The Best Of 1980-1990 (Island 314 524 613)
Has any group in rock articulated the sound of heroism as eloquently as U2 did in the '80s?
From the hurtling guitar and breathless vocal of "I Will Follow" to the relentless thrum of "Where the Streets Have No Name," U2 pulled an almost palpable urgency from its music.
It wasn't just the tartly dramatic posturing of Bono's voice; there was also something larger-than-life about the surging pulse of the Edge's shimmering, echo-treated guitar. And between Larry Mullen Jr.'s lithe, melodic drumming and Adam Clayton's bedrock bass lines, U2 was blessed with a rhythm section of uncommon power and grace.
Granted, U2's strengths were common knowledge for anyone who listened to the radio during the '80s. But just how great the band could be doesn't become fully apparent until those moments are laid end-to-end, as they are on "The Best Of 1980-1990."
Essentially a singles collection, this "Best of" is only the first installment in U2's greatest hits series (a second volume is due sometime next year), and so only extends to 1990.
That's hardly an arbitrary cutoff point. After 1990, U2 turned more toward electronica, and its sound changed dramatically. Once the band cut "Achtung Baby," the swaggering bravura of its initial, guitar-based sound seemed almost anachronistic amid all the synthesizers and samplers.
So it's a bit odd hearing the band try to recapture the old magic with "Sweetest Thing," the only new track on "The Best Of."
Instead of the techno beats and treated sound of "Pop," "Sweetest Thing" finds the four resorting to such relatively traditional touches as electric piano and string sweetening. It's a charming effort, but its sunny chorus and Beatlesque bridge seem oddly out of place amid the sturm und drang of "Pride In the Name of Love" and "Sunday Bloody Sunday."
As an extra incentive to longtime U2 fans, early editions of the album will come with a bonus second disc of B-side material. For American fans, these songs are a treat (singles weren't as important here as in the U.K., and so some of these B-side tracks went unissued in the United States), even if many of them were deservedly left off the band's albums.
There are several stirring cover versions, including a passionate reading of Patti Smith's "Dancing Barefoot" and a surprisingly heartfelt take on "Everlasting Love." But the true gem is "Bass Trap," an unassuming instrumental that's as long on mood as the band's big hits. **** Gershwin's World (Verve 314 557 797)
This being the 100th anniversary of George Gershwin's birth, the CD racks are crowded with tributes. But it would be hard to find another disc as instructive or imaginative as Herbie Hancock's "Gershwin's World." That Hancock's set list offers a well-considered mix of familiar favorites and lesser-known gems is almost a given, and there are some stunning performances among them, from Latin-tinged extrapolations on "It Ain't Necessarily So" to Joni Mitchell's lush, mournful "The Man I Love." But the album also includes a number of pieces that clearly informed Gershwin's aesthetic, including a dual piano version of James P. Johnson's "Blueberry Rhyme" and a stunning excerpt from Ravel's Concerto in G. Not to be missed. *** 1/2
The Masterplan (Epic 69647)
In Britain, Oasis is unimaginably big, a public presence whose impact goes well beyond the limits of concert tickets and CD sales. There, an Oasis release -- any Oasis release -- is major event. In America, however, Oasis is just another semi-relevant rock band, and as such, it's hard to imagine anyone getting terribly excited over "The Masterplan." Essentially a collection of B-sides, it does offer insight into just how consistent Noel Gallagher's songwriting can be. Although some of the tracks are clearly throwaways, others -- particularly "Acquiesce," "Stay Young" and "Underneath the Sky" -- are good enough to be A-sides. Otherwise, these 14 tunes are mainly of interest to completists who weren't able to pick up the band's singles on import. **
Indigo Swing (Time Bomb 70930-43517)
Is it too late to book these guys into the Hollywood Canteen? Indigo Swing has about as authentic a sound as you're likely to come upon in the current crop of retro swing bands. Tautly arranged throughout, "All Aboard!" is filled with tunes to plan the use of your gas rations by. Listen up, kids, and hear what electric guitars did before Chuck Berry. In fact, the subtle guitar strumming is but one of the treats on this CD. Another is the old-timey sense of fun, as on "Baron Plays The Horses," in which said Baron takes his lunch at the track and "looks at all the specials/that's how he gets his hunch." Well, here's a tip, swing fans: Pick up "All Aboard!" ***
The Story of the Ghost (Elektra 62297)
That Phish likes to improvise is not news. Being at the forefront of the jam band movement, the band is celebrated for its ability to go off on a tangent without losing its audience. But "The Story of the Ghost" takes Phish to a different level entirely. Although some songs were totally improvised while others were consciously composed, it's often difficult to figure out which is which. Credit the quartet's sense of discipline for some of that musical coherence, for unlike many jam bands, Phish rarely rambles and almost never overplays. Mostly, though, what holds the likes of "Birds of a Feather" and "Roggae" together is that no matter where the improvisations may take them, Phish always manages to keep its melodic bearings. ***
The Chemical Wedding (CMC International 06076 86259-2)
Few heavy metal guys have a voice good enough to sell any old album. Maybe ex-Judas Priest singer Rob Halford, Glenn Danzig, Ian Astbury of the late Cult and ... Bruce Dickinson. So the only question with "Chemical Wedding" is whether it provides the proper lung workout. Oh, yes. Dickinson burns on "The Tower," "Book of Thel" and the title track, even if his tastes in songwriting have gotten a bit one-note. The gist of the CD, from "Killing Floor": "I've never been held/by the hand of God./Who's rocking my cradle/if He is not?" Guess who. And so it goes, Satan this, Satan that, guitar solo, incantation. As my wife once cracked dismissively of Marilyn Manson, "Isn't he a little old to be talking like the devil?" Amen. Dickinson's hard-core fans will love this. Still, he needs a change, maybe like "Dickinson sings 'Cats.' " Better yet, a duet with Bono or Bacharach. He'll never sin again. ** 1/2
Steve St. Angelo
Ultimate Broadway (Arista 18999)
Beginning with "Oklahoma!" and ending with "Rent," the 40-song, two-CD set "Ultimate Broadway" is the first compilation of Broadway's greatest hits assembled from various record labels. But that's not all that's "various" about it. Purists will note that, despite the word "Broadway" in the title, the collection includes "Try to Remember" (from off-Broadway's "The Fantasticks"), a number from a movie soundtrack (Liza Minnelli singing "Cabaret"), Judy Collins' rendition of "Send in the Clowns" ("A Little Night Music") and, oddest of all, Aretha Franklin's recording of "I Dreamed a Dream" ("Les Miserables"). There is justification for some of this diversity. In the heyday of musicals, movie adaptations were the rule instead of the exception, and pop singers regularly turned Broadway songs into radio hits. That era may have passed, but this eclectic album makes you think it just might come again. ** 1/2
J. Wynn Rousuck Pub Date: 11/05/98