In 1988 Vernon Reid's blissfully unhinged fretwork on Cult of Personality marked him as the first black guitar hero since Hendrix to conquer the mainstream. His band, Living Colour, got to flex its musical muscles on the 1990 sophomore effort Time's Up. Reid's guitar still sounds like a psychotic laser on the band's latest album, Stain (Epic). So why is the overall effect unsatisfying? Because they are four excellent musicians who sound out of sync and stiff. Their usually excellent rhythm section often seems mired in metallic plod and stomp, then it lurches into weird time signatures that sound forced. Vocalist Corey Glover is politically correct but not often passionate. In short, they don't swing. When they sound especially centered, as on Never Satisfied and WTFF, Reid's guitar pyrotechnics are given a worthy context, and Living Colour escapes its paint-by-numbers tendencies. Let it rip, guys--that roar you hear is Metallica and Helmet in the fast lane.
Fast Cuts: Jack DeJohnette, Music for the Fifth World (Manhattan): Vernon Reid's frenzied guitar outbursts accent John Scofield's angular melodicism, while jazz drummer DeJohnette and Living Colour drummer Will Calhoun thunder and roll through Jack's endearingly quirky jazz-thrash fusion.
Charles M. Young
Here's the situation: I listened to Sunrise on the Sufferbus (Chrysalis), by Masters of Reality, and thought it one of the best CDs I'd heard in a long time. Then I went to work, where I was thinking about 853 other things, and when I phoned in my selection for the Playboy Rockmeter, I said, "Circus of Power." I meant to say one thing and I said another. I'm an idiot, OK?
"Let me change my pick," I groveled before my editor.
"The integrity of the revered Playboy Rockmeter must remain inviolate," she said. "We already sent Circus of Power to the other guys."
So I have to review Magic & Madness (Columbia), by Circus of Power. This isn't a problem, I just wouldn't have picked it for the revered Playboy Rockmeter. It has some good guitar licks, particularly on the slide guitar, but rather unoriginal lyrics.
By contrast, Masters of Reality--consisting of Chris Goss on vocals and guitar, Googe on bass and Ginger Baker on drums--manages to come up with something hugely original and familiar at the same time. It's blues-based but not the blues. It falls somewhere between Black Sabbath and Cream, with Hank Williams' sense of spare-but-beautiful song architecture. And it has perfect guitar tone and riffs. Its slightly surreal, tall-tale lyrics are perfect, too. Just buy it and know that we will accept no letters saying you already knew I was an idiot.
Fast Cuts: Rift (Elektra), by Phish: There are so many "fish" bands (School of Fish, An Emotional Fish, etc.) that it's hard to keep all the acoustic creatures straight. These particular Phish have toured tirelessly and gained a reputation on the college circuit for their energetic concerts and improvisational skills so valued by those who might otherwise be chasing the Dead. Does it work on record? Yeah. The sound is mostly sweet, with little distortion on the guitars and greater emphasis on keyboards than most rock I've heard lately. They pride themselves on musicianship and concentrate on organically intricate ensemble playing, which can be heard clearly since there's no guitar wash. Every anachronism that goes around comes around, and they're coming around.
Although it's taken too long, Public Enemy finally has some ideological competition. After ruling serious rap for five years, its Afrocentric smarts have been challenged, first by Arrested Development, whose Revolution is to Malcolm X as Fight the Power is to Do the Right Thing, and then by the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. Now, Philadelphia's Goats join in the competition.
Like the Disposable Heroes, the Goats are pointedly interracial, but they're far more street, brandishing cop tales that have a firsthand ring. Some may find Tricks of the Shade (Ruffhouse/Columbia) dogmatic--I think "fascist" is too evil a name to call Bill Clinton.
The music of this true hip-hop band says something as well. Augmenting the three rappers are live guitars, bass, drums, keyboards and turntables, with the rock-simple strength of the bass and guitar parts exploiting a sonic potential too often ignored by rap. Lots of rappers want to keep genre lines sharply drawn, but that never works. The Goats have the right idea in more ways than one.
Fast Cuts: Neneh Cherry, Homebrew (Virgin): Proof that the line between rap and pop isn't all that distinct, either.
Hoosier Hot Shots, Rural Rhythm (1935-1942) (Columbia): If you can admit to yourself that you want to hear four novelty-mad stooges from before you were born sing I Like Bananas (Because They Have No Bones), then you won't be sorry.
Leonard Cohen is a veteran Canadian poet whose métier is romanticism and despair. David Baerwald is a journeyman songwriter whose home turf is Hollywood's fin de siècle demimonde. Neneh Cherry is a young record maker who mingles dance-club life and melodic domesticity. Strangely enough, these three have much in common.
On The Future (Columbia), Cohen intones some of his more notably pessimistic aphorisms. "I've seen the future, brother, and it is murder," he declares, and that's no metaphor. He convincingly portrays the pursuit of democracy as man's most dangerous pastime and signs off with Always, in which he treats Irving Berlin's sentimental favorite with a blues guitar and a voice like Bob Dylan's. He's seen the future, all right. It not only doesn't work, it gives him a cold chill straight up the spine. In Los Angeles, Baerwald observes trendies and impostors performing maneuvers of social self-destruction that he terms Triage (A&M). He's never sounded more like the Nineties answer to Steely Dan--except on the final three songs (culminating in the desperate Born for Love), which render Springsteen's Nebraska as it might look while driving by the boutiques on Melrose Avenue. Cherry, a Swedish American singing from London, would like to sell herself as an apostle of neohippie positivity, and sometimes the swell of her post--Buffalo Stance dance rhythms almost pulls it off. Homebrew (Virgin) sounds more convincing when her electro-hip-hop beats become wistful and evocative, as on Peace in Mind. Which goes to show that even though trends may come and go, musicians with vision find common ground.
Fast Cuts: Paris, Sleeping with the Enemy (Scarface): This LP was rejected by Time Warner for threatening George Bush's life while using his own sound bites. It'll make your average liberal cringe.
My shorthand description of Des'ree is Anita Baker meets Tracy Chapman. Not that she's the vocal match of the balladeer or as intensely personal as the folksy songwriter. But this black British vocalist manages to suggest the best qualities of both on her debut LP, Mind Adventures (Epic).
This ten-song collection is marked by spirited soul singing and lyrics of quiet introspection rarely found in R&B. Throughout Mind Adventures, there is a desire to communicate real intimacy as opposed to romantic clichés. The funky title track, the passionate song Mama Please Don't Cry and the deceptively happy Stand on My Own Ground are among the gems here.
Fast Cuts: Chic, The Best of Chic, Volume 2 (Rhino/Atlantic): This is an unusual collection in that most of the tracks were not hits. The first volume, Dance, Dance, Dance, covered major successes such as Le Freak and Good Times, though these were released after the group's critical peak. Any fan of Chic will be happy to have a CD that includes Rebels Are We, At Last I Am Free and Tavern on the Green.
Lesette Wilson, Unmasked (Atlantic): Mellow is one of the most despised words in the lexicon. In a culture obsessed with the hard, the raw and the uncooked, mellow is viewed as some kind of disease. It may be a mixed blessing to describe Lesette Wilson's Unmasked as mellow. But this hardworking keyboardist-arranger-producer-songwriter has created one of those brunch and brie collections that is hard to review but pleasant to hear. A title like Spanish Daydream gives you a sense of Wilson's musical textures.
Guitar pyrotechnics, some Magic & Madness and a glimpse into The Future.