- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 17, 2002

BRUCE HORNSBY

Big Swing Face

(RCA Records)

While it is true that artists should try to evolve with their audiences by attempting new musical styles, sometimes they go too far. That is the case with Bruce Hornsby's new album, "Big Swing Face."

The biggest surprise is what you won't find on this album: You will not hear Mr. Hornsby's talented fingers gliding over the piano keys. Instead, there are the sounds of electric keyboards, synthesizers, electric guitar solos and programmed drum beats.

The first time you hear it, the album is jarring and disconcerting. You have to listen several times to get used to the varied sounds and rhythms. At times it resembles a horrific car accident that you know you shouldn't look at, but you just can't help yourself.

An artist whose messages often addressed the social ills of the world, Mr. Hornsby now has lyrics that are downright silly by comparison.

Although there are some enjoyable songs on this 11-track album ("This Too Shall Pass" and "The Good Life") and while a few others, most notably "Sticks & Stones" and "Take Out The Trash," have catchy hooks, the remainder lack the special spark for which Mr. Hornsby is so well-known.

Once you get over the initial shock, "Big Swing Face" can be enjoyed for what it is, but this is not the Bruce Hornsby we have come to love. Mr. Hornsby ends up taking a backward step.

Amy Baskerville


BRIGHT EYES

Lifted or The Story is in the Soil Keep Your Ear to the Ground

(Saddle Creek)

Conner Oberst is messing with you. There's really no other way to explain why the talented young singer-songwriter behind Bright Eyes deliberately sabotages the first track on his new album (let alone the mouthful of a title).

The first two minutes of the record consist of a sound clip with barely discernable voices, and the sound of two people leaving a house and getting into a car. The tune that follows, "The Big Picture," is a whiny, rambling semi-folk tune that clocks in past the eight-minute mark, and should try the patience of most casual fans.

Perhaps it's merely the young Nebraskan's way of shirking off the buzz that's been surrounding him lately. He first gained notice in the indie music world when he was only 14, as the head of the band Commander Venus, and has been using a rotating crop of musicians in Bright Eyes to bring his musical visions to life (not to mention heading up the critically lauded band Desaparecidos).

While his artistic integrity is high, it doesn't always translate to easy listening. When he's on track, however, he sounds like he could be the next savior of rock.

One of those moments happens on the second song, "Method Acting." The tune begins with a fairly simple guitar chord progression (with a touch of surf guitar ringing), that is livened up with a mournful trumpet, strings, a glockenspiel and haunting female vocals that turn what could have been a simple folk song into high drama.

His poetic skills also shine. When he sings: "So I make peace/with the fallen leaves/I see their same fate/in my own body," his strained vocals only add to the sense of intense emotion behind his lyrics which is why some critics have taken to labeling his music "emo," even though he doesn't always fit into that loose genre.

Other highlights include "Lover I Don't Have to Love," which opens with a repeating music box melody that becomes tense when violins jump in on the chorus; "Nothing Gets Crossed Out," with female vocals echoing Mr. Oberst's voice in a Belle and Sebastian-style melody; and "From a Balance Beam," the best song off the album.

"From a Balance Beam" juxtaposes Mr. Oberst's strained voice against a rich sound palette of a military-style drum roll, eerie samples, keyboards, guitar picking and slight backing vocals that put the emphasis on melody.

But that doesn't make up for the half-finished feel of the final product. While "From a Balance Beam" and other tracks are lush and haunting, other songs feel as if they are still in the demo stage. As a result, "Lifted" is an uneven listen, even as it points to Mr. Oberst as a songwriter to watch in the next decade.

Derek Simmonsen

JAMES TAYLOR


October Road

(Columbia)

James Taylor has his nerve.

You'd like to give him a really, really hard time for taking five years since the Grammy Award-winning "Hour Glass" to put out an album. But then he releases "October Road," and you understand why the man waits, and what kind of perfectionism is required to create a record this exquisite.

It's the best work the quintessential singer-songwriter has ever done, better even than 1997's "Hour Glass." It's musically and lyrically the most even, conceptually the most consistently inspired album. The producer, Russ Titelman, worked with Mr. Taylor on two of his 1970s classics, "Gorilla" and "In The Pocket."

Among the favorites here are the nostalgic "September Grass"; the cheery ode to the promise of love to come, "Whenever You're Ready"; or "Belfast to Boston," a moving plea for peace in Northern Ireland (and everywhere else on this fractious planet).

Associated Press


VARIOUS ARTISTS

Music From and Inspired by Stuart Little 2

(Epic/Sony Music)

Much like the film, the "Stuart Little 2" soundtrack is a fun-filled ride for children of all ages. Whether you see the movie or not, the soundtrack stands alone.

This album, which contains music both from and inspired by the movie, is filled with different types of artists who will appeal to everyone. Celine Dion kicks it off with a disco style song "I'm Alive" and the duo Mary Mary does an excellent job covering the song "Put A Little Love In Your Heart."

"One," performed by Nathan Lane as the character Snowbell, is a jazzy little number and a treat to listen to.

Another treat is the lullaby "Little Angel Of Mine," performed by No Secrets with music by Madeline Stone and lyrics by Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican. Although the song is not actually in the movie, it is definitely one of the highlights from the soundtrack.

Composer and conductor Alan Silvestri contributes "Falcon Finito" and "Silver Lining" to the album, which also features the classic "Born To Be Wild" by Steppenwolf and "Alone Again (Naturally)" by Gilbert O'Sullivan. Both songs are older than Stuart Little's target audience, but should be enjoyable to them nonetheless.

A.B.


VARIOUS ARTISTS

When Pigs Fly: Songs You Never Thought You'd Hear

(Xemu Records)

This collection isn't so much songs you never thought you'd hear, but horribly mismatched artists singing those songs. Case in point: the opening track features a duet of "Unforgettable" by Ani DiFranco and Jackie Chan.

Why this collaboration ever took place remains a mystery, but the song is strangely mesmerizing, making one cringe while holding a finger over the stop button. Mr. Chan's broken English provides an odd counterpoint to Miss DiFranco's earnest take on the tune.

Among the other bizarre tracks are a synthesizer-heavy version of "Ohio" by Devo (those of "Whip It" fame), Do Ho's funky cover of Peter Gabriel's "Shock the Monkey" and Lesley Gore singing AC/DC's "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap."

Some of the tracks aren't so terrible, which ruins some of the fun behind it. The Box Tops, '60s soul-rock crooners, do a decent job with Blondie's "Call Me" and the Oak Ridge Boys actually give a faithful rendition of "Carry on Wayward Son," which easily translates into the Boys' country-rock style.

The bigger question here is who the intended audience is. While it has some camp value it's not as strange as Pat Boone's heavy metal musings it will likely get one or two spins in the CD player before it gets set aside forever.

D.S.

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