On Holiday: A Tribute to Billie Holiday
Tony Bennett has nearly always been an anachronism. His career began just as his brand of sophisticated, Tin Pan Alley melody was about to be swallowed up by the passionate rhythms of rock and roll; a half-century later, with all of his most popular peers either washed up or dead, he finds himself the last of the great jazz-pop singers, the only still-mighty giant within a tradition that has included such revered names as Sinatra, Eckstine, Vaughan, Crosby, Fitzgerald, Cole and Holiday.
Bennett's new Billie Holiday tribute points out another way Bennett stands apart: While most of his crowd have been known for their songs of heartbreak and loss, Bennett has been drawn to songs of unabashed hope -- or at least to discover the hopeful nuggets in seemingly downer compositions. His best known hit, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," is about a man who's gladly returning to his home and his love, and Bennett has routinely recorded pop standards of unironic joy such as "Smile," "Keep Smiling at Trouble" and "The Best Is Yet to Come." Even when he tackles seemingly sad songs, he chooses those that emphasize the sweet memories he swears he'll never lose more than the loss itself. On Bennett's recent Sinatra tribute album, even the weeper classic "One for the Road" gets turned into a contented, cocky kiss-off.
In the throat of a lesser singer, this optimistic approach could come off as superficial, if not downright silly. But throughout On Holiday, Bennett sings so remarkably that he makes you gulp with every beaming face and swelling heart. Predictably, Bennett's classy rasp turns out to be the perfect match for the more hopeful Holiday standards included here, and Ralph Sharon's piano-only accompaniment on the giddy "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" and the goofy "Me, Myself and I," as well as on the nearly Zen "Laughing at Life," swings more than well enough to get things cooking (even if it isn't the equal of Lester Young's sax on Holiday's originals).
The best moments, though, come when Bennett reinterprets Holiday's darker repertoire. Coming from a male singer, "When a Woman Loves a Man" could easily look down its nose at women and the stupid things they'll do to keep a guy. But -- never the heel -- Bennett simply sounds as if he empathizes, as if he knows all too well what it's like to be heart-over-brain in love. Instead of Holiday's earthier setting, Bennett fills his sweet-stringed "Willow Weep for Me" with a delicate, ethereal quality that's almost like magic. In truth, this entire disc is magical. On Holiday is as good an album as any Bennett has recorded in 25 years. Even the necrophilic closing cut, with Bennett's voice electronically added to Holiday's on "God Bless the Child," can't break the happy spell. (****)
-- David Cantwell
Ixnay on the Hombre
Thanks to Dexter Gordon's consistently gruff vocals, the compressed harmonies and the overproduced grind of the guitars, this sounds like the same old, immediately identifiable Offspring that was introduced to the broader masses with 1995's Smash. It's a trademark noise that Nirvana invented with Nevermind but quickly abandoned. The Offspring chewed that bone throughout Smash, and now they've chewed it through another album, and it doesn't sound like there's much meat left on the thing. Lyrically, I don't hear anything to compare with the surprise novelty of Smash's "Self-Esteem" -- still one of the most innocently subversive rock-and-roll-boy songs ever recorded. Without that calling card, Gordon sinks into bad sociological commentary ("Way Down the Line") and indulgent posturing ("Sometimes I think I'm gonna drown / 'Cause everyone around's so hollow / I'm alone").
There are other missteps. "Gone Away" doesn't make any effort to avoid sounding like a Foreigner outtake. Why there's a circus-y throwaway "intermission" track in the middle of this thoroughly non-theatrical album is anyone's guess. There's even a Larry "Bud" Melman cameo on a hidden track ("I think you guys should try heavy metal. Kiss my ass. Ha ha ha ha.") that lends the feel of a cross-marketed sitcom to the proceedings. Missteps aside, Gordon and the band are best when they're doing their own version of roots rock (the ska bounce of "Don't Pick It Up") and punk rebel songs such as "The Meaning of Life" ("Someone trying to tell me / What to say and do / I don't want it / I gotta go find my own way") and "All I Want" ("I just don't want to be controlled"). And yeah, it does take something away from the sentiment that this is a band that not only uses space on its CD to bring Jello Biafra into the Sony fold (the former Dead Kennedy intones the opening "Disclaimer" in his best Bullwinkle voice), but also thanks Anheuser-Busch -- not a beer, but a corporation -- in its liner notes.
What exactly that takes away I'm not sure. Hell, everyone's integrity is subsidized some way or other. That won't surprise anyone old enough to understand it, and it won't matter to the kids who'll buy 2.3 million copies of this half-decent fifth album (significantly less, I'm betting, than the 8.5 million units moved of Smash).
I'm not sure the Offspring were ever really a punk band, but anyone who complained that they were pretenders missed the point, which is that playing at punk is what they're best at. When they let go of that pretense, which they too often do here, they're just a Boston for the '90s. (** 1/2)
-- Brad Tyer
Ginger Baker Trio
Falling off the Roof
Jazz is somewhat new for Ginger Baker, though nearly anyone alive for the past 30 years is familiar with his work with Eric Clapton and Cream. Baker can swing better than Charlie Watts, and his Baker Trio plays a far more modern music. But as Falling off the Roof proves, you can take the drummer out of the rock band, but it's harder to take the rock out of the drummer. Still, Baker does his best to explore the line between jazz and rock, ably aided by bassist Charlie Haden, guitarist Bill Frisell and guest Bela Fleck, who's on hand to steer the record away from boredom with a funky pluck. What success Baker enjoys here is owed strictly to his sidemen.
On "The Day the Sun Came Out," Frisell stretches his usual genre-slashing-rock while Baker shows off his falling-down-the-stairs style of drumming. Frisell has recorded with artists as varied as Arild Anderson and John Zorn, and is Zappa-like in his breadth and quest for technical proficiency. Frisell's slinky fretwork moves listeners through the narrow passages of Haden's soft opus "Sunday at the Hillcrest," the herky-jerky swing of Thelonious Monk's "Bemsha Swing" and the light cover of Charlie Parker's "Au Private." Haden himself is nearly invisible, though he scores a terrific assist.
The record production places the drums on top, and this makes some adjusting necessary, unless you're used to listening of Ludwig Drums Presents Audio How-To Drum Rolls. While camping on the jazz side of the river, Baker comes off, expectedly, a little heavy-handed and stiff at times, but nowhere is he out of time. (*** 1/2)
-- Brendan Doherty
Tonic's debut CD says almost nothing about anything except the propensity of Los Angeles to regularly spit out gobs of test-marketed mediocrity -- but what's left to say about that? -- and so after half a dozen agonizing listenings, I've found another slight peg that might connect this four-piece boy's club of guitar rockers to some small chunk of sad reality: They demonstrate, nearly perfectly, the Dishwalla Principle. To wit: Write a song so bursting at the seams with sonic and lyrical cliches that no one could listen without plotting suicide, then settle back to wallow in the royalties. Go figure.
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Tonic's entry in the radio sweepstakes is "Open Up Your Eyes," a swaggering piece of arena crock that speaks for the album surrounding it by being a thoroughly homogenized malt of Led Zeppelin and Live. Tonic knows how to get preapproved sounds out of its amplifiers, and like Pearl Jam, it'll coast for a while on the strength of an exceptional guitarist. But competence is the best thing Tonic has to offer, and the band mistakes it for profundity every time. Any tune, for instance, that begins with the line "She came down the mountain" had better be able to follow up with something heavy, and "Mountain" shouldn't have even tried. Likewise "Celtic Aggression," with its musings on "the death of culture."
Hell, likewise everything here. It's always been the goal of cover bands to sound as much as possible like the musicians they mimic, but Tonic's only original, and not particularly welcome, trick is making original music that sounds like someone else's generic cover tunes. It's tempting to call this group faceless and let it rest at that. But Tonic does have a face, several pretty ones in fact, which I grant them only so that they'll have something to stick between their legs and kiss their asses good-bye. (*)
-- Brad Tyer
CDs rated on a one to five star scale.