Wilson and Alroy's Record Reviews We listen to the lousy records so you won't have to.

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more odds and ends... the 80s

Artists reviewed on this page:
Alisha - Anthrax - Asia - Atheist - Anita Baker - Blues Traveler - Bobby Brown - Ian Brown - Buffalo Tom - The Church - Company B - Crowded House - Dazz Band - Dead Kennedys - Death - Diamond Head - Dinosaur Jr. - Dreamgirls Original Broadway Cast - Eric B. & Rakim - Sheena Easton - Fatih Erkoç - fIREHOSE - The Flaming Lips - Samantha Fox - Fugazi - Go Go Crankin' - Guns N' Roses - The Go Go Posse - Kristin Hersh - Hoodoo Gurus - Hunters & Collectors - Hüsker Dü - Ice Cube - Iron Maiden - Jane's Addiction - Kool Moe Dee - k.d. lang - Christine Lavin - The Diabolical Biz Markie - Mercyful Fate - Mtume - Emel Müftüoğlu - Eddie Murphy - Nirvana - Carla Olson - Zerrin Özer - Pajama Party - Phranc - Red Hot Chili Peppers - Rock, Rhythm & Blues - Roxanne - Sa-Fire - School Daze Original Motion Picture Soundtrack - Sebadoh - Seduction - Shannon - Jane Siberry - Slayer - The Smithereens - The Smiths - Steinski - The Stone Roses - Suicidal Tendencies - Sweet Sensation - Testament - Throwing Muses - Andy Timmons Band - Toad the Wet Sprocket - USA For Africa - Stevie Ray Vaughan - Jody Watley - Mike Watt

Boy, this decade had a lot of problems, and I'm not just saying that because those were my Acne Years. Anyway, here are our reviews of acts from those not-so-long-ago days where we only own one or two of their albums. If you're wondering, Camper Van Beethoven, The dB's, Exposé, Gang Starr, Gwen Guthrie, Whitney Houston, Madonna, Megadeth, Metallica, Nazan Öncel, REM, the Replacements, Lionel Richie, Shanice and XTC are no longer to be found here because they have new pages of their own. (DBW)

Alisha (1985)
Like Shannon, Brooklyn-born teen Alisha was part of the transition from Hi-NRG dance to Latin freestyle. The first single "All Night Passion" is the former, with a syncopated synth bass recalling "I.O.U." by Freeez, and a lengthy programmed percussion break. (And if the 6:49 original isn't enough for you, the "special album remix" is a full seven minutes.) "Baby Talk" is similar, though overly repetitive. The magnificent "Too Turned On," though, is pure freestyle: an infectious, highly syncopated tune addressing the genre's key theme: romance's confused mixture of joy and sorrow. Alisha's voice is solid but unexceptional; she does score points for completely avoiding ballads, so the lowest points (the massively tacky "Boys Will Be Boys") are at least lively. Produced by Mark Berry and arranged by Michael Rudetsky; the songwriting is from all over the place, as each song has a different obscure composer - the most unlikely source is British singer-songwriter Kirsty MacColl ("One Little Lie"). In addition to Berry and Jim Halperin (who wrote the semi-reggae "Stargazing), some of the same players from Shannon's debut turn up: Robby Kilgore, Jim Tunnell. (DBW)

Anthrax, Persistence Of Time (1990)
All the double-time aggression of Metallica and Megadeth with none of the musical invention, Anthrax was always the weak sibling of thrash metal's unholy trinity. On their fourth LP, the band had developed an interest in hip hop - the opening "Time" quotes from Public Enemy's "Welcome To The Terrordome," while "Keep It In The Family" uses a rap cadence and rhyme scheme - but hadn't figured out how to integrate that into their sound, so there's nothing but predictable crunching riffs ("Belly Of The Beast"). The only breaks in the monotony are the undercooked instrumental "Intro To Reality" and the slow opening of "Blood"; the one valuable cut is a cover of Joe Jackson's "Got The Time." (Years later the band did a cover of the Temptations' "Ball Of Confusion" that's also worth hearing.) The band continued to sell lots of records into the 90s, and I'm pretty sure they're still around today. (DBW)

Asia, Alpha (1983)
The prog rock supergroup's second record, and despite going platinum not a huge hit like the first. But they're so utterly monotonous and derivative that I can't imagine Asia sounds any different. The players' credentials are impeccable: ELP's Carl Palmer (drums), Yes' Steve Howe (guitar), King Crimson/UK's John Wetton (bass, vocals), and Buggles mastermind/Yes latecomer Geoff Downes (keyboards). But they end up with the worst of all worlds: Palmer bashes away like a robot, Howe is almost inaudible, Downes slathers on countless layers of synth bombast, and Wetton's pretty, harmonious, and unlistenably drab vocals just add to the din. Howe and Downes co-authored almost everything, and they haven't the slightest artistic integrity: every single tune is given the same muddy, overdriven AOR arena rock treatment, and all of Wetton's lyrics are stuffed with embarassingly pretentious romantic clichés. It's not a total waste, though, because occasionally they stumble on a catchy riff that lets Howe show off his chops ("True Colors"). But only someone who's already heard and liked these guys in their earlier bands (ELP in particular) should take a gamble on it. Wetton quit soon afterwards in the middle of a world tour, and not coincidentally the two singles ("Don't Cry"; "The Smile Has Left Your Eyes") were the group's last to hit the Top 40. (JA)

Atheist, Unquestionable Presence (1991)
The second album from this Florida four-piece has become known as the launching pad of technical death metal: the bewildering tempo and dynamics shifts and jazz influences were like nothing being heard in metal at the time - though it has its antecedents in Zappa's more radical work - and led directly to future efforts by Cynic, The Faceless and others. The opening "Mother Man" sets the tone, jumping from lethal to gentle, slow to fast, and everywhere in between in a grabbag of mini-tunes that seems far too much to squeeze into a four-minute running time. Some of the tunes aren't built on memorable riffs (title track), vocalist Kelly Shaefer is a rather ordinary screamer, many of the solos are rote ("Enthralled In Essence") and Tony Choy's limber bass is the only really unusual sonic device. The band's innovations in song structure and ability to take you along on their wild, unpredictable journey ("And The Psychic Saw...") make them worth checking out, but you probably won't put them in heavy rotation. A 2005 re-release includes demos with original bassist Roger Patterson, who died in a car accident shortly before these sessions. (DBW)

Anita Baker, Rapture (1986)
Any hope that soul would recover from its late 70s doldrums was crushed by the ultra-lightweight, cloying crooning of this Detroit-raised vocalist, which somehow took the public by storm. Baker's major-label debut is a relentless onslaught of romantic tripe ("You Bring Me Joy") sung with fair technique but no heart, with predictable melodies seemingly designed to be unobtrusive - in fact, the simple, cautiously produced grooves could easily pass for Smooth Jazz ("Caught Up In The Rapture"). Her approach isn't too far from the gentler side of contemporaries Àngela Winbush and Patrice Rushen - even using some of the same musicians, like "Ready Freddie" Washington - but the Tommy Mottola is in the details: the production is consistently too slick; the lyrics (mostly by hacks like Rod Temperton, though Baker wrote two songs and co-wrote the single "Sweet Love") are invariably contrived ("Same Ole Love"); the singing - including some tacky scatting ("Been So Long") seems calculated to impress rather than to touch. In short, there's no honest communication, but record buyers didn't have a problem with that: remember, this was the Reagan Era. (DBW)

Blues Traveler, Four (1994)
This retro boogie-rock band was a known quantity by this fourth release: you knew they were going to have overlong, intermittently catchy tunes, self-important lyrics, roots rock instrumentation, and millions of meaningless notes pouring from lead singer/main songwriter John Popper's battery of harmonicas. He's the only thing separating the group from pure derivative dreck - guitarist Chan Kinchla has nothing approaching a musical idea, and the rhythm section takes no chances - but he overplays so much he sounds like a calliope gone wild. There's one solid riff tune, "Freedom," and the pleasantly grooving radio hit "Run-Around"; all the other uptempo tracks sound the same ("Brother John," "Crash Burn," "Fallible"). The group's shortcomings are showcased on the ballads ("Look Around," "Just Wait"), where they sound like a sorry attempt to rip off the Stones - keyboardist Chuck Leavell drops by to make it more obvious. I can't imagine liking the band, but if you do you'd presumably rather start with their earlier work, before they became quite so set in their ways. (DBW)

Bobby Brown, Don't Be Cruel (1988)
This album marked Brown's sudden transformation from teenybopper idol (he was part of New Edition) to R&B star: he hit with the hard funk "My Prerogative" (which he co-wrote) as well as smooth ballads ("Every Little Step"). Musically there's nothing groundbreaking about this disc: it's a standard L.A. Reid-Babyface production for the period, strongly Prince-influenced, though Brown does assert himself more than most Laface-produced vocalists. Besides the hits, which are undeniably catchy, there's another lovely Babyface ballad, "Roni," and just a couple of throwaway tracks ("I Really Love You Girl"). The producers (including Larry White) play most of the instruments here; as a result there are no notable guests except Teddy Riley, who plays keyboards on the two Gene Griffin-produced tracks (including "Prerogative"). Brown never really developed from this point and you should start here if you want to hear any of his work. (DBW)

Bobby Brown, Bobby (1992)
Production work was split between LaFace and New Jack maestro Teddy Riley, though Brown gets in a couple of production credits himself. The formula should have worked but didn't: LaFace disappoint with the "Prerogative" rerun "Humpin' Around," and two forgettable ballads "Pretty Little Girl" and "Good Enough" (nope). Riley isn't in top form either: the uptempo tracks just run old P-Funk licks into the ground ("Two Can Play That Game"), while the love songs sound utterly generic ("Til The End Of Time") - only "That's The Way Love Is" builds any momentum. Dallas Austin cowrote the uninteresting "Storm Away," which features saxophone by Stone City resident Daniel LeMelle. Then there's "I'm Your Friend," a duet with Debra Winans, who's recently made a name for herself as a homophobic gospel artist. Brown's so full of himself he doesn't put anything extra into his vocal performances, and I can't really understand what fans saw in this release. Be wary even if you liked his previous solo album. (DBW)

Ian Brown, Golden Greats (1999)
Years after the band's demise, Stone Roses frontman Brown had abandoned almost any interest in retro rock and Britpop. This solo effort does open with a fun, straight-ahead rocker ("Gettin' High"), and the single "Dolphins Were Monkeys" is a joyful late 70s-style funk tune. But most of the record is straight-ahead electronic dance music, which is mostly a good thing. The best moments are super-heavy dance grooves ("Golden Gaze"; "First World"; best of all the irresistable "Love Like A Fountain") that are too structured and intelligent, and put too much of an emphasis on Brown's strong vocals, to qualify as techno. Even when the approach doesn't work, the creativity is still impressive (viola plus creepy synth plus programmed drums on "Free My Way"). When he goes with hip-hop beats, he somehow manages to make the track sound reflective and even pleasant ("Set My Baby Free"). There's even a bizarre electronic/surf music blend ("Babasonicos"). Things do get dull in a few places (the crawling "So Many Soldiers"; the equally slow-paced "Neptune," which almost sounds like reggae), and I can't imagine any of this will sound all that original to anyone who's been paying attention to dance music over the past decade (i.e., almost anyone but me!). But the record is solidly enjoyable by any measure. Self-produced, and written by Brown alone or with collaborators like Dave McCracken, Aziz Ibrahim, Anif Akinola ("Set My Baby Free"), or Sylvan Richardson ("Neptune"). The band is McCracken, sometimes with Brown (keyboards), with Brown (programmed drums) and/or Simon Wolstencroft (drums) - there's very little live bass, and not much guitar, which is split between Ibrahim and Tim Wills. (JA)

Buffalo Tom, Birdbrain (1990)
The group's second album, produced Dinosaur Jr. leader and fellow Massachusetts alt rocker J Mascis (along with Sean Slade). They're already mired in the monotonous, deafening hard rock sound they stuck with throughout the 90s: brutal rhythm guitars, hoarse, gut-spilling vocals, and ear-busting arrangements with too few shifts in tempo, volume, instrumentation, or just about anything. Humorless and disdainful of experimentation, they're like a more conventional, slightly countrified, not-really-punk take on Hüsker Dü. Frontmen/writing partners Chris Colbourn (bass) and Bill Janowitz (guitar) could use another player to give them some variety, and drummer Tom Maginnis wants nothing more than to out-Bonham John Bonham. That's the bad news. The good news is their emotive, introspective songwriting. They do typically hit the mark several times per album, and this one is no exception. The thumping, militaristic lead tune "Birdbrain" is crafted and hummable. Some of the Hüsker Dü schtick is amusing ("Directive"). And although they don't always pull it off ("Skeleton Key"), usually they're best when they chill out: the sing-along number "Baby" is reminiscent of "Wild Horses," there are two fine power ballads ("Enemy," with a memorable refrain; "Fortune Teller," with a nice 6/8 country beat), and on the two CD bonus tracks they mercifully go acoustic (the plaintive "Reason Why," from their debut disc; a fine cover of the Psychedelic Furs' "Heaven"). It's just too bad they don't ditch the amps more often; there's one pedestrian rocker after another here ("Caress"; "Guy Who Is Me"; "Crawl"; "Bleeding Heart"). There's a user-friendly, semi-official fan-run web site. (JA)

The Church, Of Skins And Heart (1981)
Long before gaining international attention in the late 80s with their monotonous brand of druggy, neo-psychedelic guitar rock, the Church were another peppy Australian New Wave band following in the footsteps of British and American acts like Television, the Police, and XTC. Produced by Chris Gilbey and Bob Clearmountain, they take a purist guitar rock approach this time, with Marty Willson-Piper's chorusey tick-tock rhythm guitars, deliberate riffs, earnest vocals, basic harmonies, and even some blaring, 70s-style solos by Peter Koppes ("Chrome Injury"; "The Unguarded Moment"). There's hardly any keyboards or studio trickery at all, apart from some unobtrusive organ and backward guitar parts. That puts them not too far from contemporary Midnight Oil, although they're more inclined toward balladry ("Bel-Air"; the hummable, fast-paced "For A Moment We're Strangers"). It's so focused and energetic that it's reasonably impressive for a debut album, - the only hint of their later power crisis is the long, excruciatingly dull lead-in to the seven-minute "Is This Where You Live?", which turns into a churning, upbeat New Wave sing-along. And most of the tunes are engaging, especially the opening trio of "Strangers," "Chrome Injury" and "Unguarded Moment"; the pogoing geek-rocker "She Never Said"; and the blustery, tension-building Oil-style anthem "Memories In Future Tense." But side 2 drags, they tend to overwork their vocal refrains, the lockstep rhythms and elaborate hooks often seem like so much wasted energy ("Fighter Pilot... Korean War"), they flail with a slide guitar-slathered ballad ("Don't Open The Door To Stranger"), and bassist Steve Kilbey's languid, moaning vocals are already a minus (Kilbey's credited with almost everything). The CD release includes three softer, janglier songs (the dreamy "Sisters") recorded after original drummer Nick Ward was replaced by Richard Ploog, who became a standby. (JA)

The Church, Gold Afternoon Fix (1990)
Co-produced by the band and Waddy Wachtel, this is probably their best effort (although I haven't heard 1988's Starfish). The key track "Metropolis" pretty much sums up their sound: mid-tempo rock with Kilbey's insistent, monochromatic bass lines and measured baritone playing off of Koppes and Willson-Piper's layered, ringing, spaced-out, hi-tech guitar licks. Except that this time they come up with an upbeat, hummable tune, and it's not the only one: their majestic "Terra Nova Caine" is fully of trippy auditory filigree; the funky "You're Still Beautiful" has a piercing, eerie lead lick; "Pharaoh" builds creepy tension better than anything else in their catalog; their big flip-out epic "Grind" is salvaged by some fine guitar interplay; and the meticulous production values favorably recall contemporary records by U2 (the taut ballad "City") and Midnight Oil ("Transient," about as propulsive as they ever get). Things go so swimmingly that they even manage to make a high point of Willson-Piper's sing-along rocker "Russian Autumn Heart," where he delivers a hoarse, gasping lead vocal. A lot of the songwriting is merely functional ("Fading Away"), and the mostly four- to six-minute running times ("Essence") and lethargic tempos (the ethereal Joni Mitchell-meets-bossa-nova ballad "Disappointment") are warning signs of the burnout and tunelessness that mar all of their 90s records. But if you've got any interest in 80s college rock, this is an excellent buy. Writing credits are mostly shared all around this time; the CD includes a couple of bonus tracks (the cloying "Monday Morning" and cheery New Wave ballad "Laughing"). (JA)

Company B (1987)
B Team is more like it: Miami's lesser attempt to catch up with New York's Latin freestyle craze, similar but far inferior to Exposé. The opening "Fascinated" is a high point of the style - trebly synth montuno, breathy vocal harmonies, catchy melody - but after that it goes downhill with a steepness. Written, produced and arranged by Ish, who is an accomplished pilferer: he incorporates the piano line from the Four Tops' "Bernadette" on "Perfect Lover"; uses the bass line from Freeeze's "A.E.I.O.U" in a couple of places ("Signed In Your Book Of Love"); and so on. He wears out what little welcome he has by spinning each tune too long - averaging about five minutes - and relying solely on synths, without even a guitar to liven things up. The vocalists are Lori L., Susan Johnson and Lezlee Livrano, and they don't distinguish themselves negatively or positively. (DBW)

Company B, Gotta Dance (1989)
Lois L. was the sole holdover, as Johnson and Livrano were replaced by Julie Marie and Donna Huntley. The same frantic approach as their debut (title track), but the songwriting is strikingly sterile ("You Stole My Heart"), and so is the singing ("The Way I Feel"). The least awful tracks aren't even freestyle: the Minneapolis funk "Incredible Boy" and the love song "Easy To Be Hard" by Macdermot/Rado/Ragni. There's also a cover of "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" (from Company B, get it?), otherwise everything's by Ish once again. He lets two tunes run on endlessly - the ballad "Show Me Love" and the electronic percussion overload "808 Express" - but otherwise he's more economical, if no more original. (DBW)

Company B, 3 (1996)
The original lineup reunited, but it doesn't sound anything like the previous records because Ish's focus had changed. Evidently riding a serious bummer, he uses the trappings of dance music to create some of the most dispirited, depressing stuff this side of There's A Riot Goin' On. The song titles - "I Should Have Never Loved You"; "Love Is Not Fair" - only give you a hint of the downers herein, with flatly delivered vocals (the "I Feel Love" ripoff "Any Kind Of Love") and melodies which desperately try to be carefree. Even "A Little To The Left A Little To The Right," based on a salsa vamp, doesn't break with the somber mood because it's slowed to a sluggish tempo. Closest thing to an antidote is the tortured but lively "You Got Me Goin'." All the songs are credited to Ish once again, though "Learn It, Burn It" is based on a Sly Stone sample and "I Wanna Be Your Lover" is either a cover of the Prince song or the boldest ripoff I've ever heard. Certainly a curiosity though it's low on entertainment value. (DBW)

Crowded House, Together Alone (1993)
A New Zealand band formed by two refugees from New Wavers Split Enz - drummer Paul Hester and guitarist/vocalist/main songwriter Neil Finn - and by this fourth album the other members were Nick Seymour (bass) and Mark Hart (keyboards, guitars and mandolin). I strive to avoid Beatles comparisons because a) it overrates whoever else you're talking about; b) their influence is so pervasive it's not descriptive to say someone sounds like them. However, it's hard to resist in this case, not because of direct lifts - though Finn's vocals get a Lennony rasp at fast tempos ("Locked Out"), and the instrumentation and atmosphere recall Rubber Soul ("Pineapple Head") - but because the band hews to a pop sensibility but makes you feel a different way with each song: the plaintive "Nails In My Feet" is nothing like the glam rave-up "Black & White Boy" couldn't be more different from the low-key love song "Catherine Wheels." I don't know what's more impressive, that the best songs are so nearly perfect ("Walking On The Spot"; "In My Command") or that the minor ones are so rewarding (Hester's "Skin Feeling," which effortlessly foresees Franz Ferdinand's whole schtick). Seymour crafts one smoothly propulsive bass part after another, while the guitar work ranges from deft to endearingly clumsy. Introspective and rousing by turns, there's hardly a misstep through the Maori chorus ending the album (title track). Produced by Youth. This was the group's last release before a 1996 breakup. (DBW)

Crowded House, Intriguer (2010)
After a few Finn solo albums and the 2005 death of Hester, the group got back together in 2007; their second album since reforming is your basic reunion record: revisting the forms the band was best known for rather than exploring anything new, willing to please but bereft of ambition. So Finn delivers midtempo rock with gentle melodic movement ("Saturday Sun") and moody rock on the verge of mopiness ("Falling Dove"; "Archer's Arrows"), with just a couple of more rousing cuts ("Twice If You're Lucky"). As before, the arrangements and production (by Jim Scott) are crystal-clear and varied, and the compositions are well crafted. So there's nothing to complain about in the particulars, but track after tidy track goes by without leaving a lasting impression ("Elephants"). Finn and Seymour are joined by drummer Matt Sherrod and guitarist/keyboardist Mark Hart; guests include Jon Brion and Lisa Germano. (DBW)

The Dazz Band, Keep It Live (1982)
Led by sax player Bobby Harris and lead vocalist Skip Martin. The band's name is supposed to mean "danceable jazz," but basically this is an electric funk band. However, authentic jazzperson Leon "Ndugu" Chancler dropped by to cowrite the hit "Let It Whip." Ominous and catchy at the same time, with snazzy vocoder riffs and a great break, it's a triumph. It's also the only good song on the record: everything else is either listless, overprogrammed funk (title track) or third-rate imitation Stevie Wonder ballads with Martin going way over the top ("I'll Keep On Loving You"). Most of the tracks are written by Harris with one or two collaborators, and in the future I'll try to avoid anything with his name on it. Produced by Reggie Andrews, who cowrote "Let It Whip" as well as the ballad "Let Me Love You Until." (DBW)

Dead Kennedys, Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables (1980)
This is a hardcore band, all right: most songs are under two minutes; Jello Biafra's lyrics are delivered in a ranting monotone; crashing power chords reign supreme. Accordingly, this is not for everyone, but if you dig Biafra's sardonic take on antiestablishment politics, there's a lot to enjoy here: the tongue in cheek anthems "Kill The Poor" and "California Über Alles" even have enjoyable - if sketchy - riffs. And since the tunes are all so short, the less memorable tracks ("Forward To Death," "Funland At The Beach") don't have much of a chance to get on your nerves. The only real drag is a cover of "Viva Las Vegas," which just seems like a weak joke when rendered with the band's garage incompetence. (DBW)

Dead Kennedys, Bedtime For Democracy (1986)
A double album (now crammed onto one CD), and the band takes advantage of the longer format to stretch out a bit: they include an amusing spoken word piece ("A Commercial"), a cover of Johnny Paycheck's contribution to class consciousness "Take This Job And Shove It," and the record's masterpiece: a lengthy, stinging indictment of the punk scene ("Chickenshit Conformist"). (The group were old hands at biting the hand that feeds: an earlier tune was called "Nazi Punks Fuck Off.") There are plenty of clever lyrics throughout ("Rambozo The Clown," "Macho Insecurity"), but the parade of 2-minute screechfests is ultimately excessive: after a while it just becomes ignorable background music, the ultimate sin in punk terms (next to commercial success, that is). This is a key record for the band, but see if you can make it through Fresh Fruit before picking this one up. (DBW)

Death, Scream Bloody Gore (1987)
This debut is often cited as the birth of death metal (not to be confused with the death of birth metal). And indeed, as on the subsequent debuts of Carcass and Cannibal Corpse, everything here is guttural, fast, bottom-heavy, indifferently recorded, and thus almost unlistenable. In other words, your parents definitely will not understand. A couple of differences between Death and Carcass, though: the sound on this debut is relatively clean, and the lyrics are relatively plain-spoken ("Baptized In Blood") though similar in theme ("Regurgitated Guts"). At this point there were only two band members (John Hand is credited but doesn't appear): queso grande Chuck Schuldiner sings, plays lead and bass guitar, and writes the songs; drummer Chris Reifert somehow hits all his drums and cymbals at once, as if he had six arms. In a couple of spots Schuldiner flirts with metal clichés - "Zombie Ritual" has a mock-dramatic opening with a pseudo-Arabic motif - but generally the project is strikingly original if unrelentingly unpleasant ("Denial Of Life"). (DBW)

Death, Human (1991)
Reifert quit almost immediately to form Autopsy, and over the next decade or so, Death went through multitudinous lineup changes. At this point, Cynic nucleus Paul Masvidal and Sean Reinert were on guitar and drums; Steve DiGiorgio (who'd recently left Autopsy) was on bass. The new lineup is matched by a dramatically different sound: still fast, frantic and furious ("Flattening Of Emotions"), and Schuldiner's vocals are still growled and/or screamed, but the compositions are more complex, featuring lengthy solo sections and harmonized lead guitars ("Suicide Machine"), while the cleaner recording makes it possible to actually hear everything that's going on. Carcass was going in the same direction at the same time, and I'm not sure if one was copying the other, but at this point Death's tunes (though extremely technical) weren't as remarkable as they would later become ("Secret Face"). "See Through Dreams" is a monster, though, from start to finish. The recent reissue contains a cover of "God Of Thunder" that's not as much fun as it sounds. (DBW)

Death, The Sound Of Perseverance (1998)
Over the intervening years, Death's brand of metal had grown increasingly technical, and most of the songs here run at least six minutes ("Story To Tell"), while the twin guitars (Shannon Hamm joining Schuldiner) recall melodic death metal acts like Arch Enemy ("Story To Tell," with a long winding solo). There's even a largely acoustic instrumental ("Voice Of The Soul"). Many of the riffs are terrific (the harmonics-heavy "Spirit Crusher") and the quick changes keep you guessing: though at times the switching between different sections is haphazard ("Bite The Pain"), if you let yourself get carried away it's a rewarding ride ("A Moment Of Clarity"). The top-notch instrumental playing - bassist Scott Clendenin and drummer Richard Christy right up front with the guitars - is impeded a bit by Schuldiner's yelped vocals; his lyrics have grown more sophisticated (the album's epigraph is from Nietzsche) though they're no cheerier ("To Forgive Is To Suffer"). Produced by Jim Morris and Schuldiner; depending on the version you purchase, you may get an amusing cover of Judas Priest's "Painkiller" and/or an entire live DVD. The band's last record before Schuldiner's 2001 death from brain cancer. (DBW)

Diamond Head, Lightning To The Nations (1980)
It's safe to say that no one would remember this independent release if it weren't for Metallica, which has ceaselessly dropped the band's name and covered four of the album's seven tunes. Is it really any better than early efforts by fellow New Wave of British Heavy Metal acts like Iron Maiden and Def Leppard? Yes and no. Sean Harris's upper-register screech lacks personality, his rhythm guitar is buried in the mix, and drummer Duncan Scott sticks to a simple up-and-down beat. And a few tunes are just lame-brained crunching rockers ("Sweet And Innocent," the AC/DC copy "It's Electric"). But the band's sense of structure is phenomenal, piling up memorable riffs that range from harshly aggressive to stunningly melodic, often within one song ("The Prince"), and alternating sections so cleverly that seven-minute tunes go by in the blink of an eye ("Am I Evil"). Overall, a flawed but seminal recording, well worth hearing for history-minded hard rockers. Sure, another band has recorded better versions of all the key tracks, but by that logic no one would ever listen to Larry Williams either. What? Oh. Never mind. Produced by Reg Fellows and the band. (DBW)

Dinosaur Jr., Green Mind (1991)
With bassist Lou Barlow having left to found Sebadoh, Boston's Dinosaur Jr. was reduced to a virtual one-man-band consisting of singer/songwriter/guitarist/producer J Mascis - he even handles bass this time, and mostly works out his own popping, audibly mechanical programmed rock drums. As on all of his records, the half-spoken, off-key vocals are painful, he sometimes gets carried away with his densely layered guitar overdubs, and the songwriting is often drab, with too many interchangeable, overlong, up-tempo rockers ("Blowing It"; "How'd You Pin," with some slide and metal guitar parts). There's also surprisingly little lead guitar (although "I Live For That Look" has some wild penatonic soloing). However, Mascis' production style is unique; it's more energetic and unpredictable than commercial retro rock, but more tonally varied than the artsy college punk and hard rock he'd done previously. And about half the tunes here work as well as anything he's ever done, and they really lay out his influences: the swaying arena rocker "Thumb," which is almost even hummable; the hard-edged, Neil Young-like country-rocker "Puke + Cry"; the Keith Richards-inspired title track, one of the best examples of his usual approach; the hazy, Eastern-spiced acoustic ballad "Flying Cloud," which strongly recalls Zeppelin at its folkiest; and best of all his blazing head-banger "Wagon," which even has a nice falsetto refrain. And he does consistently deliver solid beats and powerful rhythm licks ("Water"; the funky "Muck," with some pleasantly chattery soul guitar). Occasionally dull stuff that does highlight Mascis' limitations, but if you're curious about him it's a good place to start. Engineered by Sean Slade and Paul Kolderie; Murph drums on three tracks, and there are assorted no-name guests like Don Fleming, Jay Spiegel, and Joe Harvard - plus Slade adds some mellotron, prominently on "Thumb." (JA)

Dinosaur Jr., Where You Been (1993)
By now J Mascis had made it so easy to label him as the world's greatest Neil Young imitator that it almost seems like cheating to say it. But it's true. Here his falsetto parts sound amazingly like Young ("Not The Same"), and his screeching, pentatonic guitar solos use exactly the same ear-busting distortion and feedback. Since this is another virtual solo record, all the derivativeness isn't anyone else's fault. But as far as I'm concerned, it's a good thing: Mascis has better guitar technique than Young, he's more melodious and listener-friendly, and he's less of a self-indulgent blowhard. The only major minus is his braying, cracking, half-mumbled baritone vocals, which are so monotonous that they leave many of the tunes impossible to tell apart. And this time his songwriting muse seems on vacation: he starts out the record with one decent mid-tempo ballad ("What Else Is New") and a couple of truly irresistable bluster-rock anthems ("Out There"; "Start Choppin"), but apart from another ballad ("Goin Home") the rest is instantly forgettable, especially when he goes with half-hearted hardcore punk ("Hide") - and in one case consecutive songs ("Get Me" and "Drawerings") use exactly the same beat. Still, though, this is another inoffensive example of Mascis' heart-felt retro-rock recipe. The rest of the band is Mike Johnson (bass, some backing vocals) and Murph (drums); there are a couple of guests including a string section on Mascis' uncharacteristically quiet and effectively moody "Not The Same." (JA)

Dreamgirls Original Broadway Cast (1982)
Opening in 1981, the Broadway musical Dreamgirls was a thinly veiled retelling of the rise and fall of the Supremes and the Motown machine, purveying the vile canard that Diana Ross became the group's lead singer because of her personal relationship with Berry Gordy and appeal to lame whites (not necessarily in that order). The show - starring Jennifer Holliday as the Florence Ballard-inspired Effie White - was a hit, and this original cast album was rushed out in short order. But to fit onto a single LP, producer David Foster cut out many of the numbers and truncated others, so that the story is almost impossible to follow (outside of a couple of recitatives like "The Firing Of Jimmy"). More importantly, the arrangements have a post-disco smoothness that couldn't be farther from the propulsive pop-R&B of Motown's heyday, with the singers (including Ben Harney, Cleavant Derricks and Sheryl Lee Ralph) crooning unemotionally as well. I know Broadway has its own esthetic, but The Wiz soundtrack managed a much more successful blend of both elements. Written by Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen, Apart from Holliday's showstopper "And I Am Telling You That I'm Not Going" (a Top 40 hit), "Steppin' To The Bad Side" and the James Brown homage "The Rap," the album rarely holds your attention. Not to be confused with the 2006 motion picture soundtrack. (DBW)

Sheena Easton, The Lover In Me (1988)
A Scottish pop singer best known for singing James Bond themes, Easton started to cultivate a sexualized image after Prince wrote her 1984 hit "Sugar Walls." By 1988 she'd developed a more powerful voice but still didn't have much personality, making this a rather slick and impersonal experience. A bunch of high-profile producers contributed: L.A. Reid & Babyface wrote the title track (a successful single) and five other tracks, but they're all carried by Reid's mechanical, pyrotechnic percusssion, without any of Babyface's usual melodicism. They sound like they were designed for aerobics workouts, and indeed, Easton soon became a spokesperson for a chain of health clubs. Prince came up with two tunes, the bizarre, unsettling "101" and the routinely brilliant "Cool Love." Jellybean Benítez produced the flat "If It's Meant To Last," and the only idea he has is to bring in Alfa Anderson on backing vocals. Making the record even more of a patchwork, two tracks are written and produced by Angela Winbush: "Without You" is a painful attempt to write a hit - the worst Winbush production I've ever heard - while the album-ending "Fire And Rain," a characteristically gorgeous ballad, sounds totally out of place. Besides all the producers, guests include Jeff Lorber, Tony Maiden and Timothy B. Schmidt. (DBW)

Eric B. & Rakim, Don't Sweat The Technique (1992)
Rakim is almost universally considered the greatest rapper of all time, and his low-key, smoother-than-smooth delivery was a powerful counterpoint to the high-volume intensity of Run-DMC and Public Enemy. When Rakim and his DJ, Eric B., swept onto the scene in the late 80s with tracks like "Paid In Full" and "Eric B. Is President," several critics opined that the era of "yelling over beats" was over - as if hip hop was too small to accomodate more than one rap style. This album, the duo's last, abandons the James Brown samples that powered their early hits, shifting to early 90s hip hop staples like 45 King-style sax ("Pass The Hand Grenade") and jazz loops (title track, in the boasting MC tradition), with occasional odd touches like Marvin Gaye ("What's On Your Mind"). Rakim's greatest strength is storytelling: when he sticks to a single theme he can be devastating (the harrowing Gulf War diatribe "Casualties Of War"). But too often he's diffuse ("Teach The Children") or hard to follow ("Rest Assured"), though even his lesser work makes good use of internal rhyme and unusual word selection ("The Punisher"). I can't shake the feeling that the early records are fresher and edgier - I'll have to search them out. (DBW)

Fatih Erkoç, Yaninda Her Kimse (2011)
Another Turkish pop singer who straddles the fence between modern and traditional, classically trained, sixty-pushing Fatih Erkoç brings grown-up gravitas to often lively sonics ("Tut Ellerimi"). The album falls into thirds: one part uptempo cuts making heavy use of synth and programmed drums ("Mesafeler Uzar"); one part slow love songs carrried by live instrumentation - generally swamped in strings ("Telaslarim"); and a bunch of slinky midtempo pieces with a heavy debt to late 70s soft rock ("Düs Kirikligi"). Since the styles are familiar, and Erkoç's banked-fire mien evokes more respect than excitement, the disc stands or falls on its compositions, and again it's a mix: the opening "Sag Salim" is a blast, but plenty of tracks are unmoving ("Anne," included in two versions - slow and downright torpid). (DBW)

Easily one of America's most influential early 80s rock bands, the Minutemen played taut, undistorted, economical punk, knocking off piles of two-minute riff tunes with Picasso-like energy and jazzy virtuosity. Oddly enough, guitarist D. Boone's accidental death in 1985 did lead to a name change, but didn't stop the band from working the same formula for nearly another decade. fIREHOSE's third album is a typical example of their fast-paced, stripped-down, mid-tempo, mid-volume power trio formula. As on all the fIREHOSE records, bassist Mike Watt dominates the songwriting. Watt's flair for fast, funky riffs is impressive ("What Gets Heard"), but he mumbles through his few vocal parts, and his tunes have an oddly aimless and repetitive avant garde quality, even when he mixes up a grab-bag of unrelated parts ("If'N'"; the late 60s Who-like "The Softest Hammer"). He does manage a few solid rock tunes (stop/start country-rock on "Riddle Of The Eighties"; ferocious New Wave on "Whisperin' While Hollerin'"; "Some Things"). But his experiments here are a mixed bag (the lilting semi-acoustic sing-along "Liberty For Our Friend"; "Mas Cojones," like early REM at its spaciest). Boone's replacement Ed Crawford has a serviceable tenor and a good instinct for entertainment; although the lo-fi overall sound never varies, he weaves Latin rhythms into "In My Mind," inserts an Delta-ish acoustic guitar snippet ("Vastopol"), and puts across two fluid, snappy rock songs (the disco-flavored "Time With You"; the hummable "Understanding," with a mid-70s Fleetwood Mac sound). Meanwhile, drummer George Hurley gets in a couple of harmless solos ("Let The Drummer Have Some"). Nothing profound here, but it's a million times more sincere and intelligent than practically any other rock music from the late 80s. (JA)

fireHOSE, Flyin' The Flannel (1991)
More of the same here. Some of grooves are pretty impressive: manic funk ("Down With The Bass," probably the most memorable cut); swaggering hard rock (title track, with an odd middle); galloping punk ("O'er The Town Of Pedro"); disco-on-speed (Crawford's "Can't Believe"); Cream-style acid rock ("Lost Colors"); loping punk-funk ("Towin' The Line"). And everything else is basically enjoyable: straight-up rock ("Up Finnegan's Ladder"); tropical rhythms ("Epoxy, For Example"); jangly psychedelia ("Song For Dave Alvin," with a Watt voice-over); Joni Mitchell goes heavy metal (Crawford's "Too Long"); yet more the Who-plays-avant garde punk ("The First Cuss") Some of the tracks do seem like a bunch of riffs thrown together ("Anti-Misogyny Maneuver"; the instrumental snippet "Tien An Man Dream Again"); Crawford's few tracks are uneven this time ("Toolin'"); the record's big centerpiece is a drunken, distortion-drenched, five-minute sea chantey/cowboy song ("Losers, Boozers And Heroes"); and there's no new ground broken anywhere - except perhaps Watt's surprisingly competent baritone vocal on Daniel Johnston's jazzy, mellow "Walking The Cow." Low highs and high lows, but a solid buy. Co-produced by Paul Kolderie and the band. (JA)

fIREHOSE, Mr. Machinery Operator (1993)
The incoherent, slightly overcooked sound of the band's fifth and last record shows hints of the breakup. Crawford's few numbers are again the most consistent and straightforward (""Witness" and "Hell-Hole," both co-authored by Hurley). But Watts' dirty-old-man baritone is still annoying ("Powerful Hankerin'"; the loping "Quicksand"; "The Cliffs Thrown Down," which ends the record soggily), and Crawford's singing isn't so great either (the revved-up cowboy song "Disciples Of The Freeway" and incoherent experiment "Sincerely"). They have J Mascis produce and add some guitar and backing vocals, and feature a bunch of no-name to medium-name guests (e.g., Superchunk's Mac on the frenetic two-minute jam "4.29.92"). They give away the lead vocal on one of their best-funk rockers ever ("Hell-Hole," with soul mama belting by Freda Rentie). Mascis' shrill falsetto harmonies distract from guest Vicki Peterson's competing part on Crawford's dramatic power ballad "Witness." And despite all the production gloss, the group's jazzy versatility sometimes seems off-the-cuff (the instrumental "Number Seven"). At least Watts' slap-happy, syncopated bass playing (the impressive, James Brown-inspired "Herded Into Pools") and Hurley's nimble thwackery (the drum solo "More Famous Quotes") are as strong as ever, and there are several extraordinarily powerful rockers that highlight the group's stop-start dynamics ("Formal Introduction," with Watts' best vocal to this point; Crawford's crunching, radio-friendly "Blaze"; the virtuoso heavy metal slab "Rocket Sled/Fuel Tank"). But the record is below par. I have several other fIREHOSE and solo Mike Watt discs and they're mostly in the same vein; I'm still having trouble tracking down cheap copies of the Minutemen records. (JA)

The Flaming Lips, Clouds Taste Metallic (1995)
A typically unfocused but entertaining album by the chaotic, flipped out alt-rock pride of Oklahoma City. Much like Pavement, the group has a bizarre sense of humor; is low-tech but relentlessly experimental; has an idiosyncratic, technically limited, nerdy, nonchalant singer (leader Wayne Coyne) but still manages some engaging harmonies; and has minimal chops but still knocks out head-banging tunes. Their songwriting is so patched together and full of dynamic shifts they sound like McCartney in his early 70s art rock period ("Placebo Headwound"; the acoustic guitar-based "Brainville"). Instrumentally they're guitar-based but often use keyboards ("They Punctured My Yolk," reminiscent of Pink Floyd) and a lot of freaky effects - plenty of slide guitar and spacey scratching noises. When they're not screwing around, though, they toss off blustery rock songs with chugging rhythms and heavily distorted guitars ("Psychiatric Explorations Of The Fetus With Needles"; the plodding "Guy Who Got A Headache And Accidentally Saves The World"; "Kim's Watermelon Gun"; "Lightning Strikes The Postman"). Very little here really stands out, and even when they manage a steady beat they're often inscrutable ("When You Smile"). But the tuneful, repetitive, relatively straightforward "This Here Giraffe" is loveable. "The Abandoned Hospital Ship" melds a mesmerizing, childlike melody to church bells and an outrageous guitar solo. A lot of the other stuff is plenty of fun, like the funky whistle-along "Christmas At The Zoo," the relatively riffy "Evil Will Prevail," and the charming "Bad Days." And in any case, the group's sincere, ramshackle sound is so endearing the record still makes good background music. At this point the lineup is Coyne, Ronald, Michael, and Steven (I think they're on guitar, bass, and drums, respectively). Co-produced by the band and Dave Fridmann. The group already was cutting records well back in the 80s; I've heard some of their other 90s work and it's similar. (JA)

Samantha Fox, Touch Me (1986)
As Ric Ocasek could tell you, you don't need a voice to make a satisfying pop record. British model Fox has a tiny, personality-free set of pipes, but her producers - John Astrop, Phil Nicholas, Steve Power, and others - crafted a winning combination of synths, unpredictable programmed drums and some well-placed distorted guitar ("Do Ya Do Ya (Wanna Please Me)"). That description may remind you of Control-era Janet Jackson, but based on pop-rock rather than pop-funk; also, the vibe is unfailingly light and unassuming: you won't be asked to call Samantha "Miss Fox." So even when the material is disposable (the pseudo-sock hop "Suzie Don't Leave Me With Your Boyfriend") it's listenable, and when the hooks are good (the hit "Touch Me (I Want To Feel Your Body)") it's an undeniable guilty pleasure. On "I'm All You Need" there's even an unusual, interesting chord progression. Like the production, the writing is from a variety of unheralded names - Mark Shreeve, Michael Bissell, M. Mullins - and there are lyrical clichés aplenty ("It's Only Love"; "Hold On Tight") but nothing spoils the silly fun. Fox put out three more albums over the next five years, continuing her penchant for songs with risqué themes and parenthetical subtitles - "Naughty Girls (Need Love Too)"; "Hurt Me! Hurt Me! (But The Pants Stay On)" - and has attempted a few comebacks since then. (DBW)

Fugazi, 13 Songs (1989)
For decades, the only thing I knew about this DC post-punk act was that they charged a maximum of $5 for their shows, and I used to say "if they're any good, shouldn't I hear something about their actual music once in a while?" And perhaps when you consider their whole career they're better as a concept than as an actual band, but this debut - actually a collection of two previous EPs - has plenty to recommend it no matter how much you pay for it. The two singer/guitarists, Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto, wrote all the material, and it's one snappy riff tune after another ("Margin Walker"; "Waiting Room") - economical without the gimmicky ultrabrevity of, say, the Minutemen - never racing into incoherency or dragging into boredom. Though there's no musical or instrumental virtuosity on display, the rhythm section (Joe Lally, bass; Brendan Canty, drums) vary the groove within some standard parameters ("And The Same," driven by a loping bass line; the Wreckless Eric-recalling "Bulldog Front"). Only rarely do they get stuck in unproductive repetition ("Burning"), while the best tunes are positively transcendent: the pounding, punishing "Glue Man"; "Burning Too," an indictment of complacency that's also fun to sit back and groove on... sort of a contradiction, I think, though I'm no logician. Unlike so many acts of the era, the lineup stayed more or less the same until their 2002 breakup. (DBW)

The Go-Go's, Beauty And The Beat (1981)
Originally a late 70s LA punk/new wave outfit, by the time of this debut the Go-Go's had gone pop (though still with New Wave energy and approach), and they became the first all-female group to both write their own material and have significant US chart hits. Richard Gottehrer produced (though it's not billed as an "Instant Record"), and many tracks sound like early Blondie, with rockabilly guitar licks ("This Town") and Carlisle's voice often echoing Deborah Harry's clear, detached intonation. The hits are catchy enough, but there are too many cookie-cutter four-chord rockers with identical tempos and arrangements: you could swap the verses of "Skidmarks On My Heart" with "Tonite" (or "Can't Stop The World") and nobody would ever notice. The stark, dramatic verse of "This Town" is one of the few memorable moments. Media attention focused on frontwoman Belinda Carlisle, though lead guitarist Charlotte Caffey was the most productive songwriter, with credit on eight of the eleven tunes including their biggest hit, "We Got The Beat." Rhythm guitarist Jane Weidlin's right behind, with seven credits including a cowrite on the album's other single, "Our Lips Are Sealed.' Carlisle had one cowrite and bassist Kathy Valentine wrote "Can't Stop The World"; drummer Gina Shock wasn't involved with the writing. The band broke up a couple of years later, and has teased its fans with brief reunions ever since; Carlisle and Weidlin each registered a couple of late 80s solo hits. (DBW)

Go Go Crankin' (1985)
This compilation of acts associated with Maxx Kidd may not be the essential go-go compilation, but it's easily the best one I've come across, showcasing the flexibility as well as the danceability of the music's polyrhythmic pulse and omnivorous appetite for hooks. The Big Three are represented at their best: godfather of go go Chuck Brown contributes the catchphrase-packed "We Need Some Money"; E.U. frontman Sugar Bear goes wild on their hit "Ooh La La La"; while Trouble Funk steals the show with two of their signature singles - "Let's Get Small" and "Say What?" - and perhaps the paradigmatic go go tune, "Drop The Bomb." The song encapsulates go go's appeal: powerhouse drumming, shifting layers of percussion, chanted refrains, an infectious keyboard riff, and a discursive, seemingly random structure. (For extra credit, Trouble Funk was the band backing Slim.) Some of the lesser-known acts hold their own, though, like Redds And The Boys with the party anthem "Movin' And Groovin'" and Slim's wacky ode to go go culture, "Good To Go." EU's "Somebody's Ringing That Door Bell" is flat-out hilarious, using a bass-heavy chorus to connect a potpourri of one-liners and impersonations (including a spot-on Bootsy Collins). With so many essential tracks not readily available on individual artist LPs, this could rate five stars, but in Kidd's zeal to showcase all his bands he included a couple of duds: Mass Extension's trite keyboard workout "Happy Feet" and an instrumental mix of Slim's "It's In The Mix." (DBW)

The Go Go Posse (1988)
I'm guessing this compilation was intended to showcase the antiviolence single "D.C. Don't Stand For Dodge City" performed by the Go Go Posse (Brown, Sugar Bear, Little Benny and Rare Essence). Despite admirable intentions, the tune is so busy delivering its message that it forgets to have fun, or a melody for that matter. The rest of the disc is haphazard: D.C. Scorpio is interesting (the scorching political diatribe "Beam Me Up, Scotty") but isn't really a go go artist, he's a rapper, as demonstrated by the LL Cool J-derived hip hop ballad "Romance The Stone." Meanwhile, Chuck Brown proteges Rare Essence follow genre conventions without being particularly innovative or exciting ("Do It," "Hey Now"), and Little Benny & The Masters are just cheesy ("Who's Kickin' It," "The King"). The one revelation here is Brown's own "That'll Work (2001)," a raucous number based on the Strauss melody made famous by some science fiction movie. EU contributes one tune, the reggae-influenced "Go Ju Ju Go" - it's far from their best work, but on this disc it's a standout. (DBW)

Good To Go: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1986)
The soundtrack to the ill-fated go-go movie, which apparently told the life story of T.T.E.D. label head Maxx Kidd. A few tunes are repeated from Go Go Crankin' - "Movin' And Groovin'"; "Drop The Bomb" - and much of the rest had been previously released ("E.U. Freeze"; "Status Quo" from Donald Banks). Worse yet, most of the new material is underwhelming: Wally Badarou's tepid synthstrumental "Keys"; Sly & Robbie's faceless groove "Make 'Em Move." Still worth a listen if you see it cheap, thanks to a few worthwhile rarities like Trouble Funk's propulsive "I Like It" and their version(s) of the title track (though Slim's original is way more fun). (DBW)

Guns N' Roses, Appetite For Destruction (1987)
Out of the notoriously dissolute L.A. scene came a band that combined enough spandex and power ballads to attract glam-metal fans, enough splenetic edge that metalheads couldn't dismiss them, and enough catchy Stones-based country-inflected blues-rock that classic radio programmers couldn't get enough of them. Produced by Mike Clink, GNR's debut is a remarkable balancing act, mixing genres without compromising any of them, largely by building mood-shifting suites. "Sweet Child O' Mine" - a love song with a loud opening lick, an ominous whispered middle, and rock hero climax - is the most obvious example, but the other huge single "Paradise City" integrates light moments and a naívely sunny chorus into its heaviness, and even the near-thrash "Welcome To The Jungle" has a multi-part structure. Lyrically too, the disc finds a middle ground among nihilism ("Nighttrain"), rage ("Out Ta Get Me") and romance ("Think About You"). Slash is basically an unoriginal greatest riffs machine like Dave Navarro, but his agile hackwork stays in service to the tunes; frontman Axl Rose borrows Ian Gillan's nasal falsetto scream but adapts it into the remarkably expressive instrument that communicates the disc's range of feeling. Several of the songs don't really work ("You're Crazy"; "It's So Easy") but they're all thought-out and varied (the Bo Diddley beat on "Mr. Brownstone," for example). After this release the band managed another massive success (the two Use Your Illusion discs) and a couple of odds n' sods records before heading into a long spiral of inactivity and attrition (most of the group ended up in Velvet Revolver); by the late 90s Rose was the only remaining member, and he pieced together a succession of lineups and abortive tours (one of which I reviewed) while working on a follow-up. (DBW)

Guns 'N Roses, Chinese Democracy (2008)
Despite the long layoff, Rose didn't forget that the secret of GNR's success is melding disparate rock elements in the service of memorable tunes. He covers all his bases: the crunching, jumbo-sized hard rockers ("Better"; "Riad N' The Bedouins"); the Elton John-style orchestrated ballads ("Street Of Dreams," with a Paul Buckmaster orchestration); and difficult-to-peg experiments (the industrial metal "Shackler's Revenge"; the near-reggae "If The World"). The two chief lead guitarists couldn't be more different in approach: Nine Inch Nails vet Robin Finck is in charge of generic blues-scale heroics, while Buckethead uses all his post-modern metal tricks while staying true to the spirit of each tune; the rest of the core band is Dizzy Reed and Chris Pittman (keys), Tommy Stinson (bass) and Brain (drums). And as before, Rose's unmistakeable, flexible voice ties the whole thing together: it never sounds like the fourteen-years-in-the-making patchwork we know it actually is. Not the embarrassment some were surely expecting, but not a triumphant comeback either: some of the ballads are hugely inflated ("There Was A Time") and too many tracks are well executed but merely functional ("Scraped"). Produced by Rose and Caram Costanzo. (DBW)

Kristin Hersh, Sky Motel (1999)
A characteristically spacey, conspiratorial solo record. Almost everything is sluggish ("Husk"), and her songwriting is somewhat incoherent, with unrelated parts being slapped together ("Costa Rica"). There's only one example of her throbbing, punkish rock, and it's just a fragment ("Fog"). So instead there's a big rubbery blob of indistinct mid-tempo stuff ("Echo"; "Cathedral Heat," which spotlights her pretty basic bass playing). And her lyrics are still full of wacked-out imagery, but often downright weepy ("Caffeine"). But at least her palette of riffs and guitar sounds is still interesting ("White Trash Moon"; the amusing trip-out "Clay Feet"), she summons eerie atmospheric sounds in many places ("Faith"), and she mixes things up a bit instrumentally, with some keyboards and a lot of acoustic guitar (the cutesy "San Francisco"; "Spring"). And the upbeat, psychedelic "A Cleaner Light" is fun, once again mining Throwing Muses' groovy, head-banging post-punk loud-soft schtick. Hersh can really send out some cool vibes, but this time they're not going to radiate out of the CD case all too often. Co-produced by Hersh and Trina Shoemaker. Narcizo contributed drum loops on two tracks, and Carlo Nuccio plays drums on a few tracks. (JA)

Hoodoo Gurus, Magnum Cum Louder (1989)
The fourth LP, and the first on RCA records, by Australia's most predictably entertaining purist guitar rock band ever. As far as I can tell, Midnight Oil's political lyrics, quirky synth stylings, and experimental orchestral orchestrations aren't mirrored anywhere in the Guru's catalogue. Instead, the Gurus draw all their inspiration from Midnight Oil's hard rock side: snappy, forthright, up-tempo tunes, with enthusiastic vocals, minimal harmonies, a faceless rhythm section, and bare-bones guitar solos ("Another World"). Band leader Dave Faulkner has an uncanny knack for writing listener-friendly hooks and bold, ear-grabbing arrangements ("All The Way"; the news media slam "Death In The Afternoon"), but he's also something of hack: his confessional musings and love song lyrics are generic, and his chord progressions and riffs are engaging ("Axegrinder") but predictable. Second banana Brad Shepherd doesn't get in much of his own material this time around, and the record's self-produced, so it's really up to Faulkner to keep things going - and he doesn't always succeed. The loudest tunes have a bland, Replacements-style punk flavor ("Glamourpuss"), and instrumental variety doesn't go much further than sludgey slide guitar ("Hallucination"), a couple of Hammond organ parts, and some spacey guitar effects ("I Don't Know Anything"). Despite this, nothing here really drags and there are several gems: the bluesy baseball tribute "Where's That Hit?" swings with wild-eyed rockabilly fervor, "Baby Can Dance (Pts. II - IV)" is an interesting, White Album-like mini-epic, "Come Anytime" is an irresistable Midnight Oil-style anthem, and the one low-volume love ballad (the dreamy, romantic "Shadow Me") is one of their best tunes ever. I've got Kinky (1991) and think it's a bit better than this effort, whereas Crank (1994) is comparable; most of their other discs are hard to find in the US. (JA)

Hoodoo Gurus, Blue Cave (1996)
Another bread-and-butter rock record, but a damned good one. The production is basic, with just a few touches like a mellow surf guitar instrumental (untitled bonus track) and some boogie-woogie piano, handclaps, crowd noises, pedal steel and a string fade on Faulkner's sarcastic joke tune "Get High!" But Faulkner's songs have never been more crafted, with compelling refrains and ear-catching hooks (the Stones-like "Mine"). So there's a slew of insistent, irresistable hard rock anthems: a snarling metal waltz ("Big Deal"), a blistering angst-fest ("Down On Me"), a speedy demonstration of Midnight Oil's hit formula ("If Only..."), and a thunderous breakup tune ("Always Something"). And Faulkner pulls off the most memorable gimmick tune of his career: "Mind The Spider," which more-or-less updates "Boris The Spider" but perfectly captures the band's humor and thumping energy. Shepherd gets a couple of cowrites, notably on the catchy and cleverly nihilistic mid-tempo number "Waking Up Tired," and his spotlight hard rock ballad "All I Know" is first rate. Even rote efforts like "Son-Of-A-Gun" and the thrashy "Why?" are still a good ride. And although the volume is usually cranked to the max, there is a sweet, dreamy, slowly-building ballad ("Night Must Fall"), and a vaguely Kinks-style self-help epic ("Please Yourself," a textbook display of dynamics). Co-produced by Charles Fisher; the rhythm section this time is Rick Grossman (bass) and Mark Kingsmill (drums). (JA)

Hunters & Collectors, Ghost Nation (1989)
A fine demonstration that anyone can get away with being an imitator as long as 1) they're good at it, and 2) they pick something worthwhile to imitate. By 1989 Midnight Oil had finally become an international sensation, so their Australian compatriots Hunters & Collectors cashed in with a solid album that's chock full of slavish, but successful Midnight Oil copies: a blue-eyed funk-rocker ("When The Rivers Run Dry"), a pretty, country-western influenced ballad with shimmering guitar parts ("You Stole My Thunder"), an eco-friendly antipodal anthem (title track), a mid-60s Beatles-style jangle-ballad ("The Way You Live"), and a cathartic, hard-edged sing-along ("Running Water," with an Oils-style twist beat and tons of dynamics). But the cloning isn't complete: guitarist/singer Mark Seymour writes all the tunes, so the group isn't nearly as democratic as the Oils and has far less to say either lyrically or musically. Seymour's compositions are sometimes formless and stuffed with romantic clichés even when they're beautiful and complexly arranged ("Crime Of Passion"). The group also has a trio of horn players who double on keyboards, so they tend to go in for cheery boogie woogie stompers ("Love All Over Again") and sluggish grooves that get mired in ornate horn ("Gut Feeling") or string arrangements ("Lazy Summer Day"). And showing their lack of resolve, they plaster trite female backing vocals on far too many tracks. Despite this, any Oils fan will enjoy the record thoroughly. Produced by the band with engineer Clive Martin. (JA)

Hüsker Dü, Candy Apple Grey (1986)
The Minneapolis power trio's major label debut after spewing out a series of super-loud hardcore punk albums on the Minutemen's SST label. They still have their formula down - about half the tracks are noisy, overdriven punk tunes with strained, cathartic vocals ("Eiffel Tower High"). But singer-writers Grant Hart (drums) and Bob Mould (guitar) have suddenly decided to veer into mellow rock balladry. Mould's often relatively calm and tuneful ("I Don't Know For Sure"), and he's even got himself a twelve-string acoustic - the droning, jangly six-minute "Hardly Getting Over It" is exactly like the lighter fare from his later career, and his bittersweet, solo all-acoustic number "Too Far Down" is surprisingly effective, with one of his best vocal performances. Hart delivers a repetitive, vaguely REM-ish mid-tempo rocker ("Dead Set On Destruction") and even slaughters a melodramatic piano ballad with his wobbly vocals ("No Promise Have I Made"). It's an uneven experiment, but there is some foot-stomping fun here, especially when Mould lets loose with his typically hoarse, half-shouted vocals and churning, wall-of-noise guitar ("All This I've Done For You"; the scary, apocalyptic "Crystal"); Hart also scores with a tough, Jam-like rocker ("Don't Want To Know If You Are Lonely") and a bleary hard rock anthem ("Sorry Somehow"). Produced by Hart and Mould; Greg Norton is on bass, as on all their discs, and Dave Pirner is vaguely credited. After this Hüsker Dü got out one more studio album and a live disc, then split for good, with Mould releasing a long series of discs under his own name and with his early-90s band Sugar. I've got almost all of them and think they're mostly excellent, with Last Dog And Pony Show being an obvious high point. (JA)

Ice Cube, The Predator (1992)
Ice Cube shot to prominence in the late 1980s as a member of N.W.A., which came to define the gangsta rap genre although they didn't invent it (if anyone did, it was Ice-T). After a nasty split with the group, he started cranking out solo albums, still filled with the violence and misogyny with which hip hop has become identified. This is possibly his best work, cut right after the LA riots, which he took as confirmation that he was providing valuable information about a culture, not just sensationalizing to sell records. Anyway, there are a number of fine songs here: the title track and "Wicked" are exciting, uptempo compilations of samples and clever rhymes; "Check Yo Self" with Das EFX uses the same midtempo soul groove as Salt-N-Pepa's "Shoop"; "It Was A Good Day" is a masterpiece, using (I think) an Isley Brothers guitar lick to establish a lazy, laid-back mood for an ironic description of a day where nothing terrible happened. Though he mostly focuses on white folks and the police (including a hilarious playlet at the very end of the record), he still finds time for a misogynist rant and a parade of stereotypes on "Check Yo Self," and he overindulges in talking head snippets of dialogue throughout, which get very dull after you've heard them once. And his overreliance on P-Funk samples - "Dirty Mack" is just one loop from "Aqua Boogie" over and over - is symptomatic of his limited musical imagination. Still, he's a very clever rhymer with an incisive, caustic sense of humor, and if you're looking for a place to start with guns-n-weed hip hop, this is as good as any. (DBW)

Iron Maiden, Powerslave (1984)
Iron Maiden was the best-selling proponent of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, a school that rescued metal from pompous excess by playing intricate interlocking guitar riffs at near-punk tempos, eschewing lengthy self-indulgent solos. (Metallica, which brought the NWOBHM approach to the States, generally credits obscure bands like Diamond Head as inspirations - perhaps because Maiden has been a direct competitor.) By this fifth album, Maiden was hedging its bets by combining its fast-paced battering-ram rage with a vocalist (Bruce Dickinson) whose bombastic tenor histrionics recall mainstream metal acts like Ronnie James Dio or the Scorpions. Bassist Steve Harris, the band's dominant songwriter, wrote half the songs, including the opening ear-splitter "Aces High" and the overdone closing suite "Rime Of The Ancient Mariner." Dickinson wrote one of the heaviest numbers himself ("Flash Of The Blade"), and teamed with rhythm guitarist Adrian Smith to write the hit "2 Minutes To Midnight" and "Back In The Village." Guitarist Dave Murray was responsible for most of the no-nonsense leads, and drummer Nicko McBrain avoided the hysterics that can plague heavy metal drumming. The tunes don't have anywhere near Metallica's invention or imagination, but if you're looking for just plain "kick-ass rock and roll," as the radio stations say, this is your ticket. No less an authority than "some guy I work with" recommended this as the band's best album, but I'll be checking out at least a couple more on my own. While I can't possibly keep up with the plethora of Iron Maiden sites, fortunately Maiden Central does. (DBW)

Jane's Addiction, Nothing's Shocking (1988)
As hype and image fade, it's getting even harder to tell what was supposed to be different about so-called alternative rock, and the studio debut of this LA band is a case in point. Anally produced (by Dave Jerden and frontman Perry Farrell), with pedal-heavy guitar hero soloing (by Dave Navarro) and occasional bombastic dynamics (the mostly instrumental "Up The Beach"), it's practically Bad Company. The biggest differences (some flirtation with metal aside) are Farrell's whiny, incredibly annoying voice ("Jane Says") and the rudimentary, uncatchy riffs ("Ocean Size"). Navarro's fast all right, but he filches so many Page licks it's scary; bassist Eric Avery and drummer Stephen Perkins can keep a beat ("Summertime Rolls," a tight if derivative groove that's the blueprint for the entire Spin Doctors catalog) but that's about it. The lyrics vary from dumb jokes ("Pig's In Zen," the Chili Pepper-like "Idiots Rule") to pretentious philosophizing ("Ted, Just Admit It"). The group broke up after their second album (which is reputedly a step up), and has periodically reunited for tours and 2003's Strays. (DBW)

Kool Moe Dee, Knowledge Is King (1989)
It's easy to forget that a lot of old school hip-hop was lousy too. Kool Moe Dee, veteran of the pioneering Bronx outfit Treacherous Three, has a commanding voice, but he uses it mostly to rant about gold-digging women ("They Want Money") or compare himself to Jesus ("I'm Hitting Hard," "I'm Blowin' Up"). Boasting was always part of rap, but Moe Dee takes it to ludicrous extremes ("The Don"), and it's hard to listen to his self-important delivery without cracking up. The context makes it difficult to take his pro-religion (title track) and social consciousness ("Pump Your Fist") cuts seriously. It's too bad, because the backing tracks (produced by Moe Dee, La Vaba, Pete Q. Harris and Teddy Riley) are quite good, building sturdy, smokey grooves with booming, natural-souding drums, organ, and occasional slices of guitar or horns ("Get The Picture," "I Go To Work"). (DBW)

k.d. lang and the reclines, a truly western experience (1984)
You might not know this to listen to her lately, but lang has a truly remarkable voice: full, rich and penetrating. For whatever reason, she's decided to record mellow, pop-oriented fare - has sold a lot of copies, too. But in 1984 she was belting out unabashed country western and rockabilly, and it's an awful lot of fun. There are lots of problems with the record: several numbers by band members are pretty routine ("Busy Being Blue") including one she doesn't even sing ("Up To Me"), and it's under a half hour to start with. But the band is as vibrant and unfettered as she is (well, almost), and the record's worth it for a couple of fine lang originals ("Tickled Pink," "Hanky Panky"), a chilling solo acoustic reading of "Hooked On Junk," and especially a rip-roaring, unselfconsciously lesboerotic version of "Bopalena." She records a servicable cover of Patsy Cline's "Stop Look and Listen," but it's her own gutsy ballad "Pine and Stew" that proves her the heir to Cline's tradition. (DBW)

k.d. lang and the Reclines, Absolute Torch And Twang (1989)
At this point lang sounds like she's searching for a musical identity: there's some of the unrestrained sound of a truly western experience ("Big Boned Gal"); a goodly amount of the pensive mellow sound that would make her a mint in the 90s ("Trail Of Broken Hearts"); and plenty of unremarkable country western product ("Luck In My Eyes," "Walkin' In And Out Of Your Arms"). The backing is crisp and professional in Nashville style, with plenty of slide guitar and violin, and most of the tunes are co-written by lang with mentor Ben Mink, but she no longer sounds like she's having fun: she sounds like she's making a record. There's nothing here that'll drive you from the room, but it doesn't stay with you either. The exception is another solo acoustic album closer, this time a meditation on the oppression of children ("Nowhere To Stand"). (DBW)

Christine Lavin, Attainable Love (1990)
Lavin's a smart, literate, funny folk singer/songwriter, perhaps the cleverest of her generation, and this album contains her devastating satire "Sensitive New Age Guys" (i.e. guys like me and Alroy, only less obnoxious), and the rocking "Victim/Volunteer." But the rest of the songs aren't nearly so biting: they're either detached observations of the singles scene (title track, "Moving Target") or cutesy tossoffs ("Fly On A Plane"). A couple of non-humor tracks are extremely slight ("Venus Kissed The Moon"). Meanwhile, the music is never interesting on its own, and often sounds dashed off: this reaches a peak on the endless closing "Shopping Cart Of Love: The Play," where Lavin hardly bothers singing or playing the guitar at all. Her voice and guitar playing are pristine, which is good or bad depending on your taste - I prefer to feel like the artist is sweating a bit. Several of the songs are unaccompanied; otherwise, the backing includes Mark Dann on bass, guitar and synth, and Lisa Gutkin on violin. Produced by Lavin. (DBW)

The Diabolical Biz Markie, The Biz Never Sleeps (1989)
New York-born Biz Markie is one of hip hop's great humorists, always willing to make a fool out of himself, never taking himself too seriously... a prototype for Humpty Hump, among others. This was Markie's second album, following the aptly titled Goin' Off, and his most successful, thanks to the hit single "Just A Friend," a seriocomic story about a misleading woman with an outrageous, though curiously sincere, sung chorus and a kick-ass piano hook. The same offbeat humor puts across a bunch of other tunes, including "Spring Again" - surely the inspiration for Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince's "Summertime" - and the probably-never-danced-by-anyone dance "Mudd Foot." He throws in a human beat box piece, "Me Against Me," and gets massive bonus points for reusing the chorus from Think's early 70s generation-gap kitsch masterpiece "(Things Get A Little Easier) Once You Understand)." Self-produced, and though the samples are occasionally overdone ("The Dragon") it's minimalist in the best sense, with every instrument pulling its weight and never distracting from Markie's vocal delivery. Markie's career went into a tailspin after he was sued by Gilbert O'Sullivan for sampling "Alone Again" on the followup I Need A Haircut, but he's still around: check his website for details. (DBW)

Biz Markie, All Samples Cleared (1993)
Though he does indeed rely on a smaller number of samples (a loop from "Get Out Of My Life Woman" is recycled on half the tracks), otherwise Markie sticks to his usual formula, with some inspired lunatic singing ("I'm Singin'," wherein he attempts "Put On A Happy Face" and "Over The Rainbow" in addition to "Singing In The Rain"), hit and miss story songs ("Hooker Got A Boyfriend"), and some pronouncements on life ("I'm A Ugly Nigga (So What)"). But it's tarnished a bit because 1) there's no one great track, and 2) he wears out his welcome with two five minute tunes that are nothing but shout-outs over a simple groove - even assuming it's parody, one would have been plenty. Markie produced half the tracks, with others contributed by Salaam Remi, Grand Daddy I.U., Cool V and Todd Ray. (DBW)

Menace, Doghouse (1989)
Funk's not as easy as Bill Laswell thinks it is. Once again, the producer gathered a bunch of P-Funk alumni - Bootsy Collins, Bernie Worrell, Mike Hampton, Maceo Parker - and put them behind a "way-out" frontman: Menace, a guitarist who looks like Prince appearing in Revenge Of The Nerds and yowls like a poor man's Larry Blackmon. The biggest problem is the overly loud, incredibly unimaginative drum programming by Laswell crony Nick Skopelitis. The second biggest problem is the tired vamps all the uptempo tunes are built on ("K969"). If the funk wasn't weak enough, there's an unbearable ballad ("One Lover") and a mind-numbing dub mix by Keith Le Blanc ("Doggy Dub"). And the P-Funkers don't do much to redeem the project: Bootsy and Maceo play like shadows of themselves. In a word, horrendous. (DBW)

Mercyful Fate, Melissa (1983)
A Danish heavy metal band formed in 1980, Mercyful Fate weren't toying with Satanism the way Black Sabbath or Jimmy Page did: lead singer King Diamond really was a Satanist, and expounded that philosophy in songs like "Into The Coven" and "Black Funeral." What's really distinctive about the band, though, is King Diamond's outrageously operatic falsetto vocals (title track), and the heavy riff suites written by lead guitarist Hank Shermann. There's a nice contrast between King Diamond's stagy shrieking and the chugging succession of chunky rhythm guitar lines, while the arrangements include plenty of room for solos by Shermann and co-lead guitarist Michael Denner (sometimes too much). There's not as much variation between musical sections as, say, Diamond Head, as practically everything is heavy except for the acoustic intro to "Into The Coven," it's often longwinded (the eleven-minute "Satan's Fall"), and it's hard to take those vocals seriously. But the tunes are rock-solid, which is why four songs from this LP (together with "A Corpse Without Soul" from the 1982 EP Nuns Have No Fun) were covered by Metallica on Garage Inc.. The capable rhythm section is Timi Hansen (bass) and Kim Ruzz (drums); produced by Henrik Lund. The band made one more album, 1984's Don't Break The Oath, before breaking up in early 1985; King Diamond has continued to record and perform as a solo artist, and Mercyful Fate has reformed from time to time, but the early albums are what made their reputation. (DBW)

Mtume, Juicy Fruit (1983)
R&B producer James Mtume split from his long-time partner Reggie Lucas and jumped on the electronic funk bandwagon - using punchy synths and guitar scratches fresh from Minneapolis, plus Rick James's exploding snare sound. It's a limited approach, and at album length it becomes deadly dull, partly because he doesn't show the knack for melody of his best work, and partly because he doesn't have a good vocalist (Tawatha and Mtume himself split lead vocals). The title track was a huge hit on the R&B chart, but there's nothing to it but a sinuous, programmed groove and an absurdly over-the-top "Juic-ahhhh" refrain. Worse yet, he revives the tune for the instrumental "The After Six Mix (Juicy Fruit Part II)." Elsewhere he drifts from gimmick to gimmick: talking synth, George Clinton-style rapping ("Hip Dip Skippedabeat"). The rest of the band is Ed "Tree" Moore (guitar), Philip Fields (keyboards) and Raymond Jackson (bass). Bernie Worrell adds even more keyboards; he's the only notable guest. (DBW)

Mtume, You, Me And He (1984)
The formula was working (commercially, that is), and by golly he stuck with it. The drum programming is a bit noisier ("I Simply Like"), but otherwise the production is exactly the same. "C.O.D." is "Juicy Fruit Part Three": mellow groove, endlessly repeating chant and all. Again the title track, a predictable love triangle ballad, is repeated in an instrumental mix; there's also a near instrumental copy of "Lady Cab Driver," "To Be Or Not To Bop." The P-Funk ripoff is "Tie Me Up," which borrows its chorus from "The Undisco Kidd" by way of "Bootzilla." Moore was out of the band, and apparently Tawatha replaced him on guitar; backing musicians include Sonny Fortune, Ira Siegel, and Worrell. The group put out a couple more discs before falling apart, and since then James Mtume has turned up on the occasional project (e.g. Mary J. Blige's Share My World). (DBW)

Emel Müftüoğlu, Çok Ayıp (2004)
Like so many Turkish singers, Emel Müftüoğlu first came to attention through competing in a song contest - in this case, winning one sponsored by a newspaper in 1985. At first she formed a duo with the runner-up, Erdal Çelik, then went solo five years later. Judging from this disc, her brand of Turkish pop uses almost exclusively Western dance pop instrumentation and rhythm arrangements, so that the only Near Eastern components are the melodies and her vocal melismas ("Yavru Kusum"). Müftüoğlu isn't a songwriter, and the tunes here come from a variety of sources prominently including Sezen Aksu (title track). So while she's an effective singer (the dreamy ballad "Bilsem"), and there are several rewarding cuts here - "Deli Dernegi": the disco-tinged "Yaz Geldi" - Müftüoğlu doesn't rank near the top of the genre's proponents. (The incandescent 2007 hit "Eğlenilecek Kızlar Evlenilecek Kızlar" - which stands above anything on this disc - is also by Aksu, who seems to give away most of her best work.) (DBW)

Eddie Murphy, How Could It Be (1985)
Not content with being the hottest comedian around, Murphy called on his music superstar friends to help him put together a solo album. The results aren't too bad: Murphy has a likeable if unexceptional falsetto; Rick James' light funk "Party All The Time" was a major hit single; and Stevie Wonder donated two fine tracks, which he also arranged and produced: the catchy pop tune "Do I" and the electronic funk number "Everything's Coming Up Roses." The problems start when Murphy gets involved in the songwriting and production: "How Could It Be" and "My God Is Color Blind" are sappy ballads that reveal the limits of his voice and the shallowness of his musical imagination. (DBW)

Eddie Murphy, So Happy (1989)
The names aren't quite as big this time around, and the results aren't nearly as much fun: Narada Michael Walden's two contributions are hackneyed overprogrammed funk ("Put Your Mouth On Me," "Till The Money's Gone"); Nile Rodgers' "I Got It" is instantly forgettable, and Larry Blackmon of Cameo comes up with a decent ballad ("Tonight") and the extremely annoying would-be sex anthem "Let's Get With It." Murphy's off his positivity kick, and his lyrics are dreary pornographic fantasies ("Pretty Please," "Love Moans") or obvious Prince ripoffs ("Bubble Hill" is a "Paisley Park" knockoff). The only points of interest here are the title track, which curiously recalls Brit New Wave, and the gentle ballad "With All I Know," both produced by Murphy with David Allen Jones. Nobody really needs this vanity production, though it's still a cut above other singing actors like Bruce Willis (talk about damning with faint praise). In 2006, Murphy recorded his best performances to date on the soundtrack to Dreamgirls. (DBW)

Nirvana, Nevermind (1991)
For whatever reason, Seattle's Nirvana was lifted out of the ranks of indie rockers and proclaimed the standard bearers of a new alienated generation: this major label debut (their first record was 1989's Bleach) was a huge seller and launched grunge. Really, though, they had the same unpolished-but-tuneful sound of a lot of post-punk acts like Soul Asylum: loud guitars and navel-gazing lyrics, but conventional song structures and chord progressions. Despite Cobain's incomprehensible mumblings and limited guitar technique, they come up with some solid midtempo rockers - "Come As You Are," "Breed" - and producer Butch Vig keeps the tunes sufficiently riff-based and brief to suit MTV ("In Bloom," with a whiny sing-song refrain). Unlike Hole, they don't overuse the dynamic shifts, which appear only on the hit "Smells Like Teen Spirit." And hey, the chaotic hidden track is pretty cool, though the second half drags. But anyone who calls this the record of the decade is high. Does the single "Lithium" kick ass? No, I'm afraid it does not, Cobain's endlessly prolonged "Yeaaaaaah"s notwithstanding. And "Drain You" and "On A Plain" are copies of "Teen Spirit," which was based on Boston's "More Than A Feeling" in the first place - it don't get much more unoriginal than that. (DBW)

Nirvana, In Utero (1993)
The band's followup isn't a big departure, with the same old churning guitars, loping beats, banished harmonies and solos, and crudely angsty black-as-night lyrics ("Milk It," where Cobain actually does take a primitive solo). So Cobain does dredge up his usual sound on track after track ("Serve The Servants"), whenever the band's not indulging itself with generic heavy metal ("Scentless Apprentice"; "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter") or bouncing punk ("Very Ape"; "tourette's," with incoherent screamed vocals). But there are no real low points, and there is a lot of really solid grunge product ("Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle"). And Cobain does manage more than his share of big moments: the lengthy female dread rant "Heart-Shaped Box," a classic example of the whisper/shout, crawl/bash grunge thing; "Rape Me," a downright hummable, super-accessible rocker; "Pennyroyal Tea," with a great, cathartic refrain; the sing-songy, surprisingly optimistic and mellow "Dumb"; and best of all the dramatic, heartbroken "All Apologies," with its needling riff and monster chorus. Ragged, engaging, and utterly sincere, this is good evidence that Cobain had a lot more in him than one flukey hit record. Not produced, but recorded and mixed by Steve Albini and Scott Litt. Kera Schaley plays cello on "Dumb" and "All Apologies." (JA)

Carla Olson and the Textones, Midnight Mission (1984)
Texas rocker Olson's first record is wimpier and more generic than her later efforts, with polite tempos and some intrusive, Bruce Springsteen-like mid-80s production values - you can hardly hear her blues influences. Olson, who writes most of her own material and plays guitar, has a raw, earnest voice, but her shrillness and pitch control problems are in evidence here. Mostly she can't sink her teeth into anything, whether she's chugging through some more faceless, poppy rock ("Hands Of The Working Man") or limping along with emotional, down-tempo rockers like "See The Light" and "Number One Is To Survive." Tom Junior Morgan's cheesy, annoying sax ruins several cuts, such as the pumping Chubby Checker single "Running" and guitarist George Callins' lightweight, upbeat "Upset Me." But the classic Keith Richards rhythm guitar style that she later used to so much effect can be heard on the catchy, deliberate "No Love In You" (written by a friend of hers) and the sludgy "Luck Don't Last Forever." The single "Standing In The Line" is a fine rock song even though it does sound like Springsteen and is marred by some synth. And everything comes together on the cheery, uplifting sing-along title track (the second single), with Don Henley and Gene Clark both audible on backing vocals. A harmless and mostly faceless rock record that hints at Olson's considerable talent. Ry Cooder adds a seething slide guitar to a Bob Dylan donation, the lurching honky tonk tune "Clean Cut Kid," and also appears on "Number One." Co-produced by Barry Goldberg (who plays some piano and co-wrote the title track) and Brad Gilderman. The rhythm section is Joe Read (bass) and Phil Seymour (drums). The bonus track ("It's Okay") is a jangly rocker by Callins. I'm missing two late 80s records and Olson's two later collaborations with Clark, but I have the more exciting Within An Ace (1993) and Reap The Whirlwind, with edgy lead guitar work by Mick Taylor, plus her more routine 2002 record The Ring Of Truth. (JA)

Zerrin Özer, Zerrin Özel (2007)
I truly don't understand why the Turkish pop landscape is dominated by women born in the mid-50s or early 60s, but I'm glad it is. Özer has been charting LPs since the early 80s, and in 2007 released two albums simultaneously: a dismal collection of pop and ballads (Ömür Geçiyor), and this set of high-energy, guitar-heavy numbers that basically adapt Turkish makam (melodic frameworks) to a rock setting. (She's also wearing circular reflective sunglasses that make her look strikingly like Ozzy.) Eight of the eleven songs come from the sole album released by rock band Çamur - making this nearly a cover album - but where the original band had tended toward self-effacing mildness, Özer's raw vocals ("Hara") and the straight-for-the-gut production wring every drop of excitement out of the material. So much so, in fact, that it may be too cheesy for refined sensibilities (though not mine). The compositions - mostly by Murat Ak, with assistance from Çagatay Kadi ("Damga") - are so propulsive and grounded it's hard to pick a favorite (though "Yara" is surely up there), and the tracks featuring organ have a sound redolent of Deep Purple ("Halim Oyle"). There's also one song each by deceased Kurdish troubador Ahmet Kaya ("Giderim") and Zülfü Livaneli (the splendid dance-rocker "Leylim Ley"); Cihat Akyildiz's lead guitar playing, oft mired in cliché, is the disc's only weakness. (DBW)

Pajama Party, Up All Night (1989)
A second-wave Latin freestyle trio - Daphne Rubin-Vega, Amanda Homi and Lynn Critelli - produced by Jim Klein, who wrote everything with Peggy Sendars. The hit "Yo No Sé" is probably the head-shakingly tackiest moment in freestyle history, with busy electronic percussion, skittish keyboards, and an overwrought bilingual lead vocal (by original member Jennifer McQuilkin). If anything else were near that level, the album would be a significant guilty pleasure. Sadly, it's not, just lots of unmemorable dance tracks ("Bring All Your Love Home To Me"), with a few ballads for balance ("Living Inside Your Love"). From a production standpoint, there are some intriguing moments - Russ DeSalvo's metal guitar solo on "Over And Over"; the faux raga intro to "Surfing In Babylon" - but songwise, there's precious little. (DBW)

Pajama Party, Can't Live Without It (1991)
Again, written by Sendars and Klein, produced and engineered by Klein. Homi was out, replaced by Marialisa Costanzo, though I can't hear any impact on the vocals. The formula hasn't changed, though there are more ballads ("Cross My Heart"; the languid "On The Beach"), so there are plenty of romance both good-timey ("Got My Eye On You") and tortured (title track). A couple of dance tracks are quite solid ("Domino"; "Ecstasy"), and overall it's up to the minimal standard of the debut, but with no hit single it's unlikely anyone's searching this out apart from completist maniacs like yours truly. (DBW)

Phranc, Folksinger (1985)
Phranc is a singer-songwriter who's not only openly lesbian, she's made a career out of it: this record kicks off with her affectionate reminiscence of the other girls on her swim team. The focus here is her voice and acoustic guitar, singing lighthearted humorous songs about events of the day ("Noguchi"), cultural practices ("Female Mudwrestling") and even some stories ("Ballad Of The Dumb Hairdresser"). For balance, there's a heartfelt take on Bob Dylan's "Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll" and a similarly sad song to a murdered woman she knew, "Mary Hooley." Overall the disc is pleasant but slight; you get some laughs out of it but nothing lasting. The CD is augmented with a later single, "Everywhere I Go I Hear The Go-Go's," an ambivalent look at pop culture in general, and the Go-Go's in particular. (DBW)

Phranc, Positively Phranc (1991)
Phranc's far more serious here, with an ode to transgendered pianist Billy Tipton ("Tipton") and an AIDS memorial song ("Outta Here"); she even goes overboard with oh-so-earnest love songs ("I Like You") and self-congratulatory individualism ("Dress Code"). But she hasn't lost her sense of humor completely: she finds time to cover the Beach Boys' "Surfer Girl," and to compare a woman she's pursuing to all of Hitchcock's leading ladies ("Hitchcock"). Also, the Two Nice Girls drop by to rev up "'64 Ford" (complete with Heart sendup) and the clever, tender "I'm Not Romantic." There's minimal instrumentation throughout, matching her stark lyrics and straightforward performance - it's consistent almost to the point of being boring, and she doesn't have the intensity or breadth of vision to draw you into her world. (DBW)

Rare Essence, Work The Walls (1993)
As Anthrax was the weak sibling in the Big Four of Thrash, so was Rare Essence to the Big Four of Go-Go. More a collective than most acts in the genre with drummer Quentin "Footz" Davidson, hype man James "Jas Funk" Thomas, guitarist Andre "Whiteboy" Johnson, bassist Byron "BJ" Jackson, saxophonist Donnell Floyd, keyboardist Michael "Funky Ned" Neal and percussionist Milton "Go-Go Mickey" Freeman all making important contributions, the band has been a dependable exponent of go-go values for over thirty years. Rare Essence has never made a mark outside the local scene, though, perhaps because their song material isn't particularly arresting. As far as I know this was their first studio LP (after two live records and singles going back as far as 1981's "Body Moves"), and it includes their two best compositions, "Lock-It" and the kinetic title track, with clever quotes atop a hyperactive variation of go-go's basic pulse (as you'd hope, a live version is also included). There's also a lot of variety, relatively speaking: "Sheraina," raucous as it is, is a love song, "Hey Tamika" is New Jack Swing go-go style, and "Niggaz" is a resolute statement of purpose. On that basis, I believe this is the RE album to start with, though there is a fair amount of unexceptional dancefloor fodder ("Give Me That Beat"; "Make 'Em Move Mick"). The band released a stream of LPs though the 90s and beyond, and still performs regularly in the DMV area. (DBW)

Red Hot Chili Peppers, Freaky Styley (1985)
On the LA quartet's second effort, they're playing hard funk - which basically means they shun keyboards, and rely on volume as a substitute for imagination. Guitarist Hillel Slovak plays the same James Brown scratches you've heard a million times, only with muddying distortion ("American Ghost Dance"); Flea bangs on his bass with the apparent conviction that his vehemence makes up for the fact that his slap-and-pop licks are lamebrained and familiar (title track). Drummer Jack Irons overplays too, though not as badly. Lead "singer" Anthony Kiedis tries for Iggyesque manic intensity, but his yelling and simpleminded rapping ("Catholic School Girls Rule") come off as calculated. Kiedis does manage a spookily accurate Sly Stone impression on a cover of "If You Want Me To Stay," which slavishly copies the original arrangement but tacks on a boring fade. Despite all the negatives, this is one of the better mid-80s productions from a then-slumping George Clinton - at least it's is based on live instruments, features occasional outbursts from the P-Funk Horns ("Hollywood"), and has energy to spare. Since this release, the band has gradually moved to rock's mainstream, going through numerous personnel changes along the way, and hit stardom with 1991's Blood Sugar Sex Magik. (DBW)

Rock, Rhythm & Blues (1989)
Produced by Richard Perry, this album - 50s rock and R&B songs sung by 80s pop stars - isn't nearly as much fun as it should have been. The first mistake was turning most of the tunes over to co-producer/arranger/one-man band Steve Lindsey, who overloads everything with robotic synth programming that crushes what should be spontaneous-sounding songs: the worst offender in this category is "Fever," where Chaka Khan's voice is criminally buried under layers of keyboards, and "This Magic Moment/Dance With Me" similarly wastes a valiant vocal effort by Rick James. Even the tracks with live rhythm sections suffer from glossy late 80s overproduction (Elton John's version of Fats Domino's "I'm Ready"). Perry did do a good job of selecting artists: fifteen years later, none of the choices seem ridiculous, with the arguable exceptions of El DeBarge and Manhattan Transfer, and considering the ephemeral nature of the business, that's damn good. But he didn't do as good a job matching the singers to the songs: the Pointer Sisters lose the irrepressible bounciness of the Bobbettes' "Mr. Lee," and Christine McVie's take on Etta James's "Roll With Me Henry" (with John McVie and Mick Fleetwood on bass and drums) just seems like a tongue-in-cheek joke. The big winner is Randy Travis, whose version of Brook Benton's "It's Just A Matter Of Time" doesn't show any trace of homage or updating... just a simple, heartfelt performance of a simple moving song. (DBW)

Roxanne, Go Down (But Don't Bite It) (1992)
One of several "Roxannes" who appeared on the hip hop scene in response to the UTFO hit, she's probably the most famous next to Roxanne Shanté. Roxanne hasn't had much success since the mid-80s; I found this disc marked down all the way to $1. Produced by Chubb Rock (who guests on "Gear") and Trackmasterz; the backing tracks are an ordinary blend of overfamiliar bass lines, drum licks lifted from James Brown, and unimaginative scratching. Trying to shed her "just a pretty face" rep, Roxanne raps with some authority here, particularly on "Latino Blues" and "Roxanne Shit Is Over," though she tries too hard to be shocking on the title track. But she's just not original or exciting enough to rise above the lame beats, and I can't believe anyone thought including an instrumental ("Roxanne's Suite") was a good idea. (DBW)

Sa-Fire (1989)
NYC diva Sa-Fire is a deity to Latin freestyle freaks: CD copies of this debut go for $30 and up (I only have the LP, so save your e-mails). But the record's an inferior example of the style: the backing tracks are overly mechanical, the tunes aren't catchy, and her overly reverbed voice is strong but lacking in subtlety ("Thinking Of You," one of the few slow tunes). Some softer synths or harmony vocals would have sweetened the sound considerably. The album's more notable for what you don't hear: Marc Anthony wrote several songs here (including the single "Boy, I've Been Told") but doesn't sing a note, and India's backups on "Love Is On Her Mind" (written by Tony Moran and Andy "Panda" Tripoli) are practically inaudible. Most tracks were produced by Carlos Rodgers, though The Latin Rascals contributed two tracks ("I Wanna Make You Mind") and David Harris helmed his "Gonna Make It." Around the same time, Sa-Fire released a couple of non-LP singles: "Let Me Be The One" (not to be confused with the other "Ones") and a predictable, revved-up cover of "I Will Survive" from the She-Devil soundtrack. (DBW)

Safire, I Wasn't Born Yesterday (1991)
Safire normalized the spelling of her name, replaced all her producers, and softened her sound a bit, with more slow and midtempo fare: "I Can't Cry"; Ian Prince's "I Never Heard," a highlight thanks to snazzy clavinet lines and future star Brian McKnight on backing vocals. David Morales explored non-freestyle dance music, with the post-disco "I'm A Victim" and the C&C Music Factory ripoff "Taste The Bass." But her usual freestyle is supplied by Mark Liggett and Chris Barbosa ("Made Up My Mind"), Moran ("Shame"), and Gerry Brown and Tom Keane ("Whatever Happens"). The key problem remains, though: her voice isn't distinctive enough to make the drab compositions (Ian Prince's title track) matter. (DBW)

School Daze Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1988)
Spike Lee's second film, a slice of life in a black college, was a musical, and he turned most of the soundtrack over to his father Bill, a jazz bassist who played on 60s sessions for Simon & Garfunkel and Ian & Sylvia among others. Bill does a credible job of tackling different genres and fitting the mood of the story (the production number "Straight And Nappy" performed by the Jigaboos and Wannabees Chorus, the gospel "I'm Building Me A Home," the gentle acoustic jazz "One Little Acorn"), but in common with much soundtrack music, the compositions can't stand on their own two feet ("Wake Up Suite"). Phyllis Hyman does her best with the torch song "Be One," but it's just insubstantial. Also, using the actors as singers imposed certain limitations (Tisha Campbell's grating, overwrought rendition of "Be Alone Tonight"). So the disc is mainly notable for the tracks Lee wasn't involved with: EU's smash go go funk hit "Da Butt"; the Stevie Wonder-donated ballad "I Can Only Be Me" (sung by Keith John in a remarkable imitation of Stevie's style, but worth hearing because Stevie so rarely plays acoustic piano). I still can't figure out how Tech And The Effx's irritating, mechanical dance track "Perfect Match" found its way onto the disc. If you already have the hit version of "Da Butt," there's no compelling reason to pick this up. (DBW)

Sebadoh, Bubble & Scrape (1993)
The first serious studio album by ex-Dinosaur Jr bassist Lou Barlow's three-man alt-punk band - their earlier work is dominated by home recordings, with their cacophonous 1991 punk record III barely being a step up. By now the group is a three-man recording collective, with each member singing and playing minimalistic guitar on his own compositions. Barlow hardly even appears on bassist Jason Loewenstein's stuff. When Loewenstein's not flopping with a semi-acoustic number ("Happily Divided"), he's a true-blue Ramones wannabe, talking ("Sixteen") or shouting his way through two-minute, three-chord punk rockers - but "Flood" has a decent riff and dynamics, and the driving, spastic "Sister" would have done Sonic Youth proud. Drummer Eric Gaffney's tracks are painfully experimental ("No Way Out"), with hoarsely chanted vocals and demented, eclectic lo-tech instrumentation ("Fantastic Disaster" indeed!). At best, it's merely loud and oddly structured punk ("Elixir Is Zog"; the surf-punk fragment "Emma Get Wild"; the Meat Puppets-esque "Bouquet For A Siren"). So everything falls on Barlow, whose romantic, strikingly melodic baritone vocals and instinctive pop stylings work over and over ("2 Years And 2 Days," with Sonics-style layers of drone guitars; the wrenching acoustic number "Think (Let Tomorrow Bee)"; the dramatic power ballad "Homemade," with its mesmerizing ascending riff; best of all the super-quiet "Soul And Fire," which is practically in James Taylor territory). Only a couple of his plodding rockers are actually tuneless ("Forced Love"; "Cliche"; "Sacred Attention"). Together, the record is incoherent and intentionally off-putting, but Barlow's significant talent still makes it worth hearing. Unproduced (well, duh). (JA)

Sebadoh, Harmacy (1996)
With Gaffney out of the group they're suddenly a lot more focused and commercial, narrowly focusing on an economical guitar/bass/drums indie rock formula that alternates pounding, primal punk ("Love To Fight"; the compelling instrumental "Hillbilly II") with confessional, lyrically fuzzy rock balladry ("Open Ended"). Loewenstein's still responsible for most of the ear-shredding ("Crystal Gypsy"; "Mindreader"; "Love To Fight"; the ham-fisted "Worst Thing"), but he's also learned to imitate Barlow (the groovy "Prince-S" and tuneful, lulling "Nothing Like You"; straight-ahead rock on "Zone Doubt"). Indeed, everything is mellower and more crafted this time - Barlow's "Willing To Wait" is downright lush, and he even veers towards country on "Perfect Way" and whips out a mellotron on "Too Pure." Some of the hooks are annoyingly basic ("Can't Give Up"), but Barlow's arpeggiation-heavy guitar technique seems to have improved ("Ocean"), and even the instrumentals are carefully orchestrated ("Weed Against Speed"; drummer/occasional bassist Bob Fay's "Sforzando!"). Stuffed with 19 tracks, the record is consistently entertaining even if it's not entirely ear-grabbing - just a couple of songs really stand out (Barlow's "On Fire," "Ocean," and "Beauty Of The Ride"). I've got the band's 1999 album The Sebadoh and I think it's possibly their peak, being much in the same vein as this disc. Barlow's two-man-band side project the Folk Implosion is more erratic, but still occasionally interesting. (JA)

Seduction, Nothing Matters Without Love (1989)
A female trio assembled by Robert Clivillés and David Cole, the record shares some elements with Latin freestyle - frothy romance themes, a reliance on programming - and Andy "Panda" Tripoli contributed the title track. On the other hand, there's almost no clavé syncopation, many nods to R&B and disco, and the vocals are not high-pitched or breathy: the credited singers are April Harris, Michelle Visage and Idalis Leon, but undoubtedly many of the leads are from Martha Wash ("You're My One And Only True Love"). (The tacky rap on "Breakdown," though, is Visage's.) However you classify it, this isn't a great dance album, because the hookiness of the duo's best work - "A Deeper Love," "Emotions" - is nowhere to be found. Short on material, they serve up a serviceable but uninspired cover of Taana Gardner's underground disco classic "Heartbeat," and the monotonous, narrated "Seduction's Theme." "Two To Make It Right" became a huge hit in a remix relying on a painfully prominent James Brown sample; the producers took this approach further with their next project, C&C Music Factory. (DBW)

Shannon, Let The Music Play (1984)
Maybe you're not curious how and when New York's Hi-NRG dance music (a frantic, heavily electronic mini-genre exemplified by Miquel Brown's "Too Many Men") morphed into Latin freestyle, but I sure am. The smash title track from this album is often mentioned as the first freestyle single, but really it's more transitional: though there is some salsa-style keyboard syncopation, it's much closer to Hi-NRG tracks like Freeez's "A.E.I.O.U." than to anything by the Cover Girls or Sa-Fire. Genre argument aside, it's a great track, as the girl-gets-boy storyline is invested with drama and urgency by the high-tech production gimmicks, though the two similar mixes included on the LP are a bit excessive. The equally brilliant follow-up "Give Me Tonight" has a clearer freestyle pedigree, as it's based on a repeating syncopated treble synth riff, and it makes good use of the stuttering sampled vocals that became a dance music cliché seemingly overnight. Chris Barbosa produced (with Mark Liggett) and co-wrote the key tracks; his production style lacks variety (way too much eighth-note Moog bass) but it's certainly exciting ("My Heart's Divided," the third single). As often happens with dance albums, the slow numbers are the sticking point: there are too many of them - "Sweet Somebody"; the duet "Someone Waiting Home" with Herley Johnson Jr. - and while Shannon (also known as Brenda Shannon Greene) is a decent singer, she doesn't project much presence or individuality, though she does do a nice job with the bubblegum love song "It's You." The band is led by Robby Kilgore (guitar, keyboards and programming), Curtis Josephs (keys), Tony Bridges (bass), Carl Sturkin and Charlie Strut (guitars), with drum programming from the producers. Shannon continued releasing albums through the 80s, and much like Angel Clivillés and Exposé's Gioia Bruno, she released an early 2000s album updating her old hits with production from Barbosa, Tony Moran and Andy Panda. (DBW)

Jane Siberry, The Walking (1988)
"Ethereal" is a difficult target: if you miss it, even by a little bit, you just look precious and ridiculous. Making her major-label debut after a couple of independent releases, Siberry missed the target here. The opening suite "The White Tent The Raft" has a ton of different musical sections and lyrical depth, but it's built around a weak, frankly irritating refrain. The same is true of the album in general: lots of multipart structures and long running times (two of the eight cuts run over nine minutes, and five are over six) with frustratingly obscure lyrics and no notable melodies. Siberry's idiosyncratic delivery and haphazard construction recall Rickie Lee Jones, but without the spirit or confidence. Relying almost exclusively on synths and drums, she fails to do anything interesting with them, sticking to straight 4/4 rhythms and the same chilly synth patches everyone else was using in the late 80s. Her voice is thin, and she half-speaks many of her lines, making the experience even more antiseptic. Probably the best track is the shortest and most stripped-down, "The Walking (And Constantly)." Produced by Siberry and John Switzer; the band is Siberry (guitar, keys), Switzer (bass), Al Cross (drums), Anne Bourne (keys) and Ken Myhr (guitar). (DBW)

Jane Siberry, When I Was A Boy (1993)
For whatever reason, there's a much broader instrumental palette: a cello is surprisingly compelling in "The Vigil (The Sea)," while "All The Candles In The World" backs Siberry's usual wispy vocals with a hip-hop drum loop and wah-wah guitar - and actually works. The opening "Temple" is almost hypnotic, with a bell-like keyboard riff and a compressed, aggressive chorus, and it's undeniably arresting. By contrast, the dreamy "Calling All Angels" (a duet with k.d. lang) has a catchy chorus straight out of country-western. The compositions are less structured than Walking's, which is a good thing - no endlessly repeated choruses - though the relatively lively "An Angel Stepped Down (And Slowly Looked Around)" sports two irritating refrains. I'm still not sold on her songcraft, which is heavyhanded and vague by turns ("Love Is Everything," present in two versions), but if you're at all susceptible to her spell, this record is much more likely to do it for you. Mostly produced by Siberry; Brian Eno produced "Sail Across The Water" and co-produced "Temple," while Michael Brook produced "Love Is Everything." After one more Reprise release, Siberry set up her own label, Sheeba. (DBW)

Slayer, Reign In Blood (1986)
California metal pioneers Slayer are sort of the Ramones of thrash: they do the same album every time, and it wasn't that great in the first place, but they still represent the epitome of the genre for a certain type of fan because "they never sold out, man." In other words, they never stretch themselves or the listener by trying anything new, growling out Satanist claptrap over familiar-sounding guitar vamps year after year, as Dave Lombardo's bass drum never stops pounding. This third album is the group's best known, as producer Rick Rubin persuaded them to keep the songs short and the production clean. Unfortunately, vocalist/bassist Tom Araya has little range or presence, and guitarists Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King play very fast but not very well (apart from a great, wild solo in "Necrophobic"). Like compatriots Metallica and Megadeth, the band changes abruptly between different musical sections - often shifting tempo as well - but the individual riffs are rarely arresting (the opening of "Jesus Saves" is an exception). The album opens ("Angel Of Death") and closes ("Raining Blood") with classic tunes, but in between the record's frequently boring ("Reborn"), despite the frenetic pace and volume. (DBW)

The Smithereens, Green Thoughts (1988)
A traditionalist guitar band from New Jersey that pumps out solidly crafted retro rock and hews to narrowly defined limits: no odd instrumentation, no jamming, no wild experiments. Their economical, mid-tempo arrangements, moderate attempts at vocal harmony, and solid dynamics all are strongly reminiscent of the early Elvis Costello. None of the band members have interesting instrumental chops, and singer/songwriter/guitarist Pat DiNizio has limited vocal range, indulges himself frequently with early and mid-60s nostalgia, and tends to write drab, sing-songy melodies. The band's follow-up to their sharp 1987 debut album Especially For You is respectable but overworked. DiNizio is already deadeningly formulaic ("Drown In My Own Tears"), and he's gratingly reactionary on the softer numbers, emulating Everlys-like rockabilly on the peppy "Elaine," the c. 1964 Beatles at their sappiest on "Something New," and the c. 1965 Beach Boys on "If The Sun Doesn't Shine" - he really gets their sound down, but the effort seems pointless. He's even worse when he apes Costello's tepid vocal jazz influences on the 3/4 ballad "Especially For You" (complete with a smoky Steve Berlin sax solo). But the early Beatles thing works much better on a couple folk-rockers with ringing, jangly guitars ("Deep Black"; title track), the waltzing ballad "Spellbound" is eerie and elegant, and the harder-edged numbers are the most fun: "Only A Memory," with a menacing refrain; the pumping "House We Used To Live In," which edges on New Wave; and the stomping, power chord-based "The World We Know." Still, though, there's nothing essential here, and the band did the same thing better on their other discs. Produced by Don Dixon, who adds incidental instrumentation; Kenny Margolis (keyboards) is on several tracks. (JA)

The Smithereens, A Date With (1994)
Most of the band's late 80s and early 90s albums are downright interchangeable, and this widely cut-out effort is no exception - just a little more guitar distortion than usual makes it distinct ("Everything I Have Is Blue"). Still, though, the disc highlights everything that makes the group worth listening to: catchy hooks, thoughtful, introspective lyrics, and an earnest, sincere sound. And everything's solid, from deliberate rockers ("War For My Mind"; "Sleep The Night Away") to jangly near-psychedelia that draws strongly on the mid-60s Beatles ("Miles From Nowhere"; second guitarist Jim Babjak's "Love Is Gone"; "Gotti," a near rewrite of "Dr. Robert"). Plus there's a wistful 3/4 cowboy ballad ("Afternoon Tea"; "Sick Of Seattle," one of their rare joke tunes and a good one); a plodding demonstration of the twist beat ("Can't Go Home Anymore"); and an aching lullabye with Dylan-style harmonica ("Life Is So Beautiful"). Not one bad tune, but the monotony is extreme. Lou Reed shows up to take a solo on "Long Way Back Again," where the band delivers a remarkably VU-like hypno-rock beat; he's also on Babjak's groovy, Costello-like "Point Of No Return." Produced as usual by Don Dixon. (JA)

Attack Of The Smithereens (1995)
A generously long rarities collection that methodically spells out the group's retro influences and formidable abilities as a cover band. A long string of B-sides and outtakes plunges the depths and heights of the 60s. There's "The Seeker" (exhilarating as always), "Shakin' All Over," "It Don't Come Easy," "World Keeps Going Round," a shaky but endearing live take on "Girl Don't Tell Me," a live version of "You Really Got Me" fronted by Ray and Dave Davies, and a super-authentic revival of the surf rock instrumental "Hang Ten High." But this is contrasted with lapses in taste like "One After 909" (which is at least a little fun), Nancy Sinatra's "Something Stupid," a campy live version of "Don't Be Cruel" fronted by the song's co-author Otis Blackwell, a similarly bizarre live appearance with the Beau Brummels ("Just A Little"), and a romp through "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer." All of this is held together with interesting demos of the band's strongest material ("Girls About Town"; "Time & Time Again"; "Blood & Roses"; "Yesterday Girl"; "Behind The Wall Of Sleep," unplugged with Graham Parker [!]), plus unexpected stuff like Iggy Pop's "Lust For Life" and an obnoxious "strip club" arrangement of "Girl Like You." More unpredictable and humorous than any of the band's regular albums, the collection also manages to serve double duty as a virtual greatest hits record and ends up being solid fun whenever it's not an outright embarassment. (JA)

The Smiths, Meat Is Murder (1985)
I'm not a Morrissey fan, but his mid-80s work with the Smiths - a collaboration with versatile rhythm guitarist Johnny Marr - is some of the best British alt rock of the decade. Morrissey's often tedious, with his elliptical vocal melodies, campy crooning style, overwrought romantic falsetto, and navel-gazing lyrics. And Marr's tunes are sometimes dull (the lush "Well I Wonder"). They also don't do themselves much of a favor by letting half the tracks run overtime on their self-produced second album (the sleepy, slowly waltzing title track, like U2 on downers; the acoustic ballad "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore," a flop single salvaged by a keening, backwards guitar lick). But this time the band really rocks out, propelled by Marr's rich, reverby sound, grab-bag of digital effects, blazing single-note riffs, melancholy Edge-style piano parts, and subtle attempts at stylistic and production variety - not to mention Andy Rourke's fat, muscular, popping bass lines. Drummer Mike Joyce isn't the next Stewart Copeland, but he works some unexpected twist and country-western beats into the mix. So they're equally effective with snappy rock ("The Headmaster Ritual"; "What She Said"; the twisting "I Want The One I Can't Have"), galloping rockabilly ("Rusholme Ruffians"; "Nowhere Fast"), and even an exciting, danceable Duran Duran imitation ("Barbarism Begins At Home"). And their disco-y late '84 hit single "How Soon Is Now?" is one of the decade's key tunes, slathered with distorted guitar tracks that alternately throb, soar, and wig out. I even enjoy the lyrics, full of social satire ("Headmaster Ritual"; "Nowhere Fast"; "What She Said") and sexual angst ("One I Can't Have"; "How Soon Is Now?"); the title track's raw vegetarian propaganda is right on the mark. A key record for 80s nostalgia heads. (JA)

Steinski, What Does It All Mean? 1983-2006 Retrospective (rec. 1983-2006, rel. 2008)
If you were listening to urban radio in the early 80s, the first time you heard a Double D & Steinski mix is probably burned into your brain... The moment I became aware of what I was hearing, I hit "Record" on the boom box I was listening to, and as a result I still have the second half of "Lesson 2 (James Brown Mix)" on cassette today. But I had to wait twenty-five years to actually purchase these tracks, because Doug DiFranco and Steve Stein's ADD approach of piling up sample upon sample - quoting from instructional records and movies as often as from The Family Stone or Trouble Funk - resulted in cuts that were as impossible to clear for release as they were captivating. So from their first effort, "The Payoff Mix" - pasted together for a Tommy Boy-sponsored remix contest - Double Dee & Steinski were a radio- and club-only phenomenon, but their influence is immeasurable on everyone from the Bomb Squad and Masters At Work on down, and the records themselves still sound jaw-droppingly inventive ("Lesson 3 (History Of Hip Hop)"). Unfortunately, due in part to the uncommercial nature of their operation, the pair created only five tracks together, with DiFranco focusing on engineering (he also created File 13's dial-a-porn "Taste So Good") while Stein moved into more conventional remix work alongside occasional weirdness like "The Motorcade Sped On," made up of clips relating to the Kennedy assassination. That's included here, along with some other Steinski-only obscurities like "I'm Wild About That Thing" (mostly drawing from sex-oriented party records) and the 9/11 dirge "Number Three On Flight Eleven." Apart from "It's Up To You" (a clever deconstruction of media coverage of Gulf War I) they're not great - and that goes double for the intermittently interesting hour-long DJ mix ("Nothing To Fear") which pads this to a 2-CD set - but I'm thrilled that Illegal Art has made the early work available for sale: buy now, before they change their minds. (DBW)

The Stone Roses (1989)
I've heard people rant and rave about this Manchester act being the best band of their era, but I just don't hear it. They are good, and they've got personality, but it's all filched: Ian Brown's dreamy baritone vocals are more romantic than Morrissey's and less energetic than Robyn Hitchcock's, but similar; guitarist John Squire has some decent technique and a warm, majestic tone, but he's hardly innovative; their co-written songs are packed with dynamics and frequently anthemic ("I Wanna Be Adored"; "Bye Bye Badman"; "Made Of Stone"; "This Is The One"), but a lot of it is forgettable; and producer John Leckie helps them to explore some 60s influenced studio gimmicks like backwards tracks and phasing ("Don't Stop"), but it's only marginally psychedelic. The one clear advance is drummer Alan "Reni" Wren's galloping, hiphop-influenced beats, a sonic infusion that became a fixture of 90s alt rock. And they do break up their formula with some funk (the ten-minute "Fools Gold"), a luminous, druggy, Byrds-style ballad ("Waterfall"), an Elvis Costello-style bass line ("I Am The Resurrection"), and a brief rewrite of "Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme" ("Elizabeth My Dear"). On some tunes their mellow pop craftsmanship recalls 60s sources other than the usual - "Shoot You Down" sounds like the Hollies to me. But with sedate vocals, uneven material, and near-total instrumental monotony - there isn't an outside player anywhere within earshot - they're a long way from reviving the traditional rock band format. They just don't have the energy or purpose of, say, a Midnight Oil. Still, it's a big step up from 80s mope rock and a definite precursor of grunge, for what that's worth. (JA)

The Stone Roses, Second Coming (1994)
After a dispute with Silvertone Records that led to the release of a B-side/outtake compilation (Turns Into Stone, 1992), the band put out its final record on Geffen. In some ways it's an improvement; Squire's expansive guitar antics often recall Jimmy Page ("Tears" = "Stairway To Heaven") and sometimes even Jimi Hendrix ("Driving South," otherwise a robotic dance number). But the band seems unable to move on from its eclectic 60s-plus-hiphop sound ("Love Spreads"). The songwriting - suddenly credited mostly to Squire alone - is at turns dull (the jangly pop-rock tune "How Do You Sleep") or just plain sloppy. There's an aimless jam ("Daybreak"), several sprawling arrangements ("Breaking Into Heaven"), some noisy, chaotic house music ("Begging You"), and an aggravatingly demented bonus track ("The Fozz"). The semi-acoustic "Your Star Will Shine" and "Tightrope" are shockingly retro hippy singalongs. Brown's only serious contribution is a wiggy groove tune ("Straight To The Man"), and his deadpan baritone vocals are often drab. But they do deliver one big, majestic funk-rocker ("Good Times"), and "Ten Storey Love Song" lives up to its title with "All You Need Is Love"-like harmonies and yet more Roger McGuinn-inspired guitarwork. That nearly makes up for the missteps. Co-produced by Simon Dawson and Paul Schroeder. In 1995 Silvertone re-released most of Turns Into Stone and parts of The Stone Roses under the deceptive title The Complete Stone Roses. The band broke up in 1996 after Wren and later Squire quit. Mersey Paradise is the best fan site I've seen. (JA)

Suicidal Tendencies, Suicidal Tendencies (1983)
No, punk rockers who can play their instruments is not a contradiction in terms. The drummer (Amery Smith) and bass player (Louiche Mayorga) are solid, even (dare I say it?) professional. Grant Estes, the guitarist, is equally at home laying down a tasty rhythm guitar line or spinning out a Van Halenesque solo. But make no mistake: once you hear Mike Muir's angry, contemptuous, frequently confused vocals, you'll never take them for a mainstream rock band. They also use the one-minute tunes and abrupt stops and starts that are hardcore trademarks, although their technical facility enables them to use these devices to greater effect than I've previously heard. The well-known song is the teen rebellion anthem "Institutionalized" which many people burned out on when it first came out, but I still consider one of the greatest recordings of the decade: very serious and utterly hilarious at the same time, with a clever, insistent riff underlying Muir's stream of consciousness storytelling. The rest of the album often wallows in repetitive nihilism and self-hatred, but Muir has some interesting things to say ("Won't Fall In Love Today") and the band is lots of fun ("I Saw Your Mommy..."). Muir dumped Estes and Smith after this album; I've heard some of the group's later work, and they sound like just another heavy metal band - start here. (DBW)

Sweet Sensation, Take It While It's Hot (1988)
One of the weird things about Latin freestyle is how many artists released different songs sharing the title "Let Me Be The One"... Sweet Sensation's entry into the series is a downbeat ballad. Mostly produced by Ted Currier and mixed by Steve Peck; five of the eight tunes were written by Joseph Mallo (title track). Currier's approach differs from the norm in that he uses synth mainly to replicate salsa horn lines, rather than piano vamps ("Sincerely Yours"); otherwise, he sticks with the basics. The trio - Betty LeBron singing lead, with sisters Margie and Mari Fernandez on backups - sings with girlish gusto ("Love Games") though not much power or depth; the effect is infectious whenever the tunes are halfway decent ("Never Let You Go"), which most of them are. "Victim Of Love" does borrow the bass line from the Trammps' "Disco Inferno," but so subtly it's more of an Easter egg than a ripoff. So this would be one of the best freestyle efforts except that it's lacking an unforgettable tune like "Point Of No Return" or "Fascinated." (DBW)

Sweet Sensation, Love Child (1990)
Peck was promoted to producer this time, though Currier also produced three tracks; Mari was replaced by Sheila Bega. Once again, the feather-light dance pop is dressed up with salsa keyboard vamps ("One Good Man") and classical guitar ("Destiny," with a very tasty, Salsoul-recalling solo by the composer, Jim Klein). Covering the titular Supremes hit was a mistake, though, because it exposes the weakness of the group's vocals: if you've heard Diana Ross soar through the fade of that song, you won't have much patience for Betty's breathy attempt. For that reason, the ballads aren't terribly captivating, though "If Wishes Came True" managed to top the charts (curiously, the only other #1 hit from a Latin freestyle act, Exposé's "Seasons Change," was also a ballad). Then, just like that, it was over: shortly after this release Margie and Sheila were replaced, and the group faded from view without releasing another LP. (DBW)

Testament, Practice What You Preach (1989)
California thrash metal band Testament never made a mark like contemporaries Metallica or Megadeth (or even Anthrax or Slayer) but this album was their commercial high point. The anti-hypocrisy title track was an MTV hit - wouldn't you love to hear a pro-hypocrisy song, just once? - and there are other top-notch riffs ("Greenhouse Effect," with unexpected chromatic runs; the instrumental "Confusion Fusion"). But the production is cut-rate, the guitars aren't as prominent as they should be, vocalist Chuck Billy isn't distinctive, and none of the bandmembers are outstanding on their instruments. As a result, the lesser tunes are ho-hum, and there are a lot of them ("Perilous Nation"; "Sins Of Omission"). Lead guitarist Alex Skolnick soon left for a variety of other metal projects before switching to jazz (!); Testament has carried on through the years and a variety of lineup changes. (DBW)

Throwing Muses, University (1995)
Singer/songwriter Kristin Hersh's college rock girl band Throwing Muses started out being heavily influenced by the B-52s and early REM, but by the mid-90s she'd ditched her bassist Leslie Langston and foil/half-sister Tanya Donnelly and moved on to hard-edged, carefully crafted indie rock with cathartic loud/soft dynamics - like a more tuneful and listenable Pixies, or a more virtuosic Breeders (which not coincidentally featured Donnelly). Hersh's bleating, angry vocals and fractured, disturbing first-person accounts of psychosis set her totally apart, and this self-produced album is a good example of her schtick. The taut, crackling "Bright Yellow Gun" totally rocks out - it's easily one of her best tunes ever; the mesmerizing, starkly produced "Crabtown" has clever harmonies sung in a round; the poppy "That's All You Wanted" is gorgeous; the droning, dreamy "Flood" positively soars; and there are tons of other solid tunes like the apocalyptic 3/4-time "Start," the off-balance "Hazing," the burbly but seductive "Snakeface," and the psychedelic title track, an instrumental with Robert Fripp-like, digital delay-enhanced arpeggiation. Her rhythm guitar licks are as methodical and ear-catching as ever ("Shimmer"; "Surf Cowboy"), and her lead guitar work is exciting and creative ("No Way In Hell," doused with trippy wah-wah). Some of the material is dull and unfocused (the down-tempo snippet "Calm Down, Calm Down"), the meandering "Fever Few" just runs on too long, and her approach can be monotonous ("Teller"). But along with her successful 1994 solo disc Hips And Makers, this is the best place to check Hersh out - she's a key figure in 90s rock. The rhythm section is Bernard Georges (bass) and David Narciso (drums); Jane Scarpantoni adds some creepy cello parts. Hersh has regularly pumped out records ever since, and I have most of them, which tend to lack the sharp dynamics and catchy hooks of her earlier work. (JA)

Throwing Muses, Limbo (1996)
Another dollop of creepy harmonies, menacing vocals, disjointed lyrics, and churning rhythm guitar. Hersh is masterful when it comes to using empty spaces, abrupt stops, etc. ("Ruthie's Knocking"; "Tango"), and adds creative production touches like acid rock guitar effects ("Tar Kissers"). But there are a lot of quieter numbers here, and they often seem rote ("The Field"; "Cowbirds") or even sleepy ("LIMBO"; "Mr. Bones"; the spacey surf-rock bonus track "White Bikini Sand"). She does knock out a few solid base hits: "Buzz" makes good use of her sea chantey 3/4 sound; the riffy "Freeloader" has unexpected quasi-flamenco breaks; the low-key "Serene" has an aching melody; and she's downright funky on the mid-tempo "Shark" (Georges is sharp and skillful throughout). Hersh has an authentic, impressively cerebral sound with tasteful and crafted production values, but the record just isn't very engaging. Martin McCarrick plays some occasionally prominent cello, and Robert Rust (piano) is audible only on the melancholy "Night Driving." (JA)

Andy Timmons Band, Resolution (2006)
Texas guitar virtuoso Andy Timmons has kept a relatively low profile (he did play in 80s hair-metal band Danger Danger), but he's absolutely first-rate. With his incredible fluidity and pitch control - you'll sometimes think the guitar is a keyboard - his closest reference point is Jeff Beck circa Blow By Blow (in fact, "Gone (9/11/01)" is somewhat reminiscent of "'Cause We've Ended As Lovers"). He has a similarly broad stylistic range: the instrumental disc's eleven tracks include introspective mood pieces (title track), hard rock ("Move On") and a rip-roaring country-western hidden track. Though of course Timmons burns through the uptempo cuts ("Deliver Us"), his musical conception is perhaps better heard on the slow pieces, where he wrings dramatic emotion out of usually showoffy heavy metal lead techniques like geometric arpeggiation and tapping ("Beware Dark Days"). The rhythm section is Timmons' pre-Danger Danger band - Mike Daane (bass) and Mitch Marine (drums) - and they drive the tunes with the right mix of enthusiasm and contemplation. The weak link is the compositions: all by Timmons, they're functional but - apart from "Ghost Of You," which alternates between ballad passages and a Zep-quality rock riff - unremarkable. It's too bad instrumental rock doesn't have a tradition of cover albums the way jazz does; a set of standards would better display Timmons's astonishing musicianship. (DBW)

Andy Timmons Band, Plays Sgt. Pepper (2011)
While I'm sure Timmons didn't see my previous review, his next release was not just a covers album but a full cover album, and like Booker T. & The MG's and George Benson before him, he set his sights on the Beatles (including "Strawberry Fields Forever" for good measure). Sgt. Pepper's is a good fit for Timmons in a few ways: the record's mix of lyrical melodicism and energetic rock 'n' roll is right up his alley ("Getting Better"), his trio does a remarkable job of boiling down a famously dense record to its bare essentials ("With A Little Help From My Friends"), and the songs reach into so many genres it's a natural showcase for his versatility ("Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds"). On the other hand, the tunes are so highly structured there's not much room for soloing, and it's risky for someone who already plays in Jeff Beck's vein to take on "A Day In The Life." More importantly, though, Timmons seems content with reproducing the original album rather than injecting his experience into it: even the two major arranging changes merely draw from the Fab Four (the "Tomorrow Never Knows" beat appears in "Within You, Without You"; "Being For The Benefit Of Mister Kite" features the "She's So Heavy" section of "I Want You"). He's heard to best effect on "She's Leaving Home," and his technique and taste are impeccable throughout, but the overall impression is more an aced audition than a full-fledged performance. (DBW)

TKA, Louder Than Love (1990)
The main male Latin freestyle act, TKA (Tony Ortiz, "Kayel" Sharpe and "Aby" Cruz) hasn't been well remembered by history. Partly because their material - written and produced chiefly by Joey Gardner - isn't as memorable, partly because the vocals lack enough emotional punch ( is smooth to a fault) to contrast with the computerized rhythms. Mainly, though, the group didn't form a strong identity: Though the freestyle is functional ("You Are The One" - presumably an answer to one of the many "Let Me Be The One"s), they waste half the album on 4/4 New Jack Swing that's as vapid as it is rapid ("Are You For Real?"), far less exciting or innovative than direct contemporaries like Bobby Brown. Seduction's Michelle Visage guests on "Crash (Have Some Fun)," a scattershot collection of dance hooks. David Cole's "Something In My Heart" is a surefire genre classic, but it may be all you need to hear from this LP. (DBW)

TKA, Forever (2001)
I never would have expected this reunion record with a quasi-pornographic cover to be worth hearing, let alone better than TKA's original albums. But it's respectable from top to bottom, in the romantic slow-dance ("U Don't Feel It Anymore")/midtempo grind ("Better Than The Rest") mold of contemporaneous Backstreet Boys output: "Now That Ur Gone" is a striking, sober reflection on a failed relationship. Freestyle fans will be dismayed that there's no trace of that style, as producer/chief writer Sharpe (by now known as K7) adapts to newer trends: DLG rapper James Da Barba guests on the Spanish-language incarnation of guitar-driven dance anthem "Feel The Music" (also available in English). There is a sense of history, though: "In A Manner" recalls Kraftwerk, and "Move Out The Way" is a clever updating of "Melting Pot." Despite ample opportunities to wallow in corn syrup ("Love Conquers All"), lapses of taste are few - at least until the concluding heavy-breather "In And Out." (DBW)

Toad the Wet Sprocket, Fear (1991)
The commercial breakthrough record by Santa Barbara's most famous rock band. I have most of the group's work, and it's mostly disappointing, Gin Blossoms-like soft rock, with overwrought tenor harmonies, sharply practiced but indistinct musicianship, and a general lack of innovation or even distinct influences. Indeed, their third major-label album is full of that kind of thing ("Something To Say"), but it also has a bunch of relative high points: the smiley-faced 3/4 ballad "Walk On The Ocean," whose mandolin/accordion/string quartet arrangement strongly recalls contemporary REM; the rocker "Butterflies," with sharp harmonies and Dean Dinning's genuinely funky bass line; the hummable love song "All I Want"; the sickly-sweet but effective "I Will Not Take These Things For Granted," where they get a bona fide 70s singer-songwriter sound; and the creepy, waltzing power ballad "Stories I Tell," with some of understated guitarist Todd Nichols' harshest playing. They even push the edge with a blunt rape protest number (the emotional, fast-tempo country-rock tune "Hold Her Down"). Producer Gavin MacKillop's glossy mock-analog sound is numbingly corporate, although he manages to keep things interesting (guest Ellen Turner's counterpoint harmonies on the moody piano ballad "Pray Your Gods"). But the ambitiously poetic lyrics are often embarassingly platitudinous, and it's thin outside the key tracks, with a mix of functional college rock ("Is It For Me"; "Before You Were Born") and slightly saccharine, upbeat country-rock ("Nightingale Song"; "In My Ear"). Whitebread, but definitely worth a listen. Frontman/guitarist Glen Phillips dominates the songwriting, but Nichols did write "Walk On The Ocean." The group split in 1998 after recording three more albums; Phillips then embarked on a relatively low-profile solo career - I have his 2000 disc Abulum - while other members of the band formed the splinter group Lapdog. (JA)

A Total Experience Christmas (1984)
Total Experience Records had one high-profile act, The Gap Band, and they deliver three covers here: Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas" uses elements of their electro-funk formula, but "The Christmas Song" and "I Miss You Most Of All At Christmas" are just backdrops for Charlie Wilson's pleading vocals. Several other Gap Band associates are on hand - Jonah Ellis ("Christmas Won't Be Christmas Without My Baby"), Lonnie Simmons - but only Oliver Scott comes close to their trademark sound, with incongruous heavy synth and drums on "Joy To The World." But because the other tracks stay close to R&B conventions, what you get is generic arrangements and generic sounding singers (the Tempts-like Prime Time; Yarbrough & Peoples) singing songs everybody knows ("Silent Night"). If you're in a patient mood, there's nothing wrong with performances like Goodie's soulful rendition of "Please Come Home For Christmas," but there's certainly no reason to recommend them. (DBW)

USA For Africa, We Are The World (1985)
It's easy to be smug about this feel-good charity chart-topper, but jeez, it's not like the world would be a better place if the assorted A-listers had been snorting coke in their hotel rooms the night of the Grammys rather than cutting the title track. The song - written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie - is truly weak, simplistic and extremely repetitive, but at least it's fun to spot the vocal mannerisms as everyone from Ray Charles to Bob Dylan to the ever-grating Cyndi Lauper tries to breathe some life into the insipid melody. And it's not nearly as lame as its Canadian equivalent (David Foster's "Tears Are Not Enough," performed by Northern Lights), also included here... the tune is anti-memorable, and I can hardly tell any of the vocalists apart, except for Bryan Adams. The LP is padded out with other superstar donations, either live covers (Springsteen's version of Jimmy Cliff's "Trapped") or outtakes (Tina Turner's "Total Control"), all in the same overproduced 80s pop style (Paulinho Da Costa and Paul Jackson Jr. aren't literally on every track, but it seems like it). The one exception is Prince & The Revolution's downtempo "4 The Tears In Your Eyes": despite the layered keyboards and backing vocals, compared to the rest of the disc it's practically naked. (DBW)

Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, Live Alive (1986)
No, the title isn't a ghoulish reference to Vaughan's accidental death, this double live album (on one CD) was released while SRV was still wailing up a storm. He can't sing at all, and doesn't write much; his claim to fame is his blues guitar playing, completely derived from Jimi Hendrix but still enjoyable (though Vaughan's version of the master's "Voodoo Chile" shows just how far he falls short). This disc is probably the best place to start, because it contains most of his best-known tunes ("Pride And Joy," "Texas Flood," "Look At Little Sister"), plus several covers: Howlin' Wolf's misogynistic "I'm Leaving You (Commit A Crime)" gets a fine growling treatment, and SRV's flash makes Buddy Guy's "Mary Had A Little Lamb" rousing fun. Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" doesn't fare as well: Vaughan doesn't play much guitar, spotlighting his unexceptional vocals and drab keyboard backing from Reese Wynans. Throughout the band does the job, but doesn't add a spark of originality or interest. Just to cover all bases, Vaughan's brother Jimmy guests on a few tracks. (DBW)

Jody Watley (1987)
Following the phenomenal success of Janet Jackson's Control, singer Jody Watley (formerly of Shalamar) and producer/composer/one-man band André Cymone (former bassist for Prince) decided to jump on the bandwagon. They ended up out-Janeting Janet, with two of the best Minneapolis Sound hits ever, "Looking For A New Love" (source of the "hasta la vista, baby" catchphrase) and "Some Kind Of Lover." Both tracks masterfully combine spare synths, open space, crunching electronic percussion and melodic vocal hooks, but they're also well constructed songs, not just collections of sound effects. They had a third hit with "Still A Thrill," which I can't defend, and showed some versatility with "Learn To Say No," a confident retro R&B duet with George Michael. As calculated, derivative pop efforts go, this is pretty damn good. Bernard Edwards produced two tracks in the same style, but he's out of his element: there are no melodies to speak of, just grating hooks ("Don't You Want Me" was a hit single, "Love Injection" wasn't). Patrick Leonard contributed the laughable love song "Most Of All." Watley, who won a Best New Artist Grammy for this disc, has released several albums since, but never came close to repeating this success. (DBW)

Mike Watt, Ball-Hog Or Tugboat? (1995)
Minutemen/fIREHOSE leader/bassist goes solo with a bang, stuffing a self-produced disc with 17 tracks and a jaw-dropping array of guest stars: singers Eddie Vedder, Frank Black (the Pixies), Henry Rollins (Black Flag), Dave Pirner, Evan Dando (the Lemonheads), Gordon Gano sound-alike Carla Bozulich (Geraldine Fibbers), Tiffany Anders, and even Anna Waronker; Cris and Curt Kirkwood; Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic; J Mascis; Flea (jazz trumpet on the annoying, tightly performed swing number "Sidemouse Advice" ); Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz; drummers Stephen Perkins (Jane's Addiction) and Brock Avery (Wayne Kramer band); Screaming Trees members Gary Lee Conner (guitar) and Mark Lanegan (voice on "Max And Wells"); Geraldine Fibbers guitarist Nels Cline; and a dozen others. He even recruits Sonic Youth minus Kim Gordon (an offputting cover of their "Tuff Gnarl") and Bernie Worrell (organ on a cover of "Maggot Brain," with Mascis spewing out a 12 minute solo). Watt hardly opens his mouth, whispering like usual through the jazz-funk groove "Coincidence Is Either Hit Or Miss." But he's authoritative on the thumping country-punker "Big Train," and his bass work is as nimble as ever. And when he's not messing with intermittently impressive experiments ("Drove Up From Pedro"; "E-Ticket Ride"), he dishes out loud, eclectic, fIREHOSE-like hard rock tunes ("Against The 70s"; "Tell 'Em Boy," with Pirner; the mid-60s Who tribute "Piss-Bottle Man"; the James Brown-like "Song For Igor"). Most of the guests also come out looking good (Black on the lush country tune "Chinese Firedrill"; Rollins on the furious punk rocker "Sexual Military Dynamics"). But it's so indulgent and scattershot ("Forever - One Reporter's Opinion"; "Heartbeat") it's occasionally unlistenable ("Intense Song For Madonna To Sing") - the worst offender is a lame-brained, pseudo-feminist "phone message" by Kathleen Hanna. (JA)

Thank god that's over.

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