Dead Man Walking
Original Soundtrack Recording (Columbia 67522)
With a contributors list that includes such names as Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Suzanne Vega, Eddie Vedder and Patti Smith, "Dead Man Walking" looks at first like just another celebrity-packed soundtrack album. But this album has more going for it than mere star power, as the songs assembled here augment the movie's argument by offering a dozen meditations on crime, punishment and justice. Some, like Carpenter's "Dead Man Walking (A Dream Like This)" or Springsteen's "Dead Man Walkin'," take on the torment of anticipation that a convicted man feels, while others, like Cash's "In Your Mind" and Michelle Shocked's "Quality of Mercy," address more basic issues of guilt and forgiveness. Yet the most impressive songs take a totally unexpected tack. Tom Waits' "Walk Away" is one, a ragged, bluesy dip into the cycle of criminality that shows how a man can make a prison of his own behavior. Then there's Steve Earle's "Ellis Unit One," which comes at the issue from a different angle, telling the story of a prison worker who sees his own humanity slowly drain away with each execution he works. Add in the purely musical pleasures of Smith's eerie "Walking Blind" or Vedder's qawaali blues collaborations with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and the soundtrack to "Dead Man Walking" becomes as compelling as the film itself.
Replicants (Zoo 11117)
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, what should we make of a band like the Replicants? This quartet (which takes its name from the band in the anime classic "Bubblegum Crisis") boasts repertoire consisting entirely of cleverly warped cover songs. As a result, even though the cover to "Replicants" is full of title most rock fans would recognize, the music itself is often full of surprises. "Just What I Needed," for instance, has a tendency to change key in mid-phrase, like a cassette played on a defective Walkman, while the band's version of Paul McCartney's "Silly Love Songs" marries the tune's cheery optimism to noisy, distorted guitar grunge that's miles from the original's lightweight bounce. To the band's credit, some of these revisions work as well or better than the originals. Its "Cinnamon Girl" trades the tenderness of Neil Young's version for an over-amped romp that sounds like a livelier Crazy Horse, while the crunchy sound the group grants Gary Numan's "Are 'Friends' Electric?" only adds to its charm. In the end, though, "Replicants" adds up as just a clever joke, the sort of thing that's fun to stump friends with but hardly everyday listening.
Loudon Wainwright III (Charisma 40625)
Few singer/songwriters make self-deprecation as appealing as Loudon Wainwright III does. "Grown Man" finds him confessing to all sorts of shortcomings, from middle-aged immaturity in the title tune to parental inadequacy in "Father/Daughter Dialogue," yet he never comes across as a whiner or wimp. Why not? Because Wainwright generally casts himself as the butt of his own jokes, inviting the listener to laugh along as he confronts his foibles. Not that the troubles he's seen will be unfamiliar to those at home, as any aging baby boomer will find something familiar in the lyrics of "Cobwebs," while his shoe-on-the-other-foot perspective in "Housework" should amuse more than a few housewives. But even when he's just plain trying to be funny, as on the Howard Stern-ish "I Wish I Was a Lesbian," Wainwright manages to make a point or two, and that's what ultimately makes this "Grown Man" worth hearing.
Dave Holland (Intuition 2148)
Let's face it -- an album of unaccompanied double-bass solos is not every listener's idea of a great jazz album. Yet Dave Holland's "Ones All" is inventive, swinging and dynamic enough to win over even the most dubious jazz fan. For one thing, Holland's complete mastery of his instrument keeps the music from ever seeming monochromatic, as from the doublestopped harmonies of "Pork Pie Hat" to the arco lyricism of "Little Girl I'll Miss You," he pulls an astonishingly wide range of sounds from his instrument. But it isn't just instrumental virtuosity that carries the album; it's also his abilities as an improvisor. Whether he's working through the hard-bop cadences of John Coltrane's "Mr. P.C." or plumbing the melodic depths of Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child," Holland is more than capable of developing an idea at length, and his improvisations are masterpieces of melodic invention and harmonic logic.