"Nobody said this would be easy," intones Hal Shows at the beginning of "Pawnish Queen," the second cut on Lifeboat. The line is prophetic, as the Tallahassee-based musician spends much of his self-produced album obsessing about the personal consequences of living in a dysfunctional society, while skillfully documenting the individual dramas that unfold. But Shows is no whiner, and Lifeboat reveals a songwriter who knows how to manipulate his audience by balancing seamy imagery with catchy, often playful melodies. So while a close study of Shows's dense, oblique lyrics might tempt the listener to follow the intuition of the narrator in the ska-tinged "St. Christopher's Note" (who toys with the idea of cutting himself with a dull knife), the bleak philosophical outlook that informs Lifeboat is belied by Shows's deadpan delivery and a grab bag of musical styles that make the CD easy to digest.
In "Pawnish Queen," Shows lets go with the litany of challenges that face the song's subject ("Now incest, envy, and jealousy/Start to poison the scene"), but a positively Dylanesque roller-rink organ straight out of Blonde on Blonde happily trails the tune's slight reggae bounce. Later the organ pairs up with a woozy trumpet and Shows's off-kilter guitar to lend a carnival feel to "Brave New Girl," wherein Shows observes, "The singletary type is scared to death/Of touching anybody except himself." Appropriately, his most disturbing tale here is also, in a way, his funniest. The quasi-surf ditty "A Bad Cold" describes a meaningless closing-time flirtation in a bar that turns into a violent, ultimately fatal encounter with a jealous redneck. "Now I broadcast this advice/From a suite in Paradise," sings Shows, continuing, "When temptation rears its head/Contemplate the taste of lead." Throughout Lifeboat, Shows's rage is never so far below the surface that it goes unnoticed. (1960 Raymond Tucker Rd., Tallahassee, FL 32311)
By Jim Murphy
I Just Wasn't Made for These Times
Beach Boy Bruce Johnston complained last year about some of the tracks included on Capitol Records' boxed set of the group's work. Why isolate the vocal track from "All Summer Long" when it's out of tune, he asked? If that masterpiece strikes Johnston's ear as sounding "wrong," God only knows what he makes of this cri de coeur drawn from sessions for the Don Was-directed documentary on pop master/former Beach Boys architect Brian Wilson's life. A ravaged-sounding but game Wilson offers new renditions of the sort of little-known classics that Beach Boys fans have clung to for an age: "Caroline, No," "Let the Wind Blow," "The Warmth of the Sun," "This Whole World." Claim these versions are as outright gorgeous as the Sixties and early-Seventies originals and you don't have a leg to stand on, although the set-closing "'Til I Die" comes within a hair of the Surf's Up take, thanks to an older, perhaps wiser Wilson and a backing-vocalist lineup that includes long-time Was collaborators Sweet Pea Atkinson and Sir Harry Bowens. Whether, as has been claimed in the past (recall his 1988 self-titled solo album), "Brian's back" will remain unsettled, at least until the February release of Orange Crate Art, his long-awaited reunion with composer-arranger Van Dyke Parks. But These Times succeeds at making its case: Brian Wilson's songs stand among the most affecting ever written.
By Rickey Wright
For the Love of Music
Art is dead. The thought occurred to me as I watched Brian Adams on TV busting his spleen on "O Sole Mio" in a duet with Luciano Pavarotti. Why, in pity's name, did the producers of this concert deem it necessary to bolster a performance of the greatest singer of our time with an overwrought pop screamer such as Adams? Chalk it up to the general dumbing down of our culture, where everything fine and beautiful must be smeared with pop sheen and made palatable to the lowest common denominator. Which brings us to Lionel Hampton's latest record. At the age of 87, the legendary vibraphonist, who played alongside everyone from Louis Armstrong to Wes Montgomery, could release any kind of album he wants and choose from any number of great jazz sidemen who would drool at the opportunity to cut a track with him. And yet For the Love of Music is a high-gloss pop album, nowhere near the fine jazz record Hamp is capable of producing, even this late in the game.
Hampton's most famous composition, "Flying Home," kicks off the eleven-song collection, tricked up with an R&B-funk groove that borders on sacrilege; the presence of young tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman doesn't help much, as he plays in a style more suitable to James Brown's Maceo Parker than the yet-to-be-improved-upon solo created by Illinois Jacquet on the original. "Gates Groove" is an uninteresting Stevie Wonder toss-off in tribute to Hampton. Chaka Khan's fine composition and vocal, "Gossamer Wings" -- which is indeed a lovely R&B song -- has no place on a jazz record. Ditto "Jazz Me," which features some exceptional guitar work from Norman Brown but slips into Love 94 territory. For his part, Hampton's presence seems almost incidental, as if he were a sideman on someone else's project.
Oh, it's not all dreck. There's a cooking Latin version of Wonder's "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing," with Tito Puente and his Latin Jazz Ensemble lending marimbas, assorted percussion, and some hot brass; a Benny Golson-arranged read of "Take the 'A' Train," with the mighty Dianne Reeves scatting up a storm; a bluesy swing through "Sweet Lorraine," with trumpeter Wallace Roney sounding like Prestige-era Miles Davis; and Hampton's only new song, "MoJazz," written for this album and featuring his most vital playing here. On several tracks, notable players such as Ron Carter, Junior Mance, and Roy Haynes lay down solid rhythm support. Why a heavyweight such as Hampton chose to release a feather-light album such as this one remains a mystery.
By Bob Weinberg
Ani Di Franco
Not a Pretty Girl
Ani Di Franco is a scat singer accompanied by an acoustic blues guitar. No wait, she's a performance poet. No, a one-woman punk band. Actually all of these descriptions fit quite snugly, given the blending of bluesy guitar riffs, stripped-down jazz sensibilities, and bursts of punk-rock anger on this fourteen-song release. Despite comparisons to other women singers A Natalie Merchant and Tracy Chapman, among others -- Di Franco most resembles Lou Reed in her approach to songwriting and performing; her songs are as simple, unadorned, and uncomplicated as Di Franco herself. Or so they seem. Painfully personal lyrics reflect an articulate, independent, and subversive spirit; she addresses everything from abortion ("Tiptoe") to failing relationships and flailing self-esteem ("Worthy," "Light of Some Kind") to one-night stands ("Cradle and All," "Shy") to social injustice ("Crime for Crime") in a manner that comes from both the heart and the head. She becomes heavy-handed only when she points those lyrical barbs at tired targets such as the corporate music industry ("The Million You Never Made").
While her compelling guitar work (she plays everything on the record except drums) is capable enough, Di Franco's voice is what really holds court here. Beautifully showcased on ballads such as "I'm Sorry," "Hour Follows Hour," and "This Bouquet," it is at once an instrument of melody and percussion, alternately trilling and spitting out words. For listeners familiar with Di Franco's work (this is the 24-year-old's seventh album in five years), Not a Pretty Girl serves as proof of her growing talent as lyricist and player. For newcomers, the record is a perfect place to discover Di Franco's ranting and strumming.
By Georgina Cardenas
Jef Lee Johnson
(Coconut Grove Recording Company)
This debut from journeyman guitarist Jef Lee Johnson gets off to an inspired start. "Jungle" is a delicious slice of minimalist funk, and the infectious "Everything Starts Right Now" is a piece of bubble-gum with long-lasting flavor. "Tryin' Fire" and "Ain't Seen Irene" are both highly likable, firmly establishing Johnson's knack for low-key blues that woo rather than wow. However, the second half of the disc falters a bit. With the exception of the wondrous "Burn Your Fields on Down" (a traditional blues number that sparkles with Johnson's inventive fretwork), much of the music here sounds like blues-jazz retreads. Too much Johnson the composer, not enough Johnson the player. A Philadelphia native who has toured with everyone from Aretha Franklin to jazz drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson, Johnson lacks the melodic passion of Stevie Wonder and the fiery solo power of Robert Cray, although his music calls both of them to mind. Johnson's lyrics rarely inspire, but his relaxed baritone is a pleasure to hear. A fine first effort, the gems far outweighing the disappointments. (2980 McFarlane Rd., suite 211, Miami, FL 33133)
By Steven Almond
Dance Hall Crashers
Mary's (moldy) Danish.
By Michael Yockel