ILLADELPH HALFLIFE IS both a strong hip hop record and a bit of a letdown, a consequence of it following the group's creatively thrilling, commercially moribund Do You Want More?!!!??!! CD from last year. On that masterful outing, The Roots were a posse of MCs and musicians quickened by instinctual genius, exhaling hard raps and spacey riffs with unflinching alacrity, while fashioning an entirely new blend of quirky moods and jazzy, breakneck momentum.
But it crashed and burned in the marketplace, forcing the group to more carefully define their sound this time around. Where the tracks on Do You Want seemed to unfurl like an open-ended suite, the first half-dozen numbers on Halflife establish a Roots signature of quicksilver raps (mostly from frontmen Black Thought and Malik B.) pushing through a shimmer of keyboards and samples. Usually it sounds great--like Naughty By Nature on the woozy tip--but without much variation. The absence of saxophonist Steve Coleman is felt; the only horns that really bust through the mix include the loose David Murray jam on "Dave vs. US," and "One Shine," which sounds like a mediocre outtake from Do You Want More. In addition to Murray, guest stars abound and generally acquit themselves well, particularly the female rapper Bahamadia on "Push Up Your Lighter" and Q-Tip on "Ital (The Universal Side)." And as with Do You Want, the most riveting track on Halflife is a topical, emotionally-charged rap by the poet Ursula Rucker, this time on the downward spiral of participating in the crack trade. Somebody get this woman a record contract. (Britt Robson)
The Louvin Brothers
Tragic Songs of Life
Satan Is Real
WELL IT'S ABOUT time. Out of print in the U.S. for decades as far as I can tell, these records were available on vinyl for a while in the '80s as imports on the British Stetson imprint, until a variety of woes (foremost a lawsuit from the hat company involving copyright infringement) drove that label under. The only other option has been the voluminous and costly Louvin Brothers CD box marketed by Germany's Bear Family label--a comprehensive set that, I have on good authority, was the first-ever CD purchase of one-time Jayhawk Mark Olson.
Why should any of this concern you? Well, the historical line is that the Charlie and Ira Louvin were the greatest country harmony group ever. As a profound influence on the Everly Brothers, their haunting/haunted sound echoes down the annals of rock & roll through the Beach Boys, the Beatles, and up to modern alt-country groups like the Jayhawks and Uncle Tupelo (who once covered their "Great Atomic Power"). But history aside, these '50s recording carry an emotional potency that remains undiminished today.
Partly it's the songs. Tragic Songs of Life, the duo's first LP for Capitol, more than lives up to its name. Their version of the multi-faceted "In the Pines" is not the ragingly jealous version Leadbelly (and Nirvana) made popular as "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?"--instead, it's a high and lonesome lament for a girl who left (in betrayal?) on a long, long train. "Knoxville Girl," on the other hand, is the most disturbing of the record's numerous songs of female infidelity. It begins with a man beating an unfaithful woman to death with a stick, dragging her by her hair, dumping her body in the river, and going home to have nightmares of black flames engulfing his bed. Though the duo was reluctant to release it as a single, they eventually did, and--surprise--it became the record's biggest hit.
Satan Is Real is the most famous of the brothers' gospel sets, and it has its own striking tunes--notably the much-covered "The River of Jordan" and "The Christian Life," which both Roger McGuinn and Gram Parsons goofed on memorably for the Byrd's Sweethearts of the Rodeo album (the unreleased Parsons version eventually surfaced on the Byrds retrospective box set). But what elevates all these songs to the level of high art is the close harmony singing of Ira and Charlie, burning with earthly passion, guilt, and that lust for something greater. Whether they realized it or not, in these remarkable recordings, they achieved the object of the latter. (Will Hermes)
Bare My Naked Soul
There are worse things for an artist to do than try too hard. During the mid-'80s, Jesse Johnson established himself as one of the sharpest guitarists around with The Time, adding a turbo-charged fifth gear to the group in a manner very similar to what Prince was doing in his own band. Then Johnson fell into disrepair, making tawdry headlines with drunken, bizarre behavior and engaging in a public dispute with his former mate over financial matters. All of this is alluded to in the artwork for the cover of Bare My Naked Soul, a CD that, as its title implies, spares no effort in trying to recoup all of the career ground Johnson lost in his fall from grace. The result is a very ambitious display of talent that can't help but be less than the sum of its considerable parts.
One of Johnson's signature strengths has always been his ability to mix and match such disparate influences as southern boogie, Hendrixian distortion, Princely funk rock, and Chicago blues in his work. But Naked Soul too often isolates these styles out into their own tunes. Thus, on "Let Me In," Johnson sounds like the Allman Brothers and the Marshall Tucker Band, "Walk Like Me Talk" nods toward the Black Crowes, "Shock To The System" toward Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson. "Mr. Heartache" sports a Prince-like arrangement, and "Bring Your Love Down Hard On Me" is a balls-to-wall electric Chicago blues tune that Buddy Guy would be proud to claim. Hendrix is variously invoked for both his "I Don't Live Today" mysticism (on "My Life") and his tender "Little Wing" balladry ("I Miss").
This potpourri is as off-putting as it is impressive. There are dozens of stunning moments here, but the effect is akin to watching some very cool TV while someone else pumps the channel-changer; it's hard for the listener to get a grip on who Jesse Johnson really is. The best clue comes during the instrumental breaks where the guitarist cuts loose, often with a barrage of lightning-quick notes that raise the musical intelligence as well of the intensity of the songs. Otherwise, his bare-naked soul seems pretty ill-defined. (Britt Robson)
Walking On Locusts
When John Cale is in his deep and heavy mode, no one in rock & roll is deeper or heavier. His old partner, Lou Reed, has to dress like a college professor, read his lyrics from a music stand, and write dry, boring pieces for The New Yorker to convince us that he has something important to say, but all Cale has to do is open his mouth and unleash that sonorous voice with its regal Welsh accent. The classic example is his narration on "The Gift" from the Velvet Underground's White Light/White Heat. But for more recent proof, just check out Julian Schnabel's film, Basquiat. Timed to the painter's death, Cale's reading of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" has all the emotional impact of the Lord Almighty knocking aside the big rock and resurrecting himself.
Given the greatness of his somber and serious persona (summed up quite nicely on 1992's live retrospective, Fragments Of A Rainy Season), it's easy to forget that there's a more playful, jovial, plain ol' fun side to the guy. This is the John Cale of Wrong Way Up, his bouncy 1990 collaboration with Brian Eno. The battle of egos behind the scenes in the making of that album obscured who did what, and Eno claimed most of the credit. But now Walking On Locusts, a long-awaited sequel of sorts, arrives to show that Cale is as capable at crafting innovative, upbeat pop music as he is at recording noisy experiments or mournful dirges.
With its sly, sexy, exotic groove, flirtatious female backing vocals, and Cajun-flavored violin parts by the Soldier String Quartet, the opening track, "Dancing Undercover," sets the tone for much of what follows. "Thanks for thinking of me/And thanks for the flowers," Cale sings with a wink and just the slightest hint of menace. "Deadly nightshade is beautiful/I could stare at them for hours."
The packaging trumpets appearances by David Byrne and Velvet Underground's drummer, Maureen Tucker; more noticeable are contributions from jagged-edged guitarist Dave Tronzo and Moroccan drummers Ibrahim and Hassan Hakhmoun. But there's no mistaking that this is Cale's show throughout, from the over-the-top histrionics of "Crazy Egypt" (think of a catchier and less scary "Fear" or "Guts") to the cheerfully self-deprecating "Entre Nous" to "Some Friends"--a touching and quiet rumination on the death of Velvet Underground's guitarist Sterling Morrison. OK, so Cale does get a bit serious on that last one. But for the most part, Walking On Locusts is the sort of deceptively breezy and powerfully endearing album that most of Cale's peers can't free themselves up to make anymore. Reed and Eno sure aren't going to top it. Unlike those celebrated eggheads, Cale still has the ability to surprise. (Jim DeRogatis) CP
John Cale performs Thursday at First Avenue; see A-List, p.37 for details.
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