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The Boston Phoenix 5 Style

Lenny Kravitz keeps it coming.

By Michael Freedberg

MAY 26, 1998:  Five CDs into his very improbable career in music, Lenny Kravitz remains the smartly accomplished nonprofessional. Digging up a host of played-out, rock-radio licks, slugging his way through simplified soul chords and defunked funk riffs, Kravitz pedestrianizes nearly everything he touches. Of the 13 songs on 5 (Virgin), which came earlier this month, at least eight are marred (in Kravitz's peculiar aesthetic they are not marred, as we'll see shortly) by stiff rhythms, bland guitar fills, and too much chunk. Lumpy bass riffs bump up against equally stony piano chords. Weak-melodied bridges destroy rhythmic tension. Worst of all are Kravitz's vocals. With his cramped-up muscle of a baritone (try "Super Soul Fighter"), and his sickly sweet, falsely sensitive tenor ("It's Your Life"), he sounds like a barroom-band guy shouldering his way through a "sing da blooz" set on chug-a-lug night. Elsewhere -- on "Black Velveteen" and "Fly Away" -- the production nails a double track of his noisiest, most sneering tenor to a generic blast of hard rock and ends up sounding an awful lot like Jon Bon Jovi.

Kravitz sounds like a honky. And he seems to want it that way. It's as if he meant to take pop music far away from the Brill Building and from the deep integrity of soul music to a Euro World of fine craft -- far, indeed, from trying to rail against the system, or asking for your trust, or doing anything at all beyond spilling his guts all over a few moments of your life.

In his desire to embody white rock Kravitz recalls Sly Stone, whose riffs he especially likes: "Live," "Take Time," and "Fly Away" bring Stone's "Dance to the Music" directly to mind. But Stone had a serious side and an eloquent insight into himself -- expressed in gems like "Different Strokes" and "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" -- that Kravitz, whose music loathes significance and all its consequences, never touches. When Kravitz does turn to a moral subject on 5, in "I Belong to You" and "If You Can't Say No," the context is sexual heat, wherein the lessons of broken promises and contradictions are overpowered by those guts he likes to spill.

In Kravitz's art this overpowering is accomplished by painting over the raw intensity of the song's melody and the lyric's moral remedy with his offputting vocals and lots of arranged sounds and production tricks. SOS beeps and sad keyboards blanket "If You Can't Say No"; a ton of melodic sugar glazes over "I Belong to You." These devices engage the taste buds to the exclusion of the conscience. So on "If You Can't Say No," a song cleft in two by a knife-blade solo of crying blues guitar, you hear the sonic resolution (sadness to tragedy) a lot more loudly than the lyric's moral.

Eventually you learn to comprehend Kravitz's artful artlessness. You expect 5 to feature Stevie Wonder ripoffs like "Thinking of You," the gothic blah-blah of "Take Time," echoes of the Rascals in "Can We Find a Reason," and the bits of Guns N' Roses sprinkled throughout "You're My Flavor," a song full of catch-phrase feel-goods, cardboard speechifying, snot-nosed sassiness, and guys going horny. And even if on one occasion, in "Little Girl's Eyes," Kravitz looks in the overcrafted manner of Europop through the eye of a song and into those of his young daughter (a subject he can't just shrug aside), the whine in his voice, peerlessly whitebread like all his singing, seems less a way of identifying with his hoped-for pop audience than a part of himself, a certainty, a solid definite. Here, when the falsettoized guitar solo appears in the song's break, it emphasizes Kravitz's vocal instead of distracting you from it.

This unity of voice and guitar proves that Kravitz can write intense moral songs of great beauty when he chooses. His preferred mode of clumsy rock, cheap soul, and bloozy honk is, therefore, purposeful. You may not like his purpose -- bland-out music for tune-out moments is written to be exploited, not loved. But that's what you'll find on 5, an album of stressed-out pleasures for souls gone numb.

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