Saturday Night Live: The Musical Performances, Volumes 1 and 2 (Dreamworks 50205 and 50206)
Over its 25-year history, NBC's "Saturday Night Live" has not only boasted some of the biggest names in TV (and the movies) as hosts, it has also been blessed with some of the biggest names in pop music as guests.
From such classic rockers as Eric Clapton and the Grateful Dead to hot bands-of-the-moment such as Nirvana and Beck, everybody who's anybody has played "Saturday Night Live." Think for a moment of all those great performances, and imagine the sort of compilation album that could be assembled from the "SNL" archives.
Odds are, the album in your head is infinitely superior to either volume of "Saturday Night Live: The Musical Performances."
Sure, there are a lot of famous names spread across those two discs. Volume One features Eric Clapton, Paul Simon, the Grateful Dead and Billy Joel, while Volume Two has Nirvana, the Beastie Boys and Janet Jackson. Star-for-star, it would be hard to imagine how the discs could look more impressive.
Sound is another matter, however, and that's where "The Musical Performances" reveals "SNL's" dirty little secret -- that its high-profile musical performances tend to be pretty perfunctory.
In fact, only one of the 30 selections spread across these two albums turns out to be even slightly startling. In 1977, Elvis Costello abandoned the song he was expected to sing in mid-verse and unexpectedly launched into "Radio Radio." That was a once-in-a-lifetime moment; sadly, the rest of what these albums offer tends more toward one-more-stop-on-the-tour performances. Couldn't they at least have included Sinead O'Connor's anti-Pope outburst?
"SNL" ought to have more historic moments than that, but these discs aren't really interested in history. Of the 30 songs featured, a whopping 25 were recorded in the past nine years. Was the music of the first 15 years really that forgettable?
No. More likely is that the producers believe that discs boasting recent hits by current artists would sell better. Hence the second volume's emphasis on such MTV-familiar faces as Green Day, Alanis Morissette and TLC (each doing a then-current hit), and the very VH1 feel of the first disc.
In that sense, the two albums very much resemble the current "Saturday Night Live" -- occasionally entertaining but seldom worth staying up for.
Volume 1: * *1/2
Volume 2: * *
The Lost Trident Sessions (Columbia Legacy 65959)
Few jazz-rock outfits have ever enjoyed the sort of legendary status of the original Mahavishnu Orchestra. Formed by guitarist John McLaughlin in 1971, the group also included keyboardist Jan Hammer, drummer Billy Cobham, violinist Jerry Goodman and bassist Rick Laird. Perfectly balancing the harmonic and rhythmic complexity of jazz with the visceral directness of rock, the group only held together for two years, but in that time it laid the foundation for a whole generation of fusion bands. "The Lost Trident Sessions" -- intended as Mahavishnu's third studio recording -- has been dubbed the band's "holy grail," and for good reason. From the epic ambition of "Dream" to the fiery, rock-oriented "Sister Andrea," this long unreleased album includes some of the band's sharpest playing on disc. A must for fusion fans.
* * * *
A Love Like Ours (Columbia 69601)
It may be true that everybody loves a lover, but not everyone wants to listen to a lover ramble on about his or her beloved. Don't worry, though -- there's none of that on "A Love Like Ours," Barbra Streisand's musical valentine to husband James Brolin. Instead, what we get are a dozen love songs offered with enough passion and care to make fans fall in love again with Streisand's singing. It doesn't hurt that Streisand's taste in love songs tends toward the complex and mature, so that even pop-oriented fare like "If You Ever Leave Me," her duet with Vince Gill, offers an impressive emotional depth. Still, the deepest pleasures come from the obvious affection she invests in such standards as "The Music That Makes Me Dance."
* * *
Euphoria Morning (A&M; 6656)
Given the muscular crunch of his work with Soundgarden, it's easy to expect Chris Cornell's first solo album to come on all hard and heavy. But if "Euphoria Morning" has any stylistic debts at all, it's to the jangly charm of late-'60s English psychedelic pop. That's good news for those who wondered what Cornell could do with his voice if he didn't have to push so hard to be heard, especially when he's dealing with melodies as intricate and enticing as those to "Flutter Girl" and "Wave Goodbye." Even so, a little more intensity would have been nice in spots, as the fussy, low-watt arrangements given the likes of "Follow My Way" deliver far less than they promise.
Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night (Elektra 62409)
What's in a name? Well, quite a few words if you're Stereolab. Yet despite its cumbersome title, "Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night" is actually quite a tightly focused piece of work. Like most of the group's output, this album is acutely interested in the relationship between seemingly static, repetitious rhythms and free-flowing, innovative melody. But where previous releases, such as 1997's "Dots and Loops," played with the possibilities of automated repetition, "Cobra and Phases" focuses on the trance potential of live musicians locking into circular rhythms. That extra dimension adds enormously to the music, from the pulsating pop of "Strobo Acceleration" to the jazzy juxtapositions of "Fuses."
* * * 1/2
* = poor
* * = fair
* * * = good
* * * * = excellent