- - Monday, March 12, 2012

 

Hell in a Handbasket

Meat Loaf

Sony Records

★★

Meat Loaf has never been known for his subtlety. On his 12th album, the rock ‘n’ roll veteran continues to swing for the fences, piling bombastic arrangements and dramatic, chest-beating vocals onto every track.

“Hell in a Handbasket” sounds an awful lot like a rock musical. That’s nothing new for Meat Loaf, who starred in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and Broadway’s “Hair” long before “Bat Out Of Hell” made him a rock icon, but there’s something different about this release. Maybe it’s the fact that Jim Steinman, who wrote most of Meat Loaf’s hits in earlier years, chose to sit this one out - or maybe Meat Loaf’s puffed-up, operatic sound simply has run its course.

One thing is certain: The guy is angry. “Hell in a Handbasket” cranks up the rage with dark songs titles, including “Fall From Grace,” “Party of One” and “Stand in the Storm,” and the lushly detailed ballads that filled past albums are replaced by faster tempos and harder, brasher guitars. It’s hard to take Meat Loaf’s anger seriously, though, when his track list includes awkward performance pieces such as “Mad Mad World/The Good God is a Woman and She Don’t Like Ugly” and an oddball, electro-acoustic cover of “California Dreamin’.”

Like a party host who can’t bring himself to turn away any guests, Meat Loaf also welcomes an unusual group of friends and musicians into the studio. Lil Jon, John Rich and Sugar Ray’s Mark McGrath, three of Meat Loaf’s teammates from a recent season of “Celebrity Apprentice,” make appearances on “Stand in the Storm,” and Public Enemy’s Chuck D lends his rapping skills to another track. It doesn’t matter that Chuck D actually sounds pretty great; Meat Loaf’s music just doesn’t lend itself well to hip-hop, even with the participation of one of the genre’s most celebrated MCs.

That’s the underlying problem with “Hell in a Handbasket.” There are too many cooks in the kitchen, too many ingredients in each song, and the result is a mixed dish that pretends to be more elaborate than it actually is.

The silver lining is Meat Loaf’s voice, which has retained its strength well into the singer’s 60s. His melodies tremble at the right moments and roar at others, and they’re beefed up with harmonies by Patti Russo, his backup vocalist for nearly two decades. Meat Loaf didn’t write any of these songs, but he sings them like they’re his own creation.

There’s no tongue-in-cheek humor to lighten the load, though, and Meat Loaf delivers every overwrought, melodramatic line with straightforward bluster, as though these tunes were the best of his career. They’re not.

Delta Spirit

Delta Spirit

Rounder Records

★★★

After kicking off their career as roots revivalists, the members of Delta Spirit reinvent themselves as modern-day indie rockers on their third album.

The transition can be jarring, especially for devoted fans of the band’s countrified beginnings. Gone are the acoustic guitars, ragged production and earthy performances. Instead, a wide arsenal of electric instruments - including synthesizers - help push the band away from Fleet Foxes territory and closer to the sonic terrain occupied by Wilco and My Morning Jacket, two bands that also abandoned their folksy roots for a more eclectic sound.

The best song on this self-titled release is “California,” a breezy pop tune whose vocal harmonies and hazy, summery chorus pay tribute to the Golden State. Not every track packs such a strong punch, though, and Delta Spirit’s willingness to explore a new direction occasionally gets the better of them. At the end of the day, this is still a band whose songs are defined by catchy melodies and riffs, so something is lost whenever the band devotes its focus to the presentation of the music rather than the music itself.

Give the guys some credit, though. Here is a young band willing to scrap its original agenda and go with a different plan entirely, and the result is an adventurous collection of rock songs steeped in the present, not the past. That’s the spirit.

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