after all, the music is always evolving. With the Beatles, you could watch the '60s grow more sophisticated. Talking Heads went from awkward nerds into globetrotting cosmopolitans.
David Bowie has never been afraid of change. He's gone from sensitive folk-rocker to the glittery Ziggy Stardust, from techno-rock accomplice of Brian Eno to vacuous mainstream charttopper. As a matter of fact, his recent output had grown so carelessly insubstantial that there was a temptation to stop taking him seriously.
Bowie's latest project reverses that urge. After several years as a solo artist, he's back being a singer in a band, a hard-rocking band. They're called Tin Machine and so is their debut album, Tin Machine (EMI-USA E1-91990).
Tin Machine teams Bowie with the bombastic rhythm section of Hunt and Tony Sales, sons of comedian Soupy Sales, and the high-energy guitar of Reeves Gabrels, which roars, crunches and squeals like a prehistoric beast on the prowl on the album's 12 tracks (14 on the cassette and compact disc).
The effect -- old smoothie mixing it up with feisty youth -- is somewhat akin to Robert Palmer's amped-up collaboration with the guys from Duran Duran in Power Station. Bowie hasn't sung so hard since he fronted the Spiders From Mars. If he sounds a little overwhelmed at times, well, it just goes to show that Gabrels is a guitarist that can't be held back.
Tin Machine has been good for Bowie's nearly dormant songwriting talents too. The leadoff "Heaven's in Here" burns like the stuff he wrote in the early '70s. Tracks like "Crack City" and "Under the God" are so full of topical venom they'd be at home on a Lou Reed album. They uncover the same thrashing fury in their remake of John Lennon's "Working Class Hero."
Not everyone will be pleased by Bowie's change of pace, especially those folks who embraced his most recent hits. The unrelenting attack of Tin Machine gets a bit harsh, particularly on the weaker tracks late in the record. But fans of early Bowie -- and rockers in general -- will be overjoyed.
John Cougar Mellencamp, having established himself as a major arena rocker, started stepping away on his last album from the anthemic cliches and broad gestures that go with that territory. On his latest, Big Daddy (Mercury 838-220-1 Polygram), he distances himself even further.
Strongest declaration of his independence comes in the song that sounds the most like an arena anthem, the first single, "Pop Singer," which recants all the assumptions of pop success -- "Never had no weird hair to get my songs over/Never wanted to hang out after the show."
Elsewhere, Mellencamp seems to have scaled down his music. The arrangements are lean and more likely to be acoustic than electric. Fiddle and accordion, which he started to use on his last album, are more prominent here. Oddly enough, they accentuate the rhythm. With less clutter, there's more punch.
The songs, meanwhile, are more pointed in their social realism. Though Mellencamp isn't exactly Springsteen or Dylan in that regard, his portraits of the music-blasting blood brothers in "Theo and Weird Henry" or of hapless poverty in "Jackie Brown" have the ring of truth, while his protest songs have the sting of anger.
"Country Gentleman" is goodbye and good riddance to ex-President Reagan -- "thank God he went back to California" -- while "J. M.'s Question" attacks evils from pollution to destruction of the rain forests to professional quackery, then finally asks, "What kind of world do we live in/When you do it to your buddy 'fore he does it to you?"
The Scottish group Simple Minds try to invoke something of the same sort of social awareness in Street Fighting Years (Virgin/A&M SP-3927), their first album of new material in four years, but their stylistic splendor gets in the way.
Best remembered for "Don't You (Forget About Me)" from the soundtrack of "The Breakfast Club," Simple Minds has taken the troubles in Ireland and South Africa to heart during the intervening years.
But they apparently don't realize that their sparkling synthesizers, precise cadences and earnest Jim Kerr vocals have more of the soothing quality of hymns than the stirring air of calls to action. In other words, they'd play better at a benefit concert than on the barricades.
Some of the songs work anyway. Not the single, "This Is Your Land," which, like the title track, bogs down in its own cliches, but rather the upbeat "Take a Step Back." Not the ponderous remake of Peter Gabriel's "Biko" or the droning adaptation of the traditional tune for their British hit, "Belfast Child," but rather the restless hopefulness of "Mandela Day."
For Cyndi Lauper, the issue isn't evolution, but survival. After flops on the turntable and the screen, she's faced with the prospect of proving herself all over again on A Night to Remember (Epic OE-44318).
The girl who just wanted to have fun now just wants to have hits. To make them happen, she's called upon the facile talents of those slick hitmongers Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly, who turn her thrift-shop quirkiness into a ready-to-wear wardrobe of songs that could fit anyone.
The only saving grace here is Lauper's voice. She makes all this undistinguished material look good, starting with the perkiest of the lot -- the current single, "I Drove All Night." Although it was supposed to work the other way around, it just might give her the lift she needs.
If established artists thrive on evolution, then new ones have to make do on association. In the case of San Antonio native Michael Morales, who comes to Western New York Memorial Day for a free performance at the Sunset Bay Beach Club in Irving, the point of reference on his debut album, also called Michael Morales (Wing/Polygram 835-810-1), is the Cars.
Underscoring the Cars' trademark brittle beat is the presence on two key tracks of Cars producer Roy Thomas Baker and Cars guitarist Elliot Easton. The rest, however, is all Morales, every voice and instrument.
He's a much warmer, more conventionally appealing figure than Cars mastermind Ric Ocasek and songs like "Cry, Cry, Cry" and "Who Do You Give Your Love To?" have such a familiar feel that you'd swear they were hits already. Chances are they will be before too long.