Short Cuts

Bonnie Raitt
(Capitol Records)

Bonnie Raitt, bless her soul, didn't go the Eric Clapton/Robbie Robertson/Madonna route and "update" her latest album with '90s electronica influences. What she did do was shun the smooth sound of her last four recordings in favor of a more natural, almost live feel. On the aptly titled Fundamental, Raitt digs down to her musical roots and comes up with her most diverse record to date. Her bluesy, well-seasoned slide guitar lends itself to funk, soul, pop, and reggae grooves, and the results are triumphant.

"I Will Not Be Denied" was Raitt's battle cry on her multiplatinum album Nick of Time (1989), and here she rallies around the opening track, "The Fundamental Things." This song pretty much says it all. "Let's run naked through these city streets," Raitt sings in her soulful voice, "Let's get back to the fundamental things/Let's get back to the elements of style/Let's get back to simple skin on skin/Let's get back to the fundamental things."

Raitt wrote or cowrote only five of the eleven songs on Fundamental, but she's always been a masterful interpreter of others' compositions. "Cure for Love," written by David Hidalgo and Luis Perez (both of Los Lobos), gets the slow, bluesy treatment from Raitt while Hidalgo sits in on guitar. She also performs a faithful acoustic rendering of the J.B. Lenoir/Willie Dixon classic "Round & Round," with strong backing vocals by Joey Spampinato (bass) and Steve Donnelly (guitar).

The Raitt original "Spit of Love" is an eerie rocker, anchored by coproducer Mitchell Froom's groovy keyboards and Raitt's distorted slide guitar. Raitt delivers her most poetic lyrics here: "Callin' the Furies' carrion choir/Singin' me back upon the pyre/I'm roasting on that spit of love again." Other highlights on Fundamental include the delicate, country-tinged "Fearless Love" and "Blue for No Reason," a catchy pop song reminiscent of Sheryl Crow's best.

At age 48 with nine Grammy awards to polish on rainy days, Raitt was free to do what she wanted with Fundamental. But instead of "experimenting" like some of her peers, she produced a collection of vibrant and accessible songs that will still be relevant long after the uniform drumbeats of the late '90s are gone.

-- Jonathan Lesser

Sax Pax for a Sax

Best known for reciting poetry and playing music on the streets of Manhattan -- often while dressed in full Viking regalia -- the musician known as Moondog disappeared about 25 years ago. Some folks figured he'd been locked up, others that he had died. It turns out that Moondog is alive and well and living in Germany. Although he's recorded sporadically over the years in Europe, Sax Pax for a Sax is the reclusive expatriate's first domestic release in 26 years.

Moondog has long been an underground legend. He's been interviewed by columnist Walter Winchell, photographed by Diane Arbus, and befriended by Marlon Brando. He recorded for the legendary Folkways Records label, performed at Carnegie Hall, and appeared in a film with William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg (Conrad Brooks' Chappaqua). Janis Joplin and the Kronos Quartet have recorded his compositions, and Philip Glass, Elvis Costello, and Beck are among his admirers.

Sax Pax for a Sax should win Moondog some new fans. A much different affair than his rumbling, sometimes rambling, recordings of yore, it's a surprisingly tight piece of work: classically composed pieces, jazz-inspired harmonies, offbeat rhythms, and hypnotic melodies. On most of the disc's 21 tracks, the composer beats on a bass drum as various combinations of saxophones step forward to suggest basic themes and establish certain moods. The bouncing, bopping "Bird's Lament" and the cabaret-drenched "Paris" are among the most evocative. A jaunty chorus (featuring the British art-rockers Peter Hammill and Andrew Davis) occasionally joins the horn voicings. Bits of piano, timpani, and double bass provide color and add to the fun.

With Moondog's ever-present drum pulsing in the mix, listening to Sax Pax is sort of like hearing the World Saxophone Quartet playing show tunes on an Indian reservation. Confounding and pleasing, it shows that Moondog and his music are livelier than ever.

-- John Lewis

Dan Bern
Fifty Eggs
(WORK Group)

Didn't this guy just put out his first album, like, last week? Actually, it came out late in 1997 (to much critical acclaim), and now the second one's out already. The man has energy: On Fifty Eggs, Bern screams about Tiger Woods, sings honestly about his sister, does the social humor bit, occasionally slips into triteness, and generally comes on like an indulgent rock star who just happens to be a folkie.

You know Dan Bern's nasal tenor the minute you hear it: He sounds a little like Dylan on the slow songs, like Elvis Costello on the fast ones. More impressive are his words, characterized by both wit and brevity in even the tenderest of songs. In "Oh Sister" he sings: "After I showed some guys I could drink/You picked me off the lawn I think/And led me to the kitchen sink/Where I got rid of it."

His musical styles range from the raucousness of "No Missing Link" ("Aliens came and fucked the monkey/How else explain fiber optics?") to the '50s-style ballad "Everybody's Baby" ("Don't fall too hard for everybody's baby/'Cause everybody's baby ain't/Nobody's gal"). There's also a breezy pop song reminiscent of Nick Lowe that isn't even listed on the CD. It just kind of washes up on the album's far shore.

What comes through consistently on Fifty Eggs is Bern's personality. It's his strongest asset and his biggest problem. Seemingly every stray thought in his head goes into a song. "Chick Singers" boldly claims that female singers are often good. "Different Worlds" dazzles us with the observation that black people and white people are different and yet, by golly, the same. And sometimes Bern rants a little too much, perhaps forgetting that he's not playing in a crowded club but spinning on a disc in a living room.

It's obvious that Bern will try anything once. If he could tone down his manic eclecticism, he just might develop, as so many critics have predicted, into the Costello/Dylan of the next decade. One thing's for sure: Nothing will stop him from cranking out record after record for the rest of his life.

-- Barry Lank

Bernard Butler
People Move On

They weren't exactly Page and Plant, or even Morrissey and Marr, but Bernard Butler and Brett Anderson certainly made their mark. The androgynous, dark-haired lads once made up the core of the London Suede, an amped-up, glam-rock band that caused a tremendous furor in England -- so much so that in 1992 it made the cover of Melody Maker without having released any songs. The band made its recording debut the following year with Suede, and it was hard to say who was more responsible for the London Suede's over-the-top, supersexual rock sound: Anderson, with his hysterical falsetto, or Butler, with his ejaculatory guitar solos. In 1994, after months of squabbling with Anderson, Butler left the band, taking his signature guitar sound with him. Fans and critics alike wondered if the London Suede would ever find another guitarist of Butler's magnitude.

The band did indeed, in the form of a seventeen-year-old wunderkind named Richard Oakes, and went on to make some of the best music of its career. In 1995 Butler and David McAlmont, the former singer for the Thieves, released an album together and scored a UK Top 10 hit with a funky track called "Yes." But that was little more than a warm-up exercise. Butler's true solo career begins with People Move On.

The guitarist has left behind the melodrama and metal-edged aggression of the London Suede, opting instead for loose, meandering songs with little melody and lots of extended jams. The album's very first track, "Woman I Know," is a plodding, down-tempo ballad that lasts almost eight minutes, the kind of thing Eric Clapton often indulges in these days. "Autograph," the album's episodic, guitar-rock centerpiece, lasts almost nine minutes. Apparently Butler was in the wrong band all these years: He should have been playing with the Verve.

Most of the songs here last about four minutes, but they seem twice as long. "You Just Know" begins with a full minute of delicate acoustic guitar, eventually turns into a soft-rock ballad, and offers only a vaguely pleasant harmonica riff as a hook. "Not Alone" combines a grandiose symphony with an old-fashioned, rock-stomp rhythm, but instead of catching fire, it just smokes for a few minutes before fizzling out entirely. Butler's amateurish lyrics may have something to do with this. Nobody wants to sing along to lines such as "I've been roaming the streets with my head in the clouds/And I won't need to show you my heart/'Cause all I need in my hands is an electric guitar."

Butler's hands sound strangely idle on People Move On. His songs are exceptionally atmospheric, but they don't really go anywhere, and as a result his guitar sounds equally directionless. Butler employs soulful backup singers and Beatlesque string sections to round out his postpsychedelic sound. In fact, his creative production is perhaps his best achievement here. But nothing can hide this album's lack of solid material. If Butler doesn't wind up temping with other bands like Johnny Marr or getting rusty like Jimmy Page, he may yet produce something worthwhile.

-- Rafer Guzman

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