Papa Vegas
Hello Vertigo
(Sid Flips/RCA)

The other day I was flying. No, not in an airplane. Really flying. I just flapped my wings and up I went. Anyway while I was up there soaring over the tops of trees and picking dragonflies out of my mouth (you'd be surprised how many there are at low altitudes), I started thinking about the last time I flew in an airplane, and how I became obsessed with the idea that the generic line drawings on the flight-safety cards would make great album art for some up-and-coming rock band.

Well, the members of Papa Vegas, a foursome from Grand Rapids, Michigan, must have read my mind, because their debut, Hello Vertigo, uses flight-safety illustrations for its cover art. And though it's theoretically possible that they came up with the idea on their own, nothing else on this derivative, redundant, and largely meaningless record is original.

Papa Vegas writes songs that sound like Duran Duran castoffs, with poster-boy vocals, underdeveloped melodies, and flimsy walls of synthesizer and tame, toy guitar. When the quartet doesn't sound like Duran Duran, they sound like Tears for Fears, or Human League, or the Alan Parsons Project; any number of moody, mediocre early-Eighties chart-toppers. Even the profound song titles ("Mesmerized," "Super Telepathy," "Beautiful Animal") seem to be relics from that era, except those that seem to have been named by the gods of cruel irony ("Something Wrong," "No Destination," and "Plodding Bit of Nonsense"). The last one's fake, but might as well be real. Sometimes honesty seeps out of the strangest places.

I hope it won't offend the members of Papa Vegas if I say this record is largely terrible. I'm sure they're nice people. I'm sure they mean well. They just don't sing, play, or write well. On the other hand, Hello Vertigo does serve a higher purpose. It proves my theory that pop music is no longer changing. At almost any other time in pop-music history, borrowing a style or song from a past decade would have been considered either nostalgic (Sha Na Na, Queen's "Crazy Little Thing Called Love") or ironic (the New York Dolls' cover of Bo Diddley's "Pills," or the Sex Pistols' "Stepping Stone"). Now, though, Papa Vegas can reach a full fifteen years into the past and ape goopy New Wave bands without any humor, scorn, or love -- or any standpoint at all, for that matter. Has rock's evolution slowed to a crawl? Has it stopped? If so Papa Vegas might want to reconsider the flight-safety illustration motif. Why? Well, there's no chance of crashing if you don't leave the ground.

-- Ben Greenman

The Dave Brubeck Quartet and Jimmy Rushing
Brubeck and Rushing

In 1960 Jimmy Rushing, the greatest vocalist to pass through Count Basie's orchestra, hustled Dave Brubeck and his troupe into the studio to record a dozen jazz and blues standards. At the time the match seemed odd. Brubeck was coming off the monster success of Take Five, while Rushing was in the twilight of his storied career. The results, though, speak to Rushing's acute musical instincts. The collection sparkles with the wit and gruff sorrow that was Rushing's trademark.

Brubeck's sassy boogie-woogie piano provides a thrilling backdrop for Rushing's throaty take on "Evenin'." Paul Desmond's trilling alto sax provides a consistent melodic counterpoint to Rushing's hollow-bottom baritone and illuminates a raucous rendition of "There'll Be Some Changes Made." Brubeck's minimalist style (he seems often to be scribbling his runs as much as playing them) provides Rushing plenty of room to give his sly interpretations voice. Brubeck's understated tinkling anchors glorious versions of "River, Stay 'Way from My Door" and "Ain't Misbehavin.'"

Brubeck and Rushing is the hidden jewel of Legacy's recent re-release of Brubeck's material, a swinging collaboration that is as unexpected and intoxicating today as it was 40 years ago.

-- Steve Almond

The Sebadoh
(Sub Pop/Sire Records)

Lou Barlow became important without meaning to. He impressed others by recording his fragile, angry songs on whatever happened to be lying around, whether it was a four-track recorder or a busted Walkman. It didn't matter, because at first, it wasn't about style: He had to get the songs out of his head on to a tape, and he didn't know (or couldn't afford) a better way to do it. Somewhere along the way, though, what was born out of necessity became technique, and Sebadoh (like Guided By Voices and so many other bedroom Brian Wilsons) bought into the notion that the sketchpad was not only as important as the finished painting, it was beautiful enough all by itself. Ideas became songs before they were ready, and real songs were undercut by Barlow's deliberate ineptitude. He could write some of the most oppressively open lyrics, yet he hid his words behind walls of static, confessing his sins in a language no one could understand.

If it made sense then, it doesn't today, and, to his credit, Barlow realizes as much, at long last letting the producer do his job on The Sebadoh. The lo-fi setting is less appropriate now that he's figured out how to write a song rather than simply sing his life into a beat-up tape recorder. Since 1994's Bakesale the focus has shifted from him to the music; melodies replace malice, choruses sub for awkward confusion. Bakesale may have been an uneasy and uneven entry into the studio, but it proved that's where the band really belonged.

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