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- June 01, 1992
- Vol. 37
- No. 21
Picks and Pans Main: Song
Check Your Head
This album vaulted onto the Billboard charts, entering at No. 2. That surprisingly strong showing reflects the volatile nature of the charts since the industry bible changed its accounting methods last year. It also signals the fervor of the Cure's steadily swelling pool of fans, all of whom apparently flew to stores the day the album hit the racks.
But even the most devoted Cure fans may be disappointed when they break this eighth Rx out of the jewel box, because it is one of the most diffident and dull outings in the group's 14-year history.
Newcomers tempted by the big chart blip may be even more dismayed: No one is ever going to mistake the Cure for Bon Jovi or Skid Row. The most macabre of British gloom-rockers, they look like trolley trolls, not tour bus demigods. Onstage, they stand stock still. A ripple of excitement courses through the crowd if one of them shifts his weight from one foot to the other. Then there's that thick, incantatory music and the mopey, soul-sick lyrics. Most of the songs are set to the same midtempo drone. Let's not overlook singer and sinecure Robert Smith, who looks like a bread pudding that was left in an unplugged refrigerator and who has a zombiefied voice that makes him sound like the second banana in a classic horror film—you know, the vampire's squirrelly helper, the werewolf's weary butler, the mad scientist's hunchbacked lab assistant. Finally there are all those surreal Dali-esque videos director Tim Pope has been crafting for the group for the last decade.
Wish has few fulfillments beyond the trippy "High," the penetrating, epic-scaled "From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea" and the swirling, rather giddy "Friday I'm in Love." More effective Cures include the singles collection, Standing on a Beach ('86), and the double album, Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me ('87). Wish is just a hard-to-swallow placebo. (Elektra)
DeBarge's first album in three years is something of a milestone. As he turns 30 and finally sheds his cutie-pie teen idol image, the singer joins a new label in a new funkier style.
Rapper Kool Moe Dee hooks up with him for "Fast Lane," a taut little limb-jerker. Equally pulse-quickening is "My Heart Belongs to You" by Keith Crouch. One listen and it's obvious someone in the studio has been wearing out his copy of Prince's "Kiss." Maybe it's Maurice White, who coproduced with DeBarge. White's touch is evident throughout, particularly in the way he wedges musical interludes between songs, as he did on all those great Earth Wind & Fire albums.
Of course, with-his achingly pretty tenor, El—the Wayne Newton of Soul—would be foolish not to lather up a few romantic ballads. "Love Me Tonight" and "Special" fit the bill beautifully (even if they are rather syrupy). Another glider is the singer's smooth cover of Marvin Gaye's "After the Dance," a track that previously appeared on the hit jazz fusion album by Fourplay. With the socially conscious title track, DeBarge also pays implicit homage to Gaye's masterpiece "What's Going On."
In all, El is sounding more, um, mature. Until now, he wouldn't have dreamed of doing risqué songs like "Tip o' My Tongue" or "Leggs." No more puppy love. DeBarge is a big nasty hound now, barking up the right tree. (Warner Bros.)
Most people like to keep a diary of some sort when they travel. Shocked decided to make an entire album about her wanderings. She recorded everywhere from the legendary Sun Studios in Memphis to Trafalgar Studios in Sydney, from a riverboat in Missouri to an antique store in Georgia.
Likewise, the musicians vary from Hothouse Flowers to the Messengers (minus Paul Kelly) to Michelle's dad, affectionately known as "Dollar" Bill Johnston. For an album recorded in such disparate locations with a wildly varying gaggle of musicians, Arkansas Traveler is a surprisingly coherent collection of songs. It neatly bridges the gap between the rough-hewn spontaneity of The Texas Campfire Tapes (1986) and the more studied slickness of 1989's Captain Swing.
Shocked has said that her reference points for this album were her fascination with the tradition of fiddle tunes, the roots of blackface minstrel music and her love of "sitting around with a bunch of musicians and jamming the night away." And this is her most satisfying offering since her 1986 debut. Both Short Sharp Shocked (1988) and Captain Swing tended to gloss up and dilute the pure exuberance of a Michelle Shocked live performance. This record capitalizes on it.
From the Celtic strum of "Over the Waterfall" to the driving "Shaking Hands (Soldier's Joy)" and the sparse duet with Taj Mahal on "Jump Jim Crow," the album's strength is its diversity. The singer presents Arkansas Traveler as the closing chapter in a trilogy. The next LP will show us if Michelle can still shock. (Mercury)
Recent legal cases in which rappers like Biz Markie have been successfully sued for sampling other performers' music have hamstrung a number of heavy-borrowing rappers, none more than the Beasties. Their response—composing and performing 70 percent of the music on this record—is sadly amateur. (Next time, guys, hire a band.)
The sound is murky and messy, the music sloppy and uninvolving. The lyrics contain none of the smartass cleverness that marked the trio's earlier work. Then, too, their rap delivery has grown annoyingly wheedling in tone, particularly the yelps of Mike D.
Some songs, such as "Something's Got to Give," are atmospheric but stunted, suggesting something that U2 might have thrown out from the early takes of Achtung Baby. Only a pair of selections recall the rappers' former uncaged energy: the beat-dizzy "Jimmy James" and a subterranean swirl, "So What' cha Want."
Other than that, the Beasties are leasties. This punky, thin, unripe and tame record sounds more like the studio noodlings of the Lost Boys. (Capitol)
- David Hiltbrand,
- Barry Divola.
January 30, 2015
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