Like gangsta rappers, RuPaul -- a black drag queen/diva/talk-show host -- is into beats and poses. And like all the best gangstas, RuPaul Charles is most interested in using his funky beats and flamboyant pose to get down to the heart of the matter. Unfortunately many listeners have never ventured past his novelty cover to read the book. Too bad, because RuPaul's debut, Supermodel of the World, used the drag pose primarily to come out emotionally. When a black man (overlook that and you fall prey to the very gender restrictions that drag queens are challenging) dolls up like Miss Ross in stilettos and sings "Free Your Mind," the pose expands, to say the least, the possibilities of that great rock-and-soul cliche. So while his first singles worked the traditional gay-humor aesthetics of camp ("Supermodel") and kitsch ("Back to My Roots"), the rest of Supermodel played it, er, straight. Disco soul as catchy as RuPaul's own "House of Love" and "Prisoner of Love" all flamed brightly in the larger-than-life tradition that runs from Sylvester up to Boy George and Madonna -- all the while offering danceable proof that human hearts beat the same no matter what poses we strike.
By comparison Foxy Lady is slightly disappointing. Part of the problem is that the sound this time out usually fails to create its own style. Instead of combining influences into something RuPaulish, Foxy too often dresses itself up like other more popular dance stars: "Dolores" mimics Gloria Estefan, the title track is a tape-loop collage that is so ten years ago, and "R.U. Nasty" is just a 2 Live Crew-styled shout-out. It's also a problem that Charles and his regular collaborators haven't come up with a single hook, lyric, or arrangement that's as strong as the debut's finest moments.
But even with these foibles, Foxy Lady still works. When it wants to heat things up at a club ("Party Train," "Celebrate," "Happy"), its beats slam as hard as the "hipper" ones you'll find on the latest techno or drum 'n' bass single, and when it wants to make pure pop ("A Little Bit of Love," with Vicki Sue Robinson), it drives and soars with disco's best. The Peace-Love-Tolerance message that RuPaul uses his pose to convey in these songs remains naive, but it also remains the point of the thing -- and about the only message that really matters.
-- David Cantwell
One More from the Road
Even in their Seventies heyday, Lynyrd Skynyrd stood apart from other white Southern musicians. The Allman Brothers were a friendly bunch of bluesmen, Wet Willie had pleasant pop hits, and no one even knew the names of the ace session guys at Muscle Shoals who made records with the likes of Aretha Franklin.
They were over the top: wild-eyed, menacing, putting forth strong opinions on record-company treachery ("Workin' for MCA"), northern liberal hypocrites ("Sweet Home Alabama"), and both sides of the gun control issue ("Saturday Night Special," "Gimme Back My Bullets"). They sang about using drugs, going to prison, solidarity with the ghetto. Singer Ronnie Van Zant came on-stage barefoot, wearing a cowboy hat, and he and the rest of the band played with a lurching, restless fire that blazed with both genius and desperation.
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Where would Lynyrd Skynyrd, who went down in flames in a 1977 plane crash, fit in the modern world of musical marketing categories? Not in rock -- their music is too concise to fit in with the long-winded jammers, their explicit Southern-ness would bar them entry to the alternative world. On the surface they're closest to what country has become, but Nashville wouldn't touch them with Travis Tritt's ten-foot cowboy hat. Can you imagine Ronnie Van Zant and his fellow desperadoes at Fan Fair?
This doesn't mean their music is dated, and the proof is in One More from the Road, the double-live album recorded in 1976 just after sweet Oklahoma picker Steve Gaines joined the band. It's newly remastered, and that job is done so well that you feel like you're literally standing on-stage while Skynyrd rips through their hits and country and blues covers. It's one of the all-time great live albums, a bunch of swamp rockers proving their love all night. The fact that it sounds like nothing you hear today is just one of a thousand reasons you ought to run out and buy it.
-- Lee Ballinger