To call Living Colour the modern African American equivalent of Led Zeppelin is mostly accurate, but the analogy raises as many questions as it answers. For Led Zep's own critical reputation is still very unsettled, and many of the reservations regarding the British heavy-metal kings' heavy-handed approach apply equally well to their New York heavy-metal heirs, who are about to release their second album, "Time's Up" (Epic).
Like Led Zep's Jimmy Page, Living Colour's Vernon Reid is a brilliant guitarist, slamming together different guitar tones and distortions as easily as most guitarists string together notes. Like Led Zep's Robert Plant, Living Colour's Corey Glover is a sirenlike screamer, sounding as if he were in a state of constant, uncontrollable excitement. Like their Led Zep counterparts, drummer Will Calhoun and bassist Muzz Skillings give the beat a monstrous, epic wallop.
Both bands, though, bring a very one-dimensional approach to the blues. The great bluesmen, from Robert Johnson to Jimi Hendrix, opened themselves up to expose their hurt and fears as well as their lust and confidence. Heavy-metal bands that build upon the blues ignore the painful, vulnerable part of the music and concentrate instead on the macho swagger. By coupling this swagger with the technological juggernaut of modern electronics, they create an imposing music of power and domination. This may appeal to the fantasies of teenage boys, but it doesn't provide the connection with a real human being that great art requires.
"Time's Up" is not as constrained by the heavy-metal formula as the first Living Colour album, "Vivid," but it's still a heavy-metal album, an attempt to bully its audience into submission rather than a give-and-take. Producer Ed Stasium has once again captured the exciting fury of the band's live performances, but the album also includes rap performances by Queen Latifah, Doug E. Fresh and Little Richard as well as spoken-word montages of the type created by Big Audio Dynamite and Public Enemy. With 15 cuts in all, it offers a lot of music for the money.
Each side of the album opens with a hysterical warning about impending social apocalypse ("Time's Up" and "Information Overload"). The intentions are good but the execution is painfully blunt; the lyrics amount to predictable sloganeering and the virtuoso playing amounts to show-off flash. "Pride" recycles the simplistic anti-education, young rebel theme of Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall." "Love Rears Its Ugly Head" and "Under Cover of Darkness" offer the typical heavy-metal warning against diabolical, possessive women.
The album's most controversial number is likely to be "Elvis Is Dead," a song inspired by the group's protest at receiving a rock award called the Elvis (they complained it should have been called a Chuck or a Bo). The song starts off well by attacking the crass exploitation of Presley by tabloids and merchandisers. Little Richard makes an entertaining cameo appearance with a screaming vocal that acknowledges Presley's musical greatness and demands that the vultures get off his corpse.
Glover then sings Reid's lyrics that "Elvis was a hero to most, but that's beside the point." It is? "A black man taught him how to sing," Glover adds, "and then he was crowned king." Well, Presley learned a lot from Big Joe Turner and Arthur Crudup, but it could be argued that he learned just as much from Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe. Glover then parodies Paul Simon by singing, "I've got a reason to believe we all won't be received at Graceland," a claim contradicted by the well-integrated crowds at Presley's Memphis mansion.
The album's best moments are on the two final cuts, which sharply depart from heavy-metal formulas. "Solace of You" is a nicely understated love song with a tender vocal by Glover. "This Is the Life" captures the contradiction between fantasy and reality both in Reid's smart lyric and in his droning, tension-ridden guitar part. Reid, who has played on some of the best jazz albums of the '80s as part of Ronald Shannon Jackson's Decoding Society, has too much talent to be squandering it on the overly blunt heavy metal that makes up most of "Time's Up."
Santana: 'Spirits Dancing'
A good example of how Reid might be better employing his powers can be found on the new Santana album, "Spirits Dancing in the Flesh" (Columbia). Reid co-produced two tracks and played duet guitar with Carlos Santana on one, a medley of tunes by John Coltrane, Santana and Jimi Hendrix, musicians who could provide Reid with useful models of how to integrate jazz, rock and Third World music without oversimplifying any of them. Santana himself is a dazzling guitarist and he brings the best out in Reid, who shows he can play with both power and finesse at the same time.
Reid also co-produced an updated version of the old Santana hit, "Jingo," an exhilarating remake of Babatunde Olatunji's African juju workout with firmer trap drumming and more prominent organ this time around. Reid is not the only special guest on this new album, which should revive Santana's flagging career. Three alumni of Weather Report -- saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bassist Alphonso Johnson and keyboardist Chester Thompson -- reunite on "Soweto (Africa Libre)" and, with crucial help from Carlos Santana's guitar, create a majestic instrumental.
Guest Bobby Womack sings on two songs, and his soulful interpretation of the protest song, "It's a Jungle Out There," not only shows up Santana's mediocre lead vocalist, Alex Ligertwood, but also Living Colour's Corey Glover, who brings such overkill to similar material. The album opens with guest Tremaine Hawkins leading a gospel choir on the awkward, overproduced hymn "Let There Be Light" but the band communicates its spiritual interests more effectively on the hymnlike closing instrumental, "Goodness and Mercy."
What's most impressive about the album, though, is the way Carlos Santana can sustain interest in his extended guitar solos. He ventures out on bold inventive tangents, but he returns to the rolling Latin rhythms and melodies often enough to keep his listeners with him; he plays with power and aggression but also with a confessional vulnerability. Santana paints the whole picture, and Reid could learn a lot from him.