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DECEMBER 29, 1997: 

*** The Dead Milkmen

DEATH RIDES A PALE COW

(Restless)

Much as you might like to dismiss the Dead Milkmen as nothing more than the '80s novelty act best known for "Bitchin' Camaro," the Philly quartet's best-of collection is a reminder that the group's appeal was based on their smart, well-targeted, satirical oomph. Few groups are spared the cleverly caustic examinations of Rodney Anonymous's lyrical attack on Death Rides a Pale Cow. Throughout a decade-long career, the Milkmen skewered social stereotypes with egalitarian scope and juvenile sarcasm -- punks and hippies, yuppies and beats, liberals and conservatives, club kids and white trash. If the group were always snotty and obnoxious, they were usually dead on target in their mocking, and their bright, clean guitar sounds and frantic rhythms played with punk convention as neatly as the scattershot commentary. You'll find no sacred cows on this collection.

-- Mark Woodlief


***1/2 The Cure

GALORE: THE SINGLES 1987-1997

(Elektra)

These 18 songs capture the Cure as an arty-party band and, with the new tune "Wrong Number," modern rockers subtly pushing the envelope via loops and guitar noise courtesy of Boston's Reeves Gabrels. If you want to hear the grand early radio hits from the period when leader Robert Smith battled Morrissey sigh-for-sigh for mope rock's crown, you'll need to pick up the 1986 collection Standing on a Beach: The Singles (Elektra). Here we start with the perky funk of "Why Can't I Be You?", continue through the zippy celestial angst of "Just like Heaven" and on past the sadly poignant "A Letter to Elise" and recent percolating remixes of "The 13th" and "Strange Attraction" (both from '96). This compilation's an easy answer to questions concerning the Cure's greatness. Smith's voice is wholly original; the textural plotting of the arrangements -- rich and sweet in their mix of acoustic and electric guitars, synthesizers, and strings -- is brilliant; the hooks and melodies are generous; the drums slam hard on all the uptempo numbers. These songs are such obvious rock-and-roll pleasures that anyone who denies them is deaf or bound by dogma.

-- Ted Drozdowski


** Sting and the Police

THE VERY BEST OF . . . STING & THE POLICE

(A&M)

If not for the grandiosely titled 1994 collection Fields of Gold: The Best of Sting 1984-1994, one might be led to wonder whether this new rehash of material that's appeared at least twice elsewhere isn't Sting's way of tacitly admitting that his solo work doesn't quite stand up on its own. But regardless of whether Sting actually needs to fill out a hits collection with Police tunes, doing so doesn't shed a very favorable light on his solo work: next to Police classics like "Message in a Bottle," "Don't Stand So Close to Me," "Can't Stand Losing You," and "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic," even Sting's biggest solo hits ("If You Love Somebody Set Them Free" and "If I Ever Lose My Faith in You") are no damn fun. The beauty of The Very Best of . . . Sting & the Police is the way it rudely, if subtly, attempts to play down the role of Sting's Police partners (Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland), who are made out to be nothing more than Sting's backing band, which was never the case. Anyway the real goal of this collection, which features a funkified Puff Daddy remix of "Roxanne," is to capitalize on the success of Puffy's cover of the Police's "Every Breath You Take." And when Puff says "I like this part" right before "I love you since I knew you," you kinda know what he means -- as dated as a Police tune like "Roxanne" may sound, it still beats the hell out of a bland number like Sting's "Russians."

-- Matt Ashare


***1/2 Midnight Oil

20,000 WATT R.S.L.

(Columbia)

Midnight Oil have worn a few hats over the years -- Aussie surfer band, heirs to the Clash throne, new-wave throwbacks, last of the political bands. But in the end it's songcraft that matters, and songcraft is why they can now release a thoroughly satisfying, 76-minute compilation with 18 tracks on it. Songcraft is also why Midnight Oil can claim so many resonant numbers about issues that listeners outside of Australia will know or care little about. "Trugnanini" (1993) has lyrics that refer to a 19th-century aboriginal-rights dispute, and a chorus that is blatantly lifted from "Bad Moon Rising." But that chorus is so gorgeously arranged, with its steady build-up and harp strumming on the downbeat, that it transcends context.

Although 20,000 Watt R.S.L. presents the songs out of chronological order, the disc shows Midnight Oil moving from the punkish sound of old to the textured pop of recent years, when their neo-hippie idealism threatened to grate. The band's US breakthrough, "Power & the Passion," still stands as an inspiring anthem, even if the central lyric, "It's better to die on your feet than to live on your knees," sounds mighty naive after all these years. Their successful stab at an American radio sound, "Beds Are Burning," with that repetitive chorus and those dated drum machines, holds up least well. The track standing proudest is 1985's "Best of Both Worlds," with those screams of "The one it could have been!" remaining a chilling and cathartic punk-rock moment. At least the two new songs (after only one from last year's lackluster Breathe) show the return of that intensity. "White Skin Black Heart" uses some of the same techno-tricks that U2 adopted on Pop, and "What's Going On" throws distortion on Garrett's voice and sports a churning groove recalling the Hüsker Dü song of the same name.

-- Brett Milano


*** John Mellencamp

THE BEST THAT I COULD DO 1978-1988

(Mercury)

Listening to the first greatest-hits collection by the artist formerly known as Johnny Cougar is a lot like listening to retro radio any given day of the week. I could certainly survive without hearing "Pink Houses" ever again, but stacked end-to-end these 13 tunes (not counting one new track) offer an impressive reminder of just how hard -- and often -- the Coug hit the charts during the Big '80s. And most of it is pretty fine stuff, too, even if archetypal rock-and-roll rave-ups like "Lonely Ol' Night" sound a tad shopworn after all these years of hourly airings on FM radio.

Initially dismissed as a Springsteen wanna-be penning bubblegum anthems like 1979's insipid "I Need a Lover" (included here), Mellencamp showed remarkable growth as a songwriter as the '80s progressed, learning how to make emotionally mature albums to go with all those hit singles. In fact, nearly half of the tracks here are culled from the singer's two best back-to-back efforts, 1985's Scarecrow and his 1987 masterpiece The Lonesome Jubilee. A decade later, Mellencamp's guileless, autobiographical portraits depicting small-town life and big-time dreams in the American heartland have lost little of their resonance. Maybe that's because these songs aren't rooted in specific circumstance so much as they are universal myth. Either that or it's his killer backing band.

-- Jonathan Perry


* Joan Jett

FIT TO BE TIED: GREAT HITS BY JOAN JETT AND THE BLACKHEARTS

(Mercury)

As the title mentions by omission, these aren't the greatest hits, just the great ones. And the first part of the title's nascent bondage imagery works well too, because what you come away with after listening to this disc is a sense of wonder about how such a tool could've become a minor deity in the riot-grrrl pantheon. Sure, the early Ramones-ette flair of "Bad Reputation" is a nice example of estrogen punk (though on those grounds it'd be nicer if this were a Poly Styrene best-of). But the album's next song is more indicative of the tone: the (Springsteen-penned) theme song from "Light of Day," that really bad movie where Jett played Michael J. Fox's sister. And now that I think about it, "I Love Rock N Roll" was one of the reasons why, coming to musical consciousness in the early '80s, I felt completely alienated by rock and roll and ended up listening to Roxanne Shanté instead. The same spirit of smug, self-referential, self-satisfied insularity pervades "I Hate Myself for Loving You" -- which I'm sure every Jett fan has screamed at her at least once -- as well as her absolutely maudlin covers of "Crimson and Clover" and "Everyday People" (the original version of which is now a car commercial).

-- Carly Carioli


***1/2 Elvis Costello

EXTREME HONEY: THE VERY BEST OF THE WARNER BROS. YEARS

(Warner Bros.)

This very eclectic selection from a very eclectic period in Costello's career may well be the very best. "Hurry Down Doomsday," for example, one of his more effective late-period high-dudgeon rockers, is enough to send one back to check whether the prevailing murk of Mighty Like a Rose hasn't perhaps been mis-remembered (it hasn't). And the combination of doleful vocal and tart string quartet on "The Birds Will Still Be Singing" encourages one to give The Juliet Letters another go, hoping this time that the gap between reach and grasp will not seem so dispiriting (it does).

For the rest, most of the cuts here are felicitous selections from two outstanding albums, Brutal Youth and All This Useless Beauty, and from the scattershot Spike. Costello's lyrics are as fussy as ever (somewhat less so on his two collaborations here with Paul McCartney, and on the ballads where his imagery machine is allowed to idle) and his best songs remain the ones whose hooky directness compensates for your being not quite sure what the hell he's going on about (e.g., "Sulky Girl" and "Kinder Murder"). Two previously unreleased cuts are unremarkable, but the overall effect is to make Costello's last eight years appear more gratifyingly focused than they seemed at the time.

-- Richard C. Walls


***1/2 Celia Cruz

100% AZUCAR! THE BEST OF CELIA CRUZ CON LA SONORA MATANCERA

(Rhino)

Fronting La Sonora Matancera in pre-Castro Havana and Kennedy-era New York, Celia Cruz was a hugely popular developer of that omnipotent Latin melange later named salsa. But then as now, her style of showmanship also had wide appeal beyond the confines of her chosen genre. Whereas Rhino's companion anthology of her contemporary Tito Puente is characterized by the broad and manic gestures of salsa's big-band sound -- massive horn lines and feverish polyrhythms -- this collection features a variety of supple settings designed for an international diva. It starts in the early-'50s with tracks that carry hints of classic American pop and blues, moves through a mix of light cha-cha-chas, novelty mambos, and sultry, midtempo sones, and then culminates in a series of complex, full-blown rumbas, with the kind of extended scat codas that you still hear in modern salsa. But none of these is sweeter than the numbers in which she extols her native country's sweets -- including the only song ever to make me choke up about buying mangos.

-- Franklin Soults


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