George Clinton & the P-Funk Allstars
The Awesome Power of a Fully-Operational Mothership
When funk genius George Clinton is on -- when he's really on -- his music summarizes the entire history of R&B at the same time that it shimmies ass-first into the future. On T.A.P.O.A.F.O.M, his best album since 1986's R&B Skeletons in the Closet, Clinton reunites with former Parliament-Funkadelic vets such as Bernie Worrell and Bootsy Collins for a loopy set of career-defining anthems and statements of righteous, shining purpose ("If Anybody Gets Funked Up," "Get Your Funk On," "Let's Get Funky"). Never has Clinton integrated rap and hip-hop into his lysergic mix as well as he does throughout this nearly 80-minute disc, nor has he ever essayed sex dictums quite as masterfully and humorously as here on "Hard As Steel" and "Sloppy Seconds." (On the former, he promises to stick to the, um, job at hand "like hot grits on Al Green" -- a brilliant analogy that only Clinton would have the audacity to make.) And though the song is no doubt too funk-drenched for radio to even poke a toe in, this season has not yet produced a better anthem than "Summer Swim."
-- John Floyd
War and Peace
With War and Peace, Syd Straw has very likely fashioned the best broken-heart record ("hers" division) since Aimee Mann crafted an equally fetching set of disappointed-in-love songs for 1988's Everything's Different Now, 'Til Tuesday's third (and last) album. Not necessarily her broken heart, or so Straw has averred in interviews, although she has admitted to imparting some personal experience to relentlessly engaging, midtempo rockers such as "The Toughest Girl in the World," "Million Miles," "Love, and the Lack of It," "Madrid," "Water, Please," and "Static," all of which course with lyrical perspicacity, whorls of hooks, and Straw's clear, honeyed voice. She describes adult relationships: never dreary or emancipative (or, for that matter, emasculative), but rather smart and honest and human, like the one in "Love, and the Lack of It," on which she sings, "A woman of uneasy virtue/Taking her chances when she can/Sits on the edge of the bed/Explaining her scars to another stupid man/Who will never understand."
Unlike Straw's likable -- if uneven -- previous album, 1989's Surprise (her debut), recorded here, there, and everywhere with umpteen producers, a peck of shifting players, and a clutch of others' songs, War and Peace benefits from a hermetic environment. She wrote eleven of the fourteen songs (co-writing the rest), produced it herself, and tapped the services of Missouri's Skeletons -- the Midwest's finest straight-ahead rockers -- to back her throughout. Effortlessly, the band lends her songs an instrumental heft without overwhelming them, including the affecting "Time Has Done This" and the sensational, ringing "CBGB's," Syd's fond remembrance of a decade-old fling. Terrific stuff.
-- Michael Yockel
Jimmie Dale Gilmore
Braver Newer World
Jimmie Dale Gilmore's third Elektra album comes as a corrective of sorts to fellow ex-Flatlander Joe Ely's ambitious but disappointing Letter to Laredo. While Braver Newer World doesn't quite cohere like Gilmore's brilliant 1991 disc "After Awhile," its risks generally pay off. Produced by T-Bone Burnett, the album initially seems to indicate a full-scale embrace of hippiedom that's perfectly in tune with Gilmore's Zenabilly leanings. Sitars twang, French horns evoke sticky pop psychedelia, and the artist revives as best he can a painfully earnest folk song, "Sally," by another Texas pal, A.B. Strehli.
Gilmore's Buddhism reaches full flower here on the title cut and "Come Fly Away," a Strehli ballad, making interesting implications regarding his collaboration with Burnett, one of rock's most famous drunken seekers. Burnett's wife Sam Phillips contributes one of the best songs, "Where Is Love Now," which in turn gets one of World's most adventurous treatments; the Beck-like beatbox and melodramatic guitar are a striking backdrop for a voice and lyric that drip high-lonesome pain. Some of Gilmore's most fundamental roots are also on display, with a yowling low-fi take on the ancient blues "Long Snake Moan" and a version of Ely's "Because of the Wind," that, oddly, fails to light a fire under the players. Still, the overall anything-goes approach makes Braver Newer World a good document of this period in Gilmore's evolution.
-- Rickey Wright
To Da Beat Ch'all
Hailing from the blue-collar town of Flint, Michigan, Eric Breed is the perfect workingman's rapper. He works hard, gets little acclaim, and just keeps churning out the product. He's released six studio albums in as many years and is among the very few MCs who can boast having put out a best-of compilation while still making new records. If anything, though, Breed's long career survives on low expectations: a steady (if unspectacular) seller, Breed meets the needs of Atlanta-based Wrap Records, an indie label in Breed's adopted hometown.
At his best, Breed's distinctive grainy vocals, live instruments, and deep funk hooks make for a thoroughly enjoyable blend of West Coast and Southern-fried hip-hop. On To Da Beat Ch'all, 1996's contribution to the Breed canon, tracks such as "Choose One" and "My Walls" swing down-and-dirty with the thickest rubber-band bass, wailing wah-wah blues guitar, and Breed's gritty singing.
But perhaps the rapper's terminally low profile breeds an insecurity that keeps him indulging in trendy subject matter. He's tried X-rated raps, gangsta raps, and booze-and-blunt raps, as well as fun-loving and positive-message raps. While bits of all these appear on To Da Beat Ch'all, Breed hasn't got anything to add to what he said five albums ago. If he'd only stop giving listeners what he thinks they want and started capitalizing on what he does best, MC Breed might find the strength to carry himself through six more albums. Or maybe it's just time this workaholic collected a pension.
-- Roni Sarig
Harry "The Hipster" Gibson
Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy's Ovaltine?
Harry "The Hipster" Gibson was a true character, a talented boogie 'n' blues pianist with jazz chops who hit it big as an outrageous entertainer in the jazz clubs of the Forties and Fifties, where high-society thrill seekers and upscale pimps both shared the same smoky air. This unconventional New Yorker had a thirst for chicks, reefer, and booze and sang black vernacular jive in a raspy, demented voice while gyrating wildly at the piano, pounding out signature tunes such as "Handsome Harry the Hipster." No one raised hell quite like the Hipster.
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His star had long been in eclipse when the songs on this Delmark set were recorded. Six of the tracks, culled from a West Coast performance in 1976, are painful to hear. Addled apparently by drink, dope, or both, Gibson gives an unintentional parody of his former self as the band behind him plods along in a similarly sloppy, disjointed fashion. Ten studio tracks from 1989, when the worn-down Gibson was just two years from the boneyard, are at least mildly likable, with his piano playing sharp and his singing taking on a roguish charm. Two takes of "Get Hip to Shirley MacLaine" find him with a gleam in his bloodshot eye for the actress, and tunes such as "I Wanna Go Back to My Little Grass Shack" and "I Flipped My Wig in San Francisco" have him mawkishly nostalgic for the manic days of his youth. Gibson's jazzy accompanists neither embarrass nor distinguish themselves.
Consumer tip: View the riveting if unsettling documentary on Gibson titled Boogie in Blue (available on video from Rhapsody Films) and then decide whether you want to hear him in his dotage.
-- Frank-John Hadley