Rahsaan Patterson
Rahsaan Patterson

At the 28th annual NAACP Image Awards on February 8 in Los Angeles, Prince was honored with a "Special Achievement Award," presented by Stevie Wonder. Prince told the attendees that he first heard Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life as a teenager and that it was "the standard by which all musicians will measure greatness."

Rahsaan Patterson is one of the best, if not the best, of those trying to channel Stevie Wonder's classic sounds into the Nineties. While he's not yet ready to measure himself against Songs in the Key of Life, he's got a lot of Stevie's restlessness, taking us on interesting musical and lyrical roads, which more often than not end up in Wonderland, the seat of musical enchantment. On "Spend the Night," for instance, Patterson pleads and agonizes early on, but by the bridge he changes tactics. He slides into a confident mode, perhaps following the credo of an actor friend of mine: "When you go to an audition, never ever let 'em know you need the job." If you pay close attention, you can tell Rahsaan still isn't quite sure of himself, but he covers up his quiet desperation with fulsome strings and finger-popping bass. What the lady thinks is left open to question. As the songs roll by, a full-blown persona emerges of a guy who makes elegant funk out of frustration, and his sweetly vulnerable voice begins to stand apart from its influences.

Patterson's restlessness extends to instrumentation. He uses sitars, horns, drum machines, live drummers, and percussionists to flesh out his hook-laden songs, at least one of which, "Where You Are," would sound right at home on a Stevie Wonder greatest-hits album.

But there's a dilemma here too. Stevie Wonder made his mark by pushing the boundaries of music. When he used a certain synthesizer sound on Music of My Mind, he was making up stuff that had never existed before. When Rahsaan Patterson uses the same sounds on "Stop By," he's consciously looking backward to make his choice. The result can still be thrilling, but it's too soon to know if he's gathering himself for a leap into the future or just artfully stalling for time.

-- Lee Ballinger


"I'm a picture that I'm holding of someone who is cool," singer Craig Northey confesses from the get-go, and the rest of Odds's fourth album, Nest, proves the band knows a thing or two about "the lovely surface," those poses people often strike to measure up to some hip, MTV-calculated version of who we're all supposed to be. On "Make You Mad," Northey admits to telling "little lies" so that his lover will like him. That leaves him nervous about all the poses everyone else must be copping; later, he screams in paranoia at all the people he must take at their word.

These insights are complicated by the fact that, while this Canadian quartet pokes fun at these poses with self-deflating lyrics ("I'm a low-level rebel, I jaywalk to beat the devil"), they are simultaneously fashioning a very lovely surface for themselves. Nest is filled with gorgeous power pop -- the kind of big guitar rock dressed up with the bubblegum melodies, sweet harmonies, and busy soundscapes first designed by bands like Badfinger, Queen, and ELO. And if those influences aren't "cool" enough for you, then by all means imagine Ben Folds Five with guitars. Same difference. (Put another way, those who fancy themselves down with the Alternative Nation will note how Odds's vocals sound like Matthew Sweet's; the rest of us can just think of Tommy Shaw.) Sometimes Nest feels like it's lecturing us about being too image-driven while simultaneously admiring its reflection in the mirror.

But now I'm the one being self-conscious. Worried you'll hear my description of such retro, unabashed pop as hopelessly lame, I'm scrambling for something to save face. Truth is, I love Nest. The catchy songs have me humming along instantly, the angelic harmonies and synthy guitar solos make me smile without thinking; on "Heard You Wrong" and the Beatles-esque "Nothing Beautiful," I even find myself moved. Sure, Nest is derivative, often obscure and more shallow than it would have us believe. But it's also catchy as hell, beautiful and viscerally exciting in the way that only good power pop can be. So when they sing, "I'm the song about the song that once said something new," I'll let on that I know it's just them covering their cool asses with some well-timed self-deprecation. But what I'm really thinking is, "So what?"

--David Cantwell

Glen Campbell
The Glen Campbell Collection 1962-1989
(Razor & Tie)

Rapper Ice-T, announcing the release of his latest Body Count project a while back, managed to swipe at poor ol' Glen Campbell. Anticipating the furor sure to follow the release of his latest bid at being "offensive," Ice-T let it be known that "when I put on Johnny Mathis or Glen Campbell, I'm offended immediately."

Campbell, best known for adding the countrypolitan sheen of strings and advanced chord structures to country songs, seems to be ripe for picking on. The Rhinestone Cowboy, the epitome of a "crossover sellout" country artist, can't get no respect. Slicking up the raw-boned hillbilly sound had been a major obsession of most Nashville types looking to break from country music's limited constituency. Besides, as Pete Townshend told us many years ago, music must change, so what you really want to know at the end of the day is not whether a music is "pure" (sounds too much like a Nazi Germany term anyhow) but whether the hybrid works. For at least the first half of this two-disc collection it does.

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