Prostitute (Street Cheese)
Galloping unabashedly out of Jeff Krulik’s Heavy Metal Parking
Lot is the mighty Hungry Jack with this Spam-spankin’ new
opus. Here we have Glens Falls’ most raucous and quite possibly
only metal band coming of age (or at least sinking, amid a
bubbly ocean of cholesterol, into it) with this homespun bad-hair
beauty, Sumo Prostitute.
Let’s face it: Lead singer Smokey Toenails will never exude
the frothing, entropic debonair of the early Alice Cooper.
Axman Quai Chang Christ probably will never “unleash the fury”
or assault airline stewardesses like Yngwie Malmsteen. But
the ghosts of 1982 bleed through the walls here with a barrage
of ornery guitars and a whole lotta bathroom humor. You can
almost smell the hot locker-room cooking during chestnuts
like “Smothered in Onions,” but the band stand out from many
other Mad magazine aficionados attempting in vain to
use the cast of Hot Shots! rejects to recapture the
ruptured satirical genius of Spinal Tap or Jim Henson’s Riverbottom
What sets them apart, believe it or not, is good storytelling.
These guys are actually really funny. Each 4-minute
lightning bolt is rife with brazen, nauseating imagery, from
the marching “Wooden Legs” (“The squirrels hate my guts/They
try to steal my nuts/I’m happy as can be/It’s wooden legs
for me!”) to the mere title of the forlorn ballad “Fritos
on Your Breath.” Mr. Toenails and troupe, beneath goofball
rubber masks and shoulder pads, understand the viability of
the objective correlative, punctuating verses with seemingly
irrelevant imagery that somehow manages to tie the whole thing
together in a more alarming manner: “A sumo prostitute, naked
in your town/Sumo prostitute, dancing in his thong/Sumo prostitute,
yes he loves to eat/Sumo prostitute, pretty, pretty feet!”
The only downside is that some of this material has been in
the Hungry Jack catalogue for quite a while. It would be nice
to get a collection of fresh, er, stew from these guys, but
this fact is offset somewhat by the inclusion of a cool sticker
in the jewel case, which appears to be the Triple-Breasted
Whore of Eroticon 6. Of course, this makes it even clearer
that 99 percent of the general population will never truly
appreciate the sheer, unmitigated audacity of Sumo Prostitute,
but I’m OK with that. Two, please.
Black and the Catholics
Me Your Tears (SpinArt)
Several albums ago, the rela- tively prolific Frank Black
found the perfect way to record himself and his band, the
Catholics: direct to two-track. Far from being a lo-fi solution,
this approach celebrates the integrity of the band interplay.
The songs on their latest, Show Me Your Tears, are
well arranged, their dynamics all firmly in place—so it’s
less about trying to capture an elusive moment (as with Van
Morrison’s continual quest) than to maintain the energy of
a live performance. Careful craftsmanship is in evidence every
step of the way, from the songs to the playing. Judiciously
employed flourishes and details (such as the piano on “Massif
Centrale”) add mystery and magic, and reward repeated listenings.
Black’s vocals inhabit the songs with an offhand ease that
belies a depth of facility, grown over the course of a solo
career that now approximately doubles the run of the Pixies.
Commercially he may be toiling in the shadow of his erstwhile
combo, but artistically he’s gobbling up the American landscape
with commendable resilience, verve and invention.
Clive Davis has one of the most unblemished records in the
history of the recording industry. Over the course of nearly
40 years in the business, he’s discovered and developed the
careers of Whitney Houston, Janis Joplin, Springsteen, Aerosmith,
Alicia Keys . . . need I go on? His latest protégé is Gavin
DeGraw, a 26-year-old white kid from the Catskills who sounds
like Stevie Wonder. Seriously. This kid is good. Real good.
DeGraw’s debut album for Davis’ J Records imprint, is a meaty
slab of piano- driven, radio-friendly singer-songwriter fare
that manages to have both mass appeal and artistic integrity.
He’s an earnest lyricist, dealing primarily with the topic
of love—young, unrequited, familial, and so on—with a wide-eyed
innocence, accessible to both the kids and their folks without
being overly precious. Mark Endert’s production is top-notch,
as we might have expected from one of Clive’s kids, but it’s
the economy with which the songs are delivered that is a pleasant
surprise. A formidable band, including Michael Ward (the Wallflowers),
Joey Waronker (Beck) and longtime collaborator Alvin Moody
nail down these 11 songs with surgical precision, while DeGraw’s
apt piano playing and soulful vocals are stuck right up front
in the mix (as they should be). Endert keeps things organic;
instead of dumping tons of sugar all over the place, he just
lets the players do their jobs. The resulting performances
simply pulse with kinetic energy. Granted, DeGraw’s commercial
well-being likely will be decided at the hands of AAA radio
programmers, and he occasionally treads dangerously close
to being soundtrack-suitable for the WB network, but I’d bet
the farm that in 10 years we’ll be listening to his fifth
or sixth hit record, wondering, “Who the hell was Jason Mraz,
Wrong With This Picture? (Blue Note)
One of his best albums in years, this is a fitting debut for
Van Morrison on a legendary jazz label, as well as a crossover
coup effectively targeting the baby-boomer market.
It seems the mega-selling Norah Jones paved the way for Morrison,
signing with a stylish label long identified with bop and
postbop. Morrison is a particularly good fit because he’s
been scrambling genres in a deeply improvisatory way for more
than 30 years.
Wrong With This Picture? is generous and eclectic and
funky as hell. Not only does Morrison meditate on celebrity
and fame from the inside—he doesn’t sing rock & roll,
he says in the sultry “Goldfish Bowl”; his art is “folk with
a beat,” jazz and soul his métier—he’s backed by a gang of
terrific British players, including “Stranger on the Shore”
clarinetist Acker Bilk and the killer guitarist Mick Green,
and he’s peppered his palette with traditional Morrison pastorale
(“Somerset” and “Little Village”) and a few choice covers.
Like a fine Burgundy, Morrison’s voice ages extraordinarily
well, giving his reading of “Saint James Infirmary” orchestral
power and making his fierce rockabilly take on Lightnin’ Hopkins’
“Stop Drinking” unexpectedly striking and rootsy.
At first, this album’s 13 tunes seem to dwell in the gap between
authenticity and performance, which Morrison has tried to
figure out and bridge since his days with Them. But as one
listens, the subtext becomes clear: What’s Wrong With This
Picture? is a meditation on the necessity to persevere,
to express oneself no matter the genre, and to be true.
Like Ray Charles, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, Morrison seems
to have rediscovered his muse in late middle age. He’s keeping
his “game uptight” and he’s never sounded more committed,
authoritative and funky. This is an essential album affirming
that Van is still the Man.