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SUPER TWEAK RICK JAMES IS BACK WITH A REFINED BUT FAMILIAR SOUND

RICK IS still slick.
Rick James, who nearly snorted his career and life away with cocaine, is back with a new album, tour and state of mind.

The Buffalo native, in his late 40s, practically invented funk music two decades ago. He survived a three-year stint in prison, was paroled last year and is now free in more ways than one.

"Urban Rhapsody," James' new CD, finds the funkmaster back in a frisky, soulful and philosophical mood. His new tour starts this month, and James, a member of the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame, is expected to play his hometown in December.

James may look a little heavier, older and wiser, but the Buffalo dude can still get down like a real super freak.

This album is intense, exhilarating and at times exasperating, just like James himself. It's an autobiographical tale laced with smoking R & B jams and nasty vocals.

The title track, "Urban Rhapsody," and "West Coast Thang" show that James can still turn up the power with high energy.

James, in his prime, made people get up and dance, and this CD lives up to his reputation. "Back in You Again" and "So Soft, So Wet" prove that James has not lost his musical edge.

James, however, also displays a deeper side with weary tales of his battles with crack cocaine on "Good Ol Days." He details his struggle of living in a jail cell on "Somebody's Watching."

The most poignant cut on the album is James' loving tribute to his mother, called "Mama's Eyes." James is joined by rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg and veteran Bobby Womack for an ageless musical history lesson on "Players Way."

The CD may sound fresh and funky, but this is a different Rick James. "I decided to write songs that really depicted what was going on with my life," James has said. "But I kept it upbeat.

"When I was in prison I wrote like 300 songs. I was just laying my heart and soul out and really reflecting on my life and how I ended up in this position."

James has influenced a generation of musicians. Among the guests on his new CD are Snoop Doggy Dogg, Charlie Wilson, the Stone City Band and JoJo of the Mary Jane Girls.

The real star, as usual, is James. His music reflects the struggles of his life. "I wasted a lot of time doing drugs and wasted a lot of my life being self-indulgent," he has said.

James appears to have learned his lesson. His new album is a testament to his talent and perseverance. Rating:*** 1/2 .

Green Day seemed ready to conquer the world a few years ago with its remarkable debut album, "Insomniac." It was a combination of power pop and punk that sounded like a cross between Nirvana and the Ramones.

The album sold around 6 million copies, but Green Day's follow-up, "Dookie," failed to match the debut. Now lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong and company are back with a new CD, but once again they come up short.

Green Day is still fun, but trapped in the same sound. The band tries to grow up but they still revel in the roles of teen punks.

"Nice Guys Finish Last" is typical Green Day -- speed guitar, pounding drums and Armstrong moaning about being a bad boy. The pace slows on "Hitchin' a Ride," but Armstrong falls into a predictable vocal drone on "The Grouch."

Green Day tries to expand its sound. "Redundant" is a fresh sound, but "Scattered" and the rest of the CD is just Green Day churning out programmed, predictable music. Rating:** .

Edwyn Collins comes from Scotland and broke into the mainstream in 1994 with the cult hit "A Girl Like You." Collins is back with his dreamy, novel sound that sounds something like a lounge rapper.

"It's a Steal," the opening track, features Collins doing a soft rap, with a synthesizer and orchestra in the background, and it's captivating.

"The Magic Piper of Love" is another appealing and easygoing track. Collins is kind of a '90s hipster, combining smooth jazz, cocktail, rap and pop. It's an intoxicating and appealing blend of styles.

"Seventies Night" is Collins' humorous take on dance and disco. He gets serious with a brooding number called, fittingly enough, "Downer."

Collins picks up the pace on a gentle rocker, "Keep on Burning," and adds a touch of reggae and jazz to "Running Away With Myself."

Edwyn Collins has made another compelling album and reinforced his reputation as a creative artist. Rating:**** .

Steve Earle falls somewhere between country and hard rock. Earl has had drug and personal problems in the past but sings with a survivor's passion for music and living.

Earle's whiskey-soaked, sullen vocal is reminiscent of a young Bob Dylan on "Christmas in Washington," with the lyric, "Come back Woody Guthrie/Come back now."

Earle flashes a Neil Young sound on "Taneytown," and turns to a folky, acoustic feeling on "If You Fall." Earle gets back to his country roots with a banjo-pickin' romp, "I Still Carry You Around."

Earle never stays in one musical genre for long. He offers a twangy rocker on "Telephone Road" and tells a woeful tale of losers in the steamy, distorted "N.Y.C."

Earle, in his early 40s, spent time in a drug treatment center a few years ago to kick a heroin addiction. He has managed to pull his life back together and for the past few years has made some of the most invigorating music in Nashville.

The problem for Earle is finding an audience. His music may be too hip for Nashville and too country for rock fans. Despite those labels, Earle has an original and powerful sound that knows no record industry limitations. Those who take the time to listen to Earle will find it's worth the effort.

Earle seems to sum up everything with an explosive number off the new CD called "Here I Am." Earle sings, "I've got scars for every mile I traveled so far/And some blood on my hands." This is hard-driving rock 'n' roll with a country feeling. Steve Earle, warts and all, has made a masterful record. Rating:**** 1/2 .

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