Sharps & Flats

Sharps & Flats is a daily music review in Salon Magazine

Published August 26, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Indie rockers haven't had a bona-fide pinup boy to swoon over since Paul Weller grew his hair out, so Elliottt Smith's alt-folk success story was a long time in coming: With those moody, sleepy eyes and moody, sleepy songs, what's not to like? Knows his music history too: He possesses a limber finger-picking style that ripples along true to tradition, and the songs on his fourth album, "XO," reference the Everly Brothers, Tommy James and Linda Rondstadt in lyrics and the Beatles in sound. Wears a Hank Williams T-shirt onstage too; could the next era of world-wise (and -weary) folkies be upon us?

Maybe, if only Smith could write songs that spoke of more than just his own bone-dry anxieties, and if those songs could do more than just shuffle along drearily. Emboldened by a major-label signing and his "Good Will Hunting" success story "Miss Misery," which was nominated for an Academy Award, Smith does expand his formula somewhat on "XO." Strings and tasteful percussion add a polite and mild lilt to his sketches, which are nice when waiting for the songs with hooks to show up, like the lush "Bled White" or the demanding, amplified "Amity." But everywhere else is proof that maybe Smith doesn't know his history so well. Folkies -- good ones -- tell stories, while Smith just strings together clever ways to piss and moan about his passive-aggressive tendencies: "I'm never gonna know you know, but I'm gonna love you anyhow." Sometimes he's not even clever: "I always feel like shit/I don't know why, I guess I just do." Randy Newman, where the hell are you?

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Lauryn Hill

-->By Alex Pappademas | On their 1996 breakthrough, "The Score," Fugees Pras and Wyclef surrendered the mike to Lauryn Hill under protest. Hill shined even with the boys crowding the spotlight, though they managed to be more than Pips to her Gladys Knight -- all that ego-driven pushing and shoving gave the record its rude, crackling life.

Hill's visionary solo debut, "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill," is another story. Lauryn pens, plays and produces almost every song, conveniently neglecting to put Pras and Wyclef on the guest list at the studio door and proving she can catch a fire without them. The music is hip-hop soul the way Rancid's "Life Won't Wait" was punk rock, a boundary-blurring sound clash where "soul" means the Doors, the Wailers and the Wu-Tang Clan as much as it does Roberta Flack. And like every great soul record, it's really just a bunch of love songs, from the one about a child ("For Zion") to the one about a childhood ("Every Ghetto, Every City," an elegy to the '70s, rocked over a sublimely stanky Clavinet groove). Hotter than July and hard-core enough to put a tear in your eye, "The Miseducation" is Lauryn's "Songs in the Key of Life," and like Stevie Wonder at a similar peak, Hill invokes the entire history of black pop just to write her own chapter. Now it's clear why she was willing to stand back for a while and let Wyclef get Messianic. Like all real revolutionaries, she knew her day would come.

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James McMurtry

By Andrew Hamlin | James McMurtry's new album conjures up that famous photograph of peace protester Brian Willson sitting on the tracks, three feet and half a second away from a munitions-bearing locomotive that will rip off both his legs. Songs here lack the high drama of that photograph and the high profile of its protagonists, but they do seem to catch people just before or after a Big Moment's flourish, in positions of exasperating uncertainty.

"Walk Between the Raindrops" features a maybe-not-so-old fogey lecturing a younger person who's "Up all night by the monitor's light/Sleeping through the afternoon." Join the human race, the singer inveighs, hear a human voice; but, he admits, "You're not hearing what I say/Knowing better never kept me out of trouble/But I'm gonna tell you anyway." There's no guarantee of effectiveness, no promise of reaping what's sown, but for all that, the singer/songwriter won't vindicate those who give up. "Tired of Walking's" conniving small-timer and "Comfortable's" hermetically sealed jerk end up sautied in sarcasm. But if the characters are themselves unstable, McMurtry always imagines them with an enviable balance, a dash of yin for the yang. Even the broken-hearted fellow pining after his packed-up lover hankers to let his dog loose on the Jehovah's Witness who pounds on his door, daring to disturb his misery.

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By Mark Athitakis | The '80s underground didn't go looking for a Grateful Dead to call its own, but got one anyway with Camper Van Beethoven, a troupe of sun-baked post-hippies who dared to incorporate music from the Balkans and other avant-garde ideas into their own sense of what punk meant. But if the band's music was often jokey (and sometimes too clever by half), the punch line is that front man David Lowery found success with his follow-up band, Cracker. Whether he knew it or not, his taste for ironically distanced lyrics and guitar hooks fit into the early '90s alternative Zeitgeist perfectly. Now that the Zeitgeist has scampered off elsewhere, however, Lowery finds himself a post-hippie settling into middle age; once a cult hero, now he simply has a cult and a smattering of aging hits.

But his new (non) stature has freed him. After a pair of creative missteps, Cracker has made a lovely fourth album, "Gentleman's Blues," with more modest ambitions. More crafted than ironic, its 16 songs exuberantly acknowledge traditions: the bluesy stomp of "Trials & Tribulations," the somber, meditative piano on "Hallelujah," genuine sentiment on the ballad "My Life Is Totally Boring Without You" and the woozy waltz of the tellingly titled "I Want Out of the Circus," all marked by Lowery's mellow, weedy voice. Growing older makes him open to having old pals join in for the festivities -- there are guest appearances by Moe Tucker and the Heartbreakers, as well as Replacement Tommy Stinson on the opening rave-up "The Good Life." It's a maturity that fits Lowery well, as the man behind "Take the Skinheads Bowling" prepares to enter the beer frame of his career.

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The Headhunters
HEAR IT |--> BUY IT -->

By Ezra Gale | There are a few things here that make this reunion album from the '70s funk-jazz group the Headhunters sound as if it were recorded in 1998, but not many. The production is perhaps a bit smoother than on the several albums from the group's mid-'70s heyday, and there are guests who bring a touch of hip-hop (Trevant Hardson of the Pharcyde) and nouveau-soul (former Brand New Heavies singer N'dea Davenport). But mostly, there's not a whole lot here to clue you in had you lost your calendar for the last 20 years.

The Headhunters wrote the book on jazz-tinged funk (or funk-tinged jazz, or acid jazz, or whatever you want to call it) when they appeared on Herbie Hancock's "Headhunters," the biggest-selling and funkiest album in jazz history. Hearing them return to what they do best is like an encounter with an old lover that picks up right where it left off. "Funk Hunter" and "Skank It" open the album with drummer Mike Clark and bassist Paul Jackson locking right in on the kind of hard-hitting funk vamps that have been copied with less expertise by everyone from the Brand New Heavies to Jamiroquai to A Tribe Called Quest to Erykah Badu on down. This is the real deal, though, and particularly on the tunes with Hancock sitting in (the only quibble with the album is that he's on only four tracks out of 10), the group takes fat-bottomed grooves and makes them sound fresh and exploratory. Percussionist Bill Summers spices things up throughout, and sax and clarinet player Bennie Maupin is a delight, particularly on "Premonition," where he plays bass clarinet.

The fitting occasion for the group's reunion is that the album is the first release on Hancock's new label, which could mean that it's a one-off recording. Listening to the vibrancy of "Return of the Headhunters," though, gives hope that there's more on the way.

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis is a regular contributor to Salon.

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