Two decades ago, new albums from Kelly Willis, Pan Sonic, The Gathering 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):
What I Deserve
Actually, she deserves worldwide fame. And she deserved it five years before this album — when the Oklahoma-born, Austin-based country songbird Willis last cut a full-length disc. Thankfully, What I Deserve was more than worth the wait. Since we last heard from her, she changed labels — and broken away from the Nashville gloss that coated her previous records. This time out, there’s nothing to get in the way of the songs; the relaxed pace, simple arrangements, and sparsely elegant instrumentation all serve to highlight Willis’s aching, lonesome voice. And while there’s way more torch than twang here, some definitely un-country songwriting credits (Nick Drake, Paul Kelly, even Paul Westerberg) make this Willis’s most distinctive disc. Which is what she deserves. You too.
A is for abstract. It’s also for ambient, alien, avant-garde and alarming — all of which describe this third CD from Finnish electronica duo Pan Sonic (ne Panasonic; A is also for actionable copyright infringement). Actually, calling this electronica is like calling your humming fridge an ambient synth. Really, Pan Sonic aren’t musicians as much as noise sculptors. Working with homemade oscillators, effects and rudimentary beatboxes, their idea of a “song” consists of insectile clicks and blips accompanied by intermittent noise, Theremin-like howls and industrial drones. One track resembles Morse code over a crackling ham radio; another sounds like your TV on an unscrambled pay-per-view channel. Alternately unsettling and soothing, Pan Sonic’s cold, clinical approach makes Kraftwerk seem like The Carpenters. A is also for astounding.
Too many performers think music is all about what you play; only a few understand that what you don’t play is just as important. One band that gets it is spacy Michigan instrumental trio Monaural. That’s spacy as in otherworldly, and as in roomy; their vast, uncluttered excursions allow plenty of elbowroom for soaring synths, wooshing effects and echoing drums. Not to mention exploratory side trips into acid-prog, funky electro-jazz and even ambient dub. No matter where they wander off to, however, Monaural always seem at home in their own little world.
How To Measure A Planet?
Space is the place, Sun Ra used to say. It seems these co-ed Dutch alt-rock balladeers — guy musicians, gal singer — would agree. Although their tunes sound like they started off as down-to-earth folk-rockers straight from Lilith Fair, they sure don’t end up that way. Instead, the quintet launches them into orbit with electronica flourishes, prog-tinged arrangements, vast, sweeping production and propulsive, jet-fuelled guitar work. The full effect is, you guessed it, out of this world. Take your protein pill and put your helmet on.
In the days of endless samples, Puff Daddy ’80s remakes and rappers more concerned with bank notes than musical notes, L.A.’s DJ Quik serves as something of an anomaly. He not only plays on this album; on more than half these 16 tracks, he plays all the instruments — bass, drums, guitar, keyboards. And not only can he make like Prince, he can also spit gangsta rap verses like Snoop Dogg or tear the roof off the mother with a groove like George Clinton. And he doesn’t dilute his chronic cuts with wack skits or endless guest vocalists. Like they say, if you want something done right, you gotta do it yourself.
Treat Me Right
He looks like Steve Vai, dresses like a refugee from The Cult and has enough tattoos to be a member of Mötley Crüe. But L.A. whiz kid Eric Sardinas isn’t just another metalhead butchering the blues. He’s the real deal. First clue: His instrument of choice is an electric dobro. Second clue: He sings like Johnny Winter — and isn’t ashamed of it. Third clue: When he rips into a tasteful, fingerpicked slide solo, you can tell he has the chops to pull off all that Van Halen-style noisemaking that passes for soloing these days — but he doesn’t. Need more proof? Both Winter and blues-guitar legend Hubert Sumlin bless this disc with guest shots.
deLay Does Chicago
It took 20 years for Portland blues harmonicat Paul deLay to work his way to the Windy City. Now, as he sings, he’s “making up for lost time.” For his 10th album, deLay and his harp team up with a crack Chicago combo and crank out some hip-shaking, ain’t-no-faking Chicago blues. And when vocalist Zora Young and guitarist Jimmy Dawkins put in appearances, it ain’t nothing but a house party, baby. Here’s hoping it doesn’t take deLay another 20 years to make a return trip.
Like most rappers these days, Defari has a secret identity. Except his isn’t very glamourous — it’s Mr. Johnson, history teacher at Inglewood High School in L.A. But you’d never know he’s an educator with a master’s degree by his debut CD. Avoiding the old-school, Defari’s haunting, Wu Tang-style tracks and syncopated Timbaland beats lay the foundation for his “spectacular vernacular” and sharp flow. The only downside is his expressionless voice, which starts to drag after a while like a double-period history lecture. Defari gets points for effort, but he’s far from the head of the class.
You’re Soaking In It
Damn it! Listen to that racket, will you! It’s those damn punks who started that record company next door! What kind of label do they think they’re running? All their acts sound like they came straight from the garage! And they’re all different! The one called Pleasurehorse is industrial noise, another called Dropdead is hardcore punk, some Swedes named Brainbomb sound like The Mentors, and Olneyville sound like Jon Spencer Blues Explosion! And it seems some of the guys from Six Finger Satellite and Thee Hydrogen Terrors are in half the acts! The only thing they have in common is that they’re all insane! Damn kids! Where’s my gun?
Maybe it’s because of the dreary weather, or maybe it’s despite it, but Scotland sure seems to have an overabundance of sunny pop bands. At least, that’s judging by the 16 acts on this compilation from Glasgow indie label Creeping Bent. From Nectarine No. 9’s T-Rexstacy and Secret Goldfish’s girl-group updates to The Leopards’ Iggy-at-the-hop rock and Appendix Out’s Beatlesque acoustipop, there’s barely a ballad in the bunch. If there’s ever been a reason to get Bent, this is it.
Johnny Cool | I Want To Live Soundtracks
Over the past couple of years, Ryko’s rereleases of classic MGM/UA soundtracks have been easily the coolest reissue series around. You get original poster art, great liner notes, theatrical trailers on the CDs — not to mention the pristine, remastered music itself. These two latest entries take listeners on a journey through West Coast jazz circa 1960. Billy May’s swinging score on the long-lost ’63 Rat Pack knockoff gangster flick Johnny Cool is red-hot. Dig the hard-driving, four-on-the-floor grooves, the punchy, Peter Gunn horn lines and squealing high notes — and even two finger-popping numbers from Sammy Davis Jr., wailing about a cat who “lived by the gun and by the knife.” Cool, indeed. But no cooler than Johnny Mandel’s score for Susan Hayward’s 1958 death-row drama I Want To Live. Actually, this is two, two, two soundtracks in one. First there are 16 tracks from Mandel that run the gamut from smoky post-bop to propulsive percussion outings. Then you get the companion album — a swingin’ six-pack of tracks by Gerry Mulligan and his band, who played themselves in the film. All soundtracks should be this good.
Everything Must Go
For our money, The Blasters were the best roots-rock band of the ’80s. And while Phil Alvin’s high yodel and his brother Dave’s driving Chuck Berry guitar are out of the running, it’s nice to know someone has stepped in to pick up their rock ’n’ roll torch. That would be Vancouver’s B5, a rockabilly quintet who have their time machine set to the same era The Blasters did — 1950s America, the time of b-b-b-b-b-b-black slacks and blue jean bop. And for the most part, they recreate it with the same ringing guitars, snappy snares and slap-happy bass — and the same jolt of punk energy — as the Alvins did 20 years ago.
Fire In The Arms Of The Sun
“I’m right here by your side where I’ve always been, but you’d never know it,” whispers singer/songwriter Greg Weeks — and man, we believe him. This New York folk-moper’s music is as dark and disembodied as a shadow. Aside from a delicately plucked acoustic guitar and vocals so hushed he could be playing in a library, Weeks’ lonely lamentations are textured only by the occasional baroque keyboard, cello or bass line. Its all so intensely introspective you feel like an eavesdropping creep just for listening. But like all overheard conversations, you can’t tear yourself away.
The Ugly Ducklings
Too Much Too Soon
These five Toronto mopheads never got their due. Back in the ’60s, they played the clubs with John Kay, Neil Young and the like — who went on to immortality while the Ugly Ducklings issued one LP before plunging into obscurity. Now, three decades later, they still can’t catch a decent break. This rerelease of their old tracks is finally supposed to give the boys their star time. But it fails. Oh, the music’s swell. Their hopped-up, Mitch Ryderish rock sounds like what it is: Five Canuck kids heavily influenced by The Rolling Stones. The packaging is the problem. For instance, how about including a little info on the band members — like, maybe, their names? Even Ugly Ducklings deserve better. Too Much Too Soon is far too little too late.