Brandon’s Tips: June 5, 2007

So, I’m sitting here pigging out on chocolate covered cashews (since I can no longer find the chocolate covered blueberries that have heretofore been my snack of choice, and my threat to take hostages at the Fredericksburg Wal-Mart until those silly bastards restock them has apparently fallen on the deafest ears), listening to some classic Tori Amos (right now, “Cooling”), and pondering this week’s tipsheet, the albums for which all have one thing in common: they could be great, they could be pitifully wretched. No sure things this week, which makes me almost happy, because it’s mostly the discs you don’t expect much from that always lead to the most pleasant musical surprises. To wit:

BIG & RICH — Between Raising Hell and Amazing Grace — like many of you, almost certainly, I’ve not been able to make head or tail of these guys ever since their massive commercial breakthrough, 2004’s “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy.” They’re a strange lot, these two, but a couple of things go without question: they love music, and they’re brave enough to leap outside the box every chance they get. It’s also hysterical to watch just exactly how shitless they manage to scare the stodgy Nashville establishment (I think the country folks are more frightened of these guys than they are of those goofy Dixie Chicks). This album, however, is anyone’s guess: duets with John Legend and Wyclef Jean are on tap here (again, could fly, could crash), but the first single — the amazing “Lost in This Moment,” already a smash at radio — is a winner.

RIHANNA — Good Girl Gone Bad — I still develop a rash whenever I think of this girl’s ridiculous debut single, 2005’s nauseatingly asinine “Pon de Replay.” But she leapt leagues forward last year with her second album, which yielded twin smashes “S.O.S.” (with that undeniably catchy sample of Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love”) and “Unfaithful” (these big dramatic ballads get me every time), so I’m kinda looking forward to seeing what she pulls out of her hat this time around. Lead single “Umbrella” (featuring the irreplaceable Jay-Z) is a bit on the bizarre side (is she really saying “umba-relly,” or am I just tired every time I hear that song?), but it’s perfect summertime fluff.

PAUL McCARTNEY — Memory Almost Full — I haven’t heard anything from this record, the first major release from Starbucks’ quickly evolving Hear Music label, but the reviews have been almost universally glowing. Of course, that was the case as well with his last album, 2005’s incurably flat Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (which, with the exception of the piano-driven single “Fine Line,” went right over my head), so if you’re wary sight unseen, it’s justified. Like his fellow comrade Paul Simon, his songwriting by and large has gotten waaaay too precious of late (although, it always kinda has been, if you get right down to it), but Simon snapped out of his stupor magnificently with last year’s invigorating masterpiece Surprise, so there’s always hope. Still, because I’m very tempted to type that McCartney hasn’t written a truly terrific song since 1984’s “No More Lonely Nights” (from the underrated Give My Regards to Broad Street), said hope dwindles by the minute.

Anchored in Love: A Tribute to June Carter Cash and We All Love Ella: Celebrating the First Lady of Song — two more tribute albums to chew on. Sometimes these kinds of albums give me fits (like the recent Joni Mitchell affair that was a vapid, embarrassing misfire in almost every conceivable way, led by Prince’s bone-crunchingly painful take on “A Case of You” that was awful from note one, and saved only by my divine Annie Lennox’s magical twelve-year-old cover of “Ladies of the Canyon”) and sometimes they’re brilliantly inventive (like 1998’s re-imagining of Fleetwood Mac’s classic album Rumours, with Shawn Colvin’s gritty version of “The Chain” and Rob Thomas and Matchbox 20’s dark, brooding cover of “Never Going Back Again”). We’ll soon find out which category either of these new efforts falls into; the former includes contributions from Sheryl Crow, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, and the priceless Rosanne Cash, and the latter is a celebration of Ella Fitzgerald’s best-loved songs, and it may be worth the purchase price alone for Chaka Khan and Natalie Cole’s duet on “Mr. Paganini (You’ll Have to Swing It)” and Linda Ronstadt’s radically slowed-down take on “Miss Otis Regrets.” Enter with caution, but don’t be surprised if you end up loving one or both of these records.

CHRIS CORNELL — Carry On — this week’s marquee release, without question, but coming as it does from a man whose work has always been maddeningly uneven at best, who knows which side of the fence this, his second solo album, is going to land on. Cornell’s work with Soundgarden in the earth-shaking grunge revolution of the early ’90s was landmark; his recent music as lead singer of Audioslave has been genuinely lacking, “Like a Stone” excepted; and his first solo album, 1999’s Euphoria Morning, was all over the map, although in “Can’t Change Me,” he landed a true modern rock classic. Still, he’s got an indisputably riveting, unique voice, and even though this album contains a bizarro cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” I’m still willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. For now.

And that brings us to this week’s playlist. For much of this evening, my friend Chip lobbied hard for devoting this space to Broadway show tunes, in anticipation of this weekend’s Tony Awards, but we got into a nasty fight about what could and couldn’t be included (and when he said that the movie version of Mary Poppins was off limits, I flipped my wig, because I’m not interested in anyone other than Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke singing “Chim Chim Cher-ee” or “Spoonful of Sugar”), so that idea has gotten tossed mercifully out the window. (Sorry, Chip.) In its stead, we’ll revert back to my original idea, and since I only know roughly ten show tunes (and four of them are from Mary Poppins, natch), that’s probably for the best anyway. I’m much more versed in the ways and means of the alt-rock explosion of the early ’90s, for which the aforementioned Chris Cornell’s band Soundgarden was a first-string player. So in honor of Cornell’s new album, let’s shine a light upon a handful of that era’s classics.

1. “Black Hole Sun” — Soundgarden (from Superunknown) — I remember vividly the summer this was a huge hit — ’92, the same season that Tori Amos’ first record rocked my entire existence, and the same season I became temporarily convinced that Annie Lennox (riding the wave of her triumphant solo debut, Diva) was going to mother my children — and how this track’s ominously swirling guitars gave me nightmares. They still do, incidentally.

2. “Yellow Ledbetter” — Pearl Jam (from Rearviewmirror) — don’t all you Robert Plant, Lou Gramm, and Steve Perry fans get up in arms over this, but one thing gets increasingly clear from this vantage point the older I get: rock music of any stripe has never produced a more soaring, awesomely powerful voice than Eddie Vedder’s. One of the most revered b-sides of all time, this one’s as mind-blowing today as it was fifteen years ago.

3. “Hunger Strike” — Temple of the Dog (from Temple of the Dog) — how funny, then, that the grunge era’s unquestioned highlight is essentially a duet between Cornell and Vedder, who had flown to Seattle to audition for Pearl Jam and ended up providing vocals for this band’s one and only album. Nothing short of majestic is the stirring blend of these two future rock gods’ voices.

4. “Plush” — Stone Temple Pilots (from Thank You) — no matter which version you choose (the hard-driving original or the stripped-down acoustic mix), you can’t go wrong with either. Too bad Scott Weiland’s such a ridiculous head case, because he’s one hell of a singer.

5. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” — Tori Amos (from Crucify) — you didn’t think we’d discuss the early ’90s without name-checking the goddess, didya? In one of the ballsiest moves popular music has ever witnessed, the wickedly ambitious (and then-largely-unknown) Amos decided to take Kurt Cobain’s aural touchstone and, using her piano as a flashlight and her piercing voice as a divining rod, flesh out the pain and haunting sincerity in his words, almost daring to use the phrases against him, almost begging the lyrics to defy their author, to bring him to his knees. The utter resignation in her tone as she slips into the final chorus is chilling. (True story: the night Cobain committed suicide, Tori was doing a show in Berlin, and she sang a piece of “American Pie” — and in the streets, the children screamed, the lovers cried, and the poets dreamed… — before launching into this. Track down a bootleg performance of this if you can, because you’ll be forever changed; you can literally hear a pin drop throughout the entire five minutes.)

6. “Boys on the Radio” — Hole (from Celebrity Skin) — true, this one came out in 1998, years after the alt-rock thing had become unforgivably gauche. But what an elegy for a paradise lost this turned out to be. Courtney Love has said in subsequent interviews that this song was written for Cobain, Buckley, Hoon, “and anyone else who ever drowned.” Try to excise that image from your brain as she closes this song’s bridge with the words, “Baby, I’ve gone away.” A gorgeous, harrowing triumph.