World Party's Karl Wallinger has his drawbacks. First off, he's not much of a singer. True, Wallinger can carry a tune -- but he carries it with only a scant measure of character. And lyrically speaking, he's less a true poet than a collector of nice phrases (i.e. "Put the message in the box / Put the box into the car / Drive the car... " yadda, yadda, yadda). Music-wise, World Party's 1986 debut, Private Revolution, and its patchy, if well-crafted, successors, Goodbye Jumbo and Bang!, offer a virtual clinic in fine tunesmanship, but few truly original moments.
Still, the Welsh-born Wallinger is an artist worth treasuring -- mainly because few self-styled pop geniuses have transcended their limitations the way he does on the breathtaking Egyptology. The CD's detail-rich 15 tracks (not overly many when you consider that Wallinger averages a release every two and a half years) ooze over with a near religious affection for the sounds of his music-obsessed youth, from the British Invasion bands and their tackier early-'70s successors to the orchestrally bloated, black-tie pop of his parents' generation.
Egyptology's opener "It Is Time" gives an idea of just how deeply that obsession gnaws at Wallinger's very fabric, and how expertly he channels it into a sleek, retro-pop vehicle all his own. With a few crisp thwacks of a snare, the song segues into a twangy lick suggestive of vintage early Stones (or, for that matter, vintage Monkees). Its structure is deceptively basic, a blurring of verse and chorus that gets under your skin well before the tune reaches its crescendo amidst echoey ascending harmonies, sustained chords and thunderous rolls eerily similar to Keith Moon's classic drum demolition on the Who's "My Generation." Clocking in at just under three minutes, 30 seconds, "It Is Time" is a thorough rundown of fundamental rock and roll moves more than three decades old. Yet Wallinger's reverence for the past flows so unabated beneath the song's well-worn foundations as to make the tune immune to criticism.
That holds true for the majority of Egyptology, which only rarely strays from its sentimental, song-oriented mission. "Call Me Up," "Beautiful Dream," "Piece of Mind" and "The Whole of the Night" (likely a play on "The Whole of the Moon," a classic number from Wallinger's '80s spell with the Waterboys) contrast mock-psychedelia with an appropriate hint of stylized U.K. blooze. Most important, their hooks are addictive as hell. The crossover ambitions of Egyptology's string-enhanced, supper-club cabaret showpieces "Vanity Fair" and "Rolling off a Log" seem tailor-made for Neil Diamond. And the sweeping, emotionally frank ballads "She's the One" and "Love is Best" are among the prettiest, most tender compositions Wallinger has ever written. (One might have expected "Curse of the Mummy's Tomb," a tune inspired by the death of Wallinger's mother, to be the same. Instead, its rather silly symbolism -- "Mummy" versus "Mommy" -- feels more like an exercise in emotional ambivalence, though one preserved in an appealing Beatlesque shroud.)
But such analysis is really beside the point. In the end, Egyptology is as much a triumph of mood over matter as it is one of style over substance. And the spoils go largely to Wallinger, given that World Party has been his gig all along. With the exception of Chris Sharrock's implosive drumming on seven tracks, Wallinger played, programmed and produced every bit of Egyptology at his Seaview Studios, a knob-fiddler's Shangri-la stocked to the hilt with the latest gadgets.
Funny then how this disc is, by far, World Party's most organic outing. Where Wallinger's previous work -- with its drum machines, leftover '80s technology and such -- tended toward the impersonal, his new material bristles with humanity. Like a long-lost friend who's just resurfaced, Egyptology has never seemed more welcome -- or as immediately familiar. (**** 1/2)
-- Hobart Rowland
Gospel Oak EP
Sinead O'Connor has retired from her escapades as one of the bald and the beautiful. Along with her new full head of shiny black hair, she ushers in a period of quiet.
Although she's probably best known for her fatalistic cover of Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U," it's O'Connor's originals that really take your breath away. The Gospel Oak EP, her first recording since 1994's Universal Mother, boasts five new songs written by O'Connor and produced by her ex-husband John Reynolds, as well as a live version of the traditional Irish anthem "He Moved Through the Fair."
All six of the EP's songs are soft, slow and steeped in the sounds of Ireland. A few tunes dance on the edge between ballad and jig, making for interesting tempos. The standout cut, "This Is a Rebel Song," is a melodic, weepy plea for the love and attention of an Englishman. There's a moral here, yet it isn't the hit-you-over-the-head sort of I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got's "Black Boys on Mopeds." Maybe O'Connor has softened up with the birth of her daughter, or maybe the recuperation from her nervous breakdown has mellowed her.