Beth Orton really could rip open the phonebook, pick a couple pages, and start singing its contents, and I would listen. Not only would I listen, I'd be transfixed, hypnotized, and totally enthralled. Her voice, a smooth blend of heartbreak and restrained triumph, is so gorgeous that she could record the Billy Joel songbook and make it sound like it means something. Fortunately, her second album, the equally gorgeous and glorious Central Reservation, bypasses any such stopovers in lameville and advances straight into the land of milk and honey.
By design a folk singer, by practice a recovering electro-head (and Chemical Brothers collaborator), Orton dips her often-sprawling songs into a bittersweet bowl of melancholy. Her debut album, the turned-on Trailer Park, concealed much of the underlining sadness by layering it in trip-hop beats. Central Reservation, save a backtracking moment or two (only the lurking "Stars All Seem to Weep" fits into place here), is a straight-up folk album, unashamed and exalted in its lineage. And it is heartbreaking--Orton's voice can convey nothing else--but never despairing.
With those electronic tools set aside, Orton is free to make a follow-up album that's strengthened by its bareness. Accompanied most often by a strumming acoustic guitar and resplendent swelling strings, she sounds like Fairport Convention's Sandy Denny on the verge of a breakdown (or at least tears). Stripped of the fancy electro-farting that made her debut a bit too precocious, Central Reservation becomes Orton's declaration of independence, a record as fragile as it is unwavering.
The entire first half (with the exception of the opening, quaintly upbeat "Stolen Car") is loaded with gloomy tales of love-and-loss tragedy, culminating with the lovely title tune. It runs almost like a suite, with one hallowed lament giving way to another. It's graceful, brittle, and the lustrous center of Central Reservation's eminence. By the time the album winds down with a reprise of the title track--this time produced and recorded as a dance floor anthem by Everything but the Girl's Ben Watt--Orton's soul is, as diminutive Aussie TV star Natalie Imbruglia put it so eloquently, lying naked on the floor.
Roots rock, despite the inconsiderable branching it's done lately, really hasn't changed all that much through the years. After all, it is roots rock--by nature, a return to the basics, with no frills, fads, or fury along the way. So it's little surprise that Cesar Rosas, co-founder of one of the premier roots bands of all time, Los Lobos, would offer such a gritty, down-in-the-dirt slab of fundamental rock and roll as his debut solo album, Soul Disguise.
Having spent the '90s making ambient-soaked recordings of found sounds and experimental set pieces (on such premium Lobos albums as Kiko and Colossal Head, and with the exemplary side project Latin Playboys) that were as much about the studio environment as they were the hard-working combo at the center of it, Rosas exhales a huge breath of relief here. He always seemed like the veritable rocker of Lobos, the one who reigned in bandmate David Hidalgo's somewhat erratic musical leanings. Soul Disguise ultimately comes off as just another pathway of uno lobo, but Rosas sure sounds cleansed and sanctified by the end of it.
Still, it never reaches for--and never achieves--the elasticity or illustriousness of a Los Lobos album. Even Lobos at their rootsy best (1984's How Will the Wolf Survive?, the granddaddy of all roots rock albums) turned off the grand Americana highway once or twice. Soul Disguise merely submits variations on the same theme, working in an accordion here, a harmonica there. He and his crack band work bar-band hard, but never bust out of the roots-rock container in which they're trapped. They're having a hell of a time, but there's no challenge to the music.
At its best--the Lobos-esque "Little Heaven," the bluesy "Shack and Shambles," the plaintive ballad "Better Way"--Soul Disguise celebrates the rock and roll basics. There are no fancy packaging or artsy aural tricks here; it's the very definition of roots rock. But only so many chords and ideas populate the hybrid world of Tex-Mex/Mex-Cal blue-eyed soul. Rosas uses all of them (slipping in a couple covers and Spanish-sung songs), but in his natural surrounding, he sounds a little misspent and, frankly, wearisome.
Humanary Stew: A Tribute to Alice Cooper
Being asked to participate in a tribute album is kind of like being summoned to jury duty: Any and all prejudices and preferences are exposed at time of song selection.
One thing about Humanary Stew is apparent after even a cursory listen: Alice Cooper not only wrote colorful, memorable rock and roll tunes, his versions nailed the original concept so perfectly that there's really nothing to be added.
Strange bedfellows abound, from the coup of pairing Roger Daltrey with Slash for a frisky romp through "No More Mr. Nice Guy" to Sex Pistol Steve Jones teaming with Duff McKagan and Matt Sorum and the Cult's Billy Duffy for a dutiful run at "Elected." By and large, the musicians stay within their own continents, as Bruce Dickinson and Adrian Smith of Iron Maiden and Tony Franklin of the Firm prove on a Vincent Price-like take on "Black Widow," and Dave Mustaine and Marty Friedman (Megadeth) and Eric Singer (Kiss) do on "School's Out." (Nice to see Mustaine lighten up.)
One of the pleasant surprises on Stew is the restraint exhibited by histrionics professor Ronnie James Dio on "Welcome to My Nightmare." The flip side is found on Deep Purple's Glenn Hughes's over-the-top cover of what was the ballad part of Cooper's set, "Only Women Bleed."
Things Fall Apart
It's supposed to be all about the samples, the found sounds, the dusty, scratchy beats, and rhythms lifted from other people's records. That's what hip-hop is all about. Building new songs out of old, reworking James Brown riffs and squeals into a phat rhythm section all its own. That's been hip-hop's method ever since the Sugarhill Gang copped Chic's "Good Times" for "Rapper's Delight." Things aren't supposed to change. Still, things fall apart.
Appropriately, that's the title of the Roots' fourth album. And things have been falling apart brilliantly in the Roots' universe ever since the Philadelphia-based, seven-member collective's 1993 debut, which combined hip-hop skills, verbal aerobics, street and regular smarts, and--get this--a live band backing it all up. The Roots deconstruct hip-hop's basic rules. They then rebuild them into funkier, gutsier ghosts of what they used to be. In 1996 they made one of the decade's best hip-hop albums, Illadelph Halflife. With Things Fall Apart the Roots once again flip over B-boy regulations and construct an album unlike any other in the rap nation.
Chalk up quite a bit of that to those aforementioned brains. The Roots are smart, and they never play down their intelligence to street level. They wax philosophical about the big things in life (little talk of guns, cash, and dope here), they slap silly sucker MCs; they even name their album after a Chinua Achebe novel. This is cerebral stuff, and the Roots are dropping it right in the middle of a hip-hop rebellion.
And they take old-school conventions for a wild spin. They still employ a human beat-box, and there's plenty of freestyle rapping and scratching here. But the Roots are no retro group. Things Fall Apart deals with the approaching millennium (and you thought Busta Rhymes had this market cornered). Things do change, says Roots leader Black Thought throughout the album, and this is how we're gonna deal with it. From the opening aural assault of "Act Won (Things Fall Apart)" to the slam poetics of the closing "The Return to Innocence Lost," Things Fall Apart is a hip-hop battalion out front and center. There's tag-team stylin' braggadocio ("Double Trouble"), a jazzy love song ("Act Too [The Love of My Life]"), and a smooth ode to lost romance with the majestic Erykah Badu ("You Got Me"). It's the end of the world as they know it, and the Roots sound just fine.