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Overrated: Musical Discord

Sunday, February 17, 2002

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It may be for the masses, but it's not for the ages

U2

Rolling Stone's band of the year? Eight Grammy nominations? What year is this, anyway?

U2 is fine. Don't get me wrong. They're better than a lot of bands. But "All That You Can't Leave Behind" is hardly worthy of the hype surrounding it. It's got some decent singles, but a few tracks -- namely "Peace on Earth" and "New York" -- never would have made the cut on "Achtung Baby," which was overrated, too, if not as much as "All That You Can't Leave Behind."

It's easy enough to see why so many Americans would want to hang their hopes on Bono's wide-eyed optimism in the wake of Sept. 11. And he clearly makes a more inspirational hero than our president.

But all too often, Bono's lyrics come across like Jon Bon Jovi on an off day. Ooh, we're halfway there. Oh-oh, livin' on a prayer. Take my hand and we'll make it I swear. Ahh-ahh, livin' on a prayer.

He didn't write those lyrics. Bon Jovi did. But they'd be right at home on "All That You Can't Leave Behind."

-- Ed Masley, Post-Gazette pop music critic

The Nashville Sound

From ultra-traditionalist fans of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" to New Country rockers, everyone is asking, "What's country?" The answers vary wildly, but everybody agrees on one thing: It's not a street address.

Still, a handful of influential producers and record execs continue to rein in the aesthetic parameters of country music. The overrated Nashville sound demands a familiar song structure: primo vocals placed front and center; fills of fiddle, guitar or pedal steel; and a very clean -- some say sanitary -- production. Give Nashville credit for reluctantly accepting '70s-style country-rock and pop ballad, but country that is overly folky, Cajun, jazzy or Austin-swing remains taboo.

Nashville thinks it owns country. It enforces a sound that barely budges culturally or aesthetically.

Dolly Parton jokes that she had to get famous before she could record the mountain music that she loves. Dave Alvin and John Prine remain outsiders because they're not slick enough. Emmylou Harris? Now too independent for cookie-cutter ballads. Steve Earle? Too twangy for rock; too rocky for Music Row. And worse yet, he doesn't wear a hat. Lyle Lovett wears a Stetson and has more songs about Texas than anyone on the market, but his quirky Texas-swing sounds more like Austin than any street address in Tennessee.

There's room in the world for the Nashville sound. But country music is far too expansive to be dominated by a single, overrated production style.

-- John Hayes, Post-Gazette country music writer

Chanticleer

A gushing cover article in Gramophone is just the latest example of how overrated this San Francisco-based group is. Mind you, overrated doesn't mean bad. In fact, the all-male group is a proficient performing ensemble, and Shadyside Presbyterian Church was right to book it recently. It's just that Chanticleer isn't the paragon of a cappella it's made out to be.

However noble Chanticleer's intentions were when it started in 1978, it has strayed from that course to become something of a pop group. Back then, it was part of the American early music scene, and the group made long, tough tours to small towns everywhere. But while ensembles like Anonymous 4 attained fame without compromising standards, Chanticleer has watered down its style.

Straying from early music repertory has exacerbated Chanticleer's problems. It now sings new music (a disc of Tavener's "Lamentations and Praises" has just come out), popular music (Cole Porter, Irving Berlin), romantic (Richard Strauss and such), folk music and more. While the variety has given them popularity, it's also given them a vanilla sound and "one size fits all" approach to phrasing. It not only expresses Renaissance music poorly but also doesn't fit any genre particularly well. "The members own exquisite voices, but it's not enough to bathe the audience in sonorous sound," I wrote once.

I am not saying that Chanticleer has to be authentic, but it isn't at the level of the Dale Warland Singers when it comes to 20th-century chorale repertoire or of Theater of Voices when it comes to Renaissance singing. Heck, Chanticleer won a Grammy, so that automatically screams "OVERRATED."

-- Andrew Druckenbrod, Post-Gazette classical music critic

New music by old rockers

Five-star reviews from Rolling Stone are generally reserved for records that are so mind-blowing we should genuflect at their very mention: "Blonde on Blonde," "The White Album," "Exile on Main Street," "Are You Experienced?," "London Calling."

Contemporary artists, even critical darlings Radiohead, rarely have a prayer of being so showered with stars. But, somehow, Rolling Stone went five-star-crazy over Mick Jagger's latest solo record. Have you heard "Goddess in the Doorway"? For the full five, you expect raw and soulful like "Exile" or groundbreaking like Tom Waits. This is slick, formula rock programmed for airplay.

It's the most recent example of a classic artist's new work being overblown by the music industry. Every new Rolling Stones album is hailed as the finest since "Some Girls," when really it's probably just the finest since "Steel Wheels."

Same with Bob Dylan, God love 'im. His new albums regularly draw favorable comparisons to "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Blood on the Tracks," when really they don't come close. "Love and Theft" topped critics' lists last year and is nominated for a Best Album Grammy. Musically, it's wonderful, but sorry, Dylan sings as if he's 80, not 60. Better records last year came from Ben Folds, Lucinda Williams, The Strokes, Built to Spill and Bjork, for starters.

Even more inexplicable was the once-great Steely Dan carting home the Grammy in 2001 for "Two Against Nature," a record that was barely competent. It was up against "You're the One" by Paul Simon, who gets an automatic nomination for releasing anything -- usually deserved, in this case, not. And don't even get me started on Paul McCartney's "Freedom."

No doubt, these classic artists are to be treasured, and it's a thing of beauty when they do recover their spark. Sometimes, though, just the name on the package has industry folks seeing stars.

-- Scott Mervis, Post-Gazette Weekend editor

Diana Krall

I never quite understood the sizzle that surrounds vocalist Diana Krall. She does a wonderful job interpreting other folks' songs, but her range is limited and her knack for invoking imagery -- as in "Cry Me a River" -- isn't too convincing, either live or in recorded performances.

Her aesthetic has become shaped by her blonde glamour (it's hardly ironic "The Look of Love" is one of her more celebrated discs) and has taken her to commercial heights seldom experienced by jazz artists. Still, when you boil much of what she does down musically, it's little more than cozy cocktail jazz. She doesn't tickle me with the keys much, either.

To be sure, Krall, who will perform with the Pittsburgh Symphony on April 7, has a deep, sultry, understated voice. And there have been times when I was under her spell. But nowadays, she appears more interested in mortgaging those credentials in favor of appeal.

Sadly, that translates to commercial -- not artistic -- appeal.

-- Nate Guidry, Post-Gazette jazz critic

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