- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 3, 2001

Cuttin' Heads
(Columbia Records)
John Mellencamp has plenty on his mind these days. The man who built "Pink Houses" and introduced us to "Jack and Diane" brings a feisty social commentary to his new release, the raw, rigorous "Cuttin' Heads."
Mr. Mellencamp's 17th album tackles racism, the politically correct and world peace all before the third track begins. Alternately preachy and compelling, "Heads" finds Mr. Mellencamp's familiar growl huskier and more worthy of our attention, even if his lyrical pen leaks a stream of shopworn prose.
Appalachian fiddles, pedal steel guitars and accordions clash and clang over 10 new cuts, an affectionate jumble kept under his loose but knowing control.
The self-described "middle-aged teen-ager," who blew out 50 candles on his last birthday cake, wisely doesn't go it alone this time 'round.
Public Enemy's Chuck D appears on the first track, rapping to underscore Mr. Mellencamp's simplistic rage against racism. Mr. Mellencamp then enlists India.Arie for the accessible, if naive "Peaceful World." Their dueling sounds hers as silky as crushed velvet, his akin to an old tree's bark mask the sappy lyrics.
Trisha Yearwood contributes a similar vocal counterpoint on the poignant "Deep Blue Heart."
"Crazy Island," a moronically voiced ode to his country tis of thee, comes off as lyrically deep as a Bazooka Joe comic.
The Indiana native stands on more familiar turf with love songs, such as the cynical "Women Seem," a rambling diatribe-slash-ode to the fairer sex. "In Our Lives" is as close to a confessional as a rocker likely will pen.
On "Peaceful World," he sings, "Well I'm not a preacher just a singer son, but I can see more work to be done." To his credit, the singer has played a pivotal role in the Farm Aid concert series, which raised millions for American farmers.
"Cuttin' Heads" can't help but entertain, but the singer-songwriter might be better served emulating Bob Dylan or Steve Earle before stepping back onto his soapbox. Christian Toto

Is This It
(RCA Records)
Can too much hype be a bad thing? In the case of the Strokes, billed by critics as the next Velvet Underground, the answer is definitely yes. The New York City band's full-length debut "Is This It" is a strong record, but not worth the earth-shattering praise that critics have been heaping on it.
While the Strokes certainly have been listening to a fair share of early Lou Reed, Television and the Stooges, the band also has taken notes from modern indie rock, most noticeably Sonic Youth. Viewed in light of its influences, the group is not a band so much rewriting the rules as one that follows them far better than its peers.
One has to listen several times to fully appreciate the skill with which the band weaves 1960s pop influences with the dour tones of indie rock and the snarling guitar noise of punk. On "Someday," those three genres meld perfectly, with the disaffected, nasal voice of singer-songwriter Julian Casablancas standing out amid the thriving drum beat, jangly guitars and seductive bass line.
Guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr. are a perfect match, and drummer Fabrizio Moretti is the backbone keeping the whole album moving at a steady clip.
Not all of the songs stand out from the whirl of subdued vocals and distorted guitars, however. Without the male-female vocal interplay of Sonic Youth or the sheer inventiveness of the Velvet Underground (which put standard rock songs next to feedback heavy ones), the Strokes can be a bit repetitive.
Perhaps if the hype had hit on the band's second album or a little later in its career, the Strokes might be worth it. Based on "Is This It" though, all of the hype seems a bit premature.
Derek Simmonsen

"Mulholland Drive" soundtrack
(BMG/Milan Records)
It's not necessary to know who the cowboy is, what the box means or why a monster lives behind a Hollywood diner to appreciate the "Mulholland Drive" soundtrack. Collaborating again, director David Lynch and composer Angelo Badalementi manage to give sonic depth to the dark, creepy atmosphere of Mr. Lynch's cinematic visions.
Mr. Badalementi may be one of the few composers in the world who can make unrealistic, gaudy synthesizers seem sinister and foreboding. With his scores to "Blue Velvet," "Wild at Heart" and especially "Twin Peaks," he's turned overly dramatic keyboards into an art form.
The early track "Mulholland Drive" ponders with menace just below the surface, in a synthesizer melody that hints at the musical themes that will follow. Some of the tracks are short (an opening montage clocks in at just less than two minutes) but manage to convey tension simply through sustained chords rather than melody.
The downside is that the music is beautiful, but the album does not provide a consistent listening experience. The flow is interrupted by a few pop numbers (such as the old Broadway gem "I've Told Every Little Star") that fit the context of the film but do not enhance the record. Adding to the frustration is that so many of the tracks begin with silence, or quiet tones, that keeping the volume level on high is a necessity.
While these drawbacks hurt the commercial appeal of the soundtrack, they should not detract from what is a superior effort from Mr. Lynch and Mr. Badalementi (especially in the opening and closing "Mulholland Drive" theme). The two have managed to form an unlikely partnership between composer and director (in the vein of John Williams and Steven Spielberg) that will hopefully continue to produce haunting music for years to come. D.S.

Anthology Volume One: Cowboy Man
(MCA Nashville Records)
Lyle Lovett looks a bit silly sporting a cowboy hat. With his long, contorted smile and rooster 'do, he would look a bit odd in any chapeau.
The lanky singer-songwriter wears the country genre like few of his peers, though, which is rarely more evident than with "Anthology Volume One: Cowboy Man."
The new, best-of release captures Mr. Lovett at his honky-tonk peak, with 13 tracks plucked from his initial trio of albums, "Lyle Lovett" (1986)," "Pontiac" (1988) and "Lyle Lovett and His Large Band" (1989).
"Anthology" tacks on the requisite new numbers, though here the tracks are worthy additions to his catalog, not material sprung from forgotten demo sessions.
"The Truck Song," one of two new songs, kicks off the collection with a galloping bounce. Its spare, silly narrative typifies the singer's knack for penning witty odes to his Texan roots. "San Antonio Girl," the other fresh release, matches its mirthful melody with a Western swing-inspired sound.
Part of the long, tall Texan's appeal is his ability to sing to his beloved truck one moment, then to his unswerving faith in his Lord the next.
"God Will" weaves spiritual refrains with sanguine string arrangements, while "This Old Porch" creates a stirring pastiche of evocative images.
"Walk Through the Bottomland" cranks up the tear factor, with Emmylou Harris supplying sweet vocal support. "L.A. County" picks up the tempo with its mysterious tale of a wedding interloper brandishing a "coal black .45" at his side.
The selections on "Anthology" are uniformly wise and give listeners an accurate snapshot of Mr. Lovett's early career.
Even with the album's country focus, it can't help but capture the singer's other influences, like the jazz-inflected refrains of "Why I Don't Know."
If there is a flaw to be found in Mr. Lovett's early recordings, it's that they come off as a bit precious, his craft too pure and refined. The lack of a rough edge marks the record's sole deficiency, and it's a flimsy one at that.
Three years ago, Mr. Lovett recorded "Step Inside This House," a homage to the songwriters whose time-tested tunes inspired his early muse.
It's hardly a stretch to imagine future songwriters covering the songs on Mr. Lovett's "Anthology" with similar justification. C.T.

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