Two decades ago, new albums from Beth Orton, Jeff Beck, Sleater-Kinney 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):
“I’m always walking down the escalator the up way,” confesses Beth Orton on her sophomore CD Central Reservation. Well, duh.Anybody who heard her debut outing, 1997’s acclaimed breakthrough Trailer Park, knows full well Orton got where she is today by going in two directions at once — marrying artsy acoustic songcraft with trip-hop technology in a style some have dubbed folktronica. Still, even folks who’ve been eagerly following her unique path may have a little trouble keeping up with her on the bold and beautiful Central Reservation, which finds the British-born Beth striking out in even bolder new directions.
Using the swirling, murky synth-folk of Trailer Park as her starting point, Orton — joined at times by vibes, strings, Dr. John’s piano, Ben Harper’s guitar and Ben (Everything But The Girl) Watt’s production — ventures forth on a moody, contemplative journey through a haunted musical dreamscape. Along the way, she saunters through jazzy sections, zones of lush orchestral pop and even back to her roots — the realm of pure acoustic folk — before ending up where she began, with a drum-and-bass version of the title cut.
Thankfully, no matter where she roams, some landmarks remain familiar: Her soul-stirring warble of a voice, her delicately plucked acoustic guitar, her achingly poignant songwriting. As long as she doesn’t leave those things behind, Orton can close her eyes and wander anywhere her muse takes her — and we’ll be sure to follow.
Over the years, Jeff Beck has had plenty of alter-egos: British invasion popster with the Yardbirds, jazz-rocker with Jan Hammer, guitar-rock god with Rod Stewart. On his latest disc, Who Else!, he re-invents himself yet again, as — get this! — a techno artist. Much of this 54-minute set was inspired by and features the intricate polyrhythms and cold synthesizers of electronica. With this as a springboard, Beck launches himself into the ’90s, using his Stratocaster to add slabs of chords and stabbing, ice-pick leads. (For the older fans, he also tosses in a few bluesy tracks.) And while he doesn’t always hit the mark, you’ve gotta give this old dog points for learning a few new tricks.
The Hot Rock
With a title like The Hot Rock, you’d expect Portland punk trio Sleater-Kinney to come blazing out of the gates with an album as incendiary as 1997’s acclaimed Dig Me Out. Well, you’d be in for a surprise. On this fourth outing, the threesome — who take their name from an intersection — actually cool things down. Most of the baker’s dozen tunes here smoulder and sizzle with moody, disturbed lyrics, restrained guitars and tense beats, never fully bursting into the full joyful flame of past standouts like Little Babies. The Hot Rock is a gem — but it’s more of a diamond in the rough.
No matter where Van Halen fans stand in the David Lee Roth vs. Sammy Hagar debate, they can all agree on one thing: Both make gawdawful solo albums. Of course, to be fair, Hagar the horrible has the advantage. After all, he was making gawdawful albums back when Diamond Dave’s hairline was still on the front of his head. His latest, Red Voodoo, falls right in line — the usual collection of party-hearty FM rockers and power ballads about booze and babes. It’s all as predictable as the next Van Halen reunion.
If you think her name is too good to be true, you’re right. Pseudo-French chanteuse April March is actually American Elinor Blake, a former Ren And Stimpy animator who has transformed herself into a cartoon pop star. Happily ensconced in Combustible Edison’s space-age bachelor pad, March breathily croons en Francais and doo-doo-doos her way through the bouncy electronica exotica of her cheese-whiz musical cohort Bertrand Burgulat (if that’s his real name). It’s all tres chic, but nothing that Stereolab doesn’t do — and do better.
Everything Louder Than Everyone Else
“We are Motörhead, and we’re gonna kick your ass,” says Lemmy to the crowd at the start of this double-CD live disc. And for the next 110 head-banging minutes and 25 rip-snorting tunes — including classics such as Stay Clean, Ace Of Spades, Iron Fist and Overkill — they proceed to do just that. And they’ll kick yours, too. Oh yes, they will.
In a world of hip-hop artists who all walk in each other’s footsteps, Blackstreet continues to break new ground. The reason? Group leader and hip-hop wizard Teddy Riley. His distinctive songwriting runs the gamut from soulful doowop to neck-snapping new jack swing, and his rambunctious production style incorporates both slick precision harmonies and goofy cartoon sound effects. The overabundance of ballads on Finally is a slight misstep, but at least they’re following their own path.
Some might see this two-CD set of extended dance mixes as a novel, cheeky way to reintroduce the public to these ’80s popsters while providing fans with some rare tracks. But anybody who’s tried to sit through all 150 minutes — including the eight-minute Wild Boys (Wilder Than Wild Boys Extended Mix) — knows what this really is: Just another attempt by some fading stars to wring a few more bucks out of their back catalog.
Zero Zero Zero
You can’t really call this a greatest hits set, since singer/songwriter Sam Phillips has never actually had a hit. Which is truly unfathomable — especially after just one spin of this retrospective of tracks from her four studio albums, along with two new songs. With her urgent, expressive voice and sharp, intelligent songcraft — I’m not the first to call her a distaff Elvis Costello — Phillips isn’t your typical pop princess.
If I Could Turn Back Time
Now that Cher is back in the charts, there couldn’t be a better time for her old label to cash in — er, celebrate her career — with this greatest-hits collection. But money-grab or not, this hour-long set hits the mark. Running in reverse chronological order (thus turning back time, you see) it kicks off with ’90s tunes such as The Shoop Shoop Song and works its way back to classics like Half-Breed, Dark Lady and even I Got You Babe. It’s got almost everything a Cher fan wants — including a picture of her butt tattoos.
Appearance & The Park
This electro-prog quartet from Dusseldorf is the latest miracle of German engineering — a fusion of cold computers and warm bodies into a musical man-machine. Updating the blueprints and schematics created years ago by Can and Kraftwerk, Kreidler gene-splice robotic synthesizers and electronics onto human-driven instruments like drums and bass to create intriguing post-rock instrumentals that manage to sound lush and sparse at the same time. When our machines enslave us, this is the music they’ll force us to make for them.
Old School Vs. New School
The title pretty much says it all. Classic hip-hop tracks from the likes of Whodini, A Tribe Called Quest, R. Kelly and Fresh Prince Will Smith get the remix treatment from ultra-cool DJs such as Grooverider, Fatboy Slim and Rabbit In The Moon in this high-concept, hour-long compilation. Mainly, it’s what you’d expect: the rap rhythms are replaced or augmented with dance grooves and the vocals are sliced and diced. But there are some surprises — notably, Stone Roses, whose alt-rock Fools Gold gets reworked not once, but twice into a spacey, 24-karat freakout.
Mase Presents: The Movement
Too many rappers spoil the rhyme. That’s the sad lesson gleaned from Harlem World, a septet ringled by Ma$e. It’s bad enough that the backing tracks — the usual pumping beats, soul samples and pimp-roll grooves — are less than distinctive. But with seven voices over top (not to mention the usual crop of guests from Nas to Jermaine Dupri), it’s impossible for anyone to stand out from the pack. It may be a small world, but Harlem World is still overpopulated.
Family Values Tour ’98
Family values may not be in the offing, but you will get plenty of value for your entertainment dollar with this multi-band live CD from last fall’s heavy metal megatour. This 66-minute outing has 21 tracks from seven acts — Incubus, Orgy, Limp Bizkit, Ice Cube, Rammstein, DJ C-Minus and headliners Korn. Sure, with the exception of Cube’s explosive gangsta rap and Rammstein’s Teutonic boom, it can be tough to tell the rest of these rap-metal funkateers from one another. But for fans, that just means more bang for the buck.
Somewhere in their practice hall, I suspect, this Boston stoner-rock quartet has a shrine to Black Sabbath. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Plenty of kindred spirits have worshipped at the altar of Osbourne and Iommi. But Roadsaw have truly sold their souls for rock ’n’ roll — Nationwide is a 40-minute, white-knuckle ride through a fierce landscape of bombastic thunder-groove, brain-shredding axe work, vocals soaring straight from the seventh circle of hell and bong-hit lyrics about “exorcism coming through on my stereo.” Fasten your seatbelts — these guys are as deadly and unstoppable as a truckload of dynamite barreling down a mountain road.
Fantastic Plastic Machine
I don’t know what the Japanese word for kitsch is, but I suspect Tomoyuki Tanaka does. In the world of cheesy retro-pop, Tanaka — the one-man band, songwriter, DJ and producer behind Fantastic Plastic Machine — is le grande fromage. And as he did on last year’s debut disc, on Luxury he fires up the strobe lights, puts on his funkiest threads and playfully dances his way through a swirling, day-glo universe of disco divas, samba samples, bossa nova beats and go-go grooves. Now this is luxury you can afford.
The Lost Album ’78-’79
Having your folks show off your baby pictures is bad enough — who would have the guts to put them up for sale? Well, that’s what legendary New Zealand popsters The Go-Betweens are doing with The Lost Album, a collection of 20-year-old home recordings. And gosh-darned if they aren’t just as cute as buttons. This collection of quirky, romantic odes — imagine a down-under Jonathan Richman — are brimming over with the sort of lo-fi giddiness and endearing amateurism that only wide-eyed beginners could have. Who else would pen a song called I Love Lee Remick, featuring the lyrics “She was in The Omen, with Gregory Peck / She got killed, but what the heck.”
Wax Trax! MasterMix Vol. 2
“Welcome to the world of pure underground sound,” says Brooklyn techno DJ Adam X by way of greeting. He’s not kidding. What follows is 72 minutes of cold, soulless techno complete with metronomic beats, hypnotic grooves and repetitive bleeping — 18 obscure tracks from a like number of equally obscure artists, all joined into one trance-inducing megamix. This would sound great in some rave-powered warehouse at 3 a.m. At home, it’s unengaging at best — and annoying at worst.