By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Dead Dog's Eyeball, Kathy McCarty (Bar None Records): Kathy McCarty, the former guitarist-singer for Austin's Glass Eye, makes no attempt to prettify the sometimes sad, sometimes funny, sometimes wise words of Daniel Johnston; at times, even, her voice sounds almost distant and emotionless, as though she is letting Johnston's lyrics (new-found wisdom to him, cliches to us) and the lush pop arrangements carry the weight of the material. The result: an album of pure pop confections, constructed as solidly as Fort Knox with a tremendous sound that recalls the mad best of Phil Ramone and Brian Wilson. Without changing a single note of Johnston's original source material, McCarty has created a record that's the difference between a child's scribblings and an Impressionist masterpiece.
This Perfect World, Freedy Johnston (Elektra Records): On album, anyway, Johnston's a loser in love and life, locked out and trapped in the Big City, haunted by monuments and moments that remind him of The One Who Got Away. Contained within these exquisite, sometimes even catchy pop songs that recall everyone from Still Crazy After all These Years-era Paul Simon to Matthew Sweet to Marshall Crenshaw (who guests here) are bleak, despairing lyrics: tales of "barefoot whores" and women sexually assaulted by ministers, matter-of-fact recollections of nights spent staring down "Miss Liberty," and a father's misunderstood farewell to his daughter.
The Black Album, Prince (Warner Bros. Records): The Artist Formerly Known as Talented allegedly pulled this from release in 1987 because its unflinching funk--part violent gangsta parody, mostly low-down fuck-me come-ons--conflicted with his then-new-found spirituality; its release seven years (and, for me, four bootlegged copies) later is a coy contract move on his part and a shrewd marketing move on Warner Bros.' part, but either way, it's a lost masterpiece no more. If it ain't the best Prince album--and in spots, such as on the psychotic "Bob George" and the jazz-funk fusion of "2 Nigs United 4 West Compton," it might be--it's the best since then.
that dog, that dog (DGC Records): When it isn't soft and haunting, it's loud and sloppy, but it's hardly punk-folk; rather, this album is the gorgeous sound of angels (Anna Waronker and Petra and Rachel Haden, daughters of avant-jazzer Charlie Haden, joined in unnerving harmony) filtered through a ragged garage band in which the violin, not the electric guitar, is the focal point. By turns naive and wise, they sing of punk rock girls, family functions, and angels; appropriate Beatles song titles as lyrics; and get pissy when they discover their area code's been changed from 213 to 310.
Ill Communication, Beastie Boys (Capitol Records) and Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age, Public Enemy (Def Jam Recordings): Hands down, The Beasties' "Sabotage" is the single of the year--a wack piece of metal-rap done up as cop-rock, it should be heard blasted though the speakers of a red-with-white-swish-stripe Ford Torino with Antonio Vargas coolin' in the back seat. "Sure Shot" ranks a close second, and the rest of the record's cool, too: if their first three albums followed a natural progression from wise-ass upper-class rappers to soul revivalists to punk-rap revisionists, then their fourth perfects the whole package; Ill Communication is less a hip-hop album and more an avant-garde experiment in sound, with the Boys dropping names (from John Woo and Rod Carew to Lee Dorsey and dub-master Lee Perry) and a sound that bounds from sloppy hard-core to mellowed-out jazz-soul. And it takes a strong man--stronger, even, than Eric Dolphy--to make the flute funky.
Public Enemy got written off as one of the year's biggest disappointments, primarily because their critics claim they've gotten sloppy. But if Muse Sick is a failure, it's a brilliant and fascinating and deliberate one: Chuck D's paranoia rises to new levels (he now thinks black folks are out to get him, too), and the Bomb Squad's siren-scream production has given way to a murkier, denser funk-rock that underscores Chuck's foray into Last Poets terror-tory. Filled with wacky conspiracy theories (such as the old saw that AIDS was created by the government to kill the black community) and emasculated enemies (David Duke), Muse Sick still rivets like few other rap albums of the year, whether Chuck's reciting beat poetry like "Aintnuttin Buttersong" or speeding through a "Race Against Time." He's a punk, and forever shall be.
San Francisco, American Music Club (Reprise Records): Mark Eitzel's stubborn heart stays broken forever, and once again he creates melancholy, fragile music as palpable as emotion itself. He embraces heartbreak and loneliness as though they were old drinking buddies ("Love doesn't belong to anyone," he asserts), and contends, "I don't need anyone's love" when he's sure none will come his way. And, finally, when he does find someone with whom to share his life, he retreats in self-deprecation ("All I have to offer you is archeology and Christmas") and self-loathing ("I thought your love was just a great big lie").
Monster, R.E.M. (Warner Bros. Records): Either the three months since its release have allowed for familiarity or it was there all along, but Monster recalls the best of mid-'80s R.E.M--back, you know, when R.E.M. toyed briefly with the idea of being a real art-rock and roll band. Peter Buck's upfront guitar and new-found soul singer Michael Stipe's half-obscured, half-nonsensical lyrics are only part of the untold story; rather, they are accents to music that plays itself out in a blur, beautiful ("Strange Currencies," "Tongue") and bizarre ("Circus Envy") moments whizzing by and coalescing until they leave you spent, distressed, strung out, complete.