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Opening Act 

Neil Young
Greatest Hits

This is product, pure and simple. This greatest-hits package doesn't provide any perspective on Young's art or career, and on the back cover, he notes, "inclusion based on original record sales, airplay, and known download history." The latter part is reassuring; as idiosyncratic as Young can be, at least he's always on the cutting edge of something, even if it's just ways of gauging popularity.

And he's up on sound. A press release accompanying the CD quotes him saying, "One of the most important jobs of any musician is to provide quality sound to the people," and to address that, this package includes both a regular CD and a DVD-stereo CD taken from the original masters.

You could be cranky and argue a bigger job of the artist is to create quality music, or you can be forgiving and interpret Young's almost non-existent fingerprints on this project as an indication of his level of involvement with the project. Whatever the case, it's weird to encounter so banal a presentation -- of excellent material, let's not overlook that -- from someone who has managed to remain the burr under the record industry's saddle for so long.

One in a Million DVD
(Music Video Distributors),

NRBQ has made a career of treating rock 'n' roll like the joke that, well, it often is. On one hand, Terry Adams, Joey Spampinato and Al Anderson -- no longer with the band -- have written gorgeous pop songs like "Rain at the Drive-In" and driving rock songs like "Me and the Boys." The band's first album also included a cover of avant-garde jazz composer Sun Ra's "Rocket No. 9" and they've written a number of deliberately juvenile songs, the most sublime being "Here Comes Terry," the verse made up of nothing but the phrases, "Here comes Terry, here comes Joey, here comes Tommy, here comes Al."

The 'Q's live shows were once notorious for the band passing around a box for the audience's requests, made with an eye on stumping the band. One New Orleans show at Jimmy's started with an hour of the band's peskiest material, pianist Adams frequently switching to drums to smash the cymbals through shambling versions of lounge songs. Once the audience was thoroughly tested and the musical tourists chased out, they then delivered the sort of rock 'n' roll dance party set that has kept fans loyal for over 30 years. In short, NRBQ has always seemed to have a complex relationship with rock 'n' roll.

One in a Million captures the band live in 1989 with guitarist Al Anderson, and it's NRBQ at its most crowd-pleasing. The set list leans toward rockabilly, opening with a rollicking version of "Rocket in My Pocket" and closing with "Shake, Rattle and Roll," the latter with an occasionally visible Peter Holsapple on second guitar. Adams' clowning shtick leaves you wondering at times if he's condescending to play rock 'n' roll, particularly when he brings a Thelonious Monk-like sense of rhythm and melody to his solos. On the other hand, he's right in the pocket playing verses and choruses on the clavinet, and is as responsible for the loose groove as drummer Tommy Ardonlino.

Dummy, the new album, is more political than a 'Q fan might expect, the title track a jab at the media and "Misguided Missiles" is an anti-war song that, in NRBQ fashion, can't resist showing off its brains, starting every line with the syllable "mis." Perhaps the state of the country has the band a little riled, but the sense of humor is similarly aggressive this time around, "Hey Punkin Head" beginning with a warning to duck before Adams knocks you down.

All the craft and whimsy that makes for a good NRBQ album is here, but it feels a little forced, and only "Call of the Wild" shows the band at its recorded best. Brimming with hooks that fit together seamlessly, the track opens with a saccharine synthesizer line, then moves to a reverb-heavy, guitar-driven verse. That's followed by a sweet chorus that's too pretty to come next, but it does, complete with spot-on harmonies. It resolves with a lovely melody, all in a song about trying to get laid. Played straight, it shows the band's subversive humor and intelligence; unfortunately, much of the album jokes too broadly, going for boffo yoks instead.

Alicia Keys
The Diary of Alicia Keys DVD

It would be nice to have something substantial to say about The Diary of Alicia Keys, but Keys is so insufferably pretentious in the first 15 minutes of this DVD that finishing it was too much of a chore to manage. It isn't a good idea to spend eight or so minutes talking about how answering the question of who you are is impossible. Finding it isn't really impossible after all and treating a commonplace answer like it's profoundly insightful doesn't help. (She's pro-growth and personal evolution, in case you were wondering, and she likes things that touch her heart.) The production values on her interviews are stellar -- though her switching hats and headgear within an interview is disconcerting -- and it would be nice if those same values applied to the live footage, which is both visually and sonically too bright. Opening for Beyoncé, she was a pleasant surprise; this DVD is surprising, too, but sadly not in the good way.

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