From the offensive Chili Peppers to barbershop quartets, the Beach Boys' summer never ends
by Arsenio Orteza
The latest recordings by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Northern Light, Elliot Easton, and members of the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America (SPEBSQSA) suggest that no American rock-and-roll group has had as lasting an impact on pop music as the Beach Boys. In one way or another, each recording rises to the challenges implicit in the music of a group that once was the Beatles' toughest competition. The Red Hot Chili Peppers spend much of their new album, Californication, satirically exposing the corruption beneath the surface of the Beach Boys' teenage-utopian worldview. They're unlikely candidates for the task: A decade-plus of drug abuse and run-ins with the law has made the Peppers themselves notorious for failing to grow up. But Californication, occasionally offensive lyrics and all, articulately attacks the emptiness of living for nothing but fun, fun, fun. The title song skewers hedonism on several levels: "It's the edge of the world / And all of Western civilization. / It's understood that Hollywood / Sells Californication ... Born and raised by those who praise / Control of population, / everybody's been there, and / I don't mean on vacation ... [Earthquakes] are just another good vibration, / And tidal waves couldn't save the world / from Californication." On "Emit Remmus," "Get on Top," and "I Like Dirt," the Peppers lose their satirical balance, sounding more intent on succumbing to the California myth than on resisting it. But the music, like an alternative-rock version of the Eagles' Hotel California (itself a critique of the endless-summer dream), displays a mastery not only of contemporary rock styles but also of the volatile emotions at the root of youth culture in general. Northern Light, on the other hand, offers not a critique but a tribute. Indeed, Sweet Sunny Day imitates the Brian Wilson sound detail for detail. Group leader David Sandler worked closely with Mr. Wilson on a 1972 album by the vocal duo Spring and learned his lessons well. By approaching the music secondhand, he relieves it of the burden of having to support mature expression and frees it to function as the sum of its parts. The result is a technically impressive and enjoyably faithful replication that captures the music's seductive power without denying its ultimate fragility. Elliot Easton provides the Beach Boys connection on Sounds of Wood and Steel, Volume Two, the latest in Windham Hill's series of acoustic, instrumental recordings by musicians better known for plugging in. The former Cars guitarist's version of Brian Wilson's 1966 solo hit "Caroline, No" serves as a reminder that at his peak Mr. Wilson's instrumental arrangements were as inventive as his vocal ones. Last, there's Can't Stop Singing!, a delightful collection of a dozen highlights from the 1998 SPEBSQSA Convention in Atlanta that proves the barbershop-quartet tradition underlying Mr. Wilson's vocal arrangements still thrives. It also proves that performance styles and the values they celebrate don't lose their freshness simply because they're labeled "old-fashioned."
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Music: Black gospel's richness
Despite historical confusions, the spirit of the music shines through
by Arsenio Orteza
Given that black Christianity in America is often presented as something narrowly political instead of something eternally rich, any media event that closes the gap, so to speak, is welcome. It's in such a spirit that Christians of any background should welcome Testify! The Gospel Box, Rhino Records' latest multi-disc compilation of 20th-century, black-gospel highlights. Having welcomed it, though, let's note its shortcomings. Gospel fans will note that nine of the set's 50 recordings are already included on volumes one and two of Rhino's Jubilation! series, a 1992 black-gospel collection that's still in print. Testify!'s other shortcoming is its attempt to demonstrate gospel music's development through chronology alone, an attempt that results in Andrae Crouch's "My Tribute," the last track on Disc Two, serving as a link to Disc Three's exclusively contemporary lineup. Andrae Crouch, however, isn't a musical link so much as a cultural link, and the cultures that he links aren't those of older black Christians and younger black Christians but those of black Christians and white. Does such infidelity to history rob Testify! of its entertainment value, which is considerable, or its devotional value, which is more considerable still? No, but it does obscure the big picture: No matter how celebrity-driven and splashy some forms of black gospel have become (Whitney Houston closes Disc Three), its older and simpler styles still thrive with a vigor that implies, among other things, that the Source of its inspiration is infinite. No collection captures the vigor of the old styles better than Cello's Music Maker Series, a group of new recordings by poor, elderly southern folk-blues musicians who, despite the seminally influential nature of their work, have never reaped its worth in lucre. Of particular interest is Honey Babe by Algia Mae Hinton, a 69-year-old North Carolina native whose weather-beaten voice and acoustic guitar are the authentic version of the rural blues that Bob Dylan affectionately mimicked on his debut album 37 years ago. Except for "If You Want to Go to Heaven" and "I Want Jesus to Walk with Me," Honey Babe's 16 selections are secular, but they reflect the strength and compassion that Mrs. Hinton evinced while single-handedly rearing her seven children after her husband's death in 1965. And as the songs "When You Kill the Chicken Save Me the Head," "Cook Cornbread for Your Husband," and "Lima Beans" prove, nothing gets one through the hard times like a well-rounded diet and a sense of humor.
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Music: Keeping the faith?
Van Morrison's contradictions and Maria Muldaur's paradoxes
by Arsenio Orteza
With 1979's Into the Music, Van Morrison made a musical profession of faith so eloquent that echoes of it still resound in his music. Hearing them can sometimes be difficult, mainly because Mr. Morrison himself is difficult. He is something like Walt Whitman, who answered the question "Do I contradict myself?" with "Very well then I contradict myself, / I am large, I contain multitudes." Mr. Morrison's work is both large (Back on Top is his 31st album) and self-contradictory: He is by turns a joyful Christian, a superstitious pagan, and a bitter misanthrope. And just as Whitman's poetry unites multitudes by speaking for them with one mouth, Mr. Morrison's singing, instrumentation, and lyrics unite jazz and blues, gospel and soul, wise man and fool. Back on Top is a typical, and typically enjoyable, Van Morrison album, the latest version of the one he's been making obsessively for years now. His ability to celebrate William Blake, silence, falling leaves, and gardens wet with rain seems endless, as does his zeal for medieval archetypes (Holy Grail, Philosopher's Stone, Ideal Lady) that symbolize the otherworldly source of man's deepest desires. Ironically, what saves him from predictability is also what makes him an enigma for Christians-namely, that he settles for width when depth eludes him. The problem on Back on Top isn't "Precious Time," with its casual, Ecclesiastes-lite pessimism, but "High Summer," which says something about Lucifer, but exactly what remains unclear. Perhaps the most one can conclude about Back on Top is that it presents a figure in transition, a reckless romantic for whom the most perplexing questions and serpentine paths pose irresistible challenges. That Mr. Morrison has long cut such a figure doesn't present his audience with a problem of esthetics or theology so much as with a problem of patience, as he's obviously in no hurry to draw a more definite conclusion himself. Like Van Morrison, Maria Muldaur also marked a turning point in her career with a gospel album (1980's excellent Gospel Nights). Unlike Mr. Morrison, Miss Muldaur has since proceeded with a most definite if two-fold purpose: first, to rescue love's legitimately sensual elements from abuse at the hands of perpetually adolescent rock 'n' rollers; second, to restore those elements to their rightfully dignified place in the mature timbres of late-night jazz and blues. Meet Me Where They Play the Blues demonstrates her voice to be the perfect instrument for this delicate operation. By singing sublimely about the earthy ("Soothe Me") and earthily about the sublime ("The Promised Land"), she creates a metaphor for the union of body and soul that makes close listening a pleasure.