and love. So leave it to Billy Joe Shaver, the musical bard of common Texas folk, to bring it all back home with firm eloquence. Victory is just Billy Joe and his son Eddy, a couple of guitars and a dobro. You could call it unplugged, but "unfettered" better describes the music within. The presentation is about as simple as it gets, yet for all its unpretentious back-porch ease, Victory is hardly subtle. The songs here glow like embers lit by the filigree of Eddy Shaver's tasty picking.

Ostensibly a "gospel" album, Victory has a spirituality that's as artless and direct as a sermon in an old clapboard church just at the end of a dusty country road. And though the deity is liberally evoked here, the tunes are as much about how life is lived -- and maybe how it ought to be lived -- as it is a celebration of the power and glory of God. "Live Forever," "If I Give My Soul" and "When Fallen Angels Fly" -- all from Tramp on Your Street, Shaver's most musically adventurous album -- lose nary an ounce of their power in this stripped-down mode, proof positive of the solid-oak strength of Billy Joe's writing.

-- Rob Patterson

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