Badlands of Love (03/17/2000)
A. J. Croce, Transit (Higher Octave 2000) - Will the real A. J. Croce please stand up? On Transit, his fourth release, A. J. Croce ventures into the realm of contemporary pop, with mixed results.
The combo on Transit includes Croce on piano and vocals, Michael James on guitar, David Zeman (who also co-produced the album) on Hammond organ, Brad Cummings on bass, and Frank Reina on drums.
Croce's last outing was Fit to Serve, which was steeped in a New Orleans sound. The only thing memorable about the album was the cover (with the picture of the girl with the big boobs).
Transit finds Croce working in an uptempo pop medium, with uncertain results. Croce may be attempting to build a diverse body of work, like Ry Cooder before him. But Cooder worked from the strength of impeccable arrangements and great guitar stylings.
The son of the late Jim Croce, A..J. and his mother, Ingrid, are long-time residents of San Diego. A. J. is best known for his stride piano stylings.
(Side note: A childhood tumor rendered A. J. blind from the age of four until age ten, when sight was restored in his left eye. Croce's total immersion in music began at a young age, because "I couldn't really play sports or do things the other kids could, so all I could do was play the piano.")
Songs like "Find Out Now" and "Turn Out the Light" feature an uptempo pop sound, filled in with organ rifts and a polished pop sound. Only a few songs, like "The Bargain," hail back to the terrific sound of That's Me in the Bar, with a more rootsy, confessional sound.
I have a soft spot for A. J. Croce, because That's Me in the Bar was such a great release (the album was first recorded by Croce, then scraped in its entirety and re-recorded with such renowned studio hands as Jim Keltner.) A. J. Croce would have better success if he didn't try to cover such broad territory (the same goes for Harry Connick, Jr.).
Soundtrack to The Next Big Thing (Maverick 2000) - Either Madonna is very smart or very lucky (or perhaps both). Because the soundtrack to The Next Big Thing continues her winning ways, as previously demonstrated on the soundtracks to The Matrix and The Spy Who Shagged Me.
The reviewers have not been kind to the new film starring Madonna, Rupert Everett and Benjamin Bratt. Yet the soundtrack develops a cohesive, ambient pop sound that draws from the strength of the various artists.
The centerpiece of the album is Madonna's remake of "American Pie" (the 1971 classic by Don McLean). I dig Madonna's updated version: The song holds true to its roots, yet has a fresh sound.
However . . . Madonna only included the first and last verses, and omitted all the middle part of Don McLean's history of rock 'n roll. Madonna didn't change any of the lyrics; she just shortened the song by about four minutes (from its original eight-minute length). Here's how it worked for me:
First time through - really dug it.
Second time through - still dug it, but something nagged at me.
Third time through - sounds cool, but where's the rest of the story?
Don McLean is reported to have said "I have heard her version and I think it is sensual and mystical. I also feel that she has chosen autobiographical verses that reflect her career and personal history."
That's certainly an unusual quote. I'd like to know what part of the song is "autobiographical" to Madonna. Did Madonna really "Drive her Chevy to the levee/But the levee was dry"? When did "Three men she admires most/Catch the last train for the coast?"
Let's be plain: I'm not knocking the new version. I just miss hearing the rest of Don McLean's great story. (And if you're looking for the original, get your hands on the 1992 collection Don McLean: Classics, which also contains "Vincent" and his cover of Roy Orbison's "Crying.")
Throughout, the album is solid club/techno/ambient pop, offering a refreshing look at the future.
The album begins with "Boom, Boom Ba" by the duo known as Metisse (comprised of Ivory Coast born vocalist Aida and Irish keyboard whiz Skully), before slipping into the playful pop/rap of "Bongo Bong" by nomadic French African artist Manu Cho (which has some of the feel of "How Bizarre" by OMD).
Other highlights include "Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?" by the innovative Moby (which finds the British artist delivering a rich dance-hall ballad), and folk rocker Beth Orton on "Stars All Seem to Weep" (which lives up to Orton's potential as the bummed-out successor to Sheryl Crow and Sarah McLachan in the badlands of love).
The album also includes the instrumental, "Forever and Always," by Oscar-winning ("The English Patient") film composer Gabriel Yared, a second new song from Madonna, "Time Stood Still" (also produced by William Orbit, who helmed her recent Ray of Light album), and a never-before-available Christina Aguilera track, "Don't Make Me Love You."
Many soundtracks fall on their faces as a mishmash collection of unrelated music. Not The Next Best Thing. Look for this cohesive soundtrack, which holds together from beginning to end.
- Randy Krbechek © 2000
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