Where is the 17-year-old womanchild within all this superbly crafted attitude? Her shy vulnerability flits to the forefront of the teen romance, "4 Page Letter," and galvanizes it. More overtly, three of the final four songs give themselves over to heartbreak (one is called "Heartbroken") and female solidarity. The last tune, "The One I Gave My Heart To," is a weeper penned by sclockmeister Diane Warren; and even hip hop producer Daryl Simmons can't cut through the bathos. Yet Aaliyah, sounding wise beyond her years--or at least grown up the hard way--sings the hell out of it. R. Kelly is gone, but not totally forgotten. (Britt Robson) CP

Daniel Clowes

Orgy Bound

Fantagraphics Books

          I laughed as soon as I saw the cover--an utterly un-erotic illustration of an open-shirted dude in a Roman helmet, proudly carrying his woman in his arms under the book's bright pink Orgy Bound title. When was the last time anyone was orgy bound? In any case, I doubt the author himself would ever attend one; like R. Crumb before him, underground cartoonist Daniel Clowes has an ink-and-paper persona that is cranky, perverted, critical of his generation (X), and pretty much misanthropic in general. In Mad Magazine-style vignettes, here collected from the pages of his comic, Eightball, Clowes hammers on everything from Chicago peanut-bar culture to the very idea of trying in life ("Give it up!"). And throughout, he manages to be both funnier and darker than Crumb.

          Of course, Crumb fathered the genre Clowes works in: alternative, non-super-hero comics for adults. But it wasn't until the '90s that this stuff approached pop momentum. When highly personal artists like Clowes, Joe Matt, Peter Bagge, and Julie Doucet breathed a little realism and slacker humor into their stories, indie comics seemed poised to follow indie rock into the mainstream. (Clowes is the one who designed the label for Coke's short-lived "gen-X" beverage, OK Soda.) But big deal. One flip through Orgy Bound and it's plain why a B. Dalton invasion is unlikely. In one strip, Clowes borrows an image from artist Mike Kelley--a fisherman getting fellatio from a fish--and spins it into a murder story.

          Clowes obviously loves the old Mad comics masters, with Jack Davis's attention to facial expressions looming especially large as an influence. But his sense of satire is less political, more all-consuming: He roasts himself, his comics, even the very idea of comics. With, for instance, an attack on sports as a battlefield of "sublimated homosexual rape and oedipal hostility," Clowes takes the cartoon to such visual and logical extremes that it becomes a goof on the critique itself (c'mon, golf flags as penises?). With his gift for ugly faces and black-as-night sense of humor, it might be less immediately apparent how smart Clowes is. Laughing through the brilliance of Orgy Bound should set you straight. (Peter Scholtes)

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