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Christmas the Carson Daly way; from Maniac to Motherland

By Thomas J. Clarke, James Crawford, Thalia S. Field, Andrew R. Iliff, P. PATTY Li, Michael T. Packard, Matthew F. Quirk, and Marcus L. Wang, CRIMSON STAFFs

Bad Dreams Swollen Members Swollen Members—it sounds like it might be a Tenacious D-esque musical comedy team. Yet, while their name (which the band claims was decided upon while drunk, munching at a Denny’s late-night) exudes an adolescent tongue-in-cheek wit, the content of their second album, Bad Dreams, is more substantial than the band’s name suggests.

Comprised of MCs Prevail and Madchild, Swollen Members have created a notable underground following in the California rap circuit, and managed to become one of three groups affiliated with the Rock Steady Crew—Dilated Peoples and The Arsonists round out the triumvirate.

The duo’s sound is not ground-breaking, and may even sound similar at times to various other artists, but is not elementally derivative. Madchild, who also doubles as producer and head of the group’s label, Battle Axe Records, has a nasal timbre that sounds like a blending of Cypress Hill’s B-Real, and everyone’s favorite caustic caucasian, Marshall Mathers. Prevail’s tone is deeper—perhaps how Dr. Dre’s little brother might sound on the mic. These points noted, the combination is effective, especially when blended with the series of relatively complex beats that ground their rhymes.

Their lyrical content is at times slave to some of rap’s common themes, e.g. money—“I’m on six figures bitch, you drivin’ rental vans!” exclaims Madchild on “RPM.” Overall, however, the band hovers at a more conceptual and complex level—“dungeons and dragons” as Madchild describes their near mystical stylings in “Take it Back.” When playing to this depth, and combining eerie and haunting beats and samples with equally engaging rhymes, Swollen Members are at their strongest. “Deep End” has the smoothest beat on the album—a “Knight-Rider”-esque bubbling melody, ensconced in a faint synthesizer and steady drumbeat. Prevail and Madchild exchange verses seamlessly on the track, as they salute the midnight hours: “Work the latenight / Not that we hate light / Just feels right / That’s when tracks come out tight.”

Another highlight is “Burns and Scars,” featuring Son Doobie of Funkdoobiest. “Burns” is a mid-paced track with a memorable piano sample that finds Son Doobie’s jarring and aggressive voice a welcome foil to the usually subdued tones of the Swollen duo. While the track is pleasing to the ear, it again slips into a well-traveled rap niche: violence. Gun-shot blasts are sampled into the chorus where Son Doobie shouts, “Y’all can’t stop Swollen Members—BLAM-BLAM!”

Both Prevail and Madchild are gifted with notable flow, and are at their best when they roll in minor keyed and haunting beats: “Dark Riders,” “High Road” and “Bad Dreams” joining “Deep End” are the best examples of this. While they succeed in pulling off a more commercial vibe on “Fuel Injected,” which features the Nate Dogg-ish Moka Only lacing the track with his smooth bass/baritone, they remain best suited to the more cerebral, head-bobbing tracks, not the booty-shakers. —Michael T. Packard

Cocky Kid Rock To frustrated white males who enjoy strippers, watching wrestling, drunkeness, bragging, or sucking a plug of chaw while drag-racing strangers on their way home from work, Kid Rock offers Cocky, the follow-up to his platinum 1998 major-label debut, Devil Without a Cause.

Cocky is the kind of manufactured bad-assery we have come to expect from Rock. He announces his style on “Forever,” the first single from the album. “I take hard rock / and mix it with hip hop,” Rock rhymes, repeating the refrain to mix in punk rock, southern rock and surf rock. The result is as tedious as the lyrics that announce it: an anthology for the angry, including punk, hard metal and nasty-boy rap. Rather than fusing these elements into something new, Rock takes the most obvious attributes of each and throws them together.

The guitar solos are standard and the rap is weak, obscene with the thinness of 2 Live Crew but without the authenticity—what one expects from someone whose first big single, “Bawitdaba” thrived on little more than a copped and garbled Slick Rick lyric set to heavy metal. Kid Rock spends the better part of the album repeating the image of the American bad ass in his rock/hip-hop style: dirty-mouthed, abusive, drunk, drugged and not giving a damn.

Rock’s dwarf, Joe C., died last year, perhaps opening Rock’s introspective side in his passing. “What I Learned Out on the Road” and “Lonely Road of Faith” break new ground with digressions into the sad and soulful.

Even in these country clichés, however, he stops, mocks the attempt at sentiment, and falls backs into nasty rap and screaming guitars. A few guest appearances keep the album interesting. Snoop Dogg and Rock do a misogynistic duo on the last track, and Sheryl Crow joins Rock for a coked-out modern take on the your-cheating-heart standard.

On Cocky, Rock repeats enough of the style that made him a pop phenomenon to please his fans. For the rest, there’s nothing new or interesting enough to merit a second look. —Matthew F. Quirk

DETONATOR Bleachmobile Their website introduces Bleachmobile as “3 Japanese Girls from Okinawa,” but three little maids from school they’re not. The hardcore punk trio trash, bash and screech as well and as loudly as any of their male, North American counterparts.

But that, unfortunately, is the problem—the band’s U.S. debut, Detonator, fails to distinguish itself from the current glut of angry, amorphous Screamo available to the angst-ridden. Bleachmobile’s music is by no means bad—they are solid musicians and adopt convincing hooks reminiscent of Rodan, power-violence band Charles Bronson and the Bloody Mannequin Orchestra—but little is memorable on their 23 minute opus.

The tracks meld into one another with nary a departure from 4/4 time (save some interesting syncopation on “Santa Claus”) and the ever-present chromatic runs in the bass, guitar and vocal lines. The appropriately titled “Voice,” which is actually sung instead of screamed, is a notable exception. It is pretty, melodic and well-constructed, if not totally similar to tracks on Hole’s Live Through This.

The first few seconds of “Santa Claus” gesture towards use of robotic electronic accompaniment à la Men’s Recovery Project. This effort, however, is quickly abandoned, never to be attempted again. Bleachmobile’s failure to exploit any sort of electronic avenue is particularly disappointing considering their roots—other Japanese hardcore bands, such as Melt Banana, have produced first-rate hardcore through such manipulation.

Detonator is solid, but unremarkable. It will induce head-bobbing in the average hardcore enthusiast for exactly 23 minutes, before it is set aside along with all the other mediocre debuts not worth repeated listenings. —Thalia S. Field

Greatest Hits The Cure Robert Smith et al’s third compilation album after two “Singles” collections is a cane-twirling traipse through the kitschy lipsticked sound of the Cure over their 20-plus year career. The difference between a “Singles” collection and a “Greatest Hits” album can be fuzzy, and the resulting selection may not represent the most recognizable Cure songs. They might have included “The Caterpillar” or “Hot Hot Hot,” for instance, and “Killing An Arab” was probably pulled for obvious reasons. Yet there is hardly a low moment on the 18-song disc, which includes the obligatory two “previously unreleased” songs: “Cut Here,” which sounds slightly tossed-off, coming across as an amalgam of “Let’s Go To Bed” and “Why Can’t I Be You,” full of chiming guitars and keyboard samples that sound like they want to be horn sections. But this is supposed to be a retrospective disc, right?

“Just Say Yes,” on the other hand, rejuvenates the headlong, Peter Pan aspect of Smith, the infamously uncrying boy, with one wicked guitar hook surfing the prominent bass lines that are pure Cure, and toying with an array of nouveau rock electric effects. The guest vocalist Saffron spurs Smith to heights worthy of a star-struck 14-year old, as the two of them holler, “Say this is it / Don’t say maybe / Don’t say no.”

The companion “Acoustic Hits” disc is a bit of a dead-end, apparently motivated by the 80s belief that any music based around an acoustic guitar automatically gains extra kudos. The truth is that the songs, stripped of goofy studio effects, start to sound washed-up. The exception is the sublime parody “Love Cats,” whose deranged music-hall sound blossoms in the stripped-down arrangement. The brilliance of the Cure is their ability to play fantastic songs while giving the convincing impression of playing throwaway music. Pinning their hits down on one disc is a genuine treat. —Andrew R. Iliff

Motherland Natalie Merchant Natalie Merchant, formerly the voice behind 10,000 Maniacs, is in great form on her new album’s first track, “This House Is On Fire.” An oriental-flavored, reggae-styled track, “Fire” gives her plenty of opportunity to show off her distinctive, back-of-the-throat voice and its impressive power. If only the rest of the album had as much attitude. The transition from the valkyrie voice of the first track where Merchant sings, “Soon come the day / When this tinder box / Is going to blow in your face,” to the domesticated, Mediterranean post-card song, “Motherland,” disorients the listener like holiday jet-lag. Merchant ensconces herself amongst accordions and harmlessly strummed banjos singing, “Motherland, cradle me / Close my eyes, lullaby me to sleep / Keep me safe, lie with me / Lay beside me, don’t go.” This is great music to play to hyperactive three-year olds, but the pleasures are few and far between for anyone who finds the pastoral vision of Merchant on the album too maternal for a rock album.

But Merchant takes pains to prove that she’s not just someone’s mom, as the stolid drum sample on “Saint Judas” shows. Despite the gimmick, “Judas” is the best update of Merchant’s mellow alterna-country sound. With vocals that prove that the teen-queens don’t have the monopoly on kick-ass voices, “Judas” has a sly swagger, though Merchant eschews sex appeal almost entirely on the album.

Motherland has some other good moments when Merchant ventures into the smoky, downbeat territory of the Cowboy Junkies. But mostly, the album is unremittingly bland, lacking the instrumental highs and energy of her work with the Maniacs, which is only approximated in songs like “Just Can’t Last.”

This is a great album for anyone who misses their mom.

—Andrew R. Iliff

MTV’s TRL Christmas “Here I sit waiting out by the T all by myself,” moans Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo, Class of ’95-’97, in “The Christmas Song.” Is Christmas really that bad? The full range of 20-something angst and frivolous desires plays out on MTV’s TRL Christmas, a compilation that will either have you jumping around and dancing as you decorate the tree or throw you into despair about the cheapening of Christmas. “Gimme gimme gimme,” sings Willa Ford on the very first track, no doubt looking forward to today’s true meaning of Christmas.

The album includes some updated Christmas favorites: Christina Aguilera’s overdramatic “Angels We Have Heard On High,” an upbeat “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” by Bif Naked, “Sleigh Ride” by TLC as its composer, Leroy Anderson ’29, would never recognize it, and Sugar Ray’s Beach Boys-esque rendition of the Beach Boys’ “Little Saint Nick.”

We also get some new holiday related cheer from other TRL regulars. Blink-182’s “I Won’t Be Home For Christmas” complains, “It’s Christmas time, again / It’s time to be nice to the people you can’t stand all year / I’m growing tired of all this Christmas cheer,” in traditional Blink-182 sing-song fashion. Smash Mouth and ’NSYNC also make their standard contributions. But as well as these songs fit within the TRL genre, none of the album’s non-traditional material has a snowball’s chance in hell of achieving the status of Christmas classic.

Speaking of snowballs: The most random track on the album is not the token traditional piece, “Christmas Canon,” performed by the ever-reliable Trans-Siberian Orchestra (and really, what’s Christmas without an orchestral suite by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra?), but rather “Snowball,” in which the versatile Jimmy Fallon imitates a bad high school garage band vocalist with his screams of, “Snowball snowball snowball fight!”

Christmas…cheapened? No way. —P. Patty Li

New Day Yesterday Joe Bonamassa In 1990, when blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan died prematurely in a helicopter crash at the age of 35, some say that a little bit of the blues died with him. In his wake, many have tried to cultivate his raw electric sound, and innumerable blues guitarists have since cited Vaughan as a primary musical influence, Joe Bonamassa simply adds to the litany of names. What Bonamassa, with his album A New Day Yesterday, also adds is confusion. Modern blues has always been difficult to define, and this, his first solo outing, defies strict categorization even more.

Bonamassa’s thick guitar and husky growl anchor the album, and are most welcome when he pounds out a down-home shuffle, “Trouble Waiting.” If his musical voice isn’t distinctive, it is at least passionate. Bonamassa crafts some potent guitar solos throughout, firing out stripped-down licks and reaching aching, soaring heights on “If Heartaches Were Nickels.” Bonamassa was weaned on all forms of the blues, and dutifully pays his respects to the masters who played in an era when the blues actually mattered.

Alternately, when he strays from his roots, Bonamassa finds himself lost and meandering. “A New Day Yesterday” feels more like a grunge band trying its hand at the blues (but failing miserably), and the hook to “Miss You, Hate You” bears a plagiarism suit-inducing similarity to Matchbox 20’s “Push.” If Vaughan was able to make people care about the blues when rock ruled the roost, perhaps Bonamassa will learn from his idol and stay away from the mainstream. —James A. Crawford

Verve Presents: The Very Best of Christmas Jazz Christmas purists, look away now. For most, the holiday season brings to mind images of white snow outside, green trees inside and Yuletide carols being sung by a choir around a battered upright piano. For the majority, carols sung by the Vienna Boys Choir are just peachy, Bing Crosby pushes the envelope, and jazz should stay where it belongs—at the Village Vanguard. For the dissenting minority, holiday songs have long been beaten into unholy submission by endless bland repetition, and jazz giants provide a perfect remedy by taking tradition and swinging it mightily.

From the strictly traditional (Dinah Washington on “Silent Night”) to the commercially traditional (Jimmy Smith on “Jingle Bells”) to the decidedly un-traditional (Louis Armstong on “Zat You, Santa Claus”), there is hardly an errant note on their disc. Joe Williams, with his voice of liquid gold, oozes sophistication from every pore during “Let it Snow!” Sentimental and sweet without ever saccharine, Williams’ arrangement presents perhaps the best version of the song ever recorded. Pianist Bill Evans strays away from the vocals and brings his light, lyrical tone and novel improvisation to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” elevating the joyful little ditty to the status of noteworthy art. It’s unfortunate that Charlie Parker’s groundbreaking rendition of “White Christmas” is absent, but otherwise, there’s little wrong with the set. Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Tormé and John Coltrane, among others, round out a polished, balanced presentation. Christmas music (or movies) make awful presents, but if stumped when buying for a jazz affeccionado, this ain’t a bad way to go.

—James A. Crawford

The Wash Various Artists “My last album was The Chronic,” exclaimed Dr. Dre in the 1999 smash hit “Still D.R.E.,” seemingly ignoring his 1996 compilation Dr. Dre Presents...The Aftermath. Of course, his forgetfulness was excusable; aside from the single “Been There, Done That,” Dre’s lineup of inept guest artists and producers proved one of the most disappointing efforts of his career. Fortunately, The Wash is one compilation he won’t have to disavow anytime soon. Given that Dre and Snoop Dogg co-star in the movie, it’s no surprise to see them open and close with duets (“On the Blvd.” and “The Wash,” respectively). The beats are little more than standard, low-riding West Coast funk, but that’s not the point—Dre and Snoop are rap’s dynamic duo, and they have developed the Midas touch. The guest cuts are no less impressive, from Busta Rhymes’ “Holla” to Bubba Sparxxx’ Southern-fried extravaganza “Bubba Talk.” Even “Blow My Buzz,” the drug-addled offering from Eminem protégés D12, has its priorities in order, featuring a typically hilarious and quotable verse from Slim Shady himself.

But what separates The Wash from other rap soundtracks isn’t that the big stars deliver, it’s that the relative unknowns hold their own. Toi, who sang the hook on Ice Cube’s “You Can Do It,” proves her solo worth with two R&B tracks. Even Knoc-turn’al, who made two mediocre appearances on Dre’s 2001 album, single-handedly holds together the otherwise tired beat of “Str8 West Coast.” At long last, there is a group of colleagues worthy of the good Doctor himself. —Thomas J. Clarke

O U T & A B O U T

So Bad It’s Dangerous Mainly Jazz Presents Mainly Jackson This weekend the blood hits the dance floor as the Mainly Jazz Dance Company tackles the choreography of the world’s most electrifying pop siblings, the Jacksons. After all, the music of the Jacksons wasn’t made for the ears alone. It was made to cause the head to nod, the fingers to snap and the feet to moonwalk. Songs like “Smooth Criminal” have beats so edgy they make your blood bounce and your body shake. Michael Jackson in particular is as celebrated for his elaborate, deceptively smooth dance craft as for his music. But Jackson’s heyday has long since passed, and the artistry of his videos has been buried by time and the emergence of new popstars.

This weekend, relive the magic with Mainly Jackson. For the first time, witness the skills of the Caribbean Dance Company, TAPS and the Mainly Jazz Dance Company as they create HIStory in a performance of dances to the music of Michael and Janet Jackson as well as the Jackson 5. The spring of 2000 found the Mainly Jazz Dance Company incorporating Michael Jackson songs into their routine, and now the winter of 2001 celebrates the triumphant return of pop’s erstwhile king as well as his superstar sister.

Perennial favorites “Thriller” and “Smooth Criminal” are included on the lineup, as well as “Come On, Get Up,” Rhythm Nation,” “Man in the Mirror” and the Jackson sibling duet, “Scream.” In addition, TAPS will be performing to “Black Cat.” The choreography of the music videos will be recreated and blended with original choreography by Mainly Jazz members Kate E. Wattson ’03, Fabiana Kepler ’00, Nell A. Hanlon ’03, Kristen T. Sueoka ’02 and Melissa E. Miller ’04. And courtesy of C. Coble Armstrong ’02 and Diana L. Limbach ’05, the moonwalk makes its comeback, gliding softly across the stage to the sounds of “Smooth Criminal.” So beat it to the ticket office—the glove is coming off.

Mainly Jackson goes up on Friday, Dec. 7 at 8 p.m., and Saturday, Dec. 8 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. at the Rieman Auditorium. Tickets are $5 for students and $8 general. —Marcus L. Wang

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