If any pop group wants to commit career suicide, there's no better blueprint than Sly & the Family Stone's 1971 classic There's a Riot Goin On: all junkie smiles, bad-news bulletins, slow-death jams and yodeling space cowboys. The crucial difference between that and Public Enemy's doomstruck homage There's a Poison Goin On is Sly and Co. had a career to throw away, while P.E. has already been pretty much consigned to the ranks of the has-been/washed-up. But failure, desperation and irrelevance seem to have opened up Public Enemy's paranoia even as the music's gotten bleaker, trickier and more intense. Chuck D. makes a better freelance crank than he ever did a social spokesman -- the ferociously bitter rant on "Do You Wanna Go Our Way???" ranks with both James Brown and "Ballad of a Thin Man." Perhaps it's easier for P.E. to deliver on the noise they always promised when their egos are up against the wall instead of being stroked by well-meaning admirers.
Last year's non-comeback album, the solid but roundly ignored He Got Game soundtrack, actually went in for a more generous Sly vibe, with experimental strings, female choruses and an absurd, ominous chunk of Stephen Stills' hippie-protest classic "For What It's Worth." There's a Poison is the first major release from the MP3 label Atomic Pop, but it's hardly a testament to the inspirational powers of Internet technology: The slave-new-world millennium it ushers in is permeated with cancers, rot, cultural splatter. "So I parallel the brains of Cobain," Chuck announces in back-to-back songs, sounding like he's using a shotgun barrel for a mike. The apocalypse arrives one tumor, one infection, one killing at a time. "It takes a nation of sellouts to keep us back," he boasts, with Public Enemy as the thin black line of defense against a hip-hop landscape ruled by entrepreneurial collaborators, racist stereotypes and more craven pimping than you can shake a stick at. "Last Mass of the Caballeros" neatly casts this moral showdown in spaghetti-Western terms -- as the soundtrack to a Spike Leone joint.
Rage and dismay are everywhere on Poison, from the Grandmaster Ralph Ellison message of "I" (old-school, indeed) to police-state gallows humor ("41:19") and cloning follies ("First the Sheep Next the Shepherd?"). But it keeps circling back to the music and who exactly dropped a neutron bomb on it: the structures left intact but the humanity wiped out. The closing "Swindler's Lust" looks back almost nostalgically for familiar villains, but the whites who ripped off earlier generations of black musicians can't be blamed for the all-about-the-Benjamins blight Chuck D. rails against throughout the album -- meaning that Public Enemy's most unflinching music may also be their last gasp.
VARIOUS ARTISTS Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons (Almo Sounds)
THE COAL PORTERS The Gram Parsons Tribute Concert (Prima)
Gram Parsons' life was such a colorful mess, one so filled with contradiction, tragedy and great music, it's amazing there's never been a movie made about it. Born to a wealthy Southern family straight outta the pages of a Tennessee Williams play, Gram kick-started the country-rock movement through his involvement with the International Submarine Band, the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers. Despite a peripatetic "trust-funder" work ethic and myriad social and narcotic distractions, Gram still managed to pen dozens of classic songs before dying with a needle in his arm and an ice cube up his butt at the tender age of 26. Throw a bizarre corpse-robbing wrinkle into the story -- some of Gram's friends hijacked his coffin, then botched an impromptu cremation -- and you've got all the makings of a larger-than-life legend.
So why is Return of the Grievous Angel, Almo's big-budget tribute album featuring the likes of Sheryl Crow, the Pretenders, Gillian Welch, the Mavericks and Elvis Costello, about as interesting as a TV Guide cover story? Maybe because most of the record's selections and performances seem calculated to play up the image of Parsons as the haunted poet, the gentle Southern boy with wisdom well beyond his years. That was a part of Parsons' persona, to be sure, but he was also an inveterate hell-raiser with a wicked wit, which is why it's so frustrating to hear the subtle humor of "Sin City" and "Return of the Grievous Angel" flattened by the hushed earnestness of duet versions by Beck & Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams & David Crosby, respectively. The whole collection sounds nice and purty, sure, but only Wilco's nitro-fueled take on "One Hundred Years From Now" and Chris Hillman & Steve Earle's rollicking duet on "High Fashion Queen" fully embrace Parsons for the paradoxical bastard he apparently was.
On the other hand, The Gram Parsons Tribute Concert, a raucous and sweaty celebration recorded last year in London, truly hits the mark. Led by Parsons biographer (and former Long Ryder) Sid Griffin, the Coal Porters refuse to treat Parsons' songs with kid gloves or funereal reverence, and thus do equal justice to the wistful pathos of "Hickory Wind" and the raised-middle-finger salute of "Drug Store Truck Driving Man." Parsons will probably be extremely flattered when Return of the Grievous Angel hits the racks in honky-tonk heaven, but he'll probably spin the Coal Porters record a hell of a lot more often. (Dan Epstein)