2002 / Music

Review: Young, Costello, Hill Try To Grow As Artists

Master Songwriters Release New CDs

Read The Reviews: Lauryn Hill | Neil Young | Elvis Costello

I think the word “artist” in relation to musicians is overused and at times, inappropriate.

Great songwriters and master musicians have earned the distinction. But it just cheapens the word to see a Madonna or a band like Puddle of Mudd refer to themselves as artists. They’re being too generous.

The word artist — to me anyway — connotes someone who is creative, imbues his or her creations with a certain craftsmanship, and maintains a desire to grow.

While Lauryn Hill, Neil Young and Elvis Costello get the green light from me to call themselves artists (I’m sure they’ll thank me later), their evolution as creative people is part of what makes them interesting to listen to.

What fans and music lovers want to know is: Can they come up with something good again? Can they come up with something they’ve never done before?

All three have new albums out and while Costello seems to going strong, Hill and Young seem to sputtering and in need of new directions.

Lauryn Hill “Unplugged No. 2.0”

Four years after wowing the music world with a brilliant, emotionally-charged solo debut album, Lauryn Hill has released a follow up record that might qualify as the biggest sophomore album freakout ever.

Photo: MTV

Photo: MTV

Minus a DJ, a band, and the zillions of backing vocals that underpinned “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” “Unplugged No. 2.0” is just Hill singing and playing a nylon-string guitar — a “hip-hop folk singer,” she jokes in-between tracks. But what makes this two-CD set so unusual is not just the spartan nature of the songs, but their subject matter and Hill’s refusal to pretend that this is in anyway staged.

Hill has something to say, and this time, everything comes second to the point that she’s making; Her lyrics are plain-spoken and preachy. The tone of her voice is harsh as she reaches for notes that she can’t quite grasp. Her guitar playing is rudimentary and the chord progressions that she continually reuses get repetitive. The album features several mistakes, off-mic mumbling and false starts.

The most intriguing aspects of this record are the songs’ harrowing tales of personal self-discovery and liberation, and the burning passion that she delivers the lyrics with. It’s a kind of writing that is far more incisive than the work on her first record.

As she admits during the performance, the success of her debut and the media attention ultimately left her questioning herself. What she came away with is a collection of songs that tear down her public persona as she points her finger at the forces of conformity.

She shows courage in wanting to simplify her life and art. But despite the insightful way that she condemns portions of the outside world, Hill never blames herself. In her view, she has no complicity in her own previous delusions of grandeur. “Stop blaming other people,” she sings in “Mr. Intentional” but the accusation is aimed outwards and she doesn’t heed her own advice in the songs. She sounds whiny.

This kind of discovery has obviously been a revelation for Hill, and it’s a personal and spiritual transformation that she hopes to spark in others. During the concert, our unashamedly self-righteous instructor asks the crowd to raise their hands if they have questions. Unfortunately, the narrow focus of her songs and the repetitiveness of the music make this feel like a lecture.

Hill does deserve credit. Just as she successfully combined elements of R&B, rap, reggae and rock on her first CD, her use of an acoustic guitar broadens the definition of hip-hop music.

“Unplugged No. 2.0” also features some songs that make her sermons almost worth it. “Oh Jerusalem” unwinds itself in a slow progression as she peels the layers of her ego — with each verse, her voice becomes more and more strained. On “I Get Out,” Hill sings about overcoming obstacles and stereotypes to a kind of percussive strumming that’s unique on this album.

This might be an album to skip, but don’t count Hill out yet. If she can change this drastically with one album, who knows what she’ll do next.

For More Info:

Neil Young “Are You Passionate?”

What’s wrong with Neil Young?

This spring’s release of a semi-authorized biography, “Shakey,” serves to remind music fans of Young’s long — and at times brilliant — career as a songwriter and performer. It also will distract us from seeing that Young has been in a career tailspin of late that threatens to sully his legacy.

First, there’s the problem of his ’90s records, which found him repeating his past experiments with country ballads and arena-shaking rockers with underwhelming results. His most disastrous mistake, however, is that he’s reunited with those washed-up, has-beens called Crosby, Stills and Nash — not once but twice! Young even recorded an album of bland new material with the trio, the purpose of which was to seemingly give the group songs to play when they weren’t doling out hits from their early ’70s heyday.

Sadly, Young’s new album “Are You Passionate?” does nothing to hide Young’s artistic slide. This is an album containing uninspired, mid-tempo songs that would have been filler tracks on any other Young record.

Recorded with part of the house band from Stax Records, organist Booker T. Jones and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, many of Young’s songs blatantly crib licks from tracks the duo recorded in the ’60s. (Portions of Booker T. and the MG’s “Time Is Tight” is used at least twice). It’s like Young’s vapid songs are vampires and they feed on the Stax catalog for soul-music nourishment, hoping that it strengthens them somehow. It doesn’t.

This album’s lack of originality doesn’t end there. On three mellow songs — “Two Old Friends,” “Mr. Disappointment” and “Don’t Say You Love” — all feature lead guitar breaks that sound identical in tone and style. A majority of the tracks have a murky, sluggish ambience (Jones’ religious-tinged organ playing is kept in the shadows), and the guitar, Young’s singing and macho-sounding backup vocals from the session musicians are the only parts of the song that are distinct.

Sticking out among these tracks, is a song that Young cut with his legendary sidemen, Crazy Horse, and another tune that Young wrote as a tribute to passengers who reportedly fought terrorists onboard their airplane on Sept. 11. In this case, both songs are more aggressive than the rest of the album and are part of a tradition that Young has covered long ago. While “Goin’ Home” features the gritty guitar crunch and tribal drumbeat that we’ve come to expect from Young and Crazy Horse, the anthem-like quality of “Let’s Roll” harkens back to his classic “Ohio.” The words and chords are different but the delivery is the same. This saps their poignancy and makes the songs appear as temporary rest areas between the muck.

Young’s philosophy of late seems to be if at first you succeed, keep doing it until you beat it to death. He’s stopped growing, stopped writing songs, and has been crafting “Neil Young songs.” Neil, for everyone’s sake, let it go.

For More Info:

Elvis Costello “When I Was Cruel”

For those who thought Elvis Costello had abandoned his rock’n’roll roots to collaborate with jazz cats and hang with Burt Bacharach, his new album “When I Was Cruel” shows he can still play power chords and holler like it’s the late ’70s all over again.

The new album is being marked as his return to rock, but he wasn’t really out of the neighborhood nor was he gone for that long. His last reunion with his longtime band, the Attractions, was only in the mid-90s. (The new album was recorded using part of the Attractions). True, the punkish, literary pop that he was famous for was shelved on his recent records in favor of more lounge-y ballads, but he was working with a pop songwriting legend and not Ravi Shankar.

More than what genre he’s in, “When I Was Cruel” offers some of Costello’s best and most vibrant songs in years.His new single, the hardedge “Tear Off Your Own Head (It’s A Doll Revolution)” is his best single since ’80s and “Veronica.”

Another standout is “When I Was Cruel No. 2,” which is Costello at his most cinematic. The music moves to the interplay between an echo-y guitar and mope-y, trip-hop dance beat. Costello is barely able get out his long verses, rife with images, and keep in sync with the Portishead-like music. The song is exquisite — you can just imagine the song’s characters wearing black berets and turtlenecks, whispering and dancing a sensual tango in a Parisian café.

“When I Was Cruel” isn’t all highbrow songwriting. Costello can still shout on aggressive rockers like “Dissolve,” which features squealing harmonica and fuzz guitar. “Daddy Can I Turn This?” is electrified by the band’s manic energy, but Costello’s voice so unhurried, as if he’s immune to the fury that his singing is being carried by.

Costello the balladeer is also alive and well. Freed of the burden of an army of strings playing behind him, Costello can show off his dexterity as a singer. On “Soul for Hire,” he reaches ever note in his vocal range, weaving between gaps in the reggae rhythm. Costello can also inject personality into his voice, like how he sounds weary instead of exhilarated when singing about his naughty dream girl on “Spooky Girlfriend”

Although not a star-studded album, “When I Was Cruel” shows Costello still has what it takes.

For More Info:

 

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 2002 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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