CD Reviews

JOHN HIATT, Crossing Muddy Waters (Vanguard) Hard to believe this is John Hiatt's first acoustic album; Crossing Muddy Waters feels like a natural extension of the singer-songwriter's copious catalog, with a back-porch sound. It was recorded in three days down the street from Hiatt's house, featuring just himself and long-time sidemen Davey Faragher and David Immerglck merrily plonking along. With his "Riding With The King" currently on the charts in the capable hands of Mssrs Clapton and King, it sounds like Hiatt took a minute to kick back and enjoy himself, integrating fresh folk, gospel, and country nuances into his repertoire. Acoustic albums tend to showcase vocals, and in Hiatt's case this focus is augmented by the usual tension between the bounce of his melodies and the relative sobriety of the subject matter. High on the list of topics is marital discord, something Hiatt—whose breakthrough album, Bring The Family, hinged on his domestic bliss—claims exists entirely in his musical fantasy life. It works out OK, as most of the songs nail the spinning-in-circles-inside-your-own-head feeling of a relationship just about to head south: "What Do We Do Now," with its almost-stately guitar and its almost-simple repeated lyric, or the similarly named and themed but differently paced "Take It Down" (slow, reflective, involves Confederate flag) and "Take It Back" (boppy, sad, no flags). Vanguard is attempting to short-circuit the inevitable MP3 mayhem by making the album available for a reasonable price ($8.99) on eMusic, with one song, the perky album-closer "Before I Go," available free. If MP3 is your preferred mode of consumption, you'll be able to pick and choose among the tracks: Standouts include the bluegrass-twangy title number, the gospel-inflected chain-gang holler of "Lift Up Every Stone," and the purely beautiful "God's Golden Eyes." Cherrypicking this album doesn't do you any favors in appreciating its scope, though: Get

the whole thing and marvel at what a fellow can accomplish in three days if he sets his mind to it.—Angela Gunn

BLACK EYED PEAS, Bridging the Gap (Interscope) Los Angeles' Black Eyed Peas must be fake. Hip-hop would seem to revolve around tales of the streets and gruff, "Grr! I'm mad!" voices accompanied by really, really mean faces. These elements and others are noticeably absent, setting BEP apart from the world of the high-visibility caricatures. They don't squander any time seeing how many "what-whats" can fit in one song. Their agile tongues aren't doomed to deliver run-of-the-mill mush-mouthed lyrics. They come off exactly as you'd expect three guys who wear knits instead of army fatigues and Kani: smoother, more sophisticated, and well-rounded. The music hints at hip-hop trends a couple of times (e.g., the Ruff Ryders sound, the glut of syncopated bass lines), but is propelled more by full, organic, and sturdy sounds reminiscent of the better days of Soul. If inflammatory lyrics are required by the National Institute of Keeping It Real, then BEP don't deliver there either. The only thing they proclaim is that they give the music their full attention and follow the flow like the musicians playing with them. They don't argue for the validity of hip-hop as a musical form. In a genre where the exception gets more attention than the excellent, they are the argument.—Gregory Parks

YUJI ONIKI, Orange (Future Farmer Recordings) A friend of mine first spotted the ad in Spin. "Featuring members of Guided by Voices and Beulah," it said. Mystified and intrigued, we wondered aloud how this could be. Doug Gillard, the periodic guitar player in Guided by Voices, arguably one of the very best lo-fi rock bands of our generation, mixing it up with Sugar Free's super-pop, '60s-styled soundscapers and some unknown Japanese dude? Weird. Very weird, or at least that's what we hoped for. As it turns out, Orange isn't weird at all, and that's just plain disappointing. I guess it's mildly noteworthy that a guy from Japan can so perfectly achieve the bland sounds of the Fifth Dimension and American AM pop, and it's kinda strange that sometimes the lyrics lob back and forth from Japanese to English. But all in all, the songs just aren't interesting. Just this side of downright dull, Orange lags under the heavy burden of Oniki's colorless vocals and an altogether annoying attempt to put the "verb" back in reverb. A few tracks, such as "Paper Tigers" and "Element," hint at an alliance with the Elephant 6 troupe, employing the horn-blowin', Wilson-worshipping, psych pop-lite thing, but fans of this sound will do better to seek its incarnations elsewhere. Whereas Beulah's heavily harmonious ditties charge steadily like a drum majorette on the Fourth of July, Gillard's guitar noodling drills dozens of GBV songs straight through granite, and bands like Elf Power and Olivia Tremor Control pay homage without putting anyone to sleep, Oniki's work is like a car without a driver. It just doesn't go anywhere.—Laura Learmonth

MANHATTAN BROTHERS, The Very Best of the Manhattan Brothers (Stern's African Classics) They performed around South Africa for a decade before entering the recording studio, in mob-run clubs where acts played eight hours a night and which made the chitlin' circuit look like a Carnival Cruise. Their chief inspirations were the early Ink Spots and Mills Brothers, before those groups traded the barbershop for the supper club, something the Manhattan Brothers could scarcely afford to do under a government that hadn't adopted apartheid yet but was getting close. The Brothers scored their first hit on the Gallo label in 1948, with an Andrews Sisters cover. They swung tight and relaxed, with Nathan Mdledle's baritone taking center stage most of the time. He gave the spotlight most frequently to tenor and principal songwriter Joe Mogotsi, and, briefly, to a young woman named Miriam Makeba. They had a minor US hit with an English rerecording of "Laku Tshoni 'Ilanga," titled "Lovely Lies"—the original is collected here, the remake isn't. (Saving it for Volume Two, are we?) They sounded like they wanted nothing more or less than to entertain you as thoroughly as possible. They succeeded, becoming a household name in South Africa. Then in 1961, two years after their final Gallo recording session, they exiled themselves to London and their catalog promptly went out of print and remained so for 35 years. The 20 songs on this CD remedy that, and there will be no more beautiful reissue this year. —Michaelangelo Matos

 
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