There's a whole generation of music writers out there who -- ever since listening to 1975's Horses as young, impressionable, not-yet rock critics -- have been waiting to spill buckets of creamy ink all over Patti Smith. Gone Again is all the excuse they needed, which helps explain the stream of raves during the last two months over "the return of punk's high priestess."
None of that, however, prepares you for the chill that accompanies the crashing guitar chords on the CD's title track. I'm not at all sure it's fair to say that Smith has ever been gone, but she sure as hell is back.
Smith's husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith, died last year, and his passing is all over Gone Again, from the dedication ("in memory of Fred 'Sonic' Smith, musician, Detroit") to the disc's closing track, "Farewell Reel," with Smith's spoken intro: "This little song is for Fred. It's G, C, D and D minor." That tune is one of the disc's most affecting numbers -- just a wise woman and a strummed guitar and a middle verse that collars the poetry that Smith alone can generate. "Our wild love came from above / And wilder still / Is the wind that howls / Like a voice that knows it's gone / Cause darling you died / And well I cried / But I'll get by / Salute our love / And send you a smile / And move on." It's romanticized grief, for sure, what with that wild love coming from above. But, hey, that's what poets do.
There's more death in "About a Boy," purportedly written about Kurt Cobain. (With its swirly atmospherics and subdued feedback, it's Gone Again's wispiest track.) There's also "Dead to the World" and Bob Dylan's "Wicked Messenger" and the lyric reference in "Gone Again" to departed hippie shaman Jerry Garcia.
Everywhere on Gone Again, Smith's best transformative rock instincts are hard at work. The title track and "Summer Cannibals" rock with all the uncontemporary conviction of an unrepentant troublemaker, and Smith's hand-wrung voice still bleeds the passion, the smarts and the charisma that have made her one of a few living American musicians who can command attention just by opening her mouth -- and then reward that attention.
If one generation has been waiting a decade or more for this release, another generation is hopelessly in the dark about Smith. A friend of mine who didn't know any better thought he detected a touch of P.J. Harvey's influence in Smith's vocals. But, of course, he had it horribly backward, confusing a leaf with the tree. So, in homage to Gone Again's running theme, and in dutiful defense of what small notions of art, beauty and truth remain, I killed him. (*****)
-- Brad Tyer
Crow Pot Pie
Slobberbone is bound to come under some scrutiny for the more obvious traits it shares with Wilco and the rest of the extended Uncle Tupelo family. Given the fact that the band is from Texas and not from the Midwest, the scrutiny may not be particularly fair, but it is inevitable. As with the Tupelo follow-ups, the so-called "yee haw" factor figures heavily into this Denton quintet's 80 proof brand of slam-it-down punky tonk. And like former Tupelo co-leaders Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar, Slobberbone's Brent Best views himself as a standard issue, working-class schlep "drinkin'" and "stinkin'" his way through a common set of sobering realities. This ensures that Slobberbone's music -- rife with embattled electric guitars, fiddle, organ and drum beats that vary from speedy to sluggish -- marinates in a brackish puddle of desperation that's both unnerving and, at times, liberating.
Playing up his roguish qualities with an indifferent, Tweedy-esque drawl, Best occasionally turns to harrowing-but-hilarious rural American metaphors to sum up his woeful state. The most memorable -- and most ridiculous -- of these comes in the torrid, six-minute-plus breakup anthem "I Can Tell Your Love Is Waning," in which Best astutely observes, "I can tell your love is waning from the looks and the smell of it / Like getting caught behind a cattle truck and all you smell is shit."
All in all, these bread-and-butter insights don't occur quite frequently enough, and you may wind up wishing that Best would straighten up long enough to confront a few more weighty issues. Some might prefer to picture him as a profound individual thinking hard on Slobberbone's place among its post-Tupelo brethren as he wanders the back roads and interstates that connect Denton to Tweedy and Farrar's old St. Louis stomping grounds. But really, he's probably back home tying one on, playing a few games of pool and caring little about anything but the next round of drinks. (***)
-- Hobart Rowland
A Man Amongst Men
As various caterwaulers and guitar poseurs continue to overdose, break down and blow their brains out over the unbearable pain of being a sensitive artist, Bo Diddley charges exuberantly into his fifth decade as one of the few remaining true gods of rock and roll. A Man Amongst Men is high-intensity insanity from a thoroughly professional wildman whose straitjacket is loosened by some impressive guest talents. Diddley comes charging out the gate with Keith Richards in close pursuit on "Bo Diddley Is Crazy," which is the most infectious tune Diddley has penned since "Who Do You Love." The counterpoint between Diddley's frenzied "I'm crazy! / I'm a lunatic!" and the mock terror of the Shirelles' "He's crazy! / He's a lunatic!" underlines what his noise was all about to begin with, while the hilarity of Johnny "Guitar" Watson's speech confirming that Diddley is, indeed, crazy (as ambulances wail in the background) is tempered with bittersweet poignancy by Watson's recent passing. Pianist Johnny Johnson -- a rock deity of no small stature himself -- works a powerful mojo with both hands on "Can I Walk You Home," "That Mule" and the title track. Jimmie Vaughan, Ron Wood and Richie Sambora gleefully trade sideman guitar duties; especially memorable is Diddley and Vaughan on the grab-a-rum-punch-and-say-"ahhh" "Coatimundi," which demonstrates that, on top of everything else, Bo knows calypso. Actually, A Man Amongst Men is evidence that there's hardly a genre that Diddley isn't comfortable with. (****)
-- Jim Sherman
Elvis Costello and the Attractions
All This Useless Beauty
It's a done deal: Elvis Costello is, at long last, wedged soundly into his forties -- mired in the tasteful restraint of middle age and distressingly self-satisfied about it. He tried to fool us into thinking otherwise with 1994's Brutal Youth, teaming up with his old colleague Nick Lowe to muster up a belated attempt at recapturing the restless, pill-popping spirit of his glory days. The tour that followed teased fans with a surprisingly peppy string of performances. Sadly, though, Brutal Youth's content didn't measure up to the McManus standard of excellence, and at this stage of the game, extra points for effort are, shall we say, pointless.
You can almost hear Costello's hairline receding -- right along with the hairlines of the Attractions -- on the new All This Useless Beauty, a stodgy, ambling collection of willfully "adult" songs. If Elvis is going to play grownup, he'd do better to leave the Attractions out of it, as he did on the striking 1993 song cycle The Juliet Letters with the Brodsky String Quartet. Instead, Costello drags one of the best backup bands in rock and roll into a project on which hired help would have sufficed.
As it is here, the Attractions are underutilized, aside from the random effort to air out the stale atmosphere in the studio. Needless to say, those few exceptions are welcome ones: the bold rocker "Complicated Shadows" would have fit comfortably on Brutal Youth as one of its better cuts; "You Bowed Down" is a pretty reworking of a song Costello wrote for Roger McGuinn's 1991 release, Back from Rio; "It's Time" features an upbeat, R&B-flavored hook and a wrenching, soul-drenched lead vocal in the chorus that's hard to shake.
The rest, however, is snoresville -- loping along slower than a thirsty mule in the desert. "And if you still don't like my song / Then you can just go to hell," sings the grumpy old man with only a hint of conviction on "Little Atoms," one of All This Useless Beauty's surplus of sedate ballads. I can see the fires of Hades now, and they've got to be more inspiring than this. (**)
-- Hobart Rowland
VI: Return of the Real
Could it be that Ice-T, that last link in a dying breed of overtly aware West Coast hip-hoppers, is selling out his street smarts to be just another part of the frivolous gangsta rap game? From the sounds of his new opus VI: Return of the Real, it sure seems so.
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On this ambitious, 21-cut ghetto opera -- most of it performed to the accompaniment of an out-of-tune piano track -- Ice-T assumes the role of a master playa/ mack/ hustler, wasting any fool who comes between him and his money. Throughout, the Original Gangsta rams home the notion that he really isn't the menace he claims to be. In one interlude, Ice-T concedes that rap is fantasy, telling an inquiring reporter to get a life. This, of course, is just before he goes into the gangsta-typical parables "Make the Loot Loop" and "Syndicate 4 Ever."
While Ice-T shows that he's still the most ambitious rapper around, his ambitions get lost among the pimp posturing and gun-toting pandering common to the gangsta ilk. By the end of VI, our narrator has come full circle in his telling of the rise and fall of a villainous sort, and while this broad melodramatic sweep might work just fine in movieland, it doesn't sit well in a real world context. "Real is a word people don't wanna deal with," Ice-T proclaims in one interlude. And on VI, neither, it seems, does he. (**)
-- Craig D. Lindsey
CDs are rated on a one to five star scale.