... And You Will Know Us
By the Trail of Dead
(Trance Syndicate)

... as well as the trail leading back to their Sonic Youth record collections. These four emo-drenched pretty boys with the funny name from Austin, Texas, jostle out an approximation of something supposed to sound crazy. You see, their emotions just take control of their expressive performance and as they flail, repressed sexual urges and feelings of being unwanted come out, and these sweeties lose their ability to play their typically dreamy melodic ebbs. (You know, the way Sonic Youth does.) The furor of angst is wrapped up in a presumed "emotional possession," which has been pathetically adopted to represent artistic expression in the wake of tragedy-bound talents from Van Gogh to Cobain. ... And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead purvey the belief that talent and inspiration are merely equivalent to just how into it the band members get during the parts where they're supposed to be really into it. Musical structure no longer matters.

The self-titled album's opener, "Richter Scale Madness," kicks things off with ultradistorted electronic drums that segue into a drop-tuned guitar riff sounding suspiciously similar to "Total Trash" from Daydream Nation (the signature record by those cultural avatars, Sonic Youth). Just as the riff gets to a point of crescendo, however, these fellows yank out of it and flagellate their instruments like they've been really naughty. "Novena Without Faith" drops the frenzy to streaming passages milked straight from "Shadow of a Doubt" by -- guess who? -- good ol' Sonic Youth.

As the album wears on, and more illusory inner-demons are mounted, the blah-blah Trail of Dead manage to find an operating balance between lilting open-tuned melodic sways adapted from -- guess where? -- the expansive Sonic Youth catalog, and interlope with a lion's share of angst-frenzied abandon whenever they can't find a good part to steal. Lucky for us they do leave a trail -- that way, when we get to the head of it, we can give 'em a swift kick in the ass.

-- Dave Clifford

Aretha Franklin
A Rose Is Still a Rose

This is the Queen of Soul's first recording of new material in seven years, and many -- if not most -- critics act as if Franklin hasn't done anything of value since the Nixon administration. It's true her recordings for Atlantic from '67-'74 are national treasures, and it's also true that her work for the label in the late '70s is completely forgettable, but her work in the '80s and early '90s deserves re-evaluation. Franklin signed with Arista in 1980 and since then has recorded several tunes -- most notably "Jump to It" (1982), "Who's Zoomin' Who" and "Freeway of Love" (both 1985), and "A Deeper Love" (1993) -- that rank among the best soul songs of their time.

Franklin's new record has been subjected to the critics' early-Atlantic litmus test by Vibe, which is both romantic and lazy. It's lazy not to listen to an artist's recent work (but not uncommon -- witness the gaggle of critics acting like Madonna is using electronica for the first time on Ray of Light). And it's romantic to expect visions of God from every performance (not even evangelical Christians expect such visions from the mundane act of slapping on a CD). Even so, A Rose Is Still a Rose ranks as Franklin's best in over 10 years.

Franklin's work has often depended upon her producers. The songs she has recorded with Luther Vandross and Narada Michael Walden have shined; oddly, she and Babyface, who wrote her 1994 single "Honey," were not a good match. Here she works with several leading young R&B producers -- Dallas Austin, Sean "Puffy" Combs, Lauryn Hill, and Jermaine Dupri -- none of whom were born when "Respect" first charted in 1967. Though each of them has a distinct sound, none forces it on Franklin. Instead, they all create solid songs that allow plenty of room for Franklin to let loose with her dazzling pipes; she seems invigorated by their contributions. Hill's work on the title track positions Franklin as the savvy elder dispensing advice to the younger woman whose self-esteem is dependent on male approval. The track is typical of the album's strength: Rather than posture Franklin in search of an already spent youth, the producers present Franklin as a mature woman who has maintained the fierce girl inside of her. Combs' touch on "Never Leave You Again," a midtempo ode to devotion, is surprisingly light-handed, acknowledging that the singer is the star. With its piano fills and dark, rhythmically strident samples, Dupri's "Here We Go Again" makes conscious reference to some of Franklin's early Arista hits. Austin's "I'll Dip" is the best-crafted and most ambitious song on the recording. He weaves layers of female vocal harmonies under the Queen's commanding voice.

Franklin saves some of the recording's lesser material too. On Daryl Simmons' "In the Morning," her bravura vocals lift an otherwise standard-issue slow jam. However, some of the material is a lost cause -- David Foster's "How Many Times" sounds like a Celine Dion reject and Franklin seems like she's performing it as a favor. Yet such clunkers are few on this disc. It's a fine example of a legend connecting with the kids who make up today's vanguard. These are usually shotgun marriages, but not this time. Instead, A Rose Is Still a Rose is an exercise in bliss.

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