Blue Moon Swamp
John Fogerty hasn't been heard from much in more than a decade, since 1986's Eye of the Zombie -- which, in rare form, came merely a year after he released his double-platinum "comeback" album Centerfield. In 11 years, he has surfaced with the infrequency afforded rock and roll legends and shut-ins, popping up at Rock and Roll Hall of Fame functions and various benefit concerts. Most of the time, he was disowning his Creedence Clearwater Revival past, refusing to take the antique finery from the china cabinet; sometimes, when feeling generous or forgiving, he'd indulge the fans desperate to hear "Born on the Bayou" or "Proud Mary." Fogerty pulled one of rock and roll's great vanishing acts -- and if he was missed, it was by John Fogerty most of all.
In 1997, the idea of a new John Fogerty record seems almost anticlimactic; his true legacy lies in the late 1960s and early '70s, when he was among rock's greatest freak brothers -- a Northern California boy who lived inside Southern country dreams, who nurtured a band in a suburban garage, then turned it into one of the world's baddest groups. CCR's Green River, Willy and the Poor Boys and Cosmo's Factory rank up there with the first two albums by the Band, Randy Newman's 12 Songs and Elvis Presley's Sun recordings as perfect distillations of American music -- they weren't merely rock and roll records, but statements that transcended generic limitations. Even today, CCR's best records sound as though they're a thousand 1960s Southern AM radio stations heard all at once, and if you need to give that sound a name, it might as well be bluescountrygospelsoulR&Brockabilly. Songs such as "It Came out of the Sky," "Lookin' out My Back Door" or Fogerty's rearrangement of "Heard It Through the Grapevine" exist now as Classic Rock Radio fantasias, perfect top ten arias created by a man who found in rock and roll a perfect world -- one ugly enough to write about every day, but one pretty enough to live in forever.
Fogerty has taken so long between releasing Eye of the Zombie -- a rather bleak, bitter album born of nasty lawsuits over "self-plagiarism" and selfish squabbles -- and finishing Blue Moon Swamp because, as he is now wont to explain, he didn't want to rush perfection. He wanted to create, as he recently explained to Addicted to Noise editor Michael Goldberg, "a rock and roll record ... [not] some guy's impression of a rock and roll record." He struggled to learn Dobro because that's what he heard on the song "A Hundred and Ten in the Shade" as he wrote it in his head -- not acoustic slide, not pedal steel, but Dobro -- and far be it from him to look to others for help. He tried out dozens of studio musicians, hiring and firing as his muse dictated; he wrote and rewrote, arranged and rearranged, created and destroyed till all that remained was perfection. Such are the obsessions that drive not legends, but the few real rock and roll greats: They must live up to their legacies ... or disappear trying.
In the end, Blue Moon Swamp may well be too perfect, too much a product and not enough of an accident. After all, great rock and roll is born of failures and mishaps and acts of providence; the best music is what falls on the floor during the operation, not what remains on the table afterward. Blue Moon Swamp -- created by a man who sounds as though he has spent decades in a vacuum, listening only to the echoes of his own greatness and nothing else -- is indeed a capital-P perfect John Fogerty record. It reverberates with eerie "Born on the Bayou" echoes and throbs with wide-grinned "Centerfield" joy; it sweats Mississippi mud and gulps Kentucky whiskey. But in the end, it merely recalls greatness without quite achieving it. Blue Moon Swamp is a rock and roll record made behind museum glass.
Perhaps to play Blue Moon Swamp with the expectations brought on by 11 years of waiting and nearly 30 years of listening is to be set up for disappointment; when "Southern Streamline" kicks off with that insistent "Bad Moon Rising" riff, you're at once thrilled by the familiarity ... and saddened as well; you traveled down this road long ago, before they built shiny high-rises on top of the swampland. Fogerty has become so much a part of history that he can't see the cliches for the hype, and so, to the melody of "California Sun," he writes of driving on "wheels on fire" as he blazes down the desert road in a convertible at midnight; he sings of men sweating in the cotton patch, where it's "A Hundred and Ten in the Shade"; he rides down a "Rattlesnake Highway" on a worn-out blues riff and a half-empty tank of gas; fronting a Farfisa organ and slide guitar, he even advises you to "take it to the river" down in the "honey-dripping" South, where the mythical Jelly Roll will ease your suffering. And to top it off, Fogerty's voice has itself become a memento, a tattered and yellowing relic bolstered by weird echoes and other inappropriate effects -- so much so that you barely recognize him through the fog.
Fogerty has become "art rock," by critic Chuck Eddy's definition -- meaning, Eddy writes of Bruce Springsteen in his new The Accidental Evolution of Rock 'N' Roll, "his muse can't be separated from his ego; he's too palpably concerned with how he'll be remembered in the history books." Fogerty has become the history book itself, and history books don't make for perfect rock and roll records. (***)
-- Robert Wilonsky
Middle of Nowhere
Watching the video for Hanson's single "MMMBop" -- where the three cute Hanson boys (ages 16, 13 and 11) cavort wildly a la the Monkees, dancing and skateboarding and surfing through teenland -- you can almost hear all the greasy-haired alterna-kids groaning, disgusted by the silly, prefabricated pop nonsense that has replaced the sexy angst of a few years back. And don't you just love it? After buying into Bush and Alanis Morissette, it's just what we deserve: Hanson is Silverchair by way of the Partridge Family, the first pretty-boy fake alt-rock group that doesn't pretend to be anything but a pretty-boy fake alt-rock group. And so, if only for their truth in advertising, Hanson deserves our admiration.
But as it happens, Middle of Nowhere -- the debut CD from Tulsa brothers Isaac, Taylor and Zachary Hanson -- is worthy of our attention for other reasons as well. At their best, such as on "MMMBop" or "Thinking of You," Hanson makes perfect '90s bubble gum, their Jackson Five voices offset by slick power-pop guitars and sharp hip-hop production courtesy of the Dust Brothers. Even the more questionable material, such as the cheesy ballads "Weird" and "I Will Come to You," is at worst music for, about and made by kids 16 and under. Lyrics such as "When you live in a cookie-cutter world if you're different you can't win / So you don't stand out and you don't fit in" are not only a lot more palatable coming from a 13-year-old as opposed to a post-grad, but given the ages of the writers, the words are also pretty darn sharp.
Granted, these lads had help with both the songwriting (from veterans such as Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil) and instrumentation (a full cast of session men). Still, as young writers and musicians with an indisputably authentic three-part harmony, Hanson is as real a band as it needs to be. They're real enough, at least, to be a perfect antidote to MTV's other poster boy, the decidedly less fun Marilyn Manson. (*** 1/2)
-- Roni Sarig
She Thinks I Still Care: The George Jones Collection, the United Artist Years
Razor & Tie
Of the many distinct periods in George Jones's four-decade-long career, it's his brief early-'60s stint with United Artists that's routinely pointed to as the time when country music's best-ever singer did his best-ever work. After all, it was then that he recorded the unforgettable ballad "She Thinks I Still Care" and the lost-love romp "The Race Is On," two classic singles that would do much to shape Jones's career -- not to mention country music in general -- for years to follow. So I would never have suspected that the two-disc collection She Thinks I Still Care: The George Jones Collection, the United Artist Years could turn out to be so disappointing.
Consisting of selections chosen by Rich Kienzle (the ubiquitous C&W liner-note contributor who normally makes up for his lack of critical commentary with detailed histories and impeccable taste), the collection naturally includes all of Jones's charting United Artists singles. This stage of Jones's career is when he perfected the ballad style he'd first discovered on a handful of Mercury tracks a year or so earlier, so the best cuts here are, predictably, the slow, sad ones: the murder tale "Open Pit Mine," the self-implicating "I Saw Me," the self-defeating "Sometimes You Just Can't Win," the haunting Melba Montgomery duet "We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds," the title track. Each of these provides a definitive example of the honky-tonk idiom.
But the remaining 19 tracks are often a puzzle; they favor unremarkable novelties and pedestrian performances over superior, more representative selections. The first two cuts, the slight "Running Bear" and "Root Beer," do nothing to highlight what was most typical of Jones's art during these years. What's worse, such forgettable numbers have apparently taken the place of essential Jones performances such as, among others, "Brown to Blue" (which Elvis Costello eventually covered) and the intensely delicate "Book of Memories." Questionable selections continue throughout the set; for example, Jones's "Faded Love" is a by-the-numbers Bob Wills cover, but that's the tune we get instead of "Trouble in Mind" or "Warm Red Wine," Wills-associated songs that Jones made truly his own. I also wish that at least a few of the seven (!) Melba Montgomery duets here had been omitted -- not because they aren't incredible, but because they're all already available to fans on the Jones and Montgomery installment of Capitol's Vintage series. (Kienzle knows this; he wrote the notes for that set, too.)
Don't misunderstand me. This is, after all, a George Jones collection; it includes music that's undeniably great. It's just too bad it's not as great as it could have been. (*** 1/2)
-- David Cantwell
The Notorious B.I.G.
Life After Death
Bad Boy Entertainment
Here we go again. Another dead rap icon. Another unintentionally posthumous album. Another hodgepodge of hip-hop mumbo jumbo that should've been left in the vaults. This time, it's Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. the Artist Formerly Known As the Notorious B.I.G., and his double-decker final CD Life After Death.
Wallace's first album, Ready to Die, hipped listeners to the East Coast swing of things with its tales of urban paranoia and a Bacchanalian ghetto lifestyle. Ready to Die was a textured spin on the West Coast shooting-smoking-screwing formula. But Life After Death, as a whole, is conceptually perplexing; it doesn't really know what it wants to be. It has two personalities -- one gloomy and foreboding, the other upbeat and fun-loving -- and neither, it seems, has any real relation to the other.
You could say that Wallace tried to go for the same uninhibited flow his deceased enemy, Tupac Shakur, went for on All Eyez on Me. In Life After Death's first disc (the fun half), Wallace revels in the sort of party-boy rogue abandon Shakur was famous for right up until his death. Wallace relishes his balls-out mackdaddy role on "Hypnotize," "#!*@ You Tonight" (with R. Kelly) and the frenetically madcap "Mo Money Mo Problems."
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But a sense of confusion looms out of the nooks and crannies of the second disc (the creepy half). Most of the tunes don't extend or even measure up to Wallace's lip-smacking verbal wordplay. And the fact that the person performing these songs happens to be dead makes them perfect for those seeking postmortem memorandums. In "Going Back to Cali" (no relation to the LL Cool J hit of the same name), Wallace gives off an inadvertently sarcastic vibe toward California, where the rap community largely despised him and which became the site of his murder (he ends the song by saying that it's "a great place to visit"). And you can only guess what theories on the man's death will come out of his already-infamous closer, "You're Nobody ('Til Somebody Kills You)."
Ultimately, the CD is done in by too many producers, too many guest stars and unnecessary throaty chirps from professional coattail-rider Sean "Puffy" Combs that almost drown out Wallace himself. Just as Shakur's meandering Makaveli proved that a deceased rapper is often better than his postmortem CD, the Notorious B.I.G.'s Life After Death likely won't go down as the last worthy thing he recorded before leaving this planet. That honor goes to his debut. (The fun half, *** 1/2; the creepy half, * 1/2)
-- Craig D. Lindsey
CDs rated on a one to five star scale.