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John Mellencamp
Mr. Happy Go Lucky
(Mercury)

When I first met John Mellencamp nearly fifteen years ago, he was a young buck awash in the success of Uh-Huh and its "Pink Houses" anthem, and on the verge of critical and commercial success with Scarecrow. But Mellencamp was already worrying about how to age gracefully as a rock star, how to keep the creativity flowing into middle age and possibly beyond. He more or less assumed it couldn't be done as a performer and he began to branch out -- as a producer (Mitch Ryder, the Blasters), a filmmaker (Falling from Grace), and a painter (he once had a joint show in Los Angeles with fellow brush wielder Miles Davis).

Ironically, as he edged toward and into middle age (and a 1995 heart attack), Mellencamp continued to find ways to keep his music fresh by sliding fiddle and accordion into a mix formerly dominated by ace drummer Kenny Aronoff and Larry Crane on guitar. The first result was the wonderful 1987 album Lonesome Jubilee.

Now Aronoff and Crane are gone, and in their place on the new album are DJ and Janet Jackson collaborator Junior Vasquez and rapper Moe Z.M.D. While there's a spacier sonic feel to Mr. Happy Go Lucky, it's firmly within the confines of Mellencamp's traditional sound: acoustic strums, big swinging bridges, and a feral snap in the drumming ("These songs easily could've all been country songs," he told Billboard). Lyrically Mellencamp remains one of rock's great levelers (bringing the president and royalty into a road song, casting himself as a worker in the autobiographical "The Full Catastrophe"). With the artful use of his somewhat limited vocal gift, Mellencamp eliminates the very real distance between himself and his audience, escaping self-parody to establish a common will to survive and, whenever possible, thrive. If he can keep his balance on that thin beam, he may outlive us all. -- Lee Ballinger

Donovan
Sutras
(American Recordings)

Somehow it's comforting to know that Donovan Leitch, the wonderfully fey Scottish folkie who was "just mad about saffron," hasn't backed off from any of his hippie-dippie beliefs. In this new album produced by Rick Rubin, the Nineties Donovan is revealed to be deeply immersed in Buddhism, passionately in love, dazzlingly optimistic, and seemingly as guileless as when he breezed onto the pop scene back in 1965 with "Catch the Wind." Rubin, a dedicated fan, has kept the arrangements simple and the focus on Donovan and his acoustic guitar, with the occasional sitar chiming in for the appropriate patchouli-dipped ambiance. And the best cuts on Sutras, such as "Please Don't Bend," are Donovan at his simplest and most sincere, with songs of love to either the universe or a particular woman or both. The overly precise diction (only he could make two syllables out of "glass") and fluttery tremolo are intact; there's even a mythic song, "El Dorado," reminiscent of the Celtic balladry of "Atlantis."

If anything's missing it might be the giddy mischievousness that made Donovan produce works promoting sensory experimentation, such as "Mellow Yellow." And yet "The Way," with its upbeat, singsong, transcendental wordplay ("out of nothing comes the one, out of one comes the two," et cetera) is reminiscent of Donovan classics like "First There Is a Mountain" with its refrain "First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is." It's a potent reminder that no one is as capable of blending pop hooks and the tenets of universal enlightenment as Donovan.

-- Susan Whitall

Marilyn Manson
Antichrist Superstar
(Nothing/Interscope)

Just when you thought it wasn't possible, this gang gets weirder and weirder. Antichrist Superstar is a sixteen-track, hour-plus opus devoted to social decay that, surprisingly, is even more indulgent than last year's Smells Like Children EP. The album opens with a fake live track featuring sampled audience screams, then moves into their usual mix of churning heavy metal, melodious dance-rock, and borrowed riffs (e.g., "The Beautiful People," "Cryptorchid," and the title track). "Angel with the Scabbed Wings" opens with a slick guitar line, then marches to a percussive gallop copped from Mstley CrYe's "Dr. Feelgood," while "Kinderfeld" folds a Pink Floyd influence into nine inch nail's "Reptile."

Throughout the disc it's clear the band has been studying the recent work of mentor/co-producer Trent Reznor: His influence is everywhere, with infectious hi-hat beats, eerie keyboard lines, venomous vocals, and swirling sampled instruments amid a metallic framework. Even though you find yourself really wanting to turn it off, there are rhythms running through Superstar that make it hard to stop stomping.

Ultimately, you can regard Marilyn Manson as a big joke -- a clever scheme in which they play ultra-grotesque clowns in a heavy-metal comic book come to life -- or you can pay attention as they attempt to turn America on its ear (or at least turn its stomach) by exaggerating society's ills. But who besides a bunch of sixteen-year-olds and the band themselves would take their antics seriously? You can either be terrorized or you can laugh your head off. I suggest the latter.

-- Georgina Cardenas

John Cale
Walking on Locusts
(Hannibal)

If John Cale's musical career is a river, then that career's obvious highwater mark was the Velvet Underground. Don't come to this album looking for that. In the past Cale has done everything from punk rock to minimalist composition; Walking on Locusts, however, is his first attempt at straight pop in more than a decade. The task may be unfamiliar, but the attempt has all the earmarks that define Cale in the public imagination: It's smart, sometimes bold, carefully constructed, oddly paced, and ever so bloodless.

On "Tell Me Why" he opens with a Moroccan polyrhythm, piles on some John Tesh-y keyboard chords, slips in some deep gospel vocals from the Lafayette Inspirational Ensemble, and calls it a pop song. The twelve tracks are peppered with cerebral sing-along slogans like "So much for love/So long for now" and "If we could work it out/We'd have done it by now." There's soft rock ("Entre Nous") and slinky slide-guitar road songs ("Dancing Undercover") and country-ish ballads ("Set Me Free") and perky string ensemble pieces ("Gatorville and Points East") and a whole bunch of stuff that sounds like the Talking Heads really trying to write pop songs circa True Stories. And it's no small coincidence that ex-Head David Byrne guests as guitarist and co-writer on the album's best song, "Crazy Egypt," with a galloping slapback drum beat, a rant by Cale, and Byrne chugging his guitar through a rhythm built on the sound of skipping vinyl.

Cale is more interested in textures than in flat-out rocking, and he's probably a little too calculating for today's pop market, just like Adrian Belew has always been just a wee bit brainy for rock. But some people still like brainy, calculating pop, right?

-- Brad Tyer

Trisha Yearwood
Everybody Knows
(MCA)

Trisha Yearwood is getting closer to her own thing. She has yet to make an album that soars all the way through, but her expressiveness and depth these days almost make good on her critical praise. On Everybody Knows, Yearwood doesn't take any real dares; the title track, for instance, isn't the the Leonard Cohen song, despite her presence on a recent tribute album to the angst king. And too often Yearwood merely connects the dots between currently fashionable musical stances: There's the wistful pay-attention-before-you-lose-me ballad ("I Need You"), the rebel-girl-on-the-run drama ("Hello, I'm Gone"), the love-over-work protest ("Little Hercules"). None of these stands out as particularly good or bad, although the rebel song does hint that its protagonist might be ready to rob a garage mechanic, a move that even the staunchest middle-American Yearwood consumer might applaud.

Two cuts stand out amid the generally agreeable fare here. The razor-sharp Steve Goodman/Fred Knoblock song "A Lover Is Forever" gets a strong treatment, though it doesn't touch Rosanne Cash's assured version found on last year's Retrospective. Everybody's true jewel is its first single, a cry from the heart called "Believe Me Baby (I Lied)" that Yearwood owns from word one. Asking open-heartedly for love while never groveling, she hits her artistic apex. Maybe next time Yearwood will pull this off seven or eight times over the course of an album instead of just once or twice.

-- Rickey Wright


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