Chris Whitley's 1991 debut, Living with the Law, is some of the finest driving music ever made. Impossibly atmospheric and superbly moving, Law draws your focus away from the centerline and into scenescapes as vast, detailed and dust-caked as a Sergio Leone spaghetti Western. Even though Whitley never claimed to be a blues purist, Law poignantly captured the genre's wanderlust in its purest form -- and it was a tough act to follow.
So rather than scrambling to come up with a worthy successor in the same vein, the onetime Houstonian took a defiant turn on his next outing: If Law was the ultimate road companion, then 1995's Din of Ecstasy was the perfect music for jackhammer operators. Noisy and electrified, Din was a stone-cold shocker -- not to mention uniformly awful.
Now, on the new Terra Incognita, Whitley appears to be rethinking his heavy-rock strategy. Where Din wailed away with clumsy abandon, Terra's porous, acoustic/ electric layers bob, weave and echo with discretion, saving space for Whitley's melodies and his bottleneck work on electric and National steel guitars. In the rare instances where Terra repeats Din's experiments with jet-engine feedback and numbing repetition (as on "Clear Blue Sky" and "Gasket"), the wind-tunnel clatter doesn't persist for long. Whitley even allows himself to get downright funky on "Aerial" with an ass-swaying chord progression that alludes to mid-'70s Stevie Wonder.
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The most glaring evidence of Whitley's toned-down attack, however, is "Automatic," Terra Incognita's first single and an infectious exercise in pop-music restraint that's the closest he's ever come to flat out radio fodder. The song is almost catchy enough for me to forgive its boneheaded prose (a choice low: "Don't ask me for directions / I'll offer you no infections"), though that does tend to fly by harmlessly when wrapped in Whitley's callused journeyman warble.
In the end, the twaddle that Whitley tries to pass off as beat poetry is my only quibble with Terra Incognita. But seeing as how the music speaks so powerfully, a little rhymed mumbo jumbo is hardly the end of the world -- or a career. (*** 1/2)
-- Hobart Rowland
Tony Toni Tone
House of Music
Though I consider myself a firm opponent of retro-obsessed music that lacks new ideas, even the most fervent crusader for modernity and originality must grant amnesty in special cases. In the case of most R&B, which has been too long in an over-slick and formulaic rut, a little reverence for its proud past is exactly what's needed. And that's why I'd venture to dub Tony Toni Tone's decidedly old-school House of Music the most noteworthy soul release of the last year.
Of course, it's not much of a stretch to proclaim Tony Toni Tone the best R&B band around. In some sense, it's the only truly authentic R&B band of this era, seeing as most of the rest are merely vocals-only groups backed by sappy harmonies and sterile instrumental tracks. Like 1993's Sons of Soul, House of Music is a variety show of classic references, though with a foot firmly planted in the present. The styles of many of the greats peek through the curtains: There's Al Green's heavenly swoon on "Thinking of You," Earth, Wind and Fire's steady sway on "Lovin' You," Curtis Mayfield's bluesy fret work on "Still a Man" and the Temptations' Motown stroll guiding the direction of "Don't Fall in Love." Still, when the moment's right, Tony leader Raphael Saadiq doesn't hesitate to employ the hip-hop production of DJ Quick, his own playful rapping, a smattering of acoustic guitar or even some heated New Jack crooning, just to prove he can beat modern R&B kingpins such as Babyface at their own game. (****)
-- Roni Sarig
Jazz fans already know that Kevin Mahogany is one of the greatest singers in the world, and with any luck, this major-label debut will alert rock, soul and blues audiences to that fact as well. His trio of earlier Enja label albums were hard-core jazz affairs that, following in the tradition of grand vocalists such as Billy Eckstine and Mel Torme, were filled with impeccable versions of jazz and pop standards by everyone from Charlie Parker to Rodgers and Hart.
Kevin Mahogany, though, expands that old-school conception of the Great American Songbook to include rock and soul as well, and the addition pushes Mahogany -- who grew up loving soul and gospel, not just jazz -- to his greatest moments yet. Mixing jazz phrasing with church testifying, he tackles Fats Domino's "I'm Walkin'," James Carr's "Dark End of the Street," Stevie Wonder's "I Never Dreamed You'd Leave Me in Summer" and Al Kooper's "I Love You More than You'll Ever Know," filling each with a subtlety and dynamic that post-New Jack soul has long lacked -- and with an emotionalism that's been missing from too much jazz for decades. His performance of Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me" is as gut-wrenching as anything released in months.
The disc also expands jazz's musical vocabulary a bit. The arrangements are clearly jazz, but they're never afraid to get down and bluesy when it helps the song. And Mahogany's ballsy scatting on his own "Still Swingin' " is driven by funky-drummer beats. Without compromising his art in the least, Mahogany has fashioned a rock and soul disc that jazz hounds should dig, and a jazz album that blues and soul fans should be able to rock their butts off to. Now there's no reason why the whole world shouldn't be a Kevin Mahogany fan. (****)
-- David Cantwell
John P. Strohm and the Hello Strangers
If there were such a thing as the Republic of Indieland, John Strohm would make a great secretary of state. Over the past decade, Strohm has practiced a shuttle diplomacy that's earned him a place in just about every decent music scene in the country: Boston (as a member of the Blake Babies and a part-time Lemonhead), Minneapolis (as a contributor to Polara) and Chapel Hill (as a longtime name on the Mammoth label roster with his bands Antenna and Velo-Deluxe). His stature even earned him a slot on Mike Watt's who's who of alt-rock release, Ball-hog or Tugboat?, all the way out in Los Angeles.
For Caledonia, though, Strohm stays entrenched in his hometown of Bloomington, Indiana, where he hooks up with some old friends, the Hello Strangers. What he finds is his roots -- or at least somebody's roots. Add Caledonia to the growing list of indie efforts born from a melding of two sensibilities: Big Star's power pop and Gram Parsons's twangy blue-eyed soul. It's more than a little reminiscent of the Jayhawks, Wilco and any number of other bands who've graced the pages of alt-country's magazine of the moment, No Depression.
Though Strohm wins no praise for originality here, Caledonia does contains some of his best songs to date. Accompanied by the acoustic strumming, vibrato electric, pedal steel, brush percussion and aching harmonies that define alt-country, "Tangelo," "See You Around" and "Geronimo's Cadillac" are likably goofy and immediately memorable. With its tape hiss and toy piano accompaniment, "Thelma" is a slight pop ballad worthy of either Sebadoh's Lou Barlow or Bryan Adams. And isn't it just like a diplomat to find common ground between two such seemingly disparate parties? (***)
-- Roni Sarig
Is it real, or is it Nirvana Jr.? Such debate seems pointless at this phase of Silverchair's evolution -- the put-up-or-shut-up phase -- when all it really comes down to is the songs. The more appropriate question might be: Can this Australian teen trio put pen to paper with any sustained urgency or self-analytical aplomb? Can they write around their copycat reputation and outdistance their post-Cobain competition in the process?
If you go by Freak Show, the mildly engaging follow-up to the band's huge-selling debut Frogstomp, the answer is a resounding ... not yet. Plain and simple, Silverchair has a lot of growing up to do. At the moment, youthful enthusiasm is taking them places their brains aren't yet ready to handle. At times, they seem aware of their dilemma. "Need to ask a question / Calling out my name," mewls Silverchair singer/guitarist Daniel Johns in Freak Show's "Abuse Me." "Nothing seems to bother / Wish I had a clue."
That sort of ambivalence permeates Freak Show. Granted, a meteoric leap such as Silverchair's can mess with even the most mature mind, and I'm quite sure that the group's members have witnessed much of what they sing about. But it wouldn't hurt if Silverchair made an occasional attempt to lighten the load on their shoulders. There's something sad about Johns, a kid who's all of 17, singing (and writing) lines such as "Sinking through dark black holes / It's never gonna end." Welcome to puberty in the '90s.
Still, compared to Frogstomp's minor-chord drudgery, Freak Show's more varied sonic palette is uplifting, thanks in no small part to producer Nick Launay. "Abuse Me" sports a cozy intimacy that remedies its depressing lyrics. "Cemetery" is a haunting string-laced ballad with verses that suggest Smashing Pumpkins' quieter, more baroque side. And "Pop Song For Us Rejects," another track that benefits from spare orchestration, begins on a catchy acoustic note -- that is, before it succumbs to the rudimentary slab-metal riffs that drag down a significant portion of Freak Show. Oh well, at least time is on Silverchair's side. (**)
-- Hobart Rowland
CDs rated on a one to five star scale.
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