Robbie Robertson Returns in Top Form (6/26/98)

Robbie Robertson, Contact From the Underworld of Redboy (Capitol 1998) - About every ten years, Robbie Robertson returns with a strong performance.

Contact From the Underworld finds Robertson in top form, mixing pop and rock with music from his native American heritage in a techno feel that is vaguely reminiscent of U2.

Which is to say, Contact From the Underworld has a unique sound. Robertson provides guitar and vocals, and draws from a broad range of talents, including Rita Coolidge, Chief Jake Thomas, The Six Nations Women Singers, and the throat-singing duo, Tudjaat.

The new disk does not fit into any convenient categories of traditional or pop music. Says Robertson, "I can't make a native American record any more than I can make a mariachi record. These sounds I have been carrying around with me for years, on tapes or in my memory, I took them and remade them in a way that I hear the music, using the instruments I have available.

Robertson continues. "It was my duty to push it to the edge, not take the easy way or soft approach - with the simplicity, purity and beauty is anger and violence too. I'm not here to make everybody happy. I'm expressing myself, and being true and honest to myself."

With that bold attitude, Contact From the Underworld succeeds greatly. The album includes such tracks as "The Code of Handsome Lake" (built around the teachings of an 18th century Indian leader), "Unbound," and "Peyote Healing" (about the controversial peyote healers from the Native American church).

The highlight of the album is "Sacrifice," featuring a spoken word piece by Leonard Peltier. Peltier is the American Indian Movement leader who has been in prison in Levenworth, Kansas - some believe unfairly - since 1976 for the murder of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Peltier's contribution was recorded from prison by phone, and contains power and dignity.

Also included is "Rattlebone," with plenty of guitar noise, and the club hit, "Take Your Partner by the Hand" (which appears as a bonus track).

Now age 55, Robbie Robertson is widely regarded in the music community for his work with Bob Dylan and The Band. Contact From the Underworld of Redboy shows that Robertson (though eligible for membership in AARP) has the creative flame. An intriguing and insightful album.

Izzy Stradlin, 117 (Geffen 1998) - When you are handled a flaming Roman candle, you have your hands full. And that's where Izzy Stradlin found himself with Guns 'n Roses, which spawned monster sales with lead singer Axl Rose.

Since leaving GNR, Stradlin is back with his second solo album, the follow-up to 1992's, Izzy Stradlin and the JuJu Hounds. An accomplished musician and studio hand, 117 reflects Stradlin's considerable skills.

Stradlin began as a drummer, but shifted to guitars in 1983. Shortly after that, he helped found GNR, which eventually became the biggest rock band in the world.

In 1991, he walked away from the GNR inferno. Recalls Stradlin, "I'd gotten sober around the time the 'Use Your Illusions' albums came out. The machinery was working, the planes were flying, the shows were happening just like always.

Stradlin explains. "Once I quit drugs, I couldn't help looking around and asking myself, 'Is this all there is?' I was just tired of it; I needed to get out."

During the past several years, Stradlin has returned to a more "normal" life, and maintains a home in Lafayette, Indiana. But the music still calls, and led Stradlin to the studio sessions in L.A. that resulted in 117.

Stradlin wanted to deliver a rough-and-ready rock and roll album, and succeeds with 117. The band on 117 includes bass player and old pal Duff McKagan; former Georgia Satellite guitarist Rick Richards; former Reverend Horton Heat drummer Taz Bentley; and Stradlin on vocals and guitars.

Stradlin knows how to record a hit song, as reflected on such tracks as "Good Enough," and "Here Before You." Built around a rock guitar sound, the album includes "Ain't it a Bitch?" (says Stradlin, "It's the open-G tuning - if you do that, you'll get to that Stonsey sound"), "Memphis," a revved-up version of the Chuck Berry song, and "Methanol," influenced by Stradlin's times at the motorcycle racing track.

Stradlin's solo efforts bring to mind Robin Zander (of Cheap Trick), another veteran studio hand whose solo work shows flashes of the band behind him. The music should be a pleasure, not a chore. Izzy Stradlin got as close to the sun as any musician would ever want. Now closer to terra firma, 117 is a worthy effort from this rock hero.

Various Artists, CBS: The First 50 Years (TVT Records 1998) - CBS was one of the founding television networks, along with NBC and DuMont. With a proud history stretching 50 years, First 50 Years features 58 tracks from the first years of the network (Edward R. Murrow and "I Love Lucy") through the present ("Murphy Brown" and "Cosby").

Thus, the album includes the theme music from CBS's many hit shows, ranging from "Captain Kangaroo" to "Perry Mason," "Hogan's Heroes," "MASH," "Dallas," and "Murder, She Wrote." Also included is a Vietnam-era editorial piece by Walter Cronkite.

The album also reveals a remarkable fact: There are people alive who can recall the entire history of the television age, from the first black and white sets after World War II to today's multi-channel cable era. With movies now more than 100 years old, there is no person alive whose life span covers the whole era of the silver screen. But television's entire history exists in our older generation.

No one can deny the profound effect that television has had on our culture. While CBS: The First 50 Years may not be an album that you listen to repeatedly, it does serve as an important historical record.

- Randy Krbechek © 1998

Check CD Shakedown for Weekly
Reviews of Music CDs and New Albums