By Daniel Garrett
Fine Young Cannibals,
The Raw and the Cooked
FFRR Records/MCA, 1988
Hootie and the Blowfish,
Cracked Rear View
Virgin Records, 2000
1. Fine Young Cannibals, The Raw and the Cooked
“She Drives Me Crazy” was one of those songs that seemed to ride the air waves for a long time without anyone’s complaint: with a tiny, light rhythm, simple guitar chords, and a beat that seems both heavy and flat, over which the Fine Young Cannibals’ lead singer Roland Gift’s high voice moves—sensuously—with words that speak of feminine appeal, words that are not all easy to make out although that did not matter, as it was clear the song is about obsession and obsession itself is obliterating. The charismatic Roland Gift was a very bright flash, possibly that of a comet rather than a star, but what a light! I remember listening a lot to the album on which “She Drives Me Crazy” appeared, Fine Young Cannibals’ The Raw and the Cooked. The album is still fun.
With a somewhat low voice, and a 1950s beat—simple, repeated—Roland Gift describes a girl leaving a man to worry, a girl and a worry he is advised to forget, advice he does not take: he misses his “Good Thing.” Gift’s voice seems rather eccentric in “I’m Not the Man I Used to Be,” a song with a sad-sounding organ played against a fast rhythm. The man in the song is aimless—it’s hard to know what he is thinking, or why he is drinking—and he says he is not the man he used to be: he has memories of better days, and he has lost whatever faith he had. There are jazz rhythms late in the song, and something Jaggerish emerges in Gift’s voice. Roland Gift’s singing is intense in “I’m Not Satisfied,” which has wild piano, choral singing, and dance beats, but sounds a little like (a little too much like) “She Drives Me Crazy,” which adds musical unity to the album while suggesting a limit of inspiration. Gift’s narrator pleads for a girl’s attention in “Tell Me What,” a bit of doo-wop, with a solid instrumental arrangement and nice vocal harmonies. That is followed by the guitar-driven “Don’t Look Back” (with the line, “Baby, baby, don’t look back, it won’t do no good”), and “It’s Okay (It’s Alright),” an atmospheric song featuring a smorgasbord of sounds. Gift’s high voice in “Don’t Let It Get You Down” made him sound to me like a blend of the Temptations and the Rolling Stones, as he sings, “It’s my skin they don’t like” and “When my plans don’t work out, Mama says, ‘Don’t let it get you down.’” These are not profound songs, but how often is popular music profound? In fact, the profundity of popular music is often less about meaning than about experience—being at one with the moment, being dazzled and dazzling, invigorating and fun.
Roland Gift sings in a voice that seems exaggeratedly sad in “As Hard as It Is,” a ballad with a somewhat spiritual tone, and featuring a saxophone, before the collectionThe Raw and the Cooked ends with the uptempo “Ever Fallen In Love,” in which Gift complains, “You made me feel like dirt and it hurt.” Unfortunately the Fine Young Cannibals were not prolific. I wonder why? (Did hip-hop and grunge rock make the band seem obsolete? Or did Gift’s other opportunities—such as film work—distract him?) In his acting, such as in the film Sammy and Rosie Get Laid and as Xavier St. Cloud in the television program “Highlander,” Roland Gift was handsome, pleasant, curious, a little wary, and not entirely engaged. Roland Gift released a self-titled solo album in year 2002, about which, that year, a short Blender.com review by Evening Standard and Q magazine music writer John Aizelwood included the assessment that “when the Fine Young Cannibals’ second and final album launched the singles ‘She Drives Me Crazy’ and ‘Good Thing’ (like all great songs, now a car-commercial soundtrack), singer Roland Gift seemed like rock’s next dreamboat pop star. Instead, after film roles in Scandal and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, he disappeared. Now, at 40, with FYC fans having long forgotten him, Gift resurfaces with his first solo record. His Ferrari of a voice—mixing Johnnie Ray and Otis Redding’s soft sobs with Eartha Kitt’s pearly growl—sounds fine.” What a beautiful light.
2. Hootie and the Blowfish, Cracked Rear View
The songs of Hootie and the Blowfish have an attractive simplicity, but I think the voice of Darius Rucker is the band’s real draw: his voice produces warm, rounded masculine tones, seeming affectionate and reassuring, even in a song such as “Hannah Jane,” about male fear of female departure. The end of a woman’s love and patience, no matter how confident or neglectful a man has been, is almost always rather challenging. Rucker sounds as if he would be hurt but would survive—and, likely, find time to drink beers with his buddies and come to terms with the loss. “I want to love you the best that I can,” assures Rucker in “Hold My Hand,” in a voice that has elements of country, rock, and soul. Darius Rucker may be heir to Sam Cooke, Charlie Pride, Dobie Gray, and Bill Withers, as much as he is heir to Paul McCartney and other smooth-voiced rock titans; and Hootie and the Blowfish’s rock music—beneath its volume—has pleasingly plain words about common emotions and situations, and genuine melodies. The only objectionable thing may be that there is nothing objectionable (which is the kind of thing a critic rather than an ordinary music listener would worry about).
In the song “Let Her Cry,” there is compassion for a woman who is distant and troubled, and when Rucker’s narrator describes watching her moving away from him to get a drug high, and how he sits on the couch to cry, I could not decide if this was a song with a comfortably contemporary edge or a new kind of indulgently lachrymose approach to musical drama. Next: the uptempo “Only Wanna Be With You,” which has a somewhat rolling beat; and, then, there is an interesting introduction—could be bluegrass, could be something Asian—for “Running from an Angel,” with Rucker’s singing still the best part of any of Hootie and the Blowfish’s songs. Family, death, and reconciliation form the theme of the song “I’m Goin’ Home,” and “Drowning,” with a strong and unbroken guitar rhythm, is about social (racial) conflict: “Trouble with the world is we’re too busy to think about it, all right. Why is there a rebel flag hanging from the state house walls? Tired of hearin’ this shit about heritage, not hate” and “You don’t walk like me,…you don’t talk like me, saying, Go back to Africa, I just don’t understand.”
“Tomorrow’s just another day, and I don’t believe in time,” announces Rucker in the song “Time,” before adding “I don’t know where I’m going, I think I’m out of my mind.” It’s funny what can be admitted in a song. Parental disapproval affects a relationship in “Look Away,” and there is delicacy in “Not Even the Trees,” and the last song, “Goodbye,” is followed by a beautiful sung quote by Darius Rucker from “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” a graceful ending.
3. Lenny Kravitz, Greatest Hits
Lenny Kravitz is a beautiful man, an attractive image, one of my favorite images, but I still recall being with a friend in a music store in the early 1990s and hearing a Lenny Kravitz song come over the sound system and our conversation about how much Lenny Kravitz sounded like someone else, a pleasant imitation, and then a decade later seeing a music store window display announcing Kravitz’s Greatest Hits and my thinking, “Greatest Hits? I didn’t know he had any hits.” Listening now to Lenny Kravitz’sGreatest Hits—which I picked up at some point, I cannot remember exactly when—I find that there are only a couple of songs (“Again” and “Heaven Help”) that have a power, the style and sensuality, equal to his image. There are performers whose glamour, promising so much, makes it difficult for us to allow them dull music (I think of Diana Ross, Prince, Jennifer Lopez, Eric Benet, and Beyonce). Glamour is treacherous that way.
The Lenny Kravitz song “Are You Gonna Go My Way,” his Greatest Hits collection’s first song, has the intense rhythm of guitar and drums, a nearly pagan sounding rhythm, and Kravitz sings in a brash voice that still has the touch of something whiny, as if he were willing himself into an attitude. The song “Fly Away” seems very 1970s to me, very ‘let us escape,’ and while Kravitz’s singing is not lacking in interest—he reads one line in a high voice, one line in low voice, and repeats—I don’t hear sensuality or subtext. The song “Rock and Roll is Dead,” itself not an interesting song, is the kind of declaration any of us is likely to make at a given time, and it is the kind of declaration that only means our own expectations are too precise, too predictable, and that our disapproval will be followed by someone else’s creativity. “All of my life, where have you been?” asks Lenny Kravitz in “Again,” of a woman who seems a “lonely queen, without a king.” Talk that talk. The song “It Ain’t Over ’Til It’s Over” is light funk, and it is sensuous. However, “It Ain’t Over” is followed by a rock ballad (“Can’t Get You Off My Mind”) which is not distinctive: with a little less rhythm and a little more conviction, it would qualify as country music. A cab driver passes up a fare in Kravitz’s “Mr. Cab Driver,” as the driver does not like his “kind of skin,” a rare inclusion of a theme with significant social implication. Kravitz—I’m not sure why—does a version of “American Woman” (“stay away…listen what I say”), followed in this collection, oh so logically, by a ballad of regret and of commitment, “Stand By My Woman.” Could “American Woman” be a rite of passage, a negotiation with, or a capitulation to, the standard rock tradition? Did Kravitz need that? Certainly, he is evidence that pink-complexioned rock music fans will accept a brown-skinned man making rock music.
The song “Always on the Run” has beautiful guitar playing from Slash (Saul Hudson), and quotes, supposedly, the words of a mother’s advice: life is a gift, leave those bad boys alone, and, be home before the dawn.
“I’m ready for love,” admits Kravitz in “Heaven Help,” which is light, lovely, sensuous. Assembled as part of Lenny Kravitz’s retrospective assemblage of popular songs are “I Belong to You” and “Believe,” with that second song having an orchestral appeal though the lyrics, about faith, are banal: then, there’s “Let Love Rule” and “Black Velveteen.” Lenny, I hardly knew you.
Daniel Garrett is currently a New York resident, and his work has appeared in The African, AltRap.com, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Changing Men, Cinetext.Philo, The City Sun, The Compulsive Reader, The Humanist, IdentityTheory.com, Muse-Apprentice-Guild.com, NatCreole.com, Option, Offscreen, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett’s music commentaries on the work of Meshell Ndegeocello, Chuck Berry, the Dears, Ben Harper, Bright Eyes, Neil Young, the Rolling Stones, John Mayer, TV on the Radio, Terence Trent D’Arby, Diana Ross, Fats Domino, Skye, and Beyonce have appeared on the web pages of The Compulsive Reader.