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Back Stories | My Album Reviews From April 30, 1999

Rewinding some classic albums by Ben Folds Five, Fountains of Wayne and more.

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Two decades ago, new albums from Ben Folds Five, Fountains of Wayne, Rev. Horton Heat 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):


Ben Folds Five
The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner

Piano popster Ben Folds says he and his two-man Five used the name Reinhold Messner on fake IDs as teens, unaware it was the handle of a famous mountaineer. Which has squat to do with this eclectic trio’s third album, except perhaps metaphorically. This time out, you see, Ben seems to be scaling a new peak — getting off the well-trod, goofy Broadway pop-rock path he’s been following and forging a new trail of lush, melancholy ballads of isolation and disconnection, offset only occasionally by Folds’ joyful melodies and oddball self-deprecation. Why is he doing this? Who knows? Maybe it’s because it’s there. But there’s no question he’s hit a high point.


Fountains Of Wayne
Utopia Parkway

For those who weren’t paying attention, Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger also wrote That Thing You Do! for the Tom Hanks nostalgia-pop movie of the same name. And that’s pretty much the sort of sugary thing he and his band do on this hummable, magnetic disc. Only the time and place are changed — Utopia Parkway is a loose concept album about Long Island teens in the 1980s. Buoyed by bright, summery melodies and sly, smarty-pants lyrics, these 14 instant classics are catchy, kitschy celebrations of suburban aspiration — “Well, I’ve been saving for a custom van / And I’ve been playing in a cover band,” the title-cut opener boasts — and adolescent angst — “Will you stop pretending I’ve never been born / Now that I look a little more like that guy from Korn?” whines the owner of a new Red Dragon Tattoo. Cool — and we haven’t even mentioned the tune called Laser Show or the Kula Shaker parody Go, Hippie. Go, FoW, go!


Rev. Horton Heat
Holy Roller

Leading up to this album, our old pal Rev. Horton Heat was getting beaucoup mileage out of that car commercial featuring his deep cut Big Red Rocket Of Love (“She goes bup-bup-bup-bup-bup-bup when she’s runnin’ good / Let’s go!”). Well, if that turns your crank, you’ll dig this greatest hits set. Along with that track, you get 23 more of the best psychobilly freakouts this Texas trio has ever put to wax, all powered by plenty of high-octane, BrianSetzer-on-amphetamine guitar, nudge-nudge lyrics (“I got a wiggle stick, mama / And you’ll like it a lot”) and countrified kitschin.’ Holy Roller’s a holy terror.


Gwar
We Kill Everything

These masked, cartoon-metal savages have an act that makes Marilyn Manson look like Hanson — ridiculous quantities of comical gore, softcore sex and gooey bodily fluids. Sadly, their cheeseball metal has never been able to compete with their must-see stage show. And the unlistenably stupid We Kill Everything continues that trend with 17 tracks booming with subpar metal bombast and flush with puerile, toilet-joke humour (literally, in the case of the song Jiggle The Handle). Save your bucks for a concert ticket.


W.A.S.P.
Double Live Assassins

In the classic heavy metal rockumentary The Decline Of Western Civilization Pt. 2: The Metal Years, there’s a notoriously (and pathetically) hilarious scene of W.A.S.P. guitarist Chris Holmes swigging vodka from a huge bottle and babbling incoherently as he floats in his leathers in a pool — while his humiliated mom looks on. All of which pales next to this two-CD chronicle of the band’s crazed, Kiss-meets-Alice road show (Microphone stands with Harley handlebars! Metal codpieces that shoot sparks! Guzzling blood from skulls!). But while the fan faves are all here, from I Wanna Be Somebody to Blind In Texas, there’s something missing: The video. With a show like this, W.A.S.P. deserves its own rockumentary. Just keep Chris out of the pool.


Robert Cray
Take Your Shoes Off

Fiery blues guitarist Robert Cray downshifts for his soul-powered 11th album, laying back and sliding into a mellow Memphis groove. And it’s an authentic treat; Take Your Shoes Off has all the burbling organ, gleaming guitar, funky R&B vibe and finger-popping rhythm of a Stax-Volt anthology. This slick, smooth hour-long affair could use a bit more grit at times — Cray’s voice is more Sam Cooke than, say, Wilson Pickett — but there ain’t no shame in his game here.


Terrorvision
Shaving Peaches

These days, it seems every Britrock band wants to sound like The Beatles — or at least Oasis covering The Beatles. Thankfully, lager-lad power-popsters Terrorvision have some other CDs in their player besides Abbey Road. At times, their fourth full-length Shaving Peaches embraces the platform-boot stomp of Gary Glitter’s glam ’n’ blooz, the rocky rumble of Duane Eddy, and the literate lilt of Ray Davies and The Kinks. And while the boys even display traces of (dare we say it?) maturity on some soul-searching ballads, uptempo kickers like The Curse Of Tequila prove that once a lad, always a lad.


Idle Hands
Various Artists

This skate-punky soundtrack for a new teen horror-comedy about a stoner with a satanic right hand is definitely possessed by a devilish streak and a wicked sense of humour. First Offspring weigh in with their classic Beheaded (“Mommy doesn’t have a head anymore”). Then there’s The VandalsMy Girlfriend’s Dead (“A great big truck ran her over”). And what would a teen horror soundtrack be without Rob Zombie’s Dragula (Hot Rod Herman Remix). But you can’t top the unholy king of satanic singles: Mötley Crüe’s Shout At The Devil. Hail Satan.


Frank Zappa
Son Of Cheep Thrills

And they do mean cheep, er, cheap. The latest Frank Zappa sampler — the second in a series — is priced at just $6.98. How do they do it? Volume. Whichever incarnation of FZ you’re looking for, you’ll find it. Prefer the kooky doo-wop of his Mothers Of Invention days? Here’s the boozy, bluesy WPLJ from Burnt Weenie Sandwich. Want some ’70s rock iconoclasm? You’ve got Baby Snakes’ sardonic, smokin’ Disco Boy. What about his later avant-compositions? No problem; check out the electronic brilliance of Jazz From Hell’s Night School. All the FZ you need and more — except for maybe some unreleased tracks. But hey, waddaya want for $6.98?


Muzzle
Actual Size

Maybe the title is meant to be ironic — isn’t everything these days? — but Actual Size doesn’t give you a clear picture of what California guitar-rock quartet Muzzle actually looks like. Or, more importantly, sounds like. One minute they have the refined, sugary grind-pop of Weezer. They they switch to the slick ’70s shtik of Urge Overkill. Then it’s the breezy bounce of Beach Boys and Barenaked Ladies. Then the grungy emo-pop of Best Kissers In The World. All of which is well and good. Still, Actual Size could have been a lot bigger if Muzzle could get a leash around its style.


Vonda Shepard
By 7:30

Ally McBeal’s lounge singer Vonda Shepard sets her sights on a gig in the big room with this blatant bid to duplicate a Sheryl Crow album. Too bad the album she’s replicating is Crow’s downbeat and soulful Globe Sessions and not her upbeat debut. All the hip L.A. production tricks — cheesy-cool drum machines, folkie acoustic guitars, trip-hoppy samples and loops — can’t obscure the fact that most of Shepard’s moody, trite love ballads have less substance than Calista Flockhart. The few times she kicks up her heels, Shepard deserves a toast. But it’s too little too late — by 7:30 into this disc, you’ll be ready to call it a night.


Sixpence None The Richer
Sixpence None The Richer

Austin, Tex., trio Sixpence None the Richer has a knack for taking the familiar and presenting it in an intriguing new manner. On this disc it starts with the backwards-opening CD package, extends to the quirky introspective lyrics (“This is my 45th depressing tune”) and continues in the lush cellos and strings that give rootsy modern pop cuts like the single Kiss Me a baroque flourish, creating a rich velvet backdrop for the airy, Edie Brickell-style vocals of Leigh Nash. Dreamy and diaphanous without being dreary, Sixpence’s debut is richly rewarding.


Tito & Tarantula
Hungry Sally & Other Killer Lullabies

This sophomore CD by From Dusk Till Dawn’s vampire mariachis packs a little less bite than their outstanding 1997 debut Tarantism, but it’s still a shape-shifting creature of the night. One minute dark and moody, the next hot-blooded and angry, hispanic music veteran Tito Larriva and his Tarantula scuttle between smouldering blues rockers, smoky twangers and the occasional oddball guitar fireball. Listen to this with the lights out — but don’t think for a minute it’ll put you to sleep.


Rick Wakeman
Return To The Centre Of The Earth

The iceman cometh back. Exactly 25 years after his prog-rock concept album Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, former Yes man and keyboard whiz Rick Wakeman retraces his steps with the overtitled Return To The Centre of Blah Blah Blah. Emphasis on the blah: If we didn’t know better, we’d swear Rick has been lost in a cave for 25 years. The old fossil sure missed out on every musical trend since ELPReturn has all the ridiculous pomp and overblown puffery of the worst ’70s rock. Not to mention vocals by Ozzy Osbourne, Bonnie Tyler, Katrina (Walking On Sunshine) Leskanich, and narration by Patrick (‘The Cheque Cleared!’) Stewart. Strictly an anthropological curiosity.


Alliance Ethnik
Fat Come Back

While Paris is burning to a techno beat, bilingual rap quintet Alliance Ethnik is still getting over a case of disco fever. Apparently, they’ve got it bad; this 20-track outing is shot through with old-school disco beats, ’70s Soul Train struts and falsetto backup vocals — all of which get sliced and diced into ’90s-style hip-hop, delivered with as much Francophone sangfroid as humanly possible. Parlez-vous fun-kay?


Gus
Word Of Mouth Parade

Like a million singer/songwriters before him, Angelino Gus has an appealing, familiar-sounding voice — kind of like Bono covering David Cassidy or vice versa. And he can pen a decent, heartfelt lyric and set it to a dreamy, pleasant melody that can be tweaked into a Beckish, modern-rock single. And that’s the problem: There are a million other artists who do this just as well as he does. Some better. What he needs to do is come up with a way to make this sophomore CD memorable five minutes after you take it out of the player. Then the real word of mouth parade can start.


Graeme Kirkland
Beat Truths

Toronto percussionist Graeme Kirkland is one of those cats who pummels plastic pails on the corner. But, the street isn’t just his stage — it’s also his backup band: Honking horns are his brass section, squealing sirens substitute for synths and street crazies, hobos and cops are his vocalists. On his fifth CD, Kirkland uses street tapes and loops to weave a kaleidoscopic, crazy-quilt symphony around his frenetic, Buddy Rich-meets-John Bonham pounding. Beat Truths gives the rhythm of the street a whole new meaning.