U2 in the '90s sounds like a hard sell. Despite the restless experimentation that made Achtung Baby the finest record of their career, the Irish quartet are most remembered in that decade for their odd foray into a garish brand of celebrity satire, which -- on two albums and countless world tours -- threatened to become the very thing it sought to parody. Fortunately, the clunkily titled but refreshingly sincere All That You Can't Leave Behind was a surprising return to form, rescuing U2 from irrelevance and reestablishing them as one of the most popular and significant bands in the world.
Just as they recounted their ascension to fame during the '80s with The Best of 1980-1990, U2 have collected their recent hits on this new collection. On the whole, the songs hold up surprisingly well after so many years. The Edge's match-strike guitar emboldens "Mysterious Ways," the band's sexiest song, and Bono's keening vocals give "Stay (Faraway, So Close!)" its deep empathy. All of the tracks from the dancebeat-heavy Pop have been remixed, which would seem overly revisionist if it didn't benefit the songs so much: Who knew "Gone" sounded so much like American indie rock or that the much-maligned "Discothèque" was so much fun?
As with The Best of 1980-1990, the obvious flaw in this compilation isn't with the music but with the concept. Neither release takes into consideration that U2 have always been an album band, not a singles band. So some of the inclusions here are confounding ("Until the End of the World" and "The First Time"), while the omissions are glaring ("The Fly," "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses?" "The Wanderer," "Walk On," "Elevation," etc.). But no single-disc compilation could ever satisfy every U2 fan -- or, for that matter, every curious nonfan. In other words, the best collection of '90s-period U2 remains the four discs that can only be purchased separately.
Mr. Airplane Man
(Sympathy for the Record Industry)
Rockin' guitar-and-drums duos seem to be everywhere these days. At the top of the heap, of course, are Detroit's White Stripes (who migrated from Sympathy for the Record Industry to a major label a year or so and quite a few dollars ago). Then you've got Jucifer, the Black Keys, and even T-Model Ford with his drummer Spam, just to name a few. This instrumental template has some precedents in the past, most notably North Carolina's Flat Duo Jets and perhaps even earlier with Athens' Method Actors.
I've done some recording and performing in this format myself and can report that it is certainly easier in terms of band relations (it's just you and the other person, and if you can stand each other, then it's a lot simpler psychologically and emotionally than playing in, say, a four-piece band) and easier in terms of learning new material (if the guitar player knows the tune, then the drummer just follows along; it makes for a very fluid, expansive set-list). Tuning is easier too with just one melodic instrument. Things can sound pretty sparse onstage, though, and if one member of a guitar-and-drums outfit is having a bad night, then the whole thing reeks. Nowhere to hide in that context.
Bostonians Margaret Garrett and Tara McManus have been "guitaring and drumming," respectively, as Mr. Airplane Man since the late '90s, and this is their second release on Sympathy and their third record to date. (Their debut was produced by the late Mark Sandman of Morphine and their sophomore effort was recorded here with Jeff Evans a few years back -- both great, by the way.) They're still pursuing a sound and style that is not a million miles away from what Memphis' Lorette Velvette and the often unfairly reviled Hellcats were doing here in the late '80s and early '90s. In other words, there is a heavy Jessie Mae Hemphill influence, and I count that as a good thing. A '60s folk-rock thread also emerges here, and it works very nicely in combination with the slow, bluesy (no other word for it) numbers. Nice moody mix too by Doug Easley and the Reigning Sound's Greg Cartwright done at Easley/McCain Studio in town.
Wonder where Sympathy for the Record Industry will find another guitar-and-drums duo as good as this one when Garrett and McManus predictably migrate to another label?
Once again, with his fourth solo outing, Buddy Miller does country the way country should be done -- with bite, intelligence, and just the right pinch of torch and twang. More steeped in country than his joint ventures with wife Julie Miller, Midnight and Lonesome boldly goes where Hank Sr., Merle Haggard, and Gram Parsons have been before and does it all without coming off as merely retro, trite, or corny. With help from Emmylou Harris and Lee Ann Womack, this release hits just the right mix of darkness and light.
The artist revs up with a barrelhouse version of an Everly Brothers tune, then slips into "Wild Card," a Miller-penned song with enough wry swagger to satisfy even a diehard Buck Owens fan. The Dublin-via-Appalachia fiddle intro of the title cut draws the listener in, followed by a great pop shuffle co-written with pal Jim Lauderdale featuring sassy licks from an optigan (a Mattel toy "groove" machine). Miller's trademark walking-wounded guitarwork shimmers throughout. Some thoughtfully chosen covers from Jesse Winchester and a surprisingly soulful version of Percy Mayfield's classic "Please Send Me Someone to Love" also grace the release. Top it all off with a little Zydeco lust song, and you've got a well-rounded album that touches lots of musical bases without losing sight of its country core.
My only complaint is the inclusion of another one of Julie Miller's topical but slightly sappy songs. She wrote about Columbine on their last joint effort, and Buddy covers her take on the recent Pennsylvania miners' rescue this time around. Despite the awe factor of these events, it's hard to write about them without coming across as maudlin. Miller's rocker, "Water When the Well Is Dry," written about 9/11, packs a heftier emotional punch than Julie's miner ballad. Aside from that, this album is wonderful. --Lisa Lumb