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The Major Lift

 

By Erik Hage

In an era of iTunes, it seems almost foolhardy to release an “album” in the classic rock sense of the word, unless you’ve got angle—i.e. prereleasing it for a pay-what-you-want download (Radiohead) or offering it as an exclusive at a retailer (Eagles/Wal-Mart). But to make an old-fashioned, sprawling, ambitious album full of messy nuances and glorious unevenness (think the Beatles’ White Album and the Stones’ Exile on Main Street) is just bad business nowadays.

The Black Crowes’ Warpaint is messy—and more convincing than most of their previous work. The highs are high and the imperfections many, but that’s what happens when you’re out on the edge of the pale, not settling for boilerplate.

I’ve long been conflicted about the Crowes. I’ve seen them at times as a mediocre, histrionic, Stones-aping band for mediocre tastes. Yet some kind of undertow has kept me from fully dismissing them. They hit my radar recently when I realized that Crowes lead singer Chris Robinson had produced former Jayhawk Gary Louris’ new solo album, a richly subtle and layered set of Americana. (This didn’t shore up with my impression of a starlet-marrying, pot-smoking ectomorph with little to offer the musical universe.) In my constant effort to not end up a marooned music snob, I gave Warpaint (recorded in Woodstock, by the way) a chance.

I like it. I like its great moments as well as its imperfections, because it’s all propelled by a sense of seasoned artistry. Here, the “pretty” rubs up against the hypnotic and darker. There are also tracks that seem more directly descended from Americana tradition than previous efforts. “Goodbye Daughters of the Revolution” is classic Crowes, a heady roots-rock scrum with charms poking through the cracks: burning slide leads; melodic hooks; buried vocal harmonies. The mandolin-flecked “Locust Street” and bright, drone-based “Whoa Mule” offer a sense of acoustic spareness and levity, but then there is a series of dark, guitar heavy songs with force behind them and some proggy edges: the ominous, caveman guitar dirge “Walk Believer Walk”; the doom-rock stomp of “Evergreen”; the distorted revival-tent blues of “God’s Got It.” (The addition of North Mississippi All Stars guitarist Luther Dickinson really fleshes things out.)

The Crowes have always been good at the booty-shaking guitar choogle and classicist gestures, but here they prove themselves true artists in the least precious sense of the word. And just maybe a band for the ages.

The Crowes don’t crumble under the weight of ambition, but Erykah Badu’s self-importantly titled New Ameryka, Part One: Fourth World War feels the pull of hubris. The thematic scope is daunting: Badu tosses verses at Katrina, black-on-black violence, the Nation of Islam, mysticism and politics. But the “name producer” years of hip-hop and R&B have ushered in an age where, paradoxically, both futuristic oddness and classic soul appropriation are mistaken for brilliance. Badu’s odd, plinky and stiff “The Healer” is a prime example of former, while on the single “Honey,” she revives pat ’70s funk-soul. Elsewhere, listening to the both forward- and backward-thinking gestures and spacey production touches, one can’t help but gauge the impact: I foresee a host music critics (dis)proving their R&B cred by falling all over themselves in puddles of aphorisms.

Speaking of the past, there are two deluxe-edition reissues from the ’70s out there that warrant your attention. The first, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Street Survivors, is an interesting album to listen to 21 years later, particularly after the success of “alternative” groups such as Drive-By Truckers and My Morning Jacket, who took some of Skynyrd’s lessons and applied them to a more hip idiom. The old masters stand above the rest though: Few followers can summon the soulful redneck funk of “What’s Your Name” or the ominous pagan gospel of “That Smell.” This was the last album of the original group, released days before the mythic plane crash, and the sound really pops. But the additional tracks—particularly a seven-minute-plus “That Smell”—aren’t revelatory. Nevertheless, sink into this album to remember Skynyrd not as a bunch of doomed rednecks, but as some of the most soulful white boys to ever grace the Muscle Shoals.

Elvis Costello is also offering up a reissue from the ’70s with This Year’s Model, which remains in my mind, the most vitriolic yet tuneful album ever written about man-woman relations. The LP already has been reissued with many of the same extra cuts, but this version also contains a bruising 1978 Washington, D.C., concert, which makes it worth a second look, especially a crashing version of “Radio, Radio,” Costello’s guns-ablaze indictment of the medium. (Who knew that radio would get even more hopeless?) A lacerating “Blame It on Cain” and a “Watching the Detectives” with a guitar like glass shards makes me wonder why the big E didn’t just put out a great live album instead of tethering it to this classic LP (which, admittedly, everyone with ears should own).

Chuck Berry is probably due for a Chess reissue, though. (The Chess Box came out in ’88.) And the fact that Berry has resorted to a sort of ignoble performing life in his twilight years shouldn’t cast a pall over some of the rawest, most vital rock & roll out there. I would like to rewrite rock & roll history, with Berry in the role of Elvis Presley and Link Wray in the role of Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix. I would cast Willie Dixon, who wrote some of these songs (and played bass and produced on many Chess efforts), as Phil Spector. In that world, Madonna would have never had a shot at the, ahem, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Johnny B. Goode: His Complete ’50s Chess Recordings is a strong argument for my history, and this is a completist mix of demos, instrumentals, live tracks and proper songs. Without “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Maybellene,” and “Johnny B. Goode” you wouldn’t have the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. And I know you wouldn’t want that.


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