New York Observer Review Trouble in Shangri-La
HEADLINE: Nicks: Nightbird Flies With Crow
BYLINE: NYO Staff
Stevie Nicks gave up cocaine in 1985, after it had bored a hole in her septum big enough, she said, "to pass a belt through." In the next decade and a half, Ms. Nicks turned to tranquilizers, put out lousy albums and put on a couple of pounds. Her songs, which had drawn heavily on the dramas, excess and fantasy the coke had fueled, turned turgid and dull. Her dreamy, witchy Fleetwood Mac persona started to look comic. Sometimes it seemed that entire seasons of Behind the Music were devoted to her.
Still, Ms. Nicks remains an icon to a lot of women -- a low-rent, flaky icon, to be sure, but an icon nonetheless. Sheryl Crow is an acolyte, and she has arrived to do a rehab job on Ms. Nicks along the lines of Bruce Springsteen's work with Gary U.S. Bonds. It is an effective and affectionate intervention, and the album often pulses with Ms. Nicks' old energy.
Ms. Crow produced about half of the songs on the new album, Trouble in Shangri-La (Warner); they're the ones with the clean, driving, rock 'n' roll flea-market sound. "Sorcerer," on which she also sings, starts with an acoustic guitar and drum sound that is pure 1970's Neil Young. "It's Only Love," which is one of Ms. Crow's own straightforward but effective slow songs -- think "Strong Enough" -- puts you in mind of Joni Mitchell.
The record is a sort of a sequel to the girls' club that started to form at Ms. Crow's 1999 concert in Central Park. Ms. Nicks made a guest appearance that night to sing "Gold Dust Woman." The Dixie Chicks' Natalie Maines showed up, too, and on Ms. Nicks' new record she sings a duet on a country number called "Too Far From Texas," which also has a good, spare Crow production. Macy Gray and Sarah McLachlan also appear, though their vocals are mixed almost too low to make out.
And what does Ms. Nicks herself bring to this little slumber party of a record? Her voice is holding up fine, and her phrasing is of the old school, rough and weary and slurred.
Ms. Nicks' lyrics, though, are altogether too airy. It appears that she has traded the rock 'n' roll high wire for a rich lady's life on the road. There are a lot of references to air travel. "There's a plane, it's headed for London," she sings on one song. "Paris to Rome, London to Paris / Always goodbye, I nearly couldn't bear it," she sings on another, missing a leg of the journey for a forced rhyme.
You also get the trademark candlelight-and-gauze spooky atmosphere. And there are acres of standard-issue Lite-FM love-and-longing songs, "I Miss You" and "Love Is" among them. This latter stuff, by far the weakest, could well produce a radio hit.
The title track was inspired by the O.J. Simpson trial and seems another attempt to mythologize the California experience. It's a strong song, with a desperate quality and rock kick not far from "Edge of Seventeen" or "Stand Back." At the same time, though, it's a little hard to take the "Hotel California" subject matter entirely seriously anymore.
Ms. Nicks thanks a lot of people in the liner notes, including her Pilates trainer. The seventh set of "special thanks" goes out to Tom Petty, who declined to write a song for her when Ms. Nicks was feeling lousy. (Recall that it was Mr. Petty's "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" that propelled Ms. Nicks' first solo album, 1981's Bella Donna, off the shelves.) Mr. Petty provided Ms. Nicks, she writes, with "an inspirational lecture over dinner at the Ritz-Carlton in Phoenix, April 24th, 1995." He told her to write her own damn songs.
There is so much to love about this story, not least the very notion of a rock-star summit at a Ritz-Carlton. (The Chelsea Hotel, it ain't.) Hats off, too, to the self-regard that would note and reproduce the precise date of a meal.
The dinner was a turning point for Ms. Nicks. She not only cranked out a bunch of songs for this record, but also wrote some remarkably literal lyrics about her conversation with Mr. Petty. "Can you write this for me?" she sings on "That Made Me Stronger." She continues: "He says no, you write your songs yourself." It's odd, then, given her decision to put Mr. Petty's admonition in the tune's very refrain, that the music that accompanies her lyrics was composed not by Ms. Nicks, but by a couple of hired hands. The trouble in Shangri-La, it seems, is that so much of the experience depends on whether the help is any good.
2001-05-07 Number of views: