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Eric Clapton
Pilgrim
Reprise Records

To those for whom the '60s are less a memory than a myth, to those who believe yesterday never means as much as tomorrow, Eric Clapton barely exists. His post-'80s output contains scarcely an echo of what he created in the '60s and early '70s, so much so that you'd be foolish to try to link what was to what is. At best, he's an overrated legend; at worst, Clapton has become a hack and a whore, a musician who has sold out so often he owns the whole franchise. His is the new-age blues now, and he makes music for people who only think they like music in the first place. Don't be fooled: Clapton '98 is a business, and nothing more.

Such is the vibe on Pilgrim, Clapton's first album since the debacle that was TDF, a release so embarrassing even to him that he didn't bother to put his name on the jacket (it was credited to X-Sample) or use his face in publicity photos. Desperate to prove he hadn't been left behind, Clapton leapt onto the techno bandwagon and was crushed beneath its wheels; the results were the ambient noodlings of a man who seemed completely lost, unsure of himself, finished. Coming as it did after From the Cradle -- his attempt to recapture the blues fetish that made him, for a moment, a guitar god to deluded Britons who wouldn't know Lightning Hopkins if he struck them dead -- his electronic foray was the question mark at the end of a career.

Pilgrim is nothing more than another sad coda, more adult pop by a man who was once the finest white interpreter of black music. It's tempting to excuse the disc's mellow ramblings as the grown-up revelations of someone who has experienced the deep loss of family and friends. Indeed, after all Clapton's been through -- losing his son to a tragic accident and his band members in the same helicopter crash that claimed the life of his friend and acolyte Stevie Ray Vaughan -- one might resist criticizing his work for fear of being labeled callous. But Clapton is no Bob Dylan, and he has rarely been given to revelation: Here, he too easily falls back on cliche to express himself -- "I'm drowning in a river of tears," he sings on the Pilgrim's second track -- and too often buries himself beneath production so garish and impenetrable you can barely even hear the guitar-playing of one of the greatest guitar players of the past three decades; it's there, somewhere, lost underneath all those synthesized strings and electronic drum tracks. Calling the music on Pilgrim tepid, flat, boring soul music so white it's blinding would be to give this CD too much credit.

Clapton sounds like Steve Winwood circa 1987, oversinging and underwriting songs until they sound like a thousand other forgotten hooks you once ignored on the radio. "Needs His Woman" is almost tuneless, riddled with so many borrowed images (every song seems to contain a reference to "falling rain") and hackneyed sentiments ("he needs his woman to love") and ringing chimes that it's too moribund even for VH-1. Only "Sick and Tired" and "She's Gone" radiate any life: The former begins with a distorted guitar kick and never wavers, offering a slight joke ("I'm gonna buy me a parrot and teach it how to call my name / Then I won't have to miss you, babe") that bursts from this dreary disc like the burst of a thousand suns.

But those fleeting moments are not enough to excuse Pilgrim's saccharine misery, not by a long shot. There's nothing so depressing as hearing a former rocker give in to middle age, dumbing down and fogging over as he coasts to the finish line. Clapton shot the sheriff a long time ago. Now, it seems, he also shot his wad. (*)

-- Robert Wilonsky

Fastball
All the Pain Money Can Buy
Hollywood Records

Thus far, Hollywood Records has been a hapless music-industry gamble for parent company Disney. A few years down the line, the struggling label has yet to yield a major hit, let alone a single breakthrough artist.

Fastball could change all that. This insufferably clever, deceptively commercial Austin trio has the tireless work ethic and hook-doused ingenuity to become Texas's answer to the Goo Goo Dolls -- and with a better sense of humor, to boot. Ah, but Hollywood dragged its feet in promoting the band's irresistible 1996 debut, Make Your Mama Proud, an insanely catchy coalescence of pop craftsmanship and punk spirit delivered at a steroid-addled hare's pace. But buried under the label's mountain of movie soundtracks, Mama saw very little, if any, national airplay, and Hollywood seemed resigned to its failure. The end result: Millions of listeners never knew what they'd missed.

 

But armed with All the Pain Money Can Buy, Hollywood has a chance of redeeming itself. This follow-up is every bit as good as its predecessor, and has more patient tempos and smarter songwriting, as well. Fastball's Miles Zuniga and Tony Scalzo -- with their sympathetic, self-deprecating stance and impeccable read on the perfect hum-along chorus -- are a thrift-store Lennon and McCartney, thoroughly immersing themselves in the gritty life around them, from drug-addicted friends to their own struggles with money to distant human tragedies stolen from newspaper headlines. Pain's simplest sentiments are the most powerful: "Sometimes I feel like I am drunk behind the wheel / The wheel of possibility, however it may roll," Scalzo laments on "Out of My Head," an endearing bedside confessional to a lover unjustly slighted.

Fastball's predominantly guitar-driven attack is equally powerful. But lest you think it's particularly unique, think again. The group steals from just about anyone. "Warm Fuzzy Feeling" -- the sobering reflection on the state of the music biz requisite for any band jilted by the industry -- is backed by vacuum-packed Queen-like harmonies. Meanwhile, echoes of early Elton John inform the giddy, saloon-style piano accompaniment on the subversively melodic first single, "The Way"; and "G.O.D. (Good Old Days)" boasts cheesy, sugar-coated brass straight out of the Bobby Sherman School of Schlock.

But keep in mind, Fastball's rifling through the past is done with a fan's exuberance, a brashness that is almost always inspiring -- the mark of a band in love with its job. "Won't you tell me which way to the top?" Zuniga croons on "Which Way to the Top," a cozy, soulful little duet with wily chick-rocker Poe. " 'Cause you know that I can't stay down here."

Hang tight, guys, it shouldn't be long now. (****)
-- Hobart Rowland

Austin Lounge Lizards
Employee of the Month
Sugar Hill

One wonders what Bill Monroe, the founding father of bluegrass, would have thought of the Austin Lounge Lizards. The visionary mandolinist and songwriter was a serious fellow -- and on their latest CD, Employee of the Month, the Lizards love little more than spraying a big, wet raspberry at the myths, conventions and ironies of everyday modern life.

It's doubtful the dour Monroe would have seen the humor in "Rocky Byways," the tale of a traveling bluegrass band with a "sharp-dressed chicken" as part of their act. And, no doubt, the spiritual string-band style of Jim Stafford's "Flatnose, the Tree-Climbing Dog," might have struck the patriarch as sacrilegious. But even when they poke fun at bluegrass conventions in their lyrics, the Lizards play the stuff damn well -- albeit with a cheeky elan. And when they let loose on the short but classic Mexican instrumental "La Cacahuate," you realize how adept and imaginative they are as players.

It's humor that gives the Austin Lounge Lizards their most distinctive edge, a playful yet gentle post-collegiate sense of parody and irony. If you happen to share the same musical and cultural references, this collection should evoke chuckles. The title theme does crop up a few times, most notably on "Leonard Cohen's Day Job," where the gloomy post-folk bard takes a gig as a mechanic for inspiration. The clever use of Cohen lyrics and multi-instrumentalist Tom Pittman's croaking Cohenesque delivery are right on the money. Similarly, "Stupid Texas Song" ought to coax either a laugh or a rise out of anyone who's heard one of the zillions of other Lone Star flag-wavers (sample lyric: "Our cook-offs are the chiliest, our Waylon is the Williest").

Kidding aside, it does take a certain mature consciousness to appreciate the full import of "Hey, Little Minivan," a '60s-style California car anthem paying tribute to the family vehicle of the '90s. On Employee of the Month, the Austin Lounge Lizards continue to refine both their wit and their playful musical spirit. They put the hoots back in hootenanny. (***)

-- Rob Patterson

The Austin Lounge Lizards perform Saturday, March 7, at McGonigel's Mucky Duck.

The High Llamas
Cold and Bouncy
V2/Alpaca Park

Brian Wilson drove himself mad when he could no longer fit all his emotions into three-minute "pocket symphonies," while Burt Bacharach has achieved a sunset hipness working within the carefully drawn boundaries of MOR professionalism. Sean O'Hagan of the High Llamas looks to both as influences, but he's not a fragile visionary or a union-certified craftsman. When he collaborated with Cathal Coughlan as Microdisney throughout the '80s, O'Hagan tried to reconcile old-fashioned pop and bitter polemics without much luck (their collection We Hate You White South African Bastards made agitpop seem whimsical instead of dangerous).

 

Since splitting with Coughlan, O'Hagan and his fellow Llamas have spent most of the '90s fixated on Smile-era Brian Wilson, with somewhat better results. Having dropped any pretense of topicality, O'Hagan has been free to explore music as mood, which he did most successfully on 1994's Gideon Gaye -- an album so openhearted in its affection for Wilson and Van Dyke Parks that to call it imitative only validates what O'Hagan was trying to do. The question of whether the Llamas might be stuck in a formula as deadly as Microdisney's was raised by 1996's Hawaii, a concept album that lifts Wilson's obsession with the West Coast as a last resort for dreamers and takes it farther in name only.

On Cold and Bouncy, O'Hagan seems to recognize the corner he's headed toward. It's not so much that the basic approach has changed -- like the last couple of albums, this one's evenly split between actual songs and what amounts to soundtrack filler -- but he exaggerates the "cold" (electronic Morse code from a galaxy known as the '70s) and plays up the "bouncy" (easy-listening brass and harmonies that make the Lettermen sound positively funky). In O'Hagan's hands, Bacharach's melodicism comes off like Paul McCartney fronting a prerock version of XTC -- sickeningly sweet, but pleasant enough in small doses.

Once you've done a soft-shoe routine to "The Sun Comes Down," there's not much left to do but repeat the same goofy little dance to "Tilting Windmills" and "Painters Paint." Maybe it's to O'Hagan's credit that he writes and performs lounge music with a genuine smile rather than a smirk, but it still doesn't add up to the seamless whole that he intends. Where Wilson risked commercial disaster and his sanity pushing himself to places he'd never been, O'Hagan consciously chooses to trap himself in the netherworld between sleek pop and true art. Cold and Bouncy is music of the heart made straight from the head. (****)

-- Keith Moerer

CDs rated on a one to five star scale.


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