Reviews of Smoking Popes, Fabolous, Jackie McLean and a tribute to the Ramones

We're a Happy Family — a Tribute to the Ramones

It's risky for a rock critic to admit this, but I slept on the Ramones. Too much Steely Dan and nascent jazz snobbery at the time, I guess. My exposure to the seminal punk-rock band came decidedly after-the-fact and, quite honestly, even then I was always more able to admire what they represented than actually appreciate their music.

This all-star tribute disc had an unexpected effect: It allowed me to hear a bunch of classic Ramones song interpreted reverently by a roll-call of top rock artists — and it opened the music up to me.

Many of the hooks that seemed to drone on in the hands of the Ramones come to life in these new takes. The 15 songs feature such far-ranging talents as Metallica (adopting a sinewy punk persona for "53rd and 3rd"), U2 (getting chunky on "Beat on the Brat"), KISS (typically anthem-style on "Do You Remember Rock "n' Roll Radio") and Tom Waits (rumbly, lo-fi and rambling on "Return of Jackie & Judi"). Green Day ("Outsider"), Rancid ("Sheena is a Punk Rocker") and The Offspring ("I Wanna Be Sedated") are closest to the Ramones lineage and turn in the most imitative renditions.

My faves are by two acts that manage to live up to the Ramones spirit but put their own imprint on a song: Eddie Vedder (with the band Zeke) seethes through "I Believe in Miracles;" Garbage's take on "I Just Wanna Have Something to Do," driven by corrosive guitars and Shirley Manson's urgent vocals, deftly straddles the line between pop and rock.

The collection contains a few dogs. What tribute record doesn't? Marilyn Manson's manifest creepiness doesn't work on "The KKK Took My Baby Away." The Pretenders' weary "Something to Believe in" stays locked in neutral. Pete Yorn, with his guitar set on jangle, slogs through an "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend" that lacks youthful vitality. Rooney (who?) gives "Here Today, Gone Tomorrow" an annoying Brit-rock treatment.

In all, We're a Happy Family was something of a mini-revelation for me. Maybe it's time to go back and check out the original stuff again. Or maybe I'll just keep this disc in the car and get my occasional Ramones infusion that way. 1/2 —Eric Snider

The Party's Over
Double Zero Records

Chicago pop-punk legends Smoking Popes have been gone for quite a while now, but former Popes drummer Mike Felumlee recently kicked out a couple of posthumous eccentricities courtesy of his Double Zero imprint. One's a Popes tribute disc featuring contributions by just about everybody who's ever put anything out on Double Zero; the other, and the subject of this here vivisection, is a scarily diverse collection of covers turned in by the band itself. Featuring tunes from Patsy Cline and Kris Kristofferson to Judy Garland (2 songs!) and Burt Bacharach, The Party's Over subjects multiple genres to the Popes' distorted guitar-driven earnestness, overlaid with Josh Caterer's uniquely insinuating vocal style. Most of it's pretty good, if pretty standard in terms of performance. Highlights include Willie Nelson's "Valentine," Rodgers & Hart's "Bewitched," a strangely Weakerthans-esque reading of Harold Arlen's "Stormy Weather" and the particularly outstanding "Farther Along," a Byrds original. Everything else is listenable, naturally, though the disc as a whole suffers from a dearth of the Popes' trademarked emotional investment, and often comes off as a bit light. 1/2 —Scott Harrell

Street Dreams
Desert Storm

Boyishly handsome and dapperly thugged out, Fabolous sports a blase East Coast delivery and bling-giddy gangsta bravado — a ready-for-MTV persona that made DJ Clue look like a genius for signing the relative unknown to his nascent Desert Storm label. The follow-up to the platinum debut Ghetto Fabolous, Street Dreams offers more of Clue's monotonous beats and bleeps, and more of Fab's monotone, slang-drunk bullshittery, rife with lyrical product placement. The album amounts to a soliloquy on having the finer things, the stresses of people being jealous and the pitfalls of struggling to keep what you've got. Also covered: love found, love lost and receiving blowjobs. Not even cool cameos by Snoop Dog, Mary J. Blige and Missy Elliott can redeem this one. The album cover (Fab in a dyed fur coat sitting on the hood of a sports car) captures the essence: superficial and trivial. (But look at those 20-inch rims!) —cooper cruzDub Side of the MoonEasy Star All-StarsEasy StarHmmm. A reggae version of Dark Side of the Moon. Sublime hybrid or recipe for disaster? Turns out that it's somewhere in between, tilting to the successful side of the spectrum. Producers Michael G and Ticklah, along with a core group of the New York indie label's regular musicians and a gaggle of guest stars (Frankie Paul, Dr. Israel, The Meditations), painstakingly re-created the Floyd classic with reggae beats and instrumentation (more horns than guitars), dub effects and a touch of toasting. Overall, the music has a bit more bounce but remains mostly languorous and spacey like the original. A novelty, yes, but a pretty cool one. As a bonus, the disc contains four all-out, echo-drenched dub versions that represent some of the best music on the album. www.easystar.com —Eric Snider

Jackie's Bag
Blue Note

In 1959-60, the jazz world reeled from the spacious, modal sound on Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, Ornette Coleman's proto-avant-gardism and other breakthroughs. Those years also produced a wealth of fabulous music working the tried-and-true hard-bop tip — like Jackie's Bag by alto saxophonist Jackie McLean. This disc, his fourth for Blue Note, reissued and expanded for Blue Note's prestigious Rudy Van Gelder series, is probably his best work before breaking into more experimental terrain. Even at his most tradition-minded, McLean had an edgy, slightly sour tone that hinted at the avant-garde. The two sessions — one a quintet, the other a sextet — showcase sterling work by the likes of trumpeters Donald Byrd and Blue Mitchell, tenor man Tina Brooks, pianists Sonny Clarke and Kenny Drew, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummers Philly Joe Jones and Art Taylor. Not the slightest hint of a weak link among them. Besides spirited blowing and impeccable interplay throughout, the disc features some top-shelf writing, including "Appointment in Ghana," one of McLean's more notable tunes. —Eric Snider


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