Robbie Robertson
Contact from the Underworld of Redboy

There must be a few folks out there still pining for the simpler days when Robbie Robertson wasn't such an insufferably pretentious do-gooder. For those disenfranchised followers of his no-frills roots-mining with the Band, it must feel like forever since Robertson succumbed to his baser rock and roll instincts. Well, prepare for another letdown: Contact from the Underworld of Redboy is as stilted, oblique and unrocking as its title.

It's not that Robertson's heart isn't in the right place. Part Native American, the 54-year-old singer/songwriter/guitarist was born to a Canadian father and a mother of Mohawk descent, and it was during summer visits to his mom's reservation that he learned to play guitar. Airing ideas that first came to the fore on his 1994 documentary soundtrack, Music for "The Native Americans," Redboy is Robertson's attempt to make peace with his past -- and, in effect, cozy up to his diverse cultural heritage. But unlike Music, this latest project isn't bound by any medium other than Robertson's imagination, which is as vast as it is unfocused. Redboy is a heady, atmospheric work in the extreme. And that's the problem: It's all atmosphere, and few real songs.

Ten years ago, Robertson was onto something a little more tangible. Robbie Robertson, his brilliant 1987 solo debut, and -- to a lesser extent -- the subsequent Storyville were deeply lyrical, stylistically expansive works that portrayed an aging journeyman sharpening his awareness of the world around him. Here was a proven veteran who craved fresh inspiration and displayed a God's-honest humility in regard to his near-mythical elder-statesman status. More to the point, both releases proved that in the years he'd been laying low after the Band's late-'70s breakup, Robertson hadn't misplaced his narrative edge or his feel for rock.

But on Redboy, Robertson seems to have lost his grip on those essentials, drifting in and out of touch with the song structure that would keep him grounded (he forgets, for instance, that repetition isn't always good, especially when what's being repeated lacks substance to begin with). The characters portrayed -- a political prisoner, tribal chiefs, peyote healers and various other tragi-spiritual figures of the sublime Native American universe -- ought to move us. But, in most instances, they fail to do so, because Robertson provides only detached, thumbnail sketches, seemingly random symbolic debris devoid of any living, breathing connection.

Redboy's few lasting insights come when the subjects speak for themselves, as on "Sacrifice," a drowsy spoken-word exercise that centers around a taped conversation with Leonard Peltier, an Indian activist imprisoned since 1976 for his questionable role in the murder of two FBI agents. Yet the distant, echoey chants of vocalist Bonnie Jo Hunt and the sterile R&B groove that accompanies Peltier's account do nothing to enhance its power; in fact, they detract from it. When Robertson chimes in with the refrain, "Sacrifice your freedom / Sacrifice your prayer / Take away your language / Cut off all your hair," the effect is more chilly than chilling.

More often than not, the cutting-edge production assistance of Howie B (U2, Tricky) and Marius de Vries (Bjsrk, Massive Attack) seems like an afterthought. Try as they might, the ambiguous pitter-patter of techno-beats, turntable scratches and looping effects fail to transport Robertson's search-and-recover mission to any place transcendent -- or even all that exotic. Indeed, Robertson often seems so distracted with conveying the importance of his overall premise -- essentially, preserving Native American music in a thoroughly modern context -- that he's lost sight of the means to make it work in practice. Mostly, he just sounds lost.

It could be that Contact from the Underworld of Redboy makes more compelling sense as a companion piece to Robertson's new hourlong PBS special, which documents a 1996 visit to his mother's homeland, the Six Nations Indian Reservation. Still, it's fairly evident that Robertson wanted this album to stand on its own. As it is, though, Redboy is a monument to grand intentions run amuck.

"The sound is fading away," declares Robertson ominously in a near-whisper on Redboy's opening track. Sadly, what that sound might be remains anyone's guess. (**)

-- Hobart Rowland

Ani DiFranco
Little Plastic Castle
Righteous Babe

It's all but impossible to talk about Ani DiFranco as a musician without also discussing Ani DiFranco as a phenomenon. On Little Plastic Castle's title track, DiFranco even does it herself: "People talk about my image like I come in two dimensions. / Like lipstick is a sign of my declining mind. / Like what I happen to be wearing the day that someone takes a picture is my new statement for all womankind."

It's a bitch, isn't it -- being the poster child for musical and sexual independence in the modern-rock world? Implicit to DiFranco's success, however, is that it validates not only her art -- a smart, alternative take on folk-rock -- but also her determination to maintain control of her own destiny. The rock-critic party line is that Castle is DiFranco's "happy" album -- though a reading of the lyrics, with their frequent expressions of alienation and more than a few mentions of bad choices in love, shatters that notion. "Life keeps getting harder," she moans on "Glass House"; on "Fuel," she laments, "Maybe I should put a bucket over my head." Not exactly upbeat stuff.

But Castle's real revelation is how the militancy of her music has been so effectively mitigated, a delightful byproduct, one would think, of her hard-won popularity and increasing artistic maturity. So while the observations in her songs can still be dour, her more playful musical approach leavens that negativity quite nicely -- and that's not to mention a burgeoning groove thang. Sure, Ani continues to tell it like it is in the best folk tradition, but a spoonful of pop sugar helps the reality go down.

So even if it really isn't a lipsticked kiss-off to her tougher-minded past, Little Plastic Castle does reveal a lighter, more accessible Ani DiFranco. To be sure, success has been the ruination of some of our most cherished musical activists. But it can also be a balm for the wounds that bleed great art, a source of assurance that allows an artist to dive deeper and soar higher. Here, the latter seems to be the case, which bodes well for DiFranco's continued presence as one of the rare honest voices for a confused -- if not thoroughly lost -- generation. (*** 1/2)

-- Rob Patterson

Money, Power and Respect
Bad Boy/Arista

Did I miss something? With all the mammoth praise heaped upon the LOX, Sean "Puffy" Comb's newest hip-hop proteges, and their debut CD, Money, Power and Respect, I was expecting something fresh, something innovative, something -- well -- revolutionary. Silly me.

Money, Power and Respect doesn't fully disappoint, mind you. But it ain't no Straight Outta Compton, either.

At least, of all the artists from Puff Daddy's Bad Boy stable, the LOX are the least willing to compromise their hard-earned ghetto vitality. Consider the other contenders: Mase attempts to nab audiences with his hip-hop bon vivant persona; Total are little more than En Vogue in swap-meet leather; and 112 await Boyz II Men's unlikely fall from favor to stake their territory. The LOX, on the other hand, are the real deal, hard-core New York roughnecks who prefer their Moët in an empty mayonnaise jar.

That said, Power, Money and Respect still ain't all that it could be. Seven tracks into the disc, you realize that there will be no gut-wrenching climax. There are some exceptional, hard-partying beats, but isn't that what everyone says these days about rap efforts that barely dodge mediocrity? Money opens predictably with your standard turf-establishing intro ("Yonkers' Tale"), then delves into the mandated playa/balla/mack-daddy territory. Songs range from the oddly familiar ("Livin' the Life" has a Wu-Tangish flavor) to the halfhearted ("I Wanna Thank You" is catchy but lacks conviction) to the needlessly misogynistic ("Bitches from Eastwick").

Nonetheless, by Bad Boy standards, Money is hip-hop at its most visceral and direct, with Combs and his posse of producers keeping the sample-happy studio dressing to a minimum. That stripped-down approach rings most true on "Goin' Be Some Sh*t," "The Heist" and the title track, all of which boast a hot-wired, gangland-style weightiness that's hard to resist. There are times, even, when the LOX seem as if they resent their lavish, Puff Daddy connection ... almost. (***)

-- Craig D. Lindsey

Jerry Jeff Walker
Cowboy Boots and Bathin' Suits
Tried & True Music

After more than 30 years of making music, Jerry Jeff Walker shows no signs of slowing down. And why should he? His voice still possesses that fine whiskeyed smoothness, and he's still capable of writing a tune that can win your heart in more ways than one.

To that effect, Cowboy Boots and Bathin' Suits, the Texas singer/songwriter's 29th release, is an entertaining trip south that is sure to please fans. Recorded on an island off the coast of Belize, Walker's Central American home away from home, it attempts to capture the easygoing existence and natural beauty of that Caribbean hideaway. To establish the laid-back vibe, Walker recorded a handful of tracks live, in front of small audiences at local establishments.

Given the tropical setting, it's not surprising that Cowboy Boots at times approximates the carefree novelty appeal of Walker's old pal Jimmy Buffett. The grab bag of old and new includes two charming originals, "Come Away with Me to Belize" and the title track. Meanwhile, Walker's band, the Gonzo Compadres, add their own impassioned touch to covers from longtime friends Guy Clark ("Boats to Build"), Eric Von Schmidt ("Champagne Don't Hurt Me Baby") and Fred Neil (a Cowboy medley includes "Everybody's Talkin' "). There's also an interesting reworking of "Sloop John B." and an appropriately rocking version of Robert Parker's classic "Barefootin." So settle back, mix up the margaritas and slip this one in the CD player; Jerry Jeff's back, fisherman's tan and all. (***)

-- Jim Caligiuri

Downward Is Heavenward

Downward Is Heavenward, Hum's fourth release, provides more of the same gauzy, guitar-based mood rock we've come to expect from this noisy Illinois quartet -- which is a shame. "Comin' Home," the first single, begins on a bright note but quickly degenerates into a grungy noise fest. "Green to Me" and "The Scientists" suffer similarly formulaic fates.

All of which seems to indicate that Hum is settling into a routine, rather than setting the pace for lesser bands of their amp-smoking ilk. Granted, there are moments when the band is gunning for more; those bouts of sonic experimentation still result in unexpected twists, sudden eruptions of feedback and bizarre computerized special effects. But the music's incessant pounding tends to overwhelm those variations. As it stands, the occasional lulls in Hum's multilayered maelstrom hold the most romance on Downward Is Heavenward. It just goes to show that sometimes a hum is better than a racket. (**)

-- Sande Chen

Hum performs Friday, March 13, at Fitzgerald's.

CDs rated on a one to five star scale.


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