I'll tell the truth: with the rare exception, I don't buy CDs. Record company schmoes send 'em to me for free, hoping I'll review them in some space like this. So I don't spend a lot of time in record stores, and I don't know if they, like Dillard's (now there's a place I spend a lot of time), have the habit of putting on monstrous post-holiday sales. Somehow I doubt it. But in any case, and just in case you didn't get all the sounds you wanted crammed up your stocking this year, here are some relatively recent releases that might (or might not, in some cases) be worth looking for, since we've all got tons of extra cash lying around the house this time of year. There's no Christmas music here, because Christmas music, and especially entire Christmas albums, suck, except for Charles Brown's "Merry Christmas, Baby," available on Driftin' Blues: The Best of Charles Brown, EMI Blues Series, which should be listened to at least once a day, year-round.
Let's move on.
Unless you're a Red Hot Chili Peppers freak (or one of the 6 million guitarists who's tried out for that band), you've probably never heard of John Frusciante. And to be honest, chances are pretty good you won't. Frusciante was the band's third guitarist, and if you saw the Peppers' Lollapalooza dates, he was the
man behind that tour's riffs. He bailed shortly thereafter, though, wanting desperately, no doubt, to express his own soul, rather than hack away as a sideman to Anthony Kiedis (you blame him?).
Niandra Lades and Usually Just a T-Shirt (American) is his debut solo result, and if anybody expected Frusciante to cash in on his 15 minutes of Pepper fame, this disc proves 'em wrong in a big way. These aural doodles -- most of which sound like they were recorded in a bedroom with a guitar, a shitty mike and a 4-track -- is as inaccessible as the Peppers are MTV-friendly. Kiedis may have once wanted to "party on your pussy," but in Frusciante's lyrical world, "your pussy's glued to a building on fire." Whatever the hell that means. Musically, the lo-fi texture sounds like Ween, before Ween started raiding the record collection for hooks, and what you end up with is something that's obviously pushing some boundaries (that's a good thing), but something that nonetheless doesn't break into any rooms you'd want to spend much time in. I've played the disc for more than a few of my friends, and every last one has had the same reaction that I'm stuck with: it's either genius or crap. May well be genius, but if it is, it's over my head, and hell if I've got time to
pend listening to an hour's worth of somebody being smarter than me without even throwing a bone. So crap it is. (**)
So you've spent a few days being beaten over the head with some hep cat's eccentricity, and what you want more than anything is a hot cup of coffee and a cat who can write some real songs. So you notice that Tom Petty's got a new solo disc out, Wildflowers (Warner Brothers), and you plug it in and boom ... songs. The title track is "Free Falling" redux and pretty strong. "You Don't Know How it Feels" follows with a continuation of Petty's Dylan shtick, which still works for some reason, and besides, comes with a video in which Petty doesn't kill any women. The rest is a mixed bag, with gut-rocker "Honey Bee" and the country-bluesy "Don't Fade on Me" standing out, and "To Find a Friend" sounding like a last-minute lyrical rewrite of, umm, "Free Falling" again. If Petty has to resort to self-plagiarism -- and good as he is, I don't mind -- I'd like to hear another "American Girl," please. There's a few too many too-wussy cuts here for a classic album, which seems to be what producer Rick Rubin is trying to go for with all his acts these days (visualize Anthony Kiedis' definitive Rubin-produced solo comeback -- it's bound to happen). Rubin pulled it off with his Johnny Cash coup, but falls just a tad short here. Still, tad short of classic's good enough for me. (***)
Petty's blues turn on "Don't Fade on Me" is great all by its lonesome, but it also made me hungry for the real stuff, and luckily enough, Testament Records has recently released Long Steel Rail, a CD reissue of a long out-of-print LP recorded in 1962 by Maryland blues singer and guitarist Bill Jackson. Jackson got himself discovered in the blues revival of the '60s, leading to these recordings, but for one reason or another, never cashed in. It's a shame, I suppose, because Jackson's stylized fingerpicking and restrained singing are subtle joys, closer to the folky even keel of Mississippi John Hurt than the down-and-dirty exclamations of Lightnin' Hopkins, but unquestionably worth a place of prominence in any self-respecting blues collector's library, even if the liner notes are smug and the recording quality marred. Actually, you needn't be a blues collector to dig all hell out of this disc, but it's much too late in
he game to try to convince you cretins of that. (****)
Archaic music of an entirely different sort is fucked-up on Vision: The Music of Hildegard von Bingen (Angel). Von Bingen's been dead about 800 years now, and the religious chants and musical sequences she wrote are here sung by soprano Emily Van Evera and Sister Germain Fritz and grafted onto a synthesized musical bed by composer Richard Souther, who's apparently making a bid for Peter Gabriel's soundtrack market.
There's a lot of hoohah in the liner notes about musical meetings of the minds across the centuries and all that crap, but the thing is, mix-and-match of this order only works with Granimals and dating services. It's not just disappointing, but frustrating, because the components are gorgeous. But when I want to listen to Peter Gabriel soundtracks, I've got them. And if I want to listen to the achingly beautiful voices of two women who manipulate their vocal chords in a way that makes a reasonably convincing argument for God, I sure as hell don't want a Peter Gabriel soundtrack sneaking around under the table. This disc is out on the Angel label, the same folks who recently placed a copy of Chant right beside the Gipsy Kings CD in the entertainment center in the living room of every yuppie household in America, and they may well score again with this one, but it could have been so much more if it weren't trying to be so damned much. (*)
So, driven again by high concept blunders into trusty low concept standbys, I stumble across The Bottle Rockets' The Brooklyn Side, which is so unexpectedly perfect of its kind that I'm tempted to call the office and make a last minute addition to last week's year-end Best Albums list, only it's late and the layout editor would yell at me. The Bottle Rockets are four guys from Festus, Missouri (sounds like a joke, but hey, it's in the liner notes), who moved to Brooklyn to record this, their second CD. I missed the first one, but these guys play the kind of country rock I like a lot -- strong twang, lots o' guitar, smart wordplay and a disdainful sense of humor. It all shows up best in "Welfare Music," which is mocking and empathetic in one bold stroke, and "1,000 Dollar Car," so dead-on true to the experience of anyone without a trust fund you can almost see the bills piling up. And if you haven't met the righteous chick in "Idiot's Revenge" somewhere or another, you must not get out much. I can find songs in the 14 here that aren't among the disc's best five, but I can't find one I dislike. (*****)
Guide to the Ratings:
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