Papa Vegas
Hello Vertigo
(Sid Flips/RCA)

The other day I was flying. No, not in an airplane. Really flying. I just flapped my wings and up I went. Anyway while I was up there soaring over the tops of trees and picking dragonflies out of my mouth (you'd be surprised how many there are at low altitudes), I started thinking about the last time I flew in an airplane, and how I became obsessed with the idea that the generic line drawings on the flight-safety cards would make great album art for some up-and-coming rock band.

Well, the members of Papa Vegas, a foursome from Grand Rapids, Michigan, must have read my mind, because their debut, Hello Vertigo, uses flight-safety illustrations for its cover art. And though it's theoretically possible that they came up with the idea on their own, nothing else on this derivative, redundant, and largely meaningless record is original.

Papa Vegas writes songs that sound like Duran Duran castoffs, with poster-boy vocals, underdeveloped melodies, and flimsy walls of synthesizer and tame, toy guitar. When the quartet doesn't sound like Duran Duran, they sound like Tears for Fears, or Human League, or the Alan Parsons Project; any number of moody, mediocre early-Eighties chart-toppers. Even the profound song titles ("Mesmerized," "Super Telepathy," "Beautiful Animal") seem to be relics from that era, except those that seem to have been named by the gods of cruel irony ("Something Wrong," "No Destination," and "Plodding Bit of Nonsense"). The last one's fake, but might as well be real. Sometimes honesty seeps out of the strangest places.

I hope it won't offend the members of Papa Vegas if I say this record is largely terrible. I'm sure they're nice people. I'm sure they mean well. They just don't sing, play, or write well. On the other hand, Hello Vertigo does serve a higher purpose. It proves my theory that pop music is no longer changing. At almost any other time in pop-music history, borrowing a style or song from a past decade would have been considered either nostalgic (Sha Na Na, Queen's "Crazy Little Thing Called Love") or ironic (the New York Dolls' cover of Bo Diddley's "Pills," or the Sex Pistols' "Stepping Stone"). Now, though, Papa Vegas can reach a full fifteen years into the past and ape goopy New Wave bands without any humor, scorn, or love -- or any standpoint at all, for that matter. Has rock's evolution slowed to a crawl? Has it stopped? If so Papa Vegas might want to reconsider the flight-safety illustration motif. Why? Well, there's no chance of crashing if you don't leave the ground.

-- Ben Greenman

The Dave Brubeck Quartet and Jimmy Rushing
Brubeck and Rushing

In 1960 Jimmy Rushing, the greatest vocalist to pass through Count Basie's orchestra, hustled Dave Brubeck and his troupe into the studio to record a dozen jazz and blues standards. At the time the match seemed odd. Brubeck was coming off the monster success of Take Five, while Rushing was in the twilight of his storied career. The results, though, speak to Rushing's acute musical instincts. The collection sparkles with the wit and gruff sorrow that was Rushing's trademark.

Brubeck's sassy boogie-woogie piano provides a thrilling backdrop for Rushing's throaty take on "Evenin'." Paul Desmond's trilling alto sax provides a consistent melodic counterpoint to Rushing's hollow-bottom baritone and illuminates a raucous rendition of "There'll Be Some Changes Made." Brubeck's minimalist style (he seems often to be scribbling his runs as much as playing them) provides Rushing plenty of room to give his sly interpretations voice. Brubeck's understated tinkling anchors glorious versions of "River, Stay 'Way from My Door" and "Ain't Misbehavin.'"

Brubeck and Rushing is the hidden jewel of Legacy's recent re-release of Brubeck's material, a swinging collaboration that is as unexpected and intoxicating today as it was 40 years ago.

-- Steve Almond

The Sebadoh
(Sub Pop/Sire Records)

Lou Barlow became important without meaning to. He impressed others by recording his fragile, angry songs on whatever happened to be lying around, whether it was a four-track recorder or a busted Walkman. It didn't matter, because at first, it wasn't about style: He had to get the songs out of his head on to a tape, and he didn't know (or couldn't afford) a better way to do it. Somewhere along the way, though, what was born out of necessity became technique, and Sebadoh (like Guided By Voices and so many other bedroom Brian Wilsons) bought into the notion that the sketchpad was not only as important as the finished painting, it was beautiful enough all by itself. Ideas became songs before they were ready, and real songs were undercut by Barlow's deliberate ineptitude. He could write some of the most oppressively open lyrics, yet he hid his words behind walls of static, confessing his sins in a language no one could understand.

If it made sense then, it doesn't today, and, to his credit, Barlow realizes as much, at long last letting the producer do his job on The Sebadoh. The lo-fi setting is less appropriate now that he's figured out how to write a song rather than simply sing his life into a beat-up tape recorder. Since 1994's Bakesale the focus has shifted from him to the music; melodies replace malice, choruses sub for awkward confusion. Bakesale may have been an uneasy and uneven entry into the studio, but it proved that's where the band really belonged.

With The Sebadoh Barlow and company (long-time collaborator Jason Loewenstein and new drummer Russ Pollard) have reconciled themselves to that fact. It's produced but certainly not polished, and it probably won't ever be as long as Loewenstein shares half of the songwriting duties; his "Bird in the Hand" might turn up on a Nirvana B-sides compilation sooner or later. Barlow's recent embrace of pure pop, however, is more than enough to smooth Loewenstein's rough edges. "Weird" is even catchier than Barlow's previous attempts at making friends with the radio, full of AM-radio jingle-jangle urged on by fuzzy, galloping bass lines and exuberant tambourine. But the urgent "Flame" might be the finest song Barlow has ever penned -- at least, the best one you've ever heard -- dance-pop for the indie-rock set, Pollard's marching-band beat supporting a guitar riff that never really finishes before it starts again. And you never want it to stop.

-- Zac Crain

Paul Weller
Modern Classics: The Greatest Hits

After the Style Council lost its record contract in 1990, some suggested that Paul Weller had lost his creative edge. So Weller went solo and made a self-titled album that spun the jazzy pop styles of the Style Council in a more rock-oriented direction. The result: Weller was back on the charts and lauded by the press once more. His next three solo albums saw him all but give up the pop sound in favor of Stax-Volt, Atlantic Records R&B, the Beatles, and late-Sixties rock influences. They also resurrected his place as one of England's most influential musicians (in the United States, of course, no one has heard of him).

Containing fifteen songs from his solo albums, and the obligatory new song to entice hard-core fans into buying it, Modern Classics is a good, albeit incomplete, Weller primer. Weller's songs have the conciseness of a pop 45 and the tonality of R&B-influenced classic rock. Vocally he's like a cross between Eric Clapton and Joe Cocker, and adds soulful background singers like the latter. Yet Weller's songs also have an alternative spin to them. "Sunflower" and "Into Tomorrow" bridge the gap between Weller and altrock and in the process illustrate his superior sense of melody and song progression. An exceptional interpreter of ballads and rock anthems, Weller is at his best on "Wild Wood" (folk with a subtle, driving beat) and "Hung Up," which could have been on Abbey Road if John Lennon had sounded like Joe Cocker and had had background soul singers.

Modern Classics fills only 55 minutes but provides a variety of ballads, anthems, alt-rock, and pop songs. Liner notes are nonexistent, and what about lyrics? For that matter the titles are hard to read on the back cover. No matter: The music's stellar. The Modfather has created vital work that has a sense of familiarity to it without sounding retrogressive. Simply put, it's some of the best of the decade.

-- Paul J. MacArthur

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Steven Almond
Zac Crain
Ben Greenman
Paul J. MacArthur