Never Bet the Devil Your Head
Never Bet the Devil Your Head is a debut album that will likely be seen as a sophomore effort. The record bears the indelible stamp of the band Subrosa used to be, For Squirrels. As local fans will surely remember, For Squirrels was a Gainesville quartet whose promising 1995 debut, Example, was released just weeks after a tragic auto accident took the lives of two of its members, bassist Bill White and singer Jack Vigliatura. The loss was all the more devastating because Vigliatura was one-half of the band's songwriting team.
The surviving half, guitarist and now lead singer Travis Tooke, hasn't completely abandoned For Squirrels' jangled brand of power pop. But he, along with original drummer Jack Griego and new bassist Andy Lord, has added grunge and punk qualities to the mix. The resulting record is not so much uneven as uncertain. "Damn the Youth," a beautifully written anthem propelled by Tooke's edgy guitar, recalls For Squirrels at its best. "The Life Inside Me Killed This Song," with its intricate melody and soaring vocals, is another must-hear for Squirrels fans, as is the moody, tender "Murder an Angel."
But next to these lilting, melodic cuts, the rest of the disc's material seems out of place, full of dirty, grating guitar crunch and plowing rhythms. "World's Greatest Lover" lifts its overpowering bass line from the Smithereens' "A Girl Like You." (Unbelievably, the same thrubbing pattern pops up on "Antigen Fiend"). "Rollercoaster" boasts thick, punky verses and a head-bopping chorus, but while Tooke's churning guitar is better than ever, his voice leaves much to be desired. It alternates between a dull drawl and a wounded yowl copped straight from Kurt Cobain. Solid songwriting, laudable musicianship, and oddly inventive touches help enliven the otherwise derivative moments. But Subrosa is a band still grasping for an identity.
-- Georgina Cardenas
Great power-pop songs tend to roll around about once every two or three years, and the debut album by Rodney Crowell's Cicadas opens with one of the best since the Gin Blossoms' inescapable 1992 hit "Hey Jealousy." From the furiously strummed power chords and chiming guitar fills to the melancholy tug of its lyric, "When Losers Rule the World" is both an anthem for the insecure and the kind of song that
reaffirms the strengths of power pop in ways Rhino's recently released Poptopia! compilations did only intermittently.
More important, the song presents an invigorated Crowell, a once-brilliant honky-tonk singer/songwriter whose last few albums have been shapeless and desultory. (Country fans will surely remember Crowell's 1988 blockbuster, Diamonds & Dirt which yielded five number ones.) With his new group, Crowell has not only made a definitive break from Music City, but he's expanded the range of his writing. While maintaining the bite and drama of his country work, he ventures into stomping garage rock (a cover of the Blues Magoos' "Tobacco Road"), sultry Southern soul ("Nobody's Gonna Tear My Playhouse Down"), and aching adult balladry ("Through with the Past," "Still Learning to Fly").
Crowell's vocals have lost none of their earnest appeal, and Steuart Smith's guitar work sparkles throughout. "Wish You Were Her" is a throwback to Crowell's mid-Eighties Nashville style, but it's the shimmering pop stuff here that defines the album -- not just "When Losers Rule the World," but the finger-popping "Nothing," the rural portrait painted in the charming "Our Little Town," and "We Want Everything," a glorious and fitting homage to late-Seventies pop king Nick Lowe. Having committed the unpardonable sin of leaping genres, Crowell (like Lowe) stands little chance of placing his unabashedly commercial music on the rock or country airwaves. That'll be the public's loss.
-- John Floyd
Heaven and Hell
Joe Jackson & Friends
Joe Jackson seems to have lost interest in pop -- or is it the other way around? In the late Seventies and early Eighties, the Brit songwriter released a series of strong new wave LPs, with side trips into a more sophisticated Latin-tinged sound (Night and Day) and vintage swing-jive (the Louis Jordan tribute album Joe Jackson's Jumpin' Jive). Since the mid-Eighties, lasting popular success has eluded Jackson, although critics have consistently lauded his adventurous musicianship. In the past few years he has seemed less and less interested in appealing to popular tastes. Now, with the release of Heaven and Hell, Jackson may attract a new set of listeners -- those who follow contemporary classical music.
It's a trick similar to the one Elvis Costello pulled with 1993's The Juliet Letters, the song cycle he recorded with the Brodsky Quartet. On this outing Jackson leads the listener on a tour of the Seven Deadly Sins, one that combines his knack for strong hooks and wise-guy vocals with classical flourishes. Guest artists Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and Dawn Upshaw contribute thrilling violin and soprano solos, respectively. Jackson has also employed traditional classical forms (the fugue, the passacaglia) that allow his big pop sound to expand well beyond pop's verse-chorus-verse dimensions.
Although the disc features guests including Suzanne Vega, Jane Siberry, and the Crash Test Dummies' Brad Roberts, the music rarely approaches the noisy realm of rock, with the sole exception of "Right (Anger)," which bristles with punk rage. "A Bud and a Slice (Sloth)" is a smugly lugubrious duet by Jackson and Roberts about the joys of being a couch potato -- it sounds like it could have been pulled from a Broadway show. "Angel (Lust)" features Suzanne Vega's sexual insinuations balanced against the purity of soprano Upshaw's soaring vocals; Jackson, seemingly in the role of a pimply adolescent, is caught between the two.
To Jackson's credit, he goes light on the moralizing. In fact, I'm not certain how consistently effective these songs are at capturing the spirit of sin. Better to skip the concept and enjoy the songs on their own. Jackson, more than twenty years after his first pop single, has made a potent contribution to the usually sketchy world of crossovers with Heaven and Hell. That should be enough for fans of modern classical.
-- Raymond Tuttle
I Hate These Songs
One argument for the waning interest in country music (as evidenced recently by sluggish record sales and lackluster concert dates) is that it really isn't country any more. A slew of young musicians -- Bryan White leaps to mind -- has stormed the country charts. Backed by studio songwriters and musicians, these whippersnappers have been churning out slick mainstream pop love songs better suited to Whitney Houston than Hank Williams, the only difference being that these love songs are overlaid with steel guitar and a twang.
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Now comes Dale Watson, straight from Austin, Texas, home of Buck Owens and Conway Twitty, to set things right. With I Hate These Songs, his Hightone Records followup to Cheatin' Heart Attack, Watson proves he's the real thing. The real old school thing. Watson sings in a husky tenor that dips low enough to pick up a whiskey bottle off the floor. His Lone Star Band (featuring Redd Volkaert on lead guitar, Preston Rumbaugh on bass, and Dennis Vanderhoof on drums) is equally adept at shaking dust loose from the barn rafters and matching Watson moan for moan.
"Jack's Truck Stop and Cafe" is an endearing two-step number that showcases the deft finger-pickin' interplay of Volkaert and Watson and jukes along to Rumbaugh's steady thump on acoustic bass. "Leave Me Alone" is a nifty bit of Texas swing, and "Pity Party" relates the age-old saga of a cowboy pouring out his heartbreak at the local saloon ("I'm having a pity party/With a crowd of one or two/It's a pity party/Come pity the fool"). The fiddle playing of legendary session man Gene Elders is a treat, and his appearance on several tracks makes you long for more. Check out especially the eerie, mournful closing notes of "I Won't Say Goodbye." You won't hear anything like it on mainstream country radio these days.
I Hate These Songs is by no means an unqualified success. The title track reveals Watson's principal weakness. The song pays tribute to his many heroes -- Merle Haggard, George Jones, and Patsy Cline to name just a few -- by relating the tale of a lonesome, hard-drinking man who gets all choked up by old country and western ballads on his car radio. It's clearly done to honor the songs of artists Watson admires, but it nevertheless drifts into cheap sentiment. In the hands of, say, Dwight Yoakam, the song might take on a clever, satiric edge, but Watson plays it straight, and it fails accordingly. "Hair of the Dog" (as bad as the title suggests), "Wine Don't Lie," and "Ball and Chain" suffer from the same maudlin treatment. Watson doesn't seem to recognize -- at least not consistently -- that the best country ballads have always been sung with a tear in one eye and a wink in the other.
-- Keith Lee Morris