12 Bar Blues
During Stone Temple Pilots' short but amazing three-album run, frontman Scott Weiland excelled at fulfilling the expectations of both his fans and his critics. From platinum-selling faux-grunge icon to drug-addled rock star to tortured and rehabbed artiste, Weiland drove public passion and critical opinion in opposite directions, ensuring his personal legend and creating reams of press with his mercurial behavior.
He's sober now, but his music continues to reflect a polarity of thought and action. "I've been to hell and back, man," he proclaims in the press bio issued with his solo debut 12 Bar Blues; a listen to the record allows one to share that journey. Wading through this miasma of Beatles and Bowie references to get to its few certified gems can be a real chore. Weiland's potluck mix of rock, funk, jazz, and dance styles is an interesting surprise, but the songs are so crowded with ideas, sounds, and instruments -- to exorcise Weiland's demons? to indulge his impulses? -- that the record never coheres, coming across instead as a heaping helping of cosmic debris.
Weiland co-produced the album with Blair Lamb, best-known for his work with Sheryl Crow. Multi-instrumentalist Victor Indrizzo (Magnificent Bastards, Samiam, Redd Kross) and musician-producer Daniel Lanois also lend significant support and texture to the proceedings. Weiland plays a variety of instruments, including guitar, piano, vibraphone, percussion, synths, mellotron, bass, and the ever-present beat box. But his greatest attribute -- and the strongest thing about the record -- continues to be his voice, which sounds more supple and genuine than ever, as he sheds the Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain comparisons of the STP era.
But there's still a lot of imitation here; Weiland seems more of a knockoff artist than an innovator. "Barbarella" and "Cool Kiss" find him in Bowie mode, as layers of noisy and fragile sounds clash in a dramatic blend of melody and cacophony. His hollow-cheeked and pale look further enhances the comparison to the Thin White Duke. "Where's the Man" is also recycled (from STP), and "Son," though a lovely sentiment, doesn't bother to hide its Beatlesisms.
Despite the thinness of the songwriting, there's much here to like, some real guilty pleasures. The cagey melody and the fuzzy guitar of "Desperation #5" and the no-parking-on-the-dance-floor synth bass of "Jimmy Was a Stimulator" immediately grab the ear. And "Lady, Your Roof Brings Me Down," which also appears on the Great Expectations soundtrack, is a true, unqualified success. The seductive, string-driven cabaret number features Sheryl Crow on accordion and a stinging guitar that pierces Weiland's studied coolness with a resonance the rest of the album lacks.
Weiland should be commended for having the courage to take some bold risks, but in his eagerness to embrace a twelve-step program for a career comeback, he has mistakenly set himself up as his own higher power, choosing instant musical gratification over real growth.
-- Robin Myrick
Contact from the Underworld of Redboy
As the principal songwriter and lead guitarist of the Band, Robbie Robertson was responsible for some of rock's greatest songs, mythic compositions such as "The Weight" and "King Harvest (Has Truly Come)" that seemed to unfurl decades of Americana in four or five recorded minutes. As a solo artist he has been somewhat less significant. After years as Martin Scorsese's house composer, he returned with an eponymous 1987 solo album that showed the result of all that time in the film business. Helmed by Daniel Lanois, who would go on to produce Bob Dylan's 1997 Time Out of Mind (and his 1989 Oh Mercy), it was marred by longish talk-stories, overbearing atmospherics, and a chilling lack of spontaneity. Storyville (1991) explored New Orleans's rich musical heritage but still sounded embalmed.
In 1993 Robertson -- the son of a Jewish father and a Mohawk mother -- began to explore his Native American heritage. The following year he released Music for the Native Americans, a largely instrumental record that occasionally drifted into new-age territory. That was the bad news. The good news was that Robertson's own playing and writing were getting looser, and his spirit of experimentation didn't seem quite so overdetermined.
With Contact from the Underworld of Redboy, his second album of Native American music, Robertson has taken one step up and more than a few steps back. The album includes throat-singing, chanting, and other indigenous vocal styles, courtesy of various Native American performers. But Robertson has gone out of his way to avoid making a pure Indian folk record by spiking the mix. Four of the songs are collaborations with Marius de Vries, best-known for his work with Bjsrk, and four more are collaborations with Howie B, another Bjsrk associate, who has also worked with Tricky and U2. Dense with programmed drums, keyboards, and layered vocals, Contact is an intriguing idea -- a trip-hop record with some Native American fringe. Too bad it doesn't work.
So long on atmospherics that it may cut short the patience of listeners, Contact is like a sketch for an album that a more focused artist may one day realize. When Robertson finds his way into a melody, the results are memorable -- "Broken Arrow," which appeared on his 1987 record and was re-recorded by Rod Stewart, is as haunting and ancient as anything he did with the Band. But all too often he's content to take a suggestive rhythm track, overlay a chorus of swirling vocals, and leave it at that. Sometimes this works ("Go Back to Your Woods," from Storyville, or the new record's "Rattlebone"). Most of the time it doesn't. "Sacrifice," a collage with dialogue from Indian activist Leonard Peltier, is typical of this approach -- tiring the first time, it doesn't invite replaying. Is this a botched synthesis of Native American and pop aesthetics? A holdover from Robertson's career as a soundtrack composer? A bad Peter Gabriel impersonation? It's not necessary to give a name to every failure. Some critics will no doubt ooh and aah and see the record as a messenger of global consciousness. But the Zeitgeist is much more likely to come calling in the guise of "MMMBop" or an old Rufus record than of midtempo sludge gussied up as ethnomusicology.
What's left, then? Well, the production is impeccable, and some of the half-sketched ideas are interesting ("Making a Noise," "In the Blood," and especially "Take Your Partner by the Hand," a bizarre collaboration with Howie B that crosses Soft Cell's "Tainted Love" with Tom Waits's Franks Wild Years). But in the end I can recommend this album only -- brace yourself for a politically incorrect pun -- with reservations.
-- Ben Greenman
Hound Dog Taylor: A Tribute
Theodore Roosevelt "Hound Dog" Taylor was among the greatest bluesmen to emerge in the early Seventies, an acolyte of Elmore James who played slide guitar like a demon, sang like hellhounds were snapping at his ass, and led one of Chicago's toughest Southern-fried trios (with guitarist Brewer Phillips and minimalist drum genius Ted Harvey). Born in 1915 in Natchez, Mississippi, Taylor began working in Chicago's South Side dives in the mid-Fifties, recording a pair of small-label singles and toiling in obscurity until Alligator Records issued his debut longplayer (also the label's maiden release) in 1971. Taylor died four years later, leaving behind two other albums for Alligator (a posthumous collection of outtakes was also released by the label in 1982) that rank among the finest blues discs of the past twenty years.
A Tribute is a much-belated homage to Taylor's legacy that arrives just as his seemingly anachronistic but timeless style is enjoying a renaissance via Mississippi moaners such as R.L. Burnside and T-Model Ford. Fittingly, the disc is a suitably raucous, ragged hats-off that stands apart from nearly every other album in Alligator's overproduced catalogue. And like the greatest tribute albums -- from Shanachie's fete of Curtis Mayfield (People Get Ready) to For the Love of Harry: Everybody Loves Nilsson -- you get fine performances from worthy artists (in this case Sonny Landreth, Alvin Youngblood Hart, and Luther Allison) and surprisingly good ones from the most unlikely sources (among them Alligator's Dave Hole and Steady Rollin' Bob Margolin, whose careers thus far have been less than distinguished). Hell, even George Thorogood is bearable here.
Because Taylor's sound was built around his lacerating slide guitar, and because his group the Houserockers always lived up to its name, A Tribute logically focuses on Hound Dog's hardest rockers: "Give Me Back My Wig" (a sterling version by the late Allison); "Taylor's Rock" (an assaultive instrumental by south Louisiana bottleneck master Landreth); "She's Gone" (a hypnotic dirge from Taylor's first album done here by Michael Hill's Blues Mob); and "Take Five" (Cub Koda wailing alongside former Houserockers Phillips and Harvey). A Tribute's finest moment, however, arrives courtesy of Elvin Bishop, who back in the Sixties used to sit in on occasion with the Houserockers. His take of Taylor's "Let's Get Funky" is both funky and funny, capturing the essence of Hound Dog's artistry and personality almost as well as the man's own uniformly stunning oeuvre, which you should check out either before or after you sample the abundant riches found on A Tribute.
-- John Floyd
With the release of his self-titled debut last year, Dan Bern earned immediate status as a critic's darling, a songwriter with a sensibility and nasal twang that called to mind a young Bob Dylan. His follow-up offering is sure to infuriate many of those same critics while drawing others even deeper in his thrall. The record, produced by fellow musical cult leader Ani DiFranco, is, by turns, brilliant, angry, self-indulgent, and gorgeous.
In contrast to his first disc, which trod over relatively familiar folk-rock territory, Fifty Eggs eagerly seeks anti-commercial extremes in both its dizzying musical diversity and its provocative lyrics. This is evident from the opening track, a chugging anthem called "Tiger Woods," whose first refrain goes: "I got big balls/Big old balls/Big as grapefruit/Big as pumpkins." Ahem. What saves lines such as these from sinking to the level of juvenilia is that Bern is driving at some big ideas. Namely, the allures and excesses of macho confidence. His dark, reverberating "Missing Link" offers his unorthodox theory on human evolution. "Aliens came down," he sings, "and fucked the monkeys." Look around -- it's hard to argue.
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Simply keeping up with Bern's shifting moods is intoxicating. "Oh Sister" conveys its tender insight with guitar and voice alone, while "One Dance" delivers lovesick agitation with a shot of wiry, palpitating punk. The sublime Cole Porter-like waltz "Everybody's Baby" is propelled by a tinkling organ and mournful gusts of harmonica. "Suzanne" sounds as much like Buddy Holly as Buddy Holly ever did. Bern makes good use of his backing players, who include DiFranco (background vocals, guitar) and her regular drummer (Andy Stochansky) and bassist (ex-Gang of Four member Sara Lee).
Bern is a determinedly topical songwriter, and at times his efforts at cultural cheek wind up sounding obnoxious. "Chick Singers," a frenetic paean to his female counterparts, comes off as simultaneously cloying and condescending. And the half-baked idealism of "Cure for AIDS" does its topic an unintended disservice.
But even at the bottom of his game, Bern is never boring. Indeed, he has the rare gift of a true artist -- to follow his instincts, even if they occasionally lead him into the deep rough. More often Bern's outrageous talent prevails, and in these moments his songs deliver the same wallop as the mighty swing of Tiger Woods.
-- Steve Almond