Home Read Back Stories | My Album Reviews from March 5, 1999

Back Stories | My Album Reviews from March 5, 1999

Rewinding classic discs from Wilco, The Roots, Eminem, Blondie & more.

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Two decades ago, new albums from Wilco, The Roots, Emimem 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):


Wilco
Summerteeth

Back in the ’80s, The Doobie Brothers — rootsy rockers who evolved into slick studio wizards — had a unique method of recording: They put every instrument they could think of onto every song, then sat back and tried to figure out what belonged where.

Well, judging by their CD Summerteeth, Jeff Tweedy and his band Wilco — a very different but decidedly rootsy breed of rockers who are evolving into a their own variety of studio wizards — subscribe to a somewhat similar theory. This 15-track disc is so stuffed with instruments it could have been recorded in a music store. Looking for accordion? Try track 15. Jaw harp? Track 11. Tubular bells? Track 1. Banjo? Track 7, right between the muted trumpet and the Dixieland horns. The Doobies might be proud.

Thankfully, on Summerteeth, this bent for instrumental experimentation is all the slackerish and soulful Tweedy and co. share with the slick, soulless Brothers. Lyrically, this powerful album finds the band headed in the opposite direction from commercial country-pop and feel-good anthems — down a winding country road to a dire heart of darkness.

It’s a path some may not want to take. “I dreamed about killing you again last night — and it felt all right to me,” confesses Tweedy in his world-weary rasp on the ballad Via Chicago. Or then there’s She’s A Jar, a failed husband’s lament to the wife who “begs me not to hit her.” In case you haven’t already figured this out, Summerteeth isn’t meant to beh the feel-good album of the spring.

But nor is it a total downer — mainly because Tweedy’s ever-expanding musical vocabulary has become as mesmerizing and dynamic as his lyrics. Here, it runs the gamut from Stax-Volt R&B to Beck’s Odelay to Pavement — sometimes in the same song. One minute, you’re listening to the Wilco you know, when suddenly a Spanish guitar, a Paul Westerbergian chord change or the echo of a Who riff jumps out at you. Songs that begin as melancholy, acoustic ballads evolve into complex, Brian Wilson arrangements with strings and kettle drums, or spiral up into space-rock cyclones.

All of which goes to show that Wilco have come a long way, both as musicians and artists. And with Summerteeth, they’ve finally reached a place next to The Beatles and The Beach Boys as a band that not only knows how to use the recording studio, but understands how to turn it into another instrument in their arsenal. All you have to do is listen to the music.


The Roots
Things Fall Apart

“Inevitably, hip-hop records are treated as though they are disposable,” grumbles a sampled voice at the kickoff of this acclaimed Philly septet’s third album. Fat chance of that happening to this magnificent disc. Thanks to their intelligent, thoughtful lyrics, warm, laid-back grooves and undeniable musical versatility (they’re just as at home jamming on standup bass and grand piano as they are rhyming over a beatbox), Things Fall Apart is an essential shot of mellow gold — kind of like the Wu-Tang Clan after a course in anger management and some music lessons.


Julian Lennon
Photograph Smile

You gotta feel sorry for Julian Lennon. No matter what he does, he’s always gonna be compared to his dad. And he’s never gonna measure up. Unfortunately, this collection of toothless lite-rock treacle isn’t going to help matters. Sure, his confessional lyrics reflect his hard-won maturity. Yes, the tunes are polished, smooth, FM-ready pop. Hey, there’s even a blatantly Fab rocker and a Lucy In The Sky swirl or two. So what’s missing? How about passion, edge, oomph, guts and energy? These songs are so antiseptic and wimpy they make Valotte sound like Iron Man. Which is Julian’s real problem — he may sing like John, but he writes like Paul.


Blondie
No Exit

There’s no denying it: At 53 years old, Debbie Harry still looks great. Too bad the mostly reunited Blondie — together again after 17 years — hasn’t held up so well. Used to be they were cutting-edge; Rapture was the first successful rap single and all. But No Exit finds them rusty as an old knife. Too many tracks are cold, directionless dreamscapes. Even the few that do recreate the old magic seem to do it too well — some tracks are suspiciously similar to older hits. Most obvious is the title cut, a blatant bid to remake a Rapture for the ’90s with the help of, um, Coolio. At its best, No Exit may serve as a reasonable facsimile of classic Blondie, but it still pales next to the original.


Eminem
The Slim Shady LP

When you think white rappers, you think Vanilla Ice and Snow. Well, now there are three. But only time will tell if provocative Detroit wiseacre Marshall (Eminem) Mathers lasts longer than his predecessors. Though he’s under the wing of NWA gangsta-rap pioneer Dr. Dre (who produces some tracks), Eminem is no Eazy-E. Sleazy-E, definitely. A vastly different and even more outrageous breed of rapper, his impressively intricate high-speed rhymes favour puerile grossouts and vulgar violence apparently aimed at kids who find Beavis & Butt-Head too subtle. Example: A guy crooning to his baby girl while driving around with his wife’s body in the trunk. Shocking? Sure. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, in the long run, shock value can’t be Eminem’s only value.


Hugh Cornwell
Black Hair Black Eyes Black Suit

You can take Hugh Cornwell out of The Stranglers, but you can’t take The Stranglers out of Hugh Cornwell. That much is obvious from his latest solo album, originally released in ’97 in England as Guilty. But the only thing Hugh seems guilty of is trying to cut his former bandmates out of the royalty pie. These dozen tracks could have come from any late-period Stranglers release. They have the same two-fisted keyboards, rock-solid drumming and funky, roaming bass lines. And of course, Hugh’s deadpan delivery, tumbleweed-dry wit and darkly elegant pop. Then, Hugh always did look good in black.


The Mahones
The Hellfire Club Sessions

After three albums, years of roadwork and an incalculable number of pints, long-serving Canuck Celtic rockers The Mahones are aging like a fine malt whiskey. And with the raucous Hellfire Club Sessions, they may finally shed their reputation as a Pogues knockoff act. Full of rootsy leanings and rocky drums, these tunes sound less like Shane MacGowan and co. and more like The Tragically Hip. Which is no accident — the band recorded at the Hip’s studio with drummer Johnny Fay behind the kit and the mixing board. Of course, for those who prefer the old sound, the boys oblige with a couple of classic Pig-&-Whistle, hoist-yer-Guinness howlers. Cheers.


Cruel Intentions
Various Artists

Why we need a teenybopper cinematic update of Dangerous Liaisons is beyond us. (What’s next? Jennifer Love Hewitt in Like, Waiting For That Godot Guy?) But if you want to get an update on upcoming alt-rock releases, it’s worth liaising with this soundtrack. You get new tracks from Blur (the breezy Britpop of Coffee & TV), Counting Crows (the piano ballad Colorblind), Kirsten Barry (the dark love buzz of Ordinary Life) and Marcy Playground (a twangy, bloozy Comin’ Up From Behind), along with remixes from Fatboy Slim, Placebo and the usual also-rans. One complaint: Verve’s Bitter Sweet Symphony is, like, so last year.


200 Cigarettes
Various Artists

The soundtrack for this comedy flick set on New Year’s Eve 1981 would make a fine soundtrack to your next ’80s party. What’s not to like about new wave classics like Nick Lowe’s Cruel To Be Kind, The CarsJust What I Needed, The Go-Go’sOur Lips Are Sealed, Joe Jackson’s Different For Girls and Bow Wow Wow’s I Want Candy? Bringing things sorta up to date are Harvey Danger covering The English Beat’s Save It For Later, Girls Against Boys getting down with Boogie Wonderland, and a medley of Blondie tunes from Rapture to this year’s No Exit. Smoke ’em if you got ’em.


Cartoons
Toonage

Giant pompadours made of sponge. Day-glo Teddy Boy togs. Guitars shaped like guns and carrots. Female backup singers decked out like Elvis. No, it’s not a new animated cartoon … well, not yet, anyway. For now, it’s a Danish goofball act called Cartoons, who take ’50s doo-wop, rockabilly, and surf, slap on some cartoon sound effects and merge it with pumping ’90s electronica. They call it technobilly. We call it Sha Na Na on ecstasy. Your kids — and the dance club kids who ate up Aqua’s like-minded Barbie Girl — will probably call it the Next Big Thing. Heaven help us all.


Zebrahead
Waste Of Mind

‘Dude, like what kind of music should our new band play?’ ‘Dude, I dunno.’ ‘Dude, since, we’re from Orange County, we basically have three choices: We can be skate punks like the Offspring dudes, hip-pop like the Sugar Ray dudes or metal-rap like the Rage Against The Machine dudes.’ ‘Dude, I can’t decide.’ ‘Dude, how about we do them all?’ ‘Dude, do you mean we could, like, have songs with mellow funky parts, rocking anthemic choruses and rap breaks?’ ‘Dude, then we’re sure to get a record deal!’ ‘Dude, awesome!’