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Music Reviews

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February 1, 1995

No Prima Donna

No Prima DonnaVarious Artists, No Prima Donna: The Songs of Van Morrison (Polydor 1994) -- Unlike most tribute albums, No Prima Donna features an artist who is neither (i) dead nor (ii) uninvolved with the project. Irish rocker and bandleader, Van Morrison, is very much alive and well, thank you; for the ten tracks on No Prima Donna, he lent an active hand (both in artist selection and song production). The result is an album that feels like, well, a Van Morrison album.

As to Van the Man, what more can be said? Van's been making great music for over three decades, and continues as strong as ever. His last album was the live double disc, A Night in San Francisco (Polydor); he's also written such great songs as "Gloria" and "Have I Told You Lately," as well as John Mellencamp's recent hit, "Wild Night." Van's sentiments have always run towards the gentler side of the street; as Van admits, his best friends have tended to be women. Thus, there should be no surprise that the cuts on No Prima Donna favor these softer tendencies.

No Prima Donna has a seamless stream-of-consciousness quality and consistency that most tribute records lack. This is the result of having one band, including Phil Coulter on keyboards, Nicky Scott on bass, Foggy Lyttle on guitar, drummer Liam Bradley, and Carl Geraghty on saxophone, work on all the cuts.

The songs on the album are not Van's biggest hits, but tend toward the affirmative and spiritual side of the author. Thus, Sinead O'Connor opens the album with a great cover of "You Make Me Feel So Free," Ireland's Hothouse Flowers give an uptempo version of "Bright Side of the Road," jazz singer Cassandra Wilson shows that "Crazy Love" works best with a female vocalist, and British dancehall diva, Lisa Stansfield, delivers a toned-down reading of "Friday's Child."

The tribute albums that work best are those that are based on strong songwriting. If the original penmanship was strong, the disc will hold up. In Van Morrison's case, the songwriting skills are impeccable. While some may claim a greater affinity for the original versions, No Prima Donna more than holds its own. If you like the originals, you'll like this disc.

Thirteen YearsAlejandro Escovedo, Thirteen Years (Watermelon 1993) -- Though Thirteen Years came out a year ago, Watermelon Records is continuing to promote it with a new EP called The End/Losing Your Touch, which contains both live and studio cuts. For those of you who missed Thirteen Years the first time around, don't blow your chance.

Escovedo, who lives in Austin, Texas, is part of the new wave of roots-rockers. The music that's coming out of Austin these days is extraordinarily strong, and cannot be overlooked. Blending elements of rock, country, blues, and folk, roots-rock (as delivered by artists such as Escovedo) is the best thing to happen to contemporary music in years, and can't be ignored. The focus is on playing and songwriting (not feedback and anxiety), and it works.

At the front of the pack is Escovedo, who is part of a musical family that includes former Santana percussionist, Pete Escovedo, and Sheila E. [who has drummed for Prince (er, excuse me, Sign Man)]. On Thirteen Years, Escovedo gathered a solid group of musicians, including Tom Canning on keyboards, Barry "Frosty" Smith on percussion, and a multi-piece string section.

The result is a poignant, often heart-rendering collection of tunes centered around relationships and life. The song "Thirteen Years" is reprised four times on the disc, and serves as its anchor. With cuts ranging from "Ballad of the Son and the Moon" to "Try, Try, Try" to Tell Me Why" to "Baby's Got New Plans," Escovedo's themes (and emotions) are never far from his sleeve.

Losing Your TouchNow, here's the heavy part. Two years ago, Escovedo's wife committed suicide, ending a 13-year relationship with Escovedo. While none of the songs dwell on this theme, the sense of melancholy (this is more than the usual relationship breakup) adds to the poignancy of the album.

Escovedo has worked with several other groups, including the San Francisco punk band The Nuns, cowpunkers Rank and File, and the splendid one-off set released last year under the name The Setters (Watermelon). Thirteen Years finds Escovedo heading into deeper waters; the consistent use of a string section is a challenge on a rock album, but Escovedo pulls it off without a hitch. They say still waters run deep, and Thirteen Years is still waters. Run this river, and you'll be a believer.

Kmart Superstore -- I just discovered the new Kmart superstore on West Shaw Avenue, and it's a trip. First off, it's a colossal building, truly focused on one-stop shopping. Second, it's open 24 hours! Imagine that. Third, they're creating the best grocery store in town. While the meat counter needs some help, the stock (and price) of every other food item is awesome.

On the downside, the baggers give little thought to their jobs -- everything gets jammed together, three items to a bag, and with soft items smashed at the bottom. Just because you work at Kmart doesn't mean you have to leave your common sense at the curbside. In addition, the lunch room is classic Kmart kitsch -- hot dogs, pizza, and bad Mexican food. Finally, prices vary between the stores; you can sometimes find better prices (but not a better selection) at other local Kmarts.

There's something democratic about shopping at Kmart. Nobody's there to make a statement; we just want good bargains. Judging from my experience, the Superstore delivers.

-- Randy Krbechek

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