Neil Young with Crazy Horse
SOMETIMES CD TITLES are more revealing than originally intended. So it is with Broken Arrow, a collection of aimless tunes by a stalwart artist whose warrior spirit appears to be temporarily fragmented. That's the positive way to spin it anyway: It could be that Young simply turned in a half-assed effort to fulfill a contractual obligation. Either way, one of rock's most adventurous characters seems ensnared in a sort of virtual ennui, a lack of nerve over changing relationships, either with a woman or within his middle-aged self. "Talkin' 'bout the enemy/Living inside of me/Talkin' 'bout that youthful foundation," he sings on "Big Time," one the record's two best tracks. The other is "Music Arcade," a beautifully vulnerable solo cut about the bittersweet pleasure of hangin' out lonely.
The rest, frankly, is dreck. Acoustically, all of Young's outings with Crazy Horse move through the briar patch, but this one is especially fuzzy. There's "Loose Change," a long, wandering jam that takes more than nine minutes to peter out. There are throwaway ditties like "Changing Highways," which sounds like an outtake from Hawks and Doves, and "This Town," a dreadfully slight number better left in the vaults until that posthumous for-completists-only boxed set. And there's a surprisingly tepid, eight-minute live version of Jimmy Reed's durable classic, "Baby What You Want Me To Do," that has the poor sound quality of a mediocre bootleg. In more ways than one, I sincerely hope Neil Young gets better soon. (Britt Robson)
Everything I Long For
MOST OF THE songs on Hayden's debut album were written and recorded late at night in his bedroom on a 4-track mini-studio. Though he's not the first schmo to embrace low-fi as a means of low-rent self-expression, Hayden's music--perhaps more than that of any other home-taping homebody--is completely the product of where it was created. Hayden, a fairly normal twenty-nothing from Toronto, is pure folk poet: a troubadour of the suburbs; a kitchen-raiding, late-night-cable-TV-watching, oversleeping product of middle-class North America. To record him any other way would be like taking bacteria out of a petri dish.
Over an acoustic guitar that skronks with the metallic reverberation of strumming too hard, Hayden sings of everyday minutiae with a deep, raspy monotone of perpetual ennui. On the beautifully lumbering "Bad As They Seem," the singer pines for a neighborhood girl as someone "to share with me my midnight snack," only to conclude, "I got to get out some more." The storytelling is even more cleverly focused on "We Don't Mind," where a couple plays hooky from work ("We find a phone booth with room for two/I call your boss and I don't speak the truth").
But, Hayden knows, even the most mundane scenes can have tragic undersides. Hence, "Skates" starts off about an old department store job, but ends up about the interminable grief of a customer. And in a story ripped from the news, a child in "When This Is Over" wonders about cleaning his room and brushing his teeth while he and his baby brother are drowned in a car by their mother. The music, which mixes in electric guitars, pianos, and other random noises, is more coarse than most singer/songwriter fare, but often a lot more penetrating as well. (Roni Sarig)
The Music of Vietnam
GIVEN THE UNITED States' history with Vietnam, approaching The Music of Vietnam without some sort of bias would be asking a lot--that is, if it weren't so easy to be charmed, entranced, and won over by the exquisitely played, bewitching traditional music in these three volumes. Recorded and produced by David Parsons with an impeccable touch, they come with exhaustive notes to help set them in their proper context. But the pleasure is in the hearing.
The first two CDs document a surprisingly diverse mix of the country's most commonly heard folk music, recorded in Hanoi by premier traditional musicians using a curious assortment of Vietnamese lutes, zithers, fiddles, flutes, and percussion devices. There are songs associated with theater and religious ceremonies, folk songs from the Hmong and Ede minority cultures, love songs, dances, marches, pastoral elegies, and lullabies. Many show Indian and especially Chinese influences, but Western musical structures lurk about too, with odd hints of blues, jazzy improvisations, and even funk. Among the most striking stuff: a beautiful landscape etched by an ensemble including an ethereal one-hole bamboo flute called sao mot lo; a raucous, joyous dance featuring a birdsong played on a whistle called a sol; "A Harvesting Story," featuring interesting shifts in melody, rhythm, and texture; the bluesy sounding "Beggar's Song" with moaning fiddle and vocals and syncopated percussion; and extraordinary temple music for exorcists featuring anguished vocals, a frenetically strummed lute, and driving rhythms.
The third CD focuses on imperial court music from the ancient capital of Hue, played by the Hue Traditional Art Troupe. It's generally more stately and majestic, often featuring highly embellished group vocals over intricate ensemble work. Occasionally solemn, it also includes lilting dance music and some whimsical stuff invoking sacred animals. Vietnam's music and culture are exotic, complex, and little known in the West. This box opens a crack to an artistic tradition that's too often been obscured by politics. (Rick Mason)
When Squirrels Play Chicken EP
TOMMY STINSON IS living in L.A. now, but he grew up under the raggedy wings of Minneapolis's punk rock community. Lugging around a bass guitar and touring with the Replacements at age 14, his teachers were the crème de la crème of hard-practicing drunkards and raw rock talent. Some 15 years later, with his new band, Perfect, Stinson blithely features his bad-ass music lessons like exquisite little scars. This five-song set of pop tunes spans noisy exuberance and gentle sadness with its claws dug in: "Miss Self Esteem" reveals mournfulness worthy of Westerberg in a funk, while the blues-call refrain and burn 'em down guitars on "Alternative Monkey" loudly proclaim rock & roll's Southern roots. No alterna-grunge boy, Stinson has constructed a powerhouse band who take their cues from Elvis, the Beatles, and '70's pop music. In the aftermath of so many disaffected, post-Nirvana coulda-been-contenders, Perfect navigate the rock & roll wreckage with grace and charm. (Laura Brandenburg)
I Am L.V.
HUSKY VOCALIST L.V. first entered the ears of the world alongside his South Central homeboy Coolio on the rapper's monster 1995 single "Gangsta's Paradise." With that song, interpolated from an old Stevie Wonder gem and layered with L.V.'s preacher-man chorus and buttery refrain, the pair was onto something good--reworkings of classic soul and R&B into radio-friendly hip-hop--which Coolio exploited further on his album.
This formula gets another workout on the first half of L.V.'s debut solo shot, I Am L.V. The singer turns replayed bits of songs like the O'Jays' "Help Somebody Please," Isaac Hayes's version of "The Look of Love," and Al Hudson's "Mr. Groove" and "Man With A Horn" into modern soul music with a retro feel and a smooth West Coast hip-hop heart. With its wah-wah and talkbox effects, flute and horn work, and soaring vocals, songs like "Fire From the Gun," "Gangsta's Boogie," and "Throw Your Hands Up" owe more to classics by Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, and Parliament than to any recent R&B. And with his rapless version of "Gangsta's Paradise" and the praise-the-lording of "The 'G' Within," L.V. offers a conscious--even gospel--take on gangsta music.
For some reason (perhaps the high cost of getting remake permissions), I Am L.V. takes a nosedive halfway through and changes into an entirely different, far less worthwhile record. The last six of the album's 14 songs are original L.V. love ballads, and left without a blueprint from which to interpolate, the music degenerates into the same vapid R&B pop that clutters so much of the urban airwaves. Thankfully, L.V. piles the losers at the end. Enjoy tracks one through eight; after that, buyer please beware. (Sarig)
Squirrel Nut Zippers
WHEN LAST WE saw our heroes, their 1995 debut, The Inevitable Squirrel Nut Zippers, had been handed a somewhat apathetic reception by the rigidly formatted radio bad guys, despite the record's undeniable charms. Unflustered, the Chapel Hill sextet (since bolstered to a seven-piece) reconvened in New Orleans, the hot jazz holy land they'd seen in photos but never visited. To coax the ghosts of Crescent-ville out of the moldy woodwork the band held a seance at the studio of famed producer Daniel Lanois, where over 10 days--with few microphones and fewer retakes--they recorded Hot, their second stab at capturing the imagination of a generation nostalgic for things they'd never experienced.
Meanwhile...the alternative nation had grown cynical of the so-called cocktail revival--they'd seen Tony Bennett open for Pearl Jam and could smell a cheap gimmick when they heard it. But would little Jimmy Silverchair understand that our favorite band named after a chewy peanut candy had something to teach both the jazz world it aspired to and the indie-rock world it was a refugee from? That jazz hadn't sounded this unschooled and this much fun--and this punk rock--since the kids at the orphanage brought the house down? And couldn't those modern rock ne'er-do-wells use a solid jolt of this kind of soulfully non-ironic music-for-music's-sake?
Sure, the Zips' mid-tempo trad jazz moments ("Blue Angel," "It Ain't You") drag a bit, but vocalist Katharine Whalen's imitation of Billie Holiday after drinking a glass of milk (not an insult) is easily endured to dig into Hot's new bag of tricks; where we'll find the old-time calypso of "Hell" and a swing instrumental, "Memphis Exorcism." And lest we forget, there's some Charleston and lots of Dixieland and a dose of that old Cab Calloway strut left over from last time. It's a gimmick all right, but can you remember one so happily thrust upon us? (Sarig)
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