A Perfect Pop Plan

Photo by Autumn DewildeLILYS

The 3 Way (Sire)

One of the joys of '99's front half has been this unfortunately neglected gem of a '60s-pop-style album. Sure, the stuff is superficially retro -- with those go-go beats, foppish vocals and loads of economical guitar riffs, the East Coast­based Lilys have obviously been burning the midnight oil lately, studying the field manuals of the British Invasion's foot soldiers (general strategy from the Kinks, marching orders from the Zombies, etc.). But listen again -- this is more than the typical Poptopian pastiche of the usual turtlenecked '60s suspects. There's an unusually large number of melodic and instrumental hooks present in The 3 Way's 36 minutes; the two seven-minute, decidedly un-epic tunes, "Socs Hop" and "Leo Ryan (Our Pharoah's Slave)," approach a "Stars on 45" level of melodies-per-song.

Despite its compositional complexity, The 3 Way remains remarkably hummable and unintimidating, helped along by wonderful counterharmonies, some vigorously plucked banjo, a few bossa nova breaks, an uptempo Motown bridge on "Leo Ryan," a guitar riff on "The Spirits Merchant" that could be a George Harrison White Album outtake, and another trick lifted from a '60s-pop songbook (this time an American one): Left Banke­style orchestration shadowing and coloring in the tunes' empty spaces.

It's all quite charming -- except for Lilys leader Kurt Heasley's lyrics, which recapitulate '90s Amerindie rock composers' unwillingness or inability to write a coherent, graceful lyric. So "And One (On One)" might be about doing lines till dawn, "The Lost Victory" about Nazi war criminals in Brazil and "The Spirits Merchant" about the local liquor store, but then again, maybe not. The lyrics often aren't particularly artful in and of themselves, so it's hard to pinpoint a method to all of Heasley's oblique madness. The Invasion is long over, Kurt -- there's no need to write in code anymore.


The Art of Storytelling (Def Jam)

"Tell us a story, Uncle Donnie, tell us a story!" Okay, kids, once upon a time there was a master storyteller -- his mama called him "Ricky Walters" -- born to a poor, humble Jamaican family in Wimbledon, England. After emigrating to the Bronx at age 12, he first came to fame under the name MC Ricky D, whose flair for comedy elevated Doug E. Fresh & the Get Fresh Crew's 1985 double-sided smash "The Show" and the story-song "La Di Da Di" into the rarefied air of Old Skool classics. (The latter was covered by Snoop Dogg on his 1994 Doggystyle.)

By 1988, he was calling himself Slick Rick, and his first solo album -- The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, featuring the blackly comedic "Children's Story" (covered by Tricky under his Nearly God persona in 1996) -- shifted 1.8 million units and became another future classic. Meanwhile, down at the intersection of Life and Art, Rick was involved in a shooting incident that put him behind bars from 1990 to '96. He cut two quick albums' worth of material before he went in, but mostly no one cared.

"Then what happened, Uncle Donnie, then what happened?" Well, kids, Slick Rick just came back with a brand-new album, The Art of Storytelling. Like most rap records these days, it's littered with skippable skits and a long guest list (Big Boi from Outkast, Nas, Raekwon from the Wu-Tang Clan, Jermaine Dupri and Snoop Dogg, among others), but it's really a showcase for Slick Rick's laid-back delivery, wacky rhymes, outrageous humor and man-of-a-thousand-voices (black/white, male/female, gay/straight, U.S./U.K.) ventriloquial skills. Despite the title, the only actual stories here are the rapping-slave-in-ancient-Egypt fantasy ("Who Rotten 'Em"), the it-was-all-a-nightmare scenario ("Kill Niggaz"), the twin tales of sexual temptation ("2 Way Street") and seduction ("Why Why Why"), and the XXX-rated "Adults Only," which sports the following inspirational couplet: "Ain't no way to put it subtle/When I want the butthole." The rest stretches from simple '70s nostalgia ("Memories") to eleventy-seven different kinds of braggadocio, whether it's the self-styled "black Clark Gable" boasting of his ability to "make construction workers start actin' kinda feminine" ("Street Talkin'") or threatening to "drop a pile of semen on 'em" ("Unified"). At a time when most veteran rappers can't get anything but arrested, this album sold 98,000 copies its first week out. The End.

"Wow! That Uncle Donnie is really weird." (Don Waller)



Good Dog, Happy Man (Nonesuch)

There's always been something fussy about Bill Frisell's guitar playing. Accomplished and versatile, he slides effortlessly and intuitively between techniques and styles. But he also tends to linger over notes or miniature riffs, buffing them until they're burnished and warm and maybe just a little off-putting, like an 1800s dining table you don't quite dare touch in an antique shop. He has an impeccable ear, though, and his work catches the light.  

As a composer, Frisell seems to have located his center. Once as eclectic and mercurial as downtown New York contemporaries like John Zorn, he now devotes himself to building seamless and personal collages of 20th-century Americana. The only cover on Good Dog is a shimmering meditation on "Shenandoah," performed here as a duet with an exceptionally introspective Ry Cooder, but all these tracks are derived from folk and folk-jazz and blues sources. And all of them glow.

Indeed, Frisell has become so precise and gentle and consistent that his music veers close to Windham Hill anonymity here. What saves it is his marvelous ensemble. A restrained Wayne Horvitz adds just the right sour swirl of B-3 organ, and multi-instrumentalist Greg Leisz creates alluring and sometimes startling backdrops. Most valuable of all, perhaps, is drummer Jim Keltner, whose subtle but unpredictable brush work rattles the serenity of Frisell's still, green world just enough, like a summer breeze through leaf-heavy branches. (Glen Hirshberg)



Viva el Amor! (Warner Bros.)

"They just don't make 'em like they used to," sneers Chrissie Hynde on "Popstar," the punky chunk of garage-rock that kick-starts the Pretenders' first studio album in five years. This is more than a trifle ironic, considering the U.S. expatriate singer-songwriter-guitarist and whoever else has been in the band -- these days, it's original drummer Martin Chambers, former Katydids lead guitarist Adam Seymour and ex-Primitives bassist Andy Hobson, all back on board from the previous studio effort -- have been intermittently spitting out similarly half-brilliant/half-baked records ever since premier Pretenders riffslinger James Honeyman-Scott shuffled off this mortal coil back in '82. (Semifamous fretgrinders Billy Bremner, Robbie McIntosh and Johnny Marr have held the slot since.)

Aside from the aforementioned opening track -- which features our formidable front woman rhyming "couple of hits" with "brand-new tits" and "Kylie Minogue" with "cover of Vogue" -- the true blue flame of inspiration burns best 'n' brightest on the gorgeous, chimes-of-freedom-flashing guitars of "Who's Who"; the screamin' soul ballad "One More Time" (any debts to Lorraine Ellison's towering performance on "Stay With Me Baby" stamped PAID IN FULL); and the bar-band rocker "Legalise Me," sporting some signature guest fretwork from Jeff Beck. (Hynde provided the uncredited voice on the veteran guitar hero's recent album track "Space for the Papa.")

If this is about as good as anyone gets, it's also about as good as anything gets here. The rest of this refreshingly brief (46 minutes) LP is a mystery (under)achievement of unfathomably high-gloss production, unnecessary string arrangments, unmemorable melodies and underwhelming lyrics ("You bring the biker out in me"). And while Hynde's trademark tough 'n' tender vocals have grown increasingly more subtle 'n' sophisticated, much of her performance -- particularly the pallid attempts at erotica ("Samurai" and "From the Heart Down") -- is sadly unconvincing.

There's a certain amount of self-plagiarism, too, although the worst of this comes when Hynde is either grasping at other people's material ("Human" is "Back on the Chain Gang" set to a shuffling hip-hop loop) or co-writing with stinkfinger auteurs Billy Steinberg & Tom Kelly of "I Touch Myself" and "Like a Virgin" fame ("Nails in the Road" shares DNA with "My City Was Gone"). To be fair, the Steinberg & Kelly co-write "Baby's Breath" has a clever lyrical hook, if not much else. In summation, there's a four-letter word for four-years-in-the-making records like this: L-A-Z-Y. (Don Waller)





at the CPA, Florence, Italy, June 4

Nowhere in America is there anything like Italy's social centers, abandoned buildings and factories that have been transformed by squatting punks, commies and anarchists into concert venues, free of any government oversight or landlords. The CPA has been around for 10 years and is one of four social centers on the outskirts of Florence. A cavernous old factory covered in hammers and sickles, pictures of Che Guevara and a large painting of imprisoned Kurdish resistance leader Ocalan, CPA has a cinema, a volleyball court, foosball, Ping-Pong, a kitchen, a DJ room and a bar serving beer and mixed drinks for around $1.50, while the cover is $2.50.

Opening the show was Plaster, a local band who played old SST-style, mostly instrumental rock noodling, which aroused a couple of squat dogs who barked their approval. Then Washington D.C.'s the Make-Up took the stage in spectacular fashion, sporting matching red suits and wacky mod haircuts. Singer Ian Svenonius went through his usual variety of epileptic dance moves, which rarely go with the music, while James Canty has really come into his own on guitar and organ, and makes excellent use of a tambourine. Statuesque bassist Michelle Mae is a fine musician, but onstage, groovy she isn't, looking bored with the over-the-top spirit of the rest of the band. Svenonius was mellower than usual, not attempting to walk on top of the audience like Jesus or grab and kiss anybody.  

Still, the Make-Up are always very persuasive live, and attempt to enrapture their fans like a gospel choir. The crowd of about 200, which included several guys who looked like young Fidel Castros, many dreadlocked squat punks, one skinhead, a few groups of fashionably dressed Florentines, only one guy in a Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt and more ponytails than need be, eventually warmed up to this very foreign band, the likes of which one surely can't find in Italy, and by the end of the show wouldn't let them leave, applauding beyond several encores until the lights came on. (Adam Bregman)

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