There are musicians who dwell in basements or crawl through clubs, hoping to put together a song or a performance that might connect with a handful of people they don’t already know; and in the part of themselves that looks into the mirror before shuffling off to bed, they wonder what it would be like to be on top of the charts and famous worldwide just for the words and tunes they dream up. Then there are those musicians who have already been “discovered,” who’ve had their imaginations spun into corporate gold. They may already be platinum or they may just be a comer, but wherever they are on the scale, they know that when they step into the studio to record a “Big Pop Record”a heavily marketed new product eagerly awaited by fans and criticsit’s time to leave the basement behind and be a true professional.
Big Pop Records have a special feel. Money has been spent, executives have fussed, and all-nighters have been pulled to assure that the 12 or so songs encoded onto plastic have just the right balance of fast and slow, hot and cold, aggression and passivity. The highly touted major-label release is the blockbuster movie of the rock ’n’ roll world, and like a big-budget flick, the appeal of a hyped-up album is that it’s bound to reach a large audience. That means the artist has a platform for whatever daring stylistic or thematic statement he wants to make. Will he rise to the occasion? Or will he play it safe?
British icon Robbie Williams’ second U.S.-released solo album, Sing When You’re Winning (Capitol), does both. No one’s going to claim it as the second coming of Sgt. Pepper, but as a sampler of modern popcraft at its finest, the record is enormously entertaining and even revelatory. The wall-of-crunch opener “Let Love Be Your Energy” displays the over-produced, under-imagined style of a cookie-cutter teenybop group, but the exultant melody of the chorus sells the stew. And from there, it’s up, up, up. Williams follows with an acoustic power ballad, “Better Man,” that highlights his buttery croon, with its clipped Elton John-like edge. Then Williams revives the spirit of Murray Head on the single “Rock DJ,” which bounces from very British-accented spoken-word verses to a gospel-tinged chorus. It’s rap, soul, and camp, all wrapped up in an unstoppable beat and a hands-in-the-air refrain.
Williams served in the London teen collective Take That, and since he’s gone solo he’s carved a niche for himself as a laddish bad boyvulgar, drunken, and randy. On record, though, he’s all about what U.K. pop stars have been about for decades; he melds American-spawned musical genres with a puckish Anglo theatricality, breathing out catchy melodies like cigarette smoke. Anyone who’s ever derived guilty pleasure from the Spice Girls, Simply Red, or George Michael should abandon all pretense of shame and just revel in the sheer delight of Williams’ blend of sweetly pained love songs and up-tempo dance tracks. The project’s cheery spirit is well summed-up by “Supreme,” which rips off a Dr. Dre-ish hip-hop beat, the string section from the Rocky soundtrack, a John Coltrane lyric, and the main riff from Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” That’s the spirit, chum!
The debut album by 21-year-old Portugese-Canadian bombshell Nelly Furtado is designed to set the artist up for Big Pop Records to come. Whoa, Nelly! (Dreamworks) kicks off with a furiously repetitious violin riff, joined by a trip-hop beat and the deliberate strum of an acoustic guitar. The song is called “Hey, Man!,” and it’s an arresting integration of classical minimalism, worldbeat, and conventional femme-centered, radio-ready hitmaking.
Furtado’s press material emphasizes that the first album she bought was by TLC, which led to a flurry of hip-hop purchases. Then she got into Britpop, then classic rock, then grunge. And though it’s mentioned nowhere in the notes, somewhere along the line she must have taken a hard listen to idiosyncratic female singer-songwriters like Tori Amos, Alanis Morissette, and Sarah McLachlan (whose Lilith Fair tour Furtado played on briefly in ’99). Whatever the source of her inspiration, Furtado is clearly a quick study. Songs like “Baby Girl” (as in, “I’m not gonna be your”), “Trynna Finda Way,” and “I’m Like a Bird” convey a conventional (but still potent) message of self-determination and free expression.
The most invigorating aspect of Whoa, Nelly! is Furtado’s supple melodies and refreshing arrangements, which (with the help of producers Gerald Eaton and Brian West, late of the Toronto funk-popsters The Philosopher Kings) roam recreationally between intricate, polyrhythmic dance music, heart-on-sleeve folk, and tough-talking rap. Furtado can sing a little too, though if there’s one thing that prevents her debut from being a total success, it’s that she uses her voice in the standoffishly showy way that has become the norm among contemporary soul singers. She’s fascinating and accomplished, but still a little aloof.
Jakob Dylan has a similar tonal problem. With his band The Wallflowers, the son of rock legend Bob Dylan has mastered the art of catchy, earthy mid-tempo rock, but Jakob’s calculated attempts not to sound like his father have left his voice smooth and largely passionless. The Wallflowers’ ubiquitous cover of David Bowie’s stirring anthem “Heroes” last year established the band’s character; in Dylan’s hands, a song that usually aches with exhilaration became hollow and track-bound.
Back with his own material on The Wallflowers’ third album, Breach (Interscope), Dylan is better able to imbue the words and music with meaning. The song “Hand Me Down” is a case in point: Lyrics about receiving a difficult legacy are married to a sad, countryish arrangement, which is then brightened by a recurring, relatively chipper guitar riff (implying that the burden of expectations isn’t all that bad). It’s a sophisticated and catchy song, and indicative of much of the material on the recordthe single “Sleepwalker” is tough and hooky; “I’ve Been Delivered” is snappy and easygoing; and “Some Flowers Bloom Dead” is a complex examination of how relationships can operate on the Peter Principle, rising to the level where they’re least capable. On these and other songs, more aggressive production by Michael Penn means that The Wallflowers now sound less like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and more like, well, Michael Penn (particularly on the ballad “Witness”). Beyond the band’s persistent lack of identity, though, Dylan faces another, greater obstacle: the impression that he’s a proficient artist who’s unwilling to open up. But Breach demonstrates that the wall may be coming down.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Paul Simon, whose life is an open book, but whose music often seems either wispy or distractingly fussy. You’re the One (Warner Bros.) is Simon’s first album since his Broadway flop The Capeman (the album of which has songs as good as any he has ever recorded). Using African and South American rhythms with a casual flair that indicates how long Simon has been dabbling in exotica, You’re the One is meant to be a no-big-deal albuma minor statement by a major artist. That toss-off air might be easier to take if Simon didn’t generally spend four or five years between records, but so it goes. On its own, low-key terms, You’re the One can be marvelous.
The showpiece of the album is its second song, “Darling Lorraine,” a six-and-a-half minute story-song in which Simon adopts the character of a lovestruck working man. A lilting Puerto Rican guitar signature carries the tune through its tempo and lyrical changes, as Simon’s desperate lover spills his life story as a plea for his woman not to leave him. Funny, sad, and fragile, the cut is Simon at his best, as are less expansive island-infused pop ditties like “Look at That,” “Senorita With a Necklace of Tears,” and the title track. Working against Simon, though, is a Lou Reed-like tendency toward willful goofiness. Wide-eyed songs like “Pigs, Sheep, and Wolves” and the single “Old” are so wince-inducing and corny that they infect the songs around them, making the singer-songwriter harder to trust when he has a neither-here-nor-there song like “Hurricane Eye” or “Love.” Luckily, he has over three decades of great songsand successful Big Pop Recordsto serve as a reference point.
Badly Drawn Boy is the nom-de-pop of Damon Gough, a British slack-folkster who stunned the rock press on both sides of the Atlantic when he won the U.K.’s sought-after Mercury Prize for his debut The Hour of the Bewilderbeast (XL). Gough’s LP project assembles bits of singles, EPs, and general fiddling about into one hour and 18 tracks’ worth of occasionally dreary, occasionally inspired, mostly interesting basement rock. Critics have bandied about names like Beck, Pavement, Nick Drake, and Elliott Smith in trying to describe the shape of Badly Drawn Boy, but the truth is that his first efforts are too eclectic to pinpoint.
The Hour of the Bewilderbeast could be considered an anti-Big Pop Record. Almost no money was spent, little consideration has been given to the overall scope of the album, and the only one fussing was the artist himself. But just as the nervous ambition behind a record by a major-league, major-label artist like Robbie Williams or The Wallflowers gives the music a charged context, so the shrugging approach of Badly Drawn Boy leads to a general feeling of indifference. There are lovely moments on Bewilderbeast: the techno-folk of “Everybody’s Stalking,” the fragmented dream-pop of “Fall in the River,” the skippy lounge-pop of “Camping Next to Water” and “Once Around the Block.” These and other tracks are diamonds in the rough. When Gough is ready to poke his head out of that rough and dare greatness, he might be worth more than a respectful glance.
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