Wit is rarely rewarded in pop music. That's especially true on the American end, where heavy doses of irony haven't translated well to the airwaves. So naturally, Canada's premier cerebral-novelty exports, Barenaked Ladies, haven't always had the best of luck here. Indeed, their coupling of the class clown with the sensitive romantic can be a hard marriage to digest in the span of a three-minute pop song.
Until Stunt, that is. Inexplicably rocketing into the Billboard Top 10 almost upon its release, Barenaked Ladies' fourth full-length recording follows in the same serio-silly footsteps as the band's lone previous domestic hit, "Brian Wilson." However, the group's strength -- its members' ability to combine humor and sadness (sample lyric: "I'm the kind of guy who laughs at a funeral") -- can also be its weakness. That is to say, they tend to kill themselves with cleverness. So even when they're striving to be earnest, one automatically assumes they're wearing smirks.
Stunt's first single, "One Week," bears out this self-absorbed prankster philosophy. A combination of acoustic pop, pseudo-funky guitar and white-boy rap breaks (which approach four-words-per-beat velocity), the track manages to cram references to LeAnn Rimes, Harrison Ford, The X-Files and Snickers candy bars into a story that presumably documents a dysfunctional relationship. Sound like a stretch? It is. Is it a quirky, catchy potential hit? You betcha. Will it sound dated in three years? Yep.
Doubtless, the Barenaked Ladies have a mighty way with a hook. But do remorse-ridden, lost-love laments really need spicing up with winking references to mutual masturbation ("In the Car")? But then again, if the Ladies took themselves too seriously, they could be just another Matchbox 20. And we can't have that sort of stunt. (** 1/2)
-- David Simutis
When my dear music editor (a man I'm not afraid to say I love) requested a review of the debut CD from Cleopatra, a very young, very perky black-sister trio from Manchester, England, I thought he'd finally lost it. But, being the trend-spotter his job description requires, he had justifiable reasons: "This is like another Spice Girls/Hanson thing," I recall him saying, referring to Cleopatra's obvious commercial possibilities.
But, alas, in Cleopatra's case, the Spice Girls are Hanson -- as if they were some intricate gene-splicing experiment gone terribly awry. High-pitched, high-spirited ragamuffins Zainam, Yonah and Cleopatra are so sugary sweet they must bleed Kool-Aid. And on Comin' Atcha, they are simply girls laying down music for other girls. Sure, they mean well, but even if you attempt to see this stuff from the perspective of a chipper 14-year-old, the polished pop melodies and cloyingly uplifting lyrics ("We all want the same success / So we're wishing for the best") are still enough to make you wince. But let's give these gals the benefit of the doubt: Unlike the Spice Girls, they're more likely to improve with age than to lie about it. (** 1/2)
-- Craig D. Lindsey
Aquamosh is 1998's freshest, smartest, silliest hip-hop statement to date -- and fancy this: It's a product of Mexico. It was bound to happen. For decades now, the gringo music industry has been courting our neighbors to the south with varying degrees of cockiness, conducting an extremely arrogant and lopsided exchange of sounds and trends. Call it entertainment diplomacy's trickle-down effect.
Naturally, it's the young people of Mexico who have been the most indiscriminate in absorbing whatever's filtered their way. And now, finally, they're spitting some of it back at us -- in the guise of both the rampant rock en Espanol movement and less-definable multifaceted pop-culture scavengers such as Plastilina Mosh. Based in the urban/industrial center of Monterey (a fairly routine, eight-hour road trip from Houston, mind you), Plastilina Mosh is Alejandro Rosso and Jonas. At 22, Jonas is the younger and more extroverted of the two, and he has gladly taken on the role of lead singer/rapper/guitarist and all-around nuisance. The 25-year-old Rosso, meanwhile, is a student of both jazz and classical music and, as such, he's the main man behind Aquamosh's lush stockpile of keyboards (organ, Moog, piano), super-elastic looping effects, bountiful preprogrammed beats and insufferably clever, mix-and-match arrangements.
It's the friendly tension that erupts when the two clash that gives Aquamosh its ear-tickling fizz. Yet, what really lends a nervy, organic dynamism to this stunning 12-track debut is the playful way in which Plastilina Mosh both accommodates and assimilates those differences. Jonas's hard-rock loyalties rarely ever ram their way into the mix, but rather teasingly rub up against -- and play off of -- Rosso's more erudite sensibilities. As is evidenced by the slinky, ornamental jazz epic "I've Got That Milton Pacheco Kinda Feeling" (the perfect theme music, it would seem, for a '90s Charlie's Angels retread) and the gummy funk-hop workout of the title track, the pair has already mastered the art of creative give and take.
But where Rosso and Jonas find the most common ground is in their finely attuned taste for the more enduring refuse of the American hype machine. On Aquamosh, they make like Chicano Beastie Boys on "Nino Bomba," while doing the suburban stoner eccentricities of Ween one better on "Bungaloo Punta Comets." And on "Pornoshop" and "Monster Truck," they extol the titillating, if questionable, virtues of white-trash leisure culture with all the lo-fi sonic savvy of Beck. Bubble-gum hip-hop that clings to the innards like a soothing slug of polyglot Pepto-Bismol, Aquamosh is truly the domain of a world without borders. That being the case, Plastilina Mosh's long-term nutritional value cannot be underestimated. (****)
-- Hobart Rowland
Where have all the real rock-and-rollers gone? When Living Colour broke, in the late '80s, that question was briefly answered: They'd gone black. With its renegade, freewheeling mix of funk/metal thrash and sociopolitical angst, Living Colour looked, felt and sounded like rock's last great salvation. On their brilliant debut CD Vivid, and the even more brilliant single "Cult of Personality," they showed that rock with a purpose didn't have to wither and die.
But after three full-length releases, Living Colour itself withered and died in 1995. While other band members either went on to solo efforts or were absorbed by other projects, charismatic lead singer Corey Glover went on a sabbatical from music and pursued other interests. A sometime actor, perhaps best known for his role in Platoon, Glover even endured a stint as a VJ on VH-1.
Now, his trademark dreadlocks neatly shorn, Glover has resurfaced from the small-screen abyss with his solo debut, Hymns, and he fares surprisingly well without the powerful support of guitar hero Vernon Reid and the rest of the Colour guard. Working with the writer/producer team of Peter Lord and V. Jeffrey Smith -- better known as part of the neo-soul outfit the Family Stand -- the singer reinvents himself as a troubadour of Southern-influenced soul. (Even if he was actually born and raised in Brooklyn, New York.)
A down-home feel pervades Hymns, whether it emerges in the velvety guitars and pleasing organ-fills of "Hot Buttered Soul" or the aggressive brass and Wilson Pickett vibe of "Things Are Getting in the Way." String sections also play a part in the proceedings, adding texture and emotion to the predictable but penetrating ballads "April Rain" and "Little Girl." Then there's the album's best track, "One," in which Glover layers on enough vessel-popping vocal potency to make his overblown sentiments sound like the gospel truth.
Hymns loses its sparkle when Glover attempts to resuscitate the legacy of his previous band with the heavy-handed "Sermon" and "Do You First, Then Do Myself," the latter of which includes the rather racy lyrical turn, "Daddy loves your sweet perfume / Not the kind you bought in France / Daddy loves to smell your sex / Makes him wants to scream and dance." Word of advice, Corey: save the hard-rock histrionics for the Living Colour reunion. (***)
-- Craig D. Lindsey
Corey Glover performs Friday, July 31, at Instant Karma.
Two years ago, Patty Griffin turned quite a few heads with her debut release, Living with Ghosts, a collection of sparse but intense glimpses into her nutty little world. But those who see Griffin as the quaint, brainy folk artist of Ghosts are in for a shock when they hear Flaming Red. On first listen, some may even think A&M put the wrong disc in the jewel case.
Opening with a jarring, raw title track that recalls Patti Smith at her raging best, Griffin loudly and abruptly breaks new ground in what is, for her, uncharted territory. She hasn't completely turned her back on passionate introspection, she's simply applied it to settings vastly different from those in her previous work.
Producer/guitarist Jay Joyce deserves credit for fashioning Flaming Red's decidedly modern and rocking atmosphere. Electronically enhanced looping effects provide a dense backdrop on "Carry Me"and "Mary," while Hendrix-like riffs bristle through "Wiggley Fingers" and "Blue Sky."
But in no way does that emphasis on production and song craft overwhelm Griffin's deceptively candid storytelling. Flaming Red is rife with tragic figures -- a suicidal gay teen, a desperate woman clinging to a fading romance, a deeply troubled celebrity. Griffin briefly revisits her old ways on the album-closing "Peter Pan," an enchanting dream sequence that wouldn't have been out of place on Living with Ghosts. In the end, though, Flaming Red burns most intensely when Griffin is left to her own devices, calling upon her expansive vocals and winning way with an alluring melody. (*** 1/2)
-- Jim Caligiuri
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