As the temperamental leader of the punk-tinged English power trio the Jam, Paul Weller began his career carving out a fierce vision indebted to early Mod and Merseybeat posturing at its most impenetrably Anglocentric. His sociopolitical lyrics -- not to mention a steadfast embrace of British culture and history -- were as alien to most young Yanks as baked beans on toast or life on the dole.
It wasn't a shock, then, that by the time Weller disbanded the Jam in 1982 after a glorious five-year run in Britain, they were still relative nobodies in the U.S. In succeeding years, Weller has failed to live up to the promise of the Jam's peerless late-'70s work. Indulgent forays into the realm of white-boy funk, soul and R&B with the Style Council (the stiff culmination of a Motown fetish that first emerged with the Jam) have largely fallen flat, as has much of his rambling '90s solo work. But deify or discount him, Weller continues to maintain that commercial success doesn't amount to a hill of bullocks as far as his place in rock history is concerned -- and he will not fade away quietly.
As Weller approaches middle age, it appears his contempt for those who view him as anything less than a tortured genius hasn't waned. "To all my people, you know and so do I. To anyone whosoever slated me -- fuck you," goes a line in the credits of his new Heavy Soul. That kiss-off to his detractors continues undeterred throughout the CD, with Weller cracking wise over clumsy grooves, rubbed-raw guitar licks and bristlingly direct arrangements. The vitriol appears as early as the disc's second track, "Peacock Suit," on which Weller bellows, "I have a grapefruit matter / It's sour as shit / I have no solutions / Better get used to it!"
Typically, Weller's crude vocal range has been well-suited to such pub-stool proselytizing, and little more. Yet Heavy Soul sports his most convincing attempts to soften his edges since the Jam's 1982 Beat Surrender. On a few tunes, Weller lets down his guard and allows some rather dreamy music to carry his mood. The best of these -- "Up in Suze's Room," a sultry, string-laced ode to sex and romance, and the genuinely moving one-two punch of "Driving Nowhere" and "I Should Have Been There to Inspire You" -- feature the singer at his most soulful, obviously buoyed by the compelling melodies.
Despite the brilliant patches, though, Heavy Soul lacks coherence. With a little fleshing out, it could have offered a fuller reconciliation between the raw emoting of Weller's earnest adolescence and the more tentative experiments of his uncertain adulthood. Instead, it's a muddled, if moving, failure. (*** 1/2)
-- Hobart Rowland
The inherent problem with most spoken word records is that they're rarely worth a second listen. Most of the time they're not even collections of poetry, but instead political hot air, angry self-analysis or limp attempts at Leno-style punch lines -- the kind of cheap thrills that rarely stand up twice, even with a drum loop-and-siren soundscape as a distraction. But Anti-Social Butterfly is something different. In fact, it's already proven itself timeless.
How so? Well, this CD started off in 1994 as Dallas musician/producer Jeff Liles's debut for A&M, only to get shelved when sales of similar major-label records from Reg E. Gaines and Maggie Estep failed to live up to their hype. In 1995, the set resurfaced on Denton's tiny One Ton imprint as White Trash Receptacle, with Liles adopting the moniker of Cottonmouth, Texas. Now, virtually the same cycle of rants, vignettes and tunes is getting a well-deserved national rollout as Anti-Social Butterfly. And best of all, it still works.
Liles's genius is that he never attempts to be a pundit or a preacher. Instead, over ambient tracks provided by Dallas all-stars such as drummer Earl Harvin and keyboardist Zac Baird, Liles proves himself a witty observationalist who's more Bill Hicks than Adam Sandler. He's a storyteller, be that story a simple but stirring recollection of his first epileptic seizure or the tracing of a complex comedy of errors that begins and ends with a telephone number written on a pay phone's casing. And while Liles perhaps sounds most confident telling his drug tales on "Clock Radio" and "Stoned," he's equally compelling in his discussion of religion, poverty and gaming. They all build to something -- be it a laugh, tear or a nod of recognition. And although the complexity of the music, including a clever cameo from the Toadies on "PE," is clearly what makes Anti-Social Butterfly such a compelling aural collage, the way Liles has found lazy beats to match his own rambling and unaffected slacker delivery makes him more a frontman and bandleader than your average poet or performance artist.
Indeed, Liles has forged a soundtrack to his stories whose entries are themselves vital pieces of the tales. They're so vital, in fact, that they withstand and encourage repeat listens -- which in a spoken word market so disposable makes Anti-Social Butterfly nothing short of a landmark. (***)
-- Andy Langer
From the brashly chaotic theatrics of the opening title track to the maudlin, low-key jangle-pop of the closing "Satan Rejected My Soul," Maladjusted ladles out sufficient helpings of moody, topnotch Morrissey, even if much of what falls in the middle is often just that: middling.
It's not that the CD fails to deliver, but rather that Morrissey has already covered this territory before in his less interesting B-side offerings, and generally with more urgency. Not that there aren't a few shining moments on Morrissey's seventh solo release. Witness the lyrical cunning of "Sorrow Will Come in the End," with its swanky "lawyer .... liar" chorus (in reference, one would think, to his 1996 court battle with former Smiths bandmate Andy Rourke), which takes Morrissey's vaudevillian obsession a step further into circus spectacle. There's also the first single "Alma Matters," which is as rollicking as it is cynical. And on "Sorrow," Morrissey displays pop sensibilities that never tire of exploring choruses of "oohs" and "oh yeahs."
Even so, on plenty of occasions, Morrissey is simply treading water creatively here. But where he fails to invent a fresh melodic direction, there is usually enough freakish lyrical invention and coy narrative to offer enticement (i.e., the slick-haired, tattooed posse intent on "keeping the population low" on "Ambitious Outsiders"). So while the first and last rapturously operatic moments of Maladjusted are indeed perfect ranting, raving bookends, the lesser moments lend just enough kick to sustain the listener's curiosity in between. (***)
-- Steven Gershon
Mind Your Own Business
This estimable Chicago blues harmonica player gives us his most stirring recording since launching a career resurgence in the mid-1980s. Belying his 75 years, Pryor works hard on a dozen originals, blowing his harmonica with sublime feeling. Often, he wields his tin instrument like a scythe, cutting across the expanse of his songs with dramatic glee, letting it rip whenever his weathered singing voice threatens to crack or stray.
Unlike the many young blues turks, Pryor displays intimate knowledge of heartbreak and joyousness throughout the CD's 12 original tunes. "Good or Bad Times" finds him slipping easily into the truth-telling role once favored by his pal Muddy Waters. His firm grip on "Goin' Back to Arkansas" is also marvelous, making listeners feel as if they'd been dazzled by a sudden shower of diamonds. And he infuses "No More Monkey Business" with just the right mix of resentment and irony. Typically, his harp struts with an unhurried gait. Pryor's sidemen here include ace guitarist Derek O'Brien (check out his devilish slide work on the aforementioned "Monkey Business") and ex-Hound Dog Taylor drummer Ted Harvey, men committed to having their elder succeed at vanquishing the blues in his devil-may-care fashion. Pryor has two previous releases on Antone's -- Too Cool to Move and In This Mess Up to My Chest -- both of which are enjoyable, but neither is as fine as Mind Your Own Business. (*** 1/2)
-- Frank-John Hadley
This Is the Trip
Any way you approach it, Sister 7's major-label maiden voyage is clumsy in the extreme, sabotaged on every level by the Austin band's painstakingly remedial blues-rock formula. Most offensive are the lead vocals of Patrice Pike, whose smug Janis Joplinisms grate when they should grab, and the facile, gimmicky treatments of veteran producer Danny Kortchmar, who, quite frankly, should know better. Anyone outside the unconditional scope of the Sister 7 fan base would be wise to abstain from this trip. (*)
-- Hobart Rowland
Robyn Is Here
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With slick pipes that suggest Janet Jackson and a puckered-lip stare to rival Faith Evans's in prurient allure, 28-year-old Swedish siren Robyn wants to be so down, it's kinda cute. And that cuteness pays off on her appealing debut, Robyn Is Here.
Robyn is a street-soul-loving white girl who, coincidentally, just happens to have a crossover pop appeal. In listening to Robyn Is Here, it's easy to separate the mainstream-accessible tunes from the songs that likely won't fall on mass ears. The first single, "Do You Know (What It Takes)" is a perfect example of the former, a carefree confection that's already lodged in the upper reaches of the Billboard charts. Among the less radio-friendly tunes, the hard-driving and efficient "Bumpy Ride" flaunts Robyn's ballsier side. Sample these lyrics: "People in your way / Dogs and bitches / Who's lickin your ass? / Liars and snitches." And on the CD's weightiest number, "The Last Time," the throaty singe of Robyn's vocal, combined with the tune's strikingly mature melody, are enough to make a Spice Girl wither. Robyn, it seems, is just getting started. (*** 1/2)
-- Craig D. Lindsey
CDs rated on a one to five star scale.