Two decades ago, new albums from Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Tal Bachman 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):
Tom Petty used to seem pretty sure of himself. Go drag one of his old albums out of your record collection and check his expression on the cover — chances are he’s wearing a crinkly, damn-the-torpedoes smirk on that high-cheekboned mug of his.
Well, Tom wasn’t smiling so much in the ’90s — unless it’s through gritted teeth. Over the decade, he slowly matured from a superficial pop tunesmith into a seasoned, mature songwriter. And as his albums became more complex and introspective, his universe of American girls and losers who get lucky sometimes darkened to a world filled with rebels without a clue, where the waiting is far from the hardest part.
Echo, Petty’s 12th album — and first full studio outing with his long-serving Heartbreakers since 1991 — continues his freefall into the great wide open. On the one hand, it’s his most introspective and contemplative work yet, a ballad-heavy set seemingly forged from emotional hardship that he wears on his sleeve like a badge of honour.
And I’m not talking simple heartache here. No, like a diary of love gone bad, Petty’s Echo reverberates with suspicion (“There’s a rumour going round, somebody’s gonna let me down”), denial (“There may have been a girl, there never was a kiss”), anger (“You let me down, you dropped the ball”) and vindictiveness (“Oh my love, if I reveal every secret I’ve concealed … how much of my pain would you feel?”). Talk about a breakdown.
Still, no matter how much Petty changes, some things always remain the same. Like his instantly recognizable sound — that rootsy, jangly, relaxed amalgamation of The Byrds, Eagles, Rolling Stones and half a dozen other classic rock bands. It’s been there since his first record, and it just keeps getting better with age. As does his songwriting. Troubled as many of these ballads are, they’re still instant classics, tunes you’ll be humming after just one listen.
At times, it seems even Tom can’t resist their charms. “We went down swingin’,” he intones on the country-tinged Swingin’, setting us up for yet another fall before delivering the knockout punchline: “Yeah, we went down swingin’ … like Benny Goodman.”
Is that the beginning of a smirk I see?
Full disclosure: I thought Bruce Springsteen’s Tracks box had more filler than treasure. But here’s the real paydirt: Most of the best of the box on one CD, including the Boss’s audition tape of Growing Up, the spine-tingling acoustic Born In The U.S.A. demo and the dark rockabilly take of Pink Cadillac (I would have argued for including Thundercrack and Roulette, but hey, let’s not quibble). But what’s odd is that you also get three new songs, two of which — the 1973 classic The Fever and a new version of 1978’s The Promise — should have been on the box in the first place. Oh, but then you wouldn’t have to buy this too, would you?
Whoda thunk it? Like the coal miner’s kid who turns out to be a violin virtuoso, Tal Bachman — scion of blue-collar rock thumper Randy Bachman — turns out to be some sort of pop prodigy. Make that Britpop prodigy; his impressive debut release is a veritable tribute album to the slick, stylish sounds of ’70s British rock — soulful David Bowie vocals with Queen-style harmonies, catchy Kinks melodies with rollicking Who drums and synths, lush ELO orchestrations and even the occasional glam-rock affectation. He sure didn’t pick this up from listening to the old man’s records.
Best known for their track Born Slippy on the Trainspotting soundtrack, British techno geniuses Underworld have been an underground act in North America. If there’s any justice, all that will change with Beaucoup Fish, the trio’s most complex work to date and the electronica masterwork everybody has been predicting since Day 1. A sweeping 74-minute opus, Fish has beaucoup amounts of the relentless thump and throb of house, but without the predictable add-a-line, drop-a-line arrangement of most techno. Instead, it has the mind-warping innovation of prog-rock and the delicate sensibility and songcraft of pop smoothies like Roxy Music — in a beautifully twisted way. Example: Jumbo, with its washes of chill-out synths, fishermen discussing vests on sale at Wal-Mart, and a refrain of one word whispered repeatedly: “Click.” It will click with you.
Seven More Minutes
Ex-Weezer bassist Matt Sharp’s first solo outing, 1995’s Return Of The Rentals, was a goofy, synth-laden ode to ’80s new wave. But Sharp has fittingly moved into the ’90s on his long-awaited — and totally satisfying — return to The Rentals. Mainly, he’s traded in his cool North American quirk for warm Europop (no surprise — most of the disc was written in Barcelona) and enlisted the help of members of Blur, Lush, Ash and Elastica to give it an authentic, powerfully poppy sound. The Cars-style synths are still there, but now they’re an instrument instead of an in-joke. Seven More Minutes delivers many times that amount in enjoyment.
Minimalist pioneer Steve Reich is the godfather of electronic music. In fact, if Reich hadn’t started experimenting with tape loops back in the ’60s, today’s music scene might be very different — the line from Reich to Brian Eno to Kraftwerk is as clear as that from Muddy to Chuck to Keith. On Reich Remixed, that line comes full circle as the cream of today’s electronica crop updates and reinterprets his work for a new generation. But whether it’s Coldcut heating up Music For 18 Musicians, Howie B adding a few new twists to Eight Lines, or DJ Spooky probing City Life’s nooks and crannies, it all sounds perfectly Reich.
Damon Albarn & Michael Nyman
Blur fans, consider yourself warned: Despite the presence of main man Damon Albarn, this cannibal flick soundtrack hasn’t got one second of slick, wry Britpop. What it has instead are 22 tracks and 74 minutes of mutant Appalachian squonk-folk, clank-and-thump percussion pieces and suitably nasty orchestral bits. This is what Deliverance’s score would have sounded like if Tom Waits and Bernard Herrmann teamed up to record it with a drugged-up symphony and a drunken Salvation Army band. If that isn’t something worth sinking your teeth into, I don’t know what is.
Electronica whiz-kid Dylan (Jega) Nathan used to be in the same class as Aphex Twin and µ-ziq. Literally; they all went to college together in Manchester. Since then, however, the self-taught Jega has not only entered a class by himself, he’s been credited with founding a school of high-grade electronica called drill ’n’ bass. It’s a bit of a misnomer — while Nathan is admittedly fond of high-pitched, squealing synth lines and whirring, jarring breakbeats, the 70-minute Spectrum also ventures into everything from high-energy, video-game slammers to Baba O’Reilly-style sequencing and spookily seductive chillouts. In other words, Spectrum pretty much covers it.
CM + FM
Sure, he borrowed his name from Roddy MacDowall’s Planet Of The Apes hero. But Japanese avant-popster Keigo (Cornelius) Oyamada is just as much a packrat as an ape, obsessively hoarding shiny musical trinkets and then fashioning them into bizarre imitations of American pop in his freaky, no-holds-barred style. On two new remix EPs titled CM (Cornelius Mix) and FM (Fantasma Mix), he proves he can take it as well as dish it out. First on CM, our hero does that voodoo that he do so well to artists like Money Mark, Pastels, U.N.K.L.E., Coldcut, Buffalo Daughter and The High Llamas, accessorizing their tracks with cartoon boings and mind-bending studio weirdness. Then, FM finds him turning the cheek and letting those same artists monkey with tunes from his Fantasma album. Which is better? Well, let’s just say the rest of the bunch goes ape with style — but Cornelius is definitely top banana.
Casa De La Trova
Casa De La Trova
The title — which loosely translates as House Of Song — refers both to musical community centres in Cuba and Latin America and to the families that gather there to perform music handed down through generations. And we do mean generations; most of the 14 serenades here were written by tunesmiths born a century ago, and are performed by artists who don’t look much younger. But one listen to these vibrant, passionate works of delicate percussion, feisty bolero guitar and classically influenced strings — not to mention the beautiful voices of singers such as the 69 and 71-year-old Faez sisters — proves looks can be very deceiving.
Brazilian acoustic guitarists don’t usually get a lot of ink in hip music mags like Spin and CMJ. But then, most Brazilian acoustic guitarists don’t have ultra-cool musicians like Sean Lennon, Laurie Anderson and Bill Frisell backing them up on their latest album. And while that may be enough to attract your attention, Vinicius Cantuária’s genre-crossing style — his delicately plucked, old-world guitar and smoky, Latin-lover vocals share space with moody, new-school tape loops and samples — is what keeps you coming back for more.
The Prayer Cycle
Rock ’n’ rollers like Alanis Morissette, Perry Farrell and more become holy rollers in composer Jonathan Elias’s nine-part, symphonic choral examining the dark underbelly of human nature and a society that’s losing its religion. All of which makes this tepid disc sound way cooler than it actually is. Although some of the pairings are interesting — where else are you going to hear Linda Ronstadt team up with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan? — Elias’s angst-free, New Age-y adagios leave you wishing The Prayer Cycle had a little more of the devil’s music in it.
Pope John Paul II
And they say William Shatner albums are weird. Well, even Shatner’s acid-flashback version of Lucy In The Sky can’t hold a candle to this 50-minute disc of Pope John Paul II reciting prayers, chants and homilies in five languages over soothing classical, New Age and world music tracks. While some of JP’s pearls of wisdom (“Do not be satisfied with mediocrity”) put you in mind of that Sunscreen song, his heavy Polish accent often makes him sound like Bela Lugosi reading the Bible over a John Tesh record. Which bets the question: If you play this backwards, does it sound like Black Sabbath?
Wisconsin Death Trip
As the saying goes, everybody who bought a Velvet Underground album back in the ’60s went out and started a band. These days it seems everybody who heard White Zombie’s last album had the same idea. California sludgetronica quartet Static-X obviously wore out their copy (not to mention Ministry’s and Korn’s latest). This inauspicious debut album is 40 minutes of cartoon-metal riffage and pounding grooves with gruff, barking vocals and rapid-fire rap. The only thing these X-men can’t copy is Rob Zombie’s wicked sense of humour. Now this is industrial waste.
The press bumpf for this Chicago quartet’s debut has not one, but two plugs from members of Metallica. And it’s easy to see why. This fearsome foursome’s building blocks — one part Black Sabbath bombast, one part Led Zep boogie-metal, a bit of Soundgarden grunge and a giant bowlful of stoner rock vibe — add up to a heavyweight punch with all the knockout power of a sledgehammer in the kisser.
Present The Dirtchamber Sessions Volume One
Prodigy leader Liam Howlett changes his pitch up with this mix tape of favourites from his record collection. And an eclectic collection it is — the 50 artists sampled in this 51-minute outing include Big Beaters like The Chemical Brothers and Propellerheads, old-school rappers like Grandmaster Flash and The Beastie Boys, and even punks like Jane’s Addiction and The Sex Pistols. Howlett keeps the trickery to a minimum — this is less a dance mix or a turntablist outing than a simple party tape — but Dirtchamber does offer a glimpse of where the Firestarter gets his spark.