Last year, while you filled out your ballots for the Playboy Music Poll, radio stations across the country helped us conduct a campaign to solicit tapes from local rock bands. The resulting deluge of material was judged by a panel of radio and recording experts, and its choices appear on Street Rock (Night-flite). In all modesty, we can say that this is a smart and well-produced compilation of Eighties rock. It exhibits a broad range of styles, an enormous diversity in approach and a good measure of originality, though when these groups have stolen, they've stolen from the best.
In an era in which great singers have taken a back seat to songwriters, it's a thrill to discover Bettye LaVette, a gifted R&B singer who grew up in Detroit around the same time as Smokey Robinson and the other Motown illuminati. After a career that has included 18 singles, Bettye's finally got her first album, Tell Me a Lie (Motown), and we're convinced there's nothing this woman can't sing. In fact, her producer, Steve Birmingham (Alicia Bridges, Dionne Warwick, Melissa Manchester), says that her scratch takes were good enough for the final product. There's plenty of sexy, sweet soul here, and there's not a cut that won't move you.
Terri Gibbs can make her voice dip and curl like thick smoke riding a slow air stream. On her new album, Some Days It Rains All Night Long (MCA), it's so strong and so knowledgeable that she can operate microscopically on the pressure points of a song. A small gesture of her mouth midphrase can completely change your mind about love or pain or whatever else she happens to be singing about. But one of the real pleasures of this well-produced, well-paced album is that regardless of the emotion Gibbs is dissecting, there is a constant joy in her voice--a kind of physical harmony of brain and lungs and mouth doing something as well as it can be done.
We've just finished listening to Simon and Garfunkel's live album, The Concert in Central Park (Warner Bros.), and we're feelin' groovy. This record is so beautifully produced that it makes us feel like getting a blanket and a bottle of wine and inviting 500,000 friends over to share the experience. Our past has never sounded so good. Such songs as Homeward Bound and America could have been written last week. The big news is that Artie can rock with the best of them, and the addition of his voice to such Simon songs of the Seventies as Kodachrome and Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard is a treat not to be missed. the heart that lives in New York belongs to Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. This double album is worth every penny it costs.
Presumably, we have God to thank for Van Morrison's Beautiful Vision (Warner Bros.). Well, thank God. This is Morrison's smartest, most cohesive and most richly musical record in years. He's back in full stride: confident and muscular, with his old gifts for musical phrasing, melody and intricate textures. And while the songs themselves employ the language of Celtic mysticism, they are really about the sacredness of the everyday--you know, things like women. She Gives Me Religion gives you the idea. The album hasn't a single mis-step of taste or rigorousness, and it's so satisfying when a major artist makes the effort to tell us the news from the heart.
Charlie Daniels' Southern Democratic (boll-weevil?) rock takes a musical stance slightly to the right of usual in Windows (Epic). His band sounds a little slower, tighter and more contemplative. Some easy nostalgia songs are joined by some of Daniels' trademark musical morality plays--one, for instance, about a ragin' Cajun who breaks out of a Louisiana jail to go up North and come down on a pimp who stuck a needle in his (the Cajun's) little sister's arm. Best, though, is Still in Saigon, about a Vietnam vet.
When Graham Parker broke with his legendary backup band, The Rumour, last year, the buzz was that the British rocker/songwriter would do a solo acoustic-guitar album, à la Dylan circa 1964. Be assured that Another Grey Area (Arista) is not that album. Producer and heavy metalist Jack Douglas has layered Parker's reedy voice over a concretion of sound that at first comes as a shock to Parker fans accustomed to tasty guitar riffs from Brinsley Schwarz and Martin Belmont; immediately the mind is set to wondering, What have they done to his song? But we found, after a few listens, that we liked the new sound and that basically, we'd follow Graham Parker anywhere.
Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, originally for piano but orchestrated by Ravel in 1922, is one of those pieces of the classical repertoire that everybody seems to know and many people try to exploit. A new guitar arrangement by 20-year-old Kazuhito Yamashita (RCA Digital) may be the best of the modern versions. Yamashita is absolutely faithful to the music, and he is a fantastic technician. While one may wonder why anyone would transcribe to guitar something that is so successful for orchestra, those who are familiar with the piano and the orchestral renditions will find Yamashita's version a pleasing earful. We wouldn't recommend it for first-time listeners, but Pictures lovers will want this version hanging somewhere on their sonic walls.
XTC / English Settlement (Virgin): An innocent romp through the decaying British empire by a smart group that draws upon the best in English rock--the Beatles, The Who and E.L.O.
Willie Nelson / Always on My Mind (Columbia): Willie, son, all this pop is starting to sound like pap.
Death Wish II--The Original Soundtrack (Swan Song): Movie music is movie music, even in the hands of Led Zep's Jimmy Page. His fans'll wish they were dead for paying $8.50 for this one.
John Hammond / Frogs for Snakes (Rounder Records, 186 Willow Avenue, Somerville, Massachusetts 02144): A more uptown sound than usual from one of the best purveyors of blues going.
Mike Auldridge / Eight-String Swing (Sugar Hill Record, P.O. Box 4040, Duke Station, Durham, North Carolina 27706): The eight-string's a dobro, and this rolls along as sweetly as the Shenandoah on a summer's day.
Girlschool / Hit and Run (Bronze): Let's hear it for bad girls in leather! A new all-female aggregation that plays heavy metal better than most of the big boys. Our favorite play-it-loud album so far this year.
Kazumi Watanabe / Mermaid Boulevard (Inner City): Virtuoso Japanese guitarist backed up by top L.A. session players--Ernie Watts, Harvey Mason, Lee Ritenour and Patrice Rushen.