Ani DiFranco & Utah Phillips
By calling their new album Fellow Workers, Ani DiFranco and Utah Phillips pay homage to this country's long-faded socialist movement (whose members always began their speeches with a hearty "Fellow workers!"). By dipping into a song bag that's partially made up of Depression-era folk tunes, the second collaboration between the generation-spanning singers/songwriters/storytellers sounds like a quaint, sepia-toned relic of more revolutionary times.
It's also a traditional folk album unlike any DiFranco has made in her past (perhaps atoning for the jam-band mess of her latest solo disc?). True, her role here merely consists of playing various instruments and supplying a few backing vocals to the 64-year-old (and Cleveland-born) Phillips's tales of social injustice throughout the years. Recorded live before a small New Orleans audience, Fellow Workers essentially plops Phillips into the middle of DiFranco and her band's acoustic ramblings and sets him loose. And for eighteen tracks he becomes Tom Joad, an Everyman from years past, railing against The Man. Only problem, The Man doesn't exist anymore in the same form as Phillips sees him here.
The folk duo's last album, The Past Didn't Go Anywhere, was a bit more harried than the nearly effortless flow of Fellow Workers. But there's a bulky, and quite tedious, tone to Phillips's stories. He invokes leftist legends Mother Jones and Joe Hill, and canonizes the role of unions in America's history. And he beats the same points, again and again, into the listener's brain. Meanwhile, DiFranco and her refined band (including, for one cut, Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner on trumpet) back him like a dusty folk group, adding chorale support at a vintage United Whatever Workers meeting.
The instrumental tunes ("Joe Hill," "The Internationale") work the best here. Phillips is no singer; he talks his way through most of the tracks on Fellow Workers with the attention and devotion of a seasoned storyteller. And the hip-hop beat that DiFranco supplies to "Bread and Roses" is fun (and Phillips sticks pretty close to conventional folk-song territory rather than hopping atop a soapbox for this one). But too much of Fellow Workers is outdated social warfare--the battles Phillips is fighting have already been won. Sort of.
By naming its debut album Dysfunction, working with members of Limp Bizkit, and recording on the Limp boys' label, Staind doesn't leave open many options. It would be safe to assume, without even hearing the record, that every song on Dysfunction is a blistering sonic assault; listen to its nine tracks, and you'll be rewarded for such insight. Staind has all the moves and grooves down; it's attack-mode neo-metal, made for disgruntled teenage boys who equate chin hair with rebellion.
And with those very low aspirations set, Staind stomps aggressively into the land of crunchy guitars and flashy noise ricochets. Rooted more in traditional metal than either Limp Bizkit or brothers-in-arms Korn (and downplaying the hip-hop that those bands inject into their music), Dysfunction violently shakes grunge from its slumber and calls up the spirits of Kurt Cobain and Soundgarden. Once the party's started, however, no one really knows what to do or where to go, leaving the band to tear through a tedious set of hard-rock leftovers with little invention.
But singer Aaron Lewis has that whine-to-a-scream thing down, and the choruses (in typical Korn Bizkit fashion) burst out of the verses with all the subtlety of a fart in church. And the songs steadily bitch and moan about everything (sample the song titles: "Suffocate," "Raw," "Crawl," "Spleen"). Things are tough in the land of Staind, dammit, and they're aiming to make you just as miserable as they are.
Once the pattern is set, Dysfunction plays itself out early. The Alice-in-Nirvana "Just Go" is so fed up with itself, so distressed ("a cancer on the face of everything that is beautiful" is the way they put it), you just hope that when its narrator cracks he doesn't end up taking out the room with him. Similarly, "Mudshovel" locks itself in its closet, bringing up a slow boil that you just know is headed for no good. But Staind likes it that way; without everything to complain about, the band would have nothing to do all day. And there are very few things that are more pathetic than a bunch of neo-metal copycats sitting around letting all that aggression rot.
Jesse & the 8th Street Kidz
Don't hate Jesse Camp because he's some clown on MTV--hate him because he got to make a record.
What Camp (or his handlers) did with the opportunity is intriguing. Jesse & the 8th Street Kidz is an old-fashioned, guitar-centered rock record that has next to nothing to do with the stuff that airs on his employer's channel. Camp calls on where-are-they-now bands such as Sweet, Guns 'n Roses, Poison, and Cheap Trick (Rick Nielsen plays guitar on a few tracks) for inspiration. Nearly every song has a man-is-that-lick-familiar ring to it, and the lyrics celebrate the rebellion of boys who want to party in the parking lot until the sun comes up.
It's hard to tell exactly what Camp contributed to this project besides his pronounced cheekbones and fright wig. There are enough songwriters and musicians listed in the liner notes to reopen the Brill Building. For what it's worth, Camp is credited with co-writing twelve of the fourteen songs, singing, and playing the saxophone on one track and acoustic guitar on another.
The record leads off with "I'll See You Around," one of the album's many "I'm Jesse, and I'm here to break alllll the rules" numbers. Dear lord, are those police sirens and breaking glass in the background at the end of the song? 'Fraid so. When Jesse isn't razzin' the school principal or anyone else who would keep him from rocking to his full potential, he wants to kiss a girl.
Hollywood Records is a Disney subsidiary, and Camp's defiance barely registers a PG-13 rating. For a kid who claimed to grow up on the streets, Camp's struggles are suspiciously suburban. The Fame gang was more menacing than the one in "Summertime Squatters." It would, though, have been far more egregious for Camp to phony up tales about junkies, rapists, and psychopaths. He may be a fake, but he's a harmless one.