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The Cars
The Cars Anthology: Just What I Needed
(Elektra/Rhino)

Back in the late Seventies, when record executives and rock critics alike used the term "new wave" to describe the more accessible groups that spun off from the planet of punk, the Cars were the rulers of the new-wave hemisphere. The Boston quintet's quirky, slightly arty rock -- introduced in 1978 with their eponymously titled debut album -- was melodic and tuneful enough to fit nicely between the AOR hits of FM titans such as Journey and Foreigner, yet weird enough to make people feel as if they were expanding their horizons when they cranked up "My Best Friend's Girl" or "Good Times Roll."

The Cars were a marketing man's dream come true: a group that not only drew considerable critical praise early on but also established the commercial viability of a new strain of rock that had previously languished in bargain bins. As the hits kept coming, the critics would eventually lose interest, yet the foundation of the band's sound A detached but oddly engaging vocals, crisp synthetic drums, gimmicky sound effects, and tasty hard-rock guitar A remained basically the same from their early hits to their 1984 breakthrough album Heartbeat City. By the time they released Door to Door, their lackluster 1987 swan song, the Cars had inspired a host of mostly unlistenable groups (Bugs Tomorrow, anyone?) and helped usher in the electronic dance-pop boom of the early Eighties. Nonetheless, they are remembered today primarily for a handful of hits, their innovations banished to half-baked new-wave compilations and VH1 retrospectives.

If anything, Just What I Needed is the Cars' posthumous bid for legitimacy A a two-disc overview that pulls together a whopping 40 tracks, including all the singles, key album tracks, some forgotten B-sides, and the outtakes and demos common to these coffee-table collections. It's a lavish set, with a spiffy metal-flake slipcover and an info-packed 28-page booklet. If you think the package smacks of excess, too much hubbub over what was essentially a singles band, surprise -- Just What I Needed is about as fun as new-wave nostalgia will ever get. Only a pop-hating curmudgeon or a punk-rock elitist would deny the simple and sublime charms of the best music here.

Chief songwriter Ric Ocasek was never a master of grand rock and roll statements. He could be infuriatingly obtuse, even when confessing true lust ("Candy-O") or lamenting a broken heart ("Since You're Gone"), and both Ocasek and co-vocalist/bassist Benjamin Orr spent too many years studying the icy mannerisms of Roxy Music's Bryan Ferry. Ocasek was an inspired craftsman, though, who wrapped his baffling lyrics around clever melodies and razor-sharp hooks ("Moving in Stereo," "Double Life" ) and put new spins on age-old riffs ("My Best Friend's Girl," "Let's Go"). And though the group's growing obsession with synthesizers would eventually obscure his contributions, Elliot Easton was the perfect guitar hero for the era A flashy in a tasteful and traditional sort of way (check out the squawking break on "Candy-O"), but also inventive (ditto the soaring one-string solo on "Since You're Gone"). His work here holds up much better than the sound-effect doodlings of keyboardist Greg Hawkes, whose boings, bings, and blips on "Dangerous Type," "Candy-O," and "Panorama" sound dinky in comparison.

Although it's vastly superior to the band's skimpy hits package from 1985, Just What I Needed at times delivers more than you need. The three B-sides are pleasant but hardly essential, and of the eight outtakes and demos, only "Cool Fool," a crunching rocker recorded in 1977, is worth salvaging. And though their later hits were among their biggest, "Drive," "You Might Think," and "Tonight She Comes" are robotic and slick to the point of distraction. Better to focus on the meat of the set -- almost all of the first disc, and maybe a quarter of the second -- for the ultimate taste of new wave's sonic concepts.

-- John Floyd

Ennio Morricone
Ennio Morricone with Love: Original Soundtrack Recordings
(DRG)

Is there a film composer who's cooler than Ennio Morricone? If you're cruising down Ocean Drive in your red Ferrari with a Campari in one hand and a beautiful Gauloise-smoking stranger at your side, Morricone has already written the soundtrack for that. He's also written it if, at the next light, you spill your drink, have the cigarette stubbed out on your forehead, and have your fingers slammed in the car door as the stranger, who turns out to be one of America's Most Wanted, runs out on you. Whether Morricone is pouring a spicy, blood-red sauce on a spaghetti Western or throwing missionaries over a waterfall in an epic, he is a master of irony and distancing, of the lonely whistler, of the woman's disembodied voice floating over the mesa, of the twanging banjo and the paralyzing electric guitar riff, and of the quirky little twists and jabs that seem to mock both the film and its audience. Even in his easy-listening mode, Morricone can make you feel uneasy.

Morricone's body of work has received a lot of attention over the past year. A Fistful of Film Music, a two-CD anthology on the Rhino label, is a good overview of his work, as is DRG's recent Ennio Morricone Anthology and two earlier compilations on Virgin Movie Music. Since his many scores for romantic dramas and comedies have not received the attention that his scores for other genres have, this DRG release is welcome. The clever, outlandish effects that characterize his scores for Westerns such as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West, for example, are absent here, but Morricone's signature Muzak-from-Hell persists. The 21 film scores covered in this release span the years 1968 through 1991; they will be unfamiliar to most Americans, with the exception of 1989's Cinema Paradiso. Each film is represented by one track, usually a main title.

The performances are conducted by Morricone, and DRG's documentation serves film-score fanatics well. Now if you want to be cool, just put on this CD, get out those dark sunglasses, light up that Gitane, rev up that engine, and just say "Ciao, bella" as you speed off into the sunset.

-- Raymond Tuttle

Tracy Chapman
New Beginning
(Elektra)

Talkin' 'bout a de-evolution. Nigh on ten years ago, Tracy Chapman burst onto the music scene as an authentic voice of protest in an age of frightful superficiality. Remember, a B-movie star was in the White House, the Moral Majority was on the prowl, and the unfortunate musical concept known as new wave was not yet a cutesy retro-radio format. Into this wilderness dropped young Chapman, with a voice like liquid amber, spare guitar riffs that implanted themselves on the frontal lobes, and lyrics that condemned the cultural vibe with rare pathos, eloquence, and irony. It was no wonder she and her stubbly dreadlocks stormed the Grammys following her 1988 debut album and the huge hit "Fast Car."

Nor any wonder that her second and third albums failed to live up to unfairly inflated expectations. Unfortunately, there is no reason to recommend her fourth and latest album, New Beginning, as anything of the sort. Rather, the Boston-based folkie has completed her graceful dive into mediocrity. Just to clarify, the songs here are not bad. Chapman's voice is as rich as ever, and her backing band provides quiet, complementary accompaniment. But the indelible melodies are gone, replaced by generic folk Pablum, and Chapman's poison pen now sounds more like a dull number-two pencil. Consider "Rape of the World," perhaps the album's best case study -- seven minutes of meandering song line and chanted slogans a la "Mother of us all/Place of our birth/How can we stand aside and watch the rape of the world?" This is the same woman who wrote "Fast Car"?

There are a few moments of genuine life here, most notably the percussive title track and the anthemic "Tell It Like It Is," both of which call to mind the fiery joy of earlier efforts. "Give Me One Reason" is a satisfying belt of twelve-bar blues. Tellingly, the song was written in 1986. Aside from these, the aural scenery passes without much notice. It's no wonder the reflexively PC Chapman urges fans to send away for garden seeds on the CD sleeve. She's provided plenty of low-grade fertilizer with this effort.

-- Steve Almond

Various Artists
Ain't Nuthin' but a She Thing
(London)

Various Artists
Global Divas: Voices from 20 Women of the World
(Rounder)

Considering they were released nearly simultaneously and focus on a central theme -- a musical celebration of female identity, struggle, and achievement designed to raise funds for various women's causes -- Ain't Nuthin' but a She Thing and Global Divas couldn't be more different.

The latter set collects 41 songs from 30 nations on three discs in a beautiful slipcover package and represents the full spectrum of world folk music and the female voices that resound most powerfully through it. The first disc alone tours effortlessly across fourteen countries, including Norway, Australia, Cuba, Greece, and Brazil, with each song showcasing a distinctly female perspective. Released in honor of this year's United Nations World Conference on Women, Global Divas is a benefit release for UNIFEM, a development fund to support women's projects and interests.

She Thing is a decidedly more commercial-minded venture, undertaken by London Records and Levi's Jeans for Women in conjunction with a recent MTV special on "sheroes" (female heroes). With tracks ranging from Sinead O'Connor's Gaelic folk to Luscious Jackson's French-language groove funk, from Come's aggressive post-punk to Salt-n-Pepa's assertive, swaggering hip-hop, the set is diverse despite its focus on mainstream American and European artists. The ten songs express the strength and vulnerability, love and lust, hope and pain of women's experiences. Profits from sales are going to the Shirley Divers Foundation, which supports women's health and rights groups.

-- Roni Sarig

Alice in Chains
Alice in Chains
(Columbia)

Even if there were nothing else redeeming on Alice in Chains, the Seattle foursome's third album, the entire enterprise deserves a hearty thumbs-up from free-speech fans for successfully slipping the phrase "fucked up" onto the Top 40 airwaves. Guitarist-vocalist Jerry Cantrell croons the unbleeped obscenity no less than three times in the band's current radio hit "Heaven Beside You." The trick, it seems, is to sing it prettily.

Of course, dense and slightly off-kilter harmonizing has long been an Alice in Chains trademark, and the band never tires of frosting its basic metallico-grunge with intricate and deceptively sweet vocal interplay. Not only does this enable them to sneak dirty words past the FCC, but it also gives their doomy tunes some potent pop appeal. "Heaven Beside You," for instance, is catchy as all get-out A a sort of woozy country ballad punctuated by big, loud guitar breaks. Other songs lean more toward the grunting mid-pace riff noise that the Seattle region is known for, and though the song titles are conveniently descriptive ("Sludge Factory" and "Grind," especially), they don't hint at the canny vocal hooks and overall craftsmanship buried amid the murk.

Alice is a slightly more lighthearted affair than the band's previous album, Dirt, although angsty co-frontman Layne Staley remains snarly, and guitar man Cantrell continues to leave offerings at the temple of Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi. But the range of expression is wider, the instrumentation more varied (the odd acoustic guitar line, for example), and a flash of humor appears now and again, as in the almost cheerful "Nothin' Song." Of the two, Cantrell possesses the less distinctive (and less irritating) voice, although he's probably the better writer. His album-closing "Over Now" makes the most tuneful use of the band's twin penchants for close harmony and big guitars.

-- David Dudley

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