"Rock n Roll" (Lost Highway)
Ever since Bob Dylan revolutionized pop music by moving from folk music to rock in the '60s, some of our most valuable folk-accented singer-songwriters have also tried to make the transition -- but with far less success. In pumping up the volume, many of the writers, from Jackson Browne to Steve Earle, lost the sensitive, introspective qualities that made their music so commanding. Adams is yet another.
There has always been an undercurrent of rock in this gifted artist's work, both with Whiskeytown and on his own, but it was mostly in the form of tasteful seasoning for his folk and country-flavored material. Here Adams, whose influences have probably always been as much Rolling Stones as Gram Parsons, devotes himself almost entirely to his rock impulses.
The problem is that his writing and vocals aren't as consistently distinctive or convincing in the rock arena. He aims for the intensity of Kurt Cobain and Paul Westerberg on some tracks and croons like Jon Bon Jovi on another. It's not until the melancholy "Wish You Were Here" that Adams slows the tempo and delivers the intimacy that characterized his earlier solo work, most of which was four-star quality.
The rock 'n' roll shoes do fit in places, especially the U2-ish affirmation of "So Alive," but the standout track on the album underscores that Adams is at his best in more sensitive surroundings. Accompanied by his own piano on the acoustic title track, Adams speaks about longing with a vulnerability that is achingly and nakedly personal -- emotions that are at the heart of Adams' art. The song, ironically, is about how cool it's supposed to be to be in a rock 'n' roll band but how empty everything is, he discovers, to be without the one he loves.
Keith's eye, not tone, sharpens
"Shock'n Y'all" (DreamWorks)
The success of Keith's 3.3-million-selling "Unleashed" album seems to have let him relax considerably, which pays off on his eighth album in songs that have less to do with proving himself to the world than in describing what he finds when he looks around it.
"Shock" doesn't -- at least, not any who have watched Keith cement his place in country music as Hank Jr. Jr. But the viewpoint is often softer in temperament and sharper in lyrical focus than in the past, as in "Sweet," a barroom tale of a country boy who unexpectedly wins the attention of the object of every male's affection. "Don't Leave, I Think I Love You," which Keith wrote with Ronnie Dunn of Brooks & Dunn, is another slice of honky-tonk life as endearing as its crisply phrased pickup line: "I just saw the rest of my life, honey, you're in it."
There's also a sense of evenhandedness in macho odes to his favorite watering hole ("I Love This Bar"), his footwear ("Baddest Boots") and a babe who can knock the shots back with the best ("Whiskey Girl"). The same can't be said for his strafing runs at a couple of easy targets in "The Taliban Song" and "The Critic."
Keith's gaze rarely goes deeper than what the eye can see, but as a reporter of what that eye takes in, at least he can spin an entertaining yarn.
-- Randy Lewis
Iggy thrives in a pop environment
"Skull Ring" (Virgin)
The much-anticipated reunion of the Stooges packs the primordial whomp you'd expect, at least on the first of the four tracks that appear on the new album from their erstwhile frontman. "Little Electric Chair" has all the signatures -- the guitar slash, the syncopated hand claps, the dogged, slightly clunky drums, the whoop and snarl from the singer.
From there, though, they play against type, for better and worse. "Skull Rings" rides a "Peter Gunn" riff but doesn't much go anywhere. The sludge appeal of "Loser" fades away in the song's elaborate bridge, but then they pull off a pretty good imitation of an ambitious Bowie track in "Dead Rock Star."
The Stooges' return will be the main attraction of an album in which Pop flails around the modern-rock landscape in search of a connection that clicks. But with all due respect to the legacy of the band that made punk possible, Iggy actually turns in his best music here with punkers-come-lately Green Day, who engagingly buzz and quiver and pile on the reverb in the hard-riffing "Private Hell."
He teams memorably with electroclash bad-girl Peaches and less so with rock band Sum 41. One thing this disjointed, too long, up-and-down outing proves is that for all his reputation as a broker of raw power, this Pop does pretty well in a pop environment, tasting the forbidden fruits of production tricks and melodic hooks.
Iggy & the Stooges play next Sunday at the All Tomorrow's Parties festival at the Queen Mary.
An occasional look at single recordings of special interest.
Britney Spears featuring Madonna
"Me Against the Music" (Jive)
The much-hyped pairing of two generations of pop sexpots is less a summit meeting of dance-music icons than script direction for the predictably perspiration-soaked video. As a song, "Me" is an exceptionally busy track. Spears, in a parched, flat voice, tosses out words a mile a minute, cannily inviting repeated listenings, yet without any real payoff. Madonna's contribution -- coyly calling "Hey, Britney" -- adds little except titillation for adolescent boys. Oh yeah, that's the point, isn't it?
-- Randy Lewis
A glance at other albums of interest.
R.E.M.'s "In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988-2003" (Warner Bros.): This collection draws from the group's work for Warner Bros., from the "Green" album forward, including a couple of movie songs and two previously unreleased tunes, "Bad Day" and "Animal."
Elvis Presley's "Christmas Peace" (RCA): The King's various Christmas songs are pulled together and paired with 20 of his gospel and inspirational recordings in a 40-song, two-CD holiday set. (In stores Tuesday.)
Luther Vandross, "Live at Radio City Music Hall 2003" (J Records): A document of the performance by the R&B; crooner shortly before he suffered a stroke. Songs include several of his signature ballads.
Van Morrison, "What's Wrong With This Picture?" (Blue Note): The revered Irish singer-songwriter muses on life as a celebrity in "Goldfish Bowl" and offers his take on the standard "St. James Infirmary Blues" in an outing rich with punchy horns and sweet strings.
Jonny Lang's "Long Time Coming" (A&M;): On his first album in five years, the hotshot guitarist is a bit less bluesy, a bit more rock and R&B-oriented;, including a cover of Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City."
Barenaked Ladies' "Everything to Everyone" (Warner Bros.): The Canadian alt-rockers keep things lighthearted, weighing in humorously on subjects from "War on Drugs" and "Celebrity" to "Shopping" and "Aluminum."
Something Corporate's "North" (MCA): The O.C. modern-rock quintet continues along the piano-driven, catchy pop-rock path it charted on its 250,000-selling debut album, "Leaving Through the Window," which spawned the radio favorites "I Woke Up In a Car" and "iF yoU C Jordan."
Various Artists, "Wig In a Box" (Off): The Polyphonic Spree provides the title track and Beck, Sleater-Kinney, Frank Black, Bob Mould, Jonathan Richman, Ben Folds and Yoko Ono are among more than a dozen others contributing songs to this benefit album for the New York City's Hetrick-Martin Institute for the protection of gay and lesbian youth.
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.