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Opinion: New releases — So much music, so little time

April 5, 2012
Mark Miller - Staff writer , The Herald-Star

The releases have been piling up here at the campground, so it's time to get to work!

Meat Loaf, "Hell in a Handbasket," Sony/Legacy

That's right kids - Meat Loaf has a new album out, and the even better news is that it isn't all that bad. Not one to be shy about wearing his heart on his substantial sleeve, Meat Loaf tries to get personal on "Hell in a Handbasket." The album contains the typical cameos to get you to buy the record - appearances by Trace Adkins, Mark McGrath and Patti Russo are so-so - but the real meat comes with Loaf's surprisingly earnest delivery without outside assistance. The best cut, "The Good God is a Woman, and She Don't Like Ugly," is a passionate and outrageous duet with Chuck D from Public Enemy. At least give the man props for not letting his meat loaf.

Elvis Presley, "Elvis Country," RCA/Legacy

Once upon a time Elvis Presley was a real musician, a hurricane force who took his art seriously. As the mediocre began to creep into his life - bad movies, drugs, the nearly demonic and overpowering presence of his carny barker manager Col. Tom Parker and the professional hanger-oners of "the Memphis Mafia" - the heart of Elvis took a dark turn toward whatever would sell. Every once in a while he'd come out of his self-induced coma to record something he sounded like he meant, as if remembering who he once was. "Elvis Country" is actually a compilation of "I'm 10,000 Years Old" and "Love letters From Elvis," two albums released in the early '70s meant to endear the former rockabilly star with a modern country crowd. For the most part it worked, and Elvis soon would become a country-pop star as AM country radio began to play Elvis' renditions of "Snowbird," "Make the World Go Away" and the Willie Nelson-penned "Funny How Time slips Away."

Featuring fabulous studio musicians on an honest-to-God concept album, "I'm 10,000 Years Old" would be Elvis' final acknowledgment he was once a real artist before he took the final and fatal plunge into the abyss.

Janis Joplin and Big Brother, "Live at the the Carousel Ballroom, 1968," Columbia/Legacy

There's little doubt Janis Joplin was a huge talent with a real affinity for the blues, but her tragic story also is someone insecure in her art and her life. "Live at the the Carousel Ballroom, 1968," recorded by the soundman pioneer Owsley Stanley - also inventor of an infamously potent form of LSD - at the San Francisco venue, is to be be taken back to a time when blues influences and pyschedelic drugs were the two ingredients necessary for pop stardom.

Although Janis was by all accounts more of a boozer, she definitely had the soulful goods to deliver when it came time for the stage. Unfortunately, she also had a bit of a tin ear, and her band the Holding Company was probably the worst to come from the City by the Bay during the Summer of Love, the same area that spawned the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane and Moby Grape. Still, Janis shines on raw versions of "Summertime," "Ball and Chain" and "Piece of My Heart," which she sings with convincing passion. Too bad her band seems to try its best to sink her passion with their lumpy playing.

"Live at the the Carousel Ballroom, 1968" is for guys like me obsessed with all music from that era, but it's not her nor the band's finest hour - for hard-core fans only.

Clannad, "The Essential Clannad," RCA/Legacy

Look - you either like Irish music or you don't. Clannad isn't by any stretch a "traditional" Irish band. The band is basically a pop band that throws in some oblique Irish mystique along with other influences. Not bad, but not really all that great, either, the majority of selections on this two-CD retrospective strays a little too close to Kenny G territory for my comfort. Fans of Enya may dig the fluff here, but the band's music isn't exactly a shamrock, certainly not a four-leaf clover and not at all essential, despite the title.

Stanley Clarke, "The Complete Stanley Clarke 1970s Epic Records Collection," Epic/Legacy

This six-CD collection of the bass fusionist's solo 1970s work includes all the albums released on Epic records, including his first, self-titled release. The five other albums, "Journey to Love," "School Days," "Modern Man," "I Wanna Play for You" and "Live 1967-77," find Stanley trying to straddle two worlds at the same time with mixed success.

Like many jazzers chasing pop stardom and an audience in the 1970s - witness one George Benson as an example - Clarke wasn't alone in trying to establish a foothold and win new fans in the pop world while still maintaining the shrinking audience for jazz and progressive music. While there are some great moments on all of these albums, along with stellar guest musicians stopping on by - George Duke, John McLaughlin, David Sanborn, Billy Cobham, Freddie Hubbard, Steve Gadd, Ronnie Foster and more - it's a little disheartening to hear Clarke trying to awkwardly Frankenstein smooth pop with progressive jazz/rock. It just doesn't work, and it sounds like a failed experiment concocted during a lost moment in a disco haze.

Still, for fans of Clarke, there's still plenty of great moments, especially in his first self-titled album, before he decided to shoot for the stars.

So much music - so little time. I'll be back next week with some other new stuff.

(Mark Miller is co-editor of Weekender.)

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