Stevie Nicks gave up cocaine in 1985, after it had bored a hole in her septum big enough, she said, “to pass a belt through.” In the next decade and a half, Ms. Nicks turned to tranquilizers, put out lousy albums and put on a couple of pounds. Her songs, which had drawn heavily on the dramas, excess and fantasy the coke had fueled, turned turgid and dull. Her dreamy, witchy Fleetwood Mac persona started to look comic. Sometimes it seemed that entire seasons of Behind the Music were devoted to her.
Still, Ms. Nicks remains an icon to a lot of women–a low-rent, flaky icon, to be sure, but an icon nonetheless. Sheryl Crow is an acolyte, and she has arrived to do a rehab job on Ms. Nicks along the lines of Bruce Springsteen’s work with Gary U.S. Bonds. It is an effective and affectionate intervention, and the album often pulses with Ms. Nicks’ old energy.
Ms. Crow produced about half of the songs on the new album, Trouble in Shangri-La (Warner); they’re the ones with the clean, driving, rock ‘n’ roll flea-market sound. “Sorcerer,” on which she also sings, starts with an acoustic guitar and drum sound that is pure 1970′s Neil Young. “It’s Only Love,” which is one of Ms. Crow’s own straightforward but effective slow songs–think “Strong Enough”–puts you in mind of Joni Mitchell.
The record is a sort of a sequel to the girls’ club that started to form at Ms. Crow’s 1999 concert in Central Park. Ms. Nicks made a guest appearance that night to sing “Gold Dust Woman.” The Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines showed up, too, and on Ms. Nicks’ new record she sings a duet on a country number called “Too Far From Texas,” which also has a good, spare Crow production. Macy Gray and Sarah McLachlan also appear, though their vocals are mixed almost too low to make out.
And what does Ms. Nicks herself bring to this little slumber party of a record? Her voice is holding up fine, and her phrasing is of the old school, rough and weary and slurred.
Ms. Nicks’ lyrics, though, are altogether too airy. It appears that she has traded the rock ‘n’ roll high wire for a rich lady’s life on the road. There are a lot of references to air travel. “There’s a plane, it’s headed for London,” she sings on one song. “Paris to Rome, London to Paris / Always goodbye, I nearly couldn’t bear it,” she sings on another, missing a leg of the journey for a forced rhyme.
You also get the trademark candlelight-and-gauze spooky atmosphere. And there are acres of standard-issue Lite-FM love-and-longing songs, “I Miss You” and “Love Is” among them. This latter stuff, by far the weakest, could well produce a radio hit.
The title track was inspired by the O.J. Simpson trial and seems another attempt to mythologize the California experience. It’s a strong song, with a desperate quality and rock kick not far from “Edge of Seventeen” or “Stand Back.” At the same time, though, it’s a little hard to take the “Hotel California” subject matter entirely seriously anymore.
Ms. Nicks thanks a lot of people in the liner notes, including her Pilates trainer. The seventh set of “special thanks” goes out to Tom Petty, who declined to write a song for her when Ms. Nicks was feeling lousy. (Recall that it was Mr. Petty’s “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” that propelled Ms. Nicks’ first solo album, 1981′s Bella Donna , off the shelves.) Mr. Petty provided Ms. Nicks, she writes, with “an inspirational lecture over dinner at the Ritz-Carlton in Phoenix, April 24th, 1995.” He told her to write her own damn songs.
There is so much to love about this story, not least the very notion of a rock-star summit at a Ritz-Carlton. (The Chelsea Hotel, it ain’t.) Hats off, too, to the self-regard that would note and reproduce the precise date of a meal.
The dinner was a turning point for Ms. Nicks. She not only cranked out a bunch of songs for this record, but also wrote some remarkably literal lyrics about her conversation with Mr. Petty. “Can you write this for me?” she sings on “That Made Me Stronger.” She continues: “He says no, you write your songs yourself.” It’s odd, then, given her decision to put Mr. Petty’s admonition in the tune’s very refrain, that the music that accompanies her lyrics was composed not by Ms. Nicks, but by a couple of hired hands. The trouble in Shangri-La, it seems, is that so much of the experience depends on whether the help is any good.
Autechre: Cold Chaos
In the years since they struck up a working relationship with Tortoise, Autechre have become a sort of gateway drug for rock fans intrigued by electronic music’s progressive promise but suspicious of its origins on the dance floor. The British duo of Sean Booth and Rob Brown basically wrote the operating manual for “intelligent dance music,” or I.D.M., a genre that approaches all that’s alluring about post-human techno sheen without paying much attention to its disco-indebted implications.
Autechre’s clinical ways have made relative stars of Messrs. Booth and Brown, who are set to play a two-night stint at Bowery Ballroom on May 4 and 5. But it has also left them in something of a bind.
For starters, their weighty influence threatens to become a burden, with an entire cottage industry of Autechre-like deconstructionists upping electronica’s already-high-stakes ante. The now-sprawling I.D.M. scene has even spawned its own reactionary wing, led by Kid 606 and a slew of laptop-crunching nihilists who have made a show of lampooning the movement’s humorless, monastically hip-hop-like posturing.
But more pressing than the infighting is the fact that a lot of electronic music’s best ideas now are being played out on the pop landscape. Dance-wise, it’s all about two-step garage and French house these days, with style-squishing garage producers and groups like Daft Punk rubbing the bellies of both giddy teenagers and heady techno theorists. Then, of course, there’s the omnipresent Radiohead, whose Kid A took Autechre’s icy template and turned it into actual songs.
It may seem plodding to survey the competition in such detail, but context is everything in electronic music. In a world where sociology-obsessed followers speak earnestly about the “viral spread” of specific drum patterns, every record is a response to its surroundings.
Autechre’s response to their environment on Confield (Warp) was to pull their ideological hair shirt even tighter. The album is an exercise in brash minimalism, with brittle beats fractured in all kinds of head-twisting ways. That’s basically par for the course for Autechre. But the effect this time out is more menacing, more claustrophobically crunched, than ever before.
The opening (and typically weirdly titled) track, “VI Scose Poise,” is morbidly ambient–all minor-key synth sighs and metallic shimmer. It’s pretty great, too, for the way it summons overwrought thoughts of rusted buoys and ghost ships bobbing in the Sea of Tranquillity. From there, things get much more harsh. With newly naturalistic drum sounds and a viscerally decayed sonic palette, Mr. Booth and Mr. Brown beat the idea of conditioned rhythmic response into remission. It works well on tracks such as “Pen Expers,” when Autechre show off their brilliant ability to layer seven or eight different beat lines into densely percolating overdrive. But other tracks, such as “Cfern,” are almost comically anti-rhythmic, with punishing bass kicks and singed snare taps that serve only to show the ham-fisted contortions Autechre sometimes go through to fight the constraints of structure.
Confield is pretty much split between nuanced beat science and directionless, browbeating chaos. At its best, tracks such as “Eidetic Casein” and “Uviol” add up to lots more than their deliberately frayed parts. But ultimately, Autechre’s seemingly self-conscious zero-sum game just doesn’t bring enough to the table to feed electronic music’s endless craving for new ideas.
Here’s to Horn
With her latest album, You’re My Thrill (Verve), Shirley Horn reaps the benefits of a strict, decades-long regimen of smoking, drinking and watching TV soap operas. When the Washington, D.C., singer and pianist first broke in the early 60′s with albums like Embers and Ashes and Travelin’ Light , she had a knack for swinging with as little audible effort as possible. When, after 20 years of near-obscurity, Verve miraculously made her a star in the late 80′s, her voice had shrunk to perfectly meet the demands of what had always been a minimalist conception.
Even the difference between the new album, a collaboration with the arranger Johnny Mandel, and 1991′s Here’s to Life (Verve), the fruit of her first meeting with Mr. Mandel, is instructive. In Here’s to Life , Ms. Horn’s voice sits halfway between breathy insouciance and mortal gravitas; her intonation and phrasing are so precisely controlled you’re hardly aware how limited her vocal range really is. Mr. Mandel, who has been known to follow the grail of beauty to the edge of kitsch, throws recklessly lush strings at her, and still he can’t stop her.
You’re My Thrill looks to be a similar affair. Ms. Horn’s bracingly hip, boppish piano is again empathetically backed up by her regulars, Charles Ables on bass and Steve Williams on drums; this core trio is fleshed out on about half the tracks by the orchestral stylings of the Maestro of Malibu, Mr. Mandel. But in the intervening years, Ms. Horn’s voice has lost roundness and taken on a drier, stuffier timbre. When she sings another “Here’s to Life”-style optimistic anthem, such as “The Best Is Yet to Come,” the effect is quite a bit different, as if she were singing from a bar stool or a hospital bed, no longer expecting to be taken literally but only appreciated for the severe perfection of her work.
To his credit, Mr. Mandel hears all this and backs off. On “All Night Long,” his cool deployment of the lower woodwinds is closer to Gil Evans than the cocktail-party classical strings he favored on the earlier album.
If, on the up-tempo tunes, the contrast between the actress and the role can be jarring (in an interesting way), Ms. Horn’s voice is still wonderfully suited to the romantic ballad. Indeed, on a tune like “Solitary Moon”–”Once again you share my pillow / making love to me / tenderly”–she hits a note of wistful languor that is almost uncomfortably intimate, even though there’s not a shred of cabaret emotionalism in her work. Everything is dreamy, unruffled, a little sad. On “My Heart Stood Still,” she’s so deeply and statically in the moment that you wonder if she’ll ever get out of it. With You’re My Thrill , Shirley Horn has created something like an avant-garde trance music for disillusioned, buttoned-down grown-ups.
Veloso X 2
On April 10, a knot of students with chunky Williamsburg-issue glasses leafed through copies of Drinking With Bukowski close to the red-draped stage at Tonic. By the bar, a blow-dried blonde responded to the advances of a dapper Italian man. “I’m such a New Yorker now, I let my driver’s license expire!” she said. The kids and the adults were waiting for Moreno Veloso, Caetano’s son and the new new thing in Brazilian music, but few in the audience seemed to have a handle on the artist who was about to perform. The Italian man was one of the exceptions. “His father, he’s like an amazing poet, a poet of music,” he could be heard explaining to the blonde. “But Moreno, he’s doing his own thing. He’s not just riding off his father’s name.”
Moreno Veloso + 2–Alexandre Kassin and Domenico Lancellotti are the two musicians on the other side of the plus sign–just released Music Typewriter (Hannibal), an album that rides through the history of modern Brazilian music and beyond, mixing the classic rhythms of samba and bossa nova with retro-mod electronic sounds, funky bass, and some innovative and insistent percussion (not to mention the occasional whale song). Such a quirky mélange results in music that is simultaneously low-key and stimulating. The more energetic tracks, like “Rio Longe” or the exuberant “Arrivederci,” sound like nighttime dancing by a Brazilian beach, while the mellow melancholy of “So Vendo Que Beleza” evokes chaise longues and long, dark gazes.
When Moreno Veloso + 2 get going, Music Typewriter is engagingly infectious, though a few of the songs–particularly “O Livro & O Beijo”–indulge too long in soporific stoner jams.
In concert, the three Brazilians were full of enthusiasm and ready to experiment. Wearing soccer jerseys because “it’s the time of the football,” they charmed the indifferent audience. They also revealed how much their music depends on a proper sound system for coherence. When Mr. Veloso’s delicately androgynous vocals and guitar are properly layered with Mr. Kassin’s bass and Mr. Lancellotti’s percussion (at one point during the concert, he rubbed two sheets of sandpaper together for effect), the elements blend to produce a complex but seamless sound. But whether Tonic’s stage was too small or Mr. Veloso’s sound person was having a bad night, it often felt that the three men where having a difficult time making their individual contributions cohere into a single song. When it did work, though, it worked –enthralling listeners and inciting even the more uptight girls in the audience, the blonde among them, to sway and bob their heads to the music.
One of the more successful numbers was “Sou Seu Sabia,” a gentle bossa which Caetano Veloso plays on his new album, Noites do Norte . Moreno makes an appearance on his father’s album (and vice versa), and though he may not be “riding off his father’s name,” Mr. Veloso’s taste for fusion and experiment is doubtless inherited.
Caetano Veloso was a founder of Tropicalismo, the Bahian mixture of traditional music, rock, jazz and local pop that shot him to fame in the 60′s. But 35 years after his explosive debut, he remains as innovative and as relevant as ever. His new album, Noites do Norte (Atlantic/Nonesuch), weaves references to rock (“Rock ‘n’ Raul”), movies (“Michelangelo Antonioni”), traditional bossas (“Tempestades Solares”) and Brazil’s history of slavery (“13 de Maio”) into a seamless slam-dunk of an album. Mr. Veloso’s soft sand voice mixes with heavily emphasized drums, rare trumpet calls and varied, unusual song structures to produce an enthralling album which is at once easily pleasant and compellingly complex. This album may be the apotheosis of Mr. Veloso’s explorations in style. It is certainly encouraging for his son’s fans. If Moreno and his band manage to realize their concepts as successfully as Caetano does his, they too may one day inspire a Veloso revolution.