Marilyn Manson
Mechanical Animals

Some South Florida clubgoers will remember the days when Marilyn Manson was still known as Brian Warner, the lanky, insecure kid from Fort Lauderdale. Local music fans saw the meek suburbanite create a monster when he booked his act, Marilyn Manson and the Spooky Kids, at Broward's now-defunct Reunion Room. Marilyn Manson (no more Spooky Kids tag) evolved through recordings such as the self-released cassette EP Big Black Bus; the band exploded as one of the world's most controversial shock-rock acts after the 1996 release of the album Antichrist Superstar and a subsequent tour with nine inch nails.

Just as the time is gone when the prefame Warner roamed area nightspots with his natural blond hair, carrying books of his poetry, also gone is the Manson who proclaimed himself the "God of Fuck" in the tune "Cake and Sodomy" from 1994's Portrait of an American Family. Manson's latest CD, Mechanical Animals, is the product of an artist trying to reinvent himself, striving to prove he's no one-scare goblin. By keeping the audience intrigued -- the album cover features a manikinlike Manson with breasts and no male genitals -- he also seeks to ensure that the notoriety he achieved after Antichrist is not going to disappear as fast as this weekend's Halloween candy.

Though this won't be the first time Manson has orchestrated a metamorphosis, this time we are a bit further removed; the singer now lives in Hollywood, California. And unfortunately for die-hard, gore-and-guts-loving Mansonites who worship the self-mutilating performer, this retooling comes up way short on both shock and rock. Nothing that Manson and bandmates (guitarist and bassist Twiggy Ramirez, keyboardist M.W. Gacy, drummer Ginger Fish, and guitarist John5) create on Mechanical even comes close to the fury or rebelliousness of its predecessor. Many fans will cringe upon hearing the acoustic guitar that pops up in "Coma White," the piano in "Fundamentally Loathsome," and the cooing back-up vocals on "Speed of Pain." Lightweight influences such as David Bowie, Gary Numan, and Pink Floyd are all over the fourteen-track CD. A couple of numbers do retain a bit of the old Manson spirit, such as the pounding "Rock Is Dead" and the scorching "New Model No. 15," but most are simply electronic-tinged, derivative semirockers with only occasional pinches of originality.

Clearly Manson isn't out to wreak havoc with Mechanical, as he was with Antichrist. The disturbing visual imagery is dead, but so too are the metal, punk, and industrial underpinnings of his past work. The album is focused lyrically and atmospherically on what Manson perceives as the cold, colorless, heavily drugged society we live in -- a society that, sadly, spends way too much time drooling over dumb-ass egos such as his own. Mechanical won't please Manson fans who are expecting inflammatory music, but the CD works as, if nothing else, an interesting commentary on our freak-obsessed public.

-- Larry Boytano

The Murder City Devils
Empty Bottles, Broken Hearts
(Sub Pop)

The Murder City Crybabies is more like it. When this Seattle-based sextet released its self-titled debut on the Sub Pop subsidiary Die Young Stay Pretty a couple of years back, tastemakers up North couldn't contain themselves. "Here's the band that's going save rock and roll!" they proclaimed -- and in their defense, at least part of the hype was justified. The act did kick out some pretty good punk riffs, and the live shows were quite energetic; they were even known to torch a Farfisa from time to time. Knowing a good thing when they saw it, Sub Pop moved the Devils to its mother label, sent them out on the road with Pearl Jam for a spell, and subsequently locked them in the studio with producer/grunge icon Jack Endino. And what did the label get for its trouble? An album that's arguably the most boring, self-involved chronicle of life on the road since Bob Seger's "Turn the Page." But whereas ol' Bobby knew to quit blubbering after one tune, these fragile little butterflies pile on the heartache, loneliness, exhaustion, and remorse for 40 agonizing minutes. "Drinking when I should be sleeping/Sleeping when I should be waking up," moans Devils vocalist Spencer Moody midway through "18 Wheels," one of Bottles's whinier tracks. The singer then lets fly this little jewel: "Everything is going good/The show was bad/But the drinks were free." By disc's end, we're left to wonder if our Sunday-school teachers weren't right when they said rock and roll was bad for us. Unfortunately, Sub Pop had to shell out a half-million dollars or so to find out. Me? I'm going back to my old Monkees records.

-- Brad Jones

Tony Bennett
The Playground
(RPM Records/Columbia)

Ever wanted to hear Bennett duet with Kermit the Frog, Elmo, and Rosie O'Donnell? Or sing along with the Kids America children's choir? Me neither, but the consummate crooner does just that on his baffling new album, a collection of mostly upbeat kids songs (e.g., "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive," "My Mom," and, yes, "Bein' Green," Kermit's Sesame Street hit from the Seventies). Deciding, one supposes, that the hipster bohos he added to his fan base after his 1995 MTV Unplugged appearance weren't quite young enough, Bennett is now aiming for the K-6 demographic. How else to explain the collaboration with Elmo on "Little Things"? Or the appearance of the nauseating O'Donnell on "Put on a Happy Face"? Or that damn children's choir?

The amazing thing is -- O'Donnell, Elmo, and the choir notwithstanding -- Bennett pulls the album off wonderfully, proving if nothing else that the man can indeed sing anything and make it work. The warmth, intimacy, and sincerity he's brought to the American songbook of romance for the past four decades comes through on songs both likely ("When You Wish Upon a Star," "[It's Only] A Paper Moon") and unlikely ("Because We're Kids," "The Inch Worm"). Of course, it helps that Ralph Sharon, Bennett's long-time pianist, is here, as is Gray Sargent, whose gentle solos wrap like smoke around the smoldering rhythm section of bassist Paul Langosch and drummer Clayton Cameron. And the way Bennett and Kermit tear into "Firefly," the band racing alongside, makes it a glorious, hilarious gem, the highlight of what has to be the first children's album since Woody Guthrie's Songs to Grow On that parents will actually want to play.

-- John Floyd


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