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Witherspoon and Vaughn’s Yuletide Carol Is Four Christmases Too Many

To brand, then dismiss, Four Christmases as a disappointment would be giving it too much credit—never, for a second, did this New Line Cinema cast-off scream or even whisper decent in the run-up to its opening. The story of couple Kate (Reese Witherspoon) and Brad (Vince Vaughn)—not married, might as well be—who, fogged in on December 25, put their planned Fiji frolic on hold to visit their four divorced parents in the course of a single day, the movie doesn’t offer a single surprise within its scant 82 minutes, which feel like at least twice that. There’s happiness and cheer and more than the occasional tear dropped between shouting matches and withering stares, all pre-assembled and gift-wrapped by the ho-ho-hos at The Studio.

Sure, there was every reason to hope for more. Four Christmases was, after all, directed by Seth Gordon, whose 2007 The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters was a bittersweet, hilarious documentary in which a cocky mullet squares off against a sweet doofus over a Donkey Kong machine. At first, word was that Gordon had been hired to remake his fact as Hollywood fiction. Then, word was that Gordon was doing his home-for-the-holidays movie—the sure sign a comer had gone in the wrong direction. How cute, though: Gordon brought King of Kong‘s sweet doofus, Steve Wiebe, along to Hollywood to appear in Four Christmases. Alas, he says nothing and, in one scene, pretends to sleep on a couch.

Still—Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon, right? As sure a thing as pancakes and bacon on Christmas morning. But even there, the pairing’s off. Whatever Vaughn has going for him—charming bluster, hellacious timing, velvet delivery, doughy good looks—he serves up times a thousand here; as big ol’ Brad, the guy’s turned up to 11. In the past, Vaughn has proven capable of lowering the volume without sacrificing what made him; he’s rather good in the underrated The Break-Up, as unflinching as Four Christmases is phony. Here, he must have felt the need to shout, just to be heard.

And Witherspoon’s just . . . there. And barely there at that, no doubt a condition brought about by standing next to Mount Vaughn, who tends to dwarf anyone with whom he shares a scene. As perky/grumpy poor ol’ Kate, she starts out strong, role-playing as a take-no-shit barfly who screws Vaughn’s wallflower put-on in a bathroom stall during the opening scene. But as the movie deflates (starting about two minutes in), so does she. Then again, it’s hard to act in a movie that has you driving here and there and back again in barely more time than an episode of an TV dramedy.

It’s also difficult to build a character when the writers—four of them, one for every 20 minutes—fail to create anything more than bland archetypes. (It takes forever just to find out Brad’s a lawyer; we never do discover Kate’s profession.) Their own parents being divorced, Kate and Brad don’t want to get married; life’s rough. Only, Kate’s having doubts; hints are dropped early. Then whispers become screams as, one by one, they visit the folks: first, Brad’s dad (a surly Robert Duvall); then Kate’s mom (a horny Mary Steenburgen); then Brad’s mom (a hornier Sissy Spacek); and, finally, Kate’s dad (a patronly and oddly smooth-surfaced Jon Voight).

If you think one home-for-the-holidays movie is bad—and, until this year’s A Christmas Tale, imported from France, there hadn’t been a decent offering in the subgenre since Jodie Foster’s, um, Home for the Holidays in 1995—imagine a four-pack, only with just time enough for a single sitcom setup and the shrugging happily-ever-after each. The pace here is lethargic; the movie desperately needs a laugh track. Only, the joke’s terrible to begin with.

When Four Christmases isn’t forced, it’s simply lazy, like when the writers somehow jam Vaughn into a short-short robe to play the part of Joseph in Dwight Yoakam’s church, where . . . oh, did I mention Dwight Yoakam’s in this? Also: Jon Favreau and Tim McGraw as Vaughn’s brothers Denver and Dallas, respectively, both of whom are backyard amateur cage fighters. And Kristin Chenoweth as Kate’s baby-machine sister. Carole Kane and Colleen Camp are here, too. This thing’s as star-studded as a Very Special Episode of The Love Boat. And, look, it’s a Swingers reunion, featuring not only Favreau but also Patrick Van Horn, who was Swingers‘ Sue and now plays Brad’s former BFF turned mom’s lovey-dovey boyfriend. Ick.

There is, of course, the slightest chance that Four Christmases wasn’t intended as a comedy; it’s so irritating at times—the people, the screeching, the way everything looks washed out in a made-in-the-early-’80s way—that maybe Gordon was going for ironic, grim, and sad. Or perhaps it was gutted of its best moments. Surely, something was left on the kitchen floor to get this thing under 90 minutes. Based on the evidence provided by King of Kong, Gordon is capable of better—to say nothing of Witherspoon, Vaughn, and their small army of co-stars. Really, Four Christmases is too benign to get too worked up about. For a worse Christmas movie, one need look back no further than last fall’s Fred Claus, starring Vaughn and that poor, poor Paul Giamatti.

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Troublemaking Texas Troubadour Loses the Election, Wins the War

Before the first note of the live 1976 version of Kinky Friedman’s lewd “Waitret, Please, Waitret,” the singer-songwriter, pulp novelist, and sadly, failed Texas gubernatorial candidate exhorts, “All right, I’m wired and inspired now, fasten your seat belts! Let’s turn on the juice! And cut the damn thing loose!” Then comes that first note: blinnng, the gentle ring of an acoustic guitar. His backing musicians fall into a punch-drunk waltz as if they’d just been roused awake, and the shtick swings.

Even though Friedman quit music a while ago to focus on, well, being Kinky Friedman, his timing is still right on, comically and politically. Along with his new best-of Last of the Texas Jewboys, the cigar-chompin’, devilishly mustachioed, sixtysomething longtime Austinite receives Why the Hell Not, a tribute album whose proceeds benefited the independent candidate’s ill-fated campaign and whose contributors include Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Dwight Yoakam, and several other c&w heavies. Friedman’s tuneage can be either dark or darkly sardonic, depending. Willie and company turn the pathos on full blast, while Jewboys‘ live and studio tracks, spanning his 30-year career, are wry as intended. “Ride ‘Em, Jewboy,” the Kinkster’s high, lonesome paean to the Diaspora, doesn’t forget there’s a freaking epithet in the title; “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore” (“They don’t turn the other cheek the way they done before”), which could have been Friedman’s battle hymn, draws power from performance, like a good monologue. On the tribute disc, though, roots rocker Todd Snider screws it up by singing it rather than acting it out.

By satirizing women’s lib (“Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed”), pride in ignorance (“Asshole From El Paso”), and the concerns of essentially every voting bloc imaginable (“The People Who Read People Magazine”), Friedman pisses off bleeding hearts and blue bloods, which undoubtedly explains why he ended up in fourth place.

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In Control

On his 2003 See If I Care, Gary Allan sang, “There’s no more smoky bars in California/There ain’t no wild life left in Tennessee,” and set the lyrics to a super-modified Tex-Mex two-step. What saved songs like “Guys Like Me” and “Songs About Rain” from formalism was the sense that Allan loved to color in the earth-toned details that many another conceptualist (Dwight Yoakam comes to mind) left out of their post-Bakersfield country. There was real grit in his drinking songs, real passion in his Orbison-esque ballads, and real quirk in the Allen Toussaint–like powerpop of “Nothing On but the Radio.”

Tough All Over, recorded after Allan’s wife committed suicide in 2004, keeps the quirk; Allan is such a canny singer, producer, and song-picker that every lick or shuffle-away-quick coda only serve to heighten the sense of something awful fought against and subdued by sheer force of personality. So when Allan sings, “Ring, ring, you ain’t nothing but a thing/Yesterday we used to hold her,” it registers neither as ghoulish nor melodramatic—”Ring” is a conceit, but funny like Faron Young’s “Hello Walls” it isn’t.

Always in control, Allan possesses an almost unhealthy understanding of how nuance mimics emotion, creates image. That image has evolved: The young California executive striding toward an airstrip rendezvous on the cover of 1999’s cool, sexy Smoke Rings in the Dark has become the shadowy presence, half in a doorway, who appears on Tough All Over. His command transforms the cold, self-accusatory “Promise Broken” into a moving statement of shared humanity when he sings, “Disappointment, disillusion/Despair, confusion/I’ve seen it all in their eyes.” And it doesn’t hurt that the tone he achieves in “Promise” and “Life Ain’t Always Beautiful” is rich and seductive—this is deep pop that leaves problems unsolved but fears temporarily assuaged.

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Music

Sifting through a passel of more and/or less current country reissues—redundant or worse are Warner Bros./Rhino’s one-disc Randy Travis, HighTone’s Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore best-ofs, RCA’s Ultimate Clint Black and John Anderson and Jerry Reed Country Legends, and the mawkish Love Songs Epic/Legacy laid on George & Tammy—I found two for the A shelves. Ultimate Waylon Jennings is for we who think BMG’s title-by-title reissue program makes less sense than the Black Sabbath box (although 1978’s I’ve Always Been Crazy sounds sane enough). Beyond “outlaw,” nobody ever specifies what Jennings does and doesn’t do with his strained, resonant, masculine baritone—his “Me and Bobby McGee” is uglier than Kristofferson’s. But on sure shots you can forgive him his pain. Highlights include the belated “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand” and the wounded “The Taker,” a Kristofferson song about a lady some other slimeball done wrong. Dwight Yoakam, of course, is that slimeball. Although there was no such thing as purist honky-tonk before he came along, now there is, and in controlled doses it’s as sharp as the crease in his crotch. The 20 selections never tail off, and neither does Yoakam’s voice as it transports Buck Owens from the flats of Bakersfield to the Blue Ridge mountains of your mind.

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Easy as Sunday Morning

Dwight Yoakam sings “I ain’t old, I’m just out of date,” but he doesn’t seem too upset. By sounding out of date he can make country songs into playthings rather than identity things, into devices for the wide and pretty bends of his wide and pretty voice. His singing is breezy enough not to weigh you down with its beauty, and the several sad songs on Population Me don’t weigh you down with their sadness, either. (Reminds me of Noddy Holder at the Felt Forum in 1974 introducing a Slade ballad by saying in tones of glee, “This is a sad song. A very sad song. So sad it makes me want to cry.”)

Yoakam starts the album with a song about feeling out-of-place in California (“the last cowboy band had left the stage”), which he performs as easygoing L.A. country rock. (The stage wasn’t a good place to look for your cow anyway.) The best tracks here are “An Exception to the Rule”—reminiscent of charmingly poppy folk-rock of 1966 (such as Mamas & Papas and We Five) and charmingly square country-hip of 1968 (Glen Campbell)—and “Population Me,” a bit of banjo hokum (the one and only verbal idea of which is that now that Dwight’s darling has left him, the effective emotional population of his world has been reduced to just him) that builds into one of the most intense songs of the year without ever losing its sense of relaxation.

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Scumbag in the Dark

“This album,” the booklet inside Gary Allan’s current Alright Guy reads, “is dedicated to Willie, Waylon, Johnny, George, Buck & Merle,” which is a way of saying not “Garth, Tim, Kix, Ronnie, Kenny & Toby.” Allan, originally from and still very much resident in California, where he grew up surfing and banging his head to X and Agent Orange, has taken shape after three slantingly successful albums as one of country’s behatted advocates, the kind who have drawn creative lines in the sand ever since Dwight Yoakam did some serious damage to Nashville’s lofty sense of itself as the Supreme Court, if not the Paris, of country music. The genre’s come a long way since Willie, Waylon, Johnny, George, Buck & Merle, Allan rushes to say, and it adds up to one sorry story—incessant marketing that whispers, as Joan Didion once italicized the subliminal drift of the early-’90s Democratic Party, “our kind, your kind, good parents, country club, chlorine in the swimming pool.” Nonetheless, the Allan school of country advocacy risks boring people who love country music. Their sensible counter-argument runs: “You know that Tim McGraw song about trying to impress a girl, but you’ve just slopped barbecue on your white T-shirt? That’s awesome.”

Allan, though, refuses to bore anyone. Spinning down and out of the Orbisonesque elegance of “Smoke Rings in the Dark,” the 1999 single (and album) that put his name in glowing if not blinding lights, Allan has exchanged that West Coast aural myth, where American rootsiness goes all suave and pretty, for another favorite L.A. sonic tradition, where country music exists as a bar soundtrack comprised of gritty songwriting of virtually punk strength. The music, produced by Tony Brown and Mark Wright with no attempted Nashville cover-up of the Yoakam Decision, puts Allan’s strong and flexible but also affectingly shaky and always uncompromised tenor in charge of the songs, as Chad Cromwell’s drums drive hard. In between, you’ve got your electric guitars, unkeyboardy keyboards, steels, basses, mandolins. And fiddles in a brilliant and unclichéd mix, by Greg Dorman, that is both lucid and clattery.

The songs sail. “Man to Man” finds one of Allan’s narrators suggesting to another, hotly indignant guy that sometimes cheated-on lovers aren’t so pure to start with; it’s a total country ride, where the swaying rhythm, plainspoken words, and subtle back-of-the-throat vocal inflections all pungently combine. The confessional guy in “The Devil’s Candy,” who says he “once lost an angel when a bad girl was handy,” feels torn; he wants to “do what’s right,” he thinks, but fears “I’ll never understand me.” So he gets lost in music, joining “good ole boys and girls of the night,” saved by the sounds of hot fiddling, numbed by frightening freeway noise. There are intimate ballads with major badass flourishes (“What I’d Say”) or sub-sub-Sinatra nightclub fantasies (“Adobe Walls”), interpersonal queries that wind up deciding, hell, let’s just dance (“What’s on My Mind”), world-historical queries that petition the divine (“What Would Willie Do”).

And then there’s a two-song sequence that elevates Alright Guy into near genius, a contrast that renders the album perhaps the most sophisticated Nashville collection ever about being a bonehead. First comes the title song, a melodic stomp that opens with Allan’s narrator caught looking at naked pictures of Madonna, an activity that causes his girlfriend to call him a “scumbag.” Witty portrayals of dope smoking and incarceration follow, all bolstered by dogged choruses of “I think I’m an alright guy, I think I’m an alright guy.” Then comes “The One,” a standardly beautiful Nashville love groove in which Allan’s freshly manicured narrator swears to a woman that he’ll “fill those canyons in your soul/Like a river leads you home.” He’s making this pitch in front of a swimming pool. But look closely: There’s some green algae around the edges.

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I’ve always had my doubts about the notion of the hip hop “community” or “subculture”— too easy to claim, too hard to verify empirically. But the eight multiartist comps below, only two of them Honorable Mentions, must prove something.

BEATS & RHYMES: HIP HOP OF THE ’90S, PART I (Rhino) Between 1990, when old school went emeritus, and 1992, when gangsta stuck daisy age’s pistil up its stamen, came a nondescript downtime that Rhino maps without recourse to rap crossovers, which meant less than nothing to the loyalists who were just then insisting that what they loved was called “hip hop.” But though all three volumes are pretty subtle for nonloyalists, only here are the high points obvious— hits from key Jungle Brothers and A Tribe Called Quest albums, BDP’s “Love’s Gonna Get’cha”— and the selections from minor figures like Special Ed, Def Jef, and K-Solo open to challenge from the likes of me (I nominate “Taxin’,” “Fa Sho Shot,” and “Tales From the Crack Side”). Even so I love the YZ, Poor Righteous Teachers, and D.O.C. tracks, not to mention the BDP radio edit with sound effects where the bleeps should be. I also love Cold Chillin’ ‘s “Erase Racism.” B Plus

BEATS & RHYMES: HIP HOP OF THE ’90S, PART II (Rhino) Meet and greet such subculturally certified rhymesmiths as Leaders of the New School, Organized Konfusion, Main Source, the UMC’s, and the oft-odious DJ Quik. Plus, for some reason, three predictably solid Chubb Rock tracks. Plus minor hits from Rakim, Lyte, and Run-D.M.C. Think wordplay not signification. Think beats not hooks. Go with their flows. A Minus

BEATS & RHYMES: HIP HOP OF THE ’90S, PART III (Rhino) This bumps along for eight tracks distinguished by two new to me— Lord Finesse’s “Return of the Funky Man” (“you’re softer than baby shit”) and Double X Posse’s “Not Gonna Be Able To Do It” (“I’m not gonna be able to do”)— before vaulting off Naughty by Nature and A Tribe Called Quest into four consecutive guaranteed great, hilarious records: Del Tha Funkee Homosapien’s Three Stooges bit, Humpty Hump’s nose, the Pharcyde’s dozens, and FU-Schnickens’ advertisement for Jive Records, which has steadfastly kept their catalogue in print. Then Romy-Dee expands the legend of funky Kingston. A Minus

THE CORRUPTOR (Jive) Obsessed with death, declaring 1985 the Golden Age, counterbalancing two pieces of pimp shit with two pieces of ho fuck you, these tough, articulate third-generation voices document a gangsta myth innocent of all hope. Nostalgic credo: “When niggaz keep their weapons concealed it’s all real.” Guys, that much could happen. Maybe it’s already started. B Plus

HOUND DOG TAYLOR: A TRIBUTE (Alligator) The natural evolution of chops and technology renders this inauspicious vehicle the best houserocking record by anyone since the honored slidemaster, who died in 1975 leaving his Houserockers to bequeath their name to a boogie blues style never truly replicated. Bigger and faster than the prototype, which is fun, it lets virtuosos-in-spite-of-themselves give free rein to their baser natures: flash-fingered Luther Allison, Sonny Landreth, Dave Hole, and Warren Haynes come on every bit as crude as neoprimitives George Thorogood, Elvin Bishop, and Cub Koda. Respect to Vernon Reid and Alvin Youngblood Hart for powering up acoustic. Shame on Ronnie Earl for showing off. A Minus

LIGHTNING OVER THE RIVER (Music Club) Although compiler Christina Roden rightly distinguishes between speed soukous and the old bipartite kind that gives the singer some, the thunderbolts she catches in her bottle are all thrown by guitarists. Admirers of Kanda Bongo Man, Tshala Muana, and especially Syran M’Benza (Symbiose, two tracks) may find a few selections familiar. More likely, however, they’ll just own them. Even for Afropop fans, an enjoyable tour of a terrain that tends to blur into itself without a guide. A Minus

RANDY NEWMAN: Bad Love (DreamWorks) After an annuity’s worth of soundtracks, a box stuffed with marginalia, and Faust, his first true album since 1988 finds him more cynical than ever, about himself above all. Having called one cheap joke “I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It),” he explains the belated tribute to the wife and family he kissed off in the ’70s with a simple “I’d sell my soul and your souls for a song,” then announces: “But I wanted to write you one/Before I quit/And this one’s it.” Thing is, cheap jokes and cynicism have always been his gift to the world, and when he’s on he can twist the knife. In joke mode, cf. not only “I’m Dead,” so anti-Randy it’ll have young yahoos saying amen like they just discovered Mahalia Jackson, but two of his cruelest political songs ever: one a history of early imperialism where the punch line is HIV, another addressed with dulcet malice to Mr. Karl Marx. For cynicism, try “My Country,” which might just be about his family too, and “Shame,” where Newman plays a hateful old hard-on indistinguishable from himself. Twisting his croak a turn further are the most articulate arrangements of his singer-songwriting life: jazzlike, but in a piano-based rock context that shifts at a moment’s notice to any voicing (Hollywood-symphonic, country march, pop-schlock) that might reshade a meaning or make the ear believe what the mind can’t stand. There are a few ringers. But the last time he was so strong in this mode he was married to the wife he misses. A

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RAWKUS PRESENTS SOUNDBOMBING II (Rawkus) Whoever’s representing— Medina Green eating crosstown beef or Eminem tripping on a minivan or Company Flow dissing AmeriKKKa or Pharoahe Monch toasting the mayor or “hairy fat slob unshaven” R.A. the Rugged Man conjoining his “white trash nation” with “all the starvin’ artists”— the Rawkus subculture is always peering over its own edge. The beats aren’t invariably propulsive, but they never relent, with timeouts for DJs to scratch themselves minimized. Although the us-against-society mood is far from asexual, nobody macks and nobody flosses. Nobody deals either. Racism is an issue, race isn’t. In our present-day dystopia, no wonder so many make this imaginary world their home. A Minus

RUFFHOUSE RECORDS GREATEST HITS (Ruffhouse) The Miseducation, Score, and Cypress Hill lifts have their own lives. “Insane in the Brain” is worth hearing twice. “Fuck Compton” is history. Kriss Kross weren’t always has-beens. Nas wasn’t always nasty. John Forté and Pace Won have their own futures. Few labels have done ’90s hip hop so proud. A Minus

SLICK RICK: The Art of Storytelling (Def Jam) The music on this unflappably deft comeback is unlayered, highlighting spare beats with simple scratches or vocal sound effects to showcase the feyly effeminate king’s-
honeydrip singsong that’s been identifiable at 50 yards since “La-Di-Da-Di.” Mostly he boasts about how pretty he is and how good he raps, proving the latter with cameos from such modern-day flowmasters as Raekwon, Nas, Snoop, and Big Boi. He plays his prison card by trumping the two-line auditions from the wannabes who serenade him as he walks to freedom with “Kill Niggaz,” which describes a fictional crime spree far deadlier than the attack he got sent up for. And he writes about fucking with the detailed relish of someone who’s read a lot of pornography. A Minus

DON WHITE: Brown Eyes Shine (Lumperboy) White gigs every weekend, mostly tiny folk venues and “private shows”— gather some friends in your rec room and he’ll make it worth everybody’s while. Yet though he lives just 220 miles away, he hasn’t hit Manhattan since 1996, because his wife says he has to come home with more money in his pocket than when he left. And come home he does. Thus he stands as the only folkie I can think of who’s never footloose or romantically bereft— his subject matter, most of it autobiographical, is domestic, focusing here on parent-teen relationships after a debut about marriage proper. The monologue where his brain explodes after a homework discussion with his 14-year-old can only be understood by someone who’s been there, and anyone who’s been there will immediately play it again. With or without his band he’s a strained singer with an unmediated New England accent and barely a guitarist at all, and when he isn’t funny he’s corny. But usually he’s original enough to turn corny into a virtue. A Minus

DWIGHT YOAKAM: Last Chance for a Thousand Years: Dwight Yoakam’s Greatest Hits From the 90’s (Reprise) Whenever I ponder this multithreat singer-
songwriter, honky-tonk ideologue, Hollywood role-player, published author, and hunk-if-you-like-your-meat-lean, I remember what Sharon Stone said about the prospects for their reunion: “I’d rather eat a dirt sandwich.” Normally with country music you swallow the male chauvinism and figure guys feeling sorry for themselves is what makes it go; with Yoakam, so talented and so conscious, you expect a little movement within the paradigm, and conclude that he chose neotrad because movement was the last thing on his mind. But even if his most romantic moment is the Waylon cover where he goes back to his old lady because his new lady was playing games, he’s sung and written his way into the male chauvinist canon. His best song of the ’90s, for its heartbroke melody: 1990’s “The Heart That You Own.” Latest rock cover: the finale, Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” He “just can’t handle it,” “must get ’round to it,” etc. Right, Dwight. Or is that just Dirtbag? A Minus

dud of the month:

NAS: I Am . . . (Columbia) Nas covers his ahzz. If in one song he’s “wetting” (lovely word) “any nigga” (another) his fellow playa Scarface doesn’t like, in another he’s fomenting revolution: “Combine all the cliques and make one gang.” Yeah sure. The question is how convincing he is, and only two themes ring true: the bad ones, revenge and money. His idea of narrative detail is to drop brand names like Bret Easton Ellis; his idea of morality is everybody dies. Ghostface Killa’s “Wildflower” is far more brutal than the she-cheated-while-I-was-playin “Undying Love,” and far less bloody; Biggie’s “Playa Hater” is far more brutal than the Wu-Puff cameo “Hate Me Now,” and far more humorous. Blame his confusion and bad faith on a conscience that’s bothered him ever since he bought into the Suge Knight ethos. I’ve never met a ho in my life. This kind of sellout starts with a “W.” B Minus

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Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

Terry Allen, Salivation (Sugar Hill): for an artist, a pretty good songwriter and a fine village atheist (“X-Mas on the Isthmus,” “Salivation”); the Scruffs, Midtown (Northern Heights): it’s Memphis, it’s the ’80s, and darn it, Big Star lives (“Machiavellian Eyes,” “Judy [She Put the Devil in Me]”); M People, Testify (Epic): four years later, 13 new tracks including five remixes— who do they think they are, Sade? (“What a Fool Believes,” “Testify”); Brad Paisley, Who Needs Pictures (Arista Nashville): there’s words in that there cowboy hat (“He Didn’t Have To Be,” “Me Neither”); Jazzy Jeff & Fresh Prince, Greatest Hits (Jive): the antigangsta, as only a master of light comedy could render him (“Summertime,” “Lovely Daze”); Ginuwine, 100% Ginuwine (550 Music): thump, bump, hump (“Final Warning,” “No. 1 Fan”); Profilin’: The Hits (Arista): beyond “It Takes Two” and “It’s Like That,” which nobody considering this purchase doesn’t own, long on novelty (Poor Righteous Teachers, “Rock Dis Funky Joint”; N2Deep, “Back to the Hotel”); Maria Muldaur, Meet Me Where They Play the Blues (Telarc): last of the red hot mamas (“Soothe Me,” “It Ain’t the Meat, It’s the Motion”); the Robert Cray Band, Take Your Shoes Off (Rykodisc): T-Bone Walker as Jerry Butler, only not as good (“There’s Nothing Wrong,” “What About Me”); M-Boogie, Laid in Full (Blackberry): here comes the West Coast underground, sunnier than the East Coast underground (Kut Master Kurt Presents Masters of Illusion Featuring Motion Man, “Magnum Be I”; Rasco Featuring Defaro & Evidence, “Major League”); L7, Live Omaha to Osaka (Man’s Ruin): “It’s a long way to stay where you are in rock and roll,” and
also, “L7 would rather be with you people here tonight in Omaha than with some of the finest people in the world” (“Shitlist,” “Lorenza, Giada,
Allessandra”); The Gospel According to Earthworks (Stern’s/Earthworks): joy to the world music, South African style (Makholwa Vumani Isono, “Izikhova Ezimnqini”; Holy Spirits Choir, “Siyakubonga”); the Cardigans, Gran Turismo (Stockholm/Mercury): with a hit on their résumé, they’re free to be the depressed Swedes they always were (“Paralyzed,” “Do You Believe”).

Choice Cuts:

The Go-Betweens, “Karen” (78 ’til 79: The Lost Album, Jetset); Stereo Total, “Get Down Tonight” (Stereo Total, Bobsled); Kenny Cartman, “Come Sail Away” (Chef Aid: The South Park Album, American); Joey Sweeney, “My Name Is Rich” (The Book of Life Soundtrack, Echostatic).

Duds:

The GrooveGrass Boyz, GrooveGrass 101 (Reprise); Ice Cube, War and Peace (Priority); Pras, Ghetto Supa-star (Ruffhouse); Snakefarm, Songs From My Funeral (RCA); Vengaboys, The Party Album! (Groovilicious).

Addresses:

Alligator, Box 60234, Chicago IL 60660; Blackberry, c/o Nu Gruv Alliance, 430 East Grand Ave., Complex B, South San Francisco CA 94080; Lumperboy, 643 Broadway, #150, Saugus MA 19106-1995; Music Club, c/o Koch, 2 Tri-Harbor Ct., Port Washington NY 11050; Northern Heights, Box 111197, Memphis TN 38111; Rawkus, 676 Broadway, NYC 10012; Rykodisc, 530 North 3rd St., Minneapolis MN 55401; Stern’s/ Earthworks, 71 Warren St., NYC 10007; Sugar Hill, Box 55300, Durham NC 27717-5300; Telarc, 23307 Commerce Park Rd., Cleveland OH 44122.

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Music

I’ve always had my doubts about the notion of the hip hop “community” or “subculture”— too easy to claim, too hard to verify empirically. But the eight multiartist comps below, only two of them Honorable Mentions, must prove something.

BEATS & RHYMES: HIP HOP OF THE ’90S, PART I (Rhino) Between 1990, when old school went emeritus, and 1992, when gangsta stuck daisy age’s pistil up its stamen, came a nondescript downtime that Rhino maps without recourse to rap crossovers, which meant less than nothing to the loyalists who were just then insisting that what they loved was called “hip hop.” But though all three volumes are pretty subtle for nonloyalists, only here are the high points obvious— hits from key Jungle Brothers and A Tribe Called Quest albums, BDP’s “Love’s Gonna Get’cha”— and the selections from minor figures like Special Ed, Def Jef, and K-Solo open to challenge from the likes of me (I nominate “Taxin’,” “Fa Sho Shot,” and “Tales From the Crack Side”). Even so I love the YZ, Poor Righteous Teachers, and D.O.C. tracks, not to mention the BDP radio edit with sound effects where the bleeps should be. I also love Cold Chillin’ ‘s “Erase Racism.” B Plus

BEATS & RHYMES: HIP HOP OF THE ’90S, PART II (Rhino) Meet and greet such subculturally certified rhymesmiths as Leaders of the New School, Organized Konfusion, Main Source, the UMC’s, and the oft-odious DJ Quik. Plus, for some reason, three predictably solid Chubb Rock tracks. Plus minor hits from Rakim, Lyte, and Run-D.M.C. Think wordplay not signification. Think beats not hooks. Go with their flows. A Minus

BEATS & RHYMES: HIP HOP OF THE ’90S, PART III (Rhino) This bumps along for eight tracks distinguished by two new to me— Lord Finesse’s “Return of the Funky Man” (“you’re softer than baby shit”) and Double X Posse’s “Not Gonna Be Able To Do It” (“I’m not gonna be able to do”)— before vaulting off Naughty by Nature and A Tribe Called Quest into four consecutive guaranteed great, hilarious records: Del Tha Funkee Homosapien’s Three Stooges bit, Humpty Hump’s nose, the Pharcyde’s dozens, and FU-Schnickens’ advertisement for Jive Records, which has steadfastly kept their catalogue in print. Then Romy-Dee expands the legend of funky Kingston. A Minus

THE CORRUPTOR (Jive) Obsessed with death, declaring 1985 the Golden Age, counterbalancing two pieces of pimp shit with two pieces of ho fuck you, these tough, articulate third-generation voices document a gangsta myth innocent of all hope. Nostalgic credo: “When niggaz keep their weapons concealed it’s all real.” Guys, that much could happen. Maybe it’s already started. B Plus

HOUND DOG TAYLOR: A TRIBUTE (Alligator) The natural evolution of chops and technology renders this inauspicious vehicle the best houserocking record by anyone since the honored slidemaster, who died in 1975 leaving his Houserockers to bequeath their name to a boogie blues style never truly replicated. Bigger and faster than the prototype, which is fun, it lets virtuosos-in-spite-of-themselves give free rein to their baser natures: flash-fingered Luther Allison, Sonny Landreth, Dave Hole, and Warren Haynes come on every bit as crude as neoprimitives George Thorogood, Elvin Bishop, and Cub Koda. Respect to Vernon Reid and Alvin Youngblood Hart for powering up acoustic. Shame on Ronnie Earl for showing off. A Minus

LIGHTNING OVER THE RIVER (Music Club) Although compiler Christina Roden rightly distinguishes between speed soukous and the old bipartite kind that gives the singer some, the thunderbolts she catches in her bottle are all thrown by guitarists. Admirers of Kanda Bongo Man, Tshala Muana, and especially Syran M’Benza (Symbiose, two tracks) may find a few selections familiar. More likely, however, they’ll just own them. Even for Afropop fans, an enjoyable tour of a terrain that tends to blur into itself without a guide. A Minus

RANDY NEWMAN: Bad Love (DreamWorks) After an annuity’s worth of soundtracks, a box stuffed with marginalia, and Faust, his first true album since 1988 finds him more cynical than ever, about himself above all. Having called one cheap joke “I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It),” he explains the belated tribute to the wife and family he kissed off in the ’70s with a simple “I’d sell my soul and your souls for a song,” then announces: “But I wanted to write you one/Before I quit/And this one’s it.” Thing is, cheap jokes and cynicism have always been his gift to the world, and when he’s on he can twist the knife. In joke mode, cf. not only “I’m Dead,” so anti-Randy it’ll have young yahoos saying amen like they just discovered Mahalia Jackson, but two of his cruelest political songs ever: one a history of early imperialism where the punch line is HIV, another addressed with dulcet malice to Mr. Karl Marx. For cynicism, try “My Country,” which might just be about his family too, and “Shame,” where Newman plays a hateful old hard-on indistinguishable from himself. Twisting his croak a turn further are the most articulate arrangements of his singer-songwriting life: jazzlike, but in a piano-based rock context that shifts at a moment’s notice to any voicing (Hollywood-symphonic, country march, pop-schlock) that might reshade a meaning or make the ear believe what the mind can’t stand. There are a few ringers. But the last time he was so strong in this mode he was married to the wife he misses. A

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RAWKUS PRESENTS SOUNDBOMBING II (Rawkus) Whoever’s representing— Medina Green eating crosstown beef or Eminem tripping on a minivan or Company Flow dissing AmeriKKKa or Pharoahe Monch toasting the mayor or “hairy fat slob unshaven” R.A. the Rugged Man conjoining his “white trash nation” with “all the starvin’ artists”— the Rawkus subculture is always peering over its own edge. The beats aren’t invariably propulsive, but they never relent, with timeouts for DJs to scratch themselves minimized. Although the us-against-society mood is far from asexual, nobody macks and nobody flosses. Nobody deals either. Racism is an issue, race isn’t. In our present-day dystopia, no wonder so many make this imaginary world their home. A Minus

RUFFHOUSE RECORDS GREATEST HITS (Ruffhouse) The Miseducation, Score, and Cypress Hill lifts have their own lives. “Insane in the Brain” is worth hearing twice. “Fuck Compton” is history. Kriss Kross weren’t always has-beens. Nas wasn’t always nasty. John Forté and Pace Won have their own futures. Few labels have done ’90s hip hop so proud. A Minus

SLICK RICK: The Art of Storytelling (Def Jam) The music on this unflappably deft comeback is unlayered, highlighting spare beats with simple scratches or vocal sound effects to showcase the feyly effeminate king’s-
honeydrip singsong that’s been identifiable at 50 yards since “La-Di-Da-Di.” Mostly he boasts about how pretty he is and how good he raps, proving the latter with cameos from such modern-day flowmasters as Raekwon, Nas, Snoop, and Big Boi. He plays his prison card by trumping the two-line auditions from the wannabes who serenade him as he walks to freedom with “Kill Niggaz,” which describes a fictional crime spree far deadlier than the attack he got sent up for. And he writes about fucking with the detailed relish of someone who’s read a lot of pornography. A Minus

DON WHITE: Brown Eyes Shine (Lumperboy) White gigs every weekend, mostly tiny folk venues and “private shows”— gather some friends in your rec room and he’ll make it worth everybody’s while. Yet though he lives just 220 miles away, he hasn’t hit Manhattan since 1996, because his wife says he has to come home with more money in his pocket than when he left. And come home he does. Thus he stands as the only folkie I can think of who’s never footloose or romantically bereft— his subject matter, most of it autobiographical, is domestic, focusing here on parent-teen relationships after a debut about marriage proper. The monologue where his brain explodes after a homework discussion with his 14-year-old can only be understood by someone who’s been there, and anyone who’s been there will immediately play it again. With or without his band he’s a strained singer with an unmediated New England accent and barely a guitarist at all, and when he isn’t funny he’s corny. But usually he’s original enough to turn corny into a virtue. A Minus

DWIGHT YOAKAM: Last Chance for a Thousand Years: Dwight Yoakam’s Greatest Hits From the 90’s (Reprise) Whenever I ponder this multithreat singer-
songwriter, honky-tonk ideologue, Hollywood role-player, published author, and hunk-if-you-like-your-meat-lean, I remember what Sharon Stone said about the prospects for their reunion: “I’d rather eat a dirt sandwich.” Normally with country music you swallow the male chauvinism and figure guys feeling sorry for themselves is what makes it go; with Yoakam, so talented and so conscious, you expect a little movement within the paradigm, and conclude that he chose neotrad because movement was the last thing on his mind. But even if his most romantic moment is the Waylon cover where he goes back to his old lady because his new lady was playing games, he’s sung and written his way into the male chauvinist canon. His best song of the ’90s, for its heartbroke melody: 1990’s “The Heart That You Own.” Latest rock cover: the finale, Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” He “just can’t handle it,” “must get ’round to it,” etc. Right, Dwight. Or is that just Dirtbag? A Minus

dud of the month:

NAS: I Am . . . (Columbia) Nas covers his ahzz. If in one song he’s “wetting” (lovely word) “any nigga” (another) his fellow playa Scarface doesn’t like, in another he’s fomenting revolution: “Combine all the cliques and make one gang.” Yeah sure. The question is how convincing he is, and only two themes ring true: the bad ones, revenge and money. His idea of narrative detail is to drop brand names like Bret Easton Ellis; his idea of morality is everybody dies. Ghostface Killa’s “Wildflower” is far more brutal than the she-cheated-while-I-was-playin “Undying Love,” and far less bloody; Biggie’s “Playa Hater” is far more brutal than the Wu-Puff cameo “Hate Me Now,” and far more humorous. Blame his confusion and bad faith on a conscience that’s bothered him ever since he bought into the Suge Knight ethos. I’ve never met a ho in my life. This kind of sellout starts with a “W.” B Minus

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Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

Terry Allen, Salivation (Sugar Hill): for an artist, a pretty good songwriter and a fine village atheist (“X-Mas on the Isthmus,” “Salivation”); the Scruffs, Midtown (Northern Heights): it’s Memphis, it’s the ’80s, and darn it, Big Star lives (“Machiavellian Eyes,” “Judy [She Put the Devil in Me]”); M People, Testify (Epic): four years later, 13 new tracks including five remixes— who do they think they are, Sade? (“What a Fool Believes,” “Testify”); Brad Paisley, Who Needs Pictures (Arista Nashville): there’s words in that there cowboy hat (“He Didn’t Have To Be,” “Me Neither”); Jazzy Jeff & Fresh Prince, Greatest Hits (Jive): the antigangsta, as only a master of light comedy could render him (“Summertime,” “Lovely Daze”); Ginuwine, 100% Ginuwine (550 Music): thump, bump, hump (“Final Warning,” “No. 1 Fan”); Profilin’: The Hits (Arista): beyond “It Takes Two” and “It’s Like That,” which nobody considering this purchase doesn’t own, long on novelty (Poor Righteous Teachers, “Rock Dis Funky Joint”; N2Deep, “Back to the Hotel”); Maria Muldaur, Meet Me Where They Play the Blues (Telarc): last of the red hot mamas (“Soothe Me,” “It Ain’t the Meat, It’s the Motion”); the Robert Cray Band, Take Your Shoes Off (Rykodisc): T-Bone Walker as Jerry Butler, only not as good (“There’s Nothing Wrong,” “What About Me”); M-Boogie, Laid in Full (Blackberry): here comes the West Coast underground, sunnier than the East Coast underground (Kut Master Kurt Presents Masters of Illusion Featuring Motion Man, “Magnum Be I”; Rasco Featuring Defaro & Evidence, “Major League”); L7, Live Omaha to Osaka (Man’s Ruin): “It’s a long way to stay where you are in rock and roll,” and
also, “L7 would rather be with you people here tonight in Omaha than with some of the finest people in the world” (“Shitlist,” “Lorenza, Giada,
Allessandra”); The Gospel According to Earthworks (Stern’s/Earthworks): joy to the world music, South African style (Makholwa Vumani Isono, “Izikhova Ezimnqini”; Holy Spirits Choir, “Siyakubonga”); the Cardigans, Gran Turismo (Stockholm/Mercury): with a hit on their résumé, they’re free to be the depressed Swedes they always were (“Paralyzed,” “Do You Believe”).

Choice Cuts:

The Go-Betweens, “Karen” (78 ’til 79: The Lost Album, Jetset); Stereo Total, “Get Down Tonight” (Stereo Total, Bobsled); Kenny Cartman, “Come Sail Away” (Chef Aid: The South Park Album, American); Joey Sweeney, “My Name Is Rich” (The Book of Life Soundtrack, Echostatic).

Duds:

The GrooveGrass Boyz, GrooveGrass 101 (Reprise); Ice Cube, War and Peace (Priority); Pras, Ghetto Supa-
star
(Ruffhouse); Snakefarm, Songs From My Funeral (RCA); Vengaboys, The Party Album! (Groovilicious).

Addresses:

Alligator, Box 60234, Chicago IL 60660; Blackberry, c/o Nu Gruv Alliance, 430 East Grand Ave., Complex B, South San Francisco CA 94080; Lumperboy, 643 Broadway, #150, Saugus MA 19106-1995; Music Club, c/o Koch, 2 Tri-Harbor Ct., Port Washington NY 11050; Northern Heights, Box 111197, Memphis TN 38111; Rawkus, 676 Broadway, NYC 10012; Rykodisc, 530 North 3rd St., Minneapolis MN 55401; Stern’s/ Earthworks, 71 Warren St., NYC 10007; Sugar Hill, Box 55300, Durham NC 27717-5300; Telarc, 23307 Commerce Park Rd., Cleveland OH 44122.