French Fried

It's delicious -- I can't lie -- and it fills a niche with the mind-blowntechno-heads looking for some wind-down music for the end of the century. But it fills the niche a bit too neatly; it sounds so easy, what they do. They toss off and repeat ad infinitum lyrics like "Dry the rain," "Dog's got the bone" and "She's the one for me" and leave it at that, leaving us to wonder: (1) What the hell are they talking about? (2) Are we supposed to "think" about what they're saying, or just "experience" it? I mean, if the Backstreet Boys sing, "She's the one for me," I laugh it off as thoughtless space-filler drivel (though I'd love to hear them sing, "Dog's got the bone"). Why should a bunch of exotic hippies be able to get away with it?

And, really, I can't for the life of me figure out what brings such strong skepticism, because this is the kind of sweet-smelling swill that I usually lap up without a second thought -- if it feels good, listen to it. But the truth is, I trust my bullshit detector as much as I trust my thirst, and even if I'm parched -- which I'm not -- I'm not going to drink this swill, even if it smells like clean rain.

-- Randall Roberts

Fool's Parade (Mercury)

You might be surprised that Fool's Parade is Peter Wolf's fifth solo album, or even that Wolf had a career at all after the J. Geils Band. His first solo work, 1984's Lights Out, was an underestimated work, a rocking hip-hop romp courtesy of Boston producer Michael Jonzun that featured many of Wolf's best tunes before or after the flood of early-'80s hits. That record aside, however, the magic and edge have been lost.

Fool's Parade finds them, not again, but like Wolf never found them before. The 11 songs are a soul love affair with the past, a tryst bound for certain wreckage, an affair he pursues nonetheless. Wolf came of age during the heady years of James Brown's and Jackie Wilson's stands at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem and would later work as an influential and eccentric DJ at WBCN, spinning records by O.V. Wright, Miles Davis, Otis Redding, Howlin' Wolf and Van Morrison (soon to be a close friend, Morrison would raid Wolf's huge record collection). Add to this an immersion in the Greenwich cafe scene, the hipster poetry shared like a secret language, years before it would become cant.

But until Fool's Parade, Wolf never fully made the connections between his genuinely bohemian life and the music that first set him on fire. The connections are now made because no effort is exerted, continued on next pagecontinued from previous page no imitation attempted, no formula followed. The songs survey the scenes and faces of his past and capture the subtle drifting movements of memory. When he shouts out a monologue in "I'd Rather Be Blind Crippled and Crazy," Wolf and the listener are transported back to the spontaneity of his late-night radio shows. When he sings on the slow fade of the final track, "Now it seems all my dreams/Ain't one thin dime," you know this is no artifice but real emotions laid bare without calculation.

The elegant concision of Wolf's lyrics would mean nothing without the music. To clearly distinguish soul from rhythm & blues -- or the blues-rock of Wolf's J. Geils work -- you must trace the gospel, the fiery choruses, the swirling organ (originally a church instrument) the sanctifying lead vocals, preaching not of redeemed spirit but the glories of the body and sex, what gospel music could never say directly but that is always there underneath. Backed by Duke Levine, Cornell Dupree, Kenny White, Bashiri Johnson, and John Conte, Wolf pours out a tangible warmth, the mix recalling a predigital age, toughened just enough by longtime collaborator Taylor Rhodes' dirty rock guitar.

There are too many thrilling, heart-lifting, gorgeous moments to name: Wolf's harmonica (he hadn't played it in years) breaking into scat; the textures of simultaneous electric piano and Hammond B-3; the punch of the Uptown Horn section; or Wolf's voice, always a scratchy, reckless instrument, lingering over the opening lines: "Woke up, such a lonely feeling/Got so high, had to peel me from the ceiling/And it's too late/My whole soul is reeling/It's a long way back again."

-- Roy Kasten

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