k.d. lang
All You Can Eat
(Warner Bros.)

I miss the country k.d. The ache and twang in her voice, the kitschy cowpunk outfits, the whole Tom Mix meets Patsy Cline thing. Since she dumped the westernware for romance with 1992's Ingenue, lang's music has undergone a maturation of sexual frankness and brazenness that reeks of her friendship with that bad seed Madonna. Not that All You Can Eat, her second foray into the adult-contemporary genre, is necessarily a bad record. It's just that the newly liberated lang, who in the CD's press kit describes this album as "more ambient and ethereal," has let a lot of the mystery escape from her music, leaving behind an airy blandness.

No longer the coy and jocular tomboy who enlivened earlier efforts such as 1987's Angel with a Lariat and 1988's Shadowland, lang now plays the sex kitten, plaintively pining after her female lover for acceptance and maybe a little schtupin'. "Kiss away the ones who say the lust you feel is wrong" lang coaxes on "Sexuality." Meanwhile "Maybe" finds her trying to clarify her true feelings toward another, and "Get Some" is not about grocery shopping, if you catch my drift. The themes of relationships, desire, and getting horizontal run rampant on All You Can Eat, and you want to believe the passion of lang's intimations. But in the end there's nothing compelling enough to make a person want to give in and put out. Lang sings every song with the same sultry swoon, so that within a half an hour -- in this case, at the close of this paltry 34-minute set -- you begin to question the sincerity of her pleas. That's too bad. It sounded as if k.d. was on to something with her hit "Constant Craving" (from Ingenue), which definitely left you feeling a little hot and bothered. All You Can Eat just leaves you feeling bothered.

By George Pelletier

Out Come the Wolves

Rancid's last album gave me trouble, and this new one -- a supposed punky reggae classic along the lines of the Clash's London Calling -- is no less troublesome. Both records raise the same question: Do they work because they're good, or because their competition is so bad? Last year's Let's Go was a decent hunk of punk product that walked through the multiplatinum door kicked open by former labelmates Green Day. Although tediously overexposed on faux-alternative radio and MTV, the single "Salvation" was hard not to like A a sing-along snot-slinger that bettered anything concocted by Billie Jo Armstrong's feeble trio. And any alternative to the Offspring is always welcome. Still, there was something naggingly mundane about the whole album, a feeling that despite all the energy Rancid mustered, you had really heard it all before, whether it was Social Distortion's first album or an early Adverts single.

Out Come the Wolves, a nineteen-song spiel with an emphasis on the skittering rhythms of ska, poses similar problems. On the surface it's a fine piece of work with an impressive whoop-ass sound, from the muscular pound of drummer Brett Reed to the stripped-down production that sprays the spit of vocalist Tim Armstrong right in your face. But beyond the hyped-up Jamaican rhythms, Rancid's latest is no more original than its predecessor -- they've just found a new pile of records to steal from. And they aren't the best thieves: Where the Clash fused the influence of reggae masters such as Toots Hibbert and Big Youth into their already expansive sound, Rancid has simply brought the music's bouncing beat to its punk-rock retreads. There is some good stuff here, and all of it smacks of conviction, concern, and authority. But if you want an idea of what an innovative punk-ska merger really sounds like, go buy the Specials' debut record.

By John Floyd
Rancid performs with Lunachicks and the Gotohells at 7:00 p.m. on Friday, November 3, at the Edge, 200 W Broward Blvd, Ft Lauderdale; 525-9333. Tickets cost $10.

Los Van Van
Lo Ultimo en Vivo

Cuba's leading dance band, Los Van Van has been entertaining writhing crowds in community dance halls and hotel nightclubs since 1969. The musicians' rebellious attitude and their sexy -- at times subversive -- double-entendre lyrics have made them popular heroes. Their packed concerts, presided over by rakish bandleader Juan Formell, are euphoric flesh fests during which couples meld together in an African-inspired dirty dance that makes commonplace salsa steps look as prim as a minuet.

But this stiff live recording does nothing to transmit that sweaty sabor. It's not really a live album -- or, rather, it's not a concert album. Lo Ultimo en Vivo was conceived as an alternative to the group's previous studio albums, which could never be recorded with the entire band playing together, because the studio was not equipped to accommodate all fifteen musicians at once. This time Formell decided to record the whole group using a two-track DAT machine as they played on-stage in an empty dance hall. The result is patently flat, with the individual instruments failing to stand out -- this salsa sounds like a sort of muddy stew. A few halfhearted claps and cheers can be heard in the background (probably the crew), casting something of a pathetic pall over the proceedings. No problems with the song selection, though: The CD includes the band's hit "­Que Sopresa! (Voy a Publicar Tu Foto en la Prensa)" A which translates as "What a Surprise! (I'm Going to Publish Your Picture in the Paper)" A and the amusing, allegorical "La Protesta de las Gallinas" ("The Hens' Protest"). But the only track that really succeeds here is "Tu Me Haces Falta" ("I Need You"), a romantic bolero carried off by the strength of Formell's voice. Overall Lo Ultimo en Vivo comes across as just a shadow of the live Los Van Van experience. The group's sound has been much more successfully captured on well-produced studio albums in the past, several of which are available in the U.S.

By Judy Cantor

Meat Puppets
No Joke!

No Joke! opens with several of the most widescreen production moves (strings, keyboards, and a lot of guitar overdubs) ever heard on a Meat Puppets album, as the massed guitars of Curt Kirkwood thunder forth like some newly discovered art-rock relic. After the first three cuts, the Puppets (Kirkwood, his bassist brother Cris, and drummer Derrick Bostrom), for the most part, settle into an intensely languid groove, similar to the one they fashioned on 1993's Too High to Die. Kirkwood's characteristic meld of pastoral imagery and deeply bent emotion marks these songs as surely as it did those on Too High, and a few of these numbers ("Head," "Nothing," and the already embraced-by-radio "Scum") stand out as obviously as did "Backwater," "Roof with a Hole," and "We Don't Exist" did on that previous album. And what other band would take their kids' artwork from the refrigerator door and slap it on the front and back covers of its CD booklet?

By Rickey Wright

Atomic Boy
Sonic Cocktail
The best Buzzcocks album that Green Day has yet to record.
By Michael Yockel

Ben Harper
Fight for Your Mind

There are a number of bands who have made gobs of money cranking out amplified music, then looked to the unplugged format as a way of validating their status as acoustic musicians and songwriters. Nirvana, for example. Or Pearl Jam. Or Hole. Or even A egads A Stone Temple Pilots.

Ben Harper has gone the opposite route. His first album, 1993's Welcome to the Cruel World, was basically an unplugged session. The majority of the cuts featured just Harper and his acoustic guitar, and the disc brimmed with the pure tonal richness of his melodies, the heart-sore eloquence of his lyrics, and the resonance of his husky baritone.

Harper has lost none of these attributes on his second album, Fight for Your Mind. But he has gone electric, assembling a talented band behind him and placing an emphasis on making music that consciously rocks. His new rhythm section (bassist Juan Nelson and drummer Oliver Charles) adds a welcome thump to anthems such as "Burn One Down" and "Excuse Me Mr." Among the other innovations: an unobtrusive Hammond organ and subtly deployed African percussion. A four-piece string ensemble even gets into the act, elevating "Power of the Gospel" to elegiac heights.

Fortunately, Harper's own haunting songs remain firmly rooted in the midst of the layered mix, and his knack for the lovesick ballad has not diminished one iota. "Please please me like you want to/not like you have to/or won't you just go and leave me/Leaving is the least/that you could do," he sings on "Please Me Like You Want To." And the amazing thing is, you honestly feel for the guy.

As with his last record, Harper continues to write songs specifically aimed at racism toward African Americans ("Oppression," "People Lead"). These tend toward the didactic and are less successful than his more emotionally candid appeals to friends and lovers lost. But even the songs of protest are rescued by the sheer euphoniousness of the sounds Harper and his new troupe create. I very much doubt that Harper had this end in mind when he created Fight for Your Mind, but I sincerely hope he makes gobs of money off this masterful album. I want to make sure he's around for a good, long time.

By Steven Almond

Sugar Blue
In Your Eyes

Although his sound certainly reflects past blues masters, Sugar Blue is a thoroughly modern original, blending deep blues feeling with rock-and-roll intensity and a sublime mastery of the chromatic harmonica. After years of virtual invisibility in the U.S., Sugar Blue returned in 1994 with the flashy Blue Blazes, which served as a showcase for his virtuosity. Despite the fact that the bulk of the record was standards, Sugar Blue's upper-register hang time, lightning speed, clear tone, and soulful vocals made it something special, if maddening to many traditional blues lovers: His phrasing and dynamics seemed to borrow as much from rock-and-roll grandstanding as from the soul-dredging sounds associated with blues masters. His followup, In Your Eyes, is even less traditional, borrowing still more from his rock roots; it is also stunning.

Almost entirely comprising original material (he bows to Willie Dixon with an amazing non-cliche read of "Little Red Rooster"), the album burns with white-hot intensity. Sugar Blue's playing is more subtly shaded than on his last effort -- perhaps he doesn't have as much to prove here -- his tone exquisite. The tunes themselves range from a somewhat bitter update of a Muddy Waters classic ("Gucci Gucci Man") to a very bitter bouncy rocker ("Bottom Line") to a quite bitter tell-off song ("Lip Service and Lies"). From his glowering cover photo to lyrics such as "It's a hard time on the bottom/They're gonna take it if you got it/Don't look to your Uncle Sam/Believe me, baby, he don't give a damn," In Your Eyes is the reflection of one hardened motherfucker. And though it's filled with tight grooves, the music, too, is hard, from scathing acid-toned guitar to nail-gun drumming to Blue's piercing harp wail. And yet a certain sadness permeates many of these songs, touching on romantic disappointments and political ones.

But it's not all bite and bile, as a traditional duet with the great Pinetop Perkins proves. Clearly, Sugar Blue is enjoying himself with the octogenarian pianist, a fact he laughingly declares at the end of "Bluepine," which they co-wrote for this record. Still, that's just about as joyful -- and as traditional -- as you'll hear the harpman on this disc.

As he states in the liner notes: "Yesterday bore today; let's not bore tomorrow!"

By Bob Weinberg
Sugar Blue performs Saturday, November 4, at 9:30 p.m., at the Riverwalk Blues Festival in Bubier Park, located at the corner of Andrews Avenue and Las Olas Boulevard, Ft Lauderdale. Admission costs $12. Call 761-5934 for a complete festival lineup.

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