Jay Farrar certainly picked an odd time to play it safe. Now that the hubbub over his former Uncle Tupelo cohort Jeff Tweedy -- who had the critics in the palm of his hand last year thanks to Wilco's Being There, a sprawling paean to both the power and disposability of rock and roll -- has subsided a bit, you'd think Farrar would be game for a little experimental posturing of his own. Instead, his Son Volt has rolled out the passably predictable sophomore effort Straightaways.
Come to think of it, Farrar has never been about big, bold, messy statements anyway. Son Volt's austere 1995 debut, Trace, was a transcendent stroke of low-key genius. And Straightaways, as the title implies, is a natural, somewhat formulaic continuance of the rugged, country-westernized roots rock territory traversed so eloquently on Trace. There are no surprises, no sudden jerks or unexpected turns. In fact, it may require several listens before the disc registers as anything more than a well-executed series of nods to its predecessor.
As on Trace, the thematic landscape on Straightaways is in constant motion, a perpetual tour of small-town America's various rest stops, junk heaps and cesspools. Tunes such as "Left a Slide," "Picking Up the Signal" and "Been Set Free" epitomize the necessity of getting out and moving on even as they wallow in a stagnant sadness. While Farrar's eye for detail remains uncompromised, he seems somewhat detached from the colors on his canvas this time around, as if taking in the sights from a tour bus rather than from his own car has shielded him from the sort of intimate roadside epiphanies that so enhanced Trace. Or perhaps the reality he's tapping into now is just too painful to embrace.
Still, the real letdown on Straightaways is not the lyrics but the music. "Caryatid Easy" kicks things off on an encouraging note, peppered with a mildly exotic R.E.M.-ish guitar intro and a chunky, hell-bent chorus that suggests a partial reconciliation with Farrar's punkier Tupelo past. But that edgier stance is short-lived. Over the next few songs, Straightaways veers into a rather sluggish, slow-to-mid-tempo holding pattern, eventually sputtering to a poorly sequenced conclusion with an undistinguished string of rustic folk- and blues-based ballads. At best, Straightaways is as functional and welcome as a well-traveled rural bypass. At worst, it's as disconcertingly obvious as a well-marked dead end. (** 1/2)
-- Hobart Rowland
It would be so easy to rip Nine Lives. After all, who do these guys think they are, inking a multi-record, multimillion dollar deal as they push 50? And just check out Nine Lives's first single, "Falling in Love (Is Hard on Your Knees)," or worse, "Pink," with lines such as, "Pink, I want to be your lover / I want to wrap you in rubber / As pink as the sheets that we lay on / 'Cause pink, it's my favorite crayon." Isn't this the quasi-clever, mostly petulant kind of sexuality that was a joke when it was done by Spinal Tap? In fact, isn't this the kind of stuff that led to the Spinal Tap joke to begin with? There's something to be said for not fixing what isn't broken, but grow up, or at least grow. Self-parody may be good for a chuckle, but it has spillover costs.
Yep, it would be so easy to leave it at that. But the fact of the matter is that on most of Nine Lives the juvenile libido is kept in check and, more to the point, for a bunch of geezers Aerosmith can still rock. With the exception of two "Cryin' "-style power ballads, the boys from Boston are still noisy and obnoxious for the duration. Even better, they're still capable of annoying your parents, and isn't that the litmus test for good rock and roll? That last assumes, of course, that your parents aren't still Aerosmith fans themselves. Nine Lives is no Toys in the Attic, but it is the best of Aerosmith's largely overrated post-Done with Mirrors recordings. (** 1/2)
-- Michael Bertin
Come In and Burn
The Rollins Band feels your pain and continues to spew out loud anthems for a disillusioned race on their seventh full-length release, Come In and Burn. The same five players -- Henry Rollins, Chris Haskett, Melvin Gibbs, Sim Cain and Theo Van Rock -- assembled to fill the world's void for music that falls somewhere in between Motorhead's metal and Fugazi's homemade punk.
When square-jawed frontman Rollins isn't making movies, he's busy penning aggressive rants about self-destruction, paranoia and other pet peeves. His trademark scream/ speak style can grate on the less tone-deaf after the first seven or so tracks, leaving you wishing his lyrics were as intelligently written as his books or socially conscious speeches. The guys take the four-chord train to thrash and burn. "On My Way to the Cage" sparkles with an industrial edge, while "The End of Something" and "Inhale Exhale" throb at a slower, more intense pace. Haskett contributes some ferociously fast guitar lines, while the bass and drums set the base for each song. They throw in some interesting samples, but there isn't much departure from past work.
Fans will find plenty to bang their heads to, but Come In and Burn probably won't convert many nonbelievers. (**)
-- Carrie Bell
The Screaming End: Gene Vincent & His Blue Caps
Razor & Tie
If you want to disprove those who dog rockabilly with the usual objections -- it's lyrically juvenile; it was a dead end -- you need only play the fools some Eddie Cochran and Elvis Presley, respectively. But if you want to render these sorts of objections beside the point, then play them Gene Vincent. The Screaming End, a 20-track disc that features Vincent during his 1956-57 glory days, will do just fine.
By the time Vincent's career record, "Be-Bop-a-Lula," had cracked the pop and country top ten, Elvis was already a star. But it was still early enough in the game that the sound and style of early rock and roll had yet to be codified. You can feel a kind of wild excitement all over these sides in Vincent's delirious calls for the Blue Caps to "rock again," in the Caps' barely controlled abandon (and I mean barely) and in the beat, man, the beat! On "Cat Man," the Blue Caps -- surely rockabilly's best-ever band -- whip up a noise that's so interested in rhythm to the exclusion of everything else that, for a minute, you can almost imagine it was influenced by mid-'60s James Brown.
Back in its day, this music would've scared the bejesus out of any straight who heard it. "Race with the Devil" includes imagery ("Me and the Devil, sitting at a stoplight") that sounds like a '50's Robert Johnson. The twang-on-fire guitar solos of Blue Cap Cliff Gallup on "Crazy Legs" and "Who Slapped John" are noisy and urgent like nothing most folks would have ever heard. Forty years down the road, I'm not sure that's changed.
Vincent is fascinating for all sorts of reasons. His wild, greasy hair and leather jackets would become essential pieces of the rock and roll look. In nearly perpetual pain throughout his career, he took the stage surrounded by an entourage to hide the limp he'd acquired in a 1955 motorcycle wreck, a condition that only worsened after he lived through the 1960 car wreck that killed his friend Eddie Cochran. His success in Europe, after the American hits ended, sadly established the pattern that too many first generation rockers would have to follow. But the real reason this set matters is simply the music itself. It's cool, man. Hear it, and you'll end up screaming along with Vincent, "Let's rock again!" (****)
-- David Cantwell
CDs rated on a one to five star scale.