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It's Praying Time
Miami Mass Choir
(Savoy Records)

The Miami Mass Choir is on a mission. Formed in 1995 under the guidance of gospel veteran Marc Cooper, the choir, whose 50-plus members are drawn from Miami-area churches, has toured extensively. It's Praying Time is the group's debut CD, ten songs packed with the exuberant arrangements and vocal pyrotechnics worthy of this all-star ensemble.

In keeping with gospel tradition, the arrangements are extended (most longer than five minutes), and they're designed to build a sense of sonic momentum that culminates in swirling individual soloists. A raspy Virginia Boss, for instance, offers the dazzling solo on the title track, while Cooper's organ jukes the melody along. "Get Excited" is the choir's poppiest effort, with a rattling piano calling to mind the lush fills of Motown and a catchy bass line anchoring soloist Teresa Plain. "Exhortation" -- like most of the material here, an original composition -- could well have been sung by Aretha Franklin (or, more wickedly, James Brown). "All to Jesus" allows soloist Gia Wyre to deliver a defiant, sometimes sly rap about a fallen Jezebel who is saved.

At the other end of the spectrum is the album's one traditional number, "Jesus Loves Me," which adopts a silky, slow tempo as soloists Denovolee Smith and Rodney Kohn carry on an improvised vocal dialogue. Though the mix occasionally makes the chorus sound a bit distant, hand clapping and wails of encouragement in the background lend the disc a refreshing live feel.

To be sure, secular listeners may find some tracks a bit flat ("Great Is the Lord," "What a Friend"), but for the most part Cooper and his talented voices work hard to lend the genre broad appeal. They appear determined to not simply preach to the choir.

-- Paul Perry

Maladjusted
Morrissey
(Mercury)

My complexion is glowing like porcelain. Old girlfriends are phoning years after destroying my life to say they might've been a bit hasty. I reach into my pockets and crisp dollar bills are there for the taking. As part of their twelve-step recovery programs, schoolyard bullies who tormented me are wiring back the money they took, with accrued interest. There's a goddamn bluebird on my windowsill every morning, for crying out loud! All of a sudden, life is a gas, and all because I decided my patronage of Morrissey has finally ended with this inexcusably dull new LP. Somebody pinch me!

It's gotten appreciably harder defending maudlin Mo, now three duff albums removed from his last truly great work, Vauxhall and I. Where once his fey depressions were a right laff, he seems to have lost his sense of humor completely, unless "Papa Jack" is a satirical attempt at writing a heavy-handed social-commentary song on the order of Jon Bon Jovi ("There was a time when the kids reached up and Papa Jack pushed them away").

Nothing approaches the luster of yore until "Roy's Keen," a song about a loyal window cleaner out of whose behind the sun no doubt shines for ol' Morrissey ("We've never seen a keener window cleaner/ He can hold a smile for as long as you require, even longer"). And it's not hard to imagine "Satan Rejected My Soul" as a Smiths' single, though it'd probably have seen duty as an excellent B-side. But it's tough sledding elsewhere, and we're momentarily spared from hearing more shopworn Morrissey melodies when he recites "Sorrow Will Come in the End," a barbed attack on the judicial system that could do for him what "On the Day We Fall in Love" did for Davy Jones.

Morrissey has sung all the notes collected here on far better material, but you'll have to ferret out those recordings on your own. Heaven knows I'm not miserable now, and the novelty of acceptance by my peers hasn't worn off yet.

-- Serene Dominic

Tremolo
Blue Rodeo
(Sire)

Blue Rodeo's latest verges on country but doesn't quite qualify -- not pop-sentimental enough to be "new" country and a little too weird and psychedelic to fly with traditionalists. You could almost call it alternative, except it lacks the angst. Almost mainstream pop, but it's too good to lump in there.

The Canadians' sixth release in a decade, Tremolo also departs from their recent work. The sextet's last effort, Nowhere to Here, was a somber collection, drifting into moodiness and settling there. Tremolo expands the range, often to stunning effect. "Moon and Tree" sets the tone with an acoustic guitar intro that segues into a charming pedal steel run by Kim Deschamps. It's a cheerful tune (the melody reminiscent of Neil Young's "Long May You Run") with lyrics to match: "Well, I've been out walking/Talking to moon and tree/And the tall spring grass/Like waves on a dark green sea/And I don't mind getting lost/In your dream."

"No Miracle, No Dazzle" is slug-it-out guitar-based rock, inflected with subtle harmonies and honky-tonk piano. Co-songwriters/vocalists/guitarists Jim Cuddy and Greg Keeler never struggle to blend, harmonizing with a rare elegance. Best of all is the song's unpredictable close, which fades into surreal guitar interplay. Cuddy and Keeler aren't afraid to fool around with dissonant phrasings, and they liven up a number of tracks with unexpected melodic turns.

By the time you hit the smoky ballad "Falling Down Blue," you've just about decided there's no genre this band can't handle. Jazz-based, this track makes excellent use of a piano/lap steel/upright bass bridge, and then extends the configuration even further, creating a sound so immediate and honest you'd swear the notes were being plucked from the air around your head. "Fallen from Grace" is a grabber from the start, with a solid backbeat and smooth vocal that recalls Jackson Browne's finest work; it will have you reaching for the replay button before the track is over.

Tremolo's musical stylings are impossible to pigeonhole. While that may mean the disc goes wanting for radio airplay, lovers of alternative country and melodic rock are in for a treat.

-- Keith Lee Morris

Number One Fan
Barely Pink
(Big Deal Records)

Ever play the Hybrid Game? You know, Cop Land = Goodfellas + Rambo. Well, the same thing works with bands (The Mighty Mighty Bosstones = Madness + Leonard Cohen). Try it, it's fun! You'll see how little originality is out there, how everything is derivative of something else. Case in point: Number One Fan, the latest from Barely Pink, an oft-heralded and overpolished pop-rock quartet from the Tampa "Bay Area." Steve Miller + Aerosmith? Material Issue + the Beatles? The Goo Goo Dolls + Cheap Trick? Big Star + the Stone Roses? America + the Replacements?

I'm afraid these musical mimics have memorized the secret formula for the Insipid Pop Song. So run and hide, or you'll be singing this shit to yourself for weeks to come, air guitar in hand. That's both high praise and honest lamentation. The dozen cuts here might leave you with a bad case of deja vu, but Barely Pink's pop will also tattoo itself on your brain. Listen to "Baby A.M." twice and you'll be tapping your steering wheel and murmuring vapidities such as "Play it again now baby A.M./You know it's so much fun/I hope you stay at number one/Oh yeah." That's about as deep as it gets. And no, the band is not joking. Check out "Face Down": "I get so nervous when you're near/I don't know what to do/So I'll have another beer/I'm drinking deeper into love with you/Ooh ooh." (Ooh ooh? I thought ooh ooh went out with tailfins.)

So I have no recourse other than to award Barely Pink the 1997 Postmodern Music Award for lifting musical styles from everyone and mixing them in myriad new and mostly uninteresting ways. One minute lead singer Brian Merrill wails like Axl Rose, the next he whines like one of Oasis's fightin' Gallagher brothers. I can't decide if he's the fifth Monkee or the next Jon Bon Jovi.

The same goes for the music: Merrill's and guitarist Ted Lukas's fretwork range from borderline country ("It's Okay") to garage rock ("Face Down") to Brit-pop ("Big Mistake") to roadhouse blues ("Baby A.M.") to grunge ("Too Much Coffee"). Eclectic meets innocuous, over and over. I suppose someone has to keep this misbegotten subgenre of rock going. Someone has to write the song you love to hate, the pop song with the hook that lingers like a cold sore -- you can't ignore it, you'll chew on it until it's gone, and although you'll miss it in some perverse way, you just know it'll be back.

-- Julian Cohen


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