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Super tunesday

Music fans won't be voting tomorrow, but a hurting recording industry will be anxiously awaiting the final tabulations.

By SEAN DALY
Published August 29, 2005


Tuesday is a major holiday in the music biz, and record execs would love it if the kiddies skipped school, the grown-ups ditched the 9-to-5, and the pop-loving masses gathered at their preferred CD emporium and emptied their wallets in celebration. It's called "Super Tuesday," a rare marketing phenomenon when a slew of pop's heaviest hitters drop discs on the same day. It's not planned - it just kind of happens.

Tomorrow's "Super" lineup is a doozy: hip-hop stud Kanye West, rock icons Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton, country duo Brooks & Dunn and buzz-hot indie-poppers Death Cab for Cutie are all unveiling new goodies.

How important is "Super Tuesday" in terms of the industry? Well, that wet sound you hear is flopsweat pouring off major-label muckety-mucks as they hope and pray for the ring-a-ding of cash registers. Thanks in large part to Usher's super-selling Confessions album (8-million sold and counting), 2004 marked the first time in four years that CD sales had increased. That was exciting news for sure, as a brutal span of declining music sales - coupled with upswings in both online digital purchases and illegal file-sharing - had left a lot of people head-scratching about the future of the music industry.

But the lovefest didn't last. Album sales were down 7 percent for the first half of 2005, which means that "Super Tuesday" will play a big part in deciding whether this year's year-end report is a second consecutive winner or a certified stinkeroo. It's not very rock 'n' roll to call Dylan an economic indicator, but it's the truth.

If 2005 can't rebound, it won't be for a lack of talent. Fall is fat with bold-faced releases, including discs from the Rolling Stones (Sept. 6), Paul McCartney (Sept. 13), Bon Jovi (Sept. 20), Nickelback (Oct. 4), Franz Ferdinand (Oct. 4), and Madonna (Nov. 15). And if Sept. 27 isn't necessarily a "Super Tuesday" - Gretchen Wilson, Sheryl Crow, Sean Paul and Lil' Kim are all scheduled for new releases - it's definitely a scrappy sidekick.

Tomorrow is unbeatable as far as genre selection is concerned: rock, rap, country, folk, blues, emo. Heck, if you're counting big-name reissues as part of the party, Barbra Streisand is releasing a 25th anniversary edition of her Guilty experiment with Barry Gibb.

Unfortunately, despite constant pestering, the folks at Island/Def Jam refused to cough up a timely review copy of Kanye West's Late Registration, the follow-up to his 2004 multiplatinum debut, The College Dropout. A phenomenal talent, West has the chops and the ego to put up Usher-type sales numbers. But we'll have to wait a bit longer on that one. Because of piracy concerns, hip-hoppers have become increasingly secretive about new material; Eminem and 50 Cent even went so far as to sneak-attack their latest CDs, changing release dates at the last minute and leaving little or no time for critics to weigh in first. (Boo hoo, right?)

No matter. We have plenty of other "Super" men we can dig into, starting with:

BOB DYLAN, NO DIRECTION HOME: THE BOOTLEG SERIES VOL. 7: This is Drool City for Bob buffs, a 28-track double-disc companion piece to a feature-length documentary by director Martin Scorsese. Like the movie, which airs on PBS in two parts Sept. 26 and 27, the soundtrack follows the ascension of young Robert Zimmerman from a Hibbing, Minn., teen in 1959 to a generational prophet breaking folk ranks and going electric in 1966.

Only two of the cuts here have been previously released - lordy, is there a deeper vault than Dylan's? - with one being the infamous 1966 "Judas!" rendition of Like a Rolling Stone from Manchester's Free Trade Hall (oh, just ask your parents - it's a history lesson you'll enjoy). The rest of the tracks are never-before-heard alternate takes, live recordings and mind-blowing rarities, including perhaps the first original song Dylan ever performed, 1959's When I Got Troubles, recorded on a high school friend's crummy tape recorder.

That might be a bit too archival for casual fans, but there's plenty of killer stuff for people who don't worship at the altar of Bob. A live version of Maggie's Farm from the 1965 Newport Folk Festival - the first time he went "electric" - is a ferocious take-that. Guitarist Mike Bloomfield unleashes hurricane-force licks, all but drowning out disapproval from folk fans who felt abandoned by their leader. Bloomfield, at the time a star in the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, also works up a sweat on an alternate recording of Tombstone Blues, which has an even more reckless spirit than the final version on Highway 61 Revisited. If you still don't think Dylan is one of our greatest "rock stars," this will prove you wrong. Grade: A

ERIC CLAPTON, BACK HOME: Here's the good news: Following a gloriously greasy tribute to bedeviled bluesman Robert Johnson, Slow Hand finally gets around to releasing his first full-length CD of original music in five years. Here's the bad news: If you're expecting a flurry of whiz-bang fretwork and Cream-y pop hooks, you'd be better off wiping the dust from your copy of 461 Ocean Boulevard.

Sad to say, this is what I call brunch music - pseudo-reggae without the ganja burn, blue-eyed soul with the soul - and halfway through the disc, you fully expect to look over your shoulder and see an omelet station. Clapton has said that Back Home is a portrait of his current existence, which means life is good for the guitar god, but it's not particularly interesting.

Clapton still produces unmistakably distinctive sounds with his instrument of choice, the burbles and pops of a man who has mastered his craft, but there's just not enough of it. In fact, he seems to be distancing himself from his solo-heavy past. Go-nowhere opening cut So Tired is about being a sleepy family man up early for feeding time. What, did the kids eat his guitar, too? The pseudo-riddims of the island-accented Say What You Will and Revolution will leave you longing for his incendiary cover of Bob Marley's I Shot the Sheriff.

There are some nice moments here and there: On George Harrison's sweetly peacenik Love Comes to Everyone, Clapton pays tribute his late, great friend, imitating the Beatle's signature slide guitar and then weaving in his own trademark plating. And on the grinding blues of Lost and Found, it comes as a great relief when Clapton's whiskey-ravaged voice starts raging and his fingers start flying all over the guitar. That said, from the sound of Back Home, Clapton needs to get out of the house more. Grade: C

BROOKS & DUNN, HILLBILLY DELUXE: Unlike Clapton's sleepy AOR approach, Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn, the most commercially successful duo in country history, take some chances and "Hank it up a little" on their new album, a relatively ragged ode to honky-tonks and bar brawls. Keeping things stone-cold country is the current movement in Nashville, a down-with-pop trend kickstarted by the success of Sara Evans' 2003 hit song Suds in the Bucket. Heck, even Faith Hill tried to prove that she's more than just a Cover Girl spokesperson; turns out she's a Mississippi Girl, too.

Hillbilly Deluxe is crammed with gritty, growly keepers. Play Something Country ("Well, the bartender yelled ya'll it's closing time. She got this wild look on her face and said your truck or mine") is one of those songs drunk hook-ups will be howling to each other after the second six-pack is drained. The high-noon boozing tune Whiskey, Do My Talkin' is George Thorogood in a 10-gallon hat. And One More Roll of the Dice - featuring Brooks' creaky, hungover vocals - slinks along on a foundation of swampy guitars and a great hook.

Brooks & Dunn, whose line-dancing smash Boot Scootin' Boogie helped country music "cross over" back in the '90s, aren't the most charismatic cowboys back at the ranch. But give them credit for having a hand in writing their hits and having cool friends to boot. Sheryl Crow and Vince Gill lend their lovely voices to Building Bridges, a catchy long-distance love song that should show up soon on a radio near you. Not that B&D need harmonizing help: These guys are a living lesson in the rewards of teamwork. In fact, on the she's-gone song Her West Was Wilder, they ultimately sound like they'd rather be with each other anyway. Grade: B

DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE, PLANS: Husky sad-sack Ben Gibbard is the lead singer of Bellingham, Wash.'s Death Cab for Cutie, a melody-intensive quartet that scored major hip points this year when it appeared on Fox's nubiles-in-love drama The OC. It was a big moment for the band, as was recently signing a big fat major-label deal with Atlantic Records. The odd twist, of course, is that Gibbard & Co. are down-to-earth indie kids who look about as Orange County as the dude who works the seafood counter at Publix. Plus the band's soft, somewhat academic musings about love lost and found are built on melancholic melodies far too brittle for modern radio. You always rooted for their success, but deep down, you never gave them much of a chance.

Until now, that is. Plans, DCFC's fifth album and first for Atlantic, cuts away some of the gauze that smothered parts of 2003's painfully pretty Transatlanticism. Think Coldplay without the epic grandeur, or an unplugged Alan Parsons Project. Gibbard sings in a sweet, self-aware tenor, kind of like a smart-aleck who's too tired to sling zingers. And bandmates Chris Walla (guitar), Nick Harmer (bass) and Jason McGerr (drums) are much tighter than before, jamming less and providing a sharp pop framework without sounding too polished.

Plans gets a little repetitive toward its tail end, but there sure is plenty of quiet majesty to be found elsewhere. On the elegiac I Will Follow You Into the Dark, Gibbard reaches the heights of vulnerability, unabashedly crooning, "Love of mine, someday you will die. But I'll be close behind." If Gibbard was a shouter instead of a soother, Your Heart Is an Empty Room would sound even more like a U2 song, as the singer begs a lost paramour to come home, while Walla interjects with Edgelike guitar tingle. Summer Skin is about remembering a first love, but McGerr's chilly, militaristic drumbeat warns us that looking back can be a perilous journey. And Different Names for the Same Thing, about being a stranger in a strange land, has a can't-we-all-get-along vibe that is shameless but satisfying.

Death Cab might be the least-known act taking part in tomorrow's release-a-thon, but don't be shocked if Gibbard & Co. beat out a few of their counterparts when it comes to chart position. On "Super Tuesday," anything is possible - and everyone is hopeful. Grade: B+

- Sean Daly can be reached at 727 893-8467 or sdaly@sptimes.com His blog can be found at www.sptimes.com/blogs/popmusic

[Last modified August 26, 2005, 12:24:02]


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