Trampoline, the fourth record by the Mavericks, wasn't recorded in Miami. It doesn't have any songs about Miami. And yet it has Miami in its blood. Once upon a time the Mavs were Miami's brightest, newest musicians, a country-rock foursome whose powerful live shows packed in the crowds at clubs such as Churchill's and Washington Square. Back then, Greg Baker -- music critic for Miami's brightest, newest weekly paper (hint, hint) -- paid tribute to the band: "After one month and four shows," Baker wrote in January 1990, "the Mavericks are already creating a buzz, both locally and beyond. A number of local musicians have indicated that they would like to join the group; several have sat in at Mavs shows; and New York record biz hotshots have traveled to Miami to see them play." The reasons? The powerful lead vocals and songwriting talents of Raul Malo, the rock-solid rhythm section of bassist Robert Reynolds and drummer Paul Deakin, and the fretwork of lead guitarist Ben Peeler.
How times change. The Mavs went on to justify the buzz that Baker noted, first by releasing an eponymous album on local Y&T Records, then moving to a major label, MCA, for 1992's From Hell to Paradise. In 1993 the band relocated to Nashville and promptly popped out a masterpiece -- What a Crying Shame, an LP whose epochal title track was one of the rarest of birds, an alternative country song that hit the pop charts (see also Yoakam, Dwight). Despite a revolving door of guitarists (Peeler gave way to David Lee Holt, who was then replaced by current Maverick Nick Kane), the band was riding high, not only earning praise from critics and taking home Grammys, but selling records to boot. On the third Mavs record, 1995's Music for All Occasions, country-rock gave way to country-pop, including Malo's duet with superstar vocalist Trisha Yearwood (Reynolds's wife) on Nancy and Frank Sinatra's "Something Stupid." And while the record wasn't weak, it lacked something -- power, conviction, focus.
Enter Trampoline. Recorded live in the studio, the fourth LP finds the Mavs recharged and resurgent, bouncing back (if you'll pardon the pun) from Music for All Occasions. The band is tight, as always, even with the large roster of special guests -- a horn section, orchestral accompaniment, and so on. Less a return to the Mavs' roots than a brave expansion of them, Trampoline mixes Stax soul (the superb "Tell Me Why"), lonesome folk ("Dream River"), Latin-flavored pop ("Dance the Night Away"), and even an unholy cross between big-band jazz and music-hall pop ("Dolores"). Pieces of older pop, rock, and country songs float through Malo's compositions: "I've Got This Feeling" sounds like the Kinks' "Stop Your Sobbing," and "Dream River" borrows its melody from the Pee Wee King standard "You Belong to Me." But the Mavs' songs are derivative in the way great pop songs always are -- covert in their borrowing, acting subtly on the part of the human brain entrusted with remembering radio favorites of the past.
Malo's restless experimentation doesn't always pay dividends -- "Dolores" and "Melbourne Mambo" may be fun throwaways, but they're throwaways nonetheless, better suited for a career retrospective or a B-side. Still, these are minor quibbles. What really distinguishes Trampoline from its predecessor -- as well as from 90 percent of the other records released this year -- is its energy. Sure, Malo still nicks his tricks from early-rock heroes such as Presley and Orbison more than any other contemporary vocalist (except maybe Chris Isaak). Sure, there's nothing deeply personal in his songs. But the performances, whether on the record or in the band's superb live shows, are electric, and there's a versatility that few acts can match -- Yoakam, maybe, and Los Lobos, and not too many others. If there's any justice, the band will be able to push the strongest songs -- especially "Tell Me Why" -- onto mainstream radio, and maybe even onto those video music channels you hear so much about these days. And how will the record sell in Miami? Well, that depends on all of you. Just be sure you have your motives ironed out. Don't buy Trampoline because someone told you to. Don't even buy it because of the local connection. Buy it because you want to hear quality songs played joyfully by a band at the top of its game. You won't regret it.
-- Ben Greenman
Van Halen III
If guitarist Eddie Van Halen is God of the hard-rock religion known as Van Halen, then original frontman David Lee Roth must at least be Jesus. Diamond Dave was acrobatic, flashy, bawdy, and vocally commanding, and his lyrics mapped the adolescent teenage brain in details as tight and colorful as his spandex outfits. His less charismatic replacement, Sammy Hagar, was more testifier than singer. Granted, Hagar's mop-topped cheerleader persona was grating, but he did bring a more socially conscious attitude to the group's lyrics, and he introduced a mystical element to the music. His tenure pointedly ignored the VH classics, however, and was marked by a bitter end that divided the faithful.
Now comes new prophet Gary Cherone. The ex-Extreme singer-guitarist's ascension to one of rock's most hallowed thrones was big news after the band's nasty 1995 split with Hagar and its public rejection of Roth in his bid for a full-time return engagement the following year. Upon joining the band in 1997, Cherone wisely decided to let the music do the talking instead of pumping up his profile in the press, but judging from Van Halen III, his lack of an arena-rock-size ego is one of the few differences between him and his immediate predecessor. Like Hagar's, Cherone's singing is bombastic one second and listless the next -- of little use when it comes to hammering home his lyrics.
VH III maintains the band's long-standing equation for good-rocking success: saucy guitar riffs; hard, repetitive cymbal and kick-drum action from Alex Van Halen; stunning solo breaks by Eddie; and catchy vocal choruses. "Without You," "One I Want," "Fire in the Hole," and "Ballot of the Bullet" are all examples of this formula.Whenever things start to get a little dull, Eddie calmly rips off another effortless corkscrew trill or breathtaking run across the fretboard.
Cherone is distinguished only by his lyrics, which run from thoughtful to stupid, often in the same song. On "Dirty Water Dog," he methodically argues for rejecting religion and politics, then boasts "I'm just a hound-toothed heterosexual" and "I'm a peek-a-boy, booing at girls." But where Roth offered up leering sexuality with a killer hook and a smile, Cherone's clumsy wolf whistling just sounds creepy and pathetic.
Yet there is hope. The band covers some new ground in the kinetic, existential prog-rock ballads "Once" and "Josephina." And on the album-closing "How Many Say I," Eddie delivers a wistful, froggy vocal to accompany Cherone's best lyrics, which ponder humankind's embrace of hardness and doubt.
Van Halen may still be pushing the megawatt mush that characterized much of the Van Hagar era, but at least the new album offers a glimmer of something better down the line, along with 65 minutes of Eddie and his beatific licks.
-- Robin Myrick
(Discipline Global Mobile)
Self-indulgence can be a good thing. Robert Fripp has spent recent years going through his vault of King Crimson concert recordings in an effort to give the public definitive live representations of the group's various manifestations. (Prog-rock forefathers King Crimson have survived several drastic line-up changes since the band's birth in 1969. Its only constant member has been guitarist Fripp.) The release of two retrospective, in-concert, four-CD box sets and two separate live compilations (one a double CD, the other a single) might seem a bit excessive -- to non-Crimheads.
Fripp's competition with the bootleg market is no secret, and the painstaking attention to sound quality and liner notes on the live compilations, released on his own Discipline Global Mobile imprint, easily outdoes anything a bootlegger could come up with. What bootlegger would go to the trouble to compile every review written about the first King Crimson box set, Frame by Frame, in a booklet to accompany a four-CD box set of the band's 1973-74 live recordings?
Now he has dug up the November 23, 1973, performance that became the embryo for King Crimson's sixth album, 1974's Starless and Bible Black, releasing it as the two-CD The Nightwatch. The recording is as comprehensive as Fripp can make it; the liner notes question the correct running order of songs, and note the possibility of a missing "Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Part 1."
It's all here: Fripp's deceptively plaintive guitar chirps that swell into raging tidal waves of sound in "Fracture," barely masking Bill Bruford's ecstatic hoots as he pounds away at his barrage of percussion; David Cross's mellotron heaving a buzzing sigh of death in the middle of the title track, leaving him scrambling to fill the void by improvising some meandering accompaniment on a Hohner piano.
More than half of what became Starless and Bible Black can be found here, and a good part of that was improvised. Improvisation fueled this King Crimson like no other version of the group. It made for some remarkably transcendent moments as well as some numbingly dull ones.
The Nightwatch isn't necessarily King Crimson at its most masterful. Fripp himself points out this show's shortcomings in the liner notes, citing the unpredictable nature of live recording and the personal tension within the band at the time, a quartet that also included the frisky bass work and dynamic vocals of John Wetton. "I can't remember anything about this music until we reached this kind of low point where all the energy was gone, where all the effort in the world couldn't achieve a breakthrough," Cross recalls in the liner notes. "It was a giving up."
As much as the artists may have suffered to create this music, the result is a testament to a genre that went against the grain of popular-music ideas of the time, a genre that made an indelible mark. (Discipline Global Mobile, P.O. Box 5282, Beverly Hills, CA 90209-5282)
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-- Hans Morgenstern
Harry Pussy lives! On vinyl, at least. The Miami noise band's final show occurred almost exactly a year ago at Churchill's Hideaway, and the indie record label Cherry Smash has issued a limited-edition ten-inch of that gig (approximately 50 copies remain). It captures the vanguard trio's best-known aural elements: vocalist-drummer Adris Hoyos's bone-rattling screams and guitarists Bill Orcutt and Dan Hosker's anti-music twangs -- all of it blended together to create some well-orchestrated discord. For its last hurrah, Harry Pussy put on a noise clinic, the fifteen-track, twenty-minute recording deconstructing just about every element of the conventional "song." Forget about merely abandoning structure -- that's a given with a noise band. Hoyos/ Orcutt/Hosker break down the standard set list by playing songs more than once ("Sex Problem") and even by playing the same song consecutively ("Ice Cream Man"). And they confound the notion of song title by announcing names on the actual recording that differ from those used in the liner notes ("For Emil," "Stop"). One they I.D. as simply "_____." (Cherry Smash Records, 3322 Mentone Ave., #6, Los Angeles, CA 90034; CherrySmas@aol.com)
-- Larry Boytano