Even the casual Lenny Kravitz fan knows that Lisa Bonet's old flame is, to put it nicely, a popular-music historian. His detractors, of course, would call him a rip-off artist. OK, so the riff from his hit "Are You Gonna Go My Way" sounds suspiciously like Hendrix's "Crosstown Traffic," and Kravitz's other singles, including "Fields of Joy" and "Let Love Rule," have late Beatles written all over them. He's not shy about his influences, and why should he be? Thankfully, he has great taste and heaps of talent. On 5, as on all his albums, he writes, produces, sings, and plays almost every instrument. Heavily juiced with vintage-style funk and soul, as opposed to classic rock 'n' roll, 5 is Kravitz's best effort since 1991's Mama Said.
On his fifth release, Kravitz's influences again reign supreme; he unapologetically evokes James Brown and Marvin Gaye, in particular. "I Belong to You" and "It's Your Life" are pure '70s soul, with choruses so retro they'll flare your trousers. Here and there Kravitz works his way up the timeline: "Black Velveteen" screams '80s pop with its cheesy synthesizer riff and electronically altered vocals, and Kravitz enters the '90s with "If You Can't Say No," which features a drum machine and a single pulsing note, electronica-style.
Kravitz's history lessons don't stop there, but fortunately the teacher knows where his strengths lie. One of them is the slow soul song, the kind that makes you want to be alone with your baby. "Little Girl's Eyes" and "You're My Flavor" (in spite of its lame lyrics) showcase Kravitz's unfairly abundant sex appeal. On "Super Soul Fighter" and "Straight Cold Player," the Sensual One demonstrates that he can funk a la Bootsy Collins. Kravitz's guitar-playing, as usual, is a simple yet masterful assortment of fuzz, blues riffs, and funk vamps.
5 also proves that Kravitz has matured. "Thinking of You," a song written for his recently deceased mother, the actress Roxie Roker, provides the album's most touching moment. Kravitz sings, "Tell me Mama is it just the way they say/And tell me Mama are you missing me the way/That I'm missing you today/Tell me can you hear me." Most artists couldn't pull this off without a visit from the schmaltz police, but Kravitz, like the best soul singers, gets away with it.
No popular musician today re-creates bygone sounds as thoroughly as Kravitz, and in that sense, he is original. In the hands of a skilled songwriter like Kravitz, the past sounds just fine.
-- Jonathan Lesser
A Painter Passing Through
Gordon Lightfoot turns 60 this year. Just imagine: That means he actually exists as a real person in time and space. He's not just a faceless folksinger whose disembodied voice, as soothing as that of a kindly scoutmaster, drifts over the soft-rock radio waves every now and then. The man is indeed growing -- and changing.
A Painter Passing Through, Lightfoot's first album in five years, has all the elements of his style: the gentle guitar work, the mytho-poetic lyrics, the warm sentimentalism. As always, Lightfoot views the world through a Vaseline-coated lens, but there's some grit in there this time. Painter includes no cataclysmic epic like "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," no gothic ode like "If You Could Read My Mind." Instead Lightfoot addresses smaller, day-to-day issues. "On Yonge Street," for instance, hearkens back to his halcyon days in his hometown Toronto. Some of Lightfoot's concerns might be a little too small: Both "Ringneck Loon" and "Uncle Toad Said" ascribe personal characteristics to forest animals. These songs are light and bouncy, as are many of the tracks here. It may sound strange to say this about Gordon Lightfoot, but he's kinda lost his edge.
It's interesting, though, to hear him reflect on his career. In the album's title track, a sunny little melody with a cantering rhythm, he all but states that his best work is behind him. "The world was in my hands," he recalls, "A touch could turn to gold/ Once upon a time/I was in a daze when I was in my prime."
Painter is more or less what you would expect from Lightfoot at this point in his life. Most of the songs are mellow (except for a couple, which are really, really mellow), but they're also quite catchy. The man remains a solid songwriter. And even those who don't get all warm and gooey from his lyrics might at least be impressed by a musician who's 60 years old -- and still growing.
-- Barry Lank
Angels With Dirty Faces
In the early '90s, rap developed from good-time dance music into an art form that mirrors the ugliness of life in the ghetto. Artists such as N.W.A and Ice-T painted some pretty grim pictures of life on the streets, and they made no apology for it. Unfortunately, the rap genre never got out of the ghetto. In the past few years, it has degenerated into misogyny, pointless violence, and common crime -- lyrically and in reality. As a result rap today sounds about as intelligent as heavy metal: puerile sex-and-violence fantasies pumped up with fake machismo and adolescent self-pity.
Adrian Thaws, a.k.a. Tricky, has always offered a refreshing change from the rap scene thanks to his intelligence, creativity, and unusual persona. His voice isn't big and booming but raspy and thin, the result of an asthmatic childhood. His musical knowledge extends beyond rap and funk into new wave, ska, and punk. He's British, and his lyrics are filled with dry wit, wordplay, and allusion. Even as a criminal he'd been clever: He wasn't a drug-dealing thug but a smalltime counterfeiter.
Tricky's intelligence has never been more apparent than on his third album, Angels With Dirty Faces. Musically it picks up where his 1996 landmark, Pre-Millennium Tension, left off. It's a giant stride forward in songwriting and arranging. "Trip-hop" doesn't begin to describe this music: dark, menacing, and layered with intriguing textures. Tricky drastically reshapes various forms of music to fit his own style, from dance-funk ("6 Minutes") to jungle rhythms ("Record Companies") to gospel ("Broken Homes," sung with substantial soul by P.J. Harvey). Like Beck he's an aural collage artist, pasting together nasty guitars, sound bites, and hard-hitting drumbeats. As always, Tricky's gargling vocals are offset by the confident, soulful voice of Martina Topley-Bird, who truly shines on the opening track, "Mellow," and on a brilliant cover of Mary McCreary's old chestnut "Singing the Blues."
Lyrically, Tricky has always been good at nailing down the pop-culture Zeitgeist. But on Angels With Dirty Faces he narrows his focus and takes aim at the crumbling world of rap. On "Record Companies" he snarls, "Why d'you keep buying their guns/Foolish/Corporate companies love when they kill themselves/Boost up the record sales." On the one hand, Tricky's too smart to end up dead from a gunshot wound: "Tupac's holding hands with Biggie/I watch where I venture, see/'Cause I don't like this century." But on the song "Demise," Tricky tries to quash the braggart inside himself: "Please won't you try/Stop me talking like a tough guy," he wheezes. "I'm too scared to be a gun-toting gangster wannabe/I've got too much love inside of me."
Even on a version of Slick Rick's "The Moment I Feared," a typical rap narrative about screwing young women and shooting young men, Tricky makes the tale sound less like a joy ride and more like a nightmare, with creaky noises set against a panicky rhythm. Somehow Tricky's bitter delivery serves to point out that the basic story line in rap music never changes. In fact, it's the same as Richard Wright's 1940 novel of ghetto life, Native Son: Boy grows up poor, boy commits crime, boy goes to jail. It wouldn't seem like much to brag about, but that hasn't stopped many rappers so far.
There's never been any doubt that Tricky is an innovative musical artist. But Angels With Dirty Faces marks him as an astute social critic as well. Not since Chuck D has rap had such an articulate voice in its midst.
-- Rafer Guzman