Listen Up: Thursday, April 21, 2004


Fly or Die

(Virgin Records)

There’s only one word for N.E.R.D.’s 2002 debut — “hot.” When In Search Of came out, it seemed to encapsulate a blend of new-wave- and hip-hop-influenced stripperesque anthemic power with clever social commentary. The slight repetitiveness of songs built around body-rocking beats and rapper Pharrell Williams’ sly delivery was easy to overlook — you didn’t really have time to be critical, shaking yo’ ass so much.

Cut to today and the sophomore effort of Williams, Chad Hugo, and Shay. The one word that perfectly sums up Fly or Die is ... “cold.” A phone book of 14 lonnnng songs, the album is insipid and stale, and this time the repetitiveness is pretty damned annoying.

Whereas N.E.R.D.’s ability to handle “message”-oriented music was deft and subtle a couple of years ago, it’s sloppy and heavy-handed now. Teen-angsty tracks, such as “Jump” and the title track, sound like musical versions of after-school specials; everything’s spelled out in lurid detail. “Mummy, daddy, I know you love me,” Williams raps on “Fly or Die.” “Bad grades, Playstation restriction / You took it from me / ... Well, guess what I found in the drawer of daddy’s ...” No thanks.

Not only are the album’s messages overbearing, they’re annoyingly repeated in one-word choruses. It seems that more than half of the album consists of one- or two-word phrases on a loop. The word “breakout” alone is sung 22 times in the appropriately titled “Breakout.”

There are a couple of tracks that manage to capture the vibrancy that we know N.E.R.D. is capable of. “She Wants to Move” is one. Thumping bass, quick beats, and Shay shouting “she’s sexy” let you know that this band isn’t completely bereft of original ideas ... yet. — Marjorie Owens

Willie Nelson

Live at Billy Bob’s Texas

Smith Music Group

The seven cameras staring back at Willie Nelson during his October performance at Billy Bob’s Texas probably gave him an inkling that he was being recorded, yet one of country-and-western’s most gifted artists just doesn’t seem “on” during much of Live at Billy Bob’s Texas, especially on Outlaw novelty songs such as “Good Hearted Woman.” He wrote that number (with Waylon Jennings) and made it a hit, and now I suppose people expect to hear it. It’s understandable he’d slog through it. But Willie also sounds listless on other three-chord johnnies, such as “Me & Bobby McGee,” “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” and other songs he neither wrote nor made into hits. Why sing ’em? When Willie gets bored, he resorts to jazz-talky vocals that sound fine on standards, such as “Blue Skies,” “All of Me,” and on his more experimental compositions, such as “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” but this off-time phrasing seldom works on simple country songs. A friend of mine was at this particular show and said she had fun but that Willie was sometimes “off.” What seemed mildly noticeable in concert is magnified tenfold on c.d., courtesy of producer Rick Smith. Willie’s guitar and vocals dominate to the point that the rest of his large band is sometimes barely audible. That’s fine when Willie is tight — it’s great to hear that old beat-up Martin ring out. But Willie loses focus now and again.

Guitar players in their 40s and 50s complain that their fingers stiffen with age and become more difficult to maneuver around a fretboard. Nelson is 71. Presumably, so are his fingers. Those simple, melodic gut-string guitar leads that Willie began incorporating into his sound during the 1970s were magical. Through the years, he expanded his guitar knowledge; incorporated more jazz, gypsy, and blues stylings; and became a top-notch picker. Reaching for higher planes, however, means more chances to stumble, especially in live settings. Sometimes simpler is better.

Willie, you’ve been my hero for 30 years, but consider this humble advice: Play music that inspires you and ditch the rest. Fans have proven that they will follow you in any musical direction. So write new songs, learn new covers, do an album of Gregorian chants, whatever — just keep the passion and sincerity that made you Texas’ most beloved native. We can live without Luckenbach, if you’re no longer interested in going there. — Jeff Prince

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