The Sixths: The Handmaidens’ Tale

Stephin Merritt, the East Village songwriter who ravished critics last year with 69 Love Songs , is back with something he put together before he finished those three CD’s. Released under the tongue-punishing “group” name the Sixths and called Hyacinths and Thistles (Merge), it too is a tour de force, for Mr. Merritt has convinced an eclectic bunch of legendary and contemporary alternative artists to sing his 14 love songs. Who else could lure Katharine Whalen of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, punk elder Bob Mould and Odetta the folk icon onto the same album? Such is Mr. Merritt’s deserved reputation as a postmodern Cole Porter.

He’s probably a little too aware of having pulled that off. In the credits, Mr. Merritt calls the singers “executants,” as if they were mere handmaidens to his vision, when their work turns out to be the most interesting stuff on the album and makes Hyacinths and Thistles worth many listens. The singers bring great soul and feeling to the numbers, making up for the brilliant Mr. Merritt’s deficits in those departments.

The conceit of the album is a shade voyeuristic: The singers, most of them English, come out one by one to sing naked, their voices exposed Charles Aznavour-style over Mr. Merritt’s lushly synthesized, 80′s-sounding tunes.

The results are eerily gorgeous. Momus, the Scottish singer-songwriter and provocateur, renders the simple words of “As You Turn To Go” with shy pain. Mekon Sally Timms’ ethereal voice heightens the technopop prettiness of “Give Me Back My Dreams.” Mr. Mould, a rocker who can shout over guitars, does a boyish Robert Goulet on “He Didn’t.” Melanie (yes, Melanie, of “Brand New Key” fame) is a triumphant survivor on “I’ve Got New York.” Odetta is completely, dreamily out there in a fantasy of wartime love, “Waltzing Me All the Way Home.”

If only this album were about Odetta’s dreams or Mr. Mould’s. But no, the singers all leave after their three minutes and there is just Mr. Merritt, hovering, and he seems remote and a little cold. Hyacinths and Thistles lacks the nervy craziness of 69 Love Songs . Too many of the tracks are written with such virtuoso skill that they seem to parody real feeling: “I know I’m not supposed to say I’m sorry / I know you’ve had more loves than Mata Hari,” or “Let the camera linger on your perfect skin / Your widow’s peak and your lucky grin / And the bluest eyes I know / As you turn to go.”

The pretense to romance completely falls away on “The Dead Only Quickly,” a comic trifle sung by the Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon, in which Mr. Merritt asserts that the dead just rot: “They don’t go about being born and reborn and rising and falling.…” This might be funny at a piano bar or in a musical, but on an album whose singers are singing their hearts out, nobody wants cynicism from the songwriter.

– Phil Weiss

L.L. Cool J: Bette Noire

Eleven years ago, rapper L.L. Cool J was walking with a panther , now he’s braying like the G.O.A.T.–the Greatest of All Time –that the exceedingly long title of his new album proclaims him to be . G.O.A.T. Featuring James T. Smith–the Greatest of All Time (Island/Def Jam) is packed with the kind of manly swagger for which the former James Todd Smith has long set the pace. Even his seduction songs are tumescent with self-regard.

But the greatest what? As so many other rappers have done over the last decade, L.L. Cool J has diversified. Certainly, the results have been favorable for the man as a public figure–he’s a very good actor ( Any Given Sunday ), a charismatic television star (In The House ) and a more-than-fair autobiographer ( I Make My Own Rules ).

Unfortunately, L.L. Cool J’s multimedia achievements appear to have come at the expense of his original calling. In showing the world that he can do many things well, he has been distracted from the one thing he does brilliantly: rapping. Though he’s had no great embarrassments along the lines of Queen Latifah’s talk show or Will Smith’s star vehicle, Wild Wild West , the last decade has witnessed L.L. Cool J’s metamorphosis from groundbreaking artist to multi-tasking mainstream entertainer: a solid all-around pro with a few memorable singles, an enjoyable stage show and a winning smile. He’s the Bette Midler of the hip-hop generation.

This is what performers do to prolong their celebrity. And L.L. Cool J’s transformation was catalyzed by the cool public reception in 1989 to his mostly self-produced Walking with a Panther . In the long run, the record has held up pretty well, but the rapper–who was all of 21 years old at the time Panther was released–has carried a chip on his shoulder ever since. Evidently, he swore he’d never go hungry (or merely platinum) again, for he has managed the neat trick of rebuilding his credibility by branching out, becoming a talk-show guest and a poster child for the successful Old School Hip-Hop Aristocracy.

Though they are increasingly confused in today’s market-driven society, success differs from greatness. L.L. Cool J’s first two LP’s, Radio (1985) and Bigger & Deffer (1987), which were produced by Rick Rubin and defined the Def Jam sound, were great, as was his fourth, Mama Said Knock You Out (1990), which had rap legend Marley Marl at the controls and set a precedent for the minimal, tight loops of today. G.O.A.T . is not great, and the realization is made the sadder because, clearly, the artist still has the stuff.

Over half of the album is very strong. A gaggle of producers endeavor for the gold star, with Adam F (not to be confused with the New Age-y techno guy of the same name) making the greatest impression. The album was worked on to the very last minute, rendering those reviews you’ve seen in the monthly glossy mags essentially lies, but also making a better record.

L. L. Cool J. can still turn a phrase. He even works Roberto Benigni into his rhymes on the album’s top track, “L.L. Cool J.” “Your nigga’s Benignian / Not cool,” he raps, while DJ Scratch transforms loops of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell On You” into state-of-the-art R&B. Not that the world needs any more state-of-the-art R&B.

The album’s second-best tune, the Adam F-crafted title track, is also self-referential, and though hip-hop history is larded with first-person boasts of supremacy, L.L. Cool J excels in converting the personal into the universal. On “Can’t Think”, which was co-written and produced by Ty Fyffe, L.L. Cool J starts out sounding a bit like Joe Lieberman–”I’m a child of God / Witness the rising son / From the cradle to grave / I remain number one”–but slowly the song builds until the rapper exclaims “The black man’s motto? / Kiss my ass!” and you realize that he has managed to identify his considerable self-esteem with cultural Black Pride.

He can work just as nimbly in the other direction, too. L.L. Cool J is one of the few rappers with a talent for aiming his lewdest, most sexual tracks at the objects of his seduction, and I suspect it’s because the velvet confidence of his voice infuses even the basest come-ons with a sense of intimacy. When he suggests the ladies “Take It Off” in the very funky track of the same name, he sounds–despite the distance that celebrity puts between him and his listeners–as if it’s a personal request.

G.O.A.T. is a perfectly enjoyable record, but there’s nothing unique about it. And, as with any star vehicle, judging it in terms of quality is kind of beside the point. If G.O.A.T. sells well, its qualities will be inflated, and it will get its Grammys. If not, Entertainment Weekly will offer advice on how L.L. Cool J can resuscitate his once-great career.

– D. Strauss

At the Drive-In: Genre Benders

Perhaps you’ve heard of “emocore,” a type of hard-core punk proffered by bands like Modest Mouse and the Get Up Kids that’s meant to be more emotionally complex than its punk-rock cousin, hard-core. Surely you’ve heard of rap-metal, that genre ruled by Rage Against the Machine and now fully depoliticized by its mooks du jour , Papa Roach.

Apart from rocking out, the only aspect that emocore and rap-metal share is a generalized disenchantment with the world, which is why I don’t much care for either. What I do like about Relationship of Command (Grand Royal), the third record from the El Paso, Texas-based quintet At The Drive-In, is the way it conflates the most exciting sonics of both genres while jettisoning the tendency to Rage Against a Lower- or Middle-Class Upbringing.

Judging from the lyrics of Relationship of Command , ATDI’s polemics appear far more opaque than Rage Against the Machine’s. These guys may not have what it takes to make the evil empire crumble around us, but they’re a tremendous relief from the prevailing hordes of young men complaining about how Mom and Dad screwed them up. And when they do rail against the Man, it’s not with paint-by-numbers agitprop.

Musically, the lion’s share of Relationship of Command is comprised of multi-sectioned suites that encompass staccato, stop-start riffing, poignant rave-ups and detours into dubbed-out abstraction. That’s the emocore talking. But the band seems to recognize that emocore lacks rhythmic heft, so–presto!–the single redeeming feature of rap-metal provides some oomph.

That said, Relationship of Command is largely homogenous on that score. For their next album, ATDI may want to further explore the concepts of tunefulness and placidity à la Relationship’s “Invalid Litter Dept.” and “Non-Zero Possibility.” Fusing two rock-music genres only produces so many sparks.

–Rob Kemp

Manhattan Music can be reached via e-mail at fdigiacomo@observer.com.