Try Whistling This
New Zealand singer/guitarist Neil Finn has probably forgotten more aching, beautiful melodies and winning musical hooks than most artists will ever write. Through his career as the angry young sparkplug of Split Enz, the gifted, conflicted leader of Crowded House, and the perpetual rival/bandmate of elder sibling Tim in those bands and the Finn Brothers, Neil Finn has become one of the best pop songwriters of the last two decades.
After the bittersweet end of Crowded House in late 1996, Finn took the break from music he had promised himself for years and indulged in a painting holiday with bassist Robert Moore to clear the palate and engage in a different kind of creative exercise. But new songs started bursting through from the first night of vacation; two years and thirteen tracks later he has released his first solo offering, Try Whistling This.
The album was recorded at Finn's New Zealand home and completed in Philip Glass's New York studio. Finn wrote and produced the record with a multitude of collaborators, including Moore, Marius DeVries (Bjsrk, Madonna), and Midnight Oil guitarist Jim Moginie. Guest musicians include bassist Sebastian Steinberg of Soul Coughing, former Crowded House producer Mitchell Froom, and Attractions drummer Pete Thomas.
Try Whistling This is a picture of an artist compelled to regain a sense of wide-eyed joy in his work, with recurring talk of hunger, searching, and truth, and a strong current of creative wanderlust. Finn seems to revel in moving forward and cutting the pop trappings to the bone, but in doing so he has also obliterated the humor and cathartic passion that made much of his previous work so essential. Some of the more abstract lyrics and phrasing dull the record's emotional content, and Finn's customary fire and wit have given way to a calmer, more even tone throughout. Nevertheless, the varied textures and ideas do much to open up the boundaries of his music, often in striking ways. The detached, urban feel and crafty sound- collage work in "Sinner" and "Twisty Bass," both remixed by Radiohead producer Nigel Goodrich, are a testament to Finn's impulses toward change, as is the cagey "Loose Tongue," written with Moginie. And cuts such as "King Tide" and "Faster Than Light" do have the warm, winsome flavor of Crowded House, though they lack the same energy and intensity.
"Addicted," the album's closing song, best bridges the past and present, as an odd, sprightly piano accompaniment follows Finn through a lazy day of caterpillars and mailmen and too much television. The song also seems to capture Finn's current thinking on his career, as he sings "I know when I've had enough," and acknowledges that as far as he's come, home is still the cure for an addiction to fame or success. Try Whistling This misses Finn's own mark of pop perfection, but succeeds in challenging the listener to accept or reject him as an evolving artist instead of a sing-along commodity.
-- Robin Myrick
For all the poor fools who never claim their fifteen minutes of fame, someone like Brooklyn-born Corey Glover lurks -- ready, willing, and able to collect those spare quarter-hours as if they might equal a meaningful career. And if there is someone who deserves the satisfaction of significant and widely noted professional achievement, it must be Glover. Multitalented, comfortable in many elements, he bookended his membership in the acclaimed, Grammy-winning rock group Living Colour with an appearance in the 1986 Oscar-winning Vietnam war flick Platoon and a regular gig as a VH1 veejay. Though his spot in the Oliver Stone epic was brief, Glover's lengthy stint at VH1 showed him to be as charismatic as he was camera-friendly.
Hymns, Glover's solo debut (Living Colour disbanded in 1994), offers proof that the 34-year-old musician is also an outstanding vocalist and a skillful songwriter. Undeniably, Glover was overshadowed in the past by the specter of Vernon Reid, the guitar visionary who masterminded Living Colour. But no more. On Hymns the singer steps into the light with a collage of musical moods that range from full-metal-jacket rock to Superfly-style soul, with a confessional ballad or two inserted as gingerly into the production as passionate kisses into a G-rated matinee.
The album commences with anything but a G-rated cut, however. After a spoken-word intro, Glover and his new band (guitarist Michael Ciro and bassist Booker King, accompanied by various sidemen, including complete string and brass sections) explode on the deeply sexual "Do You First, Then Do Myself." All of the singer's former hard-rock razzle-dazzle arrives intact: Throaty growls and wailing screams drive home the meaning of lines such as "Daddy loves your sweet perfume/Not the kind you bought in France/ Daddy loves to smell your sex/Makes him want to scream and dance."
But to his credit, Glover rises above the earthy delights of the opening track; he soars above expectations with the beautiful "April Rain" and "One," the Seventies R&B-inspired track "Little Girl," and the funky, back-to-back numbers "Things Are Getting in the Way" and "Sidewalk Angel." Hymns may or may not make Glover a household name, but the album -- inarguably a great work of art -- should at least afford him tremendous personal gratification.
-- Adam St. James
The Impossible Shuffle
(North of No South)
This past March at South by Southwest, the annual music-biz clambake held in Austin, the Swedish quintet Cloudberry Jam charged through a bracing 45-minute set that seamlessly grafted jazz to pop to funk, with the group's performance buoyed by an unbridled, infectious enthusiasm. A similar, if not quite as contagious, vivacity wafts through Cloudberry Jam's fifth and most recent release, the thirteen-track, English-language The Impossible Shuffle. The group -- vocalist Jennie Medin, guitarist Jsrgen Wärnstrsm, keyboardist Henrik Sundqvist, bassist Per Valsinger, drummer Per Bystrsm -- moves from the dense, rhythmic pulse and fuzzed-out wah-wah guitar of the album-opening "A Song That Keeps Us Sane" (oddly reminiscent of the heady swirl of late-Sixties Santana) to the hip-poppy, album-closing "Everything You Are," whose snippets of turntable scratching give the song added texture and fiber. Mostly, though, they work a likable middle ground: an upbeat, mildly funky jazz-pop that, by turns, calls to mind the Style Council and midperiod Swing Out Sister.
Medin sings in a clear, expressive, and remarkably unaffected voice, backed by complementary instrumental support that downplays solos (okay, Sundqvist steps out to notable effect with a percussive, Latin-jazz piano vamp on "Do What I Wanna Do") in favor of sometimes loose-limbed, sometimes tight ensemble playing. In addition to the strings and scratches, peppery horns augment approximately half the cuts. As for the lyrics -- written by various band members -- they tend toward straightforward declarations of self-determination in the face of a contempo world fraught with too much emotional and societal clutter. Nothing particularly insightful there, but nothing particularly embarrassing, either -- and remember, they're writing in a nonnative tongue. (P.O. Box 14128, Minneapolis, MN 55414)
-- Michael Yockel
The Philosopher's Stone
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At long, long last the Celtic curmudgeon Van Morrison has thrown open his vault of unissued masters. And not a moment too soon. The Philosopher's Stone marks the finest assemblage ever released by the mercurial songwriter. In fact, it would be hard to imagine a more fulfilling collection than this 30-track, nearly three-hour bonanza. Don't let that "previously unreleased" caveat scare you off: This is anything but a grab bag of lukewarm leftovers and table scraps. Instead, it offers a thrilling, if at times spotty, survey of Morrison's oeuvre from his rowdy blues-pop roots to his more recent excursions into soul, jazz, and gospel.
As befits Morrison's anti-commercial proclivities, the songs here are full-bodied affairs, driven by intricate, insistent rhythms and joyous melodies. The delicate ballad "Wonderful Remark," which first surfaced on the 1983 soundtrack for King of Comedy, is given eight elegiac minutes to purr and seep, while a brassy rendition of "Street Theory" highlights the roving trumpet work of Mark Isham. Elsewhere Morrison sinks his teeth into unbridled funk ("Naked in the Jungle"), spoken word (the elegant "Song of Being a Child"), R&B (a frisky cover of Lead Belly's "Western Plains"), and traditional Celtic music ("High Spirits," performed with the Chieftains).
Morrison has always surrounded himself with first-class musicians, and these tracks are no exceptions. Jules Broussard's trilling flute lends a note of sophistication to the gritty "Madame Joy," while Toni Marcus's yearning violin drives an intoxicating version of "Stepping Out Queen Part 2." Morrison himself provides impassioned -- and surprisingly nuanced -- harmonica and saxophone solos on several tracks. The main attraction, though, as always, is that world-class brogue. Whether tearing through a full-throated version of "John Henry" or ratcheting up to a plaintive falsetto on "Try for Sleep," Morrison's voice remains an instrument of heartbreaking beauty.
-- Steven Almond