[The Mail On Sunday, 2001]
WAKE UP AND SMELL THE COFFEE
GREATEST HITS - CHAPTER ONE
OL' DIRTY BASTARD
THE DIRTY STORY: THE BEST OF ODB
ROCK'N'ROLL is deeply and deceptively conservative. In any given country, it sticks to the blueprint drawn up by that nation's breakthrough band. Take, in the first instance, America. A gifted, parent-scaring white boy brilliantly co-opts and adapts black music. Elvis, Eminem. . . what's in half a century?
In Britain, following The Beatles, the best acts have combined modernist insurrection with old-fashioned music-hall theatricality (The Who, The Sex Pistols, Pulp).
Then there's Ireland. A famously cultured nation with no lack of singular qualities. A shame, then, that one of the least endearing - sentimental self-importance - should also have been the singular quality of Ireland's definitive turn, U2.
Following U2's gargantuan success, along came The Cranberries. Their 1996 album, To The Faithful Departed, is the runaway winner of the Howard Jones Memorial Saucepan for the most blitheringly trite, bombastic and sententious musical potboiler of its era.
Not since the early sixties heyday of Joan Baez had so much cock eyed cant been hurled at so many lugholes in such a tooth-achingly tremulous soprano. Endowed with the geopolitical savvy of Tinkerbell the Magic Fairy, and the lyrical agility of mud, singer Dolores O'Riordan illuminated global events with such jaw-dropping couplets as:
You must have nothing more with your time to doand:
With a Smith & Wesson 38The rattle and hum of the former Beatle spinning in his grave was drowned out by the chiming of cash registers. Particularly in the USA, where there is always a ready market for the type of callow, palpitating Oirishism which fills many Irish citizens with desperate embarrassment.
Eventually, even Dolores needed to - as the new Cranberries album has it - Wake Up And Smell The Coffee. That this CD is being hyped as an intensely personal one is a small but welcome relief. The mind boggles at how the current state of world affairs might translate into a Cranberries song.
Admittedly, there are moments of backsliding: “What about Chernobyl?” demands Dolores. “What about radiation?” Yes, what about them? But mainly, Ms O'Riordan concentrates on the only subject she can address with the faintest authority: herself.
So while I would sooner dine on stewed gravel then listen to this record again, I can at least commend it to existing Cranberries fans without first advising them to equip themselves with something cheap, dispensable and easily broken, to save them from kicking in the hi-fi.
Lenny Kravitz also has a rather dismal track record. His sixth album, Lenny, does little to remedy it. Kravitz has spent his career pastiching other artists with undeniable competence and uncanny accuracy. His particular favourites are Jimi Hendrix and, curiously, Prince - a case of one magpie robbing the nest of another.
Prince, at his peak, showed astonishing inventiveness in rearranging his stolen baubles. Kravitz, alas, tends to be so slavishly faithful to his sources that his records seem dead before they hit the ground.
The frustrating thing is that, working for others, Kravitz has shown himself to be capable of far better things. Memorably, he was responsible for the last truly great Madonna song, Justify My Love, which even today sounds as sultry and daring as his own stuff is stilted and airless.
You can hear hints of this potential on Believe In Me. Everything else here might have been recorded prior to 1974 and remained justly unlistened to ever since. The problem is not Kravitz's retro obsessions per se, but the stifling and pernickety way he expresses them.
It probably doesn't help that he writes, plays and produces everything himself. It's all very accomplished, but what's more, it's a fait accompli. This kind of single-celled reproduction allows for no mutations; no chance of fresh ideas or happy accidents. For an album which professes to be about the joys of life, Lenny is signally joyless.
After this, it's quite refreshing to turn to Backstreet Boys. Like Take That in the UK, America's Backstreet Boys were harbingers of numerous, inferior boy bands. Unlike Take That, Backstreet Boys have stuck around to take on the competition.
Most of the songs on Greatest Hits - Chapter One really were hits. Most of them are ballads. Most of them are inoffensive and pleasantly tuneful. And one of them, the funk-lite stompalong Everybody (Backstreet's Back), is an authentic work of pop genius.
The genius isn't the band's own, but that of Swedish producer Max Martin (who pulled off the same trick with Britney Spears' wonderful . . .Baby One More Time.) Still, what of it? For once somebody's offering your kids a decent product in return for their hard-wheedled pocket money.
And the band need that money. So far, only one Backstreet Boy has been driven by fame and wealth into rehab. With the proceeds from this compilation, that disappointing figure might improve. Come Chapter Two, the whole lot of them could be permanently zonked out of their gourds, swatting at invisible insects and planning solo LPs with a bikini model who channels the spirit of late teen idol Andy Gibb.
Alternatively, they could do what the impressively doolally Mariah Carey did on her hit, Fantasy, and team up with a character by the delicious name of Ol' Dirty Bastard.
ODB is a bona fide wackjob. A member of the eminent rap collective Wu-Tang Clan, he makes his oddball compadres GhostFace Killah, U-God and Raekwon the Chef look like the Muncie, Indiana Chamber of Commerce.
One apocryphal legend has ODB christening his son Li'l Dirty Bastard. Another claims that after ODB took a bullet and lived, he elected to thank the Lord by adopting a more positive handle. His choice: Big Baby Jesus.
All of which is pretty entertaining, but not as entertaining as the drunken, lurching, yet strangely eloquent raps collected on The Dirty Story: The Best Of ODB. The man's a fruitcake, but he's a good one. Nuts aplenty.
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