Sound Checks

The Old 97s
Friday, May 21; Duck Room

In the liner notes to Fight Songs, the new record by the Old 97s, among the countless credits and back scratches, tucked away in a corner, is listed "Styling: Bart Graham" and "Grooming: Heather Ernst." Where in the world are the Old 97's styled and groomed in this booklet? In the cliched center spread of "studio shots"? In the pint-sized snaps, most of which are so small that you can't even tell whether they have hair, let alone "styled" hair? Perhaps on the back cover? And what's the difference between styling and grooming? Why would such a seemingly raucous band allow either act to be committed on them? Would Neil Young, the musical template for much of the band's music, credit a stylist on his records? Hell no, man. Don't get me wrong; their hair looks uniformly marvelous, but Ratt needed both stylists and groomers; all an earnest, poppy country band should need is a $5 haircut from Floyd the Barber.

Invalid questions, of course, when confronting the music of the Old 97s, one of the first bands signed to "insurgent country" label Bloodshot and one of the first to jump ship for the monied waters of a major label. Invalid unless, of course, that LA mentality didn't seep into every crevice of Fight Songs. The record is so groomed, so styled, so compressed, so glossy that the songs slither from your speakers.

If you know the Old 97s, it may be from their catchy "Timebomb," which gave some punch to the trailer of Clay Pigeons, and they excel at compressing a melody inside a song until the song becomes the melody, or vice-versa. So once you get past all the Los Angeles, what's left is catchy country-rock. Lyricist/vocalist Rhett Miller must be head over heels, because the album exudes love, and Miller's knee-jerk fear of it is the nexus of the album's title. The band are at their best when they draw from their Texas roots and recklessly toss off a song like "Crash on the Barrel Head." They stumble when they groom their words too much; then they seem forced and deliberate -- Butler seems too concerned with conveying grand meaning rather than letting the words loose to do that work on their own. The band rolls though, and create a massive ball of energy with so much momentum that the over-writing is mostly bowled over. The band will perform at Vintage Vinyl earlier in the day. (RR)

The Stylistics, the Dramatics,
the Chi-Lites, Cuba Gooding and
Main Ingredient, the Delfonics
and Major Harris
Friday, May 21; Fox

Soul music, the '70s' one indisputable contribution to the pop-history coffers, applied the hit-factory approach of Motown to a cinematic wash of sweet falsettos and sexy strings. But instead of hurrying love, it relaxed the groove, letting a song undress slowly, pulling you in with a funky whisper. Soul music's trick is the way it seduces you like the object of desire in one of its body ballads, teasing you with rhythmic foreplay, opening silk-draped new vistas of gentle ear-oticism. No wonder Barry White can be labeled a human aphrodisiac -- a deep, wet voice is in itself a metaphor. Al Green, by contrast, plays the sex object himself instead of functioning as a narrative lubricant.

Soul music's walls of sound -- housing a king-size bed's worth of carnal emotion -- were blueprinted by Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson. Though Thom Bell and (especially) Gamble and Huff are names that remain just as recognizable, if not more so, than the bands they produced, anyone who donned bell-bottoms knows of at least the Spinners and the Stylistics.

Unlike their suits, '70s soul groups were not interchangeable; they wooed you with suavely distinctive sounds. The Delfonics, for instance, chimed like a Spector-dipped blend of the Miracles and the Left Banke. Those three combos, along with the Dramatics, the Chi-Lites, the Main Ingredient and Major Harris, come to the Fox this week for a soul-ed-out revue that' s bound to transcend reviews. Although it's hard to say how many original members survive from the groups' various heydays, that's not as big a deal as you'd think. As long as those harmonies glisten with the same carefully polished yearning, these underrated bands have held on to their collective soul. (JO)

R. Kelly with
Nas, Foxy Brown,
Deborah Cox
and Sparkle
Wednesday, May 26; Kiel Center

Don't hate R. Kelly because he's got the ladies' hearts locked in tighter than a No. 3 light socket. He understands them, which is best exemplified by the fact that 10 years ago he was a hosiery salesman, the perfect gig for soaking up that female vibe. The real key to Kelly's success over the last few years, though, is his willingness to let it hang out on wax. Not hang out like that Keith Sweat superficial bull or the puppy-love whining of a young New Edition. No, Kelly's singing these days is out of the Stevie Wonder, Isley Brothers, Donny Hathaway songbook, only with a harder edge -- that serious taking-care-of-the-baby's-mama shit, as on "Down Low (Nobody Has to Know)" (circa '96, featuring Ronald Isley, in fact). Same goes for "When a Woman's Fed Up," off his current album, R (Jive): soulful singing from the old school, laced with ghetto-life angst. In other words, he's hard enough for the men, with lyrics made for a woman. Plus, he seems so troubled and mysterious, a dichotomy that may explain the crazy '96 success of "I Believe I Can Fly." Here was an enigmatic, hard-looking roughneck singing a ditty about soaring to new heights if only you believed in yourself. The shit was unreal and, well, damn inspirational. Be sure to get there early for Nas. (DI)

Contributors: Dunkor Imani, Jordan Oakes, Randall Roberts

 
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