- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 25, 2003

In today's increasingly youth-driven music industry, it's instructive (and entertaining) to watch succeeding waves of rock musicians negotiate the treacherous passage into middle age.
Many members of rock's royalty, including Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones (or at least Mick Jagger), simply ignore the calendar, straining to preserve their youthful images and rarely confronting age-appropriate themes in their work.
Other performers, such as Randy Newman, Tom Waits and even Bob Dylan, have fared better. Less dependent on stadium spectacle and sexual charisma, they are freer artistically. Projecting world-weary "outsider" personas, they enjoy an added advantage: They have sounded like cranky old men since the beginning of their careers. Nobody noticed when Mr. Newman turned 50, because he might have been 50 all along.
There is no single "right" way to negotiate this passage. There are some obvious pitfalls to be avoided self-caricature, solipsism and preachiness but ultimately, every performer has to draw his own map on the fly
Sure, it's a guilty pleasure to laugh at over-the-hill rock stars, but a more worthy pastime is cheering those who find ways to keep making relevant music on the downslope of that arc. No one thinks twice about wrinkles and gray hair on jazz, blues and classical musicians. Who says grown-ups aren't allowed to play rock 'n' roll, too?.
LOU REED
The Raven
(Sire/Reprise)
Was there a time when Lou Reed's every musical offering did not inspire automatic critical genuflection and a PBS documentary?
Still, by the mid-'70s, feeling neglected, he was acting like a spiteful child: I'm taking my genius and going home. Indulging in gleeful contrariness and bad-boy behavior, Mr. Reed tossed off ever-trashier albums, culminating with the notorious "Metal Machine Music," a double-album set of audio hiss nothing more.
With the advent of punk rock in the late '70s came a complete reappraisal of the slim oeuvre of Mr. Reed's first band, the Velvet Underground. Ridiculously influential, it ascended to the rock pantheon. Reborn as the "godfather of punk," Mr. Reed began treating his talent and his audience with respect for the first time in years. By the end of the '80s, however, he had taken the rock-band format as far as he could be bothered. The restive godfather set his sights for higher brows.
"The Raven" is a culmination of this latter phase. Using the writings of Edgar Allan Poe as a springboard, it's a two-disc extravaganza of spoken-word verse, electronic noise, jazzy and orchestral flourishes, sound effects, gospel even some rock 'n' roll. Capital A ambitious and capital P pretentious, it's so over-the-top you may find yourself surrendering to Mr. Reed's sheer audacity.
Abetted by an all-star cast of actors and musicians (a characteristically creepy Willem Dafoe, the Blind Boys of Alabama), Mr. Reed manages to make a lot of this work surprisingly well, even when it's downright silly.
Actual songs appear intermittently. Take "Edgar Allan Poe." Its lyrical insight: "Not exactly the boy next door." (Write that down.) Then there's "Hop Frog," mostly a deranged-sounding David Bowie chanting, "They call me the hop frog." These are the kind of two-chord throwaways that have marred Mr. Reed's recent releases. But gems such as "Call On Me" and especially the death-haunted "Who Am I?" are delicately played and carefully observed, matching real melodies with impassioned singing, rather than Mr. Reed's patented tuneless deadpan.
Mr. Reed has always been disconcertingly overt in citing his artistic descent from mentors such as Andy Warhol and the poet Delmore Schwartz. He needn't have been. When you have work of your own such as "I'll Be Your Mirror," who needs reflected glory? At its best, Mr. Reed's work merges rock music with a higher literary sensibility invisibly, without fanfare.
If "The Raven" seems a little forced in its striving for high-brow certification, so what? Mr. Reed never claimed to have the noblest intentions. If his career taught us anything, it's that self-expression is often a dirty business.

PAUL WELLER
Illumination
(Yep Roc)
Neither as conceptually exciting as the Sex Pistols nor as musically cosmopolitan as the Clash, the Jam never achieved the critical or commercial success here of their English punk-rock contemporaries. Leader Paul Weller was too conservative, flaunting his dinosaur influences ('60s mods such as the Who, the Small Faces and their rhythm-and-blues progenitors) during a time of musical experiment and evolution. His obvious musical gifts seemed oddly constrained, and his Anglocentric perspective could strike American listeners as provincial.
In England, by contrast, this parochialism was a strength. More than his critically lionized contemporaries, Mr. Weller and the Jam gave authentic voice to the masses of bored and angry lads frozen out of the United Kingdom's stagnant late '70s economy and alienated by the fantasyland bohemianism of the more flamboyant anarchy crowd. Singles including "Going Underground," "Eton Rifles" and "Start" confirmed his powers of social empathy and his way with a hook and made Mr. Weller a beloved national figure in the United Kingdom as well as a chart-topping rock star.
After the demise of his next band, the more soulful and sophisticated Style Council, Mr. Weller took time out for reflection, returning in 1992 as a solo artist. By the time he returned, he had learned how to blend the sounds of his now-expanded palette into a distinct and unified whole.
"Illumination" is the work of a tenured grandee in full control of his powers. Mr. Weller plays most of the instruments, effortlessly fusing R&B;, pop, psychedelic guitar and pastoral acoustic elements with decorative splashes of electronic wizardry to create a classic blue-eyed English soul album. It's not a great leap forward, but it's a passionate and faithful homage.
"Going Places" opens things up with a gust of summery organ and acoustic guitars. "A Bullet for Everyone" is stomping social commentary with a blow-your-mind guitar solo. "Leafy Mysteries," already a hit in Britain, is a snaggletoothed meditation on nature's wonders that shows off Mr. Weller's rarely heard higher register. "Now the Night Is Here" uses a string arrangement and a bubble-gum bridge to paint a seductive picture of sultry romance, while "Bag Man," a gorgeous acoustic ballad, compares favorably to the old Glen Campbell/Jimmy Webb collaborations. "Standing Out in the Universe" is an infectious rip-off with a big fade-out that closes the album proper. Mr. Weller returns alone with his acoustic guitar for the coda, "Illumination," a concise little poem unifying the album's themes of love, spirituality and song.
There are flaws here. When not concentrated on a well-chosen target, Mr. Weller's lyrics drift into sappy cliches. His voice, though deeper and more expressive than ever, occasionally falls short of his more rigorous demands. These are quibbles, however.
Twenty-five years on, Mr. Weller expresses himself in a distinctive voice with dignity and integrity. Dare we ask for more from grown-up rock 'n' rollers?

THE BUZZCOCKS
Untitled as of this writing, this CD will be available in stores March 18.
(Merge)
In the good old days, we didn't rate punk records; we timed them.
Happily, the Buzzcocks haven't lost a step: On their new CD, they sprint through 12 songs in 35 minutes flat. A quarter of a century after their self-produced EP "Spiral Scratch" inspired legions of do-it-yourself record moguls and lit the fuse on the still-thriving Manchester, England, underground music scene, the Buzzcocks pioneers of punk's musical formula are as fast, loud and melodic as ever.
Produced by bass player Tony Barber (Mr. Barber and drummer Phil Barker replaced the band's best-known rhythm section of Steve Garvey and John Maher when the Buzzcocks reunited in 1993), the Buzzcocks' new CD may be their most hard-core yet. The sustained surgical-strike intensity is established in the opening seconds. Stop-and-go drums kick down the door before the band rushes in on "Jerk," a maelstrom of romantic self-loathing.
"Keep On" continues the bad-love theme, sounding like the Ramones on steroids before arriving at a big sun-shining-in chorus. "Stars" and "Lester Sands" are pure punk rave-ups co-written with the band's original lead singer, Howard DeVoto, who left in 1977 to form Magazine. The former features some evocative noise-guitar, and the latter is a hilariously vindictive character study.
"Certain Move," the one semibreather here, is midtempo mop-top rock (complete with a Cheap Trickish guitar solo). "Useless," the closer, is an apocalyptic epic at a whole four minutes. In the mold of the Buzzcocks' classic "I Believe," it features hair-raising one-finger guitar lines and Pete Shelley railing against the futility of it all, spitting fire (and four-letter words) at the top of his lungs.
Sonically invigorating, headlong and to the point, this enigmatically untitled CD is also smart, funny, sad and more than a little bit scary. Younger punks would do well to check this out as evidence of a time when "punk" actually meant "think for yourself," and "faster and louder" wasn't synonymous with "tuneless and dull."

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