2001 / Music

Review: June’s New Releases Show Artists Eluding Expectations

R.E.M., DiFranco, D.J. Logic, Others Get The Review Treatment

Read The Reviews: Dave Navarro | Lucinda Williams | Whiskeytown | R.E.M. | D.J. Logic

Expectation might be the most difficult obstacle for any artist, apart from being “discovered.”

Success can be a double-edged sword. While presumably a popular artist can count on the fact that there’s an audience waiting on their next work, it’s difficult to trump an artistic achievement while not repeating yourself and not alienating that audience. And worst of all, it never ends.

In the latest batch of new releases — Dave Navarro, Lucinda Williams, Whiskeytown, R.E.M., Ani DiFranco and D.J. Logic — there are artists in various stages of their careers, but all are attempting to break new ground and redefine themselves.

Dave Navarro “Trust No One”

In the unreleased documentary of Jane’s Addiction’s 1997 “Relapse” tour, “Three Days,” frontman Perry Farrell hogs the camera as he babbles to anyone who’ll listen about his new devotion to Judaism. But it’s Jane’s guitarist Dave Navarro who proves the film’s most intriguing personality. At one point, he says, “I don’t necessarily want to entertain. I want to get shit out of me that I’m afraid to look at.”

Photo: Warner Brothers

Photo: Warner Brothers

Four years later, Navarro has finally completed his long-awaited solo album, a record that will thrust him into the front position as singer and songwriter while exposing the inner demons — his struggles with drugs, his mother’s murder and relationship issues — that almost consumed him.

Work on “Trust No One” began shortly after the Jane’s reunion and just before Navarro bailed out of his then-current gig in the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Demos were cut with Peppers drummer Chad Smith, but the tracks continued to evolve as Navarro struggled with his own drug relapse, juggled work on a book project (which was due for release but is now delayed) and changed record labels twice.

The first half of the album has been floating around the Internet for the last couple years. Now remolded and remixed, many of the songs are multi-layered and slicker than the demos.

Part of me didn’t want to like this record. Musically and lyrically, it’s so direct. There’s little room for musical tangents, Navarro’s patented echo-y guitar solos or any mysterious lyrics to interpret.

Navarro’s intensity and his strong sense of melody makes this record captivating. When he sings, “I want the life you think I have,” this isn’t a confessional but an exorcism.

And that’s only if you can pick out the words beneath the patchwork of samples, mutated guitar fragments and distorted vocals (imagine a voice that’s sexier, smokier than Dave Grohl’s). Navarro’s early influences ranged from Zeppelin to Bauhaus and the Cure, and his songs reflect the cross-pollination.

The best songs buzz with dense, affected melodies while carefully adhering to basic song structures. The verses of “Hungry” are supported with a low-fi industrial rhythm until the chorus, where Navarro is hollering as if he’s descending into hell. The first single, “Rexall,” is catchy thanks to the crunching power of Navarro’s guitar, but there are brief moments in the track that show a bit of ingenuity and prevent monotony from setting in: the guitar fog that permeates through the body of the song or the false harmonic snippet that occurs at the half-way point.

Bathed in ethereal guitar and vocals, “Mourning Son,” radiates a lush aura that perfectly couples with the emotionally charged lyrics. While it’s one of the record’s more luminous songs, there’s something spooky about it too, particularly the high-pitched, twisting harmony that snakes throughout. The solemn mood shifts with the propulsive, grumbling rhythm of “Everything.” The cut is the record’s most aggressive moment, as Navarro’s voice is pushed to its limits while finally unchaining his guitar to thrust the song forward.

The album’s main drawback is a bombastic cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Venus In Furs.” It fits, but seems like filler. This song should be extended the same courtesy as “Stairway To Heaven”: It shouldn’t be covered by anyone.

This foible doesn’t detract from Navarro’s achievement. With “Trust No One” as testament, he’s shown that he has not only confronted the darkness inside himself, but he’s emerged from the shadows that relegated him to the role of just the guitar player.

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Lucinda Williams “Essence”

The “essence” of Lucinda Williams’ new album can be distilled to the handful of plucked notes on the electric guitar that begins the opening track, “Lonely Girls.” Bare, simple and yet soulful, it’s intriguing because it conveys so much with so little.

It also shows that this artist isn’t content to retread familiar ground.

This much-anticipated followup to Williams’ critically acclaimed breakout album, “Car Wheels On A Gravel Road,” is a different beast from its predecessor. “Car Wheels” leaps out of the speakers with the melodies’ infectious swagger. “Essence” is an introspective story of love, loneliness and longing ? a delicate, elegant country promenade that calls out to listeners to pay attention to the nuances.

In her interviews to promote the record, Williams stressed her desire to coat these songs with the eerie haze that enveloped the songs on Bob Dylan’s “Time Out Of Mind.” Although enlisting producer Daniel Lanois would seem a more logical choice, Williams drafted two members of Dylan’s road band, guitarist Charlie Sexton (who got co-producing credit on “Essence”) and bassist Tony Garnier. Several tracks have a similar quiet organ hum or mesh of guitars buried in the mix as “Time Out Of Mind,” but the sound of these songs is far brighter and the country influences are more explicit than Dylan’s.

The record’s first cuts leave listeners to wade through a batch of slower numbers, gently building to a climax at the album’s center. These songs stress Williams’ emotional croon with muted accompaniment. In “Lonely Girls,” her bounding vocals creep up and down her range at key points stressing a sense of heartbreak and emotional exhaustion.

The sluggish crawl of “I Envy The Wind” seems at first like it would be the perfect Celine Dion vehicle, but it has Williams’ most naked, plaintive singing and the erotic tone of her lyrics burn with heartache.

“Essence” takes an upturn with track five, “Out of Touch.” An acoustic guitar, illusive organ and scattered, piercing licks from an electric guitar are woven around the record’s lone lyrical revelation. Like the song’s restrained guitar part, the words dwell on a loneliness that we all live with — how we hide our true selves from everyone else. There’s to each person than what’s visible, but you can only see it smoldering beneath the surface.

The album’s pinnacle is the title track. The verses find Williams particularly lecherous — her lyrics ripe with innuendo — as her voice meanders through a rough part of her register before flowering into a glorious two-part harmony for the chorus.

In this song and the others, Sexton and his guitar are the album’s unsung heroes. On Williams’ last record, Sexton delivered a searing solo on “I Lost It.” This time, his playing trims along the edge of each melody, adding sparse, ringing fills. He couldn’t sound more penned up. After years as the youthful guitarslinger, he shows the gumption to give up frenzied solos for pinched, passionate guitar tones.

But after seeing the heights, “Essence” falters toward its conclusion. A paint-by-numbers country tearjerker, “Reason To Cry,” and the revival-meeting feel of “Get Right With God,” follow, but seem breezy without something memorable.

Things only gets worse when Williams returns to a pair of leisurely songs, “Bus To Baton Rouge” and “Broken Butterflies.” Although both are pretty, it proves a few too many slow numbers.

While as a whole, “Essence” makes clear that Williams isn’t content to redo her previous albums. With the album’s overabundance of ballads, however, it also shows that she’s not immune to repeating herself.

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Whiskeytown “Pneumonia”

Although Whiskeytown’s latest, “Pneumonia,” is
supposedly the defunct alt-country band’s great “lost album,” it was released only three years after it was recorded and shelved by major-label mergers, and only
one year after frontman Ryan Adams presented his first solo record.

Contrary to the current spin about the album, it hadn’t spent much time passing through bootleg circles and didn’t really achieve the mythic status other forbidden treasures develop over time.

And it’s just as well. “Pneumonia” is not a revelation but a missing link. It’s a moody album that finds the band in a transitional and experimental mode. The record slides from sugar-coated piano pop (“Mirror, Mirror”) and droopy, acoustic tunes (“Ballad Of Carol Lynn”) before downshifting to a hushed tenderness (“What The Devil Wanted”).

With such variety, “Pneumonia” does lack cohesion and a solid pace, but the tunes are emotional and endearing.

As the band’s main songwriter and lead singer, Adams continues to evoke a Gram Parsons aura (Check out the publicity photo of Adams lighting up. Watch out, he’s the real American badass!)

However, Adams has a few assets that push him beyond being considered yet another country music renegade wannabe. He’s a prolific writer (at least compared to Parsons) and his songs — steeped in folk and country — are more solidly imbued with catchy pop structures.

Although the fiddle, mandolin and Byrds-esque cascading guitar leave “Don’t Wanna Know Why” soaking in traditionalism, the song’s layered vocal harmonies (from Adams and singer/fiddler Caitlin Cary) are irresistible pop. The tumbling melody of “Don’t Be Sad” is just as contagious. Those stunning vocal harmonies are equally effective in “Crazy About You,” where they peak out between bobbing guitar chords.

The most stunning departure might be “Paper Moon,” which conjures the sound of a country band hijacked by Desi Arnaz and forced to play like the Buena Vista Social Club instead of the Grand Old Opry. Above the song’s elusive Latin rhythm, there’s a slide guitar that can’t make up its mind whether it’s drawing influence from Hawaii or Nashville, while a mandolin, flutes and strings swirl about.

Although the release of “Pneumonia” might quell the record’s chances of reaching true legendary status, rumors about the three dozen different songs recorded during the “Pneumonia” sessions should keep the “lost album” fantasy alive.

 

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R.E.M. “Reveal”

On this, their 16th album, R.E.M plunge into the electronica world that they’ve previously flirted with and
borrow the road map the Flaming Lips used to craft their digital-rock masterpiece, “The Soft Bulletin.”

Songwise, “Reveal” differs from “The Soft Bulletin” in one key respect: In each track where the Lips would typically make a musical left turn, R.E.M. usually stumbles into a chorus.

The songs are typical R.E.M. songs adorned with trippy effects in a “Sgt. Pepper”-like fashion. As such, “Reveal” is akin to the Rolling Stones’ ” Their Satanic Majesty’s Request” — only slightly better.

Although wavering counter-melodies, phasing squiggles and sonar pings bubble up throughout each track and musical snippets like the dude ranch guitar in “All The Way To Reno (You’re Gonna Be A Star)” briefly slip into the spotlight, Michael Stipe’s vocals are the clear focus.

This proves to be a weakness because Stipe’s singing never seemed so bland and unexcited. His pleading voice stays within the same range on most songs and the tracks are imbued with a melancholic, even weary feel.

The album does feature moments of euphoric unison between the songs and their mind-bending accoutrements. The swaying vocals of “Disappear” gain intensity thanks to a hissing keyboard and a secondary
melody that sounds like it’s coming from a banjo. The relaxed horns and strings on the Latin-tinged “Beachball” add serenity to the song’s trotting
rhythm. “Beat A Drum” limps along until a “bionic” sound that’s straight out of the “$6 Million Dollar Man” pops up.

The best songs come in the early part of the record. “The Lifting” is swelling with unrealized pop hooks that are almost lost in aquatic overtones, a jabbing bass line and hovering guitar. Oddly, it sounds good like that. “She Just Wants To Be” starts with the strumming of an acoustic guitar but yields to a sublime chorus and Stipe’s lone convincing vocal effort.

In the end, the question has to be asked whether these added effects are enhancing or hiding something. A song like “Summer Turns To High,” which sounds like
a leftover Vangelis track from “Blade Runner,” makes one wonder if we’ll look back at audio excursions like “Reveal” the way we see ’80s synth-pop.

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D.J. Logic “The Anomaly”

A fixture in New York’s avant-garde jazz, rock and hip-hop circles, D.J. Logic has proven his formidable turntable skills, as well as his versatility, by collaborating with progressive luminaries like Medeski, Martin & Wood and Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid.

While a high-minded turntablist like D.J. Spooky succeeds in melding styles of music into his own space-age genre -? and succeeds only in lolling most listeners into a sonic malaise — Logic dissects strands of funk or fusion and incorporates them into a uniquely dynamic, albeit vaguely familiar stew.

Listening to “The Anomaly” is like a stroll through a musical memory lane. The funky opener, “French Quarter,” is built around a mutated version of the horn melody for the “Ed Lover Dance” from “Yo! MTV Raps.” “Bitches Brew”-era horns and keyboards drift in and out of “Black Buddah” and “Miles Away.” The old school hip-hop drum beat of “Michelle” is the same as Wyclef’s “We Trying To Stay Alive.”

You won’t mistake Logic for Puff Daddy just because he utilizes some familiar musical landmarks. It’s how everything is seamlessly reassembled and what’s tacked on that makes “The Anomaly” so captivating. “The Anomaly” could be its own genre. In Logic’s world, drum-and-bass rhythms, surging Hammond organ (courtesy of John Medeski) and jazzy saxophone passages fit together no matter where they came from.

But the tracks rarely sound like a hodgepodge. In the case of “Drone,” the song’s density and its sinister tone almost dissolves any musical flourishes unless you’re intently listening to it. Its pulsing bass line and careening saxophone melody, which dive bombs and then explodes, has enough unified menace to clear any dance floor — I mean that in a good way.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2001 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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