Lenny Happy Returns
Karvitz' Latest Nostalgiarama Sounds All His Own


Now, I’m not a baseball fan, not by any means. I can name four or five players, maybe, most of them Red Sox, and up until last week, I had no idea what the infield fly rule was. (Go ahead, chuckle away.) But I was born and raised in Massachusetts, in a house with a die-hard Red Sox fan, so I can credit both genetics and environmental influences with my inborn hatred of the New York Yankees. Generally speaking, I don’t care who wins, as long as the Yankees lose.

God has been laughing at us Yankee haters for three years, and now it’s our turn.


The sudden upset of the hated Yankee dynasty only added to the sense of the surreal that tinged last week for me. I have decided that I want to go work for MuchMusic, Canada’s version of music television. By all indications, it looks like MuchMusic is what MTV was in 1981 – a loose collective of music fans who basically screw around and get paid for it. Much is a low-budget affair which gets by on charm and a genuine love for the music.

What really made up my mind was this: I was flipping through channels last week when I came across a two-hour special on MuchMusic celebrating Sloan’s new album. Let me repeat that: a two-hour special celebrating Sloan’s new album. An album, I’d like to point out, that you won’t find in the U.S. without working for it.

I felt like I’d slipped into a parallel dimension. First they aired an hour-long “countdown” special filled with interviews and videos from the band’s career. (Who gets career retrospectives down here in the States? Britney Spears? “And now, teen porn videos from all two of Spears’ past records!”) Jeezus, and they played all the good ones from Sloan: “Coax Me,” “Money City Maniacs,” “Losing California,” etc. After the countdown, we went “live” to MuchMusic’s studios, where a crowd of screaming fans watched a four-song concert and got to ask questions of the band. It was like TRL, but with a good band.

And they were quite good live, playing new songs “If It Feels Good Do It” and “The Other Man” as well as “Money City” and “The Lines You Amend.” These songs are not pre-packaged hits, they’re not overproduced, teen-marketed schlock, and yet the young audience (which was probably 200 strong) loved every second of them. It was one of those life-affirming moments for me – a genuinely good band finding an appreciative audience on international television.


Speaking of acts with roots in past pop music, here’s the new one from Lenny Kravitz. Who’d have thought that Kravitz would have lasted six albums? First he shamelessly rips off John Lennon on his debut, and then winds his way through every hoary ‘60s and ‘70s rock cliche in the book on subsequent records. His latest, 5, was a lengthy funk workout that stole from George Clinton and Stevie Wonder in equal doses. It also yielded a pair of hits in “Fly Away” and his cover of “American Woman,” which just added to the list of bizarre successes in Kravitz’ career.

And now here’s Lenny, a subdued, serious, altogether decent rock record that directly rips from no one in particular. Kravitz has always been good at what he does, which helps to explain his success somewhat. He synthesizes styles, sounds and whole guitar riffs from ‘60s and ‘70s chestnuts and repackages them as his own, wrapped in retro style. Lenny is just another Kravitz album in a lot of ways, but it’s also the first record on which he seems to have developed his own sound and style.

That might be pushing it a bit. Ten of the 12 songs on Lenny are straight-ahead ‘70s pop-rock, balanced off by rich, lush strings and Kravitz’ own three-part harmonies. Kravitz gives himself the Prince credit here (which is actually the Stevie Wonder credit) of producer, arranger, writer and performer. With very few exceptions, he’s responsible for every sound on the record. “Battlefield of Love,” the opening track, is a perfect example of the stripped-down one-man rock tune that Kravitz has spent his career perfecting. It’s all pretty simple and visceral stuff.

And maybe it’s just that he’s been heading towards this sound for so long, but a sweet acoustic pop tune like “A Million Miles Away” sounds like no one else but Kravitz. Since his fourth album, Circus, his material has coasted on this workmanlike groove, and the further he gets from his years of inspiration, the more original his work sounds. I mean, “God Save Us All” rides the same wave as David Bowie’s “The Jean Genie,” and yet it doesn’t bring it immediately to mind. Perhaps it’s just that we’re used to Kravitz by now, but it seems he’s learned how to make good use of his influences without recalling them.

All of which makes the two technorchestral pieces here that much more surprising. Both “Believe in Me” and the mammoth “You Were In My Heart” set beds of strings and synths over fluttering techno drum patterns. The sound is so incongruous with the whole of Kravitz’ output that it’s something of a surprise to hear his multi-tracked voice over these tracks. Both these songs slam Kravitz headlong into the present, and it’s interesting to note how comfortable he sounds there. Again, he played all the instruments, arranged the strings and produced these songs himself, and they come off remarkably modern.

Lenny is a self-assured effort that, for all its ‘70s rock vibe, refuses to sound antiquated. It’s the first Kravitz album that expresses musically the confidence he has always expressed personally. In its small, working-musician way, it’s his best, simply because it doesn’t try to say anything or be anything other than a collection of good songs. Even the righteous fury of “Bank Robber Man,” a story of racial profiling taken from personal experience, is less grating than previous efforts in this vein (“Mr. Cab Driver” especially).

Lenny is the kind of rock record Todd Rundgren used to make – a one-man show that’s about the music more than anything else. Now, if he can do like Rundgren and release a follow-up album of similar quality every six months for the next eight years, I’ll be impressed. That probably won’t happen, but by itself, Lenny is a pretty good group of pretty good songs done pretty well by a pretty talented guy.

Next week, probably Paul McCartney, but who can tell?

See you in line Tuesday morning.