It Don't Get Any Better Than This
Down at the Sky-Vue Drive-In
Music critics love to play the "greatest whatever" game. But the problem with that is, music isn't quantitative, it's qualitative. Sure, any dedicated listener has his or her idea of what is best, but to say that either George Jones or Don Walser is "the best" is to deny that the other -- or any other, for that matter -- just might be as good. And that, of course, would be denying the truth, which in music isn't as much a matter of the mind as it is of the heart.
Logic aside, though, to say that George Jones just may be the greatest country singer ever -- or at least alive, which in Jones's case is a blessing -- is hardly a false assertion; it's merely a wrong-headed approach to appreciating his amazing gifts. Few singers have mastered the effortless vocal swoops and quakes that, in the best C&W, accentuate a song's emotional content, nor do they wield them with Jones's near-mystical sense of timing. While many of his peers today are lost in the heartless world of the new Nashville (a place where callow youth rules, and the veterans are frequently set adrift), Jones has been making a string of quality releases that never forsake the music's past, yet can survive in contemporary circles.
It Don't Get Any Better Than This is very nearly truth in advertising: As for latter-day Jones releases (i.e., post-sobriety), they don't get too much better than this, thanks, in large part, to the old-school production approach of Music City veteran Norro Wilson. The best thing about this effort is that it is so unabashedly slick, in the same manner country used to be 25 years ago, back when the Beaumont native was doing his finest work. The first track, Bobby Braddock's "Wild Irish Rose," is just the sort of venerable classic the young bucks wouldn't touch -- a sappy tale of a drunken vet who gets committed to the booby hatch -- but has exactly the kind of honky-tonk pathos that made country music the voice of America's great rural unwashed.
Better Than This also includes the jokey little Braddock number "Small Y'all," another essential slice of the Possum's oeuvre, and a surplus of the weepers from which he's famous for wringing every last tear. Even the obligatory star salute on the title track -- with guests like Waylon, Willie, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and Bobby Bare -- is a chuckle, so long as you love that old C&W style enough to enjoy the undeniable corn that was part of it. Indeed, the mere fact that Jones is still making valid, lively music, and still singing like God's own country boy, is reason enough to savor this release.
Over in Austin, there are folks who claim Don Walser as rightful owner of the "best ever" tag. And yes, he's a great one indeed, but the greatest? I've heard the man countless times, even co-produced a track by him on an Austin country compilation, but I can't quite buy that superlative. Walser's greatness is as much based on spirit as it is his considerable abilities as a yodeler, crooner and good-time country warbler. His third major release, Down at the Sky-Vue Drive-In, as fine as it is in spots, displays the increasingly problematic nature of some of his work.
While Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson pulled off a nifty balancing act on Walser's last two CDs, mixing raw and dusty West Texas barroom attributes with modern-day considerations, far too often the music on Sky-Vue Drive-In sounds too much like a Wheel album. Sometimes Benson's signature touch works (as on the cantering "Hearts Made of Stone," a duet with Mandy Barnett), but the untutored nature of Walser's voice only becomes more prominent as the arrangements become too slick. As heartfelt as Don's own tunes here may be, their rather slight nature pales in the company of such classics as Hank Locklin's "Please Help Me I'm Falling," Jimmie Rodgers's "In My Dear Old Southern Home," the Louvin Brothers' "Are You Teasing Me?" and Johnny Bush's "An Eye for an Eye."
There's no denying that Don Walser is a Texas treasure, and that greatness surrounds him. But increasingly, it's looking like Walser don't get any better on record than better-than-average. It Don't Get Any Better Than This (*** 1/2); Down at the Sky-Vue Drive-In (***)
-- Rob Patterson
Like Don Quixote and his windmill, the leading lights of alternative rock defined themselves by what they were fighting. To varying degrees and with distinct stylistic differences, Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder, Trent Reznor and Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan battled the jocks who beat on them in high school (and whose likes grew up to populate their mosh pits). But while the other guys more or less opposed the music-business-as-usual, Corgan enthusiastically embraced it. He always wanted to be a rock star, and he's never been more successful at it than on Adore.
Corgan is a notorious egotist and perfectionist, and there are certain drummers who might add "son of a bitch" to that list. (Joey Waronker quit Beck's band to join the Pumpkins at double his salary, then bailed after two weeks. Kenny Aronoff, formerly with John Mellencamp, now has the gig.) And while you have to give him credit for crafting amazingly ornate walls of sound in the studio, anyone with half a brain had to be a little disappointed with what he did with them when finished. On Gish, Siamese Dream and Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, those mighty musical constructions were employed by the man to vent his raging angst and revel in his terminal misery -- you know, that whole sorry rat-in-a-cage trip.
With Adore, either the music is strong enough to outweigh the typically whiny singing and lyrics (sample: "You remind me of that leak in my soul"), or the lyrics and singing have improved. Probably, it's a little of both, plus the fact, that for all his talk about the ambition of previous efforts, Corgan's never really put it on the line like he does here.
How so? For starters, he succeeds where David Bowie, U2 and Madonna have failed, merging rock and techno for the pop/rock mainstream the way Blondie blended rock and disco on "Heart of Glass." Songs like "Ava Adore," "Daphne Descends" and "Tear" incorporate electronic dance grooves and washes of ambient synthesizer without sacrificing rock's essential visceral kick, and they do so without a hint of a grunge aftertaste. Corgan and James Iha have dramatically expanded their six-string palettes, delivering some of the coolest tubular-buzz, EBow leads since "Heroes" (the Bowie/Eno/Fripp version, not the Wallflowers cover).
But that's only half the album. In his usual schizophrenic style, Corgan devotes the rest of Adore to tender, acoustic ballads that expand on the Pumpkins' earlier rendition of Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide." There are beautiful moments in "To Sheila," "The Tale of Dusty and Pistol Pete" and "Annie-Dog"; the latter is particularly effective because the lilting, piano-driven melody contrasts with lyrics that seem to portray Corgan's pal and former lover Courtney Love ("Amphetamine Annie-Dog has a leash and a face / She is Venus, she is Mars / She's electric"). Then there's "Behold! The Nightmare," which somehow combines both of the album's approaches and a better imitation-Pet Sounds vocal break than indie-rockers like the High Llamas could muster. Best of all is "For Martha," a moving tribute to Corgan's recently deceased mom. Naturally, he pulls out all the stops on this one, coming up with an elaborate mini-symphony the likes of which hasn't been heard since Genesis on Selling England by the Pound. "I will follow you and see you on the other side," he croons, before building to a thunderous climax with an elegiac, way-over-the-top guitar solo. Even the most cynical alterna-teen ought to be damp-eyed after that one.
Still, is any of this really as revolutionary as the forthcoming wave of Pumpkins adoration is likely to say it is? Hell no, but it's certainly the band's best yet. And now that alternative rock is officially dead and buried, that leaves Corgan as the last American rock star of his generation -- which should count for something, no? (*** 1/2)
-- Jim DeRogatis
Normally, when I pop a new CD into the player to review for the benefit of the Press's rabid rap readership (all two of them), I'm able to gain some sort of a perspective on the album as a whole by the end of the first track. But in the case of the Goodie Mob -- whose eccentric name mirrors its eccentric sound -- I was midway through Still Standing before realizing I couldn't make heads or tails of the damn thing.
Perhaps I should be grateful. For, at a time when hip-hop from even the most devoted acts has been homogenized, saturated and stripped of its backbone to accommodate the mainstream, the Mob often sounds as if it wouldn't mind alienating the fans it has now. Still, as nihilistic as that might sound, as hospitable Southern gentlemen, their love for all those who dare venture into their way of thinking exceeds all else.
In this follow-up to their 1995 debut, Soul Food, this Atlanta-bred foursome soothes its way through every scaly rhythm and throaty rhyme. Their down-home ghetto ramblings might remind some of OutKast (the Mob guested on OutKast's platinum-seller, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik). But, unlike their Georgia countrymen, the Mobsters are all over the place when it comes to their sound, taking to the mike like hyper-conscious wild men. On "Black Ice," organ and bluesy guitar pump the Mob into a controlled frenzy as they wax surprisingly poetic with the OutKast crew. "Fly Away," "Gutta Butta" and "Ghetto-ology" are energetic shout-outs to their urban home territory, while "Just About Over" is as close as rap gets to heavy metal without changing color. Also refreshing is "Beautiful Skin," on which the guys espouse the virtues of self-respect, offering a sort of anti-sleaze pep talk to those women who choose not to dress like Lil' Kim.
Still Standing is a mess, but it's a forgiving, all-points-in-between mess. And with the production super-team of Organized Noize supplying the nervy beats, the South seems poised to rise again. As for their part, the Goodie Mob are about as controllable as Viagra-giddy Shriners at a strip club. (*** 1/2)
-- Craig D. Lindsey
Twistin' in the Wind
There's a long-standing enigma when it come to Joe Ely: How can an artist of such consistent quality and adventurous tastes continue to have his just commercial due elude him? Sure, here in Texas, Ely is an institution. Yet despite the glowing endorsements of everyone from the Clash to Bruce Springsteen, Joe Six-Pack remains sadly unaware of Ely -- even though Joe Six-Pack just might dig Joe Ely.
But just when a complete loss of faith was on the horizon, along comes Twistin' in the Wind galloping up from behind. And if the dust from its approach isn't as evident in the first few spins, its undeniable force should eventually hit home with the pure emotional force, eloquence and wisdom of a long, satisfying trip home. Twistin' in the Wind is the ultimate soundtrack of the New West, music that rides hard under the big sky with an old-fashioned integrity and pride, but with contemporary smarts and savvy as well. Within Ely's own body of work, it represents a refinement of the majestic windblown acoustics found on Letter to Laredo. Yet, at the same time, the CD offers his most focused definition of the potent notion of country rock. Lyrically, these are tales from the modern-day frontier from a veteran wanderer who knows what love -- and what dreams and evil -- lurks in the hearts of men. Musically, from the pervading lilt of its flamenco guitar to the blasting-cap chords of its more electrified moments, it's a journey with a startling breadth of scenery.
So if you're already in the Ely camp, it shouldn't come as a surprise that he's only gotten better with time. And if you haven't yet fallen under Ely's spell, Twistin' in the Wind is a damn fine -- if not ideal -- place to start. They say God blessed Texas, and if that's so, Ely is one of the finest musical embodiments of that blessing. (****)
-- Rob Patterson
The Jesus Lizard
The Jesus Lizard is the rock band His Cartoonish Evilness Marilyn Manson wishes he could lead. Not that actual Lizard frontman David Yow is really all that evil. Still, his Charles Manson stare and proclivity for circus-like maneuvers with his scrotum are frightening enough. It also helps that his band has been relentless in dispensing its insanely off-center distorto-rock for almost a decade.
The onetime Austin band has never been nearer to commercial success than with its second major-label release, Blue, which smoothes a few rough edges while adding some new ones. The group's low end could well be the best in the business, combining guttural bass and atomic drumming into a fury that gives guitarist Duane Denison something substantial to rail against. Meanwhile, producer Andy Gill, of Gang of Four fame, helps them sort through the difficulties of growth.
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On Blue, the Lizard's experiments with electronic instrumentation include drum machines and keyboards. And even when pairing that stuff with a newfound sense of melody, the group doesn't lose much of its edgy aggression. In the Lizard's domain, such techno-tinkering sounds more like Killing Joke than the Crystal Method. Vocally, Yow is surprisingly restrained (for him, anyway), and seems comfortable singing rather than howling. And Denison has never sounded more confident, playing in and out of the pocket, taking full advantage of the liberties afforded by his solid rhythm section.
Odd as it sounds, Blue's biggest surprises are its mellower songs. "Needles for Teeth (Version)" veers in the direction of Garbage, with processed drums providing what resembles a dance beat. The punchy, slapped bass and hovering, eerie keyboards of "Eucalyptus" bear producer Gill's signature, coming off something like early Public Image Limited. Still, it's on "Eucalyptus" that the Lizard displays considerable power, even without guitar histrionics; the band invokes tension and malaise with percussion alone. Scary stuff indeed. (***) -- David Simutis
The Jesus Lizard performs Wednesday, June 3, at Fitzgerald's.