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Wednesday, Jan 29 1997
John Williams
Star Wars: A New Hope
(RCA Victor)

It occurs to me that if Ronald McDonald and his vast empire of cow grinders could only figure out a way to pretty up the cess from their franchise restrooms, they wouldn't mind feeding you their burgers twice. Given America's ever-whetted pang for nostalgia-sauced consumption, we'd probably even enjoy our seconds. In any case, we'd certainly pay.

Then again, why single out the middle man? Even McDonald's employees eat at McDonald's. And considering the praises sung of that other billion-dollar enterprise, Star Wars -- namely, that it not only entertained, but transformed our culture, having been built from mythic structures and propagated with fell clutches of licensing -- we have only ourselves to thank for leftovers. Those who profit from reissues like the Star Wars trilogy special-edition soundtracks are, in the human physiology, only external organs connecting colons to mouths. In a cultural sense, we feed off our own ass.

Not that that's necessarily a bad thing: The whole process sounds like a trait that biologists would admire in certain invertebrates. "It can thrive for years -- decades -- by devouring nothing more than its own excrement! By Jove, someone fetch me the killing jar!" Besides, listening to the Star Wars: A New Hope soundtrack is actually pretty fun. Hearing all those old symphonic themes, where specific melodies stand in for characters and premises (leitmotifs, as the liner notes say), summons great green gobs of pre-adolescent emotion that have been hiding in your body since '77 (assuming you first saw the film at the age of 9, like me). But knowing that modern marketing slys not only expected this expectoration, but banked on it, sours the loogie. Not because they're doing their jobs and making money, but because in the face of (thankfully) rare entertainment-industry phenomena like Star Wars, both our histrionics and our spending habits become frightfully obvious. Not since 20th-century fascists took a shine to Wagner, or since The William Tell Overture accompanied the charge of the KKK in the giddily racist film Birth of a Nation, has immediate, grandiose symphonic material been used so adroitly in conjunction with simplistic heroism to goad society's suckered awe. When it comes to the digitally remastered Star Wars score, I am the ass-feeder perishing in the jar, and the marketeers, of all people, have become the scientists. I can only rest assured that they saw Star Wars, too, and are gulping down their fair share of seconds along with their receipts.

-- Michael Batty

Tony Toni Tone
House of Music

Calling a record "retro" is akin to Mom approving of little sis' boyfriend after meeting him once. It's the kiss of death, a discreet alarm that warns sis/listener that no matter how desirable the package, the goods are spoiled rotten. There's nothing wrong with an act playing under the influences of their musical parents every now and then. But the minute the line separating reminiscence from imitation gets too blurry, the crooked finger of accusation will not hesitate to dub a band a bunch of knockoff artists, too intellectually shallow to hatch original thoughts of their own.

House of Music, a new album courtesy of Oakland's Tony Toni Tone, has been and will continue to be called a retro R&B plate by any- and everyone with an opinion. How retro is it? Let's just say that tunes like "Thinking of You," "'Til Last Summer," "Lovin' You," "Still a Man" -- the list is long, fascinating, and full of the kind of grooves high school sweethearts exchange on dubbed tapes -- could easily be mistaken for covers of obscure Al Green, Earth Wind & Fire, and Stylistics originals. But don't write off House of Music unless you're determined to abandon modern R&B all together, because be they hacks or geniuses, Tony Toni Tone have produced an album too full of good intentions and soul to be ignored outright.

Their fourth record in close to 10 years, the new disc comes at a critical point in the three-man band's history. Although they have never shied away from referencing and sampling classic acts before (see the albums The Revival and Sons of Soul), House is the closest Tony Toni Tone has come to going 100 percent retro. More modern-sounding ditties like "Top Notch," "Let's Get Down," featuring DJ Quick, and the jazz-heavy "Party Don't Cry" remind us of the decade. But more important, House is also the most mature offering from the group to date. Raphael Saadiq, Timothy Christian Riley, and D'Wayne Wiggins haven't sounded this inspired as musicians, writers, and singers since the early days of New Jack Swing, when singles like "Little Walker" and "Feels Good" were household names.

Then as now, the key to Tony Toni Tone's staying power has been their integrity, ingenuity, attention to detail, and a remarkable ability to reflect the very best of modern R&B -- even when it seems modern R&B has nothing to give us. And with artists like D'Angelo, Dionne Farris, Maxwell, Me'Shell N'Degeocello, Lenny Kravitz, and the reinvigorated artist formerly known as Prince (see Emancipation) all looking for the future of black popular music in its recent past, House of Music feels like the appropriate reaction. Mother doesn't always know best.

-- Victor Haseman

Amy Rigby
Diary of a Mod Housewife

In the liner notes to her Diary, Amy Rigby (or is it Mrs. Rigby?) defines a mod housewife as a woman "being dragged kicking and screaming into adulthood ... stuck in the netherworld between bohemia and suburbia, between set lists and shopping lists." Nicely put. She's pinpointing a "transition" that, as of late, has intrigued me. Yes -- OK -- maybe it intrigues me because my 30th birthday is barreling down on me like a Freightliner with blown brakes, but this is bigger than me feeling like a crotchety old-timer every time I venture out to a goddamn rock show, I swear. What about the larger historical and sociological considerations?

Rock has pretty much failed to grow up with its practitioners -- in fact, it has failed to even address the phenomena. Think here of the Sex Pistols' excruciating reunion ("Fat, 40, and back," screams Johnny), or Mick Jagger back in '85 wearing football uniforms, croaking out "Emotional Rescue" under pastel lighting. Or think of Elvis on one knee sweating out "America the Beautiful" in his rhinestone jumpsuit. Each was an artist at one point considered critically "seminal," and none of them capable of crossing the great divide; that is, making even halfway decent music about "adulthood" -- whatever that is. And meanwhile the whippersnappers stake their claim on the cult of youth; they reinvent the rules of rock.

Here's to Rigby for addressing the issue of transition, even if the album is uneven, tipping toward a thumbs-down. It's probably important to note that the music isn't exactly "rock," but more of a middling folk-country-rock hybrid, which seems to be the genre that allows folks in their 30s to feel open, honest, at ease; when the -- ugh -- uncompromising anger of youth glides into the sadness that surrounds half-filled dreams. (I wouldn't know. I'm still broke and 29, thank god.) Hence her music suits her topic, and on occasion, her lyrics get image-rich: "I'm driving past a field of red poppies/ Hiding my left arm from the sun." But her voice can't rival Emmylou Harris', and her songwriting skills fall short of Lucinda Williams'. Worse still, the rotating band sounds like a bunch of hired potbellied thirtysomethings in transition themselves, turning in a competent session: "High-fives fellas, and lite beer all around." And the production is annoyingly grit-free, slicked right up into that forgettable-bar-band ether. I personally blame Elliot Easton, producer in chief and former guitarist for the Cars. His name is on the CD at least as often as Rigby's, and, yes, I still hate the Cars. Rigby would do well to shed those who have packaged her and get together a band of her own choosing, share the vision, then make another -- her own -- record. I can wait; I got a couple of weeks still, before it really starts to matter.

-- Curtis Bonney

Kimmie Rhodes
West Texas Heaven

After the blow of realizing that the Beatles didn't all share a room in real life as they did in A Hard Day's Night, it became difficult for me to believe in the phenomenon of great individual talents assembling to work with friends. What comes first, the friendship or the talent? Do these stars gather to cross-pollinate only when the friend has met all required privately agreed standards of Talent and Authenticity? Yet, after a lifetime of being Talented and Authentic, are they themselves really able to see it in others, based on the theory that it's easier to recognize otherness than sameness? Or would they be distracted and end up playing banjo for the pal with the great record collection who looks after their dogs when they're on the road?

Of course, anyone who has heard the work of Kimmie Rhodes, who made her first commercial recording in 1981, will have already bypassed such speculation. This latest CD from the singularly delightful songwriter and musician from Lubbock features duets with some of her fans -- Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, the late Townes Van Zandt, and Joe Ely. Their shared voices are tenderly tremulous, unself-consciously fulfilling all fantasies and hopes about Simplicity and Truth in Country.

In this work of unaffected spiritual beauty, Rhodes weaves a romantic timelessness. Her voice has the purity of Alison Krauss' balladeering and the old-fashioned clarity of Iris DeMent's diction. Her songs rest easy. We've all heard many a thoughtful song suffer from being too earnestly crafted. But not here. Rhodes' is a natural discourse, the complexities rise and fall where they may. And so seldom in traditional folk and country do you hear contemporary vocabulary and concepts introduced and blended so effortlessly: "Like one of those stories about UFOs/ The Berlin Wall and the buffalo/ Baby, maybe we'll just disappear" ("Maybe We'll Just Disappear").

The CD is produced by fellow band member Joe Gracey and features a gorgeously understated acoustic accompaniment -- processions of single notes, perfectly placed. We even get to hear a classic Willie Nelson guitar solo, the kind where the strings rise in defiance like some battling Hydra as he beats them back ("Hard Promises to Keep").

Some facts: Nelson has called Rhodes an "undiscovered superstar," which seems reasonable enough. She has written songs for Wynnona and Trisha Yearwood and is "Big in Europe." "Valley" is the word most featured in this collection of songs, which surely propels it into the realms of folk. However if you take, for instance, the title track out of its lovely setting, dip it in crap, and give it to Colin Raye, you have a massively modern Top 40 country song. Kimmie Rhodes is a multidimensional artist. You could look at this work from any angle and still see the whole thing.

-- Cath Carroll


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