At 72, B.B. King is something of an enigma. He's still a tremendous blues performer, someone whose concerts are not to be missed. Yet for the past two decades, his recordings have generally been pop/soul-influenced efforts of erratic quality.
King's latest CD, Deuces Wild, features duets with rock, pop, country, R&B and hip-hop artists -- an overtly commercial concept that nets another mixed effort from the King of the Blues. While some of the pairings yield excellent aesthetic results, commerce generally comes before art on Deuces Wild. A prime example is "Paying the Cost to Be the Boss," which pairs King with the Rolling Stones. There is some serious fire here, but just as the jam starts to soar, it's faded at the 3:30 mark, probably so as not to scare off radio programmers. Then there's "I Know There Must Be a Better World Somewhere," featuring Dr. John. A King/ John pairing should be a blues event, but here it's nothing more than MOR pop. Other obvious attempts to cash in on current star power are King's duet with Heavy D, and having Tracy Chapman sing "The Thrill Is Gone."
At least King didn't make the mistake of teaming up with Diane Schuur again. And despite some serious miscues, some of the duets have excellent payoffs and a few others are at least respectable. Joe Cocker and B.B. King were made for each other, while Marty Stuart pushes King into harder-edged territory. Bonnie Raitt is Bonnie Raitt, and she's a good match for King. But the most pleasant surprise is a duet with D'Angelo that makes excellent use of the classic Stax-Volt style.
The top performances on Deuces Wild are inspired, and though they don't constitute the majority of the CD, they should be heard. (***)
-- Paul MacArthur
The Dead Milkmen
Death Rides a Pale Cow
My only memory of semi-famed punk-rock pranksters the Dead Milkmen is a particularly vivid one. It was the summer of 1985, and I was a college student at home on summer break in the Philadelphia suburbs. My friends had been prodding me for weeks to join them for one of the Philly-based Milkmen's infamous homecoming shows at a local club. Eventually, a debate ensued. They saw this smart-assed, rhythmically challenged quartet as the very embodiment of a rock and roll joy buzzer, a noogie on punk's noggin at a time when the Clash had recently split up and the raging nihilism of the Los Angeles hard-core scene was about as alien to underage WASPs on the East Coast as were freeway shootings.
Me, I was largely indifferent to the Dead Milkmen -- perhaps even a little irritated by them. Not only were their songs repetitive and disposable, but they lacked soul, let alone any real sense of purpose. I mean, come on: Where was the art? But my pals convinced me to go anyhow, largely on the promise that the show would be good fun and that we could all get served alcohol without an ID.
The latter was indeed true; we got hammered. As for the Milkmen's performance, it was loud, fast, obnoxious and not particularly fun to watch, as lead singer Rodney Anonymous seemed to take way too much pleasure in kicking overzealous fans upside the head with his battered Chuck Taylors. Meanwhile, the show's mosh pit (they called moshing slam dancing back then) was of the predatory variety, gobbling up the entire dance floor until a brawl broke out and the police were called in to take away the bloodied and bruised offenders. A little more than an hour into the evening, the Dead Milkmen were shut down, and they looked happy enough to have the rest of the night off. Come to think of it, so was I.
Listening to "Milkmen Stomp," the until-now unreleased live track that kicks off Death Rides a Pale Cow (The Ultimate Collection), took me back -- reluctantly -- to that fateful abbreviated show. So-called Milkmen "classics" such as "Bitchin' Camaro," "Beach Party Vietnam" and the oddball MTV fave "Punk Rock Girl" are also included on this retrospective, along with 19 other stale mementos from the group's career. And if you didn't get the joke then, you'll certainly want no part of it now. (* 1/2)
-- Hobart Rowland
God Street Wine
God Street Wine
Like the liquid portion of God Street Wine's moniker, this CD must age a bit to be fully appreciated. It takes roughly three complete spins before the low-key and laid-back jams of these New Yorkers truly sink into your senses. And the sad thing is, after all that, you still suspect that this band is probably best savored in a live setting.
Vocalist/guitarist Lo Faber leads his solid band through a set that's influenced -- though not dominated -- by a '70s jam sound. Jon Bevo's Wurlitzer organ breaks buttress the work of Faber and second guitarist Aaron Maxwell while maintaining a decidedly modern feel on tracks such as "Feather" and supporting the funkified sounds of "Wall" and "I'll Still Like You." The band only really lets loose on the sarcastic "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" and the freeform ramblings of "Water," though the results sound more mature than the constant, in-your-face jams of similarly influenced bands. Restraint, it seems, isn't always a weakness. On board to help out several tracks are Blues Traveler's John Popper, with his distinctive harp sound, and longtime Little Feat keyboardist Billy Payne.
God Street Wine sequence their tracks to sustain a slow build, with the lyrics setting moods and creating atmosphere rather than telling stories (with the exception of "Don't Speak of These Things," a touching tale of a neglected wife). And though the results are a bit too low key and mellow upon initial listen, the musicianship of the individual players wins over most doubters after further exposure. Give this one a little time to ferment. (*** 1/2)
-- Bob Ruggiero
Exile on Coldharbour Lane
For the uninitiated, A3 (as it's known in the U.S., apparently for legal reasons; outside the States the band goes by the name Alabama 3) is a musical collective based in London, England, that attempts to combine techno beats with country, blues and gospel. Given the buzz on those musical genres recently, it's inevitable that someone arrived at the concept. However, on Exile on Coldharbour Lane, it's an idea that this group of white-trash wannabes is unable to pull off.
A3 provides a glossary to explain some of their silly jargon in an effort to illuminate their 12-step plan to save the world with love and the word of the king (Elvis). The frustrating part is that while they invoke some of the major names of American music, that influence gets lost somewhere, and what they end up with sounds like an incomplete caricature. Their version of John Prine's "Speed of the Sound of Loneliness" is closer to Muzak than to a gut-wrenching ode to alienation, which is what the song is supposed to be. What's even more annoying is that every member of the band uses a fake name that recalls the worst of the '60s psychedelic era: The Mountain of Love is on harmonica, the Spirit is on keyboards and Little Boy Dope is on drums. If the music were better, this might come across as amusing; but with music this bad, it's simply irritating.
The electronic beats have the repetitive, cold nature of techno, while the country/ blues instrumentation that's tacked on lacks the soul to convey any feelings beyond those of parody. A3 call to mind Frankie Goes to Hollywood, another English import that was hyped to the heavens but whose concept, and reason for being, also got lost somewhere over the Atlantic. (**)
-- Jim Caligiuri
Days of the New
Days of the New
This solid debut from a Kentucky-based punk/hard-rock band fronted by 18-year-old vocalist/guitarist Travis Meeks eschews predictable teen angst in favor of a darker and more mature sound. Meeks's vocal range and ferocity are reminiscent of a more-controlled young Mike (Suicidal Tendencies) Muir, and his obtuse but not opaque lyrics evoke a rage that's given life by bandmates Todd Whitener (guitar), Jesse Vest (bass) and Matt Taul (drums). Incendiary tracks such as "Sign of the Times," "See You on the Way" and "Open Wide" command authority thanks to Meeks's observations ("Don't trust anything you can't feel") and nihilistic ruminations ("Is it better to be king of denial, queen of despair / better to be prince of I don't care"). Other numbers attack the mind-numbing powers of everyone's favorite drug of the '90s, Prozac, ("Welcome to the Other Side") and cut-throat corporate life (the harsh tune "Killer in the Workplace").
Because they're so green, Days of the New can be forgiven some of their more formulaic tendencies. And with respectable talent and the fresh eyes of youth on their side, this band has a legitimate shot at evolving into something truly powerful. (***)
-- Bob Ruggiero
CDs rated on a one to five star scale.