How has Crow acquitted herself? Quite nicely. Sheryl Crow is a more troubled piece of work than her debut, but also far more interesting. It's not that Crow has lost her knack for a melodic hook, she's just added a few sharp lyrical uppercuts to her arsenal.
"If it Makes You Happy" sounds like a keg-party sing-along -- until you check out the words ("If it makes you happy/Then why the hell are you so sad?"). The same sunny cynicism propels "A Change," a fuzzed-out anthem that takes some deserved shots at the vapid greed culture of her native L.A. The funky shuffle of "Maybe Angels" breathes fire at religious mercenaries, and "Redemption Day" provides an unflinching portrait of the carnage in Bosnia that earns its ire by refusing to bend to cliche. (Crow's haunting acoustic strums and sharply observed lyrics make it clear that a good bit of Dylan has rubbed off on her.)
Crow has again recruited a coterie of topnotch players, including ace drummers Michael Urbano and Pete Thomas, renowned boardman Mitchell Froom, and Crowded House frontman Neil Finn, who duets with Crow on the surging "Everyday Is a Winding Road." The instrumentation has also grown more sophisticated. In addition to the standard snaky guitar leads and chunky backbeats, Crow (as producer) has added an impressive list of nuance instruments -- harmonium, Moog bass, Wurlitzer, pennyosley -- all of which she plays.
As a vocalist, she remains limited by an instrument that will never dazzle. But she has more than compensated for the deficit on this ambitious sophomore effort, a joyous scream of rages that manages to subvert the rules of pop even as it revels in them.
As a member of New Order, Peter Hook's swooping reggae basslines helped bridge the gap between new-wave rock and dance -- don't call it disco -- music. Hook's melodic hooks and the pervasive, moody influence of New Order helped define the sound of "modern rock." Almost every popular band of the last fifteen years has operated in the long shadow of New Order, which makes some of the music on Music for Pleasure sound almost retro.
Hook's new side project is miles ahead of Revenge, his last dismal attempt to strike out on his own. Not unexpectedly, Monaco sounds like a brighter, more radio-friendly version of New Order, though the lyrics, by co-conspirator David Potts, retain their angst-ridden edge in addressing the usual concerns of love lost, unattainable or unimaginable.
Hook and Potts try a bit of everything here -- neoclassical Sixties pop, house, techno, and the ironic, brooding pop that made New Order alternately brilliant and embarrassing -- and bring it off with nonchalant grace. "What Do You Want from Me" is a jaunty pop excursion with an instantly memorable chorus of sha-la-las. "Under the Stars" recalls the sulky anthems of New Order's heyday, while "Junk" proves that Hook can still bridge the gap between disco and rock without drowning in the cliches of either style. Potts warbles the lyrics throughout with an amateurish, adolescent edge, but his untutored performance sits perfectly with the melancholy subject matter.