By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By RFT Music
By Christian Schaeffer
By Gabriel San Roman
Respect Is Burning,
Volume 2 (Astralwerks)
Why is it that most people, even music lovers, in this country roll their eyes at the mere mention of the word "techno"? Honestly, it always leaves me a bit puzzled. That is, until I heard Respect Is Burning, Volume 2, a collection of French dance music made for people on Ecstasy, who -- one could deduce from this fluffy CD -- gush, giggle and guffaw at anything with a beat.
Respect Is Burning showcases 11 mostly indistinguishable house tracks, all hovering around the interminable seven-minute mark. They all seem to slog into one another without any noticeable difference. The CD cover says they're all by different artists, but the inspiration for nearly all of them, without a doubt, is Chic, the kings of disco.
Complete with leather-lunged divas belting out the platitudes, disco high-hats keeping up a 120-beats-per-minute pace, faux-funk bass grooves and the occasional Nile Rodgers riff, nothing here caused me to hit the rewind button to go back for more. Instead, I wanted to get out the old Chic CDs and reminisce.
So, for what it's worth, here's what you'll find on Respect Is Burning: Daft Punk, Dimitri from Paris, Les Rhythmes Digitales, Freeeze, Stardust and Motorbass, as well as New York's Romanthony and Chezere and others.
Respect Is Burning reminds me of MoWax's Mo Groove Volume 1 compilation from the early '90s, which featured forgettable tracks from Federation and Marden Hill but was spared from the trade-in bin by one track from DJ Shadow. There's no DJ Shadow on this CD, but if there is a saving grace to be found here, it would have to be Clement's "Casa Campo," an appealing, if slightly repetitive, mix of flamencoesque guitar and high bpm.
Respect Is Burning should go down in flames as retro-chic for retro-minded folks who don't demand much from their music. If you want some real music to dance the night away, go buy a Chic album, because it's their lush groove and soul that this album tries, very unsuccessfully, to emulate. Burn, baby, burn.
Maybe You've Been Brainwashed Too (MCA)
Every once in a while, an album comes out of nowhere like a comet -- a great ball of fire crashing into our world of surface appeal. If it burns itself out, like so many other flashes in the pan, it never deserved our allegiance in the first place. But some albums have layers -- they all should -- revealing new things slowly, like a crafty stripper. A great album must endure a critic's fetishistic, persnickety obstacle course; we've heard it all. We have scathing, pent-up critiques just waiting to be assigned -- but also a reserve of kudos should the right recipient(s) come along.
Anyone who likes dissecting radio hits in search of a secret ingredient should give the New Radicals' "You Get What You Give" an airing. From its revved-up storm of jangly guitars to its subdued reggae undercurrent, the song is a necklace of hooks. A soulful piano riff weaves through the effortless intensity, making "You Get What You Give" akin to a Billy Joel song filtered through the Cure. Although the lyrics curve toward the simpleminded, offering a phrase-turned-pep talk -- "You've got the music in you/Don't let go" -- fit for Broadway or Tony Orlando, the melody sneaks them through aesthetic customs. Bordering on the man-is-band phenomenon, the New Radicals are apparently just one Radical: Gregg Alexander. He wrote nearly all of the songs on Maybe You've Been Brainwashed Too, produced, played most of the instruments (on the glammy "Technicolor Lover," he handles them all) and is the owner of a vision brimming with seductive ambiguity.
The lyrics explore the process of reclaiming hope, perhaps after the collapse of a relationship. A few biblical references might turn off those averse to any hint of a shrouded agenda (such as me), but there's nothing blatant enough to suspect one here -- besides, if you can't tell, it doesn't matter. The influences are stirred and stirred until they stir themselves. Although the songwriting is nearly perfect, what makes the record a fun mind game is the way Alexandercontinued on next pagecontinued from previous pagevacuum-packs the tunes with emotion. He's discovered a new paradox wherein hooks and honesty do each other's work. It's a radical departure from normal FM fare and as welcome as world peace. Forget your radio head; put on your thinking cap. I guess I've been brainwashed, too.
-- Jordan Oakes
THE BETA BAND
The Three EP's (Astralwerks)
"Would you want to look at photos of an ugly bunch of spuds like us? We're not being pretentious, but an image of the countryside says more about the Beta Band than a picture of us." So say the Beta Band, a bunch of pastoral ravers from Scotland who combine -- brace yourselves -- British folk, kraut-rock and a languid electronic beat to create an inevitable but totally enticing sound of the future past.
The Beta Band sound as if they record in a tiny shack in the middle of a sheep-infested pasture. They sound like unkempt Stonehenge hippies on Ecstasy, like "Martha My Dear" remixed; they find a groove on an acoustic guitar, play it for a bit, pass around a joint while the engine gets oiled, then -- after all are stoned immaculate -- start up the bass, beatbox, noodling guitar, bongos (you had to know there'd be bongos involved) and vocals, developing a mantra that coasts for five minutes and then winds down.
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.
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