The Three EPs
It's difficult to pinpoint from exactly where the Beta Band is coming. Sure, the resume says Scotland, but listening to its first stateside release, The Three EPs, reflects a more universal, at times even otherworldly, place than the land of bagpipes and awesome whiskey. Part Britpop, part electronica haze, and part psychedelic trainspotting, the twelve songs gathered here (from, as the title so deftly implies, three EPs the quartet released back home over the past couple years) scour a musical map as vast as the Shetland Islands.
Take "Dry the Rain" from 1997's Champion Versions (which, like the other two source EPs, is out of print). Crawling along like a '60s white-boy blues band channeling the Delta, singer and guitarist Stephen Mason leads the group through a six-minute journey down musical swamplands that just happen to include a slight hip-hop beat as the all-knowing but unobtrusive tour guide. Not much is said or done during the time, but there's a final awareness that it's been a mind-clearing experience nonetheless, a preparation of sorts for the rest of the album.
The material varies wildly on The Three EPs. The early recordings are more conser-vatively structured than the subsequent work. By the time the final four songs roll along (from last year's Los Amigos del Beta Banditos), the Beta Band has progressed from a reluctant pop band to an experimenting group of knob-twisters and tape-looping mavericks that uses the studio as it would any other instrument it finds lying around.
But it's the middle EP (1998's The Patty Patty Sound) that projects most promisingly for the Beta Band's future. "The House Song" (which includes handclaps, a fat-bottom bass, hip-hop breaks, some wicked scratching, and something approaching a disoriented rap) is an electronic extravaganza that glides through the open spaces of the song (and there are many) with atmospheric glee. And the nearly sixteen-minute instrumental "Monolith" isn't so much a song as it is a sound collage that drifts from one wayward idea to another with little inherent structure. It's disorienting, frustrating, and somewhat infuriating. It's also semi-brilliant and the center of the Beta Band's splintered world.
Deep in the South
Blues fans are constantly hearing about some destitute old man who was once a local star somewhere in the South and maybe even released a record many years ago and he has been found so the whole world can experience a genuine musical treasure blah, blah, blah. Folklorist Timothy Duffy discovered three such men: Guitar Gabriel (ne Robert Nyles, Nyles Jones, and Lewis Jones), Neal "Big Daddy" Pattman, and Cootie Stark.
Of the trio, Guitar Gabriel, who died three years ago, is the weirdest. What we have here is a 66-year-old lifelong hard drinker who cannot control his bladder, living in squalor in a public housing project because he and the woman with whom he shares the dump are far too weak to clean it. Gabe also vomits as many times a day as lite rock station play Billy Joel songs. Duffy claims Gabriel "is the blues," a statement that can make a lot of folks feel Caucasian blues junkies are a pretentious lot.
Duffy and a man named John Creech toured with Gabriel. Liner notes say Gabe had the audience dancing like mad, and the women lost their inhibitions through his playing. Maybe, but you would never suspect that by listening to Deep in the South. The playing seems to be half-speed. Gabe's voice is soft and garbled, making him nearly inaudible.
Neal Pattman fares far better. He's a true Piedmont bluesman, and it sure doesn't hurt having Taj Mahal backing him on most of the cuts. Pattman, 66, plays a good harmonica, despite his left arm having been amputated at nine when it was crushed by a wagon wheel. Taj's banjo lights up "Shortnin' Bread," and standards like "Catfish Blues," "Five Long Years," and "Bottle Up and Go" are given a nice treatment.
Stark is the best discovery here. A 72-year-old blind man living in a project house in Greenville, South Carolina, Stark is far more used to performing in bus stations than on the Winston Blues Revival tour, on which Duffy has booked him and Pattman. But Stark has a voice with clarity that belies his years and the hard times he's endured. This is a real Piedmont player, who learned from legends like Baby Tate, Peg Leg Sam, and Pink Anderson on the streets of Greenville. Stark tears through some great obscure classics like "Jigroo" and "Sandyland," plus more familiar ones like "Alberta" and "Send You Back to Georgia."
Pattman and Stark will be enjoyed by anyone really into East Coast folk-blues. Perhaps the most uplifting story here is that all three records were made by Duffy for his Music Makers Relief Fund, to assist such men, whom the blues revival missed, with housing and medical expenses. That's, of course, on top of offering them their chances at fame so long overdue.
I'd Rather Eat Glass
Tired of being a model and tabloid magnet at fifteen, Bijou Phillips, now eighteen, has switched tracks to her "true calling" of music. At just about the age when most of us reinvented ourselves into adult form, Phillips appears to be going through the same thing, only publicly.
For a former New York club kid working through changes, perhaps it is no surprise that her form of rebellion turns its back on the club scene and produces music that has little to do with clubs and more to do with Lilith Fair. The problem is, Phillips's observations and sentiments seem a little hollow, despite her self-avowed effort to create an album that proves she is going through everything her peers are going through. One crucial difference: Her fans probably don't have a million-dollar bank account to accompany them to the mall and don't get to star in movies or record albums detailing their juvenile trials and tribulations.
Phillips's age does not predispose her to a lack of insight, but perhaps her personality does. As with Jewel's attempts at poetry, I'd Rather Eat Glass consists of trite, echoing sentiments that are too common to be insightful, as if they aren't true but rather what she was told to think and feel. Two songs deal with her parents (her dad is John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas), which is certainly a lesson from Poetry 101: "Write about your parents, and don't worry about offending them."
Content aside, her celebrity status at least afforded her the privilege of working with some of the best names in music. Jerry Harrison (Talking Heads) took up the production reins, and among her band and co-songwriters are names such as Eric Bazillian and Howard Jones. Phillips also attended the Miles Copeland songwriting workshop (where she also attended Poetry 101?), rubbing elbows not only with Jones and Bazillian, but also with Belinda Carlisle. All was for naught. While the album has instances of originality, for the most part it attempts to follow in the footsteps of Liz Phair and Tori Amos et al. There is nothing there to sustain her unoriginal approach to music. She has little to add that hasn't already been placed there by wiser, more mature, and more original musicians. It's a safe bet that, if Phillips were anyone else--say, a schoolgirl from Hoboken--this album would never have been released, at least not with the celebrity fanfare that has been attached to it.
Ten years ago when he was twelve years old, Tevin Campbell splashed across Quincy Jones's Back on the Block with an eagerly innocent gusto which so impressed the veteran producer that he immediately made hasty comparisons to the young Michael Jackson (who also was twelve years old at the time of his breakthrough). Now he's a man. Jackson welcomed adulthood (such as it is with him) with the substantially stylish Thriller; Campbell, on the other hand, has made Tevin Campbell, a by-the-book '90s R&B album that lacks both style and substance.
Lifting hooks, notes, and technique from the bland world of radiopop around him, Campbell and his crew (which includes, among many others, Stevie J. and Wyclef Jean) turn his fourth album into a lazy soul album that is oddly devoid of . . . soul. Campbell sounds just fine--particularly on the Wyclef-written and -produced cuts--technically. But every vocal turn and nuance is so in place, so perfect, that whatever inspiration may have initially graced these songs has been diluted to lukewarm banality.
Cooing like the grown-up loverman he now is, Campbell defiantly shakes his juvenile tag, working hard to prove that that this is his album (hence the title). He so wants to be liked; his last album, 1996's Back to the World, bombed, and Campbell would like nothing better than to be on top, or someplace very close to it, once again. So he does the only thing that makes commercial sense: He makes a bedroom record that recounts the wrongs he's caused in the name of love, the wrongs he's suffered in the name of love, and the wrongs he plans to rectify, all in the name of love. Just like 95 percent of all R&B albums made today.
A couple times, he hooks onto something. "Another Way" and "For Your Love" bounce and slink appropriately, but the bulk of this self-named snoozer is Campbell pushing hard for adult recognition. He's got the education, he's paid his dues, and now he wants to crawl between the sheets as smoothly as R. Kelly and Gerald Levert do. Problem is, Campbell has neither their voice nor their soul-smooth acumen to pull it off completely. He's got a whole lotta love just waiting for a libidinous night out, but he has absolutely nowhere to go with it.
Always Never the Same
George Strait is the original Nashville hat guy. Every biz player from major phony Garth Brooks to the tolerable Mark Chesnutt pays his dues at the door to Strait. He's amassed more Country Music Association awards and number-one singles than any of his more blockbuster-selling, superstar disciples, and he's a sincere country music veteran who can bring depth and a touch of style to even the lamest factory-generated Nashville tunes, which often populate his albums.
On his 24th album, Always Never the Same, it's business as usual for Strait, who takes a ho-hum collection of modern country tunes, wraps his plaintive voice around it, and turns the entire package into a likable, if not totally indispensable, record of new Nashville standards. Working with the usual gang of seasoned session vets, Strait comfortably slides into the songs here with an ease that befits an old hand like him. It's nothing new for Strait, but reliability is his forte.
He can make a mushy grow-old-with-you tune like "That's Where I Wanna Take Our Love" sound like an earnest (and inviting) plea for good old-fashioned country livin' and lovin'. And he infuses the divorce odyssey "4 Minus 3 Equals Zero" with an aching zest that's part new, part old traditionalist (think George Jones at the crossroads, and you have a pretty good idea where Strait is coming from here). Only when Strait settles into bland, overproduced glitter material (thankfully, kept mostly in check by co-producer Tony Brown) does Always Never the Same lurk into Big Hat cliche territory.
On the honky-tonk valentine title track and the opening "Meanwhile" (which sneaks up on you, with its sweeping chorus that breathlessly comes out of no-where), Strait injects typical Nashville gloss with a bit of wide-eyed flash that demonstrates that this old cowpoke ain't quite ready for his porch-swingin' sunset days just yet. And that's what has always separated Strait from the other Big Hat Club members: He can keep up with all the Shania Twains and Tim McGraws if he chooses to, but he doesn't need to validate his country stature.