Penelope Houston has such good intentions that it's difficult to fault her for the overall blandness that surrounds her second major-label outing, Tongue. As leader of San Francisco's the Avengers, a punk band that explored the sound when the music and hardcore scene really mattered, Houston flipped the culture's predominantly male perspective with her teenage takes on the same subjects. Yet, that hardly anyone remembers the Avengers today reflects the impact they ultimately had.
Shifting into singer-songwriter mode for her solo career (she released several albums on import-only and indie labels before snagging a major deal a few years ago), Houston still spits out words with brazen aptitude--"Scum" hurls insults at an unnamed music-industry player with a reticence only maturity can bring (though the tossed-off "fuck you" is a nice touch). But guided by a flat voice that registers every emotion--anger, sadness, love, bliss--similarly, Houston moves from song to song with little distinction. And with Tongue rarely working up the frenzy it hopes to, in the end, there's not much to remember this by.
But Houston certainly tries. And tries hard, throwing bouncy pop, crunchy alt-rock, soothing ballads, and even some electronica against Tongue's canvas, hoping something will stick. Longtime pals Charlotte Caffey and Jane Wiedlin (of the Go-Go's, a California pop-punk band that had a little more success than Houston's Avengers) help out on several cuts, boosting the album's appeal. Yet even their contributions (particularly on the shuffling, hip-hopping title track) feel labored.
Any time a session musician elects to start a solo career, words like "ego" and "star trip" tend to be thrown into the mix, and often with good reason. The studio rat guitarist will always be a threat to bring a gunslinger mentality to his own work; likewise, an in-demand vocalist will have to fight the impulse to attempt triple lutzes every other verse.
With that in mind, it is refreshing that Chris Rodriguez, who's helped sell everything from Whoppers to Kenny Loggins with his vocals and guitar playing, doesn't hype either skill on his debut, Beggar's Paradise. Instead he has chosen to create a collection of guitar-based--but not dominated--rock that is content to be fun to listen to without pretending to be more.
It's obvious that Rodriguez is an ardent fan of the Beatles and Hendrix, but while the same could be said for heavier acts such as King's X, his synthesis of the two owes far more to whatever else was going on in pop music at the time they were recording. This results in jangly, optimistic tunes like "I'll Stay Here" and "Walk You to the Sun" that manage to say their piece and get out before they get old. There is a refreshing lack of a big statement on Paradise--even on his one guitar showpiece, "Your Love," the Hendrix tribute clocks in at under five minutes and leaves the listener wanting more.
The highlights on Paradise span the extremes: He waxes liturgical on the pretty acoustic "Magdalene" and rocks out passionately on "Turn Around" and the title track. The arrangements are as finely thought out and crafted as you'd expect from a studio pro, but not possessing the self-consciousness that separates the artists from the enablers. Rodriguez's presentation of his born-again beliefs is as understated (but present) as his playing, singing, and songwriting. The result is a cheery slice of guitar rock and hummable choruses that will please anyone whose idea of classic rock isn't defined solely by the Doors, Zeppelin, and Neil Young.
R&B music, sweet soul music, used to mean something. The privilege of being labeled an R&B artist once reflected an individual commitment to the music, a passionate and intimate baring of the soul to the public. Guys like Otis Redding and James Brown, gals like Aretha (hell, even Diana Ross), sang their hearts out. And the songs, distinctive slabs of twentieth-century musical history, were right there, matching their singers pound for pound.
Nowadays, it doesn't matter who you are. You can land on the R&B charts with a featured spot on some hip-hopper's freak-of-the-week record. You can end up on some soundtrack, bumping and grinding alongside such modern soulsters as R. Kelly, Dru Hill, and Kelly Price. And nowadays, it doesn't matter what the song is. So long as a Timbaland, a Puffy, a Jermaine, a whoever is attached to it, you're guaranteed a hit.
Heavy-breathing pillow fluffers, sweet-talking loverboys, sly/not-so-sly bedroom come-ons--it's the stuff that R&B is made of these days. Try a Little Tenderness? No fuckin' way, too much time, G; just plug in and play. Can you sing? Doesn't matter; studio wizardry can make you sound like the sexiest crooner that ever lived. Got some phat beats in your pocket? No problem; our top-of-the-line producers have a factory generating hundreds of them daily. Plug and play.
And that's exactly what goes on for most of MIA R&B soul sista Shanice's second album. Self-titled, produced by about as many R&B keymen (Babyface leads the list) as there are tracks, and heavy on '90s R&B conventions, the album is high-gloss, mechanized soul that's set on auto pilot and cruises listlessly toward the gold. Shanice, who sparkled at the top of the decade with "I Love Your Smile" and has been spending time on Broadway lately, hops back in the R&B ring with generic slo-grooves, bogus hip-hoppin' beats, and over-the-top Mariah Carey-esque vocal acrobatics. Only the single, the click-track weeper "When I Close My Eyes," approaches classic soul music, and even that isn't so sweet.
Music to Mauzner By
Joshua Ralph, the 22-year-old New Yorker behind the electro-studio project Spy, tosses a lot of disparate influences--world, hip-hop, alt-rock, dance, funk--into his debut album, Music to Mauzner By. It all hooks on to a vaguely familiar, old-school-vs.-new-school groove that gives the album a slightly worn-in vibe that radiates a warmth not commonly found in generic electrodance beats. Still, in-house wizardry only goes so far before the precious, and oh-so-hip, conceit begins to sound like a put-on.
So, it's hard to tell exactly where Ralph is going and what he's saying on Music to Mauzner By. It's all pretty simple stuff: a mariachi rhythm here, a gospel-powered hymn there, ironic '90s all around. It doesn't add up to much--except to show just how post-modern this all is; there are so many winks going on within Music to Mauzner By that a case of Visine is needed, just to get the eyeballs back to normal. Think Beck with more of a techno slant, and you get the picture.
Yet, its overwhelming aspiration just may be its greatest attraction. Ralph is an ambitious connoisseur of all things pop cult (Chuck D even once asked him to direct a Public Enemy video). One minute he's goosing '80s new wave ("Mauzner Detroit"), the next he's spreading a fat bass riff all over a cut that would sound at home in Shaft's jukebox ("Fire It Up"). Essentially, there are more ideas than anything else operating here. And with the final "Untitled 17," a totally left-field, unironic classical piece that's every bit as lovely as everything preceding it has been kitschy, Ralph lays on another musical hat to supplement the several he literally wears on the album (my favorite: the big-ass white cowboy number featured on the cover).
Only the cowpoking "Baby" (a wheezing helicopter ride over '80s break beats and a stuttering mantra that drifts into Europop territory), though, sticks. The magnitude of themes racing through Ralph's mind is noble; there's certainly something estimable about someone who can jump genres so readily and never repeat himself in the process. Ralph tends to think of Spy as some sort of project designed for an esoteric soundtrack. With Music to Mauzner By, however, it's more like a strenuous listen to a consciously hip record collection.