After two mega-platinum albums of just-OK country-rock, here's a platinum-bound album of pretty OK country-rock; Hootie is maturing, albeit slightly. Front man Darius Rucker doesn't suffer from a case of mushmouth the way he used to, although what he's learned to articulate still isn't very substantial, just home truths and pining for lost love that's perfect for loading the SUV for a trip to the golf course. But his crack South Carolina bar band does offer a brief flash of brilliance on "Wishing," a winning slab of power-pop that would stun both the critics and smart kids if it were released on an indie label in 1985 and the band called itself R.E.M.
Elsewhere, the band's talent and aw-shucks geniality is obvious, although it's serving the shallow end of the genre pool: midtempo MOR country, midtempo bluegrass, midtempo folk, midtempo R&B, the whole thing's so damned midtempo it hardly matters that now they're cribbing from good acts like Gram Parsons and the Isley Brothers instead of, say, Alabama. Guest appearances from Peter Holsapple and Susan Cowsill help add to the professionalism, but it hardly matters that David Campbell -- aka Beck's dad -- did the string arrangements for the mawkish "Only Lonely" since the final results are, well, mawkish. So their credibility move is fairly credible, but only in the most limited way; bar bands and ambition don't mix. And if Rucker wants to tell Billboard that he sounds like Doc Watson on "Desert Mountain Showdown," then he's blind himself.
-->BY MICHELLE GOLDBERG | "Moon Pix" is the kind of album that just melts into ambient noise unless you really listen to it, listen without also talking on the phone or reading a magazine or playing on the computer. The album's 11 songs are so slow, spare and understated that they seem to be coming from some Southern Gothic music box. Chan Marshall, Cat Power's only constant member, keeps her scratchy, mournful voice low in the mix. Over it swirl doleful guitar chords, washes of foggy feedback, occasional flutes and percussion so soft that it sounds like tiptoeing footsteps.
Quiet, though, doesn't equal twee -- Marshall's more like the madwoman whispering in the attic than like a typical Lilith Fair babydoll. Her music is all the more intense for being so self-effacing. On the first few listens, all the songs on "Moon Pix" sound the same, fading in to each other to form one long lugubrious lullaby. Listen closely, though, and they begin to open up, musically and emotionally. Like Beth Orton, Marshall compliments her brooding folk singing with hints of high-tech atmospherics -- on "No Sense," samples of a thunderstorm appear under layers of fuzz, low enough to become part of the song's texture instead of just a cheesy special effect. The mood, too, is subtly variable, from the frustrated paranoia of "Back of Your Head" to the swampy angst of "Moonshiner" to the heartbreak of "Colors and the Kids." It's as if Chan Marshall has discovered a dozen different kinds of melancholy.
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MECHANICAL ANIMALS | NOTHING RECORDS
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BY ANNALEE NEWITZ | What has always been appealing about Marilyn Manson is his genuine enthusiasm for the hyperbolic transgression and theatrical, gory anguish that the industrial goth scene inherited from bands like Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden. Dressed up as a sexually attractive corpse, Manson has consistently delivered music that seduces because it punishes the senses while also mocking the status quo.
But with "Mechanical Animals" Manson is softening up, turning away from his dour preoccupation with religious fascism and toward space-age genderfuck chic. The creamy synth sound and drugged-out lyrics that dominate Manson's latest CD prove that two antithetical '80s musical genres -- heavy metal and new wave -- can indeed be fruitfully combined. What emerges is a sound like the David Bowie of "Scary Monsters" and a Manson whose new look recalls the antiseptic sexual aggression of '80s pop band Missing Persons.
"Mechanical Animals" is a far better album than the recent "Antichrist Superstar," taking Manson in new directions without turning the volume down on his magnetic weirdness. Perhaps because Manson and his bandmates are exploring new territory, however, the songs are uneven -- some brilliant, some almost embarrassingly bad. "The Dope Show," the album's first single, is hypnotic and creepy, conjuring the best of Manson's newfound fascination with slow, layered synths and life as an alienated icon. And on "Rock Is Dead" and "Posthuman," we hear Manson at his ironic, spiteful peak. The bizarre "My Sharona" rip-off song "New Model No. 15," however, fails as good parody or a good original work, and "I Don't Like the Drugs [But the Drugs Like Me]," with its misplaced soul backing vocals and Billy Squire-esque sound, made it onto the album for entirely mysterious reasons.
Despite these bad judgment blips, "Mechanical Animals" is a magnificent album, worth listening to -- and, surprisingly, worth dancing to -- again and again.
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TREASURES LEFT BEHIND: REMEMBERING KATE WOLF | RED HOUSE RECORDS
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BY JOE HEIM | It's a rare week that passes without a new tribute album being released -- at the current rate, an all-star homage to the Spice Girls can't be far off. But not all tributes are so casual or ephemeral. A sense of the regard an artist is held in can usually be gauged with a quick glance at the musicians who choose to lend their efforts to a CD honoring her legacy. Kate Wolf must have enjoyed that regard in bucketfuls. From the list of musicians who perform on her tribute album, it's clear that a deep reservoir of respect existed for the late folk singer-songwriter among both her peers and those who followed in her path.
On "Treasures Left Behind: Remembering Kate Wolf," Lucinda Williams, Nanci Griffith, Dave Alvin and Emmylou Harris are among those lending their considerable talents to interpretations of Wolf's touching, deceptively simple songs.
Wolf, who died of leukemia in 1986 at age 44, composed music of mesmerizing gentleness and serenity. And yet for all the beauty and solace they provide, the effect is never cloying or saccharine. Songs such as "Give Yourself to Love," "Thinking About You" and "These Times We're Living In," speak truths that are both intensely personal yet universal. They are a guide into Wolf's soul -- and into our own. Unlike much of the disposable tributes languishing in CD bins, this one will linger, providing more than just fleeting pleasures.
BY ANDREW HAMLIN | Ensnaring New York City's many moods -- from the stark cartoon skyline on this CD's back cover to the drag queens boasting amazingly lifelike breasts within the booklet -- falls to John Cale, rock's eternal tourist provacateur. His piano and cello-dominated original score is stark in effect but warm in mood, like a cup of coffee against a white bathrobe at sunrise, and his selection of other artists both fitting and gratifying. Limpopo fades in with accordion and fades out with trumpet, with chanting in what sounds like Russian between; the Stubborn All Stars flip a Latin-sounding intro into a tape flub and some energetic reggae; Sandra Bernhard, one of the film's stars, moves through "Until the Real Thing Comes Along," up to the underlying menace and back again, a barracuda circling a likely lunch. Cale's one vocal track, "Indistinct Notion of Cool," from his last pop album, "Walking on Locusts," shows him still a master of unpredictable lyrics and stolid statesmanship from the nonexistent country his musicology's long called home.
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MIDDLESCENCE | KOCH INTERNATIONAL
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BY MARK ATHITAKIS | What made Amy Rigby's solo debut, "Diary of a Mod Housewife," so brilliant was its homespun defiance: Forced to choose between a 40-something life of temp jobs and bad TV or a failing love life, the former Sham took the trickier route and opted to salvage love, couching it in a series of near-perfect country-folk tunes. And while there was a sense that the other shoe was going to drop at any moment, she retained her innocence and hope -- "We're stronger than that," she sang at the end of the record, meaning stronger than everything that might make her cynical.
Everything changes two years later on "Middlescence": The hope is gone, so is much of the innocence, and her sweet country-tinged voice carries the weight of post-divorce anxieties instead of pre-breakup damage control. Her defiance now springs out of bitterness instead of optimism, and her anger finds itself in songs that often move far away from her folk and country trademarks. From "Raising the Bar" (power pop) to "Laboratory of Love" (calypso) to "Calling Professor Longhair" (just guess), her genre exercises work because they both broaden and punctuate her range of emotions; she's playing dress-up in pop music. The clever costumes speak to a desperation for new meanings that reaches its high point on the rumbling, piano-based "Ivory Tower," where she locks herself into one. Sick of thrift store dresses, crappy dates and flipping through old photo albums, the solace she finds in her post-love objects is compelling songcraft -- but depressing as well, because Rigby doesn't seem to know what she's stronger than anymore.