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Various Artists
For the Love of Harry: Everybody Sings Nilsson

Harry Nilsson was to the Seventies what Warren Zevon was to the Eighties. Imagine Randy Newman, but suave. Now imagine Randy Newman, suave and drunk as hell on martinis.

Maybe we all needed to be reminded about Nilsson. His best songs are laden with hooks, but they're fishhooks, sharp and barbed. Nilsson writes a sweet song about moonbeams, and he somehow works into it the word crap. He writes a song about a breakup that guts you with irony, not pathos: "In the summer by the poolside/While the fireflies are all around you/I'll miss you and I know that I'll miss the alimony, too." And no one else could have written an assessment such as, "You're breaking my heart/You're tearing it apart/So fuck you."

The trouble with tribute albums is that, like memorial services, they too often say more about the people who make them than about the tributee. Fortunately, that isn't the case with this one, produced by Al Kooper and initiated before Nilsson's death of a heart attack last January.

"Remember," which opens the proceedings, marks the first time Randy Newman ever recorded a Nilsson tune (surprising given Nilsson's early LP full of Newman tunes). Other contributors are equally predictable if less inspired, (Ringo Starr and Brian Wilson), while some (Marshall Crenshaw, Steve Forbert, the Roches, Victoria Williams) are revelatory in that it suddenly dawns on you that Nilsson was a mondo influence on their work.

Lavern Baker does a mean "Jump into the Fire"; ditto Aimee Mann's take on "One." Plus others too numerous to mention. In fact, this project's only serious flaw is overkill: 23 songs.

Buy it anyway. Your bucks'll go to a good cause (royalties and net profits benefit the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence). While you're at it, pick up a copy of BMG's recently released Personal Best, a two-CD Nilsson retrospective. Like Harry sang: "When we're older, full of cancer/It doesn't matter now, come on get happy/Cuz nothin' lasts forever but I will always love you."

Don't forget him.
By Tom Finkel

Tales from the Punchbowl

So I'm listening to this thing, to the discordant twangs and spastic thumps and mindless screaming, and after about two "songs" it becomes apparent that I want nothing more to do with the CD, that I want, in fact, to break the CD. Then, a bit further along, right in the midst of "Wynona's Big Brown Beaver" -- the first single, wouldn't you know it? -- I decide that breaking this one CD really would not be enough. Not at all.

What I really want is to have all copies of this album destroyed. Then I want to have a good long talk with the responsible parties. Not with the "musicians," who are, near as I can reckon, the punk equivalent of Spinal Tap. But with whoever in God's name was responsible for listening to the original demos and okaying their full-fledged recording and release.

Obviously, I'm missing something, because the band's equally unlistenable previous album (their fourth) sold, like, a million copies. I suspect it's that portion of the limbic brain responsible for crucial cognitive functions, such as swinging a baseball bat and grunting.

I'm sure there are a whole slew of Beavises and Butt-heads out there who disagree with these views violently (how else?). And I look forward to debating the merits of Primus with them, provided they attempt to speak in complete sentences.

By Steven Almond

John Lee Hooker
Chill Out

Despite the Carlos Santana-ization of the title track -- wailing lead guitar, inappropriate Latin percussion -- John Lee Hooker's Chill Out is magnificent. Producer-slide guitarist Roy Rogers plays to all of the 74-year-old boogie-blues pioneer's strengths: Hooker's dark, booming voice; his melodically spare, rhythmically rich guitar; and his larger-than-life persona. Unlike the Hook's revolving-door guest policy on recent releases, he keeps the star shine to a minimum here, bringing in Van Morrison to duet on a combination platter of "Serves Me Right to Suffer/Syndicator," on which the pair sound just as menacing as the lyrics and the evil groove (laid down by keyboardist Booker T. Jones) would suggest. However, top guest-spot honors go to the indefatigable septuagenarian Charles Brown on piano, elegantly stroking his way through "Kiddio" and "Annie Mae," driven by a thoroughly jazzed Hooker. But the moments of sheer sublimity occur when it's Hooker alone. Tracks such as "Deep Blue Sea" and "Tupelo," featuring the man, his guitar, and his feet keeping time on a miked board, are stunning examples of why Hooker is so revered.

By Bob Weinberg

John Santos and the Machete Ensemble

Afro-Cuban scholar, bandleader, arranger, and master drummer John Santos is a walking encyclopedia of Latin music. On this set he's joined by four Cuban legends: mambo king-bassist Israel "Cachao" Lopez; Alfredo "Chocolate" Armenteros, whose blazing trumpet was featured on many Beny More sides in the Forties; timbalero Orestes Vilat cents; and hand drummer Anthony Carrillo. Not forgetting pianist-arranger Rebecca Maule centsn. Recorded over the course of six years, Machete covers vast musical ground while celebrating Cuba's contributions to various world rhythms. "Iya," the album's most African piece, is a funky prayer to Santeria mother goddess Ochun -- it's embroidered by the fat, golden notes of David Yamasaki's guitar and Lakiba Pittman's deep, yearning vocals. "El mago vilat cents" is a bembe (a folkloric Afro-Cuban rhythm) driven by Vilat cents's timbales and Armenteros's short, sharp trumpet solo; "Modupue" sounds like a smooth, early Sixties-style Cuban jazz outing; and "Media Luna," a lush danzon-mambo, showcases the graceful charanga-like solos of violinist Anthony Blea and flautist Melecio Magdaluyo. But the track that best sums up the disc is "La patria del son," a montuno with all the elements that make Cuban music magical: relentless interlocking rhythms, stinging trumpet flights, shimmering tres, and poetic lyrics.

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