Two decades ago, new albums from Black Crowes, Opeth, Refused, Flat Duo Jets 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):
The Black Crowes
By Your Side
It’s about friggin’ time.
For years now, as hip-hop and electronica have taken over, folks have been wondering if rock was finally dead. And it did look a little green around the gills in ’98, after that string of big-time, big-label disappointments from the likes of Hole, R.E.M., Smashing Pumpkins and Marilyn Manson. But just when you thought it was all over, here comes the cavalry — armed with Les Pauls, haircuts and attitudes — to rescue, resurrect and revive good old three-chord rock ’n’ roll.
And who’da thunk it? It turns out music’s saviours are none other than Atlanta’s Black Crowes, whose last few albums of lethargic, dope-fuelled jams haven’t exactly breathed new life into rock over the last while. Thankfully, they’ve put down the bong, dropped a few members and picked up the tempo on By Your Side, their fifth album. All this change has done the Crowes nothing but good; just two weeks into ’99, they’ve released a CD that sounds like it could be one of the best albums of the year.
Maybe that’s because it sounds a lot like some of the best albums of other years: it has the pub rock of Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells A Story, the funky swagger of The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers and the bluesy boogie of Aerosmith’s Get Your Wings. Sure, this is the same vein the Crowes been mining off and on since Day 1 — but this time they’ve hit the mother lode.
The restructuring of the band seems to have spurred co-leaders Chris and Rich Robinson to focus, and they’ve risen to the challenge admirably. Rich’s chunky, Chuck Berry guitar lines are razor-sharp and biting; they’re the engine that drives these rollicking tunes. Meanwhile, Chris sings every line as if he’s decked out head to toe in satin, feather boas and turquoise — which, come to think of it, he probably is.
And why shouldn’t he dress like a classic rocker? The entire disc is festooned with classic rock, from the blistering Keith Richards guitar line of leadoff track Go Faster and the Stax/Volt horn lines of Only A Fool right down to Chris’s hippie-dippie lyrics (“What can I say? / I want you to stay / You’re so heavy”).
The real secret to their success, though — and the biggest treat — is the instrumentation: track after track of Hammond B-3 organ, wah-wah pedals, slide guitars, soulful backup vocals and handclaps. There isn’t a drum machine, tape loop or trendy sample in sight. Just real songs played by real musicians with real instruments.
In these days of turntable scratching and synth effects, it’s a breath of fresh air.
My Arms, Your Hearse
So much speed metal is like a 50-yard dash — a full-throttle explosion toward the finish line. Swedish quartet Opeth are like marathon runners — their intricate, multi-layered epics of death, demons and destruction carry on for up to 10 minutes, broken up by acoustic and even jazzy bits to give you a bit of a breather. Once they get their second wind, however, look out. Their hell-bent-for-leather metallurgy of harmonized guitars, dragon’s breath vocals and megaton rhythms will leave you gasping for air.
Title aside, there’s nothing even close to a whisper on this third CD from Montreal grind-core quintet Cryptopsy. Screaming, there’s plenty of. Along with bludgeoning mayhem, relentless riffage, astonishing instrumental precision and jaw-dropping speed. Faster and heavier than mere mortals could ever be, Cryptopsy carves out some grand grind that makes Black Sabbath sound like Menudo. Submit or be obliterated.
The Age Of Mastery
Going by this disc, The Age Of Mastery for the Jag Panzer lads ended about 1985 with the last decent Iron Maiden album. And that’s precisely where this time-machine album’s controls are set. Just hit play and you’re whisked to a world of Van Halen guitar solos, falsetto vocals and Spinal Tap-ish tunes like Lustfull And Free — in short, good ol’ leather-and-spandex, foot-up-on-the-monitor, shake-your-hair-in-unison metal. Oddly enough, it’s a nice break from the skull-pounding overkill of more modern thrash.
Same Old Tunes
Now here’s an album that lives up to its name — and we mean that as a compliment. Swedish meatballs Millencolin aren’t jumping onto any bandwagons on their third outing; they’re sticking with the tried-and-true skate-punk and ska-punk that’s served them well for years. And why not? After all this time, their hooks are as sharp as The Offspring’s hair and their playing is tighter than Meat Loaf’s old pants. Sure, there aren’t a lot of surprises here. But who really likes surprises?
Tie One On
The real spirit of punk rock lives at gigs — in stinky, smoke-filled firetraps where sweaty guys in leather jackets let loose for a beer-soaked, moshing pack of fans. And it’s that spirit that infuses this live EP from American punks Bouncing Souls, taped last year at a dodgy N.Y. dive. These nine tracks are jammed chockablock with churning, surging punk odes, joyfully loose performances and between-song patter. The only thing better would be to have been there.
The Shape Of Punk To Come
The shape of punk to come? Maybe, maybe not. But Swedish politico-punks Refused are definitely light-years ahead of anything else out there. Less an album than a musical manifesto of the band’s straight-edge revolution rock, SOPTC’s 12 tracks are an explosive chain of sonic grenades, a full metal racket loaded with complex arrangements, cacophonous experimentation, and even cello and violin samples. And how many punk bands have lyrics like “The destruction of everything is the creation of something new?” High-voltage and high-IQ. Not for the squeamish — or the stupid.
I Against I
They may have borrowed their handle from a Bad Brains album, but Holland punk trio I Against I is practically the Anti-Rasta. These fresh-faced Dutch boys sound just as clean and white as they look, with bright, shiny guitar hooks, smooth vocal harmonies and exuberantly peppy pop-punk gems about teen angst, unrequited love and youthful idealism. Catch them now before they grow up and get disillusioned.
Doc’s Da Name 2000
On the cover he’s done up like a video game character, but on these tracks Reggie (Redman) Noble comes off as more of a cartoon character. Unlike so much of today’s testosterone-packed rap, Redman leavens his ruffneck raps about blunts, beepers and beeyatches with 70 minutes of bouncy boombastic beats, wiseguy witticisms and demented skits. Crude, lewd, rude — and thorougly entertaining. This doc is in the house.
U.F. Off: Best Of The Orb
For folks making what is essentially dance music, plenty of electronica acts take themselves far too seriously. No so the cheeky devils in veteran British cut-and-paste collective The Orb. Although their tracks are propelled by the typically mesmerizing beatbox-and-synth grooves, their innovative use of freaky samples — Minnie Ripperton’s Loving You, druggy flashbacks, screeching tires — tickle your funny bone even as they shake your booty.
Flat Duo Jets
One of the best bands you’ve never heard, North Carolina’s Flat Duo Jets — made up of just guitarist-singer Dexter and drummer Crow — have already issued eight albums of primitive, stripped-down rockabilly. For their long-overdue major label debut, they go the whole nine yards, cleaning up their act and adding an entire band — bass, keyboards and even (gasp!) strings. Thankfully, all the fancy-shmancy instrumentatin in the world can’t begin to dilute their authentic, Sun-style rockabilly, teen angel ballads, twangy surf instrumentals and flying saucer rock ’n’ roll.
The Faculty Soundtrack
The disc of tunes from Robert Rodriguez’s alien-teacher shlock shocker is straight from Film Soundtracks 101. You’ve got yer All-Star Band Doing A Classic Tune (Layne Staley and Tom Morello’s Class Of ’99 doing Another Brick In The Wall), yer Rock Stars Covering A ’70s Hit (Soul Asylum’s School’s Out, Creed’s I’m Eighteen), and Yer Assorted B-Sides And Filler (dross from Garbage, Oasis, Sheryl Crow, etc.). Oh sure, it makes the grade — but it won’t win any votes for Most Likely To Succeed.
Retro / Agogo
Kidnap Madonna For Drug Money? Kiss Michael Flatley’s Dead Mother? Kill Monkeys For Dinner Monday? No, no & no. This digital hardcore collective’s acronym handle is based on a German phrase. But after listening to this pair of simultaneously released collections — one a greatest hits disc of synth-driven singles like Juke Joint Jezebel, the other a slate of rare and unreleased tracks like a mutant cover of U2’s Mysterious Ways — you’ll realize these electronic Teutonics’ handle should really stand for Kooks Making Freaky Dance Music.