Utopia Parkway Fountains of Wayne (Atlantic) Four wise guys in their 20s make a wistful, hilarious, strangely touching concept album about what it’s like to be a teenager in suburban New Jersey or Long Island. And who’s the most appreciative audience for such a conceit? Mostly folks in their 30s and 40s old enough to remember when rock this tuneful, intelligent, and exhilarating was more the rule, not the brilliant exception.
Loud, Fast & Out Of Control: The Wild Sounds of ’50s Rock Various Artists (Rhino) So maybe rock & roll was never really quite as dangerous as we imagined it. But this four-CD box, which rounds up the roughest stuff from rock’s first wave and tosses out the ballads and doo-wop, makes a strong case that the music was never more deranged, subversive, or thrilling than in its first blast of late-’50s freedom. Limp Bizkit, eat your hearts out.
Midnite Vultures Beck (Geffen) And we’ll have fun, fun, fun till his daddy takes the P-Funk away. Brother Hansen’s sonically dazzling hodgepodge of ’70s funk, space-age arena rock, and Dylan-riffing non sequiturs may not add up to any truly soulful epiphanies, but — to quote Woody Allen on sex — as empty experiences go, it’s a freakin’ great one.
Bad Love Randy Newman (DreamWorks) Satire is what closes on Saturday night, and in the age of teen pop, Newman’s efforts aren’t likely to make it to Friday. Yet his powers of observation — and evisceration — grow. A song like ”Great Nations of Europe,” which takes the Pythonesque view of history as a hilariously brutal tragedy, makes his old ”Political Science” look like child’s play.
Fly Dixie Chicks (Monument) Speaking of taking wing, the Chicks bettered their breakthrough album (1998’s Wide Open Spaces) by a country mile with this worthier follow-up, which manages to be more traditional and rock out more at the same time. No wonder this new material went over like gangbusters on the George Strait and Lilith Fair tours: The Chicks are the best evidence around that country will remain a vital force into the 21st century.
When the Pawn… Fiona Apple (Clean Slate/Epic) Apple shouldn’t have had anything to prove after her astonishing debut, but thanks to some weirdly distorted public perceptions, she did. The proof is in Pawn’s pretty pudding, which fleshes out her wry, angry broadsides with baroquely rockin’ arrangements that instantly elevate Jon Brion to the front rank of producers.
On How Life Is Macy Gray (Epic) You might mistake this for a classic ’70s soul album, if not for the certainty that you’d definitely have remembered that wonderfully scratchy, Billie Holiday-meets-Carol Channing voice. It’s sexy as all get-out, but she’ll also wax rapturous on how life after death is; ”I Can’t Wait to Meetchu” is the funkiest Memphis gospel anthem Al Green never recorded.
Mule Variations Tom Waits (Epitaph) He may sound like death warmed over, but Waits proves there’s life left in the blues yet. He’s a gargle-mouthed, mutant Muddy Waters in his harder-edged numbers, a rabid sentimentalist in the rough-hewn ballads, and mulishly stubborn at all times.