Amp 2 (Astralwerks 7588)
Just as electronica was being declared pop music's next big thing, MTV announced, amid much fanfare, that it was launching "Amp," a music video show designed to capitalize on this new dance-music culture. It was introduced as a look into the future of video music.
Or so went the hype. Unfortunately, "Amp" didn't find MTViewers eager to fast-forward past the guitar bands that had long been the cable channel's bread and butter. True, acts like the Chemical Brothers, Prodigy and Propellerheads made significant inroads, but let's be honest - three bands do not a revolution make.
It's no wonder, then, that MTV decided to do some serious rewiring of its original concept. So "Amp 2" - the second compilation album tied to the MTV show - takes a much broader view of what constitutes electronica than its predecessor.
Granted, the term "electronica" itself was something of a catch-all phrase, incorporating everything from hard-core techno to soothing ambient, and acting as if it were all rock and roll. "Amp 2," though, takes a slightly different tack, augmenting standard-issue electronica with what are essentially rap records with techno or drum 'n' bass rhythms.
"Digital," for example, may be credited to drum 'n' bass genie Goldie, but it's KRS One's vocal that dominates the track, speaking with such authority you'd think the beat followed his rhymes, instead of the other way around. Likewise, the "Aphrodite mix" of the Jungle Brothers' track "Jungle Brother" places such a premium on the rapping and scratching that the techno pulse seems almost secondary.
MTV didn't impose this shift toward rap on the industry, of course. Acts like Britain's Roni Size/Reprazent - represented here by the dark, throbbing "Brown Paper Bag" - have made rap an integral part of their sound.
Moreover, many of the tracks included here don't treat rap the way hip-hop musicians would. When rapper Chuck D and the production crew Ticc-Tacc square off in "War," the end result is a hybrid of dub, techno and rap that sounds nothing like a hip-hop record.
There's also plenty of straight-up dance music here. A few titles, like Air's infectious, Eno-esque "Sexy Boys" and Propellerheads' giddy "Bang On!", should already be familiar to club-goers. But even average listeners are likely to become addicted to Fatboy Slim's relentless, hook-filled "The Rockafeller Skank." All told, "Amp 2" is definitely worth plugging into. *** Big Backyard Beat Show (Arista 78862)
Maybe there is some deep meaning and social significance behind the songs on BR5-49's "Big Backyard Beat Show." After all, "Wild One" could be a criticism of social conformity, "You Are Never Nice to Me" a lament for lost civility, and "18 Wheels and a Crowbar" an indictment of the dehumanizing nature of capitalist commerce. But probably not. As clever as the lyrics sometimes are, the album's real allure is its blend of boogie piano, blues guitar, honky tonk twang, and Tex-Mex exuberance. In fact, you could completely turn off the lyric-listening part of your brain, and still get a kick out of tunes like "Seven Nights to Rock" or "You Flew the Coop." And isn't that meaning enough? ***
Being Myself (Blue Note 34286)
What makes a singer great has less to do with the voice than with how well that voice is used. Lena Horne is a case in point. At 80, she may lack the power and tone she had in her youth, but that hardly gets in the way of her performance on the jazzy "Being Myself." Some of that has to do with her impeccable sense of swing - just listen to the ease with which she enlivens "As Long As I Live" - but mainly, it has to do with her insight into these songs. She finds both sadness and a sense of play to "Willow Weep for Me," and brings a wonderful wittiness to "Some of My Best Friends Are Blues." ***
Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer
Changing Channels (Rounder Kids 8048)
Maryland artists Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer have found the right mix of soothing music and enlightened thinking in this CD aimed at helping children in elementary school and beyond put television in perspective. Changing Channels is an artfully assembled collection of styles, including jazz, folk, and Celtic, that kids will find easy to listen to and hum. "Turn it Off, Change the Channel, Leave the Room," is a likable chant that reminds the listener one doesn't have to stay glued at all costs. More catchy is "A Ballet Dancing Truck Driver," in which a child responds to her grandmother's question "What do you want to be?" by discussing role models she sees on TV. These songs emphasize a child's relationship with siblings, parents, grandparents against the virtual characters of TV. Cathy's finest is "That's What I Like About You." ***
Angels with Dirty Faces (Island 524 520)
Because it comes from club culture, trip-hop is generally presumed to be feel-good party fare, like most dance music. That's hardly the case with what Tricky delivers on "Angels with Dirty Faces." Even though he draws from hip-hop, rock and dance styles, Tricky's music seems to exist in a world all its own, where the heavy bass and frenetic percussion take on an ominous resonance never found in drum 'n' bass or dub. Combined with the emotional murkiness he builds into "Talk to Me" and "Broken Homes," his songs are deeply disquieting at times. Yet there is such beauty in the music's dark, disjointed textures that it's hard to turn away from the pain that lies at the heart of this album. ***
Legacy: A Tribute to Fleetwood Mac's Rumours (Atlantic/Lava 83054)
Tribute albums inevitably create a longing for the original songs. Such is the case with "Legacy: A Tribute to Fleetwood Mac's Rumours." Despite fine efforts from the Goo Goo Dolls on the harmonic "I Don't Want to Know" and the Cranberries' poppy "Go Your Own Way," Shawn Colvin's "The Chain" suffers from a bit too much Prozac. Needed are Lindsey Buckingham's urgent vocals. And the Corrs' take on "Dreams" is somehow transformed into a number that sounds like Wilson Phillips with a dance track. Even the versatile Elton John sounds robotic from too much sampling on "Don't Stop." However, the last track, "Gold Dust Woman," is terrific, with Sister Hazel capturing the smooth, sensual groove of Stevie Nicks and the easy riffs of Buckingham. **1/2
Rufus Wainwright (Dreamworks 50039)
Anyone who frets that "they don't write 'em like that anymore" ought to hear Rufus Wainwright. Considering that he's the son of Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, it's no surprise that young Rufus is a talented tunesmith. But what makes "Rufus Wainwright" so stunning is the opulence of Wainwright's writing. It isn't just that the arrangements (including a few by Van Dyke Parks) boast a lushness rarely found in rock; the songs themselves are sweeping and complicated, rich with intricate structures and interlocking melodies. Yet as ornate as their sound may be, there's an emotional directness in them that makes the likes of "Foolish Love" and "In My Arms" instantly appealing. A truly prodigious debut. ***1/2
* = poor
** = fair
*** = good
**** = excellent
Pub Date: 6/18/98