Published: November, 2005, Rasputin Manifesto
Scraping the pop barrel:
he good, the bad and the ugly

By Michael Fortes

Sometimes when sifting through the endless stream of CDs that pour in for review from wherever these pennies from heaven originate (usually from record labels), you just gotta laugh. I mean, success has a huge stake in presentation, right? Right.

Inevitably, the discs with the best presentation - that includes both the music and the packaging - tend to be the ones that are the most successful, with some exceptions. They grab our attention and make us listen, which is always the first thing necessary to get the message across. And maybe, just maybe, we'll like what we hear.

But as a reviewer, I feel I have an occasional duty to peruse the bottom of the barrel and, if not report on what I find, then at least get a good laugh out of it. This time, I've done both. So we (reviewer and reader) both win in this case, and the artists and labels involved get something put in print. Even if it's not so flattering, at least it's something.

And so, with that, I present to you three choice barrel-scrapings - one that's actually quite good, one that's merely amusing, and one that just couldn't be saved if we tried.

Biff Rose - The Thorn In Mrs. Rose's Side / Children Of Light

With an anachronistic-looking, moustached Rose pictured beneath a yellow rainbow on an earth-toned cover, the attraction level of this CD was not too high. But then I turned it over and saw song titles like "Buzz The Fuzz" and "Communist Sympathizer" and thought it should at least be interesting or amusing. Turns out it was both and more.

Biff's comical vocal delivery and tongue-in-cheek songs turned out to be an entertaining mix, a sadly overlooked curiosity from the ultra-creative late 1960s. The liner notes turned out to be quite informative and entertaining themselves. But alas, the sound is marred occasionally by static which sounds like it could either be the remnants of a vinyl LP transfer, or just a damaged source tape. In any case, consider this two-fer reissue by the San Francisco-based Water label to be a flawed gem worth scavenging for.

Charo - Charo and Guitar

(Universal Wave)

So Charo can play guitar. Cuchi cuchi! Actually, she's not that bad. Nay, she's excellent. Of course, the cover art doesn't emphasize it all that well - her pretty mug is the main feature, with the guitar just barely peeking through the lens. But put the disc on, and you'll hear her picking with style and finesse.

But this music has its marred surfaces, too. For one, the disc is book-ended with two pairs of tracks featuring backing straight out of Santa Esmeralda hell. Granted, Charo may like to party, but it's mighty hard to listen to and appreciate her talents with bumping disco beats vying for attention. The feet will win out every time in a case like this. There are some other tunes, like "En Aranjuez Con Tu Amor," for example, where the guitar gets a greater spotlight. But then someone had to fuck up the prettiest moment on the disc. "Malaguena," the disc's 8th cut, sounds like a 56kbps mp3, maybe even worse. We buy compact discs precisely because they sound better than mp3s. When you hear a disc where the best song sounds worse than something you could have downloaded for free, you just might feel a teeny bit ripped off.

Charo gets an A for effort, but she's still the "cuchi cuchi" girl and this disc isn't doing anything to change that.

Richie Cole & The Alto Madness Orchestra - Back on Top
(Jazz Excursion)

Hoo boy, this one's a real doozy. For a release by a musician described as an "international star" in the liner notes, the cover design here is spectacularly amateurish. From cheap, tacky, oversized fonts on the front cover to ugly, pixelated text set against a purple-to-blue faded background on the back cover, one has to wonder where standards of respect are going. This kind of thing is OK for someone getting their feet wet with a computer while helping out the neighbor's kid's band. But this is a guy who has been carrying his bebop torch for more than 30 years we're talking about, and he's reduced to this? This is a joke, right?

But oh, it gets worse. Alto madness. I think of that phrase, and I think of horns battling each other to be heard like an angry mob. But alas, there's no shouting cacophony to be heard here. No, this isn't 'alto madness' - it's carefully controlled, precisely arranged big band charts playing ordinary-sounding compositions in a fairly non-exciting way.

Ugly cover art, a misleading band name, and music that can't cut past the let-down of its presentation - we couldn't be told more plainly to 'pass on this one.'