RAY CHARLES LONG ago established a country/soul music connection that's been left mostly unattended ever since. Several years back, Run C&W, led by Amazing Rhythm Aces' Russell Smith, turned out some hot, mountain music versions of Memphis Stax/Volt classics--unfortunately (and unnecessarily) presented as novelty cuts. Cowan, the big-haired former singer for Newgrass Revival, takes his R&B a bit more seriously here, applying his impressive tonsils to "The Dark End of the Street," "Mustang Sally" and "When A Man Loves A Woman," among others. Too bad he didn't come up with the crossover idea when still playing with New Grass' banjo extraordinaire Béla Fleck and mandolin marvel Sam Bush. These versions are fine interpretations despite the lack of bluegrass instrumentation of his former cohorts, which would have perfectly bridged that two-hour drive between Memphis and Nashville. His remakes sure beat Michael Bolton's stabs at soulfulness, but Cowan coulda/shoulda left in the twang.
THE STREETWALKIN' cheetahs' influences range from Radio Birdman and Dictators to Motorhead and the Stooges. Similar to today's crop of Japanese garage-punk bands who worship at the altar of the Ramones, DMZ and Flamin' Groovies, this ballistic Detroit foursome adds nothing new or interesting. Oh sure, they manage to strangle a few good numbers from their repertoire; but overall Overdrive simply mimics those aforementioned punk, garage and heavy-metal trailblazers, falling noticeably short of duplicating their progenitors' proto-punk fury. They even stumble through a cover of the Dictators' "Faster and Louder" that'd send Handsome Dick Manitoba reeling before he body-slammed the band for the half-hearted attempt at street-tough urban punk. "Freak Out Man" and "None Of Your Business" jumpstart this debut album into interplanetary warfare with snappy drumming from Mike Knutson, and Deniz Tek-meets-Ross-"The Boss"-styled guitar carnage by Art Jackson. The sappy, mid-tempo power ballad "Peppermint" and bad-hair metal song "All I Want" seem totally out of place nestled among the incredible, breakneck punk overtures. Singer/guitarist Frank Meyer is definitely no romantic crooner--sticking to his Rob Younger on Drano vocals suits him better. This is a decent album, but could've been a real killer if the band left the syrupy, hard-rock candy to Ratt, Poison and the rest of those dopey lite metal has-beens.
STRENGTH IN NUMBERS
WHEN WYNTON Marsalis took his museum curator musical approach one step further toward classical, he created a shitstorm of controversy among jazz fans. Those who believed jazz was an improvisational art form were left cold by mannered arrangements and polite compositions that lacked an essential ingredient: swing. Nobody ever questioned Marsalis' musical ability nor virtuosity on his instrument, just his heart. While not likely to create much controversy, Strength In Numbers charts similar territory, this time coming from a background rooted in bluegrass, and raises many of the same questions. Gathering five of the most respected acoustic musicians alive (Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Béla Fleck, Mark O'Connor and Edgar Meyer), Strength In Numbers collects 10 numbers influenced by classical compositional techniques and arrangements. The sound is clear, the playing and picking is a study in technical perfection, and the arrangements are dizzyingly intricate. Yet most of the album retains a parlor room formality that's stifling. If this is bluegrass, where the hell is the swing? I can't fault the players skill with their instruments, but the cult of hot-licks has always annoyed me--especially when there's no sense of danger or exploration. Strength In Numbers rarely transcends "gee, look what I can play!" instrumental acrobatics to really cut loose, which is too bad. Jimi Hendrix said more with one feedback squall than Eddie Van Halen has in a lifetime of hammer-ons. Strength In Numbers makes one long for rough-and-ready bluegrass upstarts like the Bad Livers to bring the party back out to the porch where it belongs.
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