Despite all the recent press talk about the demise of rock and roll and the glorious advent of electronica, I've neither subscribed to the former nor believed for a minute that insipid doodlers like DJ Spooky will become anything close to the Next Big Thing. But then I started thinking: I don't know that I can name more than five or six rock and roll albums released so far this year that have really, really knocked me back (or at least prompted me to stray from Mosaic's Anthony Hill boxed set or the Bob Dylan bootlegs that've been occupying most of my time lately). So I don't know, maybe rock is dying; certainly there's nothing among the rock-based stuff listed below -- culled from the pile of CDs, cassettes, and singles I get in the mail each week from local artists -- that has me seeing sunny skies on the horizon. Which is fine by me, since the Hill box is damn near bottomless and few things in life can rival a great Dylan outtake. Got something that might change my mind? Send it to my attention in care of New Times, P.O. Box 011591, Miami, FL 33101.
Four O'Clock Balloon, Four O'Clock Balloon (Teen Rebel compact disc). Although the name calls to mind something sitar-y and psychedelic, and the opening Kinks cover ("I Need You") suggests they're yet another group rummaging through the picked-over garage of Sixties punk, Four O'Clock Balloon is actually neither. It is, more or less, a power pop band with a passion for post-Revolver guitar dynamics and fussy Pet Sounds vocal tricks. And like most such bands, Four O'Clock Balloon can't get past the relative puffery of their influences; nothing here bites even as hard as "She Said She Said," or flows with the grace and splendor of "God Only Knows." Of course, there's no shame in not being able to write songs as well as Lennon-McCartney or Brian Wilson (hell, even McCartney and Wilson can't do it any more). There is some shame, however, in following one yawning ballad ("Tell Me Why") with another yawning ballad ("How Long?"), and I worry that the only real rocker here is the Kinks tune. (I guess you could call "More or Less" a rocker, but it's too close to "Last Train to Clarksville" for my Animals-ravaged ears.) Nevertheless, aficionados of this sort of thing really need to hear the Balloon's "Stood in the Rain," a perfect distillation of their influences that's powered by an awfully nice vocal hook and backing vocals to match. (Teen Rebel, P.O. Box 823436, Miami, FL 33082-3436)
Mike Lyons, Thank God for Music (Solartime compact disc). Exhibit A in the case for agnosticism. (Solartime, 999 Brickell Bay Dr., suite 704, Miami, FL 33131)
Billy Marcus, Hamp (Contemporary compact disc). If you think the last thing the world needs is yet another tribute to a music icon, you're right. The racks are full of 'em, but I can count on one hand those that actually pay inspired homage without pandering to the subject or sullying the legacy of said subject. Hamp is one of the good ones, an energetic, enthusiastic fete for the legendary vibraphonist that also acts as a showcase for some of South Florida's better jazzbos, pianist Billy Marcus among them. Along with stellar sidemen such as reeds ace Eric Allison and the phenomenally gifted drummer James Martin, Marcus does justice to the blazing swing of Hampton's classic early-Forties period as well as the beauty and intricacy of his sometimes overlooked ballad work. That means "Flying Home" and "Air Male Special" become roaring tenor-sax battles overseen by Marcus's taut keyboard work, and that "Avalon" comes off all sentimental and torchy (thanks in part to the vocals of Julie Davis and the intertwining clarinet lines of Allison). Throughout the disc all the players shine, which ultimately is a toast to Marcus's band-leading abilities and the respect he so clearly has for Hampton (who, as Illinois Jacquet will tell you, knew the importance of sharing the spotlight). (Contemporary, Tenth and Parker, Berkeley, CA 94710).
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Rich, Think & Grow (Song Cafe Records/Hot Productions compact disc). This CD by a singer/songwriter named simply Rich arrived in a press kit along with a copy of Napoleon Hill's motivational Sixties best-seller Think and Grow Rich. I'm not exactly sure why -- maybe he's just looking out for me, for which I'm thankful -- but the act in itself is emblematic of the feel-good goo he's whipped up on Think & Grow. Composed of songs written by Rich over a period of more than ten years, the disc is a treacly pop confection replete with synthesized horns, layers of acoustic guitar, lush backing vocals, and lyric observations along the lines of "It's E-zier to fall in love than to say goodnight" and "I really like you/really like you/I like your smile/I really like you." You also get his reflections on "Hurricane Andrew" ("Whoever created you/I hope he leaves us with a clue/How to bring back the sunshine to our lives") and a pop-rap fusion in the comforting love song "Meant to Be," which pairs Rich with a hip-hop ensemble dubbed the Whiz Kids. I don't know that I've ever heard anything quite like it, and I must admit that I'm wondering if my overall cynicism has degenerated to a worrisome point -- a point to where expoundings such as Rich's provoke a feeling in me that's neither warm nor fuzzy. Is it just me? (Hot Productions, 1450 NW 159th St, Miami, FL 33169. e-mail: email@example.com)
Buddha Gonzalez, Kookie but I Dig It! (Rock Bottom Entertainment compact disc). Perfectly acceptable white-funk-and-roll with all the necessary ingredients, from scratchy guitar and popping bass to odes to the almighty cheeba. The Pearl Jam-isms of the ballads may suggest they have range beyond thump-funk boogie, and there are moments here that have me thinking someone in the band really likes Hendrix's Axis: Bold as Love (a good thing in my world), but mostly this thing just fails to ignite. Or rather, its flame has already been sparked by countless bands before them. (Buddha Gonzalez, 9695 NW 79th Ave., bay 24, Hialeah Gardens, FL 33016)
-- By John Floyd