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November 17, 1998
by Eric Diesel, Curtis Waterbury, & Lissa Townsend Rodgers
  bette Bette Midler
"Bathhouse Betty"
(Warner Brothers)

There are those who say that Bette Midler's greatest strength as a singer is her talent as an actress. And they think it's a dis. A great pop singer's voice conveys not only musical notes but experience, and in that arena Bette is unparalleled, inhabiting a song's atmosphere with a powerful alto honed by fifty-plus years of survival. The Divine Miss M's new release, "Bathhouse Betty," exploits that ideal to its fullest, offering a buffet of musical treats that, if slightly uneven, never veer into vulgar formula.

Like Patti LaBelle, Midler's material can never quite contain her voice; her vocal posturing is by turns tawdry, seductive, heartbreaking, sassy, ruthless—and even tuneful—but always transcendent. She is one of the few singers who can overcome bad material and vault cheesiness into the stratosphere of Art-with-a-capital-A, carrying every effect in her larynx from beyond-the-grave whisper to ten-alarm fire.

She devastates the simple harmonics of "Lullaby in Blue," trading not on the maudlin notes of a mother mourning a child she never knew, but on the wistful, unspoken hopes of mothers everywhere. Equally eviscerating is her interpretation of Ben Folds' "Boxing," which appeals with the hard-won innocence of a battered prizefighter's wounds. These two cuts, the best on the album, achieve the shimmering untouchability of a superb pop song performance--a quality that is instantly recognizable, yet utterly indescribabale.

That mystery is what blasts "Bathhouse Betty" out of the realm of trenchant filler material that has marred many a legendary career, including Bette's (one word: "Beaches"). Proclaiming "I'm Beautiful," Bette sermonizes through longtime collaborator Arif Mardin's glittering production on behalf of everyone who was unpopular in high school. Bette even throws us old queens a bone with the delightfully campy "Ukulele Lady," floating on the demented sound-foam of a dozen Carmen Miranda worshippers strumming away. In the knockout "One Monkey Don't Stop No Show," the Divine One reminds us that she was evicting Grace Slick from the charts with boogie-woogie back when the Cherry Poppin' Daddies wore diapers above their spats. As Miss M's backup, the Royal Crown Revue meet her challenge with musical brass balls that clank.

Turgid balladry is kept to a minimum—just enough to appease Warner Brothers' A&R people. "My One True Friend" isn't entirely unlistenable, mostly for Miss M's wryly unheartfelt reading of the Bacharach/Bayer-Sager/King lyrics. "Song of Bernadette" and "That's How Love Moves" will have a home in the hearts of romance novelists everywhere. But skip these tracks in favor of Miss M's decrepit savagery of Mary J. Blige on "Big Socks." This synth-pop cut, spiked with the Other M's famous electronica, symbolizes everything that's great about "Bathhouse Betty." To paraphrase the four-color, full-page ads in "Billboard": It's Bette's world. The rest of us are just soaking in it. —Eric Diesel


Bette Midler
"Bathhouse Betty"

"Tomorrow Hit Today"

Julie Ruin
"Julie Ruin"

November 2
Jon Spencer, Hole, PJ Harvey

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Black Star, Lewis Parker, A Tribe Called Quest

September 14
Hepcat, Gomez, Bob Mould

August 31
Liz Phair, DJ Vadim, UNKLE

August 15
Deftones, Mary J. Blige, Neotropic

August 3
Chocolate Genius, The Fieldstones, Dimtri from Paris

July 20
MC Lyte, Fastball, Marc Ribot

July 6
Amon Tobin, Pullman, Jesus and Mary Chain

mudhoney Mudhoney
"Tomorrow Hit Today"

Mudhoney fans won't be overly surprised by the band's latest release, "Tomorrow Hit Today," but they won't be disappointed either. This is definitely more than just another album in the Mudhoney discography: the songs seem heavier (if that's possible), darker, and stronger than past releases.

There are very few, if any, weak spots on the album, which was produced by Jim Dickinson (Rolling Stones, Big Star, Replacements) in Memphis, Tennessee—perhaps leaving Seattle gave the band a slightly different perspective on songwriting. Dickinson doesn't give the group a polished sound, he just brings out the best of what's already there: For example, the difference in tone and technique between Steve Turner and Mark Arm's guitar playing is more noticeable than before.

Songs like "I Have to Laugh," "Oblivion," and "Poisoned Water" typify that chunky, electrifying sound of Mudhoney, but "Tomorrow Hit Today" also offers a few slower, more ominous-sounding tunes. "Real Low Vibe" lays down a '60s-sounding, psychedelic, bluesy groove that's reminiscent of Quicksilver Messenger Service. The instrumental "I Will Fight No More Forever" (which takes its title from the surrender speech of Nez Perce leader Chief Joseph) has such a dark and heavily distorted sound that it would make Neil Young and Crazy Horse proud. And what's a Mudhoney album without that caustic sense of humor? On "This Is the Life," Arm replaces the Bo Diddley line, "47 miles of barbed wire," with "40 million miles of strip-malls."

The biggest surprise has to be the very short hidden track, "Talkin' Randy Tate's Specter Blues," a toned-down, Delta-sounding number at the very end of the album. The songs are vital, fresh, and, for the most part, don't wander too far from that Mudhoney sound; the band sticks with what it does best: Pumping out gut-wrenching vocals over top teeth-chattering, fuzzed-out guitar riffs. —Curtis Waterbury

Julie Ruin
"Julie Ruin"
(Kill Rock Stars)

julie ruin On paper, "Julie Ruin," the new project from Kathleen Hanna, sounds like it could be insufferable. A lo-fi, homemade album with a political agenda would normally be a perfect formula for unlistenable pretentiousness, but "Julie Ruin" is a surprisingly charming, catchy record. Recorded mostly in her apartment, with cheap and/or broken equipment, it doesn't entirely abandon Bikini Kill's banshee-with-an-axe and an-axe-to-grind formula, but balances it with a more experimental, occasionally whimsical sound.

The bleeps, beats, and baby-doll vocals of "V.G.I." sound like primitive new wave, down to the Valley Girl as superhero imagery punctuated with deadpan "yeah"s. "The Punk Singer" is a righteous piece of high-energy, old-school thrash well worthy of its name. The guitar-dominated "Apt. #5" is a minimal post-breakup dirge with a blend of hostility and self-pity that sounds almost like old Sebadoh. "A Place Called Won't Be There" blends genres—a jungle-speed beatbox tries to outrun a buzzing, repetitive guitar hook with dashes of sampled yelps and plinked keyboards. I'm not even going to start about the one with a typewriter for a rhythm section.

For the most part, the music takes precedence over the message: The jabs at "another book about women in rock" in the distorto-punk "Crochet" don't beat you over the head; you hear the anger in the tune rather before you read it in the words. "I Wanna Know What Love Is" is a bit more heavy-handed, riffing the famous Foreigner chorus between ranting about misogynist police, though the self-consciously cheesy beats and synths dilute a bit of the seriousness. Hanna's work has always addressed women's issues, but by offering up a variety of viewpoints in a mixture of styles, "Julie Ruin" seems less like a pronouncement of an ideology than an exploration of what an ideology can't quite contain. —Lissa Townsend Rodgers

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