Short Cuts 

Laughter and dissent from two great underground comedians.

Flying Saucer Tour, Vol. 1: Pittsburgh 6/20/91

Love, Laughter, and Truth

Bill Hicks

(Rykodisc)

After you listen to one of Bill Hicks' comedy albums, you inevitably start to wonder what he would make of the world today. As befits one of the only true social satirists stand-up has ever produced, his bits play like nihilistic op-ed pieces interspersed with pot humor and dick jokes (as a sop to the audience, Hicks liked to say). He spent countless hours trying to convince

the world that the moronic, hypocritical public attitudes toward sex, drugs, and religion not only defied logic but -- and here's the twist -- prevented human beings from evolving spiritually and morally. His flame burned brightly and constantly.

What would he make of today's crass and hypocritical anti-drug commercials? What would he think of Gulf War II, faith-based charities, or the bickering about the Pledge of Allegiance? No one will ever know. Dead of cancer in 1994, Hicks' voice continues to grow louder each year as his aural legacy expands. All four of his "official" records and a best-of remain in print, and two new additions to the canon offer revealing footnotes to his brief, stunning career.

Though there is plenty of Hicks' famed hostility throughout Flying Saucer Tour and Love, Laughter, and Truth ("I DON'T UNDERSTAND AMERICA!" he shrieks at one point), the new discs are noteworthy for their inclusion of atypical Hicks material about childhood, bad drivers, and airplane inconveniences, which undermine his self-generated persona as a dark outlaw-poet driven to expose social ills. Love, Laughter, and Truth collects leftover bits that show off his graphic imagination and geekily precise comic vocabulary. When he spits, "Someone actually asked me once, 'Who's your favorite New Kid?' ... THE FIRST ONE THAT DIES," it's gallows fun and games, but the psychotic revenge scenario "You Can't Get Bitter" isolates his transgressive impulses from his sense of humor.

Flying Saucer Tour documents a tense Pittsburgh show where Hicks repeatedly prays for nuclear holocaust and dryly remarks, "I'm amusing people one at a time here tonight. This is unique." By the end of the disc, it's unclear whether the clueless audience realized how unique it was to witness Hicks' talents.

-- Addison Engelking

Grade (both albums): A-

Shut Up, You Fucking Baby!

David Cross

(Sub Pop)

Funnyman David Cross has become a rock star of sorts. Largely through his innovative work in cult TV (he wrote for The Ben Stiller Show, co-wrote, co-produced, and co-starred in HBO's Mr. Show, and played Eliot's faux-retarded brother Donny on the only two remotely entertaining episodes of the NBC sitcom Just Shoot Me), his name is now valuable currency in hip rock circles. The Strokes named their current tour after a Mr. Show sketch, and Queens Of The Stone Age's Josh Homme recently sported a Titanica T-shirt in concert. But rock stars are not as fearless as Cross is onstage. Over the course of the 125-minute Shut Up, his standup act takes aesthetic risks few artists not named Eminem would even contemplate.

The thrills of this largely improvised double-disc live comedy album come in fits and starts as Cross articulates and directs his bottomless wrath for and at such worthy targets as Republicans, censorship, Southern Baptists, the Promise Keepers, Rickey Henderson, the Book of Genesis, drive-time deejays, the "flag-waving, cheerleading rah-rah bullshit" organized in the wake of 9/11, the war on terrorism ("It's like having a war on jealousy," he sighs), and the misuse of the word "literally." Though his improvisational skills occasionally falter, the weak bits and dead time actually enhance the spontaneity and sting of his best work. His assessment on the child-abuse scandals of the Catholic Church may elicit moans of disgust, but his horrifying, bleakly comic conclusions have an impeccable logic.

Disc one is triumphant when Cross discusses the uncertain times after the WTC attacks (which he calls "the week football stopped") and drops into startling impressions of strident, baffled middle-class women. Disc two -- wherein Cross disappears into a dozen characters as quickly as he thinks of them, dismantles the new Bush regime, and shares an epic shaggy-drunk story based on a chance encounter with a group from VH-1's Bands on the Run -- deserves a place alongside the best comedy albums of Cosby, Pryor, and Hicks.

Two caveats: 1) There is a lot of profanity. 2) The track listings are misleading. --AE

Grade: A

Scarlet's Walk

Tori Amos

(Epic)

Tori Amos' new Scarlet's Walk is a strange breed of album: part road movie, part Great American Novel, part postcards from the edge. The famously red-headed singer takes a long, hard look at the culture and identity of post-9/11, pre-World War III America, navigating L.A.'s porn industry, examining border conflicts in the Southwest, delving into suburban ennui in the Northeast, and straining her eyes against Vegas' inhuman glare. In the end, she comes up with something that feels strangely predetermined: Either America is strikingly similar to Amos' worldview and aesthetic or else she went searching with an agenda and found exactly what she wanted to find -- namely, material for a new Tori Amos album.

Each of the 18 songs here follows a woman traveling around America, usually with Amos singing in the voices of her characters. It's an approach she took as far back as her first album, but she fine-tuned it on last year's cover album, Strange Little Girls. The best songs on Scarlet's Walk have a very specific point of view and overflow with the well-studied details of short stories. "Wednesday" manifests a couple's tension as a Thumbelina-size ghost, and the narrator hums "When Doves Cry" to distract herself from her fears. On "A Sorta Fairytale," a woman drives around the desert with her lover, the top down on their convertible and the hot wind blowing on their faces. The song's momentum matches the narrator's movement along the barren landscape, but car trouble hints at romantic turmoil.

Alas, not everything works quite so well. Amos' worldview is predictable and impractical, from preachy sentiments like "We're just impostors in this country" to unctuous PC exercises like the a cappella "Wampum Prayer." The lead-off track, "Amber Waves," is a well-meaning paean to a porn queen (whose name she cops from Boogie Nights), but with campy lines like "From ballet class to a lap dance/And straight to video," Amos not only condemns the men who make money off women's bodies but also takes a dig at the women who shed their dreams along with their clothes.

Like too many of Amos' albums, Scarlet's Walk lacks any trace of humor, warmth, or joy. At times, it sounds like it wasn't much fun to make. What's worse, it's often a chore to listen to.

--Stephen Deusner

Grade: B-

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