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NOVEMBER 10, 1997: 

*** The Verve

URBAN HYMNS

(Virgin)

In the wake of two highly praised albums (1993's A Storm in Heaven and 1995's A Northern Soul), England's Verve nearly broke up last year. Substance abuse was widely rumored, but whatever the reason, the band took a rest. It pays off on Urban Hymns, a disc that both challenges and improves on the prevailing notions of Brit-pop. Unlike Oasis, the Verve don't need to boast about their talent -- they let their songs do the talking.

Singer Richard Ashcroft can use his voice to evoke the tonal depth of Bono or the haughty arrogance of Liam Gallagher. His poetic lyrics deal candidly with the band's troubled past ("The Drugs Don't Work," "Bitter Sweet Symphony"). And the band support him with thickly layered tunes that drive Urban Hymns forward with symphonic intensity, cranking "Weeping Willow" up with the gusto of the Stone Roses. This is one of the album's most powerful songs, wrapping heavy guitar chords around even heavier lyrics that confront drug abuse and suicide ("The pill's under my pillow . . . the gun's under your pillow"). It's not the first time this has happened, but the Verve have turned misfortune into a creative triumph.

-- Michael S. Julianelle


***

THE DURAN DURAN TRIBUTE ALBUM

(Mojo)

Critical theorists have a field day with tribute albums, and truly this little gem may say more about when and how its hip contributors hit musical puberty than whether such a tongue-in-cheek salute is parody or praise. But, hey, I was listening to the radio throughout the '80s too, and I say the world needs a ska-core take on "Rio" (which Goldfinger give us, complete with an excerpt from that other great punk-kitsch cover, "Steppin' Stone"). Slam-dancing to the Bond theme "View to a Kill" with GOB also seems a grand idea. When Reel Big Fish lounge around to "Hungry like a Wolf," the joke gets in the tune's way (the smirking intro doesn't help), and the few other slow (dare we say reverent?) takes likewise pale. But hard-and-fast still rules, with Buck-o-Nine snarling Dead Kennedys-style through "Hold Back the Rain" and Riverfenix ripping through "Ordinary World," discovering the beauty that was prime-time Duran Duran.

-- Clea Simon


***

PAINT IT, BLUE: SONGS OF THE ROLLING STONES

(House of Blues)

The dozen blues and R&B greats assembled here infuse lusty new life into well-worn Stones tunes. Junior Wells, the harp legend who opened for the Stones in 1969, gives a swinging "Smokestack Lightning" treatment to "Satisfaction"; and Johnny Copeland weighs in with a deliciously greasy "Tumblin' Dice," a performance that's all the more memorable because it was the guitarist's final session before he passed away, at age 60, last July. Luther Allison, another contributor, also died shortly after he recorded his gospel-funk cover of "You Can't Always Get What You Want" (the disc is dedicated to both artists). Ultimately though, this collection brings to mind the birth of the Stones as wide-eyed blues purists emulating their heroes -- some of whom, like Wells, even appear here. And in a nice twist, award-winning blues newcomer Alvin "Youngblood" Hart harks back to his own adolescent roots with richly elegiac readings of "Sway" and "Moonlight Mile."

-- Jonathan Perry


*** Milton Nascimento

NASCIMENTO

(Warner Bros.)

This is intimate Milton, not the cosmic titan tossing the Jovian lightning bolts we've come to expect. Pushing 55, the Brazilian singer/songwriter bares his old passions in muted ballads and soft, quiescent textures. His vulnerability emerges, in cracking notes, quavering vibrato, and a paucity of multi-voiced overdubs. His rhapsodic personae blossom on "Biromes y servilletas," key words repeated and beautifully rhymed, but more wistful than embroiled. There's less of his "stadium" amplified acoustic guitar; there are more light touches. Soprano sax keens like an oboe on "Cuerpo y alma" ("Body and Soul")." Insistent Afro-Bahia rhythms and the sing-song choruses on "Janela para o mondo" ("Window on the World") and "Louva-a-deus" (Praying Mantis) evoke quiet goodbyes. "Ol' Man River" is a reverse showstopper, both in programming and in treatment. Milton omits the lyrics, reharmonizes chords, intones the outraged bridge with an eerie gentleness and passivity over flutes. Perhaps the cover tells it best: subtle angles and shadings on the naked, vulnerable, human artist. On the seventh day, even demi-gods rest.

-- Fred Bouchard


*** Laika

SOUNDS OF THE SATELLITES

(Too Pure/Sire)

There's no good way to label Laika. Sure, they're tightly wound with the trance-rock tradition started by Can. And they've got pristine credentials in the world of feminized (not necessarily feminist) rock. Margaret Fiedler (who was previously with Moonshake) and Guy Fixsen (who produced the Breeders, My Bloody Valentine, and Throwing Muses) have been around the block a few times. On Sounds of the Satellites touches of drum 'n' bass programming, quirky samples, and the occasional dash of rumbling sub-bass enliven the duo's oceanic textures. Laika are fond of technology, but tasteful: their answer to hardware-obsessed noodleheads can be found in the lyrics of the sparkling track "Shut Off/Curl Up" ("Shut off, curl up/If it hurts push harder." Elsewhere, Fiedler's languorous, breathy vocals sit well in a mix peppered with up-tempo drum-machine sequences and tremulous guitar notes -- which hint that Laika stick to "real" instruments (guitar, bass, drums, percussion, mini-Moog) when they play live.

-- Chris Tweney


** Busta Rhymes

WHEN DISASTER STRIKES

(Elektra)

With his 1995 solo debut, The Coming, and his smash single "Woo Hah!! Got You All in Check," this former member of the Leaders of the New School established himself as rap's premier wild man, a class clown whose spare, fractured beats, frenetic vocal style, and loony, ribald wordplay were admired by every rap clique from hardcore gangsta to smooth crossover. On When Disaster Strikes, Busta tries to maintain his diverse fan base by pleasing everybody, kicking it to one audience with a misogynist spoken-word intro and doses of millennial doomsaying, to another with party-hearty raves and a duet with R&B chanteuse Erykah Badu. Trying to split the difference, he even ends a two-part gangbanging extravaganza with the threadbare copout "It was only a dream." Whether his efforts are disingenuous or simply confused, the strain of it all is just plain exhausting. Busta's energy seems to give out about two-thirds through the album, but listeners lacking his psychotic fervor will be excused for calling it quits much sooner.

-- Franklin Soults


**

BOB MARLEY DREAMS OF FREEDOM: AMBIENT TRANSLATIONS OF BOB MARLEY IN DUB ISLAND

(Axiom)

Bill Laswell says he thinks of Bob Marley's voice as "poetry, a message not to be mutated just yet." So he drops it out of this dubwise remix of classic tracks from Marley's Island catalogue, which leaves him just guitars, bass, drums, and a few nebulous horns and strings to work with on this tribute CD. He reinvents "Rebel Music" as a 10-minute cantata; he layers gospel chords over the backing vocals on "No Woman, No Cry."

Otherwise, very little is changed from the Marley originals. Dub has been around as the booming, spacy cousin of reggae since the early '70s, and Laswell is one of the form's bona fide mad geniuses, having ripped up and restitched brilliant musical fabrics with PiL, Herbie Hancock, and Material. But he seems to think that dub techniques confer instant spiritual credibility. They don't. When it comes to doing a dub remix, everything, including sacred vocals, should be up for grabs. Treating the sources as sacred turns the project into a "famous quotes from Marley" set for the nostalgic fan. Which begs the question "Why not buy the original?"

-- Chris Tweney


***1/2

COME AND GET IT: A TRIBUTE TO BADFINGER

(Copper)

This is less a tribute album than a cult hero's convention: participants 20/20, Dwight Twilley, Bill Lloyd, and the Loud Family are all beloved by power-pop diehards. And so are Badfinger, thanks to their Beatles connection (they were the first band signed to Apple), their tragic history (neither main songwriter is still alive), and a handful of early-'70s albums that rank with more-renowned work by Big Star and the Raspberries.

Nobody here takes major liberties with the material, and you can hear the affection in Aimee Mann's "Baby Blue" (which comes off warmer than anything she'd write herself) and Adrian Belew's "Come and Get It" (surprisingly faithful). But the standouts are the obscure tracks: LA's Plimsouls, on their first new track in a decade, make a bar-band rave-up out of "Suitcase," and the Softeens (with the Posies' Ken Stringfellow) do a sweetly psychedelicized version of Badfinger's greatest non-hit, "Know One Knows." Closing it out are two surprises: veteran artist/producer (and current Bostonian) Al Kooper throws a soul spin on "Maybe Tomorrow," and the band's gripe about their label, "Apple of My Eye," is done by Lon & Derek von Eaton, a one-time Apple act who had even worse commercial luck than Badfinger.

-- Brett Milano


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