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Positive Feedback ISSUE 1
june/july 2002


New Releases
by Carlo Flores


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Tom Waits, Alice/Blood Money

Like Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, and Paul Simon, Tom Waits reinvented himself for the current audience with 1999’s Mule Variations. Alice and Blood Money are his nineteenth and twentieth releases, and though it’s hard to imagine how Waits keeps himself fresh and original, I dare say he has taken more chances than Dylan has over the course of some forty-odd albums.

With his newest works, Waits has ventured into musical theater, so intricately and delicately that the pretensions of the genre are ignorable. Alice, based on Paul Schmidt’s play of the same title, is Waits’ interpretation of the relationship between Lewis Carroll and the author’s inspiration for his most famous character. This isn’t for the Disney movie audience. The references to Alice In Wonderland are spread out and rather obscure, and only someone who has (gasp) read the book will catch most of it. Waits ventures so deeply into his story that the work has a distinctive pulse, with only occasional reminders of the premise. Like the novel (as well as Wait’s past work), each song welcomes different interpretations/readings, and with his blues-to-jazz-to-avant garde backdrop and raspier-than-ever voice, there’s the sneaking suspicion that Waits doesn’t give a damn what we think of it all.

The album is charmingly unpredictable, the rare work that demands to be listened to from beginning to end. From the scat beat of "Table Top Joe" to the very Waits-like (how else can it be described?) "Fish & Bird," this is like nothing done before. His voice is as absorbing as ever, the widespread rumors be damned. Waits keeps me guessing—I don’t know if he’s faking the whole thing for effect, or as a sick little joke. Alice makes a few appearances, and Waits walks the fine line between love and deep, absorbing infatuation. He turns himself into a looker from afar, and it sounds so deeply personal that I can’t help wondering if he’s replaced the Carroll aspect with himself.

Blood Money is a travel through a soldier’s life, a man gone insane, or the devil himself. This is Waits channeling the spirits of John Donne and Charles Bukowski while drinking a bottle of good bourbon, and it’s so damned good and lyrical that it’s hard to process. "Everything Goes To Hell" is a story of disregard at one listen, of lost hope at another. "The Part You Throw Away" haunts with the line "the kiss don’t know/what the lips will say". Waits takes us through the journey of a man who feels everything and nothing, limbo personified.

Even with a catalogue that includes Blue Valentine, Closing Time, Nighthawks at the Diner, and The Heart of Saturday Night, Blood Money and Alice stand proudly on their own. Waits experiments with sound, the texture of strings over horns, the stuttered off-beats, the melding of story with music. The albums are both separate and linked. Alice is easily the front-runner for best album of the year, and I suspect that it will climb up my favorites list as time passes. This is not to take anything from the brilliant Blood Money. It only pales in contrast to what may be Waits’ best work. Both are highly recommended.


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Paul Westerberg, Stereo

Westerberg, both as a member of the Replacements and as a solo artist, has never been adept at subtlety. This newest offering (really two albums, the, ahem, "recorded in realistic stereo"Stereo and the "recorded in dynamic mono" Grandpa Boy). Along with fuzzed-out pictures and recycled paper, the sleeve carries an explanation of the premise and history for each disc. Apparently the former is unprofessional yet real, the latter spontaneous. Yeah, whatever. Remember when Westerberg was good? Really good? When someone reaching him for an interview was an event? When he wrote and sang songs for the Replacements with the bitter but interesting taste of irony? I remember that. I miss that.

Most of Stereo feels like a flat imitation of Westerberg’s best work, a concept album without a concept. "Only Lie Worth Telling" deals with the relationship, love/in love dynamic, but there’s nothing special or original about it. The redefinition theme of "Dirt to Mud," a song that ends with an unexpected dropout, would be brilliant if it weren’t for the fact that Westerberg sees fit to provide a disclaimer about tape runout. It could very well be what Westerberg claims, a tape ending at the perfect moment, a performance questioning who we are ending abruptly and hanging in space. He grasps that the beauty of reality and life is the lack of explanation, the work without a safety net, yet he also feels the need to talk about it and explain what’s happened, add a disclaimer, allow for easy retreat. Throughout the album there’s the underlying feeling that Westerberg is holding back, as if, at this point, he’s simply going through the motions. "We May Be The Ones" is bittersweet and, yes, real, but what the hell is Westerberg trying to tell his listener? "Let The Bad Times Roll" has that addicting self-pity aspect of Westerberg’s early work, but this isn’t 1993’s 14 Songs redux, it’s just uninspired. I wanted to like Stereo, I really did, but it simply doesn’t deserve it.

Grandpa Boy, the "other" disc, is another story. Westerberg drops all the reeking bullshit on Stereo and goes back to playing rock and roll. The raw, driving guitars of a musician who truly doesn’t give a damn is the territory in which Westerberg shines. The groovy guitar of "Silent Film Star," his raw voice speaking of love through an aspect of film, this is the stuff that gets interesting. The juxtaposed premise of infatuation from afar and the idea of watching a film isn’t original by any means, but—and this is a big but—it still sounds original. While still a bit flat lyrically, the sped-up character of the bonus disc at least makes it entertaining.

But maybe that’s where Westerberg was going? It’s obvious that the explanations he provides don’t fit the characteristics of each album, at least not to these ears. Being familiar with his past recordings, I wouldn’t put it past the man to have the bonus disc sound better than the "formal" one. As a set, Stereo and Grandpa Boy are playable, but are they anything special? Not in the least.


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Lauryn Hill, MTV Unplugged v 2.0

Who hasn’t been waiting for this album of new material? The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was unquestionably one of the most important albums of the 90s. Looking at the vast empty void called modern pop, the likes of Alicia Keys, India.Arie, and Jill Scott stand tall. Yes, they are all devotees of the Donnie Hathaway school of rhythm and blues, as well as countless other legends, but there’s some Hill in there as well. With all due respect to Erykah Badu, it was Lauryn Hill who opened the door for the neo-soul movement in the major media outlets.

The intimate, dare I say "folk" aspect of Hill with a single acoustic guitar was an unexpected turn from the synthetic beats and slightly overproduced nature of her debut album. Even with the resurgence of acoustic-based instruments in hip hop (admittedly a categorization not fair to this work), Hill’s decision to release this performance is a mild surprise. Deeply spiritual, each song sings of her discovery of a higher power, her struggles as a woman, both in and out of the spotlight, the lessons she has learned in life; there’s no denying that she’s laying it all out on the stage. Her fat guitar and crowd interaction, along with the personal nature of her songwriting, is reminiscent of Ani DiFranco’s Living In Clip live compilation of a few years past. Hill knows that her audience is reading meaning into these songs, that the critics will come, and she says defiantly, "Every one of these songs are about me first."

Hill’s songwriting has grown past the point of the personal to the slightly ironic and powerful. At times ("Adam Lives in Theory," "Mystery of Antiquity," "So Much Things To Say") she gets goose-bump good, not afraid to inject her religious and political perspective into her work. Even as someone who doesn’t agree with most of her traditionally Christian views, I found myself deeply entrenched in what she had to say, her outlook on the world around us, the lessons she’s trying to impart. This isn’t simply a collection of songs, it’s about a woman who feels she’s learned something and is attempting to share it with the world. That aspect of her work raises it above the art/pop debate about what’s allowable in modern culture and what isn’t. If anything, her lyrics encourage the listener to see the other side, to look at what she’s saying and flip it around, to look at the contrast of the images she paints.

Lauryn Hill is no fool, she’s aware of what the music-buying culture expects from her. Here is one of the most talented people to hit the mainstream in years, capable of changing from soul to rap in an instant, all with the voice of a goddess. Hill alludes to her gift, aware that she’s expected to keep it in top form, to protect it from the perils of everyday life, but says, simply, "I just sound like a girl with a lot of stuff in her throat." As for that lightning-quick switch between styles? She only does it twice, teasing the listener with her ability, but also giving the impression that it isn’t about what we expect of her, it’s about what she wants to give. However, this twenty-two-track double album includes an intro, seven interludes, and an "outro," all monologues by Hill. Most of them involve not caring about public perception, but for someone who claims to not give a damn she certainly has a lot to say on the subject. The nature of the album actually places it above critique. How can a person break down the morals of someone who’s privileged us with sharing it? Still, the repetitive nature of her words makes the album feel long-winded, past the point of intimacy into preaching. While filler is nothing new to her (or the rest of the ex-Fugees), in the past it was entertaining. Here it’s completely different, and while I’m usually a sucker for that type of stuff, I simply lost interest. After a few listens I find myself hitting the "seek forward" button.

Still, even with all of its flaws (if you want to call them that), the album is one of the ten best albums released in 2002. Like Waits’ Alice, Unplugged v 2.0 ventures past music as an art form into the telling of a story, a window into a life. I’m surprised that a major label was wise enough to release it, and more impressed with Lauryn Hill’s bravery in making it. She is undoubtedly one of the most interesting people in pop culture, and while I don’t really give a damn about her personal life, I wonder where she’ll go musically. It all adds up to an interesting album, one that helps to cement her place in musical history, but by no means an essential disc.


From The Archives


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The Velvet Underground, White Light/White Heat

The Velvet Underground has gotten quite a lot of press lately, most of it crediting them for influencing everything from modern punk to progressive rock. As a long-time fan, it’s gotten on my nerves, and as a result of hearing the High Fidelity soundtrack everywhere (including my own car), I almost can’t listen to Loaded these days. I’ve considered saying that I prefer their ancient rivals, The New York Dolls, just to let my punks innards shine. Perhaps you can relate. This is not to say that VU isn’t deserving, in fact I have a hard time choosing a favorite among their four major releases. However, White Light/White Heat is undoubtedly their most adventurous work. From the heroin-induced title track to the insane storytelling of "The Gift," yes, this is rock and roll. Then reality sets in—those are just the first two tracks. By the time "Lady Godiva" rolls around, it’s a challenge to know how much time has passed, what’s real and what isn’t, or if I’ve been slipped some acid. Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, John Cale, and Maureen Tucker prove that not only are they more than Andy Warhol’s protégés, they can and will change music forever.


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Joni Mitchell, Blue

Yes, you probably own it, and I’d guess it’s on a couple of formats and at least one of those is a good remaster. This entry is for those who don’t play it every day, and therefore don’t live a life as full as it could be. I know, because for some ungodly reason I took it out of heavy rotation and placed it into the exile known as "the other music shelf." Why I deprived myself of possibly the greatest album to make love to, wallow in self-pity to, contemplate the beauty of rainy days, emotion, and life to, I do not know. All of it is here, and it’s played out in front of simplistic guitars with one of the most breathtaking voices known to man. It’s almost disrespectful to analyze music that approaches art. Actually, scratch the almost. How can anyone categorize this album? Folk doesn’t fit; its jazz elements aren’t substantial enough for that genre. "Good Music" doesn’t quite do it justice, "genius" sounds flat. "Pour a glass of hearty red wine and lose yourself music". Yeah, that’d be the one.


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Jonathan Richman, Action Packed: The Best Of

A dear friend recently decided that I needed to expand my musical horizons, and introduced me to his extensive collection of music. One name stuck out for me. There’s cool, and then there’s Jonathan Richman—a man who isn’t afraid to add cheese to his song writing, knows he can make his audience laugh, and isn’t afraid of it. Comparisons to Leonard Cohen can’t be helped, but Richman has a style and talent very distinctively his own. Action Packed is a fairly good sampling of his solo work on Rounder Records, and is a great intro to those who are unfamiliar with him, or are just interested in clever, atypical songwriting.