A batch of Cross Rhythms reviewers consider the merits of 25 mainstream albums
It's Not Me, It's You
Q magazine summed up this hit with the words "the gobby poet laureate of the blogger generation returns with big issues in her sights - God, politics, sexism and, oh yes, Chinese takeaways." I think that's a much clearer picture of what you get here than the preposterous review in a liberal Christian magazine which talks about Lily's "naïve wit, honesty and fun." Does that reviewer really believe that Lily's anthem of modern culture's paranoia "The Fear" is fun? ("I don't know what's right and what's real anymore/And I don't know how I'm meant to feel anymore/And when do you think it will all become clear/'Cuz I'm being taken over the by The Fear.") The song couches a particularly vicious swipe at celebrity culture though in truth not as well as Shell's "Barbie Girl". But it still makes a powerful point. "I want to be rich and I want loads of money/I don't care about clever, I don't care about funny/I want loads of clothes and f**kloads of diamonds/I heard people die while they're trying to find them." There are plenty of other clever rhymes here and Kylie/Pink composer Greg Kurstin has put together some poptastic arrangements. But there's so much here which is both puerile and offensive - a diatribe against homophobia, racism and George W Bush, "F**k You", has none of that "naïve wit" which that reviewer perceived, while the oral sex song "Not Fair" with its lurid lyric shows a used and abused young lady with little or no grasp of the true meaning of human sexuality. At times what the Telegraph called Lily's "mannered gorblimey" irritates rather than amuses though it has to be said that "Never Gonna Happen" fuses electro-pop sounds to Abba immediacy to make a hugely catchy sound. On the song "Him" Lily ponders the nature of the Godhead but if all she can think to ask is "do you think he's skint or financially secure?" she's clearly got a way to go yet in her theological understanding. Of course in a church era like ours, where all manner of cultural and moral compromise is taught to congregations in place of biblical teaching, there will, no doubt, be some irate church goer reading this who already feels their email finger itching. Perhaps they will insist, like that liberal reviewer, that they will "just sing la la la at the rude bits." But for any serious Christian, admiration for Lily's winning ways with a pop hook and sympathy for her bad choice in boyfriends will fall short of purchasing such a despoiled artefact as 'It's Not Me, It's You'.
It's rare that a single line from a song can epitomise a whole album, but that is exactly the case with the oft-repeated line "What don't kill ya make ya more strong" from "Broken Beat And Scarred". This is the cry of a band who have dealt with departure, rehab, lack of communication, therapy, a brutally honest documentary and an album panned by critics and fans alike, but who have emerged with a fresh sense of purpose and enjoyment of making music. They may be "Broken Beat And Scarred", but they are still here, more united than ever and ready to prove that the harbingers of their demise were more wrong than they could imagine. New bass player Rob Trujillo is a powerhouse, insistently driving the songs along despite being buried under a wall of guitar tracking at points. Lars Ulrich has ditched the "tin can" drum sound and reverted to a traditional sound. Kirk Hammett is soloing again is spectacular fashion, while James Hetfield has never sounded better in both voice and guitar. Producer Rick Rubin challenged the band to think like they did back in the mid 1980's, and this has resulted in a glorious hybrid of their thrash based songs that are dripping with the more blues-rock groove of the 'Load' and 'Reload' albums. Tracks like "Cyanide" and "The Judas Kiss" show this back to the roots approach though their lyrics are pretty bleak, "Cyanide" is a contemplation on death ("Sleep and dream of this/Death angel's kiss/Brings final bliss/Completely") while "The Judas Kiss" has some unfathomable guff ("Sell your soul to me/I will set you free/Pacify your demons"). Overall, the album is better than many would have expected. Shame about the lyrics though.
Everything Is Borrowed
I write this review fully aware of the mauling Mike Skinner's second album, 'A Grand Don't Come For Free', received in Secular Albums - Christian Reviewers awhile ago. If that review put you off ever wanting to hear a Streets album, then all I can say is do bear in mind that people change. They grow up, stuff happens to them, and all that goes to change their outlook on life. In Mike's case, the death of his father and the onset of his 30th birthday are just two of the many events that have contributed to making the Mike Skinner on this album a different animal to the one who gave us "Dry Your Eyes, Mate" and "Fit And You Know It". One does not need to be a Bible student to realise that the album is based on Ecclesiastes 5:15 - especially when Mike sings on the opening track, "I came to this world with nothing, and I'll leave with nothing but love. Everything else is just borrowed." A rather astute biblical observation for someone who never went to church! The album also sees Mike stretching himself musically, using a live band and choir, dabbling in jazz and Asian rhythms and recording in Prague with a string quartet, alongside stuff recorded at home with long-time collaborators Johnny "Drum Machine" Jenkins and singer Kevin Mark Trail. Some aspects of Mike's philosophy/theology are still questionable ("Heaven For The Weather" springs to mind). But on the whole, 'Everything Is Borrowed' is a more positive, more life-affirming effort than its predecessors.
The Hold Steady
The Brooklyn-based rockers have long been praised both for their expertly executed riff-heavy classic rock and for, in the words of one journalist, "lyrically dense story telling." Christians too have been intrigued by the spiritual references that crop up in many of their songs. In fact, the band's earlier album, 'Separation Sunday', was a concept work about a girl named Hallelujah who got mixed up with drugs and eventually had a dramatic encounter with Jesus Christ, culminating, to quote from Christianity Today, "in a glorious, celebratory coda that's all about resurrection." Those looking for a follow up to such themes in 'Stay Positive' may be disappointed. "We are our only saviours," sings lead man Craig Finn on "Constructive Summer", the storming opener to this set. But there's more to 'Stay Positive' than the self-idolising line of that song. Many of the tracks here explore the theme of the wages of sin and the consequences of reckless living, for instance "Joke About Jamaica" with its reference to a time "back before those two kids died," while "Slapped Actress" considers the fact that many of the band's fans look to them for answers to the big questions of life. Such responsibility is tough of course and sometimes it clearly rankles Finn. On "Lord, I'm Discouraged" Finn reflects on the violence and loss that surround him, acknowledging that he is "no angel himself" and then prays, "Lord, I'm sorry to question your wisdom/But my faith has been wavering/Won't you show me a sign?/Let me know that you're listening?" So, does Finn believe in the Being to whom he prays or not? We'll have to wait and see what future albums reveal. In the meantime many with a taste for classic rock will want to investigate 'Stay Positive'. It's the sound of a band hitting their creative peak.
One of the things that Cross Rhythms has long delighted in doing is identify truly great creative talent long before record company involvement (if indeed it ever comes). Cross Rhythms journo Mike Rimmer first came across this exceptionally talented American singer/songwriter in 1998 and tracks from her captivating independent EP 'One Word Poetry Contest' went on to make it to the Cross Rhythms playlist. In an article in the March '99 CR Sally said, "I believe that I am an artist who is a Christian." Cross Rhythms has long maintained that the secular and sacred divides enshrined in the CCM/gospel and mainstream sections of the record industry are best ignored. So when the news came that Ms Anthony had found a foothold in the bigtime to tour with acts like Christina Aguilera, Barenaked Ladies and James Taylor we were delighted for the singer and looked forward to the release of this EMI distributed album with considerable anticipation. Tragically, 'Goodbye' turned out to be another example of what we have also painfully experienced with Kate Perry, ie, a singer beginning a recording career with songs which expressed a Christian worldview but, as mainstream management and big budget recording opportunities kicked in, the artist seeming to completely lose their spiritual moorings. Listening to this album it won't take admirers of Sally's early work long to decide that the singer has gone through a disastrous spiritual crisis. The title track may have rapper Mo-Unique and a snappy pop dance beat but the bad girl lyrics are woeful ("You make me this way/So f**k f**k f**k you hey hey hey"). Things get worse on the track "JJ" with the singer offering a spoken aside which goes "Hey man you gotta anything in there, like vics or O's/Got any valium/Got any x/You're really of no use to me tonight. . ./Just get me a bottle of Jack." How much this talk of substance abuse is an expression of Sally's current lifestyle and how much simply a misguided attempt to do the bad girl thing which brought success for Stefani and Jewel is impossible to say. What one can conclude though is that the singer's move into banal pop rock is a creative disaster even before one takes issue with the f words spread throughout. All that Christian admirers of Sally's gift can do is hope and pray that the pain and confusion she exudes on this release will finally find healing in the arms of one she once professed to love.
Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace
An album that has a title with the words patience and grace in deserves a second listen to hear what is actually going on on it. The Foo Fighters were, of course, 2007's hot band, headlining on the festival circuit, although it took awhile for them to get to that position. Few though begrudged the Seattle, Washington rockers their success. The Foo's runaway hit single "Best Of You" was still echoing on radio playlists (and let's say now it was a truly great song) when this hit the streets. The question could they follow "Best Of You"? was immediately answered. The opening song "The Pretender" had everything a modern rock song could possibly want - a track of clinical precision which took the listener through several levels of heightened excitement and just when you thought the climax had been reached, yet another one appeared. All this was achieved with a surgeon's scalpel of musical accuracy without sacrificing one drop of rock "feel". The theme of the song is aimed at all who are caught in pretence, who the Bible calls hypocrites. It's a fine song. Dave Grohl is, of course, the engine behind the Foos, the former Nirvana drummer moving to guitar and vocals and on this set he displays both expressive vocals and he has tenderness and an ability to rock tough. In the "Long Road To Ruin" he cries out "Dear God I've sealed my fate," telling us he must first run through Hell before he can get to Heaven. Not that he wants to be Hellbound. But this is war and something that some men must go through. It seems Dave's heart was touched by the terrible plight of the men trapped in the Australian Beaconsfield mine collapse; he heard that some of the men requested an iPod full of Foo Fighter songs while they were waiting to be rescued. Grohl immediately sent a fax to the trapped men saying, "Though I'm halfway around the world right now, my heart is with you." It's here we may get a glimpse into the title of the album, two words the miners would experience and two words they would need. The band have always had a hankering after the finer acoustic song, much to the displeasure of some hard rock fans. But here the superb acoustic instrumental "Ballad Of The Beaconsfield Miners", a simple tune written in tribute to the brave men, is one of the album's highlights. It is quite remarkable what simplicity can achieve, the few bare acoustic notes of "Stranger Things Have Happened" played on loop have beauty in them and make it a tune I never seem to tire of listening to. In "Come Alive" we hear the words "Sterilized with alcohol, I could hardly feel me anymore." It's a painfully honest song but a song of hope, running through Hell to get to Heaven. We meet the words of the title again in the last track (not counting the bonus demo track) on the album, "Home". It's a song of doubt and faith. "People I've loved, I have no regrets/Some I remember, some I forget/Some of them living, some of them dead/All I want is to be home." Let's hope and pray the Foo's get there.
The days when white reggae artists were the butt of music snobs' jokes are long gone. Even so, a ragga MC who's a Hasidic Jew still sounds too much like a novelty act - despite his track record. By the time Matthew Miller (aka Matisyahu) released this album, he already had two albums under his belt - one of them (2005's 'Live At Stubb's') certified gold. 'Youth' sees Matisyahu wearing so many hats, sometimes it's hard to keep up. For starters, there's Matisyahu the prophet ("Jerusalem"), Matisyahu the mobiliser of disaffected young people (the title track), and Matisyahu the passionate worshipper (the US hit single "King Without A Crown"). Every now and then, he throws in clever references to other white reggae acts from the past. This is fine when he's borrowing from Police songs (the "sending out an SOS" line in "Dispatch The Troops" is a nice touch), but when he inserts the chorus from "Break My Stride" into the middle of "Jerusalem", it just serves to remind you why "white reggae" had such a bad reputation back in the day. Thankfully, though, no Ace Of Base song lines get referenced here! Matisyahu's influences aren't restricted to reggae. On "WP" he ventures into hip-hop, proving himself to be a fairly competent rapper. The album's two World-influenced tracks are a pleasant surprise. "Shalom/Salaam" may only be a minute long, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a more beautiful way to spend a minute of your time as Matisyahu beatboxes alongside Yusu Youssou's kora playing. Youssou turns up again on "Ancient Lullaby" - another Africa-inspired piece, which climaxes in a joyous feast of drumming.
Sparks are basically the brothers Ron and Russell Mael and ever since 1970 they have been going their own sweet way in the music business, defying fashion trends and making some of the most inventive, quirky and funny music in the world of pop. "This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us" was a big hit in 1973 and since then the brothers have shown that the standard definition of pop ain't big enough for 'em either. How does one begin to describe 'Lil' Beethoven'? The sleevenote in the Deluxe Edition helpfully tells us that 'Lil' Beethoven' is "Nine scintillating works of seduction and self-delusion by the diminutive master of the art of musical overkill." Well, I suppose so but that still doesn't tell us what it is that we are listening to. So, to begin at the beginning. Not a lot of people know that Ludwig van Beethoven made a brief visit to what was then New Amsterdam in his restless young manhood and while there, far from home, he sowed some wild oats. Skip several generations and we meet a prodigiously gifted young descendant of the great composer who, knowing nothing of his ancestry, sets out to make his mark in the music business. But first he has to conquer his demons. There is "The Rhythm Thief" who has stolen the beat, his own indolence ("How Do I Get To Carnegie Hall?), being out of step with the rest of the music world ("What Are All These Bands So Angry About?"), self love ("I Married Myself") and general incompetence ("Your Call's Very Important To Us. Please Hold.") The words are succinct and epigrammatic. In "My Baby's Taking Me Home" the title phrase is repeated more than a hundred times but the music is so witty that the repetition does not become repetitive. The way that Russell Meal takes a trivial phrase and repeats it until it twists in on itself and seems to mean something new and even profound is not unlike the work of Steve Reich in the contemporary classical world. But then again perhaps the emperor is dancing naked in the dark. The release of 'Lil' Beethoven' in 2003 almost threatened to take Sparks back into the mainstream if such a place still existed. There was plenty of critical praise and the word spread until it reached even me. I had enjoyed Sparks as a singles act back in the days of glam rock but had lost track of them in their electronic disco days. I was lucky enough to pick up a copy of the Deluxe Edition in the bargain box at my local record shop (when we still had such a place) and it reawakened my interest in Sparks to such an extent that I am now working my way through their back catalogue. 'Lil' Beethoven' was Sparks' 19th album and, in my opinion, their best so far. The Deluxe Edition is the one to look for with its three bonus tracks as well as bonus visuals.
In God We Trust Inc
The San Francisco punk band have, of course, been hugely influential and after their debut 'Too Drunk To F**k ' almost reached the UK Top 30 things were set up for this EP which thrust the band into full on hardcore. The sheer speed and lack of any subtlety whatsoever has ensured that this release has subsequently been considered a hardcore classic and was named recently in Mojo magazine's How To Buy US Hardcore article. Lyrically though, it is the kind of expletive filled polemical rant which is par for the course for "radical" bands with an axe to grind. A rewrite of "California Uber Alles" starts with an amusing lounge jazz intro before it develops into a go at President Ronald Reagan. And some may find the band's crazy version of the old TV Western theme "Rawhide" amusing. But mostly here what is conveyed is anger with a capital A. "Moral Majority" attacks Rev Jerry Falwell and co while "Religious Vomit" might be described on the punknews website as "lyrically very powerful" but is in fact an absurd vilification of the Church. But when it comes to Neanderthal political comment, it's hard to beat "Nazi Punks F**k Off" which became something of a hardcore anthem but is too stupid for words. It is always heartening to see bands critiquing excess, be it political, moral or religious. But resorting to stupidity and swear words only gives the impression that the far left is as brain dead as the far right.
El Camaron de la Isla
One thing I love about the Spanish language is its ability to make the lamest of names sound sexy. Think about it; nobody would be seen dead ordering a glass of Aunt Mary in a pub, but call it Tia Maria and it's suddenly cool. If Tony Flags went into acting, he'd be advised to change his name, yet people will quite happily queue up to see Antonio Banderas in a film. Likewise, even though pop music is known for daft artist names, nobody would consider performing and recording as "the shrimp of the island" - but that just happens to be the name of Flamenco music's biggest legend. I'm cheating slightly here by reviewing a compilation album. But this isn't any old Greatest Hits album (and there are loads of Camaron Best Ofs available). It contains three previously unheard recordings of a 16-year-old Camaron accompanying himself on guitar. In addition, six of the tracks on here are from the Camaron album I really want to review: the long-out-of-print 'La Leyenda del Tiempo', used copies of which are available on Amazon for £108. Ouch! The release of 'La Leyenda del Tiempo' in 1979 was flamenco's equivalent of Bob Dylan's infamous decision to "go electric" - and Camaron replacing the traditional flamenco guitar with keyboards, electric guitars, horns and even sitars elicited similar 'Judas' accusations from his Gypsy fanbase. According to Giles Tremlett's book Ghosts Of Spain, diehard fans all over the country took their cassettes back to shops and demanded their money back, saying, "This is not Camaron." On the other hand, the new sound won Camaron many new fans - including Mick Jagger and Quincy Jones. Of the tracks taken from "La Leyenda", my favourite is "La Tarara" which alternates between passionate old-school flamenco singing and instrumental passages that would not sound out of place on any smooth jazz radio station today. This anthology gives us two versions of "La Leyenda del Tiempo" itself: the single version and a slightly longer album version. The closing track, "Camaron en Montilla" is an 11-minute tour de force, and one of the late maestro's last ever live recordings.
It's All About The Stragglers
It was the beginning of a new millennium. In Great Britain, urban youth marked this milestone by inventing a music genre which married street chic with crass materialism in a way not seen since the excesses of disco a quarter of a century earlier. The name of this fresh new sound is UK garage, alternately known as 'two-step'. It's a toss-up between this album and MJ Cole's 'Sincere' as to which deserves to be called the definitive UK garage album - but (in my opinion, anyway) that honour goes to 'It's All About The Stragglers', recorded and produced by Mark Hill, aka Artful Dodger. There are several reasons why this set has earned its place in UK pop history. This was the album that really took UK garage into the mainstream, paving the way for the likes of Mis-teeq, the So Solid Crew and Daniel Bedingfield to storm the charts. It introduced the world to a 19-year-old half-Grenadian, half-Jewish lad from Southampton called Craig David. On the downside, we have this album to blame for one of the unfunniest comedies British television has ever inflicted on us (yes Bo Selecta, I mean you). The standard criticism people over 35 make about modern genres such as UK garage is "they (the artists) can't play instruments." That's just ignorance talking. Just listen to the acoustic guitars on "TwentyFourSeven" or the strings on "Please Don't Turn Me On", for instance. There's another reason why this album should be of interest to gospel fans: one of Mark's collaborators on it was Michele Escoffery, the youngest of the mighty R&B gospel team the Escoffery Sisters. Michele wrote a number of tracks on the album which went on to become hit singles - including the opening track "Think about Me", on which she was guest lead vocalist.
You labour away as a recording artist for 10 years and never have a hit. Then after you retire, Robbie Williams covers one of your songs and has a Top 10 success with it. It's an irony worthy of a place on that list of not-really-ironic things in that Alanis Morisette song. It's also a brief summing up of the career of one of Britain's finest - and most underrated - soul singers: the mystery man known to a clique of devoted fans as Lewis Taylor. This was the album that started it all back in 1996. Prior to it, the multi-instrumentalist served time in the Edgar Broughton Band and recorded psychedelic rock under the pseudonym Sheriff Jack. 'Lewis Taylor' the album was both soulful and quirky. All its tracks had one-word titles such as "Lucky", "Bittersweet" and "Whoever" (there was even one called "Song" and another called "Track"!). The songs were intense, blending Motown soul with the kind of guitar playing you were more likely to hear in prog rock - yet somehow the mix worked. And then there was that voice - so uncannily like Marvin Gaye's you did a double take each time you heard it. Lewis was (and still is) so much of an enigma, it's hard to tell which stories about him are true. We know Elton John's a fan because he's never passed up an opportunity to big Lewis up in public. But did Leon Ware (Marvin Gaye's former producer) really break down and cry the first time he heard this album? Did Island really sign him on the strength of demos recorded in his front room? Did those reported collaborations with D'Angelo and Daryl Hall ever happen? And if they did, will we ever get to hear them? Whether the stories are true or not (and the one about him quitting music to become a gag writer for the Chuckle Brothers has got to be a wind-up!), one thing is obvious from listening to this and the albums that followed: Lewis Taylor is a musical genius - albeit one who dwells on love's dark side in a way that can't be healthy. By the way, if you've never heard of Lewis before but have a copy of Daniel Bedingfield's debut album at home, get it out and listen to "Without The Girl" again. You've just heard a small sample of what Lewis Taylor can do.
Positive Black Soul
Here's an awesome slice of mid-90s West Coast rap - the 'West Coast' in question being Africa's, rather than the USA's. All over the continent, young musicians have been influenced by hip-hop. Some have used it as a starting point to come up with their own unique new genres (Ghanaian hip-life, South African kwaito or Angolan kuduro music, for example), whereas others just make straight-ahead hip-hop, similar in sound to the Western variety but with rapping in their native tongues. The Senegalese duo Positive Black Soul fall into the latter category. Amadou Barry, aka Doug E Tee, and Didier J Awadi (known simply as DJ Awadi) both grew up in Dakar and started their DJ careers in that city's clubs. Awadi was also a local TV host and in the mid-'80s started a group called Didier Awadi's Syndicate. Doug E Tee also had a group of his own, the King MCs. By the early '90s they had disbanded both groups and joined forces to form Positive Black Soul. The duo's fame was pretty much restricted to Senegal until 1994, when a guest spot on Baaba Maal's 'Firin' In Fouta' album led to Baaba's label Mango (Island Records' now defunct World Music imprint) signing them. 'Salaam' was a collection of tracks that had previously appeared on cassette-only releases sold in Senegal, re-recorded with the help of some of the stars of London's urban underground scene; people such as Longsy D and Raw Stylus. It really shows off the guys' wide range of influences, covering hardcore rap, reggae and traditional Senegalese music. The popular French rapper MC Solaar (also of Senegalese descent himself) guested on the track "Rat Des Villes, Rat Des Champs". Rapping in both Wolof and French, Positive Black Soul displayed a political/social consciousness not heard in rap since the glory days of Public Enemy. They tackled pan-Africanism, social unrest and Africa's image in the world, and still found time to admonish their peers to get off their behinds and make something of themselves. 'Salaam' is an excellent hip-hop album which still sounds fresh and relevant 13 years after its release.
After over a dozen studio releases to his name, revered American singer/songwriter James Taylor purposely set about the task of recording his first live album in 1993. Despite losing the flowing locks and boyish good looks he sported in the 60s and strangely taking on the image of a balding accountant, his songs had lasted the test of time and it was the right moment to showcase his back catalogue in all its live glory. Choosing to tour for the prime purpose of recording material for this live release, Taylor pours his heart and soul into each song to make these versions arguably the definitive article in favour of their studio bound alter egos. Take Taylor's extended cover of the Motown classic "How Sweet It Is" which makes his own studio version sound like an exercise in treading musical water and even challenges Marvin Gaye's rendition in terms of authority. All the old favourites are included - "Sweet Baby James", "You've Got A Friend" and "Carolina In My Mind" to name but a very few - but what is intriguing is the way less familiar tracks such as "Traffic Jam" (from the 1977 release 'JT') and the ever-evolving "Steamroller Blues" get a complete reworking thanks to the services of an elite backing band. Indeed, it is this backing band that share the spotlight with the inimitable Taylor and Jimmy Johnson's beautiful bass intro to "Country Road" and Clifford Carter and Bobby Mann's electrifying piano and guitar solos on the aforementioned "Steamroller Blues" count amongst the highlights of this release. Aside from being a warm and engaging performer, Taylor's ultimate strength lies in his matchless ability to produce songs which pull the listener's heart out only to gently place it back ever so slightly changed. Perhaps as a result of Taylor's history of crippling depression and drug abuse, his songs portray a man looking for answers and, whilst it is unclear where he stands in terms of faith, he consistently references God in some of his most poignant pieces of work. For example, the peerless "Fire And Rain" with its telling line "won't you look down upon me, Jesus/you gotta help me to make a stand" point towards someone searching for something bigger whilst the breathtaking "New Hymn" betrays Taylor's uncertainty around this issue with lyrics like "Absolute in flame beyond us/Seed and source of dark and day/Maker whom we beg to be our mother father comrade mate". However, Taylor ensures that proceedings don't get too heavy by injecting some witty asides between numbers and seasoning his set list with light hearted material like "Everybody Has The Blues" and the evergreen "Your Smiling Face" which only serve to add more diversity to an already disparate collection. With 30 songs spread over two hours, this live offering is vastly superior to any greatest hits compilation thanks to the added energy, interaction and passion that the live arena brings. One could even argue that, such is the calibre of material and performance on show here, this is the only James Taylor album you would ever need.
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