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Music Reviews

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November 20, 1996

Sing Monkey Sing

Suzanne VegaSuzanne Vega, Nine Objects of Desire (A&M Records 1996) - Suzanne Vega's fifth release is a richly-textured album with sophisticated songs of love and danger, glamour, and dreams of longing.

The follow-up to 1992's 99.9F, Nine Objects of Desire was again recorded with Vega's husband, Mitchell Froom, handling keyboards and production. Actually, Vega and Froom are still newlyweds, having met during the 99.9F sessions.

Since her self-titled first release in 1985, Vega has walked a delicate line between folk and techno (somewhat like Laurie Anderson). The new album features a demanding, swirling variety of styles and influences from middle eastern strings to bossa nova insinuation to pure pop and jazzy swing.

Suzanne VegaThe 12 tracks on Nine Objects of Desire are less brassy than 99.9F, with more of a woman's gentleness. Says Vega, "The whole area of sensuality was one I didn't want to write about, as a woman for a long time. This album is more sensual than some of the records I've done - my early music was more astringent. I had to let go of the censoring voice in my mind - after I did, the songs felt very natural to me."

Nine Objects of Desire's layered production is about as far from pure acoustic as a folkie can get. In particular, the richly-layered "Stockings" and "No Cheap Thrill" are standouts. Another great track is "Caramel," which mixes carnal desires with caloric longings. And it all fits together like clockwork.

John MellencampJohn Mellencamp, Mr. Happy Go Lucky (Mercury 1996) - On his 14th album, the 43-year-old Mellencamp explores his recent brush with mortality (see below) to create a dense, challenging production. With assistance from New York dance club mixer Junior Vasquez, Mr. Happy Go Lucky heads into new territory for Mellencamp, while retaining his signature qualities - driving roots rock, with memorable characters.

The liner notes credit Junior Vasquez with "loops, grooves, percussion and other monkey business." While Vasquez is best known for his dance work, the new album resembles a rule-breaking, spooky, post-modern revival meeting.

Mellencamp (who used to smoke four packs of cigarettes a day) suffered a mild heart attack while on tour in the summer of 1994. "I felt I was bulletproof before the heart attack," he says. "And when I had the heart attack, I thought life was over. Then I realized that there was life afterwards; I realized that my destiny is in my own hands. These songs come out of that."

Mellencamp's last release, Dance Naked, produced the surprise 1994 hit single "Wild Night," a duet with singer/bassist Me'shell Mdegecello. Mellencamp had moved far beyond his old partying lifestyle, and admits that his earlier records were aimed at getting lucky and getting messed up.

The 12 tracks continue Mellencamp's exploration of musical idioms, from aching string interludes (such as the opening instrumental, "Overture") to folk jigs, street corner blues, and country charmers.

The album is showcased as a carnival, and that's not far from the truth. Tracks like "The Full Catastrophe" and "Emotional Love" feature a heavy swirl of influences that show that Mellencamp is ready to explore new, meaty regions.

The centerpiece of the album is "Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)" which is receiving considerable airplay. And Mellencamp knew it was a winner from the word go. Says Mellencamp, "On this record, the song that I guarded was `Key West.' Even though it's a complicated little story with a pop chorus, it still gave me a feeling like `Jack and Diane,' that this was a song that a lot of people could understand, and that it's about a lot of people."

I'm not sure that I understand "I Saw You First." But I like the sentiment, and find that the video actually adds to the cut (a rarity among videos).

Mr. Happy Go Lucky is the flipside of Nine Objects of Desire: while Suzanne Vega explores a more earthy side, Mellencamp gets more introspective. Both albums aim toward the future, blending techno with traditional pop and rock. And both are keepers.

PhenomenonSoundtrack to Phenomenon (Warner Bros. 1996) - Phenomenon was one of the summer's box office successes, starring John Travolta as a man whose seemingly unremarkable life takes a mystifying and wondrous turn as the result of an extraordinary occurrence.

The movie is a likeable story, with Travolta acquiring incredible mental powers after being struck by lightning. The soundtrack is a collection of middle-aged makeout tracks. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Thus, the album includes songs by Taj Mahal ("Corina"), Bryan Ferry ("Dance with Life") and Aaron Neville ("Crazy Love").

Easily, the highlight is Eric Clapton's version of "Change the World." With production assistance from Babyface, Clapton has a smash single in this song.

Clapton's success during the past few years has been remarkable, considering that he's released relatively little new material. (For example, Unplugged was mostly versions of previously-recorded studio material.) Phenomenon was 1996's only helping from EC, but it was a good one.

Raging SlabRaging Slab, Sing Monkey Sing (American 1996) - There certainly is nothing pretentious about Raging Slab. On their fifth album in a ten-year career, the four-piece band continues a big rock/Zep/punk odyssey that knows no limits.

As the self-appointed "ambassadors of boogie angst," Sing Monkey Sing is a fitting follow-up to the prior, Dynamite Monster Boogie Concert. Now on their 15th drummer (no kidding), Raging Slab knows how to pound out a rocker. Just don't look for too many smiles in this 12-song tour of quaalude-consciousness.

-- Randy Krbechek

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