New CDs: Blink-182, Travis

Reviews of "Take Off Your Pants and Jacket," "The Invisible Band" and more
Posted Jun 11, 2001 at 12:00am
Blink-182 Take Off Your Pants and Jacket (MCA)

You can dismiss Blink-182 as cartoons if you like. They're certainly not going to stop you. They even call their new album Take Off Your Pants and Jacket: Say it out loud, let your inner eighth-grader savor the cadence of the phrase. It sums up Blink-182's wiseass brat-punk ethos almost as well as their recent live album, The Mark, Tom and Travis Show (The Enema Strikes Back), which featured the butt-stupidest stage banter since Kiss' Alive! (Mark: "You can leave now and beat the traffic!" Tom: "Or you can stay and beat your meat!" -- and they get paid for this, ladies and gentlemen.)

But this is rock & roll, where cartoons can get away with exposing emotional truths blocked to more portentous characters, and behind their doofy grins Blink-182 have plenty to say about the secret life of boys. Too funny for even the most uptight ideologue to dismiss as simps, these guys feel free to sing about their girl troubles without hiding behind either hipster irony or macho hostility. When they meet girls tougher than they are, which is usually, they're not threatened -- just terrified and attracted and amused and, if they're lucky, quick-witted enough to sing "Please Take Me Home" before she moves on to someone else. (CONTINUED)

Travis The Invisible Band (Independiente/epic)

This year's most promising Brit-pop confrontation pits Radiohead against their shiny-faced doppelganger, Travis. What's in the arsenal of The Invisible Band (which arrives a week after Radiohead's new Amnesiac)? Just the age-old charms of folkie strums, orchestral swells and a little banjo. Anything more -- say, a difficult guitarless record -- would be too conspicuous for a band so egoless it'd just as soon become invisible. Travis are opting out of U.K. pop's celebrity death match to focus attention on the songs, man.

Lacking any dramatic innovations or departures from last year's The Man Who, The Invisible Band succeeds by approximating -- via warm melodies, textures and sincerity -- Simon and Garfunkel fronting U2. No longer as concerned with where the rain falls, frontman Fran Healy submits the rousing "Sing" and sunny "Flowers in the Window" for proof he's grown up and fallen in love; both songs, unlike most of the other tracks on Invisible Band, are as catchy as anything on The Man Who. Elsewhere, Healy's unrelenting earnestness gets raised to new heights by his newfound confidence. His lesson-songs -- including "Side" (we're all on the same team) and "The Cage" (if you love someone, set them free) -- revive a near-dead tradition: the songwriter who thinks he's got something to teach us. The effort, if not entirely successful, is sympathetically disarming. (RS 871) (RONI SARIG)

Rufus Wainwright Poses (Dreamworks)

Rufus Wainwright's first album was really good, but it was also really hard to take. There was something so strident in the display of his talent: navel-gazing poetry, high-drama wit, harmony from nineteenth-century classical music and melodies influenced by musical theater, plenty of key changes. But it also felt precious beyond belief, and a good part of that had to do with Wainwright's narrowly pitched, nasal boulevardier's whine.

With Poses, three years later, most of his excesses have vanished, or been put to better use. Great pop albums are successful evocations of a type of life; it must be a life lived by more than one person, but it doesn't matter if it's a small handful (the circle of trannies and drug connections described by Lou Reed's Transformer) or thousands (the post-hippie women who understood Joni Mitchell's Blue on the deepest frequencies).

Poses achieves this for the life of the Chelsea Boy: the young, gay, narcissistic achiever in New York. But the Chelsea Boy is only a magnified version of practically every kid new to a big city who's got a job and an apartment and worries about weekend plans: The Chelsea Boy just has sharper clothes, higher standards of beauty and a better tradition of mordant humor to console himself with. (CONTINUED)

Stereo MC's Deep Down & Dirty (Island)

England's Stereo MC's hit big in 1992 with Connected, an irresistibly danceable amalgamation of breakbeats and soulful hip-hop sensibility. The album won the band acclaim (not to mention awards) at home, and radio airplay in America, but the Stereos couldn't maintain the momentum, and they took a time out -- one that lasted for nine years. Now the band has -- without much fanfare -- returned with Deep Down & Dirty. And, as they make clear from the first note, they're back with a vengeance. With its preponderance of loping beats and funk-infused grooves, the album does little to update the Stereos' sound, but no matter: The band sounds as vital as ever. Frontman Rob Birch always delivered his lyrics in a controlled sing-speak that barely hid his latent aggression. Here, he infuses the same raspy raps with a confident, street-smart swagger. The others, meanwhile, back his bravado with beats both trip-hop and hip-hop, adding fuel to Birch's fire with abrasive keyboards, thumping bass and the odd trumpet blast. "I stop at nothing/At nothing I stop," Birch cries on "Stop at Nothing." With a revitalized Stereo MC's behind him, he sounds entirely convincing. (NINA PEARLMAN)

Various Artists Avalon Blues: A Tribute to the Music of Mississippi John Hurt (Vanguard)

Every few decades, somebody drags out the music of Avalon, Mississippi-bred acoustic singer-guitarist Mississippi John Hurt, who spun simple stories about love, murder and chicken in a perfectly clear baritone. And, as when Hurt revisited them during the Sixties folk revival, "Frankie & Albert," "Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor" and "Stagolee" sound as fresh as the blues legend's Twenties originals. Produced by veteran singer-songwriter Peter Case, Avalon Blues is a gentle record of sympathetic, finger-picking folk and rock heroes -- an unironic, no-sound-effects Beck on "Stagolee"; Steve Earle and his son, Justin, making like country-honk Rolling Stones for "Candy Man"; folkie Bill Morrissey croaking through "Pay Day"; and Lucinda Williams applying her curvy twang to "Angels Laid Him Away." It's the rare unbloated tribute album, one for which artists, big and small alike, submerge their egos to draw attention to the subject at hand. (STEVE KNOPPER)

Electric Light Orchestra Zoom (Epic)

Even in a world where mimicry is considered the sincerest form of flattery, Jeff Lynne's trademark brand of lyric and riff coppery qualifies as downright cheeky. But even so, you'd be foolish -- or tone deaf -- to argue the merits of the ELO mastermind's sense of pop melody. Though his layered, Beatles-inspired production stamp is arguably played-out, Lynne has added enough Tom Petty rumble and twang to his repertoire -- see the disc-closing "Lonesome Lullaby" -- to keep you on your toes. Yes, he sticks to his formula -- the perpetual reproduction of the "I Am The Walrus"/"Strawberry Fields" groove here, a little old-time rock & roll there -- for most of Zoom's songs, all of which could just as easily have materialized during ELO's mid-Seventies heyday. The swingin' "All Right," the Roy Orbison-derived "State of Mind" and the string-a-ling faux-soul of "In My Own Time" are all written, sung, played and produced entirely by Lynne -- well, except when he's being accompanied by George Harrison and Ringo Starr, among a tiny coterie of outsiders. There's something comfortable about Lynne's immaculately groomed, thoroughly British habitat -- it's hardly challenging, but always flawless in execution. Call me a deaf old fool, but three decades on, it's nice to hear some things haven't changed. (DENISE SULLIVAN)

Alicia Keys Songs in A Minor (J)

Nourished with both a classical music education and an intimate appreciation of soul greats such as Marvin Gaye and Roberta Flack, Alicia Keys has more to offer than the average diva in training. Songs in A Minor, her debut album for Clive Davis' freshly launched J Records, is a deep, expansive collection of songs. Highlighted by the piano-driven first single "Fallin'," which serenely expounds on the highs and lows of love, Keys immediately casts herself as the natural heir to artists like Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu. Her voice is the centerpiece here, sounding unusually confident and full, allowing her to stroll easily through a cover of Prince's daunting "How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore." World domination awaits. (AIDIN VAZIRI)

Kate Rusby Little Lights (Compass)

The centuries-old traditions of British folk music won't die off anytime soon, as long as the twenty-somethings keep injecting new life into the tradition. But while Eliza Carthy throws her fiddle into a sea of synthesizer, Kate Rusby frames her quiet acoustic songs against a rich backdrop of voice, strings and pipes. There are a few new arrangements of standards -- as well as a version of Richard Thompson's "Withered and Died" -- but Rusby's own compositions dominate. Generally, they retain a palpable sense of purity and respect, meeting the challenge to provide something new within an established framework. It works most of the time, and is a heck of a lot more interesting than another take of "Matty Groves" or "John Barleycorn." But while Rusby can hit the high notes, she spends too much time in a drowsy middle range -- making any comparisons to brighter lights like Sandy Denny, Maddy Prior or Norma Waterson seem downright ridiculous. (CHARLES BERMANT)

Trilok Gurtu The Beat of Love (Blue Thumb/Verve)

Continuing his two-decade-long exploration of the territory where African and Asian music meet, tabla virtuoso and composer Trilok Gurtu moves as easily within the organic landscapes created by Indian, African and Western percussion instruments as he does within the modern electronic aesthetic. Not one to hog the spotlight, the Indian-born Gurtu allows his guest musicians -- who joined him in studios in London, Johanesburg, Bombay, Philadelphia and New York -- to add their own unique elements to the satisfying, multi-layered Beat of Love. "A Friend," a mid-tempo Afro-pop confection, is augmented by Beninese singer Angèlique Kidjo, whose usually incendiary vocals are toned down a bit here to be warm and reassuring. Indian vocalist Roop Kumar's adds broad strokes of romanticism to the upbeat "Maya" and the staccato, mesmerizing "Tuhe." Senegalese singer and songwriter Wasis Diop contributes his own "Passing By," an incantation imbued with a seductive, summer afternoon feel. Gurtu's music journeys have taken him far from home, but it is obvious that he has made the world itself his warming, welcoming hearth. (MARIE ELSIE ST. LEGER)

Jim Lauderdale The Other Sessions (Dualtone)

Lots of Nashville musicians walk the line between traditional and contemporary country music, but few do so as successfully as Jim Lauderdale. He's penned hits for stars such as George Strait, Patty Loveless and Kathy Mattea, but balanced that by recording a Grammy-nominated album with bluegrass patriarch Ralph Stanley. Lauderdale has co-written songs with everyone from Dixie Chick Emily Robison to Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, and collaborations play a huge part of his eighth release, The Other Sessions. Lauderdale always had an innate grasp of classic country, and he really goes old-school here, teaming with legendary country songwriters Harlan Howard, Melba Montgomery and Del Reeves. Loaded with clean, twanging guitar and sweet, crying pedal steel, The Other Sessions is heavily weighted toward the Bakersfield sound of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. From the slow-dance ready "I'd Follow You Anywhere," to the hard honky tonkin' "Just To Get To You," to the dobro-dappled "First Things First," Jim Lauderdale has the soul to make country music that sounds both time-honored and fresh, and the smooth croon to pull off lines like "If I were you/ then I'd love me forever." (MEREDITH OCHS)

Various Artists Anyone Can Play Radiohead (Cleopatra)

Assembling a tribute album of songs penned by The Most Important Rock Band in the Universe is tricky. How do you do justice to the sonically complicated, moody masterpieces of a bunch of famously sulky perfectionists? Unfortunately, the artists gathered here don't seem to know, adding an unintentional twinge of irony to the title. The 2 Dipshits (not a phony name) drain all the life and melody from "Everything in Its Right Place", reducing it to sonic drudgery. Silent Gray do "Fitter Happier" no favors by singing lyrics which were originally spoken via computer, and Aleister Einstein fail to reinvent "Creep" as bouncy techno. Surely, the karma police will not be happy. It's only the last track which shows a glimpse of the promise this album might have had, as Lunasect impart new beauty (complete with guitar freak-outs) to "How to Disappear Completely (And Not Be Found)." (EVAN SCHLANSKY)

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