The music industry's cartoon characters are often even more amusing and intriguing (and less human) than those inhabiting your average Chuck Jones-era Warner Bros. cartoon. Take Serge Gainsbourg, whose oily priapism, physical repulsion, and lampoon of French sensibility put him in a class with Le Peu -- all while being a flesh-and-blood Frenchman (albeit the son of Russian Jews). Comic Strip, a collection of Gainsbourg's late-'60s dabblings in rock 'n' roll, certainly doesn't hedge the artist's self-inflicted caricature. "He had it all figured out," writes a different Serge -- in this case liner-note writer Serge Loupien, seeing as how the Grim Reaper made French toast of Gainsbourg in 1991 -- "especially the enormous commercial potential of the second wave of rock 'n' roll, the one that wasn't born in some lost nowhere town in Tennessee or Mississippi, but in the very heart of London and on the Mersey river shores."
After we've finished mopping up all the European snot, we can see that this is absolutely correct -- not the post-Colonial hubris, but the recognition of Gainsbourg's gift for bandwagon-jumping. During his lifetime, Gainsbourg knelt down and gave nearly every popular-music genre on Earth a big wet shrimp job, from the "mambo" on Couleur Cafe ("Mambo miam miam," or "Mambo Yummy") to reggae, all of it about as heartfelt as Rick Dees' "Disco Duck." (Gainsbourg apparently did a disco number, too, but neither it nor the infamous "Lemon Incest" duet with his own daughter is included in these retrospectives.) Yep, Gainsbourg was as jaded as a pagoda and as opportunistic as a tapeworm, but his career lasted over 30 years, during which time he kept up a pretty constant one-man Maypole dance around his own penis.
Comic Strip rates best among these collections -- not because it's good by any stretch of the imagination, or because it includes duets with husky-voiced Brigitte Bardot, or even because its title is so apt. No, here we endure the usual lackluster pickup band sound, where the orchestrations underlying Gainsbourg's speech (a singer he wasn't) bear the florid, freezer-burned whiff of a prom corsage lost in a meat locker. And the studied attempts to titillate and shock, as on "Je t'aime ... moi non plus" ("I Love You ... Neither Do I"), where Jane Birkin subs for a scandal-shy Bardot on the heavy breathing, now sound quaint and muzzy, like the voice-over from an old hygiene film. Instead, it is the archival sense of Comic Strip that is most enjoyable -- the feeling that one has managed to pin down a hideous but rare bug for one's collection. And however omnipresent the kitsch value -- the only appeal possible for cartoon freaks like Gainsbourg -- the Bardot duet "Bonnie and Clyde" is simply a great song. I don't know one word of French, but I suspect this only aids the overall sense of slapstick. What's to understand?
-- Michael Batty
What about all this "masterpiece" bullshit? Does every band really peak at a specific moment? (Quick -- best Cheap Trick album?) And is everything before and after this compositional/lyrical/performative convergence nothing more than the stuff known to rock history-makers as the fodder of rise and fall? (Best Public Enemy?) Is a band's career -- barring a member's untimely death or departure -- really as simple to plot out as a bell curve? (Best Costello?) What about Kiss (Lou Reed?) or the Isley Brothers? Decidedly cold and stiff, prepped for the Hall of Fame. Think of James Brown and Dylan (Iggy Pop?), how they achieve at times a near genius level of self-parody. Redd Kross? Did Redd Kross really reach gooey-goofy pop perfection with Neurotica and has everything been a downhill slide since? (Best U2? Ha, gotcha! Their every album single-handedly redefines rock's middle ground!) Have they lost, for lack of a better bad German translation, "the will to make fresh candy?"
Show World indeed extends the line on the critical bell curve downward: This is distinctly middling pop fare. Of course, middling status beats that of other bands who've been on the decline since the Ice Age (Nick Cave?). Nonetheless, another depressing degree of slippage for a group that has always had plenty to offer: a super-cute brother combo who sing delightful harmonies over pop hook after pop hook; who write intelligent songs about cornball teen obsessions; who can be as retro as the real Bowie (Bowie?) even as they embrace an enormous, high-tech, '90s production; who used to whirl around lots of really long, shiny hair (Metallica?). Why should something this good have to end? Why can't we have fun forever? (Beach Boys?)
Daddy, why won't Spot wake up anymore?
And fun is the missing ingredient here. The majority of the songs on Show World lack the sparkle the title implies. The brothers McDonald seem weary. Or maybe, now that they are a bit older, and The Partridge Family finally seems shitty again, they are confused. Thus, tightly crafted pop songs and pretty harmonies sag under uninspired lyrics that too often resemble a rocked-up version of the early '80s pop we can now hear for free in the aisles of Safeway. An attempt at redefinition by stripping away kitsch has turned these boys into professionals searching for a hit. Lucky for us, the Steven McDonald-produced Imperial Teen hasn't peaked yet. (Redd Kross?)
-- Curtis Bonney
Even the trendiest, most fickle music consumers on the planet (i.e., Americans) can't resist a great voice when they hear one. The facts speak volumes: 1995's eponymous stateside debut by Cape Verdean singer Cesaria Evora rode Billboard's world-music chart for more than 18 months and has moved nearly 150,000 units (that's megaplatinum for a non-English-speaking artist). Of course, a U.S.-brand marketing blitz contributed to Evora's success, but no amount of promotion can make up for a lack of talent (Spice Girls excluded). There must be a singular something in the voice that lures fans through the language barrier. And Cesaria Evora's got it.
Not unlike an elder, not-so-sexy Cassandra Wilson, the fiftysomething vocalist exudes style and commands respect on her second Nonesuch recording, Cabo Verde. Her casual, seemingly effortless approach to morna -- the native ballad form similar in its yearning to the blues or Portuguese fado -- is imbued with a disarming strength that leaves listeners hanging on every syllable. It makes no difference that we can't fathom a word -- we believe whatever Evora is saying because she radiates maternal wisdom. Ironically, the singer's no role model. This free-spirited grandma smokes, drinks, and performs as the "barefoot diva" in an alleged attempt to feel connected somehow with the people of her coastal African community, whom she rarely sees anymore due to her sudden globe-trotting.
Given Evora's seriously limited range and the music's minimal song-to-song variation (in both key and tempo), her popular appeal must hinge on the sparse, acoustic arrangements. Simple (i.e., non-threatening) grooves on guitars, bass, percussion, and occasional piano complement the laid-back vocals and spur a slight shimmy in the hips without undue ceremony. The "wildest" moments come from guest saxophonist James Carter (enlisted in a deft production move to attract jazz hipsters), who provides his most tasteful accompaniment to date. Pumping up a few tracks with an unmistakable yet controlled fervor, he stays right in the pocket, which is a magnanimous feat for the young overblower. Outlining the contours of Evora's melodies, Carter is Lester Young to the Cape Verdean's Billie Holiday. Unlike Lady Day, Evora's getting her props during this lifetime. At least for another album, she will reign as world-music queen of the moment.
-- Sam Prestianni