Unfortunately, En Vogue is about more than music. Lots of girls were born to sing; En Vogue was born to work it. Their style used to skitter along the edge of garish, and now they've fallen into that swamp. The cover of the CD portrays the trio smeared with tons of makeup; they look as if they are trying to lighten their skin shades. The Michael Jackson homage is accessorized with glitter in their hair and faux bad taste dresses (Prada imitating Kmart?).

They look like too-old club kids waiting for the Ecstasy to wear off -- a look that is entirely at odds with the confidence on the recording. Except for Toni Braxton, very few R&B or hip-hop stars have successfully styled themselves (Biggie looked so stupid in Versace), and Braxton's daring clothing choices are her own. Perhaps having conquered their musical challenges, En Vogue's next task will be to assert their prerogatives, rather than just their voices, in their presentation.

-- Martin Johnson

The Dandy Warhols
...The Dandy Warhols Come Down

As it turns out, and quite possibly despite themselves, the Dandy Warhols (of Portland, Ore.) make a pretty airtight case for artistic and cultural retardation -- more specifically, for obsessive nostalgia, trite rock star excess, calculated psychedelia, corny effects, and foremost, for reeeeeeally dumb lyrics. And there's nothing backhanded about any of that. From its fold-out cover art (depicting the four Dandys in what I suppose we're meant to believe is their quirky, decadent rock 'n' roll palace) to its song structures (which make frequent use of big, open, major-key chords in minor-key sequences), ...The Dandy Warhols Come Down is one of those rare albums that, despite being stuck in unremitting retrograde, actually ends up seeming forward, simply by virtue of sounding good. (Other groups who have managed to pull this off include the Apples in Stereo, Monster Magnet, and Flat Duo Jets, for various Beatles-, stoner metal-, and '50s greaser-related reasons.) Open Come Down for a visual demonstration of the Dandys' retardo credo in a long photographic collage: the band in their element -- onstage with guitars, offstage pissing in the bushes, backstage around a coffee table heaped with cigarette butts and cocktails, between stages reading paperbacks in a U-Haul, held hostage by their silly facial hair, pasties, mascara, and sharkskin suits. Yep, it's the whole rock-life gesture -- at this point more a gesture than a life, with all the granny-knot tie-ins to drug culture and sartorial gloss. (Its nod to "on the nod" is obviously more Warhol than Haight, despite the title of the opening track, "Be-In.")

None of which would rate a second whiff if not for the album's aural qualities. The Dandys have learned how to place their beats (or is it beat?) a little better since Dandys Rule OK. The chord progressions we've all heard before (in songs favored by mods, by Pink Floyd, with Syd Barrett), and likewise the timbres -- but the group also uses what should be obvious to all musical retrofitters by now, but isn't: backbeat, backbeat, backbeat. If folks are going to insist on rifling through rock's moldy old bones, they should at least remember to retrieve its spinal column. Almost every track on Come Down has a simple and competent drum part. Really, that's all we need, chordal rehash notwithstanding. But listen close for those little touches that make Come Down a handy novelty -- the jew's-harp audible on "Minnesoter" only during the break, the Spacemen 3-style line of single-note feedback pervading "Hard On for Jesus," and even the sequencer sound on "Every Day Should Be a Holiday," which, intentionally or not, brings on a shuddering reminiscence of Reagan-era ZZ Top, or even Billy Idol. (I've noticed lately that it's not Sonic Youth's Confusion Is Sex that gets me all misty for my adolescence, it's "White Wedding.") Every track is festooned with swooping, monotonous keyboard frills, cavernous reverb, and various hesher cues -- and every track works. Plenty to be content with.

But then there's the lyrical end -- that's where we can really cash our bowls. Take the first words from that most overplayed of current singles: "Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth." (Its mention in reviews seems de rigueur -- probably because heroin abuse is so very serious an issue, and because, uh, drugs have never been mentioned in pop music before.) "I never thought you'd be a junkie because heroin is so passe/ And today/ If you think I don't know about depression and emotional pain/ You're insane." And so on. You'd almost think the Cat in the Hat or Sam-I-Am was about to show up with a spoon and a Zippo. As for "Minnesoter," just imagine what might rhyme with the title -- it's probably used. Though it's hard to discern through the wall of sound, I believe that on "Be-In," someone sings, "All the drugs that you bring/ If they're antiquated beyond belief/ Just be good enough to get me high," at which point the riff finally turns around on a big, majestic bVI-IV. (Pardon my Roman numerals.) Good to know that the Dandys can make do with tawdry old hallucinogens. And where the message isn't silly, it's muddled by the lush production. "Boys Better" is like a sonic Mad Lib: "Boys had better beware/ You can [seem, sing] to [color, cut all, cover] your hair/ But on the [way, wig] you already spent/ All the dough to cover your rent." A song just as meaningful with any arrangement of variables -- which is to say, not very. I strained to make sense of the words on "Cool as Kim Deal," but I could only determine that someone in the band wants to be that way. The lyrics aren't just dumb, or even primitive -- they're downright Devonian. They might have been sung by the first glistening tadpole that writhed out of the soup and sucked the air. But that sounds so damning. Because dumb or not, the lyrics are fun, just like rock could be before people (i.e., writers) started squinting at it, looking for meaning. Since rock lyrics are all terrible anyway, at least they can be terrible in the right way. Like this.

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