MARK LANEGAN I'll Take Care of You (Sub Pop)
You've got to love -- or at least respect -- any album where songs written by the late Gun Club leader Jeffrey Lee Pierce and Leaving Trains front person Falling James bump uglies with compositions by country legend Buck Owens, gospel/soul cult hero O.V. Wright and noted folk-blues recluse Fred Neil. And when you find someone who not only can actually sing all this material but also pulls these diverse strands together into a singular piece of work, you've got to put your hands together, ladiesandgentlemen, and give it up for Screaming Trees vocalist Mark Lanegan, who wraps his sonorous, weather-beaten baritone around all this and more on I'll Take Care of You. Forget hipster saint Tony Bennett's endless pieties about doing "another selection from the Great American Songbook" (which is just a euphemism for Tin Pan Alley), the 11 tunes that make up Lanegan's fourth solo album come ripped 'n' torn from the pages of the real Great American Songbook -- the one written by rednecks, bluegums and white punks on dope.
For the record, it must be noted that this flipped disc is cut from the same stark, brooding cloth as Lanegan's previous solo efforts: 1990's The Winding Sheet, highlighted by the cover of Leadbelly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" (a.k.a. "In the Pines") that inspired the version heard on Nirvana's Unplugged in New York; 1994's Whiskey for the Holy Ghost; and 1998's Scraps at Midnight. However -- thanks to the songcraft of the previously un-name-checked Tim Hardin, Eddie Floyd & Booker T. Jones, and somebody called "Trad." -- it generally features a higher grade of material. And if this knockout combination of marvelously minimalistic backing tracks and Lanegan's cavernous voice makes you think this all sounds something like an American (read: less pretentious) version of Nick Cave, you'd be about thisclose to being right. The big difference is that there's no way in heaven or God's green hell that some Australian public schoolboy (or too many other pork-chop-eatin', Bible-readin', jes' plain folks) can come within even kissin' distance of Lanegan's renditions of the aforementioned O.V. Wright's absolutely wracked "On Jesus' Program," Tim Rose's dark, bluesy, begging-to-be-sampled "Boogie Boogie" or Bobby "Blue" Bland's titanic take on the Brook Bentonpenned title track.
Now, let's hear you try singing along. On second thought, let's not.
SOLEX Pick Up (Matador)
Solex is proof that one person's trash -- in this case, a healthy supply of discarded CDs -- can be another's treasure. Following her charming and strange (and well-received) debut, Solex vs. the Hitmeister, Dutch songstress Elisabeth Esselink (a.k.a. Solex) has released a second disc of songs constructed of samples from the dregs of her used-CD shop and taken her unique songwriting style to the next illogical level.
Minus the more rhythmic samples of Hitmeister, Pick Up aims for an even more eclectic target, with Esselink's imagination growing bolder and wackier. If "songs" like "Solex Feels Lucky" and "Some Solex" (from Hitmeister -- and, yes, every title included the Solex moniker) were grounded by definable rhythms, "Randy Costanza" sounds like Lumpy Gravyera Mothers playing with Tinker Toys, an Erector Set and a string section. The patchwork of soundbites -- erratic drumbeats, trumpet lines, toy piano, bongos and snips of Esquivel-ish lounge -- is glued together by Esselink's little-girl voice, an instrument that's both sexy and robotic. According to her bio, the lyrics were imaginary conversations Esselink had while sitting on the toilet (well, it makes good copy . . .). In practice, she sings lines almost at random, repeating some and then skipping to another part of the text. Her handiwork stands up surprisingly well and is rarely annoying. If there's a single to be had, it's "Burglars Are Coming!," a kind of Big Beat groove, or "Athens, Ohio," which sounds like the B-52's rummaging through a DAV shop.
Cut to the year 2020: In Buenos Aires, a songwriter who also happens to own a tiny vintage-CD shop is searching the bargain bin for cool samples to use in his songs. Among the titles, he selects a disc by a band called Solex . . . (Michael Lipton)
VARIOUS ARTISTS The Funky Precedent (No Mayo/Loosegroove)
Leaning more toward DJ prowess than the image-making of rap superstars, the newfangled radical hip-hop movement coming out of L.A. is made up of socially conscious, multiethnic, positive-vibe-spewing crews with interchangeable members. Supporting an exceptionally important cause -- the restoration in public schools of music-education courses, many of which have disappeared in recent years -- The Funky Precedent is a vital, far-reaching document of things to come in the hip-hop universe.
Mixing it up as if he's been possessed by a Ginsu-knives infomercial, DJ Babu of the Beat Junkies carves up a live version of Dilated Peoples' "Triple Optics" for the opening track, which features manic scratching, the Peoples' spirited words, and a sample of a funky guitar and a cheering crowd that weaves in and out. Trippy, inventive and catchy as all hell, "Journey to Anywhere," from Long Beach's Ugly Duckling, is an Alice in Wonderlandlike voyage that is this young crew's finest moment. Then there's "SNT (Live at Peacepipe)," a transcendent collaboration between DJ Cut Chemist and Breakestra bandleader Miles Tackett, where a guitar, bass and cello do battle with the Chemist's mind-boggling array of potions and serums for thermonuclearlike results.
The only previously released cuts are Jurassic 5's "Concrete Schoolyard" and Ozomatli's "Cumbia de los Muertos," both unparalleled works of perfection. But The Funky Precedent's most intoxicating track is Divine Styler's "Make It Plain," where whistles, a little kid's voice saying, "Like this y'all, like that y'all," and some neat fader-derived vocal effects mesh innovatively with Styler's commanding raps about his conversion to Islam. Now drop whatever kind of fruit loops you've been messing with and sprint to the nearest record store to get hooked up with this astounding compilation of authentic hip-hop revolution. (Adam Bregman)
PIANO MAGIC Low Birth Weight (Rocketgirl)
Low Birth Weight boasts at least five different lead vocalists (including the Bitter Springs' Simon Rivers and Baby Birkin's Raechel Leigh) and three lyricists, but every one of them sings and writes like a sleepwalker. The force of head Piano Magician Glen Johnson's vision is mesmerizing indeed, and it envelops everyone he collaborates with. The resulting near-songs are seductive and elusive, impossible to ignore despite being difficult to remember.
Johnson works the ambient end of the new-pop spectrum, but there's nothing wispy in what he does. Eschewing, for the most part, knee-jerk reverb effects and synthesizer washes, he relies on carefully articulated, cascading guitar figures and minor-key melodies shot through with city sleet and night trains. The percussion is often sampled and programmed, but sounds sucked from a dream: the ticking of a disassembled clock on "Crown Estate," or the rattle-and-squeak that accompanies "Birdymachine" and suggests a cash drawer stuffed with crows.
The lyrics, no matter who's writing them, stretch for the poetic, and sometimes achieve it. Simon Rivers' "Crown Estate" is an unexploded land mine, full of murmured musings on "the rosy cheeks of the ruling classes," tea and neighbors, "what a woman looks like with her head turned inside out." But even the more oblique or overwrought stuff works. In Johnson's whispering world, lines like "Birds frozen in magic trees" or "I am the sub-librarian, swan feeder, spectacle breaker" drift like derelict ships, haunted and full of mystery. (Glen Hirshberg)
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CHRIS CORNELL Euphoria Morning (A&M/Interscope/Geffen)
Grunge is dead, and emerging from its ashes is a shiny new Chris Cornell with a polished first solo record. After 12 years and seven albums, Cornell's Soundgarden disbanded and Cornell went on to lend his musical sensibilities to the late Jeff Buckley's final record, Sketches (For My Sweetheart the Drunk), while in the midst of trying to figure out his own future, which was shaken up by the demise/merger of A&M Records. Having survived the upheaval, Cornell, in a way, now picks up where Buckley left off.
Recorded with Eleven's Alain Johannes and Natasha Schneider in Johannes' L.A. studio -- a step away from the Seattle scene -- Euphoria Morning represents a sunnier side of the West, the type of triumph that can come only from tragedy. In "Wave Goodbye," Cornell writes, "When you miss somebody, you tell yourself a hundred thousand times/Nobody lives forever," a graceful elegy for Buckley, whose premature death echoed the untimely passing of Seattle band Mother Love Bone's Andrew Wood. In fact, there are several echoes from the 1991 tribute to Wood, Temple of the Dog, including the smoky piano-lounge vibe in "When I'm Down" (a sort of sequel to Temple's "All Night Thing") and the soulful wailing of "Mission" (which mirrors "Reach Down"), possibly another lament for Buckley: "Drowning in your swirl/Circling unfolding in your will." But Cornell doesn't come off like he's trying to be someone he's not; his honesty is as palpable as his voice is unmistakable. On the bluesy, midtempo "Disappearing One," Cornell is reunited with ex-Soundgarden drummer extraordinaire Matt Cameron.
The title track is the essence of the entire record, with Cornell seductive, alone with an acoustic guitar. Outstanding in its subtlety, Euphoria Morning shows a focused, poised and ready Chris Cornell at his finest. (Rita Neyter)