Psycho Circus

From 1974 to the present, Kisstory is a winding parable of greed, folly, and ego, but the basic facts are simple to comprehend: In the beginning, there were Paul, Gene, Peter, and Ace. First they rocked. Then they sucked. Then they fought, and two of them were replaced by young guys with big hair. The new lineup was successful but still sucked. Finally the four were reunited, and were cool once again.

Of course, the band's long road trip through exploding flash pots, kabuki metal theater, blood-spitting antics, screaming guitars, big hits, bad behavior, make-up controversies, and maniacal excess is way more complicated than that brief summary. But unlike some other monsters of Seventies rock and roll, Kiss is climbing out of nostalgia's velvet rut, revitalized by the success of their 1996 hits collection You Wanted the Best, You Got the Best and the accompanying two-year, globe-trotting reunion tour.

Their follow-up disc, the hard-hitting Psycho Circus, is their 31st, but the first in almost twenty years to feature new music by the four original members. Plenty of good-time hooks and sing-along choruses give Psycho Circus a familiar rush of hormones and electricity, and producer Bruce Fairbairn (AC/DC, Aerosmith) has successfully updated and expanded the band's bedrock sound. Arena-rock anthems such as Paul Stanley's "I Pledge Allegiance to the State of Rock and Roll" and "Raise Your Glasses" are as heavy and cocky as ever, and they pack an increased sonic punch here.

In these self-congratulatory shout-outs to the fans who stuck by the group through the years, Stanley often sings of band and audience as one. As he wails, "We stopped at nothing, even climbed barbed wire/We struck a match and set the world on fire," you can just imagine the fist-pumping these lines will elicit in concert, which is of course the point. Gene Simmons's "You Wanted the Best" is another barnburning thank-you card, featuring all four musicians rallying the loyal and defying the critics. The song addresses consistent jibes about the band (too old, too loud, makeup/no makeup) with the lines "The fans wanted us to play/We hear and obey." This is all a bunch of cheerleading by middle-aged men in platform shoes, granted, but it's also great hedonistic fun for those who care to indulge.

Other songs take an unexpectedly introspective turn. Simmons's "Within" falls more into the King's X mode of metal, from the spiraling guitar lines clashing with the meaty backbeat to a prog-rock-flavored tempo change halfway through. And the poppy harmonies, jingling beat, and unity message of his ballad "We Are One" could easily pass for contemporary Christian rock. Ace Frehley's "Into the Void" is also reflective, perhaps of his recent recovery from longstanding addictions. The lyrics don't offer any epiphanies, but his gift for irresistibly strong guitar hooks makes it a classically great headbanger. The only Peter Criss spotlight tune is the syrupy "I Finally Found My Way," a string-laden ballad written by Stanley and Bob Ezrin. They seemed to be going for another "Beth" here, but the song is weak, and Criss's vocals sound more like the uncle who grabs the mike at the wedding reception than like the Catman of yore.

It wouldn't be a true Kiss reunion without shameless self-promotion, so the CD booklet offers silly collectors items such as silver coins engraved with the guys' faces and the official Psycho Circus cotton blanket. But then, Kiss fandom has always been as much a lifestyle as an appreciation of their music. This package of hooks, volume, swagger, and merchandising demonstrates the band's continuing, world-class talent for giving the fans what they want.

-- Robin Myrick

Elvis Costello with Burt Bacharach
Painted from Memory

Burt Bacharach's music makes for great soundtracks, and there's a certain Muzak charm about some of his hits. But, essentially, he writes flaccid music for flaccid people. As such, the much-touted Bacharach/Elvis Costello teaming, despite a few genuine beauts, seems to bring out the most tepid in the usually magnificent Costello. Unfortunately, he seems unable to inspire his partner.

Costello has leaned more and more on lush arrangements as his career has evolved. On his stellar 1996 album All This Useless Beauty, he reached something of a peak in this respect. Songs such as the languid "Poor Fractured Atlas" and the soul-infused "Why Must a Man Stand Alone" expertly mixed Costello's lyric flourish with rich melodies while avoiding the cloying and the cliched. But on Memory he seems to be writing down to the music, or, as a fellow Costello-phile proffered, perhaps he's writing simpler and more universally. Whichever, he's ended up pennings songs such as "I Still Have That Other Girl," combining a catchy hook with merely pedestrian lyrics.

That's the case with many of the other tracks on Memory. "This House Is Empty Now," "My Thief," and the title track float on facile, ultimately forgettable melodies with equally uninspired lyrics. Bacharach might be comfortable with that -- he has built his career on such dreck -- but Costello, one of the finest songwriters in the post-Tin Pan Alley era of pop music, has always managed much more, even at his least inspired.

This journey into the innocuous isn't without its high points. "Toledo," with its Bacharach trademark sad-sack horn, is an achingly adult twist on betrayal. "It's no use saying that I love you/And that girl really didn't mean a thing to me" says more in a line than other Memory tracks do in their entirety. Another broken bond fuels "The Sweetest Punch," a shimmering gem in which Bacharach steps up his lithe melody-making to great multilayered effect, and the duo's first-ever collaboration "God Give Me Strength" (from the movie Grace of My Heart) is as compelling and empathetic closing out this album as it was in the movie.

The most consistently impressive thing about this collaboration -- if there is anything here that impresses -- is Costello's voice: nimble, impassioned, and committed on virtually every cut. He effectively stretches his very limited range to wrest at least a modicum of genuine emotion from the album's often sterile musical surroundings. Still, while Costello's voice salvages many songs, it is not enough to save Painted from Memory from underachieving.

-- Michael C. Harris

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Michael C. Harris
Robin Myrick