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The Boston Phoenix Boston Phoenix CD Reviews

MAY 10, 1999: 

* Usher, USHER LIVE, (LaFace)

Usher doesn't sing songs about love. He'll leave that sort of thing to the divas, the strictly-slow-jam crooners, the pretty-fly-white-guy quintets. Usher wants to talk details. "You make me want to leave the one I'm with and start a new relationship with you," he sings, and he's only halfway through the chorus. This Springeresque fondness for the explicit, coupled with youth (he's 20) and photogenic dimples, has created Atlanta's newest R&B juggernaut. And Usher celebrates his success with this live set -- the kind of album that's marketed, rather apologetically, as a treat "for the fans."

His singing voice, if you haven't guessed, isn't very strong, and it's not well complemented by the perfunctory guitar solos and endless drum fills that issue forth from his band. His popularity stems largely from his persona, and yet there is scarcely any on-stage banter. A few strange things happen along the way: there's an abortive cover of NKOTB's "Every Little Step," as well as 60 seconds of crowd screams when the music stops one verse into "Nice & Slow" (this last moment is as mystifying as a sight gag on a comedy record). The disc also features remixes of Usher's three biggest hits, none of which captures the rakish, nonchalant charm of the originals.

-- Kelefa Sanneh

*** The Wedding Present, SINGLES 1989-1991 (Manifesto)

Don't know how this one got past the boss: take five singles from a two-year period, then toss in a heap of B-sides and live cuts to flesh out a 33-track, double-disc set of the Wedding Present's unabashed odes to love bashing? Whatever. Notwithstanding the randomness (business-motivated, it turns out; Manifesto owns the rights to the BMG albums whence a dozen of these tracks came), Singles 1989-1991 showcases the mushmouthed Brit David Gedge's peculiar talent for putting relationships under the microscope and twisting the focus knob until the lens grinds against the slide.

The only downside is the sequencing. On the first disc, the five frenetic singles lead to a further barrage of the Wedding Present's familiar slash-and-burn punk, which doesn't abate until the achingly beautiful "Dalliance" turns up 12 notches in. After the band's apropos cover of the Velvets' "She's My Best Friend," it's back to the relentless rush of piercing guitars and breakneck rhythms. Disc two is the keeper. A quickie run through the bluegrass standard "Cumberland Gap" is a reminder of grumpy Gedge's playful side, there's a nicely succinct radio mix of the jaunty "Blue Eyes," and the Present pep up Pell Mell's "Signal." Then comes the payoff: nine cleanly recorded live tracks of varying tempo, from the steadily mid-paced "Give My Love to Kevin" to the ultrasonic "Brassneck."

-- Richard Martin

*** Poole, AMONG WHOM WE SHINE (spinART)

For a band with such a sublimely simple sound, it's sure tough to keep track of the line-up changes that Harry and Harv Evans put Poole through. The newest wrinkle in the saga (which began when Harry left his day job drumming for the Lilys in '93 and formed Poole with guitar-playing older bro' Harv) is the addition of a new guitarist and bassist, with Harry returning to his original place behind the drum kit and . . . well, never mind. All you really need to know is that, like Boston's own Push Kings or the late, kinda lamented Posies, Poole are on a mission to create a poptopian universe for all, where cotton-candy skies rain gumdrops down on the heads of frolicking teenagers on their way to the, uh, pool party. On their third disc, the group very nearly succeed despite a noticeable lack of variety. The recipe for pop confection remains the same throughout: start with creamy harmonies ("Anyway"), add jangly guitars ("Feelin' Ill Tonight"), mix in a few tough licks for seasoning ("Sole Operator"), cover the whole thing with lush production (pick a tune, any tune), and stir. No sweetener needed. It's all sugar.

-- Jonathan Perry

***1/2 Phoenix Orion, ZIMULATED EXPERIENCEZ (Celestial Recordings)

Even in indie hip-hop, where eccentricity is the coin of the realm, LA-dwelling Brooklynite Phoenix Orion is a real character, a tight-flowing, vocally schizoid mad scientist who thinks "MC" stands for "Messiah Complex" and flashes Internet jargon the way other rappers show off Glocks or gold teeth. Zimulated Experiencez sounds like Jeru the Damaja's Return of the Prophet with an ironic laugh track by Dr. Octagon -- Phoenix impersonates cackling mad scientists and the Devil, rhymes over drum 'n' bass, battles self-aware computers, and (aided by producers Hermes, Daddy Kev, and DJ Hive) self-referentially samples big chunks of The Last Temptation of Christ. That's gotta be a hip-hop first. It's hard to tell whether Orion's given his conspiracy theories more than a cursory study-hall once-over -- often it's as if he were just Playstation-gamin', polysyllabically, on everybody else's paranoid Y2K bugout, a futurist Prince Paul slapping Canibus with a kick-me sign. Either way, Zimulated is the kind of brilliantly weird project that makes underground-rap prospecting worthwhile. The corny-but-inventive "Dead Men Don't Download" mixes Raymond Chandler clichés and jaunts through virtual reality, with Phoenix on the case as 2023's toughest black private dick -- and when he says "dick," he's talking Philip K.

-- Alex Pappademas

*** Maze, GREATEST SLOW JAMS (Right Stuff)

For two decades, soul-music fans, who believe that one soul can speak the truth to another, have loved Frankie Beverly's delicate tenor, the directness of his let's-talk-things-over lyrics, and the trust they can put in the consistency of his tender fusion music, with its echoes of Earth Wind & Fire, Grover Washington, and the Isley Brothers at their most ethereal. Maze and Beverly at their unaffected, spiritual best is what this 14-track compilation is all about -- the happy, quiet, durable bittersweetness of "Happy Feelin's," "I Wanna Thank You," "Family," and "Never Let You Down," the comfortably sad "When You Love Someone" -- songs that slow the pace of life down as Beverly's romantic dramatizations sing a listener's troubles away. Unfortunately for Maze's long-standing attempt at reaching suburban white listeners, that audience was already won by blond bands like Depeche Mode and Erasure, whose overwrought and addictively cosmetic approach to love life was Maze's thematic opposite. The glory of Maze and Beverly was that they continued to write and sing their calming purity, persisting against the grain of cosmetic music's pop success.

-- Michael Freedberg

** Man or Astro-Man? EEVIAC (Touch & Go)

When you're working a field as formally limited as intergalactic psychosurf, you've got to tweak it with as many nuances as possible to create a fresh veneer. This time around the Alabama foursome, who gleefully fracture their twang rock fetishes, enter the world of ones and zeroes. But it's not an ISDN'd G3 that whizzes and whirs here, more like a souped-up UNIVAC. No matter how inventively Trace Reading, Blazar, Birdstuff, and Coco update "Rebel-'Rouser" and "Raw-Hide," it's still novelty they bank on.

That doesn't mean the retro-futurism shtick lacks moments of amusement or invention. The guys are adequate arrangers; Eeviac has its share of unusual voicings that help steer the music away from rudimentary raucousness -- the cool, musicianly way of voicing the chorus riff on "The Reversal of Polarity," for instance. But given the competition of more mature rockstrumental combos like Pell Mell, MORAM? remain one-dimensional. Only those with robotic sympathies will fully embrace this disc. In fact, "Engines of Difference" sounds like a jukebox tune that Futurama's Bender might punch up after a few too many quarts of WD-40 down at the cyber tavern.

-- Jim Macnie

**1/2 Mandy Barnett, I'VE GOT A RIGHT TO CRY (Sire)

For one final time the great country-music producer Owen Bradley was called upon to cast a young vocalist in the same light as he did Patsy Cline with his classic productions of her songs. Bradley died after recording only a third of Barnett's 12 performances here. But she and his brother Harold and nephew Bobby soldiered on to make an album worthy of his legacy.

I've Got a Right To Cry is also a marvelous showcase for Barnett's gliding, beautiful voice -- an instrument full of smoldering emotionalism. Ballads like the title number and her breathy "The Whispering Wind" capture the élan of a long-gone era of country music, not only in their spare arrangements -- colored by Jordanaires-like supporting voices, strings, and guitar statements that trace their songs' melodies -- but in their unvarnished infatuation with, well, infatuation. Sure, it's all formula, but it sidesteps Nashville's current generic-pop assembly-line approach to provide a framework from which a singer's personality can emerge. Barnett's only failing is that the personality here is mostly Cline's.

-- Ted Drozdowski

***BIG RUDE JAKE (Roadrunner)

With 20/20 hindsight, it turns out that Joe Jackson's 1981 retro tribute to Louis Jordan, Jumpin' Jive, was way ahead of its time. To remain vital, pop has to revisit its roots occasionally, and the exuberance of jive -- the link between big-band swing and the early rock of Fats Domino and Chuck Berry -- turned out to be a welcome antidote to the rage and melancholy of so much '90s rock.

Although Big Rude Jake and his band are clearly part of the resulting swing revival, they take the music seriously and add their own juice to the style. The sophisticated lyrics, intricate arrangements, and uptown attitude paint Jake and the boys as quintessential hep cats, the kind of dudes who have always added the polish to New York's Big Apple. Jake's voice is an elastic instrument able to croon, talk, snarl, and seduce as the material merits, bringing a mutant mix of Damon Runyon, Johnny Rotten, and Mose Allison to his witty, erudite tunes. The band are just as flexible, jumping from smooth blues to smoky beatnik jazz to the punk/swing of the hilarious "Let's Kill All the Rock Stars." Like Jordan before him, Jake tweaks the conventions of the music, twisting it into his own entertaining style.

-- J. Poet

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