Reigning pop stars Jewel Kilcher and Alanis Morissette have a lot in common -- both artists' last albums kicked serious commercial ass; both broke ground in making mainstream radio safe for women in the mid '90s; and both have recently taken up acting (Morissette will play God in Kevin Smith's upcoming Dogma, and this spring Jewel will co-star in the Ang Lee-directed Civil War drama A Ride With The Devil). If you're keeping score, Jewel bests Morissette in the literary department, though; the little black book with her poems in it, A Night Without Armor, scored a spot on the New York Times bestseller list. Not bad for someone who was living in her car just a few short years ago.
Perhaps the most interesting parallel, however, is that after skyrocketing to superstardom, both avoided a subsequent crippling creative block to produce purposeful, mature follow-up efforts.
Produced by longtime Madonna collaborator Patrick Leonard, Jewel's Spirit vibrates with a distinctly more lush presence than the dressed-down, no-makeup feel of Pieces Of You. A good number of the tracks begin like unassuming acoustic numbers before swelling into understatedly grandiose productions (the first single, "Hands," included), indicating she may have her sights set on throwing off her monochromatic hippie clothes for the fancier garb of divadom. But true to Jewel's coffeehouse roots, it's Spirit's more stripped-down songs such as "Enter From The East" and "Jupiter" that are warm and unaffected, and easily its most accessible.
There's no doubt Jewel's voice can be grating -- remember, folks, she's an accomplished yodeler -- and in her overarching attempt to be sincere, she occasionally falls flat ("Fat Boy" is so bad, it hurts), but examined as a whole, Spirit sees Jewel graduating to a new level. Watch out, Celine. -- Melissa Blazek
In case Load and Reload didn't convince you, Garage Inc. seals Metallica's status as the kind of band you'll see in concert to hear the old stuff. At least Garage saves you the trouble of having to dig through your collection to be sure: A portion of this double CD covers collection (admirably) rereleases the band's decade-old Garage Days Re-Revisited EP, as well as two songs -- Diamond Head's "Am I Evil?" and Blitzkrieg's "Blitzkrieg" -- that first appeared in 1984 under the title "Garage Days Revisited" (on the B-side of a single for "Creeping Death"). Those would be the best moments on Inc.; the first CD, recorded this fall, is of interest only if you need to be reminded how much better Metallica was at metal than it is at modern rock. Listening to the Garage Days portions of the record, it's hard to believe -- again -- how vast a musical world Metallica constructed from a very constricted approach to an already-narrowly-cast genre. They built everything up from the rhythm guitar and the chunk-chunk of a muted power chord. Those downstrokes so drove their music in the '80s that perhaps the quintessential Metallica moment is when every instrument -- down to the drums -- does nothing but hammer down that chunk-chunk in unison. (This occurs, after a subtly shifting buildup, to brilliant effect in the beginning of "Am I Evil?") In that context, Kirk Hammett's weak and relatively buried lead-guitar voice made sense. Not having obtrusive solos leaping out of every song meant no distractions from Metallica's crushing rhythm chops.
The new stuff on Garage Inc. gets pretty bad -- see the version of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' "Loverman." A decent chunk of it -- Skynyrd's "Tuesday's Gone," Thin Lizzy's "Whiskey in the Jar" and Bob Seger's "Turn the Page" -- displays Metallica in its full-on rock-cowboy mode that, while arousing profound contempt among old-school fans, will keep the band on commercial FM radio through the next millennium. In Metallica's hands, "Turn the Page" becomes a sort of lonely-rock-star companion piece to Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive."
Can Metallica reconcile its old ways with the new? It's worth remembering that, for all of the band's rhythmic heft, singer/songwriter James Hetfield has always been more skilled melodically than one might expect. Though Metallica's best work suggests that he and the band are better at squeezing maximum melodic juice from a limited framework or going for obliqueness than they are at the huge hook, some high points of Load and Reload hint that Metallica might yet successfully marry its machine-like roar to a more pop sensibility. (I'm thinking specifically of "Hero of the Day" and "Fuel.") But here's the thing: The best of the new stuff on Garage Inc. is decent. "The Wait," from 1987, levels buildings. At the band's peak, Metallica's records were crammed with crazed compositional ideas, insane labyrinthine structures and ridiculous rhythmic tics, and their muse was so potent they often made their most ambitious schemes work. Once a band's done that, it's hard to get excited when they settle for making competent modern rock.
-- Jon Fine
John Lee Hooker
The Best of Friends
Wander This World
A & M
To the casual fan, these two releases might suggest the old and the young of contemporary blues. After all, Delta-born octogenarian John Lee Hooker has issued some of the genre's most significant recordings, starting with his signature 1948 hit "Boogie Chillen." And just last year, teen phenom Jonny Lang debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's New Artist chart with "Lie to Me," earning international acclaim as a guitar-slinging blues prodigy. However, while Hooker's latest CD offers invigorated reinterpretations of authentic blues gems, Lang's sophomore production suggests he's ready to abandon the blues world for pop-rock stardom.
Who can blame Lang? The slender blonde man-child is clearly talented and appeals directly to the demographic that entertainment conglomerates most covet: middle-class white kids. (Witness his oft-repeated "In Concert" special on the Disney Channel, or his appearance in the film Blues Brothers 2000.) And there is, of course, a healthy tradition of musicians starting with blues before diversifying to other styles.
On Wander This World, Lang downplays the guitar pyrotechnics that characterized his debut. In fact, he emerges here primarily as a vocalist, using the studio talents of five other guitarists to supplement his own fretwork. The voice is surprisingly strong, rough-edged and soulful, calling to mind, at its best moments, the phrasing of John Hiatt. Sometimes, though, it's downright wince-able. The 18-year-old occasionally strains himself trying to sound a little too world-weary, tortured and, well, black. Keep it natural, Jonny.
Nonetheless, Lang delivers an attractive mix of 12 songs. Only two -- "Angel of Mercy" and a scorching version of the late Luther Allison's "Cherry Red Wine" -- are structured as true blues. Others are informed by funk, especially "I Am" (co-written by Prince and his one-time producer David Z, now Lang's producer) and "Before You Hit the Ground." The bouncy "Second Guessing" is loaded with Motown-esque hooks. Everything else rocks. Among the highlights are the anthemic "Still Rainin'," the gospel-flavored"Leaving to Stay" and the acoustic "Breakin' Me." While the title track has a nice acoustic intro and some creative riffs, the lyrics bespeak a mythic homelessness that rings hollow -- coming from a mere lad who's already made more cash than most musicians do in a lifetime.
Wonderfully idiosyncratic bluesman John Lee Hooker has been at it a long time, having cut more than 100 albums. But only in the past decade has he finally earned enough dollars to keep him boogie-ing in high comfort indefinitely. Multiple Grammy Awards, a TV commercial for Pepsi, a guitar endorsement deal with Epiphone -- these are just some of the indicators of Hooker's recent economic windfall, well-deserved for such a prolific and influential career.
In 1989, that influence was celebrated -- and the career revitalized -- with the landmark release The Healer, which featured Hooker collaborating with the likes of Carlos Santana, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Cray, Los Lobos, Charlie Musselwhite and others. Unlike so many of the facile "tribute" CDs that commonly pair some distinguished old-timer with younger pop stars, this one was all about making good music. With varying results, the strategy of linking Hooker with compatible guest artists was repeated on Mr. Lucky (1991), Boom Boom (1993), Chill Out (1995) and Don't Look Back (1997).
The aptly-titled The Best of Friends is a compilation that highlights ten selections from those releases, featuring (in addition to the artists named above) Eric Clapton, Ry Cooder, Jimmie Vaughan and others. While the performances are consistently impressive, and Hooker's all-original material is timeless, a duet with Van Morrison on "I Cover the Waterfront" stands out -- a beautifully moving slow blues number. The disc also offers three new tracks, including a stirring version of Hooker's subversive classic, "Burnin' Hell," recorded with rising star Ben Harper.
But the best new treat is a potent remake of "Boogie Chillen." The opening cut, it kick-starts the record and reiterates Hooker's primal power as performer and writer. It's practically worth the cost of the CD, even if you already possess the other previously-released material that dominates the disc. And for blues fans who don't, this CD is an absolute must -- showcasing a major genius against the complementary backdrop of talented, tasteful support.
-- Roger Wood
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Music of the World
When we think of world music, we most frequently think of an exotic rhythm, since drumming is one of the most obvious things that sets most of the world's traditions apart from the somewhat predictable 4/4 beat of Anglo-American pop and classical music. But the human voice was undoubtedly the first musical instrument, and before that, the first means of communication between the self and a universe populated by others. Like music, vocal expression has developed in many ingenious ways, and is used to express everything from the most noble spiritual sentiments to the most crass longings of the physical body.
Music of the World, a small label dedicated to authentic (read noncommercial) cultural expressions, created this three CD sampler of tracks from their catalog (and the catalogs of other worthy indie labels) to showcase non-Western vocal traditions, and it's a dizzying ride. The discs are broken down into three categories: Sacred, Traditional and Contemporary, and while there are plenty of compelling tracks, the overall effect is, not unexpectedly, hit or miss. Some tracks, like the five minute excerpt of Buddhist chant by the Ganden Monastery monks, fade out just as you're starting to get trancy, while others, especially the blues and Texas swing tracks on the Contemporary volume, seem out of place. Quibbles aside, there is enough variety on these 43 tracks to keep a listener busy for months. Standout tracks include Souleyman Faye's African blues, the bedrock gospel of "Job" by the Sterling Jubilee Singers, a quintet with close to 400 years of singing experience between them, Tran Quang Hai's Vietnamese throat singing and the guttural bass tones of the Tenores de Oniferi, an a capella quartet from Sardinia, but that merely scratches the surface.
The best way to deal with listening to this set is to load it into your CD player, press the shuffle button, and let the music take you where it will. -- j. poet