OK, so the summer of 1990 won't go down in history as one of the best ever for pop music. In fact, it could rank as one of the weakest in a long, long time.
While the well-worn pop music path is unmistakably boring, there is some exceptionally good stuff out there for those willing to explore some musical roads less traveled.Sure, it's a mixed stew with a lot of styles that may not appeal to everyone. But compared to New Kids on the Block, there's an awful lot of meat in it.
JOHN HIATT; "Stolen Moments" (A&M).
Last year it was Bonnie Raitt's well-deserved turn at the Grammy Awards. This year could belong to John Hiatt.
Arguably the hottest songwriter in the business today, Hiatt has remained one of the industry's most colorful and relevant songwriters, penning hits for dozens of more famous artists, including Raitt, who won a Grammy with Hiatt's "Thing Called Love."
But lost in all the accolades is the fact that Hiatt is himself a singer-songwriter of renown, one who has elevated "folk-rock" to an art form. And "Stolen Moments" is his best yet.
This semi-autobiography reflects a recovering alcoholic and drug addict who is now happily married and exploring the realities of sobriety, fatherhood and commitment, as well as past relationships and unresolved feelings.
Through it all, Hiatt maintains a sense of idealism, though with a certain hard-edged, clear-eyed perspective that is uniquely John Hiatt. All of which has critics doing handstands over "Stolen Moments."
Musically the album is similar to "Slow Turning," and as always, Hiatt's strength is storytelling. He speaks of his feelings with his late father on "Back of My Mind," and his self-destructive past on "Thirty Years of Tears," and the golden glow of family life.
At times, this album is downright wholesome as it champions traditional American values.
"Stolen Moments," though undeniably melodic and loaded with catchy word plays, is replete with Hiatt's rough (but endearing) vocal edge. That may appeal to hard-core fans, but is not likely to help it sell a million copies.
Nevertheless, it could be the best album on store shelves this summer - particularly for the folk-rock crowd.THE SPANIC BOYS; "The Spanic Boys" (Rounder).
The Spanic Boys - father and son Tom and Ian Spanic - could have labored away in obscurity for generations to come. But fate has a way of upsetting even the worst-laid plans.
It all began when Sinead O'Connor, whom "Saturday Night Live" had scheduled, declined to share a bill with comic Andrew Dice Clay. The Spanic Boys were a last-minute replacement.
While Saturday Night Live is not a guaranteed ticket to stardom, the dicey controversy over Clay happened to draw the largest audience of any "SNL" show. And all of a sudden, the Spanic Boys' rootsy brand of folk-rolk is getting a lot of national attention.
And deservedly so. This is one of those kind of releases that makes folk fans want to get copies for all of their friends (though "acquired taste" becomes a common phrase in subsequent Spanic discussions).
In short, it's a delightful mix of '50s-ish rock 'n' roll, some Everly Brothers harmonies thrown in, some rockabilly, a little R&B and just a dash of country. And the guitar-laced tunes come at you with the persistence of an Amway salesman.
The Spanic Boys - though perhaps not a pure folk band, by any stretch of the imagination - are a refreshing reminder that "folk" music can be fun. Like, "Hey, Juliana, woncha be my girl? Hey, Juliana, woncha give it a whirl?"
Sounds good to me. Give it a whirl. You'll like it.JOHN GORKA; "Land of the Bottom Line" (Windham Hill).
In the folk trade, songs of disappointment and shattered dreams are a dime a dozen. So why do most folk singers come across as rather unbelievable sophomoric ramblings?
Enter John Gorka and his rich brand of folk ballads - a mirror of life with all of life's dreams and disappointments. Add to that Gorka's penchant for wrapping those tunes around surprisingly clever, world-weary lyrics and a deep, honey-smooth baritone and the result is a collection of some of the most palatable folk tunes in years.
Part of "Land of the Bottom Line" is straight off the subway wall, like "Promnight in Pigtown," replete with a healthy dose of wit and puns. At times Gorka's lyrics are downright brilliant, and always moving.
While the lyrics and vocals are certainly Gorka's strong points, the bottom line here is that Gorka's melodies often sound the same, smacking of formula writing. But those are problems more of inexperience than any lack of creative talent.
In fact, he is one of the brightest stars of the folk horizon.THE FLATLANDERS; "More a Legend Than a Band" (Rounder).
If they are so much a legend, how come no one's ever heard of them?
Actually, in folk and country recording circles, the Flatlanders are just that. Texas songwriters Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely and Butch Hancock did to country music in 1972 what few have ever done since: Develop an entirely new style of country music that was so radically different that Nashville wouldn't touch them.
Now, quite a few legends in the business find inspiration in those early Flatlanders' tunes.
"More a Legend Than a Band" - a compact disc re-release of the Flatlanders' debut - showcases just how eccentric and creative that band was. Hancock is a traditional writer, but his songs take unexpected melodic twists. Gilmore is the cosmic-cowboy. Ely is a throwback to Texas rockabilly.
Though financial success never came their way, all three went on to cult superstardom with a variety of folk artists covering their tunes. Nothing done since their first release even comes close.
Which makes "Legend" one of the real undiscovered treasures on store shelves today.