A Clear-Headed Look At Harrison’s Brainwashed

The early commercial success of George Harrison’s latest and, I’ll presume, last album, Brainwashed (Capitol)-it debuted in the Billboard Top 20-may prove that even in the midst of widespread Eminemania and Avrilidolatry, an audience still exists for guitar-based pop in the hallowed 1960′s-70′s tradition.

Then again, it may only prove that nothing sells quite like death.

A decent chart placement for Brainwashed was guaranteed as soon as the word went out that Harrison’s family had deemed releasable the music he was working on up until cancer claimed him on Nov. 29, 2001. After all, this was an ex-Beatle, adored by millions of true believers anxious to hear their hero’s last statement-a hero who, by the way, hadn’t put out a studio album in 15 years.

The critical response was harder to predict. Surprisingly, a fair number of reviewers have hailed the new album as a masterpiece, or at least Harrison’s best work since his 1970 triple-disc extravaganza, All Things Must Pass .

Whether these critics’ mental faculties have been clouded by sentimentality or by the desire to atone for the many unkind notices Harrison received while living, they’re dead wrong.

First of all, Brainwashed doesn’t sound all that different from Harrison’s previous album, 1987′s Cloud Nine , and it’s certainly no better than 1976′s Thirty-Three & 1 ¼ 3 , 1979′s George Harrison , 1981′s Somewhere in England or, for that matter, most of his woefully underrated solo catalog.

And second, among the new album’s most attractive features is its modesty. It isn’t trying to be a masterpiece, and that’s what makes it enjoyable.

Listeners familiar with Harrison’s style will find few departures here. As always, his principal subject is the never-ending search for the meaning of life. As always, his manner of handling that lofty topic ranges from cheeky-”If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there,” he sings on “Any Road”-to solemn: The album concludes with a Hindu chant, “Namah Parvarti.”

And, as always, Harrison is at his most appealing when he sets the mysticism aside, turns down the volume and plays a love song. Two such numbers, “Stuck Inside a Cloud” and “Never Get Over You,” stand out. Like his immortal “Something,” they’re graced with melodies as delicate as gossamer, which Harrison sings with quiet warmth near the top of his vocal range.

The credits on Brainwashed list three producers: Harrison, his 24-year-old son Dhani, who also contributes guitar, keyboards and backing vocals, and Cloud Nine co-producer and fellow Traveling Wilbury Jeff Lynne.

Mr. Lynne’s abject Beatle worship rings out in every note he’s written, played or recorded since his mid-60′s tenure in the Idle Race. But although his partnership with Harrison makes sense and his production style is instantly recognizable, it doesn’t always serve the songs well. Mr. Lynne is fond of weighing down tracks with foursquare rhythm-guitar parts and plodding drum sounds that are, oddly enough, about as far as you can get from the vibrancy of Rubber Soul or Revolver . Less “sweetening” on his part would probably have made this a more enjoyable album.

All the same, it’s a joy to hear Harrison’s deliciously tart slide guitar once again. Talk about instant recognizability: Those floating multi-tracked glissandi on the instrumental “Marwa Blues,” with their ineffable mixture of humor, sorrow, romance and wisdom, couldn’t have been played, or bettered, by anyone else.

‘Something’ From McCartney

Harrison’s old bandmate, Sir Paul McCartney, has a new album out as well, Back in the U.S. (Capitol), a documenting of his recent American tour. One of its highlights is a tribute to George, the aforementioned “Something,” which Mr. McCartney performs solo with George Formby–ish aplomb on Harrison’s favorite instrument, the ukulele. Harrison himself puts a uke through its paces on Brainwashed ‘s jaunty cover of “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.” This follows “Here Today,” Mr. McCartney’s elegy for his other fallen Beatle comrade, John Lennon, and precedes his salute to his late wife Linda, “My Love.” That’s a lot of loss for one record, but true to his entertainer’s nature, Mr. McCartney never wallows in grief, preferring to keep the mood optimistic.

Exorbitant ticket prices kept me away from the Macca tour, so I can’t tell if these recordings are true to life or the result of studio doctoring. That Mr. McCartney’s now-sexagenarian voice has deepened considerably in the past decade can’t be disguised. Still, his renditions of such Fab Four gems as “Getting Better” and “We Can Work It Out” are unimpeachable, and his four-piece backing band-including heaving man-mountain drummer Abe Laboriel Jr.-is the most talented he’s had since you know who. I can’t help but notice that every tour of America Mr. McCartney has conducted since the Beatles’ breakup has produced a live album; apparently, they’re inevitable. But as transparent cash-ins go, Back in the U.S. is pretty entertaining.

Audioslavish

Few would suggest that either Soundgarden or Rage Against the Machine deserve to be called the Beatles of the 1990′s, yet both bands have had tremendous impact on the modern-rock world. Let me rephrase that: They both have a lot to answer for. Without Rage’s trailblazing blend of agitrap and aggrorock, we’d probably have been spared the odious Limp Bizkit; without Soundgarden’s mix of morbidly self-centered lyrics and old-school metal riffing, the ponderousness of Godsmack is harder to imagine. Even so, both bands made thrilling music in their time. And when Rage’s guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk announced that they’d teamed with Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell to form a new group called Audioslave, the prospects for headbanging fun looked good.

Audioslave’s self-titled debut (Epic) is fun indeed, though a lot of it sounds awfully familiar. My first thought on hearing the disc’s opening track, “Cochise,” was that Mr. Cornell’s vocal melody blatantly rips off Robert Plant’s on Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.” My second thought was that “Whole Lotta Love” is itself a blatant rip-off of the Small Faces’ “You Need Loving,” which is, in turn, a blatant rip-off of Willie Dixon’s “You Need Love,” as performed by Muddy Waters.

On the other hand, originality doesn’t always count for much in rock, and at least Audioslave steals from the best sources. The group also has the advantage of one of rock’s greatest living vocalists, Mr. Cornell, who shifts easily between a soulful throatiness and a wispier nasality in his lower register, then unleashes feral snarls when he reaches upward. For Mr. Morello, Mr. Commerford and Mr. Wilk, accompanying someone with real pipes-Rage’s Zack de la Rocha was a proselytizer, not a singer-has obviously been a liberation. Mr. Morello shines in particular, whether he’s sending out searing alarm signals on “Like a Stone” or playing blues licks with uncustomary restraint on “Getaway Car.”

A few metal-by-numbers tracks could have been excised without harm, and the sneaking suspicion lingers that if this album had come out 30 years ago, it would’ve been regarded as no great shakes. But judged against the current hard-rock landscape, Audioslave has few rivals.

Roots, Roni

Brief notes on two more worthwhile recent releases: Philadelphia hip-hoppers the Roots have long been known for their use of live instruments rather than samples, and so it’s appropriate that the niftiest thing about their latest disc, Phrenology (MCA), isn’t the rapping. Although Tariq Trotter, a.k.a. Black Thought, is a formidable wordsmith, it’s the dub- and psychedelia-influenced music that shines on this CD. Growing more spacy as it progresses, the album hits a kaleidoscopic peak on “Something in the Way of Things (In Town),” driving home the fevered recitations of guest speaker Amiri Baraka.

And Touching Down (Full Cycle), British jungle maven Roni Size’s first album without the Bristol collective Reprazent, is an engaging, vocal-free hour’s worth of off-kilter, mesmeric hooks and hyperactive-robot beats. Drum ‘n’ bass may no longer be the latest club craze, but in Mr. Size’s hands, it has lost none of its futuristic allure.