With his brilliant, critically heralded 1995 U.S. debut, Maxinquaye, Tricky, the 28-year-old British producer and rapper whose real name is Adrian Thaws, helped popularize trip hop, the slow and languid hybrid of hip hop and dance-club music. At the same time, it made Tricky, a former member of the English trip-hop group Massive Attack, an international pop sensation. Like Maxinquaye, which Tricky named after his late mother, this second effort is as intense and unsettling as it is intriguing. Tricky raps in a flat, deadpan style that contrasts sharply with the seething aural collages he creates by mixing elements of reggae, the blues and hip hop. Granted, Tricky's brand of trip hop is not for everyone. But if you enjoy hearing pop's boundaries pushed, Pre-Millennium Tension is an oddly satisfying experience. (Island)
One of the unexpected musical pleasures of the '90s has been the career rebirth of 64-year-old Johnny Cash, a member of both the country music and rock and roll halls of fame. Dropped after 28 years by the label for which he had made millions, Columbia, the Man in Black cast about aimlessly until an unlikely collaborator offered his services: rap producer Rick Rubin (L.L. Cool J., Run-D.M.C). The result, 1994's American Recordings, returned Cash to stark and haunted form. If this second Cash-Rubin collaboration doesn't quite match American Recordings, it is still a mighty strong piece of work that proves Cash's comeback is for real. With stellar backing from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Cash sounds loose-limbed and clearheaded. Lighting into "Rusty Cage" by Soundgarden's Chris Cornell, he teaches its whippersnapper author a thing or two about how to sound like you're in hell. Cash then leaps back in time with the Jimmie Rodgers chestnut "The One Rose" and his own rockabilly number "Country Boy." There is a stunning moment in "Spiritual" when the normally reigned-in Cash lets himself go, singing with towering and unself-conscious passion. It's the album's emotional climax. (American Recordings)
Tony Toni Toné
It would be easy to label Tony Toni Toné as mere (albeit excellent) soul revivalists. Like their previous three CDs, House of Music is flavored with the sounds of old-school R&B, and the group has obviously studied at the feet of the masters. "Thinking of You" is a sly salute to Al Green, while "Holy Smokes & Gee Whiz" is a cool taste of Philly soul. But the Tonys are much more than a tribute band. They realize that soul music is a living, breathing thing that they update with modern, hip-hop rhythms and push passionately toward the future. (Mercury)
Riders in the Sky
Though we think of cowboy music as part of our folk tradition, it's not. The singing cowboy is a glossy pop creation born in Hollywood in the 1930s. The first, and greatest, of the celluloid singing cowpokes was Gene Autry (still with us today at 89), seller of some 50 million records, star of more than 90 movies. The dozen standards on Riders in the Sky's Autry tribute, Public Cowboy #1, evoke the genial ease of Gene's originals. But the three Riders—known as Ranger Doug, Too Slim and Woody Paul—toss in plenty of fillips all their own. Guitarist-vocalist Ranger Doug, just possibly the world's greatest living yodeler, turns Autry's signature "Back in the Saddle Again" into a rubber-lunged tour de force, itself worth the price of the album. But you also get renditions of Autry gems like "Blue Canadian Rockies," "Be Honest with Me" and "South of the Border" that'll put you right out under the western skies. (Rounder)
Autry's own Blues Singer, meanwhile, is a revelation. Back when Autry was getting started, the infant country music industry's biggest star was Jimmie Rodgers, many of whose hits were pure, unalloyed blues. As Blues Singer shows, Autry began as an out-and-out Rodgers imitator. The effect of these 23 tracks, collectors' items until now, is truly eerie. We might be listening to Rodgers himself singing "In the Jail-house Now No. 2," "T.B. Blues" and his other hits. In 1931, Autry found his own voice with the million-selling ballad "That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine," and his days as a bluesman were over. But he left us this mini-legacy as a fascinating footnote. (Columbia/Legacy)
THE BEAT GOES ON
In the 1950s his epic Howl became the poetic anthem of the first rock-and-roll generation. In the 1960s he hung out with the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan. In the 1980s he performed a punk-rock rap on an album by the Clash. Now 70, Allen Ginsberg is setting his poetry to rock's back beat once again. His new CD, The Ballad of the Skeletons (Mouth Almighty/Mercury), features such stellar collaborators as Paul McCartney on guitar, drums, organ and maracas, Patti Smith sideman Lenny Kaye on bass and avant-garde composer Philip Glass on keyboards. And this being the '90s, the poet, who lives in New York City's East Village with his companion of 41 years, Peter Orlovsky, is bound for MTV, performing his CD's title tune in a video directed by ultrahip filmmaker Gus Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy). Ginsberg spoke with reporter Lan Nguyen.
How are poetry and rock connected?
I'm a poet. So are a lot of pop stars. Paul McCartney is a poet. Lennon was a poet. Dylan is a supreme poet. Music and poetry have been together since the time of Homer. Black-blues spirituals by Ma Rainey, Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith—that's poetry that has conquered the world.
Who turned you on to music and poetry?
My father was a poet. Poetry is a family business. My teacher of the three-chord blues was Bob Dylan. Musicians nowadays are very literate and intelligent, so it's fun to work with them.
How did you happen to work with Paul McCartney?
We had known each other for years. I was visiting his house in southern England. We had been looking at his poetry and discussing haiku. I had conceived of a riff, so I asked Paul if he could recommend a guitarist. He gave me some names, but he said, "If you're not fixed up with a guitarist, why don't you try me?" I said it was a date.
- Amy Linden,
- Tony Scherman,
- Lan Nguyen.