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Against the background of the presidential race, the Simpson case, and the Kervorkian disgrace, a discussion of the best party music currently available might seem flippant. Yet when a person wants to celebrate or merely forget the turns our culture takes, and hopes to select a soundtrack appropriate to his mood, it's hard to beat the bright, uptempo, southwestern-Louisiana music known as zydeco.
The best zydeco album of the year so far is Gonna Take You Downtown by Beau Jocque and the Zydeco Hi-Rollers. Born Andrus Espre, the linebacker-sized, grizzly-voiced accordion player adopted the stage name Beau Jocque several years ago when the music he'd begun making as a therapeutic hobby showed signs of becoming something more.
"I was in an accident at the refinery where I worked," Mr. Jocque told WORLD. "There was an explosion, I got my back and right hip broken, and I was paralyzed from the waist down for about a year. But during that time my dad challenged me to learn the accordion, which I did. And since I wasn't able to go back to what I'd been doing before, zydeco music gave me a second chance."
He has made the most of it. By mixing zydeco with the hard-driving rock 'n' roll he loved in his youth, he's concocted a musical brew that mixes the best of both. On Downtown he follows the irresistible rhythms of the title cut with a cover of the early-'70s War classic, "Cisco Kid." He even takes on Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." It's an allusion that he doesn't make lightly.
"I know God's blessed me in one big way to be able to do what I do, and I try to keep myself worthy of God's blessings. I've gone both sides. At one time I was one of those misbehavers, but you only end up on a dead-end street."
Unlike Beau Jocque, the 25-year-old accordion player Geno Delafose has lived and breathed zydeco all his life. The son of the late zydeco star John Delafose, he'd become the regular drummer in his father's touring band before turning 20.
He performs three of his father's compositions on That's What I'm Talkin' About!, his second solo album. "I'm always going to do at least two or three of his songs on my albums," Mr. Delafose told WORLD. "It's just a way for me to say 'Thank you' and 'You're just always in my heart.'"
Like Beau Jocque, Mr. Delafose has distinguished himself from the zydeco pack by allowing outside influences to flavor his music. He covers Los Lobos's Tex-Mex "Let's Say Goodnight," for instance, and admits that "Teardrops," another original of his, is a country-soul ballad in disguise.
Also like Beau Jocque, Mr. Delafose considers his musical gift a blessing. "All I can say is that I thank God. I always put God first, ahead of my own business. I don't preach in my music, but I must admit that I pray a lot. I often wonder if I'm not bothering God sometimes because I'm always thanking him for what I have."
Such simple piety is common in southwestern Louisiana. But in pop music, even in other roots genres like country and blues, it is hard to find. Zydeco musicians may seem like an unlikely tool in the preservation of the ember of faith, but few who've heard them perform will deny their flame-fanning power.
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Cultural conservatives who pursue happiness by searching for signs of intelligent life in the pop-music universe sometimes have to defend the pursuit against those who consider it a frivolity. If we're sharp, we remind our accusers that holding low culture in disdain is not so much "conservative" as elitist, and that just as one can enjoy the English and Scottish ballads collected by Francis J. Childs without indulging in intellectual slumming, so one can--in theory, at least--legitimately enjoy the best that pop music has to offer.
The problem is that the best pop music has to offer ain't what she used to be. So one turns more and more to country music, where the possibility of being pleasantly surprised by a clever couplet, a poignant melody, and a clear voice still exists.
Nothing, of course, is as surprising as finding the entire package embodied in a teenager. LeAnn Rimes, whose debut album Blue has been among the top-10 bestselling albums for the past month, has become the biggest country-music story since Garth Brooks in part because she is all of 13 years of age--or 20 years younger than the song that has propelled her to the top.
"Blue" was written by Bill Mack, a Dallas DJ, and submitted to Patsy Cline in 1963, shortly before her death. The popularity of Miss Rimes's recording has less to do with the singer's age than with her voice, which not only bears an eerie resemblance to Miss Cline's but also reflects a level of self-control unusual in a young singer.
None of the other 10 songs on Blue partake of the title track's instant-classic aura, but several of them ("I'll Get Even with You," "Fade to Blue," "Hurt Me") find her as comfortable with contemporary lovelorn ballads as she is with nostalgic ones. And although the suspension of disbelief required to go along with a teenager's accounts of love's ups and downs makes unusual demands on the listener's imagination, Miss Rimes's vocal precociousness and her album's tasteful production often make the attempt at such suspension as easy as it is enjoyable.
Like LeAnn Rimes, Harlan Howard owes part of his fame to Patsy Cline. Her 1961 recording of his song "I Fall to Pieces" helped to solidify his stature as one of the top Nashville songwriters of the '60s.
All Time Favorite Country Songwriter, originally issued in 1965 and recently reissued by Koch Records, features a 36-year-old Mr. Howard performing "I Fall to Pieces" and 11 other songs of his made famous by artists such as Ray Charles ("Busted"), Buck Owens ("I've Got a Tiger by the Tail"), and Burl Ives ("Mary Ann Regrets"). The variety of performers who've interpreted these clever, concise songs is itself a testament to Mr. Howard's ability to express universal sentiments.
The album succeeds not as a vocal showcase; if Mr. Howard, now 67, had been a first-rate singer, he wouldn't have needed other singers to make his songs famous. It succeeds instead as evidence that even an average singer can, with the help of sympathetic production and the right material, create an affecting recording. And it reminds us that, despite the relatively high standards of contemporary-country songwriting, Nashville seldom writes material this right anymore.
Neither, for that matter, does Willie Nelson. During the '80s, the long-haired, bandanna-wearing, Farm Aid-founding minstrel looked indefatigable. Album after album yielded hit after hit, from the sublime ("Always on My Mind") to the ridiculous ("To All the Girls I've Loved Before"). So eager to record with him were singers of every variety that he eventually released an album of duets unforgettably titled Half-Nelson.
But the '90s have not proven nearly as Nelson-friendly. These days, even with the burden of his much-publicized IRS debt finally discharged, he seems to find the burden of reversing his recent hitlessness too much to shift. On Spirit, his first album for Island Records, he sounds downright fatigued.
Not that each of his new songs suffers from exhaustion. "I'm Not Trying to Forget You Anymore" serves as a sequel of sorts to his 1985 hit, "Forgiving You Was Easy" (in which "forgetting seem[ed] to be the hardest thing"), and both "Too Sick to Pray" and "I Thought About You, Lord" offer glimpses into the redemptive nature of suffering.
But the cumulative effect of Mr. Nelson's languid singing and the absence of both uptempo songs and a rhythm section deprives the album of get up and go. In the context of the music, the cover photo, which shows a haggard old hippie gazing forlornly into the camera, seems to symbolize the dis-Spirit-edness of the album as a whole.
Starlite Lounge, the new album by David Ball, suffers from no such ennui. Despite its failure so far to yield as many chart-topping singles as Thinkin' Problem, Mr. Ball's platinum 1994 debut, Starlite Lounge is the better recording.
In contrast to his first album's rawboned, honky-tonk approach, Starlite Lounge boasts a deeper sound and edges that aren't so much softer as brighter. And in contrast to his debut, almost all of which was haunted by the memory of love gone bad, the new album consists mainly of songs that celebrate the joys of love gone good.
The best one, however--and the only Starlite Lounge song that Mr. Ball didn't write--deals with the middle ground. "Lately it seems like our ship is sinking / and the only way out is overboard," he sings in "Hangin' In and Hangin' On." "But if this love goes down, / then I'm going with it / 'cause I still believe in us." In addition to showcasing Mr. Ball's piercing tenor voice, the song also represents one of country music's clearest pleas for "tough fidelity" since Tammy Wynette's "Stand by Your Man."
"The first time I heard it, I thought it was really different," Mr. Ball told WORLD, "and I think that's important because the complaint that everything sounds alike in country music comes from the fact that there's not enough newness. Well, here's 'Hangin' In and Hangin' On,' which is new country music but which is not influenced by cheesy '70s pop music. It's rooted in tradition, but it's brand new. It's like Hank Williams meets the '90s."
The reason, of course, that Hank Williams can't really meet the '90s is that he drank himself to death in the '50s and thereby proved that not all traditions are worth being rooted in. The music of LeAnn Rimes, Harlan Howard, and David Ball, however, suggests that sometimes a good tradition is the best kind of anchor.
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During the '80s, the idealistic young rock band known as U2 designed the mold in which all subsequent idealistic young rock bands seem to have been cast. First, such a band goes through an energetic, callow period during which it captures the attention of the kids. Second, the band enters the period during which it grabs a hit single, some headlines for having said or done something provocative, and the attention of the kids' older siblings. Third, the band scores more hits, sells millions of albums, appears on the covers of magazines-inside which they hold forth on social issues-and has those parents who are concerned with "relating" to their children remarking, "You know, that group isn't just screaming and noise; they really have something to say." Fourth, and finally, comes the cynical phase, out of which the former idealists-disillusioned by their inability to bring about world peace-express contempt for the impersonal, repressive democracies of the West, as if the millions who buy their music were aborigines. Somehow, the impersonal, repressed Westerners fail to notice and continue to keep their heroes in caviar, fine hotels, and private jets, where the rockers behave like aborigines as a show of oneness with their fans. Such a band will at best eventually harden into something like the Rolling Stones; at worst, they'll die young. What this scenario has to do with the Cranberries and King's X is that both bands currently find themselves somewhere between stages three and four. Dakoda Motor Co., on the other hand, having just begun stage one, may yet avert disaster.
Like U2's, the disillusionment that both the Cranberries and King's X express in their latest albums seems to stem from a loss of faith in the belief that Christianity will ever do God's will on earth as it is done in heaven. As a result, the playing of both bands often suffers from the pitiful whining of those who've let their impatience with God get the best of them. In four of Ear Candy's songs, King's X's Doug Pinnick renders his impatience explicit. "[R]eligion burns me at the stake," he sings in "Looking for Love." "I listened. I worshiped. How can I relate? ...I guess I lost my faith." Later, in a painfully sung trilogy, he corroborates what he has told the press over the years about his life: that his grandmother, entrusted with his rearing in part because of his illegitimate birth, kept him in line by misrepresenting God's wrath ("Run"); that the troubled lives of his mother and half-siblings left him with a skewed sense of family values ("Fathers"); and that meeting his father for the first time several years ago enabled him to feel that he had finally begun to know himself ("Picture"). Although these songs endear Mr. Pinnick to the listener, they also make the listener respond more like a psychoanalyst than a fan. Enjoying these songs, in other words, involves a lot of work. With the exception of "The Train" and Ty Tabor's "Mississippi Moon" and "Life Going By," the Texas trio's blend of Beatle-esque melodies, gospel fire, and heavy-metal thunder has shrunk in power almost as noticeably as its audience has in size. How much has its audience shrunk? Well, last month Ear Candy spent one week on the Billboard 200 before disappearing, apparently for good. When the band's 1994 album, Dogman, met a similar fate, the album's defenders justified its low sales by noting that commercial heavy metal in general was no longer selling. Now, however, with Metallica's Load outselling almost everything else this summer, the excuse deflates. Unlikely as it seems, the main reason for King's X's soft support may be the same as Bob Dole's: having initially "run right" (much of the group's early support came from young evangelicals thrilled to have found hard-rockers who were Christians), they've spent the last few years "running to the center," emphatically blaming their reputation as Christians for why millions of people aren't buying their albums. In so doing, they've alienated Christians who can't understand why sales are more important than witness or why, if Jars of Clay can succeed as Christians, King's X can't.
To the Faithful Departed, the latest from the Irish quartet the Cranberries, is still among the top 30, but it too is dropping faster than expected. One reason may be the transformation of Dolores O'Riordan from a humble, at times shy, songwriter into the sort of arrogant and untamed ranter that U2's Bono has been for at least 10 years. Gone is the residually Catholic wistfulness of her early hits. Now, she goes on about Bosnia ("War Child," "Bosnia," "Free to Decide"), Hollywood ("Hollywood"), fallen idols ("I Just Shot John Lennon," "I'm Still Remembering"), and salvation ("Salvation") in a once-lovely voice now violently constricted with forced intensity. But what highlights Ms. O'Riordan's immersion into waters too deep for her is her self-penned dedication of the album "to all those who have gone before us [i.e., died]." "Nobody knows exactly where these people are," she writes, "but I know we would like to believe it is a better place." Adding non sequiturs to grammatical injury, she continues: "I believe it is a Human impossibility to obtain complete peace of mind in this dimension. There's too much suffering and pain particularly for the children. 'Suffer the little children to come unto me, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.'" What is one supposed to make of such a jumble other than that, along with her faith, Ms. O'Riordan has also lost her sense?
Three years ago, Dakoda Motor Co. became a Christian-music overnight sensation. Now, with a new lead singer and the increased visibility that has come from the guitarist's role as a gameshow host on MTV, DMC is the latest Christian band to sign with a major label. Some have accused Railroad, the band's Atlantic debut, of vagueness, but at least two songs-"Falling Down," which raucously mocks materialistic atheism and New Age spirituality, and "Odd Man Out," which celebrates a Christ-like hero-belie the charge. And DMC's stripped-down, punky rock-and-roll more than holds its own among the clatter of the current competition. But what matters more is where DMC will end up. What, in other words, will render the band members' faith immune to the vagaries of success and failure? Until they have an answer, their "vagueness" and simplicity of approach is probably as good and enjoyable a way as any to guard against that combination of zealotry and overreach that has hamstrung their predecessors.