If, as the rock-and-roll scuttlebutt goes, this is AC/DC's parting shot, you'd be hard pressed to tell from listening to it. Unlike fellow mid-Seventies vets the Ramones, who helpfully dubbed their reputed-to-be-final album Adi centss Amigos!, the brothers Young (Angus and Malcolm) don't tip their hands on Ballbreaker, the band's sixteenth release. The middle-age lads from Sydney just keep up the same skeletal two-guitar bump and grind as if there were no tomorrow. This time around all-purpose superproducer Rick Rubin claims production credit, and while his live warts-and-all style might seem revelatory when applied to the work of Mick Jagger or Tom Petty, it doesn't make much difference here. AC/DC being a band not known for sonic innovation, Rubin's role could very well have been limited to periodic beer runs.
Ballbreaker, then, fits quite comfortably into the post-Bon Scott AC/DC world, and it would be a fitting farewell. The almost preternaturally vintage groove is enhanced a bit by the return of original drummer Phil Rudd, and certainly the tunes themselves remain, defiantly, as goonily adolescent as ever. But the real magic of Ballbreaker, as with just about any AC/DC album, is its almost Shaker-like simplicity; tunes such as "Hard as a Rock" or "Love Bomb" are little more than minimalist sketches of riffs and power chords and tossed-off solos, all thumped in the head by Rudd's businesslike wallop and Brian Johnson's apoplectic screech. The guitars are so dry you can strike a match on them, Angus's solos are spazzy little seven-second outbursts, and the nonsensical choruses demand sing-alongs, much like the better Aussie drinking tunes.
Maybe nothing on Ballbreaker approaches the band's Back in Black high-water mark of the early Eighties, but it's a leaner, livelier ride than their last few releases. If you're still listening in at this point, you're obviously hot for the same half-dozen tunes they've spent most of the past decade gleefully rewriting anyway. And why shouldn't you be? Like Bo Diddley's beat or John Lee Hooker's stomp --r the Ramones' two-minute punk drill -- AC/DC's trademark rumble is a primal piece of the rock-and-roll vocabulary at this point, and it is both reassuring and a little alarming to hear it quite so alive and well.
By David Dudley
AC/DC performs Sunday, January 21, at the Miami Arena, 721 NW 1st Ave; 530-4444. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $26.
The Luv Show
As someone who appeared with Richard Lewis and Jamie Lee Curtis in the benign world of sitcoms (on Anything but Love) and simultaneously fronted the artsy New York City group Bongwater, Ann Magnuson has always been difficult to pinpoint artistically. But whether she's a mainstream Hollywood bit player, an off-Broadway star, an East Village monologist, or an alt-rock diva, Magnuson is above all a performer with a capital P. Not surprisingly, her major-label solo debut, The Luv Show, plays less like a pop album than it does an over-the-top performance-art piece.
The Luv Show's song cycle is a modern-day odyssey in two acts that charts a familiar journey: Little Miss No Name heads west for fame and fortune, lands in the Hollywood inferno, falls happily in with the wrong crowd, and transforms into Miss Pussy Pants, hot tart incarnate and the star of her own TV show. She soon gets lost in the SoCal glitz, takes a career nosedive, and bottoms out as a lounge act on Sunset Strip. Like a more polished and accessible staging of Bongwater's pop-culture circus, The Luv Show shifts between grand psychedelia ("This Nothing Life"), surreal Latino pop ("Sex with the Devil"), bottom-heavy punk ("Miss Pussy Pants"), ghostly lullaby ("Live, You Vixen!"), and twisted torch song ("Some Kind of Swinger") A offered up with all the kitschy melodrama of The Valley of the Dolls done as dinner theater. It's funny, sure, but also too intelligent to work solely as comedy. The Luv Show both toasts and roasts L.A. with all the speed, sex, and psychosis of a B-movie in overdrive.
By Roni Sarig
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Unlike most indie-label pseudo-traditionalists, Freakwater plays and sings their country roots music straight -- not because they're purists, but simply because they're good enough to do so. Singers Catherine Irwin and Eleventh Dream Day drummer Janet Beveridge Bean come together on harmonies so pure, there's no reason to update or twist their sound for the ironic Nineties. This is old-time, mountain-style vocalizing that bypasses the usual country-rock influence of Gram Parsons and goes straight to the canons of the Stanley Brothers and the Carter Family.
Freakwater also bypasses the lyrical tripe that defines so much of mainstream country music. Freed from the garden-variety obsessions with sin, domestic duty, and working-class authenticity, these women raise their voices to express real-life emotions without the excess commercial baggage. The first line on the album, from "Gravity," announces that these sad stories are not going to be sad in all the usual cliched ways: "I wasn't drinking to forget/I was drinking to remember/How I once might have looked through the eyes of a stranger." In contrast to country music sung by women that typically revolves around their futile dreams of faithful men and stable marriages, Freakwater's songs give their women full agency; their longing, their bitter humor, their waitress work -- it's all theirs, and they are beholden to no one.
The pleasures of this music don't come through feminist politics, but rather through the singing: the swelling harmonies on "Gone to Stay"; the ethereal call and response of "Smoking Daddy"; the lovely, understated vocals on Woody Guthrie's "Little Black Train" and Dorsey Burnette's "My One Desire." At their best these women toast tradition and the timelessness of traditional music.
By Stephen Tignor