Two decades ago, new albums from R.E.M., Beck, Fatboy Slim and others were spinning away in my portable CD player. Here’s what I had to say about them back then (with some minor editing):
It’s the end of R.E.M. as we know it … and things don’t seem fine.
When drummer Bill Berry retired from the alt-rock supergroup after suffering a brain aneurysm onstage during their last ill-fated tour, the rest of the band — singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck and bassist Mike Mills — had three choices if they wanted to carry on: 1) Get a new stickman; 2) Buy a drum machine; 3) Go without.
Naturally, since they’re R.E.M., they decide to do them all. The mixed result is Up, an unfocused and inconsistent disc which finds the band experimenting with various styles, arrangements and instrumentation — with varying degrees of success — while trying to fill Berry’s estimable shoes.
The few songs when they’ve simply replaced him are the ones that will please fair-weather fans. Drummer Joey Waronker fits right in, giving the old-style rock tracks like Lotus a slinky, Beckish groove (no surprise, since he’s Beck‘s drummer). More musically interesting, however, are the handful of numbers incorporating robotic, click-clack drum machines. On these electronica-tinged outings — the eerie Muzak of Airportman or the noisy, demo-tape intimacy of Hope — the band succeeds in taking its music to a new place where we aren’t constantly reminded of Berry’s absence.
Sadly, they don’t do that often enough. For most of Up, the band have replaced drums (not to mention Buck’s guitar) with vibes, piano and percussion flourishes. And while that gives these keyboard-dominated mid-tempo ballads a bit of Pet Sounds‘ orchestral majesty, it also means most of the songs — especially the less linear, chorus-free entries — blur into a mess of delicate strumming and keyboard arpeggios.
Despite the title, Up is a somewhat directionless album — and a disc that proves how important a good drummer is to a band.
Don’t let the major label throw you — this is another of Beck‘s indie-rock outings, like 1995’s garage-folk affair One Foot in the Grave. And like that CD, this disc has more than its share of acoustic, atmospheric guitar ballads and non-sequitur lyrics about robots and devils. But this also has one for in the groove — be it twangy country, harpsichord waltzes of lounge-y bossa nova. If you’re looking for another Loser, wait for the next album. But for hardcore Beck fans, this is another winner.
Pras Michel‘s CD is the latest of the endless Fugees solo releases. It’s also the lamest. If you thought Wyclef and Lauryn could be self-indulgent, think again: Pras starts with a choir singing Hallelujah, ends with a soloist belting Amazing Grace, and includes dozens of sycophantic voice-mails from superstar well-wishers like Donald Trump. It would be unbearable if not for what’s between all the drivel — a dozen tracks of the seamlessly flowing urban soul typified by the Bee Gees-inspired title cut. The music is killer — but there’s too much filler.
You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby
The Beautiful South
It’s rare for a band to split into two entities as good as the original. Late British popsters The Housemartins may be the exception that proves the rule. Vocalist Paul Heaton‘s sextet The Beautiful South carries on in the Housemartins‘ wry Britpop tradition, topping its sweet, Squeeze-y pop with lyrics cynically smart enough to make Elvis Costello green. After seven CDs of immaculately brilliant songcraft, it’s easy to see why the South are one of the U.K.’s top-selling bands. Not that former ‘Martins’ bassist Norman Cook — better known by his nom de turntable Fatboy Slim — is any slouch. Unabashedly exuberant and shamelessly self-promoting, Slim’s giddy big beats and skipping-needle sample style can be mesmerizing (or irritating) as all get out. One thing it ain’t is forgettable. One spin and Rockafeller Skank will be in your head for days. Resistance is futile.
Bob Log III
Arizona’s Bob Log III wears a “protective helmet” and claims to have a monkey’s paw for a fret hand. Not surprisingly, his latest CD of lo-fi gonzo blues is just as spaced-out. A sort of one-man blues-band version of pop primatives The Residents, Bob frantically strums his guitar, stomps along on a bass drum and buries the vocals to his entrancingly freaky tunes — like Land Of a Thousand Swinging Asses — under blankets of distortion. Bob’s bus may be out of control — but you definitely want to be along for the ride.
Paul (Wine) Jones
A welder by trade, Mississippian Jones brings the same sort of craftsmanship to his music. On his debut disc Mule, he artfully dovetails folky, rural tunes to hypnotic, chugging roadhouse blues arrangements. Then he sands it down wit his soulful rasp of a voice and dabs on just a touch of Jimi’s wah-wah for a modern sheen. Like plenty of talented tradesmen, Wine starts out with slabs of raw material and ends up with works of art.
God Knows I Tried
David (Junior) Kimbrough, who died at age 67 of heart failure in January 1998, was one of the last of the old-time Mississippi bluesmen. With his sloppy strumming, mush-mouthed grumble and rambling, improvised style, he was also one of the most distinctive. On the four measly albums he got to record in his decades-long career, Junior never failed to tear it up with his primal holler and tear it down with his haunting howl. This is the real deal — the deep blues of backwoods moonshine, juke-joint blowouts, drunken boasting and nasty hungover sorrow.
Sabrina The Teenage Witch Original Soundtrack
The Art of Darkness
Looking to scare up some ghoul tunes for your monster bash? There are plenty of treats (and a few tricks) on the record racks. If rubber masks and fright wigs are your scene, get Halloween Hootenanny in yer sack. Helmed by shlock rocker Rob Zombie, this kitschy collection has 19 cheesy, spine-tingling tunes of terror from the likes of Rocket From the Crypt, Rev. Horton Heat and ole Rob hisself. It’s a graveyard smash. The Sabrina soundtrack, on the other hand, is a big wad of bubblegum and cotton candy — tracks by Spice Girls, Backstreet Boys, ’N Sync, Five and so on, geared to the pre-teen set. Play this and you deserve to get your house egged. Finally, kids for whom Halloween is just another day will want The Art of Darkness. This compilation has all the bleak beats your black-lipped, pale-skinned goth teen wants: Bauhaus, Sisters of Mercy, Killing Joke, Ministry, all the way up to Marilyn Manson. It’s so good the kids might even forget themselves and smile.
International Pop Overthrow
If you listen to old Big Star albums and think they don’t write pop like that anymore, well, it turns out that they do. And in spades, judging by this 20-track compilation of pure ’70s-style pop for now people. You might not know the bands — unless names like Jiffipop or Stickman ring a bell — but they know their stuff. Every tune is crammed with surging, sugary melody, jangly guitars and razor-sharp hooks. If The Plimsouls, Shoes and 20/20 have a place in your heart, this CD deserves a place on your shelf.
It was bound to happen — the Pulp Fiction soundtrack, recreated in full by industrial, electronica and synth-core bands. But this is no cheap cash-in; it’s a truly inspired and loving homage. The bands don’t clone the tunes so much as reinterpret them, twisting the surf guitars, soul grooves and jungle boogie in to sinister, metal machine music. And the cyberized dialogue — “User-friendliness goes a long way!” — is a megahoot. You’ll dig it the most, baby.