Monkeying Around 

Veiled collaboration has all the markings of a fleeting fad

Veiled collaboration has all the markings of a fleeting fad

Gorillaz

Self-titled (Virgin)

One of the frustrating factors about the hip-hop universe for auteurist rock fans is that there are so many records released that can’t be attributed to one guiding intellect. Between the side projects, guest appearances, creative sampling, and teams of producers, it’s hard to know who’s responsible for a song’s point of view, sound, tune, or essence. Those of us who like to know how to file our CDs will be similarly flummoxed by Gorillaz, a rock-rap-electronica collaboration between Blur’s Damon Albarn and a collective of some of the same dance-music technicians who previously comprised Handsome Boy Modeling School—Del tha Funkee Homosapien, Dan the Automator, and Miho Hatori, among others. Adding to the confusion is the fact that Gorillaz are meant to be a cartoon band in the vein of The Archies or Jem & The Holograms. A TV special is planned for the U.K., and some of the extant backstory of the band is available at their splashy Web site.

Frankly, most of the extracurricular stuff surrounding Gorillaz is nonsense (although it would’ve been interesting to check out their first “live” performance in London earlier this year). So far, the animated characters are more ironic than distinctive, which means they’re only obscuring who’s really responsible for each bit of musical business on Gorillaz’ self-titled debut CD.

The record is mostly Blur-y. Cuts like the guitar-driven “5/4” and “Punk” have the minor-key power-chord approach that defined Blur’s last two “U.K. slack” albums, and even minimalist dance numbers like “Man Research” or the druggy “New Genious” aren’t too removed from Blur’s “Madchester” origins. What gets confusing are hybrids like “Clint Eastwood”—a semi-reggae, semi-dancehall ditty with an insidiously catchy chorus and a laid-back rap by Del. It’s a curious piece of tossed-off pop ephemera, too sticky to completely shake off but too punchless to leave a strong impression. And it’s impossible to know who deserves the credit (or the blame) for its existence.

The worry is that while anonymous or collective-derived albums allow artists some freedom to experiment, they also offer little incentive for artists to craft their best work. What emerges instead is more of a throwaway, and even though the history of pop music is strewn with throwaways, they usually offer more disposable thrills than the somewhat downbeat stoner grooves being offered by Gorillaz. Their finest four minutes comes late on the record, on the song “M1 A1,” a raucous tribute to The Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner” that starts off as a horror movie soundtrack and then evolves into a pounding paean to reckless driving. The song sounds like a late-night studio goof-off, and it has the energy and spirit of fun that the rest of this merely listenable detour lacks.

—Noel Murray

Poisoned Ivy

Thriving alongside the more aggressively marketed genres in contemporary pop music is a small but vital contingent of sophisticated, plush-lounge pop groups with female vocalists and adept male instrumentalists. Nashville houses two great ones—Swan Dive and Venus Hum—while perhaps the best-known band of the trend is Ivy, the New York trio fronted by chanteuse Dominique Durand and powered by the talents of her husband Andy Chase and his buddy Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne. Ivy’s first two records, Realistic and Apartment Life, set the standard for the genre’s soft, luxuriant tone, constructed of synthesized orchestrations, mellow electro-beats, and waves of sinewy electric guitar.

On their third LP Long Distance (Nettwerk), Ivy pay direct homage to one of their forebears by covering The Blow Monkeys’ swanky 1986 chart hit “Digging Your Scene”; but that bit of self-aware winking at kitsch comes as a bonus track, tacked onto the end of a record that eschews decadent pleasures and instead takes on a decidedly bluer cast. Tracks like “Disappointed,” “Blame It on Yourself,” and “Lucy Doesn’t Love You” are sparkling pop concoctions, with pleasing melodies and swinging arrangements, but there’s spite in the lyrics and (especially on “Blame”) some distorted guitar to emphasize the unsettled emotions. “Edge of the Ocean” has a chorus of sha-la-las and a gently swaying tempo, but the deflated way in which Durand sings of heading far away to “start over again” suggests that dream vacations won’t salvage a relationship that’s apparently been shattered.

The use of toe-tapping tunesmithery to convey malaise is another trend that’s creeping up in popular music here at the dawn of the millennium; it’s as if all that pre-doomsday anxiety eased only briefly, to be replaced by a much deeper sense of dissatisfaction. The title of Ivy’s record, Long Distance, speaks to this idea of being remote, unable to connect in spite of all the latest developments in wireless communication. With this sourness in mind, perhaps the catchy, smiles-on-the-surface pop music of Ivy and their ilk is purely ironic; or perhaps it’s as Ivy put it in their this’ll-never-last ballad “While We’re in Love,” that folks may as well get all the gratification they can out of the moment, to “make the best of a bad situation.”

—Noel Murray

Special delivery

Nashville jazz singer Cynthia Kaay Bennett’s style, tone, and sound are more grounded in traditional pre-rock pop and show tunes than scat. Her new CD, Wish I Knew (Caramia), offers elegant readings of numbers like “Blame It on the Night,” and “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered.” She doesn’t experiment with time or attempt radical lyric interpretations, but Bennett’s phrasing is fine and her delivery engaging. Unlike some current jazz vocalists who zip through songs so quickly they mash words or blur lines, Bennett’s enunciation ensures that audiences understand key words and aren’t so bowled over by technique that they lose track of melody and theme. Sometimes Bennett’s on the edge of cabaret singing, but she never becomes that coy or cute during her renditions of “If That Ain’t Love” and “Mood Indigo.”

The band proves just as careful and professional in their support of her. Guitarist Andy Reiss, bassist Charlie Chadwick, drummer John Gardner, and pianist Catherine Styron embellish, punctuate, and nicely accompany Bennett. They never compete with her, but subtly boost the energy level and sustain the mood. Other guest musicians include organist Reese Wynans and percussionist Michael Webb. Wish I Knew is now available at local stores.

—Ron Wynn

Gray matters

Dobie Gray was born in Texas, not Nashville, but his pliable, rangy voice has been featured on several delightful, locally recorded releases, most notably the anthemic “Drift Away.” Gray scored his first big hit working the pop side in the mid-’60s with “The ‘In’ Crowd,” but he’s covered country, soul, R&B, and disco during his lengthy Nashville tenure. He has two new releases, one recorded in Memphis, the other one locally. The former, Soul Days (Cadre), spotlights Gray reworking vintage R&B and ’60s hits, among them “If Loving You Is Wrong,” “People Get Ready,” and “When a Man Loves a Woman.” He also navigates sentimental pop in “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye” and adds a serviceable version of “Good Times.” His singing is strong, confident, and consistently evocative, while his backing cast includes keyboardist Rick Steff, bassist Dave Smith, drummer Steve Mergen, and guitarist Rick Lott.

Gray revisits many of his own classics on Diamond Cuts, a disc issued by his production company. Besides “Drift Away” and “The ‘In’ Crowd,” the menu includes pop-reggae in “I Can See Clearly Now,” folk/soul via “Lean on Me,” straight country with “Crazy,” and vintage soul with “Ain’t That Good News.” Through the set’s 20 songs, he never hits a sour note, and he sings with such fluidity and power that it’s quite clear he should still be making quality albums on Music Row. Gray has been a longtime advocate for increased African American involvement and fair representation in country music, and has frequently demonstrated his proficiency within the idiom. These two discs are undeniable evidence that Dobie Gray hasn’t lost anything, and that he shouldn’t have to release albums himself or travel to Memphis to record.

—Ron Wynn

Beaming with Pride

When Charley Pride became the first (and thus far, the only) African American inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame earlier this year, he spoke more during the ceremonies about race and cultural politics than at any time in recent memory. Of course, some of it was in response to direct questions, but it was highly evident that on this occasion, he was not only conscious of his role as country’s greatest black star, but he had warmed to it. He also mentioned that he was cutting a tribute record to Jim Reeves, and that it would subsequently be issued on an independent label.

That album, A Tribute to Jim Reeves (Music City), has since been released, and it contains no surprises, nor any duds. Quite simply, it is a great traditional country record from a major figure who finds himself shut out of major-label opportunities. In that regard, Pride can say he’s being treated with the same disrespect as a host of other great country performers, all of whom are white. Thankfully, he has never let political nonsense mar his outlook, nor affect his singing. His striking baritone may not rule the lower register as impassively as it did during the ’60s and ’70s, but few people could cover “Four Walls,” “Blue Boy,” “Blue Side of Lonesome,” or “Is It Really Over?” and not have listeners immediately tuning them out to reach for the originals. A Tribute to Jim Reeves deserves full attention by country fans anxious to hear the real thing on something besides AM radio.

—Ron Wynn

Ron Wynn is a staff writer for Nashville’s City Paper.

Platters that matter

Recent releases of note:

Chocolate Genius, Godmusic (BMG/V2) The first album by this eccentric Manhattan studio rat combined Mark Eitzel melancholy and Isaac Hayes love funk into a compelling (if occasionally calamitous) statement of self. The second record has taken three years to make, and reportedly heads in still different directions. Could be a sleeper.

Varnaline, Songs in a Northern Key (E-Squared/Artemis) Genre-hopper Anders Parker’s country-rock project rebounds from the soggy Sweet Life with a nimble new record that presents deeply felt songs in arresting arrangements.

Written by Noel Murra

Platters that matter

Recent releases of note:

Chocolate Genius, Godmusic (BMG/V2) The first album by this eccentric Manhattan studio rat combined Mark Eitzel melancholy and Isaac Hayes love funk into a compelling (if occasionally calamitous) statement of self. The second record has taken three years to make, and reportedly heads in still different directions. Could be a sleeper.

Varnaline, Songs in a Northern Key (E-Squared/Artemis) Genre-hopper Anders Parker’s country-rock project rebounds from the soggy Sweet Life with a nimble new record that presents deeply felt songs in arresting arrangements.

Written by Noel Murra

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