Maria is Still Lovely (12/11/98)
John Mellencamp, John Mellencamp (Columbia 1998) - Back with his 15th full-length album (and first for new label, Columbia Records), is roots rocker John Mellencamp. The new CD plays true to Mellencamp's signature sound, balancing elements of rock and folk against his tales of life and its survivors.
The follow-up to 1996's Mr. Happy-Go-Lucky, the new album finds Mellencamp moving back from the experimental tape loops and dance sounds to his core sound of guitar (Mike Wanchic), drums (Dane Clark), bass (Toby Myers), fiddle (Miriam Sturm), and keyboards (Moe Z. M.D.).
Having survived a mild heart attack in 1994, Mellencamp is happily married to wife, Elaine, and raising two young sons (which relationship provides the underpinning for "I'm Not Running Any More," one of the album's strongest cuts). Mellencamp says he wrote more than 50 songs for the new album, which he recorded at Belmont Mall Studio, near his hometown of Bloomington, Indiana.
Throughout his career, Mellencamp has remained true to his roots rock sensibility, which sound comes through on songs like "Eden is Burning" and "Your Life is Now." Mellencamp continues to deliver an earnest sound that mixes the best parts of guitar rock and American traditional music.
For a serving from this original artist (possibly on his way to becoming another Bob Dylan?), try John Mellencamp.
Chris Knight, Chris Knight (Decca 1998) - 37-year-old singer/songwriter Chris Knight makes his recording debut with Chris Knight. Though recorded in Nashville, Knight displays a storytelling style of John Prine and Steve Earle.
Like fellow troubadour Fred Eaglesmith (who co-wrote one of the songs on the disk), Knight understands the hardships of rural life. (Though Eaglesmith has writes with more of a whimsical touch.)
For example, Knight describes one of the characters as "a farmer. Stubbornness and all. I perceive this guy as being a hard ass, who is really not giving in. They can take everything, but he won't go. Or at least when he has to give in, he not gonna be broken. When you get right down to it, your pride and your stubbornness may be the only things that get you through life."
Knight adds, "When it comes time to write, it's people's histories that inspire me, especially the dark side. The dark side of life is what adds character to things."
That kind of hardscrabble existence is reflected on songs like "It Ain't Easy Being Me" (in which Knight sings that he should be named the mayor of a fictitional town called "Sorryville"), "The Hammer Going Down," about a long-distance truck driver, and "Bring the Harvest Home."
Knight doesn't fit easily into the Nashville "big hat" mold. Yet there should be a place for this kind of authentic storytelling. Try Chris Knight.
Garbage, Version 2.0 (Almo Sounds 1998) - One of 1995's big surprises was the debut release from Garbage, which featured moody Scottish singer Shirley Manson. Back with their follow-up recording in Version 2.0, Garbage continues to develop its rock-based mesh of grind, rhythms, riffs, and harmonies.
With moody hit singles like "Only Happy When it Rains" and "Stupid Girl," Garbage has followed in the footsteps of the Doors, being pop-accessible yet filled with dark images. The band is rounded out by Duke Erikson, Steve Marker and Butch Vig (a superstar producer in his own right).
The new album was recorded during a one-year-period at Smart Studios in Wisconsin. Says Shirley, "We didn't want to make a record where it looked like we'd solely embraced the future. We also loved the idea of our ties to the past and all the greats like the Beach Boys and the Stones and the Beatles."
This sense of "something borrowed, something blue" is reflected on "Special," which concludes with a tag from the Pretenders' "Talk of the Town," as well as "Push It," which includes the Beach Boys' refrain, "Don't Worry Baby." (Legal clearance was obtained directly from Brian Wilson.)
Adds Vig, "We're a rock band, and we write pop songs, and then try to inject them with a lot of samples and electronica. But we always craft the song so that you could still play it on an acoustic guitar. I think these songs are accessible - even though they may sound off-kilter."
Garbage has the talent to become a major band. For my preferences, I would have taken them out of the studio more quickly - it should not take a full year to record a 12-song album. But Version 2.0 develops the band's strong sound.
Original cast recording, West Side Story (Columbia Legacy 1998) - Columbia continues to add to its "Broadway Masterworks" collection with West Side Story. First staged in 1957 with Carol Lawrence as Maria and Larry Kert as Tony, the show has become one of the classics of Broadway.
West Side Story was first conceived in 1949 as "Eastside Story," with a religious conflict at the center of the story. Jerome Robbins updated it six years later to reflect the gang warfare appearing in major U. S. cities. While the show was a commercial hit on Broadway, it was a smash on the silver screen, winning 10 Oscars, including 1961's Best Picture.
The original cast recording was recorded in 1957 and features such well-known songs as "Maria," "Tonight," and "America," and "I Feel Pretty." A bonus section includes nine symphonic dances recorded in 1961 by Leonard Bernstein.
With a remastered sound and in-depth booklet featuring rare stage photos, West Side Story should be enjoyed for generations to come.
- Randy Krbechek © 1998
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