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Portishead
PNYC
London

On PNYC, Bristol, England's Portishead indulges itself and its film interest; this is the soundtrack to a concert film recorded and filmed at New York's Roseland Ballroom (except two tracks, recorded elsewhere). The idea of a live record from a band with only two full-length records is a bit strange, as all of the 11 tracks on PNYC are nearly note-for-note replications of the album versions culled from their two releases. The inclusion of a 30-piece orchestra seems like a fantastic idea, giving the band a chance to organically reproduce what they normally use machines to do. What makes Portishead interesting is its combination of slow beats, cinematic soundscapes and closed-in paranoia. Normally, its adventurousness is of a vertical kind, piling weirdness on top of weirdness, but here the added instrumentation takes up sonic space in a much different manner. The claustrophobia the band usually creates by placing so many sounds in close proximity is replaced by agoraphobia -- with the band afraid to step into the wide-open spaces the orchestra affords. Portishead doesn't use the enormity of the ensemble as a jumping-off point. Instead, the colossal group moves in a pack -- dense with sound, but not packed in so tightly -- almost as if comforted and self-absorbed by its size.

Even with all of this newfound room, the band does manage to get twisted around themselves, and that's a good thing. With subtle strings swelling behind a simple acoustic guitar, "Over" takes its time getting into gear, but when the drums kick in and DJ Andy Smith burns a needle scratching, the track instantly switches from baroque pop to ominously dark trip-hop. Elsewhere, on "Only You," the ensemble channels the eeriness of blaxploitation soundtracks (think the climactic music of Superfly) but with a reserved air, before a lounge-y electric piano solo delivers a way out. Instead of creepiness heaped on top of itself, it's the sound of one thing running into another. The dizzy guitars hit the horns of "Strangers" before the string section rears up with the coda. The orchestra comes in to counterpoint the crisp brass of "All Mine."

Singer Beth Gibbons provides a point of focus during all of this, sounding as if she were unable to stop the voices within her from coming out. Her over-the-top, unearthly presence wavers between the drugged-out chanteuse of "All Mine" and the howling banshee on the slowed, heavy and blistering version of "Sour Times." The latter of which finds her screaming the song's hook, "Nobody loves me, it's true," at the end in a way that suggests nobody ever will, either.

-- David Simutis

Amy Rigby
Middlescence
Koch International

Middlescence is a word coined by Rigby, a wiseass, thirtysomething singer/songwriter, to describe the "time of life between arrested development and hard-won maturity." In a culture that refuses to allow people, particularly women, to age gracefully, and regards older people as human garbage rather than elders with valuable knowledge to pass on, it's easy to understand Rigby's ironic attempt to come to terms with her uneasy position on the social totem pole, somewhere between the tail end of the baby boomers and the rapidly graying vanguard of Gen X.

Rigby has a pleasing, if limited, voice, which isn't always a liability in the singer/songwriter biz if you're a Dylan or an Alanis. The more pressing problem is Rigby's schizophrenic artistic stance. Half the time she's tossing off sarcastic bons mots, half the time she's trying for poignant insights, but most of the time she lacks the biting humor to bring off the former and the depth of insight to make the latter ring true. When the formula works, as it does on the rocking "Raising the Bar," a humorous meditation on approaching middle age, and "Invisible," which takes on the same subject with a slightly more jaundiced eye, Rigby can be smart, sympathetic and affecting. But much of the time, the songs seem half finished, and Rigby's vocals tentative.

The music on Middlescence has a glossy, pleasing pop sheen, but like much of the album, when you strip away the superficial gloss, there's nothing left. The arrangements, a bossa nova and a couple of three-chord rockers, tickle the memory banks, but after the initial thrill of recognition, there's no follow-through.

Artists such as Randy Newman and Patti Smith have turned pop cliches inside out with interesting results, and one gets the impression that Rigby would like to do the same. But it takes more than a clever chord progression and a couple of smart remarks to do the job.

-- j. poet

Travis Tritt
No More Lookin' Over My Shoulder
Warner Brothers

Baseball legend Satchel Paige's famous quote warns not to look over your shoulder, because something might be gaining on you. And if that's true, then Travis Tritt better keep his eyes straight ahead in the wake of his latest release -- unless he wants to gaze right into the visage of mediocrity. Oh, I forgot -- he probably does that every day while shaving.

 

It wasn't always that way, of course. Back in the good ol' days of the early '90s, a young and hungry Tritt unabashedly proved you could love George Jones, the Eagles and Lynyrd Skynyrd at the same time, spewing forth a score of shit-kickin' singles ("Here's a Quarter,""T-R-O-U-B-L-E") that raised the roof off his more conservative cohorts.

Not surprisingly, the only good tracks on this effort are the beer-soaked rowdy raves ("Rough Around the Edges," "Girls Like That"). In most of the rest Tritt is in a moonin' and croonin' mode, to which he is not best suited. Even the power ballad first single, "If I Lost You," couldn't entice Sadie Hawkins with its tired proclamations of devotion -- though I do think he could do better with stronger songs. And while no critic should chastise Tritt -- or any other artist for that matter -- for attempting to grow and explore different directions, you've got to remember, as they say in Texas, to dance with them what brung ya.

The "I'm a rowdy long-haired country rebel with a wild past" persona was getting a bit stale, but Tritt's slip into the comfort zone is enough to make one downright nostalgic for a time in his career that's barely over. Particularly ill-advised is his cover of Bruce Springsteen's fine lament "Tougher Than the Rest." While the Boss's spare and even delivery evoked a world-weary but urgent strength, Tritt's take is a whiny, rote-spoken boast that he (and we) knows he can't deliver on. And with that in mind, this record from TT arrives in terms of another acronym: DOA.

-- Bob Ruggiero

Buddy Guy & Junior Wells
Last Time Around -- Live at Legends
Silvertone Records

When blues harpist and singer Junior Wells died of lymphoma in early 1998, most fans more than likely at first directed their sympathies not to his family, but to fellow legend and esteemed guitarist Buddy Guy, Wells's frequent partner and collaborator of more than 30 years. And that's not so much the insensitive action it first seems: It's more of a tribute to the close personal and musical friendship that the Chicago-based performers had.

This live effort captures performances from the very last time the duo appeared on the same stage together, at Guy's club in 1993. This acoustic-based record is not their definitive recorded collaboration -- that honor belongs to Buddy Guy and Junior Wells Play the Blues. But rather, it's a wholly warm and accessible collection of material that offers the intimate pleasures of an impromptu living room jam.

During one Wells harmonica section, Guy tells him to "Suck it for me!" Wells breaks into laughter and responds, "Watch it, brother, watch it!" The sometimes too-leisurely pace might have benefited from a few electric songs and the dropping of some too-obvious selections (i.e., "Hoochie Coochie Man"), but the pair clicks as only an experienced team could on the best tracks like Jimmie Rodgers's "That's All Right," Guy's "I've Been There" and a surprising version of Ray Charles's "What I'd Say."

It also says a lot about Guy's postproduction generosity that, even though he's by far the stronger vocalist, most of the disc features his partner's rougher intonations. The album closes with the pair trading verses on Wells's signature tune, "Hoodoo Man Blues," likewise closing the door on their fruitful musical partnership. Live at Legends provides a nice coda for a pairing which the blues world will sorely miss.

-- Bob Ruggiero

Kate & Anna McGarrigle
The McGarrigle Hour
Hannibal

The McGarrigle sisters have been making music for 30 years, and throughout they have always done so with elegance and taste. The McGarrigle Hour is a concept album that sums up those many years, and it's a triumph of their distinctive talents.

The idea behind the recording was to gather their extended family -- from ex-husbands to grown children to friends -- and perform songs that have affected them through the years. So they are joined by the Wainwrights (Loudon, Rufus and Martha -- Kate's ex and their children) as well as Anna's family (Dane, Sylvan and Lily Laken) plus special guests Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, for a collection of 21 exquisitely beautiful and starkly honest songs.

These are not just any songs, however. Some were written by members of their talented family, others by such songwriting giants as Cole Porter, Stephen Foster, Jesse Winchester and Irving Berlin. The McGarrigle Hour is like a variety show with different voices and styles of music placed side by side, each exposing a different aspect of the sisters' repertoire. While the music is deeply rooted in the folk tradition, they manage to rise above the inherent cliches of the genre with the eclectic nature of the music they've chosen. Few artists could include D.L. Menard's "Porte en Arriere," Loudon Wainwright's "Schooldays" and Berlin's "What'll I Do" on one record and make it seem so natural. They even decided to bring back renowned British producer Joe Boyd, with whom they had worked on their first album in 1976. Boyd provides a light touch, which gives the proceedings an air of solemnity while letting the voices involved mingle into a suitably joyful noise.

 

-- Jim Caligiuri

The Tractors
Farmers in a Changing World
Arista/Nashville

One of the most unlikely success stories in country music was the 1994 debut record of the Tractors and their hit single, "Baby Likes to Rock It." I say unlikely, because the band plays something that's almost an anomaly in country music today -- actual country music. Their blend of rural country sounds, boogie-woogie shuffles and bluegrass pickin's may earn them a place in the No Depression movement, but truth be told, this seasoned group of former sideman and studio musicians to the famous are a lot funkier.

Their engine churns most strongly on tracks like the swamp romp "Linda Lou," the square-dance clapper "Way Too Late," and the made-for-line-dancing "Poor Boy Shuffle." They even manage to turn in a unique take on "Shortenin' Bread," which in addition to being the first single, is simply impossible to resist moving your body to. Believe me, I've tried it and even used ropes to tie down my torso, to no avail. You just have to go with it. The ballads are a bit less successful, and while "The Elvis Thing" is notable for the guest appearance of the King's original backing band, it's further meditation on an already overdone subject.

And while lead singer, songwriter and guitarist Steve Ripley is the way-out-front front man (though a limited vocal range brings to mind a smoother Tom Waits), the secret cog in this tractor is pianist Walt Richmond, whose fleet fingers give Farmers in a Changing World a boost of boogie.

The band uses dozens of vintage instruments (including a 1916 Steinway piano and a 1954 Martin acoustic guitar), and the cover and booklet are illustrated with charming farming illustrations from children's books of the '30s and '50s.

-- Bob Ruggiero

Big Head Todd and the Monsters
Live Monsters
Giant Records

Big Head Todd and the Monsters started out as a live band and only began making records after their fans demanded them. They've toured nonstop since they formed in 1986, building fan bases in Colorado, Chicago, Austin and San Francisco. What started out as a trio of buddies playing blues clubs and frat parties has turned into a group that doesn't quite possess rock-star status but has a cult-like following among neohippie alterna-blues-rockers.

So it's no surprise that Todd Park Mohr and company issued a live album, Live Monsters, recorded from shows in Austin, Denver, Chicago and Atlanta. Their on-stage camaraderie translates well into relaxed, comfortable playing that still rocks. Mohr plays a killer lead guitar, although their sound guy would be well-advised to turn up Mohr's vocals a bit, as his singing is sometimes obscured by guitars. The real show-stealer is backup singer Hazel Miller, who belts out tunes skillfully and soulfully.

One complaint: The traditional acoustic set that precedes each Big Head Todd and the Monsters show isn't on this album. At my first BHTM show -- September 1995 in Vail, Colorado -- there was no opening band, just 45 minutes of Mohr waxing poetic on his guitar. As this is such an integral part of the live Big Head Todd and the Monsters experience, why couldn't they have included just a song or two from the acoustic set?

-- Melanie Haupt


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