1) Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals, "Live From Mars" (Virgin)
This is the worst album I've ever heard. Not because it's more than 137 minutes long -- it was the worst album I'd ever heard after 10 minutes. It begins with thick waves of insensate cheering (track by track, you can hear the engineer pushing the volume up at the end of every number) -- and then, out of the maelstrom, comes this pathetic, strangled, self-pitying, self-righteous, melisma-crazy bleat, the voice of a sensitive man alone in a world where, as he puts it, "I'm not as afraid of dying/As I am of getting old." It's an unsingable couplet, with that first "as" dissolving the first syllable of "afraid," but who needs rhythm when your heart's in the right place, when you're against pollution and stuff like that? How low can you go when what you really want is to be the new Richie Havens? This record proves that no one knows, but I'll bet Ben Harper wouldn't have dared do "Sexual Healing" if Marvin Gaye were still alive.
2) Daft Punk, "Discovery" (Virgin)
The masked French techno duo makes oceanic dance music -- music to dance to in your dreams. The 1997 "Homework" seemed to have no bottom to it; this has endless warmth, an openness of spirit that asks only that you melt. Try to resist: The opening "One More Time" begins with a tinny sample, as if from an old, old radio. The radio begins to play a naive melody, and soon enough you remember Kool & the Gang's "Celebration" never felt anything but good. With a bigger, deeper drum sound, the '80s are all over this record, in the thrilling "Superheroes," a pounding Pet Shop Boys march with a big, uplifting finale, the Pet Shop Boys' cover of the Village People's "Go West" without the sadness, without the trick AIDS played on the song; in the endless wildness of "Veridis Quo." This is the one. It's loud but never rushes; it reimagines George McCrae's already abstract Miami soul classic "Rock Your Baby" alongside the Italian disco group Cetu Java's gorgeous, somehow sinister "Adonde." The pace is cool, but a sense of mission is never muffled, never hedged. The theme running over the drum sound seems to double back on itself, to generate its own accompaniment, to step back and listen to itself, to approve, to rejoin the gathering of tones and declare itself: Give me a riff and I'll save the world!
3) "Duets," directed by Bruce Paltrow (United Airlines in-flight entertainment)
Maria Bello is very good at saying, "I'd be pleased and honored to fuck your brains out"; this PG edit of the horrible Karaoke World picture dubs in a car revving its engine so you can't hear her. There is, though, a moment of instruction, when hustler Huey Lewis and recently met daughter Gwyneth Paltrow team up on Smokey Robinson's "Cruisin'." Dion, speaking of Hank Williams in a Fresh Air interview last fall: "His commitment was so total. He'd bite off the end of words: 'I got it now!'" This is the opposite: the definition of plumminess, where a song exists only as a vehicle for the singer's vanity, where if the word "forever" appears it can only mean "So long, sucker." So here "forever" is not bitten off but stretched out, into "Fou-ahhh-evvvvahhhh," the singers forcing the melody to carry more than it can bear, until it can produce only lies. Time stands still: The commonplace effect becomes an absolute, raising insincerity to a transcendental value. The crowd goes as wild as a Ben Harper applause track, as it does for everything in the movie -- except for Andre Braugher's weird, heart-rending reversal of the guy in the crowd screaming for "Free Bird."
4) "Milarde" (Mediaset TV, March 18)
On the Italian version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" (a milarde is a billion lire, about $500,000), a woman faced the final question: Albert King -- Writer? Formula 1 driver? TV journalist? Musician? She chewed her lips, her fingers, twisted in her seat, and an aura of the fix came off of her in waves. "Well, I know B.B. King is a musician," she said -- as if, confronted with somebody named King, one would automatically think B.B. and not, say, Martin Luther. "Ah, yes," said the host, "B.B. -- 'Blues Boy.'" One would have thought this promised an early resolution, but no. Angst, despair -- finally the woman was led away, as if to perdition. Ten minutes of commercials followed. The woman returned. Over 15 minutes, she struggled with inner demons. Writer? Musician? It could have been "Sophie's Choice" for all you could tell from her face. It was fake -- if it wasn't it was pornographic -- and then, the answer. Yes, she will plunge into the abyss: "Musician."
The result was a truly religious deliverance. The woman seemed ready to kiss the host's feet, to pledge to him her unborn children. By the logic of her performance, had she lost they would have had to put her down, like Jane Fonda at the end of "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?"
5) Persona Grata (17, rue du Temple, Paris 4e)
Just across the Pont Neuf on the Right Bank is Conforama, a household furnishings department store. What's inside -- items guaranteed to put you to sleep on your feet -- seems to translate the name of the place: a play on confort (comfort), to an English speaker it reads Conform-o-rama. But small stores offering typical French design -- simplicity combined with uniqueness, a lack of ostentation with flair -- are all over the city, and this one stood out. Persona Grata is divided into sections, each with its own manifesto -- "Good Taste? Bad Taste?" "Design? Child's Play!" "Objects: Stories without Words" -- and a Princess toaster, all gleaming silver except for a black base and handles, paid off on the last one. Without a single anthropomorphic feature it was nonetheless a face. It grinned, saying, "Good morning. Click me." It was welcoming, but it also suggested it had a mind of its own -- that as much as it was there to serve you, it would wait for you to go to sleep, and then get up and wander all over the house, moving things.
6/7) Cat-Iron, "Cat-Iron Sings Blues and Hymns" (Smithsonian Folkways, 800-410-9815) & 15.60.75, aka the Numbers, "Jimmy Bell's Still in Town" (Hearthan, available through Ubutique, 292 Overlook Park Dr., Cleveland, OH 44110, $16 postpaid)
Cat-Iron was a blues singer from Natchez, Miss. In 1958 Frederic Ramsey Jr. recorded him and wrote him up in the prestigious Saturday Review. All through Ramsey's interesting piece -- the liner notes to the original Folkways release, included on the custom cassettes or CDs you can now order through Smithsonian Folkways -- run the lyrics of "Jimmy Bell," Cat-Iron's signature number. Otherwise second- or thirdhand, here Cat-Iron's guitar takes on its own voice, stating no theme, only dropping hints, pulling you closer; as he sings, he seems less to be telling a story than promising he'll tell you later. No wonder: Jimmy Bell, with "greenbacks enough to make a man a suit," has come to drive the women from the church. "All you need," he tells his sister, "is not to shout." The sense of some enormous transformation is in the air. What it is you can't tell.
In 1975, opening for Bob Marley, singer-guitarist Robert Kidney took his seven-piece, three-sax band from Kent, Ohio, onto the stage of the Agora in Cleveland. "Jimmy Bell" was the Numbers' wipeout piece, as much Bobby Darin's "Mack the Knife" as Cat-Iron's cryptic crusader. Picking up on the bare syncopation in the Cat-Iron version, the Numbers press the rhythm right away, the bass slithering over the beat like a snake, then rhythm guitar, then Kidney's thin voice, insisting on that greenback suit until you can see it walking down the street as his lead guitar picks up the bass's theme and flails it like a whip. Across nearly 11 minutes, the performance is all play and menace, all here and now, all origins erased, a reach beyond the story to the willfulness in which it begins, a willfulness only a long, mean solo will turn up. By the time Kidney returns to words Jimmy Bell has come and gone and come back again, and you're on the next train out. "Up the road I'm going," Jimmy Bell tells his wife. "She said," Kidney shouts for her in terror, "She said, 'What road?'"
8) Reuters, "British Sequel to 'The Omen'" (International Herald Tribune, March 20)
"London -- The Labour Party will use a spoof video based on the cult 1970s horror movie 'The Omen' to assail its rivals in approaching elections ... The video [uses] imagery and music from 'The Omen' to liken Conservative leader William Hague to the character Damien, the son of the devil, and former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to the anti-Christ."
Too bad the Democratic Party won't have the nerve to come up with its own version, even though it might put a crimp in GOP plans to rename the entire country after Ronald Reagan.
9) Debbie Geller, producer of the Arena documentary "The Brian Epstein Story" and author of "In My Life: The Brian Epstein Story," visits the 31st Annual Beatlefest (March 17)
"I don't know if you've ever been to one of these things. I never have and assumed it would be full of obsessive Beatle collector types and there certainly were a lot of those. But what really struck me were the middle-class, middle-aged and younger clean-cut suburbanites there, virtually all of whom were having a great time. The vast floor of a chain motel in true Nowheresville, N.J., was broken up by ad hoc groups of guys with guitars and lots of people standing around them singing with unselfconscious enthusiasm and energy. Lots of them had their kids with them, who didn't seem embarrassed by mom and dad and were even singing with them most of the time.
"I'm only telling you this because I think you might understand, or maybe not, the sense of loss I felt in the face of this enthusiasm. Not that they've ever been anything less than the most popular group ever, but this current re-renaissance of interest in the Beatles has meant that my own original relationship to the group is becoming more and more distant. I can talk about the importance they had to me and all, but I can't remember what it felt like anymore. It's hard to remember a time when everyone didn't know all the words to all the songs, when the Beatles were doing unexpected things, when you couldn't predict what was going to happen, when a Beatle record being released was a major event and when they were so glamorous and their world was so glamorous, you could barely imagine what it was like.
"Rather than feeling a sense of commonality with people as I watched them singing the songs I've know the words to as well for at least 30 years, I felt like they were singing songs sung by a different band."
10) "The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash," Directors Guild of America Theatre Complex (Los Angeles, March 9)
After a screening of the 1978 TV film about the Bizarro World version of the Beatles, Rutles Neil Innes, Eric Idle and Rikki Fattar came out for a panel discussion and questions from the audience. Idle was asked if it was true that Jermaine Jackson had bought the rights to all the Rutles songs. He didn't get it right away.