Notes on recently issued local releases: Fledgling hippies intimidated by long modal jams might favor the Big Creak. The Cleveland/Bowling Green band dabbles in piano runs and guitar noodles by the bar, not the hour. The well-produced CD benefits from sharp playing and Jim Koch's gentle voice, but the Big Creak can't seem to figure out if it's aiming to be a Midwestern Santana or tame enough for Joanie, Chachi, and the Arnold's gang. Pop this sanitized makes the Barenaked Ladies sound like Molly Hatchet. (Contact: www.listen.to/TheBigCreak)
Like the Big Creak, Five Minutes Fast treats the guitar as too happy an instrument. At least FMF doesn't try to present its easy-on-the-ears pop rock as something tougher than it is, à la Matchbox 20. The first song, "Hole," is the strongest, a Semisonic-style number. The rest of the record, however, lacks its distinction (save the slightly hick "Cow"). FMF would also be wise to shake that hangover from the grunge era, the one-word song title. (Contact: Fivemfast@aol.com)
The late Sarah Turner started the Turner Singers 22 years ago, and her children are carrying on the gospel tradition proudly. No Vacancy is a family affair; eight Turners are listed in the credits. The singing is uplifting and disciplined, and the music ranges from smooth R&B, Prince-style funk, and traditional gospel. Too bad the singers don't have the proper backing: The vocals are diminished by the timid-sounding keyboards and programmed drums, especially on roof-raisers like "The Wait Is Over." The record closes with "It's Supper Time," an excerpt from a hanky-waving sermon by the Rev. A.F. Caver. Best line: "You don't even have to wash your hands. The Holy Ghost gonna wash you when you come to the supper." Amen! (Contact: 216-807-3915; P.O. Box 93591, Cleveland 44101)
Dave Brooks's A Fine Mess is the latest shipment from Akron's Grooveyard Studios. Brooks's large cast of associates includes some of the guys from Cyde, but A Fine Mess is his vision (he's written or co-written all the songs as well as produced it). Brooks's voice is much like Don Henley's, but not nearly as self-important. Most tracks are driven by acoustic guitar or piano, and almost all are neatly arranged and free of trend-chasing guile. Brooks is a good songwriter and a talent to watch, but he does lapse into late-'80s power balladry at times (that black-and-white Extreme video popped into my head more than once). And to all musicians: Unless you're Prince, when printing lyrics and song titles, please do not spell to as 2, for as 4, and you as u. (Contact: www.davebrooks.com)
Harry's favorite song is unquestionably Pink Floyd's "Mother." The acoustic artist not only covers the tune on Bare Bones, but most everything else sounds like it. Pleasing to the ears, Bare Bones is a little too bare on ideas. It clocks in at just 38 minutes, and one of the six originals is reprised.
In keeping with the one-named singer/songwriter theme, Stefana dresses up her pretty acoustic tracks with subtle percussion and warm violin on Lift You Up. She mixes tempos well, too, never blocking herself into the same dull corner "Grow or Die" sounds nearly like "Venus" unplugged. The new-agey babblings and Stefana's voice are tough to get around. She suffers from a touch of Melissa Etheridge Disease (chief symptom: singing every line as if it were her last) and strings words like courageous and experience over more syllables than necessary. (Contact: P.O. Box 25720, Cleveland 44125; hometown.aol.com/stefana33/page3/index.htm) David Martin
Missy Misdemeanor Elliott
Da Real World
(The Gold Mind, Inc./Eastwest)
Supa Dupa Fly, Missy Misdemeanor Elliott's debut album from two years back, bitch-slapped hip-hop into recognizing its most underappreciated, potent force: women. Along with ubiquitous partner Timbaland, Elliott created an R&B/hip-hop landscape filled with verbal acrobatics and even more flexible beats. It was the freshest burst in the run-down world of played-out, g-obsessed rappers and MCs to surface in years. Then along came Lauryn Hill. While Elliott's sophomore disc, Da Real World, may not be a direct reaction to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, it certainly is a dedicated and authoritative charge to reclaiming her throne.
And once you get past the procession of guest stars giving Elliott a hand here (Eminem, Redman, Aaliyah, Da Brat, Juvenile, Nicole, Lady Saw, Lil' Mo, and B.G. deliver the most notable performances) Da Real World sounds like one woman's and her still-hot producer's quest for dominance in a man's world. At times, she spits out her rhymes like a woman possessed (check out her throaty chorus to "Beat Biters"); when she coos on the album's more soulful (and weakest) songs, she's a gal ready to compromise for power. But make no mistake Elliott controls Da Real World like someone looking for some action in the real world.
Whether she's cutting down Timbaland imitators ("Beat Biters") or remaking herself for public consumption ("She's a B****"), Elliott keeps the focus on herself. She's nearly a one-woman show (only Outkast's Big Boi's and Nicole's supple cameos on "All N My Grill" up Elliott on her album), running things from the front and, with Timbaland, back lines. The staccato beats presented here are even more barren, in a mood-enhancing kinda way, than anything Timbaland has ever done. His style is chopped and clipped, forcing Elliott to be even more dynamic in her frontwoman capacity.
And it's their synergy that keeps Da Real World interesting. The sonic torrent of Supa Dupa Fly has been replaced by a dab of conservative role-playing. Having made her hip-hop mark last time, Elliott merely drives through a series of songs aimed to keep her profile high (as if her numerous cameos and songwriting and production credits weren't enough). It's a solid work, just not a momentous one, that continues the glorious education of Missy Elliott. Michael Gallucci
The Bluegrass Sessions: Tales From the Acoustic Planet, Volume 2
Banjo player Bela Fleck can be a frustrating fellow. He's a major talent, a supreme picker with both style and essence. But since splitting with the New Grass Revival, he's balanced his time between the old-style country on which he honed his chops and new-agey jazz that's just a little too precious for its own good. When he's stuck firmly on the fertile land that produced him and not floating away on some heady space-age exploration, Fleck is master of his domain.
Thankfully his latest album, The Bluegrass Sessions: Tales From the Acoustic Planet, Volume 2, a sequel of sorts to 1988's Tales From the Acoustic Planet, plops him straight into the heartland of his spirit. Working with a core group of pickers (and special guests like banjo legend Earl Scruggs), Fleck returns to his country roots and unleashes a barrelful of banjo tunes mostly Fleck originals, a few traditionals soaked in vintage bluegrass custom.
Still, Fleck can often be a mechanical player. His technique is nearly flawless, but he occasionally lacks the heart and soul that his mentors (like Scruggs) brought to the music. Maybe it has to do with his frequent dips into contemporary jazz, but he doesn't always seem 100 percent committed to the music. The Bluegrass Sessions features enough playing from other stylists that Fleck's rare lack of faith is hardly noticed in the setting. It's strength in numbers, and the star is surrounded by some mighty powerful pickers (including old New Grass Revival chum Sam Bush on mandolin).
And there's enough tweaking of conventional bluegrass rules that allows Fleck to be more than a retro-active player. His jazz inclinations are evident throughout this isn't rural, mountain-man bluegrass; it's urban, chic-cafe bluegrass and even when he lays into some heritage-sounding tunes (his own "Blue Mountain Hop," the traditional "Home Sweet Home"), they sound like some dazed hybrid of the real thing. But you gotta hand it to Fleck he's a cunning perfectionist with style to spare. And on these sessions, totally acoustic and light years away from his globetrotting jazz, he's blazing at a personal crest. Gallucci
FOH (Friend of Hootie) Edwin McCain possesses the same headstrong earnestness as his North Carolina pals. Every song, every note, every word means something so momentous that he injects each piece of his heart into the tunes building up around him. He sweats, sulks, and growls appropriately through the twelve songs that make up his third album, Messenger, with a dedication bordering on something religious. You even almost expect him to start speaking in tongues by disc's end.
But isn't that what we want in our pop stars? The days of indifference and passivity are so five years ago. The end of the century marks the beginning of passionate singing and songwriting. And McCain is ready to kick Y2K fever in the ass with his musical gravity. He means every word he sings, and on Messenger he out-Hooties Darius and crew with a set of sweeping songs in the express lane from his heart to yours. He even reprises last year's hit single, the contagious "I'll Be," for an acoustic reading that makes his words sound even more spiritual.
But McCain doesn't merely play around with "I'll Be" here. He reshapes, reforms, and remakes that bit of starry-eyed romanticism (is there a more devoted declaration to come out of a pop song these past few years than "I'll be the greatest fan of your life"?) into a number of new songs on Messenger. And each of them contains heaping doses of gooey sentiments ("No wish in this world except you right here," "I could not ask for more than this time together," "Through the tears in my eyes/I would see off this mountain") that speak to fanciful young hearts everywhere.
Yet it's not hard to get caught up in McCain's passion. He writes songs, obvious as they can be, with huge hooks, and he sings them with equal measures of gruff and affection. The strings that swell around McCain and his band on the soaring "I Could Not Ask for More" herald a gargantuan event, and the anthemic "Go Be Young" manages to sound even more important. McCain can't help himself he's honestly in love with these Byronic notions, and what you hear is his heart being drained of its excess contents, to be spilled out of your speakers and directly into your own heart. It's a musical transfusion courtesy of Edwin McCain, pop messenger. Gallucci
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