Boxing Gandhis

Rock critics of the early Seventies did our best to banish all thought of eclecticism, since it was usually a key word denoting fraud of the art-rock or jazz-rock sort. No one ever called Bitches Brew eclectic, though it was; that term was reserved for the likes of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and worse. But funk (or maybe it was just Prince all by himself) rehabilitated the term; today's eclectic bands, a group that includes, to my ear, everybody from the new Heads to Dave Matthews to 24-7 Spyz, borrow freely from a variety of elements that have in common mainly that they came together on the North American mainland and in the Caribbean; this is eclecticism as inside stuff, not an imposition from a superior culture. It's less beyond genre than self-defining.

Boxing Gandhis already stand out as the best of the new eclectics, even though Howard is only the group's second album. In particular, Howard expands their palette in the two most difficult areas: The quality of both singing and songwriting has grown impressively. The Gandhis are as comfortable singing emotionally scaled-down power ballads as they are popping the one on an uptempo dance number, and they effortlessly incorporate elements of performed poetry, alternarock, R&B harmony that hints of gospel ancestry, hip-hop beats, and a variety of Latin accents. The three lead singers combine in ways that are as surprising as Sly and the Family Stone. "Roll" despoils wife beating with an audaciousness reminiscent of George Clinton. "Funky Little Princess" starts off like Morissette redux, but quickly adds the stronger groove necessary to convey the story of a homeless teenage junkie prostitute. "Far From Over" fuses Santana, P-Funk, and Living Colour into a song that's less protest anthem than statement of American immigrant facts of life, a journey from hope to despair.

The Gandhis, like Sly and the Family Stone and Prince and the Revolution, do not just include but feature a true cross-section of humanity: In this case, Asians, Hispanics, whites, men, and women. Thus their concern about the state of society today -- if you make music in a world of inclusion, the harsh divisions outside your band must be even more striking and painful. The power of this music at its best is that it not only uncovers the damage but also, with those sweet and ravaged voices, these wracked and loving tales, aims to heal it. My idea of the perfect ambitious rock 'n' soul band. -- Dave Marsh

Elf::Gulf Bore Waltz

A screwy, charmingly eccentric batch of four-track psychedelia and post-punk prog-rock from a quartet of Tampa-based diddlers with a previous CD and a mountain of cassette releases on their resume. Haven't heard the older stuff, but this new one is pretty amazing. By infusing their reefer-clouded musings with concise, penetrating melodies, Home strike an intriguing balance between the Seventies Kraut rock they've obviously heard before and the more focused of their experimental indie-rock brethren (especially Pavement, for the inventive use of guitars, and Sebadoh, because some of the stuff on Elf is catchy as hell). Like their South Florida brethren (Kreamy 'Lectric Santa, most notably), Home are toiling far from the dim lights of the fanzine media and even farther from whatever city is this week's underground capital. Which means they are free to indulge their every idiosyncratic whim and tinker with the complexities of their art. And which means the best parts of this sprawling 50-minute set will stick with you far longer than the average piece of privately pressed noise.

-- John Floyd

Steve Forbert
Rocking Horse Head

You wanna root for Steve Forbert. The Mississippi-bred songwriter with the sandpaper tenor has battled through so much adversity in his nineteen-year career: He's been bounced from label to label, watched sure-fire hits get ignored by radio programmers, and was known chiefly, for a few ignominious years, as "Cyndi Lauper's boyfriend." That's got to hurt.

Rocking Horse Head, his eighth album, looks awfully good on paper. Forbert recorded it in live takes, backed by members of the nifty twangy outfit Wilco. Unfortunately, somewhere between conception and execution, the potential was squandered. The problem isn't the album's country feel. Max Johnston's virtuoso turns on mandolin, fiddle, Dobro, and banjo are most welcome, as is the sometimes flaming guitar work of Jay Bennett. The problem here is the songs. They're dull, lacking both indelible melodies and the sly bluesy swagger that mark Forbert's best work.

Hard-core fans will find a few keepers scattered among the dross. "Moon Man (I'm Waiting on You)" is a goofily charming monologue built on a jaunty backbeat. ("I've been alone so long I'm a loon/Up in an all-night cable cartoon/So call, fax, e-mail me soon.") "Don't Stop" is a fetching Dixieland romp, and "Good Planets Are Hard to Find" boasts a rollicking riff worthy of the Stones. Too often, though, the album purrs where it should roar, with "If I Want You Now," "Dear Lord," and "My Time Ain't Long" sounding like pale imitations of his usually excellent ballad work.

Forbert usually takes a couple of years between albums. This one, he notes proudly in the press material, was completed in half that time. Next time Forbert considers putting out a rush job, he should follow the advice he issued on his splendid 1990 disc The American in Me: "Baby Don't."

-- Steven Almond

CeCe Peniston
I'm Movin' On

My love affair with CeCe Peniston began the first time I heard the house anthem "We Got a Love Thang." It was clear that this former Miss Arizona was no producer's plaything getting by on beauty. She possessed the mind and outlook of a grown woman and didn't need anyone's help to get her point across, thankyouverymuch. Her unmistakable cold-shiver voice, soaked in praisehouse funk, shamed all would-be dance divas the world over. Both her debut and successive albums avoided formula and went on to enjoy tremendous success with a mixed audience of club, R&B, and adult listeners.

I am truly disappointed, then, by Peniston's latest release I'm Movin' On. It's obvious that the plan here was to ditch the dance diva image and recast her as an R&B siren. Her signature fiery, gospel magic displayed on past highlights such as "Searchin'," "Finally," and "I'm Not Over You" is nowhere to be found. And while long-time collaborator Steve Hurley contributes a couple of tunes, sound-alike producers have the day here, and they crawl through a series of midtempo, boring grooves, best defined by "Looking for a Love That's Real" and the title track.

Sadly, this stuff is so weak lyric-wise I don't think any amount of house remixing will help. Imagine you're at the Lincoln Memorial for Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech but instead all he does is recite the alphabet. That's the effect of I'm Movin' On. Even a hack like Mariah Carey couldn't make hits out of these songs. A wiser and far more satisfying purchase for Peniston fans would be the Sisters of Glory's Good News in Hard Times, an overlooked 1995 gospel compilation on which sister CeCe bares her sanctified soul.

-- Jesse Ballinger

Suzanne Vega
Nine Objects of Desire

Over the course of five albums, Suzanne Vega has moved from edgy neo-folk aesthete to techno-flavored experimenter to her present incarnation as a smoky, sensuous chanteuse. In exploring this new image, she has created Nine Objects of Desire, a twelve-song paean to passionate desire composed of lush yet spacious music and sadly obvious lyrics.

What a loss.
Vega has distinguished herself in the past with brilliantly disguised imagery, ghostly snapshots that beg for our exploration. Her heroes and villains have always been shadowy figures, hiding behind curtains or sliding between the many layers of her metaphors. Their half-seen visages challenged us to look behind those curtains or pierce the layers so that we could make her images our own.

On Nine Objects, we're reduced to voyeurism. Whether she's recounting her husband's paranormal experience in their hotel room ("Honeymoon Suite") or an unrelieved sexual tension ("Stockings"), Vega spells it all out for us. Even when she sings of a specter of death on "Thin Man," she is visited by him in a cliched immediacy, intoning, "His hand is on my back when I step from the sidewalk/Or when I'm walking down these darkened halls." Where are the chicken parts made human from Solitude Standing's "Ironbound/ Fancy Poultry" ("Fancy poultry/Parts sold here/Breasts and thighs and hearts/Backs are cheap/And wings are nearly/Free"), or the fevered, sanguine half-plea of 99.9F's "Blood Makes Noise ("And I'd like to give the information/You're asking for/But blood makes noise")?

Maybe her recent marriage to producer Mitchell Froom (who was responsible for both her last album, the innovative 99.9F, and this new one), or the birth of their child, to whom she pays tribute in the percussion-driven opening track "Birth-day (love made real)," has created a contentment that robs us of her halting insights. But whatever it is, the content of her songs has suffered.

Fortunately, the album is almost redeemed by the strongest singing of her career and a beautiful mixture of techno-sonics turned warm and languid. But ultimately, it isn't enough. After sharing only glimpses of herself for four albums, Vega has chosen to open up, and leaves us wondering if we care.

-- Brian E. Rochlin


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