One step forward, two steps backward

By Corey Levitan
Copley News Service

"All That You Can't Leave Behind," U2, Interscope, 3 stars.
       Depending on your age and point of view, a better name for U2's much-anticipated new album might be "Them or Us" (the title of a 1984 Frank Zappa album) or "Beat the Retreat" (a 1994 Richard Thompson tribute collection that featured Michael Stipe, Evan Dando and others).
       Both are equally appropriate to describe "All That You Can't Leave Behind," U2's 10th studio album. And that's good and bad for longtime fans of this veteran rock supergroup, which seems most eager to regain the commercial dominance it achieved as the most successful and influential modern-rock band of the 1980s and '90s that wasn't named R.E.M.
       Eleven songs strong, the listener-friendly "All That You Can't Leave Behind" is a sharp turn away from the edgy, techno-tinged sound and experimental approach that marked U2's three previous albums - 1991's "Achtung Baby," 1993's "Zooropa" and 1997's "Pop." Also left behind are the intensely ironic lyrics, the stylistic explorations into trip-hop and neo-psychedelia, and the deliberately disorienting textures that made those three releases so daring and rewarding, especially for a top-selling stadium-rock band.
       Ireland's mightiest musical quartet instead stresses such qualities as melody, directness and simplicity, while carefully reclaiming the chiming guitars and rousing vocals that were U2 trademarks throughout the 1980s. Likewise, the band's heartfelt ballads - which provided some of the strongest moments on its last three albums - are less subtle and not nearly as cryptic, the better to strike a chord with a mass, MTV-bred audience that generally shuns innovation.
       This dramatic transformation is evident from the opening bars of "Beautiful Day," the album's alternately subdued and rousing opening cut (and first single). The new/old U2 sound continues through to the final track, "Grace," a tender ballad with discreet synthesizer textures by veteran U2 producer Brian Eno, who reteams with Daniel Lanois, his production partner on the band's classic albums "The Joshua Tree" and "The Unforgettable Fire."
       But the sleek commercial sheen and immediacy of each song is deliberate, as U2 singer Bono acknowledged in an interview last month with Q, an English music monthly.
       "In our heads we've written 11 singles for this record," he said. "This record is verse, chorus, and here's another chorus just in case you missed the last one."
       This retreat from the cutting edge is a disappointment, artistically speaking, especially at a time when Radiohead has pushed pop music's envelope to new extremes with its superb new album, "Kid A." But U2 may have made a sound move, at least commercially, given the onslaught of videogenic teen-pop confectioners who have come to dominate the music-industry on both sides of the Atlantic since "Pop's" release.
       "People are sick to the teeth of processed and hyped pop bands," Bono, sounding both cocky and insecure, told the English tabloid The Sun recently. "They want something real again, and that's where we come in. They want us to do well because we are flying the flag for bands who can really play."
       Such comments suggest that Bono and his bandmates are feeling their age (only drummer Larry Mullen Jr. has yet to turn 40), as well as questioning their position in a pop-music world they ruled not so long ago. Their response is a slick, inviting album that boasts some impeccably crafted songs, notably the inspirational "Walk On," the Van Morrison-meets-Graham-Parker-styled "Wild Honey" and the soulful "In a Little While," which features "Beast of Burden"-like guitar licks by Edge and Mick Jagger-does-Al-Green vocal crooning by Bono.
       But the inspirational ballad "Peace on Earth" sounds far too calculated for comfort, while "New York" is a pale Lou Reed homage. None of the other cuts is a throwaway, and each of them sounds fine, as one would expect from such a skilled band. But U2 now seems content to stay on the surface of its songs, instead of digging into the nooks and crannies for musical and emotional surprises.
       What results is still superior to the cookie-cutter piddle of today's hordes of teen-pop and rap-rock poseurs. But "All That You Can't Leave Behind" finds U2 a tad too eager to leave behind the fertile ground it was looking for (and finding) on its three previous albums. And while the band may reclaim its commercial prominence by doing so, it can't disguise what was lost in the process.
      - George Varga

"You're the One," Paul Simon, Warner Bros. 3 stars.
       It's not groundbreaking like "Graceland," that 1986 intermarriage of South African and doo-wop cultures, but the 10th studio album of Paul Simon's solo career is almost as enjoyable. The singer, who turns 59 next month, has chosen a pleasant combination of elements from his previous musical explorations upon which to begin riding his legacy into the sunset.
       The intricate Brazilian drumbeats from 1990's "Rhythm of the Saints" return, as do the atonal South African chord changes and wild fretless bass calisthenics of Bakithi Khumalo from "Graceland" (without the spectacular harmonizing of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, however). But these onetime Simon obsessions are only the canvas this time, not the painting. They don't compete for song ownership with Simon's melodic flair.
       Melody is not only king throughout the 11 songs here, it's God. And Simon reaches back to such a primal, spiritual place for it that American tunes such as "That's Where I Belong," "Love" and the title track sound almost out of place without the high Art Garfunkel harmonies.
       The only shortcoming, not unexpectedly, is what Simon says. Having married a pop music chanteuse 25 years his junior (Edie Brickell, his third wife) and fathered three children during his 50s, this guy must have one interesting personal life. Yet, other than confronting mortality issues in both "Quiet" and the first single, a catchy update of 1980's "Late in the Evening" called "Old," Simon continues his streak of not revealing anything about himself. Fans are kept at a distance with more fun, but empty games of abstraction, fiction and Hallmark sloganeering.
       Typical lyric: "The teacher divided in two./One half ate the forests and fields/the other half sucked all the moisture from the clouds."
       Translation: You can still call him Al.
      - Corey Levitan

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Limp Bizkit is still angry at everything

By Emily Friedlander
Copley News Service

"Chocolate Starfish and The Hot Dog Flavored Water"; Limp Bizkit; Interscope.
       In an interview with MTV radio, Limp Bizkit vocalist Fred Durst credits The Beatles with influencing the band's third album, "Chocolate Starfish and The Hot Dog Flavored Water." However, it's not The Beatles with which Limp Bizkit warrants comparisons. Instead, Durst's much maligned hip-hop/metal hybrid band is more like a modern-day Led Zeppelin. Just like Zeppelin, Limp Bizkit isn't taken too seriously by music critics but nevertheless maintains a huge fan base that thinks the band rocks.
       And Limp Bizkit definitely does rock: "Chocolate Starfish" is a powerhouse of an album filled with the kind of loud, angry songs you've come to expect from this band.
       But there's one thing that should be clarified. Limp Bizkit isn't about intellectual prowess or smart lyrics. The combination of Durst's distinctive voice, Wes Borland's power guitar, and the hip-hop mixing of DJ Lethal add up to a lot of rage, but it's never clear why the band is so angry. When Durst sings about "My Generation," he rants that "we don't give a f--- and we won't ever give a f--- until you give a f--- about me and my generation." He seems issueless, and the song comes across as an empty plea for attention - a musical pout.
       Most of these tracks stick to the band's signature hard sound, though the band is mellowing out a little bit. "Hold On" is Limp Bizkit's first attempt at a rock ballad. The song is a duet between Scott Weiland of the Stone Temple Pilots and Durst. And it's a success. Laid-back guitar by Borland and some low thunderous drums provide a nice showcase for the vocals. The song builds, builds and builds in the Limp Bizkit tradition, but against tradition, the song never quite kicks in to build a perfect bridge of momentous anticipation to the hip-hop remix of "Rollin'" it precedes.
       Probably the best songs on the album are the singles "Take a Look Around," from the "Mission Impossible 2" soundtrack, and "Rollin,'" with vocals from Weiland. Both contain an explosive energy guaranteed to get the blood flowing. Other songs on this album are a bit more forgettable, especially the overly profane "Hot Dog."
       "Chocolate Starfish and The Hot Dog Flavored Water" relies heavily on help from several artists (in addition to Weiland). Method Man, Redman, and DMX all make guest rap appearances. In "Hot Dog," the band retools Nine Inch Nails' hit "Closer." And in "Livin' it Up," the band samples The Eagles' "Life in the Fast Lane." In this song, Durst's tiresome rants about his fast-paced rock 'n' roll life are saved by the musical interplay between the hip-hop breaks and rock samples. The members of Limp Bizkit just don't seem to be having that much fun as rock stars, unlike the members of the band's contemporary, Kid Rock. Instead, their party-boy personas seems to come wrapped in a shell of defensiveness.
The album closes with sarcastic banter between Fred Durst and Ben Stiller, who puts Limp Bizkit in its place with a healthy dose of sarcasm. Stiller simultaneously praises the band and takes it down a peg. As he says, he appreciates the band's basic message. Durst asks what message that is. Stiller's answer: "Watch out, Mom, big bad rock star."

"Abandoned Shopping Trolley Hotline"; Gomez; Virgin
       With two critically acclaimed albums under its belt and a fan base wanting more, "Abandoned Shopping Trolley Hotline" is Gomez's attempt to hold interest steady while taking a year-long hiatus. And this album of outtakes, B sides, and live cuts - 13 of which were previously unreleased - should do the trick.
       Perhaps best known for its remake of The Beatles' "Getting Better" (included on this compilation) featured in a Phillips commercial, Gomez is much more than a one-hit wonder. "Abandoned Shopping Trolley Hotline" is a collection of blues and psychedelic rock that's rich with a tightly coordinated acoustic sound.
       Though the band - vocalist/guitarist/keyboardist Tom Gray, vocalist/guitarist Ian Ball, vocalist/guitarist Ben Ottewell, bassist Paul Blackburn and drummer Olly Peacock - got its start in Liverpool, England, its sound is strictly American.
       "Bring Your Lovin' Back Here" delivers a punch of Elvis Presley-like rock 'n' roll. The lilting guitars and sweet melodic refrain on "Flavors" (the chorus: "you are the only fool I ever wanted to make love to ") is reminiscent of the quiet elegance of Elliot Smith. And the band brings a Tom Waits-like rasp to "78 Stone Shuffle." If that's not enough genre switching for you, there's some slow and creepy surfer-rock guitar on "We Haven't Turned Around (X-Ray)."
       Throughout it all, though, Gomez sticks to a hippie jam-band sound, probably most aptly heard on "Buena Vista," in which psychedelic electric guitars lend mellifluousness to the consistent bass line. If these 13 songs don't satisfy Gomez fans, then perhaps they should get ahold of the limited-edition extended-play track "Machismo," which comes as a bonus with a limited number of "Abandoned Trolley Hotline" CDs. The title track has a Beck-style electronica flare - another stylistic addition to Gomez's bag of tricks.

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