By the time somebody has made 15 albums, they’ve likely reached a level of proficiency that guarantees a smooth musical ride. So it is with “John Mellencamp,” the Midwestern rocker’s Columbia Records debut, which follows nearly two decades with Mercury. The sound is a plush mix of guitars and fiddles tethered to a colorful rhythm section and Mellencamp’s raspy lead vocal. It’s a sound reminiscent of Mellencamp’s two best albums, “Scarecrow” and “The Lonesome Jubilee.” But in this case, it’s a sound in search of something to say.
Mellencamp’s roots lay in the Stones-ish swagger of the bar-band rock of his early days as John Cougar. In this regard, Mellencamp’s most valuable player was drummer Kenny Aronoff, who put the thump into tunes like “Crumblin’ Down” and “Lonely Ol’ Night.” Aronoff’s now gone, but that doesn’t explain why nearly all of Mellencamp’s new songs embrace similar mid-tempo grooves. A more plausible explanation, perhaps, is that these compositions owe more to the strum of the songwriter’s guitar than the sizzle of his band.
Mellencamp finally transcended his cheesy “John Cougar” image by adding evocative lyrics of rural life to the hard-rock crunch of “Scarecrow” and the melodious folk-rock of “The Lonesome Jubilee.” Since then his work has vacillated between the slapdash (“Whenever We Wanted”) and the ambitious (“Human Wheels”). The new album carries the sounds of significance, but the substance is lacking. The lyrics reach for social relevance (“It All Comes True,” “Where the World Began”) and try to evoke kicked-back hedonism (“Chance Meeting at the Tarantula”), but the images are fleeting and carry little weight. The album’s first single, “Your Life Is Now,” get the closest to the truth — “Your life is now/In this undiscovered moment.” In that case, I’d rather be listening to “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.”
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Babe the Blue Ox
THE WAY WE WERE | RCA RECORDS
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–>BY SAM HURWITT | Babe the Blue Ox records never seem to wear on me. In the month or two since I received an advance copy of “The Way We Were,” I’ve played it more times than you heard the “Macarena” last year — and it still sounds fresh. The Brooklyn trio mixes art-rock polyrhythms and kick-ass hooks to create a sound that’s both complex and catchy. Hanna Fox’s adventuresome beats provide a solid backdrop for Tim Thomas’ jangling guitar and lilting voice and Rosalee Thomson’s breathy, girly vocals and clanking bass.
And this isn’t even their best work. It doesn’t quite have the raw energy of their early releases on the indie Homestead label, nor the labyrinthine time signatures of their brilliant ’96 RCA debut, “People.” But it’s a smooth ride, offering up one treat after another: Thomas’ suave horns on the funky subway ode “F Train,” Thomson’s delicate vocals on the babbling brook-like “Monday After,” and her rumbling bass on “T.G.I.F.U.,” a biting travelogue bemoaning the strip-mall homogeneity of Roadside America: “Every meal will be familiar/Rest assured.”
The neopsychedelic “If You See Me” sounds like a Smashing Pumpkins and Julian Lennon jam session, and “Sheila” is a slow number with spidery guitar reminiscent of recent Robyn Hitchcock fare. A polished new version of the Jekyll & Hyde rocker “Tattoos,” previously recorded on the ’95 EP “Je M’appelle Babe,” floats on pretty burbly bass and guitar with screaming menace and martial traps poking through. But beware of the insidiously catchy single “Basketball,” with its bouncy bass, wah-wah guitar and dreamy chorus — once you get it in your head, it’s not going away anytime soon.
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Luciano Pavarotti and Various Artists
Filarmonica di Torino, conducted by Marco Boemi and Josi Molina
PAVAROTTI & FRIENDS: FOR THE CHILDREN OF LIBERIA | LONDON RECORDS
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BY STACEY KORS | “Pavarotti and Friends: For the Children of Liberia” is a live recording of June’s benefit concert organized by Luciano Pavarotti to help establish a children’s village in the war-torn African nation of Liberia. This is the third concert that the 63-year-old opera star has done on behalf of War Child, the music industry-driven organization founded during the bloody Bosnian crisis and devoted to helping the youngest victims of war’s atrocities.
Performed in the tenor’s hometown of Modena, this concert follows the same basic format as the last two: An international cast of pop stars sing a wide variety of music in both English and Italian, sometimes alone but often paired with Pavarotti for some strikingly incongruous combos. (Previous programs featured such gems as Pav with Simon Le Bon in “Ordinary World,” and with Sheryl Crow in a duet from “Don Giovanni.”)
For the most part, the solo efforts on “Children of Liberia” — Trisha Yearwood’s “How Do I Live Without You,” Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” and The Corrs’ version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” — are enjoyable. The only disappointment is the Spice Girls’ “Stop” — a reminder of how important that invisible member of the group, Production Spice, is to their vocal quality.
The duets are more dicey. Pavarotti’s performances of “I Hate You Then I Love You” with Celine Dion and of the traditional Italian love song “Non ti scudar di me” (“Do Not Forget Me Now”) with Vanessa Williams do have a certain sappy charm; and his rendition of “Tonight” with Natalie Cole is so over the top that it’s almost endearing. But that’s as good as it gets. Pavarotti’s contribution to Jon Bon Jovi’s “Let it Rain” is dismally off the mark; “Viva Forever,” in which the Spice Girls sing the chorus in English while Pavarotti sings simultaneously in Italian, sounds ludicrous; and the bastardized pop-ballad arrangement of “Va, pensiero” from Verdi’s “Nabucco,” sung by Italian sensation Zucchero in a voice that makes Tom Waits sound smooth, is unbearable.