Sharps and flats

Reviews of new releases from Tom Petty and the Latin Playboys, plus a tribute to Madonna and a Kill Rock Stars radio compilation.


Salon Staff
April 13, 1999 2:08PM (UTC)

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Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Echo | Warner Bros.

By Geoff Edgers | Tom Petty might be a decade past his MTV peak, but darn it, he's still a big
shot. Why else would he demand that "Echo" receive a "security service"
designation, which severely limits the number of promo copies that float around
before the actual release date. The fear, I guess, is that some radio station flunky would get his grubby hands on a leaked album and play a cut
on the air. Then the kids at home, newly armed with enough cookie-cutter American
pap to hold a Bread convention, would be thrown into an MP3 frenzy and digitally
release the songs while they were still supposed to be under wraps.

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It's an unlikely scenario, especially after listening to "Echo." Petty's 12th
studio album is still a step up from the Wilburyized low of "Into the Great Wide
Open" (1991), but it's the weakest of the three he's recorded with Rick Rubin,
the rap impresario who turned into an old-guy producer when he started recording
fellas like Johnny Cash. Even though the Heartbreakers sound as crisp as ever,
"Echo" is as good on the first listen as the 15th: It's as digestible and
predictable as a "Tonight Show" monologue. There's Petty playing a minor-key Neil Youngish number ("Lonesome Sundown"),
Petty slipping into that deep "Refugee" voice ("Free Girl Now), Petty doing his
best Dylan ("Billy the Kid").

Under the best circumstances, Petty is a decent songwriter. But at 62 minutes,
"Echo" is just too long, and the cringe-inducing couplets really pile up. When he
runs out of half-thoughts like "She was over 21/ In trouble with the law," he
comes up with half-baked philosophy "You need elephant balls/ If you don't wanna
crawl/ On your hands through this world." Huh?

It's disappointing because I've always liked Petty, from his lone masterpiece,
"Damn the Torpedoes" (1979), to his late career leap with "Full Moon Fever"
(1989). "She's the One" (1996), Petty's soundtrack to the Edward Burns' film of
the same name, proves he still has an inspired pop album in him, provided he's
drawing that inspiration from somebody else's characters. If "Echo" sounded
fresher, his dedication to straight-ahead roots music might seem almost admirable.
But Petty doesn't seem to get why his contemporaries have drifted -- Billy Joel
writing unrecorded symphonies, Springsteen bouncing between Woody Guthrie and
arena rock. As time passes, the songs don't come so easy. And when they do, they
sound like flat imitations of the bottled-up fire of rock 'n' roll youth. That's
when it's time for a change.

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Various artists

Drinking From Puddles | Kill Rock Stars

By Seth Mnookin | My favorite track on "Drinking From Puddles," a glorious collection of live,
in-studio recordings from Portland's KBOO, is dissonant indie stalwarts Come's
acoustic rendition of "Hurricane." Which is to say I prefer the softer, more
deliciously ominous tracks -- like "Hurricane" or the Velvet Underground-esque
urban country of Geraldine Fibbers' "Butch" -- to the raucous cacophony of
Seattle's full-throttle punks Murder City Devils or the spoken-word monologues of
all-purpose performance poet, artist and rock star Lydia Lunch.

I say that only because I feel a need to create some sense of order out of the
22-track, 74-minute wonder that is "Drinking From Puddles," an album that conveys
the endless possibilities and joyous avenues of escape that pop music offers.

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A brief history: KBOO is a "listener-supported" station in Portland, Ore. That
means it's dirt poor, politically left of NPR and its DJs are allowed to cuss on
the air. The atmosphere has spurred, as poverty and a license to curse often
does, a startling spirit of innovation and excitement. One of the most exalted
products of that spirit is DJ Brandon Lieberman's "Drinking From Puddles" show,
which features touring bands playing live songs in the KBOO studio. This album
covers an eight-year span of his shows, from Dead Moon's 1990 full-throttle,
Cramps-esque performance of "Graveyard" to Sleater-Kinney singer Corin Tucker's
old-school riot grrl side-project Cadallaca's churning garage version of "You're
My Only One."

Even though the listener only hears Lieberman in several, one-sentence snippets
-- instructing the audience to "Turn it up" in one instance -- the DJ's spirit
and personality pervade the disc. There's an earnest belief in the possibility of
music, a feeling that singing love songs can mend broken hearts, a conviction
that playing a really loud guitar can cancel out slights and injustices experienced
in high school.

The highlights: cellist Madigan Shive's winsome "Snowfell Summer," which is as chilling
as Poison Idea's "Taken By Surprise" is raucous, and Pleasant Gehman's monologue
about the delights of Disney's old Monsanto exhibit. ("Their first kiss, or their
first hit of windowpane, or the last half of a pint of Southern Comfort or
splitting a Quaalude or sweaty 10-minute sessions of unbridled teenage lust with
someone you met in line for the Matterhorn.") Also, Lieberman has a wicked sense
of humor: After "Fuck," spoken-word artist Nicole Panter's three-minute synopses
of some of the highlights of her unflinchingly active sexual history, Lieberman
deadpans: "So, you've had sex, then?"

Later, Cindy Lee Berryhill chirps with fey insouciance, "When I met you/ I was
pretty messed up/ Inside about him," over her Casio on "Aquamarine," and
erstwhile indie activist Roger Manning preaches about the "anti-bullshit
movement" on "Pacifica Blues." The rest of the tracks, from beginning to end,
from conception to completion, the songs and the ideas on "Drinking From Puddles"
are anthemic in their belief of the redeeming, cathartic power of music.

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Various Artists

Virgin Voices: A Tribute to Madonna, Volume One | Cleopatra

By Emily Zuzik | Back in the late '80s, Madonna used to watch gay men vogue at New York City's
underground clubs. In 1990, she borrowed -- some say stole -- their moves and
released a polished pop manifesto with a stylized video that took a marginalized
fad and made it palatable to the mainstream masses.

With "Virgin Voices," the same kind of underground artists that Madonna once
mined for sound and image attempt to take back the songs that they helped
inspire. At the beginning, the first album of this two-volume tribute set
explodes with the kind of driving house-bass and high-hat glory that makes a body
move. The party starts with '80s new wavers Heaven 17 and their version
of "Holiday." Next, aging gender-benders Dead or Alive takes on "Why It's So
Hard" and UK techno-ambient group Astralasia covers "Vogue." Both versions
evoke dated images of swirling lights caressing a mass of moving flesh.

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As for changes to the actual songs, few groups stray from altering Madonna's
original arrangements. The beats are faster -- James Hardaway and Amanda Ghost's
cover of "Bad Girl," featuring Boy George on backing vocals, is touched with drum
'n' bass -- but overall the tunes sound like 12-inch dance remixes, that
quintessentially '80s form where Madonna picked up so many ideas in the first
place.

With so many acts from the '80s coming together on one tribute, the project
almost seems like a publicity stunt to give a bunch of new wave artists another
15 minutes of fame. If that's the case, they all seem surprisingly reverent. Which
is kind of odd: You'd think they'd be more interested in settling a
score. The Material Girl made millions on the backs of dance groups, new wavers
and underground culture without ever really acknowledging her debt. And what did
Bow Wow Wow's Annabella Lwin get? Well, a chance to genuflect in front of a
commercial queen on a lackluster tribute album.

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Latin Playboys

Dose | Atlantic

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By Brett Anderson | If Los Lobos is a band defined less by a country than a border, then Latin Playboys, a
Lobos offshoot but more than a side project, is a headlong dive into the blur of
Mexican and American roots music. Made up of two Lobos members (singer-guitarist
David Hidalgo and drummer Louie Pirez) and two of the band's producers (studio wizards
Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake), the Playboys specialize in fantasias, matrixes
of sounds and grooves that coalesce for reasons that the musicians themselves are
probably still trying to comprehend.

On "Dose," the band's second release, after "Latin Playboys" (1994), words don't
come into play until the second song, "Cuca's Blues." The blues are in the lyrics
-- something about a woman who may or may not have been true to her man while she
was trying to be true to herself -- and they're punctuated by a guitar
intent on doing its own funky thing.

"Dose" is filled with this kind of stuff, songs that unravel from the inside.
Replete with a wailing organ and rockabilly guitar fills, "Tormenta Blvd." is a
juke-joint burner coming through a radio that needs its antenna adjusted.
"Ironsides" harks back to Lobos' days as a wedding band, but its spoken lyrics --
a monologue written in two dialects -- flow from an open window in East L.A. On
nearly every song, the Playboys take delight in brushing up against chaos to
record its vibrations. Sometimes, they step right in: "Nubian Priestess" is a
slab of avant-funk that'd fit comfortably on Herbie Hancock's "Sextant."

Sporadic as its output's been this decade, Los Lobos is one of the few remaining
great American rock bands that still finds value in being one. On "Dose," the
Playboys prove that there's plenty to work with at the edges of the main band's
cross-cultural mission. Experimentalism doesn't get any more organic than this.
Hidalgo still sings like he's trying to do his bittersweet memories justice, and
even the looped and distorted guitars seem to echo from a more coherent place.
"Don't go figure it's not about hip," Hidalgo sings at one point, an electro-beat
tangling with a distant organ in the background. "You won't get it/ It's a Latin
trip."

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