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Various Artists
Searching for Jimi Hendrix
The Right Stuff/EMI

Okay, this record is supposed to showcase Jimi Hendrix's great songwriting prowess by having mostly non-guitar-oriented musicians rework his tunes. Fine. But by neglecting to include any real guitar players on this list of Hendrix reinterpreters, the people at The Right Stuff break Sacred Guitar Law No. 1: No one is above the instrument. Not even Jimi.

What this means is that once an artist is established as a heavy rock guitar god, he is nothing but. Remaking Hendrix into some sort of popular crossover-all, which is what this tribute intends to do, is fallacious. He is not anything like a black militant rapper like Public Enemy's Chuck D. ("Free at the Edge of an Answer," a song inspired by Hendrix). He is not anything like a country-crooner like Rosanne Cash ("Manic Depression"). And he is not anything like a Top 40 dame like Taylor Dayne ("The Wind Cries Mary"). He instead is a deity to long-haired, largely white, loner, virtuosi-in-waiting guitar aficionados everywhere. From Trailerparktown, USA, to lower Vladivostok, Hendrix is revered. Not in the urban strip, D.'s territory. Not in Main Street's diners, Cash's territory. And not in the discos, Dayne's stomping ground. Hendrix, by virtue of his instrument and sound of choice, is closer in spirit to those lonely white boys wearing Rush tour T-shirts and hanging out in comic book shops than to those black kids in Air Jordans or those Bud drinkers in alligator boots. What's next: Mstley CrYe, Iron Maiden and Krokus salute the Pointer Sisters?

This Hendrix CD has lots of other baggage, too. Earlier this year, the cable channel Bravo began airing the accompanying documentary, Searching For Jimi Hendrix. Directed by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, who documented the comings and goings of Bob Dylan (Don't Look Back) and David Bowie (Ziggy Stardust), the hour-long video follows the tribute performers from studio to studio. Los Lobos, Charlie Musselwhite, Laurie Anderson, Cassandra Wilson, Five Blind Boys of Alabama, Neville and Sheena Staples, Mark Isham and D., Cash and Dayne are seen as actually being on the search for Hendrix. Not that they'd find him in a recording booth. Or, for some, in their music.

Not that it's not cool for various artists to interpret various musics. I love Kathie Lee Gifford's interpretation of "White Christmas," I'm especially fond of Puff Daddy's "I'll Be Missing You," and you can't beat the Doors's variation of Elvis's "Mystery Train," "Black Train Song," with an aluminum bat. But when genre-crossing is done so poorly, as on this tribute, one has to be weary of politically correct motivations. White hard-rock guitar players or African-American guitarists like Vernon Reid or Stanley Jordan or even Prince would probably have much more interesting things to say about Hendrix than Dayne, Cash or Five Blind Boys. But since today's listening public does not appreciate hard rock -- or African-American guitarists -- Vernon Reid remains a non-thought.

Los Lobos is probably the only truly appropriate choice on this album. Not only is guitarist David Hidalgo excellent and capable of handling any takes on Hendrix, but the band itself is somewhat of a Hendrixian anomaly on the pop landscape. Comprising all Mexican-American musicians, the band -- probably one of the best acts working today -- attacks the predominantly white institution of rock and roll with abandon, much in the way Hendrix did lo these 30-some-odd years ago. And as it's complimentary to say a white vocalist sounds "black," so -- in the case of edgy rock -- is it sometimes complimentary to say a Mexican-American or black guitar player sounds "white." Thus, of Hidalgo, the man's a gringo.

"Are You Experienced," the song Los Lobos reinvents, resembles the original almost to the note. The muted chops of the intro aren't quite as rhythmic as Hendrix's, but the expectancy in the march of the drums, the Eastern flavor of the loose guitar work, which seems to fill oceanic amounts of space, and the off-in-the-distance conversational delivery of the lyrics are reverential to Hendrix completely. The thing least lackadaisical about the song is the solo, which is delivered in real time; not like Hendrix's studio version, which was played in reverse and sounds like what one would imagine dancing backward to Philip Glass in slow motion would sound like. Of the 11 songs on Searching, this Los Lobos track is the most listenable.

That's not to say there aren't some other mildly bright spots. "Little Wing" by Los Illegals is one. This version is a jumpy take on a rather somber tune. Though also Latino, the band reveals its rather whitish, countrified side here. Hard, low-tone plucking hogs the forefront as drums skip in double time with the highly charged glare of feedback groaning in the background. Even the lead singers' harmonic voices seem more Protestant than Pentecostal. It all goes down well, though.

 

Other winners are jazz singer Wilson's "Angel" because, well, it's Wilson, a great popular music interpreter; bluesman Musselwhite's "Here My Train A Comin'" because, well, Musselwhite would sound good singing a 1040-EZ tax form; and Anderson's "1983." The techno songstress brings an orchestral moodiness to the soundscape, especially to the refrain, "forever," which she breaks in half with her voice as a yodeler would a yelp. The overall texture, harmonic yet ominous, is enjoyable.

Then there's Dayne's "The Wind Cries Mary," which sounds like an awful attempt at radio play. The song features a boingy synth line, the annoying clap of a drum machine and one or two jangly guitar lines. It's all about as deep as a toilet bowl. The only redeeming aspect of the song is Dayne's voice, which is formidable.

But undoubtedly the worst piece of crap on this record is Chuck D.'s pitiful attempt at understanding Hendrix's role in rock and roll during the 1960s. "Free at the Edge of an Answer" is set to the riff of Hendrix's "Crosstown Traffic" and includes -- among other things -- a choice take on a Hendrix lyric ("'Scuse me while I kiss the sky / Nigger, kiss my black ass / 'cause at least I try.") D.'s argument is that black music today is not experimental. Or, more accurately, that black music today is not as experimental as Hendrix's was back in the day. Um, excuse me, but experimental music does not sell, and Hendrix, through the course of his three or so years of music-making, sold more records than any other black rocker of the day. Sly Stone not included.

Maybe D. should rethink what his idea of "experimental" is. Rapping over distorted guitars and heavy drums, as D. does on "Free," isn't adventurous. If anything, it's a step backward, a step closer toward the mainstream. Whatever happened to strong melodies, accomplished musicianship and insightful lyrics? They didn't also die in 1970, did they?

-- Anthony Mariani

Robbie Williams
The Ego Has Landed
Capitol

Like childhood actors, teen pop idols often have a tough time making the transition to adulthood and maintaining a career in the entertainment industry. The attributes that make them attractive in their youth -- fresh faces, innocence and navete -- fade, and the pressures of growing up in public take their toll. Bad professional choices, drug habits, an inflated sense of self-importance and a desire to gain control of their careers usually wreck the potential of youngsters to grow old in front of the adoring masses. Then again, if you grew up having your ass kissed constantly, you too might snort a lot of cocaine, trash some hotel rooms or build your own zoo with Bubbles the Chimp.

British teen star Robbie Williams has been through most of the usual travails on his way to becoming a legal-aged star in his native England. As a member of Take That (the UK's answer to the New Kids on the Block) Williams was a trailblazer of the pre-fab boy-band machine, built more on good looks than music. Take That formed in 1990 (when Williams was 16) and did the New-Jack-Swing thing before getting into dance music, which is the kind of repulsive, mindless pop that is best left unheard. But Take That was also a smashing hit in Europe, where trash pop never dies. Eventually Williams, like the majority of childhood stars, grew tired of being a puppet and wanted to have a bigger say in the band's "musical direction."

Depending on who tells the story, he either quit or was fired from the band in 1995. He started hangin' with Oasis and investing a lot of his Take That money in white powder. A year and rehab later he released his first single, a cover of George Michael's "Freedom." It bombed. Then everything changed with one song, "Angels," the fourth single from his September 1997 record, Life Thru a Lens. It was a stratospheric hit in Europe. The follow-up album, I've Been Expecting You, was just as big. Williams had made the leap -- more famous and successful as an adult than when he was a teen.

His American solo debut culls 14 songs from those two European records for an uneven work. The Ego Has Landed wears its heart on its spine; Williams has a dry, cheeky, British sense of humor and a love for giant songs. For example, "Let Me Entertain You" is his theme song. A barrelhouse piano-fueled, glam-tinged epic, it builds and builds to a point in which Williams, aided by a squealing trumpet, urgently repeats in big rock fashion, "Come on, come on." It all brings to mind flashpots, sexy backup singers, larger than life dancing, video screens and every other accoutrement of an arena concert. In fact, his strength is in his live performances. That's where his charisma shines. "Entertain You" captures the energy pretty closely.

 

Still, the simplicity of his teen music carries over. The emotions aren't complex. From the love-me-mum sentiments of "One of God's Better People" to the I-wish-my-former-manager-was-dead-bile of "Karma Killer" (which features such bons mots as "I hope you choke / On your Bacardi and Coke"), Williams paints in black and white. The music, mostly co-written with Guy Chambers of World Party, is thankfully a bit more complicated. It veers from the melodic emoting of "Angels" to the electro-pop of "No Regrets" to the Oasis-lite of "Lazy Days" to the hip-hop-colored rock of the first single, "Millennium." The only constant is the giant, catchy hook, the kind of hook that begs to be heard in hockey arenas and outdoor amphitheaters. And that's the point of pop music. Whether the songs come from Florida's Backstreet Boys, Boston's New Kids or England, they must have that tangible, easy-to-sing-along-with quality. The most accessible of the lot is "Angels," a guilty-pleasure love song that has moved soccer hooligans to tears at Williams's concerts. They sing along with every word.

That's not to say that there isn't a certain amount of maturity to Ego. "Killing Me" is a sturdy piano and acoustic guitar track. It's not filler, but it's also not single material, which means that Williams may be able to fire off a proper album at some point, not just a list of isolated four-minute ditties. Teen idols take note.

At an American concert earlier this year Williams remarked that he likes being unknown in America, because he can go out in public and not be mobbed, except when he wants to get laid. Being well loved in the UK hasn't helped others here. The Stone Roses, Placebo, Gomez and a long line of artists have been unprepared or unwilling to appeal to the American masses. But Williams, in his shotgun-style approach, has a little bit of something for everyone, which means he could win over a large audience or no one at all. The smart money is on a hit, despite The Ego Has Landed's shortcomings.

-- David Simutis


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