Two For the Price of One
New Ones by Meshell Ndegeocello and Warren Zevon

The floodgates are about to open on the summer music deluge.

Coming in the next two weeks are albums from (deep breath): Our Lady Peace, Wyclef Jean, Peter Gabriel, Jerry Cantrell, Soulfly, Joe Satriani, Fatboy Slim, Michael Roe, Orbital, Bruce Hornsby, Sonic Youth, Cowboy Junkies, Queensryche’s Geoff Tate and Vida Blue, the side project from Phish’s Page McConnell. Oh, and on the 25th, the long-awaited Jellyfish rarities box set, Fan Club, ships from Not Lame Records. Also on the way are records from Dave Matthews Band, Oasis, Counting Crows, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Orb, Terry Taylor, 77s, Cush, Starflyer 59, The Violet Burning, Robert Plant, Filter, Beth Orton, and yes, Def Leppard. And that’s just July.

So, lots of work cut out for us, and lots of big columns coming our way. Let’s get started, ‘kay?

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One of the few times I’ve bought an album based on its placement in critics’ top 10 lists was in 1999, when Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill came out. It slipped under my radar when it was released, but I finally picked it up after every critic on the planet called it the best record of the year. After listening to all 70-some minutes, three words came to mind: come fucking on. And three more words, somewhat more depressing: lost the receipt. Ah well…

I still don’t get the acclaim, even though the album has grown on me, but assuming the best of intentions from the legions of critics, I’m not sure how Hill can remain a superstar while Meshell Ndegeocello stays a bit player. Hill made her mark by combining rap, jazz and soul with emotional delivery, and while that’s definitely a laudable ambition, Ndegeocello has been doing it for far longer, and doing it far better.

Hill has recently undergone a transformation, switching from a hip-hop base to a more acoustic and soulful vibe on her Unplugged album. This has, naturally, disturbed and confused the critics who praised her mix of styles. Interestingly, Ndegeocello has just made the same transformation in reverse. Those who bought her last album, 1999’s lovely Bitter, and are expecting more of the same from her fourth, the just-released Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape, will probably be reaching for that receipt after they hear the expletive-laced first verse of “Dead Nigga Blvd. (Part 1).”

Cookie is Ndegeocello’s most rap-inflected album to date. And yet, from that base point, she brings in dozens of other influences, and the final effect does resemble a mixtape. First single “Pocketbook” is a trippy hip-hop anthem, all beats and rhymes, but then “Better By the Pound” is covered in nifty percussion, “” sports a searing rock guitar part, and “Jabril” mixes in some jazz saxophone. Cookie is a liberal mixture of rap, pop, jazz, blues, soul and rock ‘n’ roll, and plays like something Prince would have in his private collection.

So why don’t I like it more than I do? Well, part of my disappointment stems from the near total lack of memorable melodies here, which is something that’s plagued Ndegeocello’s work since the beginning. Even Bitter, a slower, more organic album as a whole, just seemed to drift from one chord to another. Cookie is all about the groove, and while the grooves are pretty great, the end result is kind of listless. It’s the kind of album that floats out of my consciousness without sticking.

Still, while I wouldn’t vote Cookie for album of the year, it is admirable and well-made. Ndegeocello is using her platform to send a message to the streets here, with lyrics full of anti-violence paeans and spiritual uplift. Her own credibility is unassailable, and she’s crafted an album that speaks from experience and talks a difficult yet important game. While I definitely prefer the emotional roller-coaster of something like Bitter, Cookie is an album that could net Ndegeocello some of that acclaim her lessers have been getting for years.

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More my style, however, is the latest lyrical wonderama from Warren Zevon. While one couldn’t be blamed for writing Zevon off years ago, he’s been on a roll lately. Last year’s Life’ll Kill Ya was classic Zevon, and the streak continues with his new one, My Ride’s Here. And part of the credit for that must go to his unlikely list of collaborators. For this album, Zevon bounced lyrical ideas off of a virtual who’s who of the literary world, including (and here’s a contrast) Hunter S. Thompson and Mitch Albom. Yeah, you read right – the guy behind Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas shares disc space with the guy who wrote Tuesdays With Morrie. That alone should get you to the record store in a hurry.

Musically, this is a Warren Zevon album, and there are pros and cons with that. After the acoustic bent of Life’ll Kill Ya, the raucous electric opening of “Sacrificial Lambs” signifies a return to the classic Zevon sound, sort of rock meets folk at a hootenanny. Still, the songs are all simple, relying on the same chords and progressions that make up most of his catalog. There are surprises – the Irish folk of “MacGillycuddy’s Reeks,” the dissonant strings of “Genius” – but if you’re looking for complexities, they ain’t here.

But much like Randy Newman, no one buys a Warren Zevon album for the music. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the lyrics on My Ride’s Here rock. Zevon’s poisonous worldview is in full effect, especially on “Basket Case” (based loosely on Carl Hiaasen’s novel of the same name) and Thompson’s contribution, “You’re a Whole Different Person When You’re Scared.” The highlight is a little tune called “Hit Somebody (The Hockey Song),” which features David Letterman in a supporting role that doesn’t quite mesh, but provides laughs nonetheless.

The song I wish I’d written, however, is a collaboration with Larry Klein called “Genius,” all about bitter romance and the art of selling out. Cynical, nasty, witty – it’s everything a good Zevon song usually is. Verse two:

“There’s a face in every window of the Songwriters’ Neighborhood
Everybody’s your best friend when you’re doing well…I mean, good
The poet who lived next door when you were young and poor
Grew up to be a backstabbing entrepreneur
Albert Einstein was a ladies’ man
While he was working on his universal plan
He was making out like Charlie Sheen
He was a genius.”

In short, it’s just another Warren Zevon song, one of ten on My Ride’s Here, just another Warren Zevon album. If you liked him before, you still will. If you’ve never tried his stuff, this is just as good as any to start with. Remember that kid that stood brooding in the corner of the playground, wearing a t-shirt that read “Does Not Play Well With Others”? That kid grew up to be Warren Zevon, and if you ever wondered what that kid might have been thinking about you, here’s your chance to find out.

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Next week, the floods come. It’ll be a big one, folks.

See you in line Tuesday morning.