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Girls, Girls, Girls

Gary Puckett & the Union Gap
Young Girl: The Best of Gary Puckett & the Union Gap (Columbia/Legacy)

Let’s dwell for a moment on this collection’s title track and biggest hit. Besides straight-faced crooner Gary Puckett, only Neil Diamond could have pulled off the calculated smarm of “Young Girl” with absolutely no sense of irony—he did, in a way, with “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” but that song’s protagonists never got it on in the first place. The song, of course, resonated with a generation, shooting to the top of the charts in 1968. According to the liner notes of the recently issued Young Girl (one of about 10 Puckett best-ofs currently on the market), people still tell Puckett that they “fell in love” to the song. Yuck. That’s just weird.

It’s hard to believe audiences ever really bought into a pop group dressed in Civil War regalia and singing about “Lady Willpower,” but then, they had much better drugs back then. That said, these songs, however dated they may sound, stand as well-written, well-executed examples of late-’60s adult pop, with few exceptions. “Daylight Stranger,” the only actual Puckett co-write included here, shows why the major artists of the day (non-Beatles division) didn’t generally write their own material. It comes off sounding like Tom Jones fronting Buffalo Springfield as they play the Who’s Tommy. Wait, didn’t Tom Jones actually do this song at one point? No matter—it’s the weakest and most uncharacteristic link in the bunch. Over-the-top oldies-radio mainstays, like “Woman, Woman” and “Over You,” however, are frighteningly catchy and fun. Whether or not you want to play it up for kitsch value is your choice.

As this collection is chronologically sequenced, we, as listeners, get to hear the sound of a band sensing a change in the musical climate and scrambling to stay with the times. By the album’s last four tracks, Puckett has dropped the Union Gap and is clearly just following the lead of his producers. “Life Has Its Little Ups and Downs” is essentially a blue-collar version of Elvis’ “In The Ghetto” and, although the original formula of the oft-recorded Bacharach-David classic “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself” is fairly well adhered to, by this point, a gospel choir has been called in, adding a fifth dimension to the already larger-than-life sound.

—John Brodeur

Eric Clapton
Me and Mr. Johnson (Reprise)

If Eric Clapton had paired the heartfelt singing that marked his Unplugged (1992) with the guitar virtuosity that graced his 1994 From the Cradle on his newest release, it might have been a milestone in the famed British rocker’s career. But, alas—for the most part, Me and Mr. Johnson, Slowhand’s tribute to the fabled prewar Delta bluesman Robert Johnson, offers little of either.

Clapton has revered Johnson’s music ever since he was first mesmerized by it as a teenager; his 1968 live version of Johnson’s “Crossroads” (on Cream’s Wheels of Fire LP) is among the greatest blues-rock cuts. On Me and Mr. Johnson, he has avoided trying to recreate Johnson’s complex fingerpicked guitar parts note-for-note, instead using an ace backing band consisting of fellow guitarists Andy Fairweather-Low and Doyle Bramhall, bassists Nathan East and Pino Palladino, keyboardist Billy Preston, former Muddy Waters harmonica player Jerry Portnoy, and drummers Steve Gadd and Jim Keltner to interpret 14 of the 1930s blues classics on electric and acoustic guitars.

Having chosen to remain en ensemble, Clapton should shine here, but shortcomings plague the record. Good blues singing must be impassioned, but his vocals, while on key and well-phrased, sound desultory compared with those on Unplugged and Layla. Neither does his guitar work satisfy: With the exceptions of the slow blues solos on “Kind Hearted Woman” and “Little Queen of Spades,” Clapton has scaled back his chops to a simpler style that seems intended as an homage to Johnson’s early blues. But in forgoing strutting the stuff that made him a guitar god, he has erred in artistic judgment. Johnson, after all, was a virtuoso himself, and Clapton’s bedazzling riffs would not have been irreverent here.

Me and Mr. Johnson is not without its virtues, though. On “Travelin’ Riverside Blues,” Clapton delivers some tasty electric slide, and also plays acoustic guitar well in the Delta blues style on “Me and the Devil.” Jerry Portnoy’s harmonica, although a little too far down in the mix, is perfectly styled to the mood of the record and even steals the show on “If I had Possession Over Judgment Day.” And aside from all else, if Eric Clapton with his self-effacing offering brings more listeners to the music of Robert Johnson, he will have done him a valuable service indeed.

—Glenn Weiser

The Walkmen
Bows + Arrows (Record Collection)

With Bows + Arrows, the Walkmen sound like they’ve grown both up and into themselves. They’ve always pursued jagged rock, steadily toying with tempo and dissonance, but on this, their sophomore full-length, it’s less toying than it is confident manipulation of their roots. They strip and cannibalize their influences (from U2 to any number of postpunk outfits) and move on. This is not a rehash of their previous work or anybody else’s—this is sweet subversion.

Bows + Arrows alternates between gentle, open-air waltzes and manic anthems. After an opener that’s more like an invocation, they pin you to the floor with what is arguably the album’s strongest track, “The Rat,” a song so impressive that you might be inclined to stop there. Over thunderous drumming and urgent guitars, Hamilton Leithauser howls like a cat wanting to be let in on a stormy night (“Can’t you hear me? I’m leaning on your wall/Can’t you see me? I’m pounding on your door.”) Built on anxious repetition and reverberation, the song is ferocious and fast with the precision of a train trying to break the sound barrier and just begging to derail. But it doesn’t, and that’s where this record’s true strength is: the calculated use of sonic power to propel an otherwise tempered record into the red.

“Little House of Savages” infectiously pairs the theatricality of the Afghan Whigs and the dancability of the Jesus and Mary Chain, featuring military drum rolls and springy keyboards worthy of forgotten B movies. The rockers aren’t the only winners though.

When the Walkmen slow down and unravel their textured work, serious craftsmanship is revealed. With Bows + Arrows, their sound is more focused and direct than before, and when they’re not grabbing you by the collar, these are easy-access songs because they’re about really normal stuff—going out, waiting for trains, loud music and cranky neighbors, intimacy—thankfully lacking any lofty romantic notions and stabs at profundity. Despite the chill that can come from the ringing guitars and synthy keys, this record feels very human, particularly on tracks like the sweetly tipsy “New Year’s Eve.” It’s an awkwardly beautiful vignette of the wee small hours when you can almost feel the room spin thanks to a calypso beat and tinny barroom piano, but moreover, it’s a story well told.

—Ashley Hahn

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