Natural Mystic -- The Legend Lives On
Our thoughts might be many on the occasion of the release of Natural Mystic. We might marvel at the staying power of the Marley legacy. We might ponder the industry of those engaged in the mining of his musical catalogue. We even might revive our esteem for Marley's prodigious songwriting talents.
Then again, we gently might suggest to the sponsors of this project that the world, at this point, has had about enough of the Marley thing. Which is not to downgrade the quality of this particular plundering. The fifteen songs collected here are a pleasant enough mix of hits and misses ("Natural Mystic," "Trenchtown Rock," "One Drop"). Nice production. No discernible burping. Nothing, in other words, that Marley fans can't get from the inexhaustible supply of best-of compilations that already exists.
But there is this nasty matter of the marketing pitches. To wit: The slick little lyric booklet that comes with Natural Mystic includes an order form for "Bob Marley Official Merchandise." Ski hats festooned with the Jamaican flag ($15). A hockey shirt designed in Rastafarian colors for $49.95. Assorted tees featuring Bob's beatific mug. Jah say Visa and MasterCard accepted. AmEx too, mon.
By Steven Almond
Days Like This
These lyrics are by Van Morrison:
I'm a songwriter and I know just where I stand
I'm a songwriter, pen and paper in my hand
Get the words on the page
Please don't call me a sage
I'm a songwriter.
These are, too:
Call them pagan streams and it spins and turns
In a factory in a street called Bread in East Belfast
Where Georgie knows best
What it's like to be Daniel in the lion's den
Got so many friends only most of the time.
The first are from a little number called "Songwriter," the second from a piece called "Ancient Highway." Both are on Van's new album, and in a way they typify the record: One's great; the other, were it written by your five-year-old, would cause you to say, as lovingly as you could bring yourself to, "Perhaps you ought to consider taking up welding as a profession."
It's not just the lyrics that give me pause. Days is plagued with something its press materials refer to as "elegant pop-jazz," which is, in reality, chirpy vibraphone and sax more irritating than a fart in an elevator. Additionally, someone with the improbable name of Foggy Lyttle has contributed an excess of faux-jazzy electric guitar garbage that would make anyone save the most die-hard George Benson fan barf.
Which isn't to imply that the album is all bad. "In the Afternoon" is a lovely, moody tune whose horn arrangement doesn't spew Muzak all over the vocals and whose lyrics reflect Van at his most seductive (considering he's now 50 and looks like a troll). "Raincheck," too, makes the grade, even in spite of the lounge-lizard lead guitar. And "Ancient Highway" more than lives up to the hype. It does evoke Astral Weeks, it really does.
Still, too much of Days Like This is a pale caricature of Van gone by. At best it harks back to material on Wavelength that you could have done without ("No Religion," "Underlying Depression," and "Melancholia"). There's a pair of old standards redone to no stunning effect (featuring duets with Van's daughter, Shana, and piano work by former Them member Phil Coulter). And then we have the downright lousy: "Perfect Fit," "Russian Roulette," and, of course, the aforementioned and incomparably puerile "Songwriter."
Van has long been known for putting out uneven albums. And I'm a patient fellow who owns a CD player that's programmable. Yours had better be, too.
By Tom Finkel
Steel on Steel
Big City Blues
New releases from Australian blues-rock slide guitarist Dave Hole and Austin guitar-slinger Sue Foley point up the struggle for the soul of today's blues artists. Hole's third album for Alligator, Steel on Steel, mixes stunning slide blues, such as the slow and powerful "Counting My Regrets" and the Elmore James-ish love letter to the genre "Take Me to Chicago," with more mundane sing-along-with-the-chorus rock fare. And yet his over-the-top (literally) slide technique and emotional vocal delivery throw sparks even on the weaker tunes. Hearing his lovely slide intro and outro on the opening song, and incisive playing on "Counting My Regrets," listeners are given a taste of the brilliant blues record Hole is capable of producing.
The third effort for Foley, as well, Big City Blues, is the young Canadian-gone-Texas guitarist's most confident outing. Foley's voice, never her strongest attribute, has improved, and she seems to know it, even starting off her new disc with just piano accompaniment on the title cut (an authentic-sounding barrelhouse piece, it's actually an original). But plenty of guitar work follows: A reworking of Howlin' Wolf's "Howlin' for My Darlin'" swaps genders but retains Wolf's menacing sexuality, while a cover of Buddy Guy's version of "Money (That's What I Want)" in the form of "One Hundred Dollar Bill" rumbles along with solid rhythm support.
The four originals are excellent, with the outstanding "This Time" and "Highway Bound" borrowing the love-'em-and-leave-'em ethos of the best blues cats ("I'm a rambling woman," she tells her clinging lover on the latter tune, "I'll prob'ly never act right"). The confidence Foley exhibits is not just in her singing; it's also in her choice of material (Bob Dylan and Willie Dixon) and her tasteful restraint on guitar, supplying roiling riffs, closing-time chords, and solos that burn brightly but not extravagantly. A fine direction for the future of the blues.
By Bob Weinberg
Jazzmatazz Volume II: The New Reality
By the time Gang Starr's rapper Guru released 1993's Jazzmatazz Volume I -- "the experimental fusion of hip-hop and jazz," as the disc cover proclaimed -- the idea of blending the two African-American styles already had been fairly well explored. But as the first wholly self-conscious mixing of the genres, Volume I at least came off as a decent novelty. In the two years since that CD's release, however, jazz-rap -- from Digable Planets to Buckshot Lefonque to the Roots -- has grown into the dominant strain of alternative hip-hop, so you could conclude there's no need for Guru to continue with his suspect musical pioneering.
The good news is that Jazzmatazz Volume II addresses the changing times. Guru ups the ante by collecting artists from R&B (Chaka Khan, Mica Paris) and reggae (Ini Kamoze, Patra), in addition to jazz (Ramsey Lewis, Donald Byrd, Freddie Hubbard) and rap (Kool Keith, Big Shug), thereby broadening the concept to bring together makers of all black music. At best the songs reflect this more robust brew: "Watch What You Say," for instance, blends Khan's dynamic blue improvisational singing and Branford Marsalis's subdued saxophone phrases with Guru's rap and DJ Premier's unorthodox track of video-game sound effects.
The bad news is that Volume II fails in precisely the same places as its predecessor. First, Guru still raps with fine tone but with little gift for either rhythm or rhyme. In a mono-tone, he self-righteously calls himself "The Lifesaver," but offers only vague solutions, such as "deal with reality and try to keep focus," to inner-city turmoil. Second, except for Khan's vocals and, perhaps, Lewis's piano solo on "Respect the Architect," the meshes of musical styles never rise out of an established hip-hop form. Enjoy Jazzmatazz for what it's worth, but as before, don't believe the hype.
By Roni Sarig
Big Audio Dynamite
Former Clash guitarist Mick Jones has reinvented his Big Audio Dynamite shtick yet again with the release of F-Punk, a mishmash of uninspired grooves and lyrical tedium that does not live up to its cognominal proclamation (unless the F in the title stands for former). As evidence that these veterans have nothing on Green Day, the album opens with Jones barking "One, two, three, four!" before a Korg drum machine blurts out the synthetic whimpers of the first single, "I Turned Out a Punk." Well, Jones may have turned out a punk, but he sings like an old fart reminiscing about it, and I doubt that's the point.
Other cuts do little to re-establish B.A.D.'s innovative work with sampling or dance beats, elements that made them so popular in the Eighties. Instead they sputter out songs such as "Vitamin C," which features a fatuous Jones chanting "Gimme 'nother hit of Vitamin C" about 30 times in the course of 5 minutes. (He did suffer a bad bout with pneumonia a few years back, which likely explains the song's genesis.) And just when it would seem things couldn't get much worse, the band slides into a prosaic cover of David Bowie's "Suffragate City," hidden as the album's last track; cheeky monkey that he is, Jones sounds like Lou Reed with a speech impediment, with the band failing to bring anything new to the song. Which begs the question: Why bother doing it in the first place? Don't waste your time trying to figure it out. Go buy a Clash record.
By George Pelletier