Be Here Now

It's tempting to write off Oasis's third CD as a vague facsimile of the two that preceded it; Definitely Maybe and (What's the Story) Morning Glory? still echo loudly in the pop consciousness, their hit singles as familiar as your own heartbeat. Even now, it feels as though "D'You Know What I Mean?" -- the first single and video off Be Here Now -- has been around forever. Though it's only a few weeks old, it plays like a two-year-old relic, the fraternal twin of "Wonderwall." But that's precisely what Noel Gallagher wants -- for Oasis to conjure echoes of its own yesterdays, for you to hear his records and think beautiful Beatles thoughts while humming along to his music and perfectly rendered daydreams, even before you've heard them.

Oasis isn't the greatest rock and roll band in the world, merely the most cynical and romantic -- a pastiche of perfect moments from the '60s, Rubber Soul made over and over again till they work the Kinks out. At least Noel is shameless about his references: His is nothing if not a world of other people's songs, his lyric sheet this time 'round containing references to "the long and winding road," "blood on the tracks," "the fool on the hill," "in the midnight hour," "helter skelter" and "don't look back." But this isn't brazen plagiarism. These are just easy pop-culture shortcuts Noel happens to know, ones he uses as naturally as he might the words "and," "the" and "I"; they're part of his genetic makeup, the code in his rock and roll DNA. Noel, a man who will forever confuse arrogance with charm, does nothing to hide his fetishes. Like the song ("I Hope, I Think, I Know" from Be Here Now) says: "We beg and steal and borrow."

In providing Q magazine with a track-by-track explanation of Be Here Now, he mentions the Beatles or their songs six times, with other references to the Stones, Burt Bacharach, Mott the Hoople, T. Rex, the Buzzcocks and the Small Faces. He's more pop fan than pop star, and if he were American, Oasis would likely rank with Olivia Tremor Control and Eric Matthews and Yum-Yum as the indieground's retro-fitted pop heroes. But he's English, his mouth is as enormous as his talent and he wants to own the world. Even more so than brother Liam, Noel knows what John Lennon meant about being bigger than Jesus Christ. But you must hand it to Noel: He knows he's full of shit, so much so that he demands you don't take him too seriously. "I ain't never spoke to God / And I ain't never been to heaven," Liam sings, mimicking his brother's words, on "My Big Mouth." "But you assumed I knew the way / Even though the map was given."

And so Be Here Now (its title alone is more a command than an invitation) finds Oasis again crafting easy-listening rock and roll, music that gives only as much as you ask of it. Many of Oasis's delights are strictly surface ones -- the guitar swells and thrilling harmonies and Wurlitzer kick of "The Girl in the Dirty Shirt," the string-section heartbreak of "Stand by Me" and "Don't Go Away," the orchestral reprise of "All Around the World." Noel understands that pop music works best when it brushes against your skin on its way to your heart. And so he creates epic songs (only three songs of Be Here Now's dozen run short of five minutes, and one, "All Around the World," clocks in at 9:20) that reverberate with many pop highlights all at once. Don't like something you hear now? Wait a minute -- here comes "Honky Tonk Woman" or "Strawberry Fields" or "All the Young Dudes." Or "Wonderwall." Or "Live Forever."

Just like its predecessors, Be Here Now doesn't really rock. Only "Fade In/Out," with its guest appearance by Johnny Depp on rudimentary slide guitar, seems overcome with the need to turn it up and turn it out. Noel's not obsessed with punch; he's obsessed with penning love songs and breakup anthems, the gooey stuff of which pop is made. His words are familiar, simple, everyday: "I need more time yes I need more time / Just to make things right." "We're gonna make a better day / All around the world, you've got to spread the word." "If I stumble catch me when I fall." They resonate with optimism, affection, even joy; for all their brashness, there's little-boy wonder underneath the Gallagher brothers' rock-star exteriors.

Noel's so in love with music that perhaps his off-stage arrogance exists to mask the soft side, the guy who writes such lyrics as "Maybe the songs that we sing are wrong / Maybe the dreams that we dream are gone" (from "It's Gettin' Better (Man!!!)"). Indeed, when Liam sings, "I know it's gonna be okay" at the jubilant end of "All Around the World," with trumpets blaring and guitars soaring and tambourine jangling, it's not a campy moment at all -- fact is, you'll find fewer things as heartfelt in all of rock and roll. (*** 1/2)  

-- Robert Wilonsky

Various Artists
5th Ward: Original Motion
Picture Soundtrack -- Vol. 1

You know hip-hop has come to a sad, stagnant impasse when an artistically limited commodity such as Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs is deemed "the king of hip-hop" on the cover of Rolling Stone. Is the music business really so desperate to find another lucrative hip-hop hype that it's willing to make half-assed claims for anyone with two turntables and a microphone? If that is the case, then maybe some record executive should listen to 5th Ward: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack -- Vol. 1 and recognize the homespun rap empire Houston has sheltered.

A demo sampler to major labels dressed in movie soundtrack clothing, 5th Ward serves as a veritable buffet of Houston hip-hop. Since the songs supply background music for a movie about Houston's most ghettofied living area, you can expect a lot of ghettofied musings. True, these musings lack something in inventiveness, but they more than make up for it in authenticity. The 5th Ward attitudes fall into two distinct camps: the Glock-carrying gangsta (as exemplified here by Mass 187, Botany Boys and Street Military) and the smooth-ass playa (D.E.A., Woss Ness). They're the yin and the yang of Houston rap, and even though hard-core hip-hop seems to be teetering on its last legs, the rappers on 5th Ward are there, holding its crutches.

The CD's most potent track is "We Bust Back" by Geto Boy-turned-Roger-Gray-doppelgänger Willie D (who's also 5th Ward's music coordinator) and fellow Houstonian Lil' Keke. In it, they sound off on how the glamourization of warfare has corrupted hip-hop. Willie D, who on this track sounds like he's possessed by the tattooed spirit of Tupac Shakur, delivers the most unapologetic lines by ranting that he "Felt Biggie / Felt 'Pac / But wasn't shocked," and claims "If I die behind this muthafuckin' shit / Nigga, it ain't over." "We Bust Back" might not be in the same league as self-awareness anthems such as "Self-Destruction," but the song makes claims so definitive and over-the-top that it becomes a two-way mirror of absurd hysteria.

Although the lyrics on 5th Ward don't cover much new ground, the music that supports them blows through any synthetic boundaries. Thanks to producer Eddie C, the groove carries the weight, with synthesized beats and solid bass moves making each song strikingly unique. And when you've been in the game as long as many of the Houston residents on 5th Ward, the awesome power of uncensored life experience can't be fudged. (***)

-- Craig D. Lindsey

Wayne Hancock
That's What Daddy Wants
Ark 21

In the ice chest of country music, some beers are colder than others. And though Wayne "The Train" Hancock claims to have quit drinking, that doesn't mean that his music isn't one frosty, friendly tall boy bobbing amidst Nashville's onslaught of tepid brews. In fact, one listen to Han-cock's vocals demonstrates why he's anathema in mainstream country music: His decidedly un-pretty voice, which sounds like Hank Williams with a cocaine binge postnasal drip, is an acquired taste. But, as with Neil Young or Bob Dylan, such singularity only serves to enhance his raw and clever song writing.

And that's what counts. On That's What Daddy Wants, his major label debut and an ambitious follow-up to 1995's critically worshipped indie release, Thunderstorms and Neon Signs, Hancock splashes his Western- swing blueprint with vibrant splotches of honky-tonk, primordial rock and roll, blues and anything musically indigenous to Texas. And though his structures occasionally seem cloned from a single prototype, most of the time they stand vigorously alone.

Hancock's vernacular is consciously hip -- if you were hanging out with Milton Brown 50 years ago, that is -- and his vision as a storyteller is an interesting mutation, as though Jimmie Rodgers and Neal Cassidy had written a Frommer's Guide to Texas. Lyrically, the CD is basically divided between two subjects: women (the title track, "Misery," "Little Lisa" and "Lea Ann") and the time-honored cruising. But as well-worn as these topics may be, Hancock manages to infuse his tales of romance and wanderlust with a bit of '90s humor and cynicism, and the result is a curiously fresh sound. It's like Western swing was only now evolving out of rock and roll -- as on "Knocked Out Rhythm," "Louisiana Blues" or Hancock's energetic take on the Clash's "Brand New Cadillac" (which is like a time-travel jam between Junior Brown and Eldon Shamblin).  

Recorded live over three intense days at San Marcos's Firehouse Studios, under the direction of Lubbock's pedal steel/guitar maestro Lloyd Maines, That's What Daddy Wants confirms Hancock's status as a peculiar and sometimes brilliant visionary for these soiled times. Pop a top. (*** 1/2)

-- Rick Koster

Wayne Hancock performs at 9 p.m. Thursday, September 4, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge. Special 6 p.m. in-store appearance same day at Cactus Music and Video.

Rev. Maceo Woods and the
Christian Tabernacle Concert Choir
Hello Sunshine: The Volt Recordings

Today's most popular contemporary-Christian artists tend to soft-pedal their beliefs. They sing about their love for Jesus, certainly, but they do so in a manner that's intended to sneak up on listeners rather than club them over the head. On the surface, this approach seems preferable to overt proselytizing, but in actual execution, it can be tremendously dull: As most pagans, non-believers, heretics and fans of sin out there will tell you, music so calculated to effect a spiritual conversion is generally too creepy to do its job. Far preferable, from this heathen's perspective, is Hello Sunshine, a gospel compilation so overflowing with joy, passion and gusto that it makes religious conversion seem like a party that will never end. Woods, a conductor, singer and organist who continues to oversee Chicago's Gospel Supreme Foundation at age 65, enjoyed a number of modest hits during the 1950s and worked with artists such as the Original Five Blind Boys of Mississippi and the Staple Singers. In 1969, his soulful sensibility caught the ears of Al Bell and Jim Stewart of the Stax/Volt imprint, and thanks to their support, Woods was able to make a pair of albums (Hello Sunshine and Step to Jesus) marked by swooping solos by the likes of Lora Burton and Doris Sykes, powerful background vocals from a cast of dozens and organ work from Albert Medders and Woods himself that rumbles like the voice of God in a really good mood. Eighteen numbers from those full-lengths are collected here, and while some of them (such as "We See God with the Eyes of Our Soul") are a bit turgid, the majority swing with a vengeance: Turn an ear to "I'm Mighty Grateful" or "Think of His Goodness," and odds are good that you'll be speaking in tongues by the second chorus. Christian values never sounded so good. (****) -- Michael Roberts

Mike Ladd
Easy Listening for Armageddon

Since the term was coined, "trip-hop" has been associated with the moody, noirish sound collages, rap singing and slow-churning electro-beats of folks such as Tricky and Massive Attack -- music that's hip-hop identified, but stylistically miles away from current rap flavors. With his debut CD, Easy Listening for Armageddon, 26-year-old poet Mike Ladd (who emerged from the Nuyorican spoken word scene) offers a different take on trip-hop. Ladd's divergence from convention is driven first and foremost by his lyrics. While Easy Listening is full of trip-hop's musical signposts, the tracks are always spare and elastic enough to accommodate what's really trippy: Ladd's freeform, stream-of-consciousness, over-the-top and deep-down-inside verse.

Like most classic rappers, Ladd steeps his monologues in Afro-culture, American politics and, of course, Afro-American cultural politics. But Ladd's poetry is Afrocentric without resorting to propaganda or cliche. Instead of representing black with shout-outs to Malcolm X or his 'hood, he's simply self-aware. While his performances are endowed with a Last Poets-style social commentary that keeps them grounded in reality, there's a clear post-apocalyptic vibe to pieces such as the wacky title track, "Blade Runner" or "I'm Building a Bodacious Bodega for the Race War," all of which borrow from the George Clinton/Sun Ra school of Afro-sci-fi-psychedelia.

Still, the most vital and engaging songs on Easy Listening are neither futuristic nor riddled with postmodern references. On both "The Tragic Mulatto Is Neither" and "Okrakoke," Ladd explores his connections to the past, from his fisherman granddaddy to his postbellum roots on the Carolina coast. These are not only the most tuneful and cohesive works on the album, they're the most soulful as well.

It may be said that by continually directing his gaze backward and forward, Ladd seems willing to deal with everything but the present. However, he understands the current moment to be ephemeral, gone before it's digested. So by balancing yesterday and tomorrow -- with a keen sense of the dictum "if you don't know where you've been, you can't know where you're going" -- Ladd's time-space equilibrium lands him squarely in the here and now. (*** 1/2)

-- Roni Sarig

CDs rated on a one to five star scale.  

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