A Year in the Wilderness
Like a suit that just doesn’t hang right on the body, good songs and performances get lost in production that feels constrictive and pacing built for the stop-start of city driving. While talented as a balladeer and a rocker, the mix of the two fails Doe as Wilderness constantly loses momentum. Furious stompers ‘There’s a Hole” and “Lean Out Yr Window” get lost in the middle of the album, sandwiched around the folk-pop, breakup duet “Unforgiven” and the country crawl “Big Moon,” squandering what might have been an attention-getting opening.
Instead, the album begins with the rockabilly-flavored rave-up “Hotel Ghost,” whose sound is muddied with low-end, and never catches fire. Downshifting from there, Doe delivers one of his greatest songs, the elliptical love ode “The Golden State,” which sounds a little like X’s “See How We Are.” Joined in a wonderful duet by Canadian singer Kathleen Edwards, Doe croons in his simmering tenor, “You are the hole in my head/I am the pain in your neck/You are the lump in my throat/I am the aching in your heart/We are tangled/We are stolen/We are living where things are hidden.” The middling “Darling Underdog” follows and then another album highlight, the jangling, bluegrass-tinged plea “A Little More Time.”
John Doe is too talented a songwriter for this album to be a bust, and yet its charms remain shrouded and the impact minimized by the production and sequencing. There are at least a half-dozen fine songs here, but they need to be picked out like cashews in a bar’s snack bowl.
— Chris Parker
Between Raising Hell and Amazing Grace
Big & Rich
This just in: Wyclef Jean is a slut. When he turned up on early Destiny’s Child tracks, that was a producer mentoring a young group. When he duetted with Cookie Monster on Sesame Street, that was charming. When he flirted with Shakira on “Hips Don’t Lie,” it was grating, but understandably mercenary.
But what the hell is Wyclef doing on the new album by country rebel-dorks Big & Rich, playing an uptight neighbor who complains about the noise, and continually utters: “We don’t like those country rappers.”
Even if we accept that Wycelf is a promiscuous cameo artist, he probably thought he was earning some serious cowboy cred by guesting with Nashville’s biggest, self-proclaimed outlaws. But Big & Rich’s rebellion, like almost everything about them, is largely a figment of their Kid Rock-like hype machine. What could be less threatening than two middle-aged, journeyman Music City songwriters who join forces and write songs about how much they like guitars and fiddles?
The loose concept behind this duo’s third album is that these two ersatz troublemakers face a perpetual conflict between their wild sides and their allegiance to the good book. The idea gets awfully familiar (read: tiresome) after about 30 seconds. “Faster Than Angels Fly” depicts a “modern-day Romeo and Juliet,” as if the conceit wasn’t already hoary enough when Dire Straits tried it a quarter-century ago. “When the Devil Gets the Best of Me” illustrates their lovely way with a simile: “Sometimes women are like cocaine/ you’ve got to have them more and more every day.”
Sometimes country rebels are like industry hacks. You just wish they’d go away.
— Gilbert Garcia
Betty Davis/They Say I’m Different
(Light in the Attic)
Sexual tension is one thing. So is groove and grind and funked-up singsong done with enough furrowed-brow fervor and sweat that one can’t help but slide in. These Betty Davis records are like that.
The lissome chick who youthified Miles Davis (the years-ahead-of-its-time BDSM anthem “He Was a Big Freak” is said to be about Miles: “I used to beat him with a turquoise chain”) gave huge voice, thigh-high platforms and ass-power to female sexuality when these records dropped in ’73 and ’74 — when the air was still cloudy with bra smoke. The opening line of her self-titled debut sets a tone of unironic liberated sexuality: “If I’m in luck I just might get picked up.” Hence, she commanded unmitigated respect and loathing with more verve than any of her ball-hanging peers. Radio ignored her, right-wing groups squealed, and Davis was even blacklisted by the NAACP!
Each record gives you panoramic glimpses of the world around her — one fraught with subterfuge, mythology, joy and pain; she was as un-self-censored as, say, Joanna Angel or Amy Winehouse is now, but on a much broader and more intellectually challenging platform.
Her voice cuts, lifts, hums, screeches, coos, needles, and push-pulls atop the dancefloor explosives of a crack band, which included some Pointer Sisters and vets of Sly Stone, Santana, and Tower of Power.
It’s pussy-powered punk-funk whose bellwether was an intuitive and sharp all-American woman born in North Carolina. So it’s no wonder that mainstream recordbuyers ignored her; the challenge was too big, too futuristic — Davis appeared to have too much of a take-me-as-I-am-or-fuck-you ’tude. When she later signed to Island records, she got dropped and was all but done by 1979.
These essential Light in the Attic CD reissues of the original Just Sunshine albums are beautifully repackaged, each with photo-crammed 24-page color booklets, bonus songs, and audiophile-quality remastering from original mix-down tapes. This is the label that did the same for Karen Dalton, so kudos.
— Brian Smith