Photo by Michael Angelo ChesterPUBLIC ENEMY
There's a Poison Goin On (Atomic Pop)
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.
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)
Sugar Candy Taxi (Ruf)
While musicians and artists often simplify their work as they get older, British singer/songwriter Kevin Coyne has changed little since the late '60s. His latest release (which brings his total to 36) sounds as wonderfully childlike and eccentric (not to mention occasionally twisted) as decades-old classics like Marjory Razorblade.
A product of the same art-school/blues-revivalist crowd that spawned the Stones, Beck and Clapton, Coyne was clearly the most unconventional. Despite the requisite brushes with success — he was one of Virgin Records' first signings and was reportedly asked by thenElektra prez Jac Holzman to fill Jim Morrison's shoes in the Doors — his quirky folk/blues/rock has eluded most listeners. Staffed by his sons Robert and Eugene, “Porcupine People,” a distant, paranoid cousin to Randy Newman's “Short People,” is all the introduction you need, as Coyne is tormented by nasty porcupine folks with “cruel and jagged minds.” “Maybe I'm paranoid,” he sings — his plan for revenge involves taking them out to “porcupine tea” and poisoning “every cup.”
But Coyne, who has lived in Germany since 1985, is no Marilyn (or Charles) Manson; his plots are simply childish fantasies. Elsewhere, he's shamelessly in love with a phone-sex operator (“I'm Into Your Game”) and lusting after his wife's best friend (“She really turns me on/I get kinda hot when she knocks on the door”). Aside from being one of the greatest song titles ever, “Happy Little Fat Man” introduces a full band that conjures subdued images of “Saviour” (from 1975's Matching Head and Feet). “Normal Man” might have been inspired by the patients Coyne tended to while working in a psychiatric hospital in the '60s — but maybe not.
As with his countrymen Robert Wyatt, the late Nick Drake and more recently Momus, Coyne's confessionals are inspired by a world that's all his own. Watch for West Coast shows in September. (Michael Lipton)
Bossa Cubana (Nonesuch/World Circuit)
The Jamaicans who manhandled New Orleans R&B into reggae weren't the only Caribbean residents who were paying attention to U.S. mainland music during the '50s and '60s. Judging from the exquisite evidence on Bossa Cubana, some young Cuban vocalists were tuning in to classic American doo-wop, digging its sweet capitalist-tooled harmonies and giving it their own spin, Fidel be damned.
Los Zafiros (the Sapphires) have been virtually unknown on these shores until now; David Byrne anthologized a lone cut by the group on his 1991 Luaka Bop compilation Cuba Classics 2: Dancing With the Enemy. But they were post-revolutionary stars on their home island, and even successfully toured Europe (where they reputedly numbered the Beatles among their admirers). Bossa Cubana was pulled together by producer Nick Gold of World Circuit Records, the label that ignited the current Cuban-music revival with its 1997 album Buena Vista Social Club; while that record sparked a frenzy for older styles of son, the Zafiros set, comprising 196367 recordings, shines a light on the electrified pop made by Havana's postwar generation of rock-&-roll-bred musicians.
The four singers in Los Zafiros — Leoncio “Kike” Morúa, Miguel “Miguelito” Cancio, Eduardo Elio “El Chino” Hernández and the sublime tenor Ignacio Elejalde — favored groups like the Platters; the current anthology includes a dizzying, intense Spanish version of the American doo-wop act's “My Prayer.” But they also displayed a uniquely South American flair: Witness Elejalde's mind-bending version of Luis Bonfa's “Canción de Orfeo” (the theme from the Brazilian film Black Orpheus) or the triple-tongued, high-energy bossa nova of the title track. Powering everything was electric guitarist Manuel Galban, whose low-key, delicately plucked obbligatos supply the softest of cushions for the quartet's vocal latticework.
Tragically, Galban is the sole surviving member of Los Zafiros; even pop stars laboring under a Marxist banner apparently couldn't resist the temptations of the music biz, and all four vocalists had died prematurely by 1995. This magnificent, unjustly obscure group is saluted on the new album by Buena Vista Social Club's Ibrahim Ferrer; backed by Galban, the 72-year-old singer pays tribute to his successors with a cover of an apt Zafiros ballad, “Herido de Sombras” — “A Broken Shadow.” (Chris Morris)
Music for Hangovers (Cheap Trick Unlimited)
You'll be dancing many thank you's to Ho-Masubi, the Japanese fire-evoking god, when you put on Music for Hangovers, Cheap Trick's new, positively scorching live album — that is, if your living room isn't reduced to ashes immediately. Cheap Trick burns the house down splendidly. Initially available only through Amazon.com and the band's Web site, Hangovers can now be purchased at any self-respecting record shop on this great green mudball.
Possibly the most bootlegged band in the universe, Cheap Trick has released only one other official live recording (the infamous Cheap Trick at Budokan in 1978). Culled from four sold-out shows at Chicago's Metro, Music for Hangovers is superior to Budokan in every way — quality, musicianship and energy. It's a rare band that's at its peak after a quarter-century, but Cheap Trick delivers, as evidenced by Hangovers and the band's criminally underappreciated last studio album,Cheap Trick (Red Ant). Hangovers contains the band's '70s chestnuts — jumping, jangly takes on “Surrender,” “Hot Love,” “I Want You To Want Me,” “How Are You?,” “If You Want My Love,” “Dream Police,” “Gonna Raise Hell” and a “half-assed acoustic” version of “Oh Caroline.” (They graciously made sure not to repeat the CD playlist at their recent, sold-out Palace show, which included an acoustic version of their big '80s AOR hit, “The Flame.”)
Japan's pre-Shinto animists believed that every physical object is imbued with some quantity of life force. If this belief is correct, the guitars of Rick Nielsen must congregate in the equipment van and perform Busby Berkeleystyle dance routines in between gigs; the only unfortunate part of a Cheap Trick live CD is that you miss out on the ax parade. And the cute band — vocalist Robin Zander is the only middle-aged teen idol who still makes the secretaries sweat at night. An adorable imp blessed with the voice of an angel and a larynx of steel, his pipes remain unscathed and golden through the tortures of Hangovers.
“Thank you for allowing us into your living room,” Nielsen chuckled at the Palace, which, like the Metro shows, felt like a backyard barbecue. Cheap Trick are loved, and they reciprocate with a sweet show every time, which you can now relive anytime you wish. (Skylaire Alfvegren)