Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Music Reviews

OCTOBER 20, 1997: 

***1/2 Missy Misdemeanor Elliott

SUPA DUPA FLY

(EastWest)

Notwithstanding an occasional rhymer of reason like Wyclef Jean or Coolio, most of the new rappers who are dancing their way out of hip-hop's constriction are still blindered by hard-ass tradition. Missy Elliott may not flash a gat, but that's only because her taste in threats is more low-key, like "Ladies and gents, dogs cats and babies/Whoever bit my style I hope you croak from rabies." Her signature sound matches this cool attitude to slow, dark beats laced with an impressive variety of spare, funky hooks.

Elliott first demonstrated that style as a songwriter for artists like Aaliyah and Ginuwine. Now, with the inestimable help of her childhood pal and DJ, Timbaland, she lays out her skills in a masterful debut album that drops catchy crossover raps, sultry R&B ballads, and untraditional samples (the current hit "The Rain" is based on an Ann Peebles classic), all without breaking ranks with the hard, uncouth streets. It's so simple and strong, I got to wondering whether hip-hop's only real problem is bad music. I guess formal triumphs can engender formalist delusions.

-- Franklin Soults


*** Eddie Clearwater

MEAN CASE OF THE BLUES

(Bullseye Blues)

On the Chief's first domestic album in nearly a decade, he's in a trio -- his best setting, because it compels him to play and sing his ass off. Clearwater started as a disciple of Chuck Berry, and he's been toughing out a living in Chicago's scene for decades. So his blue-collar blues ring authentic as he moans a classic like Magic Sam's "Look Whatcha Done" or shouts through "Party at My House" or another of his many up-tempo originals.

He fronts the band, also his current touring outfit, with a sense of reckless confidence that translates into raw guitar runs and nasty bent and shaken strings -- just like his best live performances. It's the kind of playing gleaned from years of slugging it out in the clubs, learning how to push patrons' buttons. When Clearwater sings "I picked a hard way to make an easy living" in the song of the same name, you know he's not kidding. You also know that at 62 years old he's still having a hell of a good time.

-- Ted Drozdowski


**

THE WILSONS

(Mercury)

It's not easy being a Brian Wilson fan these days. You're tantalized by continual reports that he's back in the studio, writing new songs that blow "Good Vibrations" away; but all you ever get to hear are fiascoes like the Beach Boys' recent country album. Or disappointments like this one, which is billed as a collaboration with his two daughters (whose band Wilson Phillips have quietly fizzled). Brian appears on four tracks, but he does only back-up vocals on the first three, including a horrendous version of the Beach Boys gem " 'Til I Die." His remaining contribution, "Everything I Need," is not only the first original Brian song to be released in a decade but his first collaboration in 30 years with Pet Sounds co-writer Tony Asher. Brian pulls out his old orchestral tricks, giving daughter Wendy a gorgeous melody to work with. It's a little too sweet to be a Pet Sounds-level classic; still, it comes close enough to prove he's still got some kind of knack.

The non-Brian tracks get off to a promising start with "Good About You," which casts the sisters as a latter-day Go-Go's. But then the Wilson Phillips-style stickiness takes over -- even when they try using drum machines and singing about teenage runaways. It's a more grown-up sound for the Wilson girls, but growing up isn't everything. Just ask Debbie Gibson.

-- Brett Milano


**1/2 The Lookers

IN CLOVER

(Candy-ass)

Thanks in part to the rapid Collective Soul-ification of mainstream rock, a band as unpolished as this self-proclaimed "dyke-pop" trio from Portland, Oregon, can once again be refreshing. Of course, it's not simply the absence of slick production values, the simplicity of the jangle-and-strum songs, the imperfection of the harmonies, or the pronounced artlessness of the playing that makes In Clover appealing. It's the way those elements combine to create an intimate immediacy. Like Sleater-Kinney -- the best known emissaries from the Northwest's burgeoning lesbian rock scene -- the Lookers get by without a bassist, relying instead on two scrappy rhythm guitars and the melodic strength of their material. Singer/guitarist Sarah Dougher offers tributes to Lady Bird Johnson and track star Wilma Rudolph, snapshots of the 9-to-5 office life and a trip to DC, and lightly poetic personal reflections of stray good times and let-downs, in serious but never strident tones. It's music that doesn't aim to change the world, only to rearrange it one small piece at a time.

-- Matt Ashare


***1/2

CRYSTAL WATERS

(Gadfly)

Waters sings her third CD in the same flat, Esther Phillips-like drawl that first made her reputation in "Gypsy Lady (She's Homeless)." Grinning her way through the various stages of a sweaty get-down, she moves from flirtatious openers ("Momma Told Me," "Love I Found") to gyroscopic repartee ("Spin Me," "Say . . . If You Feel Alright") to taking the plunge ("Passion," "Female Intuition," and "Just a Freak" -- this one includes a dialogue with Dennis Rodman, who ought to know) with a scratchy realism all her own. There's no mistaking her dry drollery, so felicitously paired to the Basement Boys' light-touch house rhythms. If funky realism means more to you than mere drama or sonic couture, Waters is your dance victim.

-- Michael Freedberg


*** The Residents

OUR TIRED, OUR POOR, OUR HUDDLED MASSES

(Rykodisc)

These are the guys with heads that look like big bloodshot eyeballs. Thirty albums in 25 years. Possibly you went through a phase with them.

Anyway, this is their big retrospective double-CD, and it's a bit spotty. Not that any bases are left untouched -- you get the better cover versions (Hank Williams's "Jambalaya," and the Stones' "Satisfaction," to name two), a good sampling from their prodigiously imaginative and incidentally new-wavy 1980 Commercial Album (all cuts one minute long), a condensed version of The Third Reich 'N' Roll (1975), where the music sounds presciently industrial and the singer sounds drunk, and four songs from the consensus favorite, Duck Stab/Buster & Glen (1977-'78). It's just that surrealistic, disjunctive satire becomes a bit much stretched over two discs, and there are time-suspending episodes where you may wish you were doing something else. Verdict: for fans, redundant; for everyone else -- oh, why not give it a try.

-- Richard C. Walls


*** Muzsikás and Márta Sébestyén

MORNING STAR

(Rykodisc)

Márta Sébestyén is best known for her rendition of the traditional "Szerelem, Szerelem" on the English Patient soundtrack. Yet she's been singing since she was a child, and she began performing with the Hungarian folk group Muzsikás in the early '80s. Sébestyén, who sings in Hungarian on Morning Star, has an occasionally nasal voice that accentuates the feelings of disappointment and abandonment found in so many of the traditional folk songs she covers. Unrequited love, a painful romantic break-up, and the agony of watching young soldiers leave for war are all within her range.

Complementing her voice, fiddlers Mihály Sipos and László Porteleki are apt to start with slow, solemn melodies before building into high-pitched, swirling harmonies that take on a dramatic flair when the low humming of Dániel Hamar's bass and Péter Éri's viola is added. Theirs is a musical tradition foreign to English-speaking audiences, but it's music that bridges national boundaries -- after all, Sébestyén has became "the voice of the English Patient" without even singing in English.

-- Jeff Niesel


**1/2 Old 97's

TOO FAR TO CARE

(Elektra)

Barreling out of the speakers like a freight train with the guys from Social Distortion shoveling coal into its guts, the major-label debut from Dallas's Old 97's builds a snorting head of steam that rarely lets up. The careering opener, "Timebomb," kicks up dust with singer Rhett Miller's dawg-in-heat testimony about having it "bad for a stick-legged girl." And cowpunk numbers like "Big Brown Eyes" and "Broadway" are shrewd enough to have come out of the Cracker songbook.

The real beauty of this set, though, is the gorgeously plaintive "Salome." More than any other tune, it suggests what Old 97's might accomplish if they stopped stompin' so hard all the time. Which is the only thing that mars this otherwise promising debut. Any band who name themselves after an old Johnny Cash song get points right off the bat, but Old 97s' over-reliance on gallopy twang starts to sound myopic by the end of a disc peppered with keepers that would be perfect for a back-porch hootenanny.

-- Jonathan Perry


*** Matrimony

KITTY FINGER

(Kill Rock Stars)

This is the great lost riot grrrl album, released by a young mostly female (they had a boy drummer) band from Sydney in 1989. Not many heard it back then, but Bikini Kill singer Kathleen Hanna took note and pushed for this reissue on the Olympia indie Kill Rock Stars.

It's easy to hear why: Matrimony favor the same raw combination of confrontational vocals, snarling guitars, and driving punk rhythms that powers Bikini Kill. They also dip into the hypnotic jangle of Beat Happening, and they owe a debt to Lydia Lunch's New York school of dark humor and sexually explicit lyrical content. Which makes Kitty Finger something of a late-'80s bridge between the pioneering feminist punk of the Slits and Lunch and the cock-cutting posture of Bikini Kill (not to mention Babes in Toyland, Hole, etc.). This CD also features the best song about frozen cadavers since the Freeze's "Refrigerator Heaven."

-- Joe S. Harrington


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