Recordings

John Williams
Star Wars: A New Hope
(RCA Victor)

It occurs to me that if Ronald McDonald and his vast empire of cow grinders could only figure out a way to pretty up the cess from their franchise restrooms, they wouldn't mind feeding you their burgers twice. Given America's ever-whetted pang for nostalgia-sauced consumption, we'd probably even enjoy our seconds. In any case, we'd certainly pay.

Then again, why single out the middle man? Even McDonald's employees eat at McDonald's. And considering the praises sung of that other billion-dollar enterprise, Star Wars -- namely, that it not only entertained, but transformed our culture, having been built from mythic structures and propagated with fell clutches of licensing -- we have only ourselves to thank for leftovers. Those who profit from reissues like the Star Wars trilogy special-edition soundtracks are, in the human physiology, only external organs connecting colons to mouths. In a cultural sense, we feed off our own ass.

Not that that's necessarily a bad thing: The whole process sounds like a trait that biologists would admire in certain invertebrates. "It can thrive for years -- decades -- by devouring nothing more than its own excrement! By Jove, someone fetch me the killing jar!" Besides, listening to the Star Wars: A New Hope soundtrack is actually pretty fun. Hearing all those old symphonic themes, where specific melodies stand in for characters and premises (leitmotifs, as the liner notes say), summons great green gobs of pre-adolescent emotion that have been hiding in your body since '77 (assuming you first saw the film at the age of 9, like me). But knowing that modern marketing slys not only expected this expectoration, but banked on it, sours the loogie. Not because they're doing their jobs and making money, but because in the face of (thankfully) rare entertainment-industry phenomena like Star Wars, both our histrionics and our spending habits become frightfully obvious. Not since 20th-century fascists took a shine to Wagner, or since The William Tell Overture accompanied the charge of the KKK in the giddily racist film Birth of a Nation, has immediate, grandiose symphonic material been used so adroitly in conjunction with simplistic heroism to goad society's suckered awe. When it comes to the digitally remastered Star Wars score, I am the ass-feeder perishing in the jar, and the marketeers, of all people, have become the scientists. I can only rest assured that they saw Star Wars, too, and are gulping down their fair share of seconds along with their receipts.

-- Michael Batty

Tony Toni Tone
House of Music
(Mercury)

Calling a record "retro" is akin to Mom approving of little sis' boyfriend after meeting him once. It's the kiss of death, a discreet alarm that warns sis/listener that no matter how desirable the package, the goods are spoiled rotten. There's nothing wrong with an act playing under the influences of their musical parents every now and then. But the minute the line separating reminiscence from imitation gets too blurry, the crooked finger of accusation will not hesitate to dub a band a bunch of knockoff artists, too intellectually shallow to hatch original thoughts of their own.

House of Music, a new album courtesy of Oakland's Tony Toni Tone, has been and will continue to be called a retro R&B plate by any- and everyone with an opinion. How retro is it? Let's just say that tunes like "Thinking of You," "'Til Last Summer," "Lovin' You," "Still a Man" -- the list is long, fascinating, and full of the kind of grooves high school sweethearts exchange on dubbed tapes -- could easily be mistaken for covers of obscure Al Green, Earth Wind & Fire, and Stylistics originals. But don't write off House of Music unless you're determined to abandon modern R&B all together, because be they hacks or geniuses, Tony Toni Tone have produced an album too full of good intentions and soul to be ignored outright.

Their fourth record in close to 10 years, the new disc comes at a critical point in the three-man band's history. Although they have never shied away from referencing and sampling classic acts before (see the albums The Revival and Sons of Soul), House is the closest Tony Toni Tone has come to going 100 percent retro. More modern-sounding ditties like "Top Notch," "Let's Get Down," featuring DJ Quick, and the jazz-heavy "Party Don't Cry" remind us of the decade. But more important, House is also the most mature offering from the group to date. Raphael Saadiq, Timothy Christian Riley, and D'Wayne Wiggins haven't sounded this inspired as musicians, writers, and singers since the early days of New Jack Swing, when singles like "Little Walker" and "Feels Good" were household names.

Then as now, the key to Tony Toni Tone's staying power has been their integrity, ingenuity, attention to detail, and a remarkable ability to reflect the very best of modern R&B -- even when it seems modern R&B has nothing to give us. And with artists like D'Angelo, Dionne Farris, Maxwell, Me'Shell N'Degeocello, Lenny Kravitz, and the reinvigorated artist formerly known as Prince (see Emancipation) all looking for the future of black popular music in its recent past, House of Music feels like the appropriate reaction. Mother doesn't always know best.

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