July 31, 1996
Steve Earle, I Feel Alright (Warner Bros. 1996) - Troubled troubadour, Steve Earle, appears to have righted his life. And judging from I Feel Alright, Earle's got a lot to say.
Steve Earle can be described in many ways: renegade rocker, country maverick, American poet, hopeless romantic, recovering junkie, fearless heart. But it really comes down to a single word - survivor.
With the release of his 1986 debut, Guitar Town, Earle was acclaimed as the heir-apparent to Hank Williams, Sr., both for his lean lyrics and his over-the-top lifestyle. However, Earle's hard living caught up with him; he eventually served time in prison for possession of heroin.
Prison seems to have tamed Earle. In an age of denying everything and blaming someone else, Earle is quick to shoulder responsibility for his wild ways. Now in his second year of sobriety, Earle is focusing his energy on writing songs and making records. "You see things differently at 41 than you do at 31," he says with a laugh. "Especially if you got to 40 the way I did. But here I am."
For the 12 tracks on I Feel Alright, Earle used a stripped-down combo of two guitars, bass and drums (as opposed to his former 7-piece lineup). With a rough-around-the-edges Texas songwriter sound (a la Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clarke), Earle is the genuine article. His songs highlight the troubles and joys of living, with bright flashes of beauty and the allure of the wild side.
I Feel Alright also has a strong autobiographical streak in such songs as "Hard Core Troubadour," "Hurtin' Me, Hurtin' You," and "The Unrepentant." Particularly affecting is the sparse "Valentine's Day," a love song about a man who has "only got my love to send." Also featured is "You're Still Standin' There," an enchanting duet with Lucinda Williams.
Like Steve Forbert (whose excellent 1995 release, Mission of the Crossroad Palms, failed to fully connect), Earle is difficult to pigeon hole. He's not pop, rock, folk, or country - he's all of them rolled together. And he's very real. Try I Feel Alright.
Pulp, Different Class (Island 1996) - In recent months, Pulp has emerged as one of England's most-publicized bands. With the new British invasion (which includes Oasis and Blur), it's not surprising that Pulp's sonically-drenched pop sound is catching on.
Pulp was formed by frontman and lyricist Jarvin Cocker in 1983. The current lineup (which has been together for several years) includes Russell Senior on guitar and violin, Steve MacKey on bass, Candida Doyle on keyboards, Nick Banks on drums, and Mark Webber on guitar and keyboards.
Different Class has taken the band to a new plateau: the album entered the British charts at number 1, and has already sold more than a million copies worldwide. Frontman Jarvis has become Britpop's most beloved misfit, a popular media anti-hero whose singular presence regularly graces magazine covers and television programs.
With darkly insinuating melodies that underscore Jarvis' lyrics of sex, revenge, and class struggle, Different Class boasts such cuts as the sharply-barbed "Common People" (a number 1 single in Britain), the slyly vicious "I Spy," "Mis-shapes," a heartfelt anthem for the disenfranchised, and the guardedly optimistic "Something Changed."
"When people say were ironic, I feel so insulted," Jarvis comments, "because it implies that you don't care about what you do, and that you don't mean what you say. I haven't devoted 15 years of my life to a joke. You may think we're misguided, but we're totally honest. Anyone who has listened properly should realize we are never tongue-in-check."
Pop music generally has roots in the local culture, and Different Class is no exception. I can't say I get all the cultural allusions and references on Different Class. But I like the energetic, synthesizer-and-guitar sound. For a sample of Britpop at its best, give Different Class a listen.
Hey, that sums it up. The trio known as Betty (consisting of Alyson Palmer and sisters Amy and Elizabeth Ziff) have created quite a buzz on the East Coast with their non-stop touring. With Limboland, the trio seeks to expand its fan base.
Limboland features a programmed dance sound that is highlighted by slick production work. Think disco; or maybe Manhattan Transfer on a pop spree.
And I don't mean that in a negative way. Limboland is an eager-to-please disc that will wrap its arms around you. From cuts like "Baby Ooo" to "Freaky" to a cover of The Association's "Wendy," Betty knows how to deliver a crowd-pleaser.
Limboland is released on an enhanced CD, meaning that you can play it in your stereo or your computer. The enhanced CD portion includes a history of Betty, lyrics to each song, and a multi-media interpretation of "Pens & Needles," Betty's spoken word piece.
If you're looking for a perky dance sound, where the singers still have some originality (i.e., have not been completely homogenized by a studio), try Limboland.
-- Randy Krbechek
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